A Few Things Writers Should Know About The Occult

The occult is definitely a fun thing to dive into when writing fiction, whether you're basing a sci-fi or fantasy setting on it, or just including occultists or occult groups in your story. However, a lot of people have a lot of misconceptions on just what the occult is, and end up perpetrating a lot of ideas that are just plain wrong to incredibly harmful. I wrote this article to give people an introduction into some of the things they should be aware of, and hopefully point people to some good resources for further research.

First uploaded: November 26, 2020.

Table of Contents

It's not a static monolith.

Many people imagine "the occult" as if it's all one thing that stretches back through the ages. Some people think it goes back Egypt in the days of the pyramids; some imagine it goes back even further. Some think it all shares more or less the same mystical or cosmological worldview that has been passed down as long as the occult has existed. And nothing could be further from the truth.

So here's the thing: the word "occult" simply means "hidden." In practice, this can refer to a number of things, including:

Therefore, what is and isn't occult depends heavily on social-political context. Beliefs and practices can fall in and out of the mainstream all the time. What's considered "secret wisdom" at one point can eventually become common religious belief, and what's common religious belief can eventually fall into obscurity. Astrology is a good example of this. In the late medieval era to early modern times, an astrological-based model of physics was so widely-accepted that it was part of mainstream medicine.

Today, many Christians regard all forms of divination as "occult" and therefore spiritually spurious, but to some early Christians, at least one form was considered acceptable. Acts 1:23-26 describes how the Apostles cast lots to determine whether Barsabbus or Matthias would replace Judas Iscariot. Whether or not this really happened, the author of Acts, and whoever they heard the story from (the author of Luke and Acts admits they weren't a firsthand witness), saw nothing wrong with the practice of cleromancy, suggesting that it was accepted well enough by a significant number of early Christians.

Furthermore, occult ideas and traditions develop and evolve in many different cultural contexts, often independently of each other. Cultures all over the world developed and refined their own means of divination throughout the ages (though I'm sure divination itself is as old as religion). Every culture that has ever existed has developed, modified, and argued against its own concepts of the divine and the nature of the cosmos. Ideas might be spread across cultures through trade routes and other forms of cultural exchange, but when ideas came to new places they were often incorporated and syncretized with local beliefs, and thus weren't necessarily the same as they were to begin with.

Astrology as most of us know it originated with the Babylonians around the Second Millennium BCE, and over time it came to places such as Europe and India, where it was syncretized and adapted to local sensibilities. And there were always differences of opinion. In ancient Greece, there were many different ideas on how astrology worked, and to what extent it did work.

The occult is like any other form of religion in that it's highly diverse and constantly evolving. Not all occultists agree with each other, and sometimes there are serious conflicts among occultists.

Conspiracy theorists often claim that such disagreements only take place on the "lower levels" of occultism, and claim that at the "highest levels," everyone is actually in agreement with each other, and literally worshiping Satan. However, there is no actual evidence of this; rather, these claims derive from centuries' worth of antisemitic propaganda, as well as conspiracy theories about witches from the late medieval and early modern periods. While conspiracy theorists claim they have evidence, as I have demonstrated over here their methods of obtaining "evidence" are so spurious that it can only be mistaken for evidence by people who don't know what evidence actually looks like. Additionally, the pyramidal structures proposed by conspiracy theorists are such oversimplified models of power structures that they just break down when you actually compare them to how the world actually works.

I think it would be good if fiction could stop repeating the ridiculous narratives created by conspiracy theorists and religious bigots, and acknowledge that stuff's just complicated and messy. It could also be interesting if a story acknowledged that which practices are considered "good" and which are seen "bad" often have more to do with political agendas than their actual moral value. I'm not saying that it has to be a big dramatic part of the plot or anything, but at the very least the it can be reflected through the fundamental assumptions and functions of the narrative.

Most occultism is not anti-Christian.

There's a popular perception that many traditions we consider occult are hostile to Christianity and seeks to undermine it. In reality, a lot of these traditions are simply unconcerned with Christianity. Many of them developed before Christianity, or in places where Christianity wasn't the dominant form of religion. Orphism, for example, goes back to the 6th century BCE. Hermeticism dates back to around the 3rd century BCE.

