Exploring the History of the Occult
Occultism (the occult) is something many people think they understand. However, the nuances of the occult are often misunderstood, especially by those who are not occult practitioners. In fact, people outside occult circles often mistakenly associate it only with negative or demonic practices. That negativity may stem partially from its similarity to the term “cult,” which has a negative connotation in American culture and is often mistakenly associated with occultism. Here are some important facts to know about the occult and the general history of occultism.
How Cults Have Influenced the Reputation of the Occult
The term “cult” refers to a religious offshoot group typically led by a single leader. Many such groups have developed bad reputations over the years. Some of those supposed religious leaders have used their positions of power to commit crimes against their followers. Often, the general public thinks of cult members as being captives. That is where the negative connotation comes in. However, not all cults are negative. Nor are cults directly related to the occult at all, despite public misconceptions.
The Earliest Definition of “Occult”
The term “occult” has referred to many different things over the years. Yet, even some practitioners of the occult may not realize the term has several definitions. In its original sense, the word “occult” meant hidden or clandestine. It was applied after the fact to explain several types of past activities that were secretive in nature. It also referred to exclusive activities only available to a select few in some circles. Similarly, the term was applied to historically hidden knowledge or exclusive knowledge sacred to particular groups. Examples of historical activities that could be described as occult include:
Development of Secret Languages
Establishment of Secret Societies
Implementation of Various Codes
Passed Down Oral Histories Deliberately Not Written Down
The Early History of the Occult Definition We Know Today
The early history of the use of the term “occult” seems to have started in Europe. Its meaning eventually morphed from simply secretive to unexplained. That began with Renaissance period Europeans defining “occult science” as any supposed studies or conclusions that were not rooted in actual facts or verifiable data. Eventually, the definition expanded to encompass most aspects of the paranormal, supernatural, magical, or generally mysterious.
Philosophers in Europe helped to popularize various versions of occultism. One did so well after his own death. He was a French philosopher named Nicolas Flamel. If his name sounds familiar, it may be because he was mentioned in the wildly popular book and movie series Harry Potter. Average admirers of that series may enjoy learning about the character of Flamel without realizing he was based on a historical figure. Flamel lived from 1330 until 1418. Some time after he died, a rumor began circulating that he had become immortal thanks to discovering a magical stone called the philosopher's stone.
The American History of Occultism
The history of the occult in what is now the United States is believed to have started with the emigration of philosopher Johannes Kelpius and about 40 of his followers from Europe to the New World in the 1690s. The group eventually settled along Wissahickon Creek near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. They studied the stars, followed a combination of Judaism and Christianity, and practiced a mixture of numerology, alchemy, and astrology there.
The Occult in Modern Culture