What is the occult? It is defined as anything connected to magic, astrology, or a system claiming the use or knowledge of unknown or supernatural powers or agencies. The occult is not considered a religion or a science. The occult and its many fields are ancient in nature and crucial to understanding the human race’s past, present, and future.
One of the earliest practices in the occult is alchemy. Alchemy is defined as an ancient practice from which people attempted to turn “imperfect” substances, such as lead, into “perfect” substances, such as gold. James Randi says that “Alchemy was rooted in a complex spiritual worldview in which everything around us contains a sort of universal spirit, and metals were believed not only to be alive but also to grow inside of Earth. Alchemy started to take root around the year 100 and is described as “an art based partly upon experimentation and partly upon magic,”(Radford 1).
The word alchemy has its origins in the Egyptian word “chem” or “gem”, which means “black” in reference to the alluvial soil that surrounds the Nile, the Greek word “chyme”, which means to fuse or cast metals, and the Arabic word “al kimia”, the word which alchemy specifically derives from. The reason “al kimia” was the exact word that alchemy comes from is because many of the Ancient Greek books on alchemy were originally translated into Arabic before they were translated into English.
In the middle ages, alchemy rose in popularity, and many wealthy people hired alchemists to do research, as to be associated with a discovery or to gain wealth. Many of the alchemists they hired were shams. Shams became so frequent that they gained their own trope and are seen in works by Geoffery Chaucer and many other authors.
The purpose of alchemy was somewhat philosophical. It did not originate in greed, instead, alchemy was about turning something imperfect, like lead, into something perfect, like gold. Nevil Drury expands on this by saying “Gold symbolized the highest development in nature and came to personify human renewal and regeneration. A ‘Golden’ human being was resplendent with spiritual beauty and triumphed over the lurking power of evil. The basest metal, lead, represented the sinful and unrepentant individual who was readily overcome by the forces of darkness…if lead and gold both consisted of fire, air, water, and earth, then surely, by changing the proportions…lead could be changed to gold”(Radford 3). Another thing alchemists sought to achieve was to find or create the philosopher’s stone, which is described as a wax, liquid, or powder which contained magical powers.
The reason why alchemy failed is that alchemists were not aware of atoms and elements and believed that everything consisted of only the four elements: air, earth, fire, and water. The idea behind alchemy though is somewhat true. Today, with particle accelerators, it is possible to create gold from other elements. Despite alchemy being shown to not hold any water scientifically, many still claim to have solved it. Some people even claim to have discovered the philosopher’s stone.
Although the practice of alchemy has long been extinct, it continues to influence us in unlikely ways today. An example of this is the modern perception of gold and lead. Lead, in the modern world, is viewed negatively. It is a poisonous element, which killed many Victorian children, due to their toys being painted with lead, and has been shown to cause brain damage. Gold, deemed the perfect metal by alchemists, is highly valued and sought after in the modern world.
Today, what might have been considered alchemy has turned into Chemistry, the study of what matter is composed of. (Radford)
Another ancient occult practice is divination. There are 3 distinguished types of divination: mechanical divination, which includes the manipulation of objects, such as dice, bones, or pebbles, inspired divination, in which a person is possessed or inspired by a non-human entity, and observatory divination, in which future events could be told by observing omens, these omens usually have to be interpreted.
Myhre defines divination as “ a means for providing emotional reassurance, a tool for restoring and sustaining a social structure, an instrument for making decisions, building consensus, and establishing political legitimacy, or an aid for maintaining a cognitive order, in short… everything except as an attempt to acquire accurate information,”(Boyer 1). So if divination is inaccurate, why is it so popular? Tooby and DeVore address this question by saying “Humans, more than any other kind of organism, need to gather orders of magnitude more information from their environments than even close phylogenetic cousins, like the great apes,”(Boyer 2). Divination is usually consulted when other ways of determining information are impossible, like determining the future.
