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  Occultism (from Latin occultus, ‘hidden’) is the study of occult or secret knowledge and the practice of magic rituals, which it is believed will harness supernatural powers to do the will of the practitioner or give advance knowledge of events. Typical divisions are alchemy, astrology, divination, palmistry and witchcraft.

Occultism, in one form or another, has long been a standard part of many religions. The idea is that there are secrets in the universe—numerical sequences, star-patterns, hidden languages—and that human beings can tap into them if the right exercises, formulations and spells are used. In essence, this is no different from the rationale behind much ‘mainstream’ religious practice. The crucial difference is in intention, since the occultist is not seeking to approach or form a relationship with the divine, but to usurp supernatural prerogatives and to transcend human nature. In the distant past, occult practices were part of many mystery religions. The ancient Pythagoreans, Babylonians and Chinese practised numerology, believing that the secrets of the universe were embodied in numbers, in a series of mathematical codes which could be unlocked and ‘read’ by diligent research. There is almost no ancient religion which does not use prophecy, often associated with trances and other spiritual exercises designed to carry the priest or devotee beyond human nature and into the supernatural. Attempts to reach transcendental states of being were particularly associated with rites of passage, during which propitation of supernatural forces, and their participation in the event, were regarded as essential for the success of human enterprise.

Perhaps surprisingly, many ‘mainstream’ religions remain tolerant of occult practices. In the East especially, such things as astrology and divination are respectable, indeed often essential, parts of religious practice. Animistic believers, with their close identification of the natural and supernatural worlds, similarly regard ‘occult’ practices as perfectly normal. It is chiefly in the Christian West that occultism has been at best regarded with suspicion, and at worst savagely oppressed—a mirror image of the oppression which early Christianity (itself then regarded as an occult and dangerous sect) received at the hands of the pagan authorities in Roman times. It was European and American Christians who burnt witches (usually women who practised such innocent activities as herbal medicine), derided alchemists as Satan\'s cohorts, and generally outlawed any non-Christian practices coming from the feared and hated East.

In the modern era, scientific orthodoxy has replaced religious fervour, and this time occultism has been marginalized as speculative and perverse—a judgement also applied by many scientists to more ‘mainstream’ religious beliefs and practices. There is, in essence, a standoff between those who believe in the existence of the supernatural and those who do not. This is further compounded by internal wrangling between supernaturalists, with each faction ready to denounce others as deluded, dangerous or ridiculous. However, in the ‘real’ world—that is, the world of people who live without endless intellectual rationale—occultism and its various manifestations are, and always have been, subjects of endless fascination. Whether benign or malign in their effects they are a central part of our human mental and emotional landscape. EMJ KMcL



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