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(əkŭl`tĭzəm), belief in supernatural sciences or powers, such as magic, astrology, alchemy, theosophy, and spiritism, either for the purpose of enlarging man's powers, of protecting him from evil forces, or of predicting the future. All the so-called natural sciences were in a sense occult in their beginnings; most early scientists were considered magicians or sorcerers because of the mystery attending their investigations. In the modern world occultism has centered in small groups that seek to perpetuate secret knowledge and rites alleged to be derived from the ancients.
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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



the general term for doctrines that recognize the existence in man and in the cosmos of hidden or latent forces inaccessible to ordinary human experience but accessible to “adepts,” who have gone through a special initiation and special psychic training. The purpose of the initiation ritual, which frequently involves psychic shocks and the experiencing of death and “rebirth,” is considered to be the attainment of a “higher level” of consciousness and a new vision of the world, which opens the way to “secret knowledge”—influence or control over the hidden forces in nature and man. Philosophically, occultism is closest to hylozoism and pantheism, which view the world as a spiritualized organism, all of whose forces are in perpetual, dynamic interaction.

The scope and content of the concept of occultism, as well as its role, have changed in the course of history. At various stages of the development of culture, occultism entered into complex relationships with science, philosophy, religion, and art. A number of phenomena that were once designated occult (for example, during the Renaissance, magnetism; gravitation in astrology; and in the 18th century, hypnotism) later entered the framework of science. Occultism is of interest for historical psychology and psychopathology, for it often reflects aspects of the ancient world view that are not encountered in any other sources. Collections of horoscopes have proved to be a valuable source for research in economic and political history. The study of occultism is of particular interest for the early history of the natural sciences and medicine. Occult doctrines concerning man as a microcosm and concerning universal, hidden connections among phenomena played a prominent role from the 14th to 16th centuries in the development of observational and experimental methods. However, a large proportion of occult phenomena are rejected by science as having no place in the modern scientific picture of the world. The antagonism between occultism and science is also associated with the fact that occultism is based on an undifferentiated and irrational type of thinking that dates to ancient animism and magic and that does not allow for the separation of the objective from the subjective. Thus, occultism is the antipode, the opposite, of scientific thought.

In the religions of the ancient Orient, the mysteries and secret cults, occultism coincided with esotericism, a sphere of secret knowledge accessible only to the initiated. Associated with this is the age-old division of the sciences into those dealing with the outer (exoteric) and the inner aspects of things. As a result, the rudiments of scientific knowledge assumed a sacred character (the “mysteries of nature”). In late antiquity, Hellenistic religious syncretism made possible the emergence of occultism as an independent sphere unrelated to any religious system. Between the first and fourth centuries an extensive literature of the occult was created in Alexandria. It was called hermetic literature, a reference to occultism’s legendary founder, Hermes Trismegistus, who was a composite of the Greek god Hermes (the messenger of divine wisdom) and the Egyptian god Thoth. During the same period the “hermetical sciences” (alchemy and astrology) were codified, and a theoretical essay, The Emerald Tablet, formulated the doctrine of “correspondences”—the universal, mysterious connections among all elements of the universe (the planets, metals, precious stones, plants, and parts of the human body). Analogous to this doctrine was the connection between the meaning of a word and its configuration in the cabala.

Underlying the occult doctrine of analogy was the idea that man is a microcosm of the inexhaustible wealth and structure of the macrocosm. Occultism explains man and the world in terms of each other. Thus, human volitional acts are viewed as special natural forces capable of directly influencing the world.

With the establishment of Christianity as the dominant religion, occultism, like gnosticism, suffered persecution and was cultivated only in secret heretical doctrines. “White magic”—that is, magic that resorted only to the aid of “natural” forces —opened certain opportunities for occultism in the Middle Ages. Alchemy originated in Egypt, spread among the Arabs, and later penetrated Europe, where it became highly developed in the 13th and 14th centuries. Astrology had a similar history, but it never regained the popularity it had enjoyed under the late Roman Empire.

During the Renaissance, occultism contributed to the destruction of the medieval picture of the world, the defeat of speculative Scholasticism, and the preparation for the development of the experimental natural sciences. Italian humanists (M. Ficino and G. Bruno, for example) perceived Alexandrian Hermetism as an expression of “true” ancient knowledge that had been passed from Hermes Trismegistus to Orpheus, Pythagorus, Plato, and the late Neoplatonists. The popularity of the cabala among the humanists, including J. Reuchlein and Pico della Mirandola, promoted an unorthodox, allegorical interpretation of the Scriptures. The occultism of the Renaissance reached the peak of its development with Henry Cornelius Agrippa of Nettesheim, whose Occult Philosophy (1533) was an attempt to synthesize various occult and magic doctrines and transform magic into a “natural” science of the secret forces (“sympathies” and “antipathies”) connecting the elements of the universe. The center of gravity was transferred to man as a microcosm, the “hub of the universe,” the focus of material and spiritual forces. Astrology and magic were viewed as means of mastering the hidden forces of nature.