Another reason why divination is so easy to believe is because divination is the work of the divine and not the diviner. Casting blame off of an imperfect person and onto an all-knowing essence makes it hard for people to doubt. However, in today’s modern society, many don’t believe there are any superhuman agents involved in divination. Even without these agents, they trust the divination process. Zemplémi expands on this by saying “The reference to superhuman agents matters much less than the demonstration of a human speaker's withdrawal,”(Boyer 6). Often the response to divination is that people do not have any reason to explain. They simply have a feeling, or intuition, that it is the truth. (Boyer)
The next, and most popular, form of occult and prediction of the future is astrology. It is a form of divination that uses the stars present at a person’s birth to determine their personality and life. Because of the influence of nature on the lives of others, many considered nature, and the stars, to determine different events. Often, in the Old Testament, stars were used by the Judges, such as Deborah and Amos, to determine events.
What is the exact origin of astrology? “Babylonian priests developed and perfected a system of interpreting the phenomena observed in the heavens for the purpose of determining the will of the powers of Heaven. The Greeks enlarged the scope of astrology to include all the known sciences,”(Steiger 119).
“Astrology, in its purity, through forming a system of divination is totally unconcerned with either fortune-telling or mediumship,”(Steiger 123). That is, to say that astrology is not used as a way to tell the future or communicate with spirits. “It is a divine science of correspondences, in the study and application of which the intellect and intuition become blended in a natural, harmonious, manner.”(Steiger 123).
Where do our zodiac signs come from? A Greek philosopher named Empedocles developed the idea of elements, and the Chaldean astrologers divided those elements into the Zodiac signs. There are 3 zodiac signs per element. “In essence, Astrology deals with the relationship between the positions of the Sun, Moon, and planets, and the life of an individual”(Steiger 120).
The first fire sign in the Zodiac is Aries. To be an Aries a person has to be born between March 21st and April 20th. The sign is named after the Greek god of war. Aries tend to have aggressive personalities. The next fire sign in the Zodiac is Leo. To be a Leo a person has to be born between July 23rd and August 23rd. They are named after the savage lion of Nemea, who was slain by Hercules. Leos are usually energetic and powerful people. The last fire sign in the Zodiac is Sagittarius. Sagittarius are born between November 23rd and December 21st. They are named after and represented by Chiron, a centaur. Sagittarius is known to be a freedom-loving and impulsive person.
The next element in the Zodiac is air. The first Air sign in the Zodiac is Gemini, who is born from May 22nd to June 21st. Geminis are represented by the twins Castor and Pollux. Their nature is described as dual-natured but intelligent and active. The second air sign is Libra. They are born from September 23rd to October 23rd. They do not have an animal or person representative but are associated with harvest time and the fair measure of crops. Libras are described as beautiful, but moody people. The last air sign is Aquarius. They are born from January 21st to February 19th. This sign is named after the Egyptian god Hap. Aquarius is described as creative and unique.
The third element of the Zodiac is water. The first water sign in the Zodiac calendar is Cancer. Cancers are born from June 22nd to July 22nd. The ancient Chaldeans named this sign after the crab. Cancers are known to be sensitive to the world around them and everyone’s emotions. The next water sign is Scorpio. They are born from October 24th to November 22nd. Scorpios are named after the Scorpio in mythology which was commanded by Diane to kill Orion. They are considered to be passionate, but bitter people. The last water sign is Pisces. Pisces are born from February 20th to March 20th. They are named after the ‘two fishes’ constellation. Their personalities are naive and kind.
The last element of the Zodiac is the earth. The first earth sign is Taurus. They are born from April 21st to May 21st. The origin of Taurus comes from the Latin word for “bull”. Similar to the nature of their symbol, Taurus are stubborn and passionate people. The next earth sign is Virgo. Virgos are born anytime from August 24th to September 22nd. They are named in honor of the Greek goddess Astraea, the goddess of innocence and purity. Virgos are calm, intelligent, but critical people. The last Earth sign is Capricorn, which is born from December 22nd to January 20th. They are named after the Sumerian god Ea and the Greek deity Pan. Capricorns are traditional and pessimistic people.
