Occult Definition and Mysterious History Explained

Updated September 15, 2021
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People's preconceptions about what occultism entails are usually based on pop culture sources such as movies, TV shows, and novels. But occultism has specific tenets and a history all its own. Learning more about the facts behind occultism will help you separate fact from fiction when it comes to this mysterious topic.

What Is Occultism?

In a nutshell, occultism includes theories and practices that involve both a belief in and the use of supernatural forces. These can be magical practices, divination, witchcraft, and working with spirits.

Occult beliefs and practices have been part of pretty much every human society, in all periods of recorded history. While the names for things change, the general beliefs are the same.

Aspects of Occultism

While there are several aspects to occultism, there are four that are the most common, regardless of the time period, society, or location. This is a general overview of each of them, since each is a complete area of study in its own right.


Divination is the practice of seeking knowledge about one's self, other people, or the future using supernatural means. Examples of divination include the use of tarot or oracle cards, reading tea leaves, bibliomancy, or reading runes.


These two terms are sometimes used interchangeably, but in general, it's the idea that a person can tap into the inherent magical power of their surroundings, and that this can shift the direction of their life, health, or home in ways large and small.


Alchemy is the belief that you can change a common item (traditionally, a base metal) into something that will improve health or prolong life by using magical means together with mundane (everyday) materials.


Spiritualism is the belief that the living can communicate with spirits, either on their own or with the assistance of a psychic medium. The use of Ouija boards also falls under the umbrella of spiritualism.

A Brief History of Occultism

As mentioned above, occultism spans every culture throughout time, but here are a few highlights in terms of Western occultism:

  • Hermes Trimegistus, believed by some to be a god (either Hermes or Thoth), is claimed to have written thousands of treatises that became the foundation of alchemy. Very few of his works have survived, since many were burned when the Roman Empire attempted to snuff out paganism. Trimegistus is supposedly the originator of the phrase "as above, so below," which is well-known in many modern witchcraft and pagan traditions. This is the foundation of Hermetic lore.
  • Pythagoras (he of the Pythagorean Theorem) founded a religious sect around 530 BCE based on Hermetic beliefs. Among his followers were famed philosophers Plato and Aristotle.
  • Gnosticism is based on the belief and remains of several Gospels of the Bible that were tossed out by Constantine. These include the Gospel of Philip, the Gospel of Mary, and writings by Hermes Trismegistus, which leads some to associate Jesus and these Gnostic texts as having a tie to Hermeticism.
  • In the 1500s, a man name Christian Rosenkruetz founded the Rosicrucian Order, which was essential and a precursor to Freemasonry, which also followed the Hermetic tradition.
  • The 1800s saw a huge resurgence in the number of occult works being published and the founding of several occultist and esoteric societies, including the Freemasons and the Order of the Golden Dawn.
  • Aleister Crowley (1875-1947) was a leader of the Order of the Golden Dawn. However, his vision, ego, and ambition resulted in his parting ways with the Order of the Golden Dawn and founding his own society, the Ordi Templi Orientis. He also created one of the most well-known tarot decks in history, the Thoth deck.
  • Wicca was founded by Gerald Gardener (initially at least partially inspired by Crowley) in the late 1940s in Britain and eventually spread to the U.S., where it saw a surge in popularity in the 1970s and continues to grow.
  • Witchcraft in general has grown in popularity, with different witchcraft traditions and beliefs being adopted. The rise of social media has only aided its popularity in the early 21st century.

A Long, Magical History

While many things are considered "occult" in modern times, it's important to keep in mind that occult does not mean anything inherently evil or satanic. It's merely a belief that there is more to life than that which you can see, and that people can expand their lives by encompassing magic, divination, and the belief in spirits.

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Occult Definition and Mysterious History Explained