When Hermetic texts started coming into Europe in the late Middle Ages, Christian Europeans of the era basically adapted and rationalized their ideas and concepts into a Christian framework. Christians practiced and understood alchemy within a Christian framework, even of the point of some believing that an alchemist had to be right with God in order to produce good results. From what I've been able to learn, it wasn't until the 20th century that people began deliberately moving away from the Christian framework. Various groups and individuals began to incorporate pagan (or allegedly pagan) deities, Lovecraftian entities, the four elements, and even fictional characters into their practice.

Such texts also inspired European Jews, who also interpreted them according to their own views of the cosmos and the divine. These occult philosophies were also not anti-Christian, because Judaism is not particularly concerned with what Christians think and does not try to proselytize Christians into conversion.

This is not to say that occultists have never had anything bad to say about Christianity, and that it never reflected in their writing; however, this was pretty much always a reaction to Christian hegemony and oppression. Any misgivings toward Christianity in occult circles and literature need to be understood in this context. Generally speaking, non-Christian occultists are unconcerned with Christianity except insofar as Christianity insists on making itself their problem.

Unfortunately, most branches of Christianity have assumed for a long time now that any person or group that doesn't share its exact views and practices must have antagonistic sentiments toward them. Many Christians use various passages from the New Testament to justify this, failing to take into account that the New Testament was written at a time when Christianity was seen as a dangerous and subversive movement by Roman authorities, who feared rebellious uprisings from the Jews they had colonized.

And that brings me to another point - the very Book of Revelation could be considered an occult text. Its author was very much into gematria - a Jewish form of numerology - and assumed that the book's audience would be, too. The book's whole narrative is tied around the sacred numbers 3 and 7, and the sacred number 12 appears a lot. The book purports to reveal mysteries that only the initiated - Christians, in this case - will be expected to properly understand. Today, most people wouldn't think of The Revelation as occult because it's found in Christian Bibles everywhere. But at the time it was written, it was a text meant for a very specific, very small group of people living in what is now modern Turkey. The Book of Revelation was not anti-Christian; it was anti-Rome, and quite understandably so.

Many people have pointed to the KJV translation of Exodus 22:18 ("Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live") as evidence that occultism "goes against the Bible." But there are problems with this. First of all, Christians tend to read this verse from a traditional Christian perspective, which lumps huge swaths of practices under the umbrella of the occult and witchcraft, many of which the author of Exodus may not have had in mind. As to what they may have meant, I suggest reading Thou Shalt Not Suffer a Witch to Live: A Murderous Mistranslation?. The KJV translation of Deuteronomy 18:10 appears to be a blanket prohibition on all divination, but we know that the Israelite priests practiced a form of divination with the Urim and Thummim. And considering that the author of Luke and Acts saw cleromancy as something the Apostles would have practiced, it seems that early Christians didn't interpret such passages quite as restrictively as many modern people do.

The only way to be sure of what these passages actually mean is to determine the actual meanings of the terms used in the original texts, and examine the texts in light of the cultural context of the time. If we don't, all we end up doing is imposing our own biases and prejudices onto them and will likely as not interpret them in ways that the authors did not intend, and in ways that the very writers of the New Testament didn't share.

It would be good if we could get over our collective notion that most occultism was opposed to Christianity, and acknowledge where it was completely unconcerned with Christianity, and where it was simply an offbeat form of Christianity that clashed with orthodox belief. The core belief that heterodox ideas exist solely to undermine a stable and just society has been used to justify many hateful actions against vulnerable minorities. This isn't to say that occult beliefs are never hateful (more on that later), but rather that the image of occultists as scheming villains deliberately plotting to undermine everything good in the world comes from conspiracy theory, not historical fact.

Human sacrifice isn't really a thing in the occult.

So, three facts absolutely are in evidence. One is that human sacrifice has been practiced in many different cultural contexts (yes, including Celtic ones). The second is that a few spells and rituals do call for human components. The third is that occultists have definitely gotten up to some strange, squick-inducing rituals (look up Jack Parsons, if you feel up to it). But there's no evidence that occult practitioners have engaged in ritual murder on any widespread scale.

