Throughout my childhood, the phrase ‘the occult’ was used to strike fear into the hearts of any who might dare look outside of the Bible. It was a word that was used freely to encompass everything from ancient pagan religions to modern Witchcraft, games like the Ouija board (which is still trademarked by Parker Brothers) and tarot cards. Practices like palmistry, astrology, energy work, fortune-telling, scrying, dowsing (water witching) and even meditation were lumped into ‘the occult’ as a warning not to stray too far from Christianity.
As a Pagan, I want to deconstruct that word, and look at some of the ways it has been misconstrued through time and appropriated by the Christian Chuch to tarnish the reputations and credibility of Pagan faiths.
First of all, the word occult comes from the Latin word occultus, which means clandestine, hidden, or secret; referring to “knowledge of the hidden”. There’s nothing scary in the word itself. It’s even used in the medical community to refer to something that is someplace it shouldn’t be (like ‘occult’ blood – blood in a location it should not be – like the digestive tract, or the ‘occult’ spleen after an injury).
In general use though, the word occult is taken to mean “knowledge of the paranormal”, as opposed to something that is known or can be measured via scientific endeavors. There is also an unspoken understanding that the word occult refers to “knowledge meant only for certain people” or “knowledge that must be kept hidden”. Now that’s where we start running into tricky meanings. The connotation is that anything occult might be dangerous, or tempting. This meaning runs parallel to the idea that the occult is something that the uneducated person does not understand – something that runs outside of their education and/or experience. Therefore, anything that is deemed ‘mysterious’ or ‘frightening’ can be termed ‘occult’ – and best to stay away from it, right?
Nevermind that for most people, who practice any form of Pagan religion (indigenous, Neo-Pagan or simply non-Christian), their involvement in what some would call ‘occult’ is anything but – it is common knowledge; it is the study of a deeper spiritual reality that extends beyond pure reason and the physical sciences. By that same rationale, even Christian belief in the Lord God and heavenly beings (and demons, Satan and the like) can be termed ‘occult’. In fact, ANY association with what cannot be quantified by science can be termed ‘occult’. In the English language we use other terms that are less frightening – esoteric and arcane, for example.
The first attempts at science might be termed ‘occult’ – alchemy and thaumaturgy. Alchemy had to do with the transforming of metals into gold; thaumaturgy had to do with the working of miracles – healing – specifically by a saint (though the word has taken on a different meaning today). Are not these arcane ‘technologies’ outside of modern scientific knowledge? Unexplainable, unknowable – dare we say… ‘occult’?
Even today, there are practitioners who practice the ‘laying on of hands’ to heal. Depending on who you’re talking to, some Christian traditions view this sort of healing as ‘occult’ while others view it as a manifestation of Divine Favor. In Pagan faiths, this is referred to as ‘energy healing’, and still others call this process (or a similar one) Reiki. And then there is the medical community, which dismisses it as balderdash, and the scientific community which can acknowledge, but not quantify it. Does any of that make it ‘occult’, or is it simply ‘unknown’ or ‘currently inexplicable’?
Math and machines were seen in the 1570’s as ‘occult’ – something we understand very well and use every day today. John Dee wrote a book called Mathematicall Praeface to Euclid’s Elements. In it, he mentions an “art mathematical” called “thaumaturgy… which giveth certain order to make strange works, of the sense to be perceived and of men greatly to be wondered at.” He was referring not only to complex maths, but also to devices (machines) that used mathematical principles in their design – things like pulleys, levers, compressed air – things which the common people knew nothing about. These devices were seen as ‘magical’ to the uneducated – ‘occult’.
It makes me wonder how much of what is considered ‘occult’ to some that is merely normal to those of us who are educated about such matters will be viewed in 500 years. In any case, I have long since gotten over my fear of ‘the occult’. There is nothing to fear in my religion.
This post is part of the Pagan Blog Project 2012.
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