Astrology can be found in other cultures than Greek. Chinese astrology was formed outside of the influence of the Egyptians, Greeks, etc. The belief that the emperor was divine formed their astrology.
What are the signs in Chinese astrology? The signs in Chinese astrology are all represented by a different animal and are part of a 12-year cycle. The animals of Chinese astrology are the rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, ram, monkey, rooster, dog, and boar. “According to tradition, when the Budha lay dying, he called upon the animals to come bid him farewell. The first 12 to arrive were the ones who are immortalized in the Chinese Zodiac,”(Steiger 124). Another thing to note is that, in Chinese astrology, instead of the West’s four elements, there are five: earth, water, fire, and metal.
Astrology is fundamental in the daily life of Chinese people. Even after previous attempts to eradicate its influence, many men and women still use it in their daily lives.
Another popular form of divination is tarot, which is considered cartomancy. The time and place that tarot first took place are unknown, but it is thought to be brought to modern society by gypsies. One theory is “Gnostics… had to take their faith underground in order to escape persecution. To preserve their teachings, they recorded the fundamentals of their beliefs on a set of 22 places that depicted the spiritual growth of humankind. Each plate, or card, in the 22 major mysteries, also known as the major arcana, told the story of a single aspect of an individual and initiates inner spiritual progress to the state of complete perfection,”(Steiger 128).
What is the major arcana? Is there a minor arcana? “The major arcana follows humankind’s spiritual pilgrimage toward the state of final perfection. The minor arcana traces humanity’s journey through time,”(Streiger 128-129)
One of the most crucial parts of the tarot is the belief in the doctrine of reincarnation. The doctrine states that the soul must experience both sexes and all five races before it can reach perfection.
Another occult practice is necromancy. “Necromancy involves the evocation of spirits of deceased individuals for the purpose of divination,” (Steiger 144). The first step to necromancy is protection. This is usually done by drawing a magic circle. Notable circles are the circle of Solomon. After protection, contact with the dead begins.
Numerology is also a divination and occult practice. Numerology consists of adding up the numbers associated with one’s birthdate, or name, to get your ‘life path’ number. “According to numerology and numerologists, each number possesses a certain power that exists in the occult connection between the relations of things and the principles in nature, which they express,”(Steiger 145).
Palmistry is one of the most well-known divination practices. It involves looking at the lines on one’s palm to determine different aspects of their life, such as longevity, marriages, etc. “Essentially, those who read palms envision the human hand as a microcosm on which the left hand represents future potential, whereas the right hand depicts the actuality of their personality as it presently exists,”(Streiger 147-148).
The occult has existed for centuries in every culture, including today’s pop culture. “Despite the 19th-century revival, occult ideas have failed to gain acceptance in academic circles, although they have occasionally influenced the work of major artists, such as the poet William Butler Yeats and the painter Wassily Kandinsky, and occultism in Europe and North America seems destined to remain the province of popular culture,”(Gilbert 3). In conclusion, despite scientists and academics telling people that the occult has no scientific basis, people still believe. The occult, in its origins, is an ancient practice that is crucial to understanding the human race's past, present, and future.
- Radford, Benjamin. “What Is Alchemy?” LiveScience, Purch, 24 Mar. 2016, www.livescience.com39314-alchemy.html.
- Boyer, Pascal. “Why Divination? Evolved Psychology and Strategic Interaction in the Production of Truth.” Current Anthropology, vol. 61, no. 1, Feb. 2020, pp. 100–123.
- Gilbert, Robert Andrew. 'occultism'. Encyclopedia Britannica, 22 Apr. 2013, https:www.britannica.comtopicoccultism. Accessed 21 February 2022.
- Streiger, Brad, and Sherry Hansen Streiger. The Gale Encyclopedia of the Unusual and Unexplained, Volume 2. Vol. 2, ThomsonGale, 2003.