The idea that occultists practice human sacrifice as a matter of course comes from the imaginations of conspiracy theorists, and is based largely in tropes and stereotypes that historically have been used by Christians to demonize Jews, pagans, and perceived heretics in general. Today, you can find many conspiracy theorists attempting to rationalize everything from human atrocities to simple accidents or disasters as intentional ritual sacrifices after the fact. But simply calling something a ritual sacrifice doesn't mean it is one. People perform acts of cruelty or act in callous ways for non-ritualistic reasons all the time. It's not that our corporate overlords are ritualistically sacrificing us to Satan; it's that they just see us as a dispoable resource in the quest to increase that bottom line. Also, bad things sometimes just happen... especially when said corporate overlords don't want to shell out for safe work environments or stop poisoning the environment. But I digress.

Many people believe that demonology involves human sacrifice, but it really doesn't. Rather, demonology is generally more focused on knowing the right symbols, names, rituals, and whatnot that will allow the practitioner to bind and command the demon. Le Grand Grimoire does involve the sacrifice of a kid (as in a young goat), but it's to Jehovah rather than any demon. The book actually instructs the practitioner to threaten Lucifer with a beating if he doesn't do as he's told.

This isn't to say that modern occultists never practice sacrifice, or at the very least never offer deities and spirits some kind of offerings, but this typically involves much tamer fare such as food, drinks, art, or other things typically associated with the entity in question. It's not impossible that someone would get it into their head to perform human sacrifice, but such a person would likely be more inspired by lurid conspiracy theories than actual occult literature or tradition.

Again, it would be nice if we could acknowledge where the concept of human sacrifice is largely a bugaboo to demonize minorities, and acknowledge that people will send others to their deaths or just allow them to die for reasons of pure, simple selfishness. Trying to explain cruelty or callousness in ritual terms obfuscates the fact that people aren't like this because they're compelled by some strange religious belief, but rather because they just don't care how their choices and behavior affect others; or worse, have actually convinced themselves that it's actually for their own good.

Many famous and influential occult texts are pseudepigraphal.

It's happened pretty often that writers credited their texts to more famous and influential people, sometimes regardless of whether or not they actually engaged in the practices in question. One example is Nicholas Flamel, who lived from 1330-1480, and did not practice alchemy. It was in 1620 that Le Livre des Figures Hiéroglyphiques (Exposition of the Hieroglyphical Figures in English) was published under his name. The book claimed that Flamel had learned about alchemy from The Book of Abremalin the Mage and from it, learned to create silver and gold.

Solomonic magic is of course credited to King Solomon, but there is no real evidence that he ever engaged in such practices. The Testament of Solomon, which describes how Solomon supposedly gained control over demons and used them to build the first temple, dates back to the 1st-3rd century. The famous Key of Solomon dates back to the 14th or 15th century Italy. Meanwhile, King Solomon himself was likely born around 1010 BCE.

Texts written around this period were also attributed to Moses, but of course there's no evidence that Moses ever wrote them. Moses, if he did exist, would have lived around 1400 BCE.

These aren't the only cases of pseudepigrapha, of course. They're just a few I've mentioned as examples. There are many, many more out there.

It should also be noted that pseudepigrapha isn't just limited to the occult - it pops up in mainstream religion, too. A number of books in the New Testament weren't written by their alleged authors. (Early Christian history is way more complicated than most people realize, and I recommend Bart D. Ehrman's works for anyone who wants to learn more about the topic.) One of the most influential books on Christianity, the Book of Enoch, is nowhere near as old as Enoch himself is supposed to be. The earliest parts of the book were most likely composed around the 4th century BC (which does make it pretty old as far as apocalyptic literature goes) but the Bible places Enoch as living thousands of years before that point, so yeah.

Personally, I think it could be fun and interesting if this was reflected in fantasy worldbuilding, where famous magic books turned out to have been written by people other than their claimed authors. It would add a very human touch to the setting. In stories set in more or less the real world, it would be nice to see this historical reality reflected, because it shows just how complicated and messy the world is, and how our beliefs don't always come from where we think they do.

Pretty much every occult text is dodgy somehow.

Many occultist would like to believe that their favorite texts are flawless and above scrutiny, but in reality there's often as not something wonky somewhere.

Many Christian occult texts from the late medieval to the early modern period contain misspelled Hebrew words, if not made up Hebrew. Spells might include dangerous ingredients such as orpiment, or the writer might get it into their head that pulling teeth from a live wolf was somehow a good idea. Mathematical tables were sometimes miscalculated. One of the most famous occult texts in the Renaissance, The Emerald Tablet of Hermes, may not have been translated into Latin all that well.