A new conception of the wizard-scholar as one who controlled the elements stimulated the development of the natural sciences in the 17th century, as is evident in the transition from occultism to the “natural” sciences in Italian natural philosophy of the Renaissance (G. Cardano and B. Telesio, for example). The 16th-century iatrochemist and physician Paracelsus, the founder of a new, experimental medicine, created a “natural” theory of diseases as a disturbance of the harmonious connections between the microcosm and the macrocosm. In addition, he endeavored to discover experimentally the specific “pure” substances which, he believed, would act as intermediaries between the elements of the universe and the body organs, restoring equilibrium. The symbolism of occultism is also widely encountered in the art and literature of the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance (Dante, H. Bosch, P. Brueghel the Elder, Giorgione, A. Dürer, Rabelais).

The development of the natural sciences in the 17th century undermined faith in occultism and the hermetical sciences. At the same time, secular occult societies gained popularity. The Rosicrucians, the largest of these societies, combined alchemy and elements of the cabala with social projects—ideas for “rejuvenating” the earth and for “universal reform,” expressed in the language of the alchemic doctrine of the transformation of nature and man. Their teachings also combine “occult mysticism” with natural scientific rationalism (Noces chaemicae, by the founder of the Rosicrucians, J. V. Andrea). The Rosicrucians’ teachings influenced J. Böhme and J. A. Comenius. The connection between social utopias and the esoteric tradition of occultism can be traced in Campanella’s City of the Sun and F. Bacon’s New Atlantis. The occult cosmologic system of R. Fludd (1574–1637), the head of the English Rosicrucians, later constituted the foundation for Scottish Freemasonry, which represented a shift from occult to political secret societies, even though it adopted many symbols and rituals from occultism.

E. Swedenborg (Sweden, 18th century), the founder of “spiritual vision,” was a forerunner of spiritualism, which originated in the mid-19th century in the USA. The first “mass” form of occultism to achieve popularity in bourgeois and petit bourgeois circles, spiritualism fascinated a number of scientists. As F. Engels noted at the time, this was a kind of psychological compensation for the shallow empiricism of science. In the late 19th century, as traditional religions went through a period of crisis, efforts were directed toward the creation of a new, “universal” religion by consolidating the occult and religious and philosophical doctrines of the most diverse historical periods and peoples. Theosophy, which was founded by H. P. Blavatsky, claimed to reveal the “esoteric quintessence” of all religions and united elements of spiritualism with oversimplified versions of various doctrines of Hindu philosophy. An offshoot of theosophy was R. Steiner’s anthroposophy, which laid claim to an even broader “synthesis of the occult” and included elements of German classical idealism and Goethe’s nature philosophy, a new interpretation of art and several of the sciences, and its own system of medicine.

Characteristic of mid-20th-century America and Western Europe is the popularity of mass commercial occultism (astrology, occult medicine, and divination). In fact, the “magicians” themselves assume the roles of businessmen or entrepreneurs. Among the reasons for this phenomenon, which reflects the general crisis of modern bourgeois culture, are a growing alienation and mechanization, disillusionment with and lack of confidence in the traditional values of bourgeois society, and the lack of spiritual content in “mass culture.” All of these conditions make occultism, with its aura of the mysterious and, at the same time, the forbidden, psychologically very attractive. A new, more complex phenomenon—neo-occultism, or “occult avant-gardism”—is associated with the increasing complexity of science and the crisis of many of its traditional concepts. The journal Planète, founded by J. Bergier (France) in 1956, became the organ of neo-occultism, which seeks support in the latest scientific concepts, including the general theory of relativity, set theory, and the theory of general semantics, which are viewed as close to occultism. (For example, W. Pauli’s physics theory of the nonforce interaction of particles is used to support occultism’s doctrine of correspondences, and the establishment of connections between biological and cosmic rhythms is believed to provide a new substantiation for astrology.)

An overview of the history of occultism confirms the proposition that occultism flourishes particularly in periods of social and cultural crises. Very little study has been devoted to the sociological aspects of the popularity of occultism.


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Zybkovets, V. F. O beloi i chernoi magii. Moscow, 1963.
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The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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