Many texts are full of pseudohistory of some kind, be it somebody's own take on the history of the world and humankind, or repeating unfounded notions such as that rabbits were sacred to Eostre or that the true purpose of the witch hunts was to wipe out an ancient witch religion (there is no evidence Europe had any witch cults that existed anywhere outside the imaginations of Christians).

Basically, occult books don't contain secret wisdom hidden from the world, so much as the author's personal view and interpretation of the world. Sometimes the contents are grounded in observable reality (EG, alchemical manuals that describe how to make certain things, or books containing methods to reach altered states of consciousness), but some are completely untethered (EG, claiming that the world is a simulation or that it was created by an evil god).

Every book will contain the author's own prejudices and biases, which means that there's a lot of racism and antisemitism in the ones written by white people. Even in books from the 20th century, you can find authors casually speaking as if Jews, by simple virtue of being Abrahamic monotheists, are somehow complicit in the atrocities of Christians and particularly the Catholic Church. (It must be noted that Catholicism is a creation of 4th century Rome. Jewish people had absolutely nothing to do with it.)

Many books were actually written while the author was in an altered state of consciousness, where the writers supposedly channel other entities. One notable example of a book claimed to have been channeled is The Urantia Book. Purported to contain divine knowledge and wisdom, it's unfortunately rife with racist, pro-eugenics ideas that were all too typical of the time period it was written in - and rather notably, were shared by the man who claimed to have received the book. Works such as The Urantia Book are stark reminders that no book, regardless of its claimed origins, should be held above critical scrutiny and moral reproach.

There's also the possibility of defective translation or copy error, especially with older texts. In fact, people have been working with texts exactly like this for centuries, so if we were at any real risk of unleashing a demonic invasion by getting an incantation slightly wrong, it probably would have happened already.

I think for works of fiction, it could be interesting to show that things we take for granted as authoritative might not be as pure and selfless as we think they are. Obviously, it shouldn't be necessary to get into beliefs as horrible as those held by the writer of The Urantia Book, but there are other ways to show that it's important to acknowledge that what we consider to be sources of wisdom aren't infallible, and that "pure objective truth" simply does not exist, as much as we would like it to.

I think it would also be good if we moved away from uncritically repeating conspiracy theories that have generally been aimed at vulnerable minorities, and from falling into a kind of wide-eyed idealism about occult writers of the past. Aleister Crowley, for example, may have been a pretty talented occultist all things considered, but we can't go pretending that he wasn't a huge racist with fascist ideals. Also, it's a good idea to fact check any historical claim made in any occult book, old or modern, before treating it as a fact. Oh, and be aware that Victorians got up to a lot of weird speculations that just aren't supported by actual evidence, so yeah.

Governments aren't really obsessed with occultism - at least, not in the way most people think.

So, it's definitely true that people in government sometimes get into occult things for the simple fact that they are people. An example of this is Nancy Reagan, who was so obsessed with astrology that she arranged Ronald Reagan's schedule according to her astrologer's predictions.

You will notice, however, that while Reagan consulted with an astrologer, she didn't actually practice it herself, even though it's not particularly difficult. If anything, astrology was in the White House through more of a court wizard sort of dynamic.

But that said, it wouldn't be particularly shocking if a few people in government did personally dabble in mysticism, because this is a thing people do sometimes, and people in government are, well, people. People in government have believed in all kinds of things. Anybody remember when Ben Carson said that the pyramids were used to store grain?

People in government sometimes even belong to organizations with occultish philosophies, like the Freemasons. Sometimes they've hung out at the Bohemian Grove and perform cheesy rituals.

A certain fascist party in Germany was very much into New Age ideas. Part of this was driven by their rejection of actual science, which they had deemed a Jewish plot. They even believed in an alternative cosmology. A huge part of the reason for this was that real science and real history just didn't support the idea that the German people were in any way special or superior. (Like pretty much all fascists, they decided that the best way to feel good about themselves was to put everybody else down.) Worth noting, they didn't keep their beliefs secret from the masses or tease them with symbols; rather, they actually tried to force the masses to adopt them.

On the other hand, the idea that people in government get up to elaborate rituals on the regular goes back to antisemitic propaganda and early modern conspiracy theories about witches, as does the whole entire idea that "the elite" are all beholden to a sinister, symbol-obsessed religion. This isn't to say that the wealthy are by any means good people. Far from it. However, these conspiracy theories obscure the fact that they aren't motivated by some bizarre occult belief system, but rather by sheer, simple selfishness. There's no occult reason behind their actions; it all just comes down to feeling like they're entitled to hoard wealth and believing they've somehow "earned" it rather than exploited other people for it.

And while we're here, pretty much everything Dan Brown wrote about was a bunch of nonsense. If you're curious, you might check out Bart D. Ehrman's lecture, The Truth Behind the Da Vinci Code, or the article The Da Vinci Code Cult: A Critical Look at Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code.

So yeah, it's a good idea to acknowledge that the idea that the government gets up to secret clandestine rituals and hide their true beliefs from the masses just really isn't a thing. Historically speaking, governments generally don't like it when the masses believe differently than they do, because they tend to see differing beliefs as unwholesome at best and rebellious at worst. I know it sometimes seems like the beliefs and values that governments try to impose on people are so self-evidently ridiculous that they can't possibly actually believe in them, but the thing is... they generally do. They really, really do buy into their own baloney, often for the simple reason that they're too detached from the lived realities of the common person to understand why it's baloney.

I think people often overlook just how easy it can be to convince yourself that you're simply carrying out God's will, and from there basically start justifying any action as 'part of God's great plan' and start seeing anyone who doesn't go along with it as being in rebellion to God.

This is not to say that governments never lie to people, of course - because they absolutely do. Governments lie and cover things up all the time to protect their images and avoid accountability. But that's still a far cry from people in the government trying to keep their religion a secret when they could just find a way to spin it as a good thing instead. Also, magical thinking really doesn't work out for governments in the long run, either.

In closing

The occult is generally not some kind of twisted demonic ideology, though it's not always free from bigotry and even downright hatred. While it contains many interesting ideas and insights, it also doesn't contain some grand hidden truth to liberate us all. The occult is vast, complex, and ever-changing, and most of all it's human.

Reading any occult text will usually tell you far more about the author and how they perceived the world, than it will tell you about how the world actually works. The occult texts and ideas that any person feels are filled with "truth" says more about their own perceptions and personality than it says about the nature of the world or the human soul.

Many people from all walks of life believe and engage in things we might consider occult, and what is and isn't considered occult can vary depending on time and place. Occultism isn't one set of beliefs or practices; rather, it's any set of beliefs and practices that aren't really common or popular in the mainstream for one reason or another. It's important to remember that this can change drastically given enough time. Many things we think of as occult and therefore anti-Christian today were actually mainstream belief among Christians centuries back. And for all we know, things we consider occult right now might become part of mainstream religion in the future, and things that are part of our mainstream religion might one day become occult lore.

However we choose to use the occult in our own creative works, we should definitely be cautious that we aren't reifying blood libel or anti-witch propaganda. Millions of people have died as a consequence of these things, and hate crimes are still committed on the assumption that they are true. It's one thing to write a story where, say, magic is real or where demons actually exist; it's another thing to present the most hateful interpretations of those concepts as factual within the story's world.

I hope you enjoyed this article and got something useful from it. If you enjoyed it, please share it with your friends and on your social media, and consider supporting me on Patreon or getting me something from my wishlist.

I'll be including links to sources and related info in the external links below, so make sure to check those out if this is a topic that interests you!

Onsite pages you might like:

A Brief Primer on the Four Elements
Writing Historically Accurate European Magic & Witchcraft: A Starting Guide
Writing Fantastic People & Creatures Without Unfortunate Implications
How To Write Better & More Believable Masquerades

Sketchy Spiritualities & Shady Pseudohistories: What People Need To Know
Some Observations On Conspiracy Propaganda
Relax, It's Not The Mark of the Beast!

Offsite resources:

What Is Ritual?
Alchemy @ The Jewish Virtual Library

Twilit Grotto: Archives of Western Esoterica
Internet Sacred Texts Archive
The Book of Enoch tr. by R.H. Charles
The book of Enoch – the George H. Schodde translation

QAnon, Blood Libel, and the Satanic Panic
Blood Libel - Holocaust Encyclopedia
Antisemitism Uncovered: A Guide to Old Myths in a New Era
The Witch Trials and the Rise of Modernity and Capitalism - Sylvia Federici - Caliban and the Witch
Witches Witch-Hunting and Magic in Early-Modern Europe (FIA Lecture)
Witchcraft - Malleus Maleficarum - The Hammer of Witches - History and Analysis of the Inquisition

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