Talking about Occultism in today's world
Two of humanity’s most fascinating, and troublesome, traits are our imagination and our capacity to contemplate the hidden. In a way, these are the same trait, as thinking about the hidden depends on imagination, and humans have erected fabulously complex systems of the hidden-imagined, including what we tend to call ‘the occult.’
In his deservedly famous analysis of ‘occulture’ as a form of re-enchantment, Christopher Partridge defined occulture broadly as “those often hidden , rejected, and oppositional beliefs and practices associated with esotericism, theosophy, mysticism, New Age, Paganism, and a range of other subcultural beliefs and practices, many of which are identified by Campbell as belonging to the cultic/mystical milieu and by Stark and Bainbridge as belonging to the occult subculture” (2004, p. 68).
Following Peter Clarke, he further grants that ‘the occult’ is multidimensional, an ‘umbrella term’ for many, often apparently unrelated or even contradictory notions including “a range of ‘deviant’ ideas and practices (although it is debatable as to whether some beliefs are socially deviant or, indeed, ‘hidden,’ bearing in mind their massive and rising popularity), including magick (as devised by Aleister Crowley), extreme right-wing religio-politics, radical environmentalism and deep ecology, angels, spirit guides and channeled messages, astral projection, crystals, dream therapy, human potential spiritualities, the spiritual significance of ancient and mythical civilizations, astrology, healing, earth mysteries, tarot, numerology, Kabbalah, feng shui, prophecies (e.g. Nostradamus), Arthurian legends, the Holy Grail, Druidy, Wicca, Heathenism, palmistry, shamanism, goddess spirituality, Gaia spirituality and eco-spirituality, alternative science, esoteric Christianity, UFOs, alien abduction, and so on” (70).
Such a vast list places ‘the occult’ both inside and outside the conventional category of ‘religion’ but certainly places it firmly within the interest of anthropology. Henrik Bogdan and Gordan Djurdjevic’s new volume on global occultism is therefore a welcome and valuable addition to our knowledge about this wide-ranging subject. As the editors reinforce in their introduction (which counts as the first chapter of the collection), occultism “is an orientation towards hidden aspects of reality, those that are held to be commonly inaccessible to ordinary senses; an activity that simultaneously shares a certain similarity with both science and religion but cannot be reduced to either of them” (p. 1). Yet, as echoed in the publisher’s other related recent title New Age Spirituality: Rethinking Religion, the sprawling variety of elements grouped as ‘the occult’ is not without recurring themes and common ideas nor without institutional structure and intellectual history.
The first question that the contributors ask, in chapter two by Kennet Granholm, is what precisely we mean by the ‘western’ in Western occultism. Thoughtfully, he notes the ‘positive orientalism’ in much Western esoteric literature while problematizing concepts of ‘the West’ and ‘the modern.’ Contemporary and historical Western esotericism have undeniable benefited from culture contact and transnational cultural flows, leading to Granholm’s invocation of Roland Robertson’s notions of ‘the universalization of particularism’ and ‘the particularization of universalism.’ As such esotericism and occultism is wonderfully modern, perhaps even, quoting Partridge in the chapter, part of the background knowledge “that informs the plausibility structures of Westerners” (quoted p. 31).
The subsequent ten chapters focus on specific individuals, organizations, and movements both in the West and the East. Hans Thomas Hakl, for instance, writes about the Fraternitas Saturni, “the most important secret magical lodge in twentieth-century Germany” (p. 37). Chronicling its history, organization, and beliefs, Hakl, like many of the authors, highlights the issue of magic, especially sexual magic. Per Faxneld gives us a description of satanism in Denmark, establishing its lineage from its early days in the nineteenth century through the formative work of Anton LaVey in the 1960s and beyond. The central figure is a Dane known as Kadosh who shaped Danish satanism after 1906, associating the Greek god Pan with Satan. Faxneld also mentions Kadosh’s association with the Ordo Templi Orientis (OTO), illustrating the institutional links between various national occultisms. Gordan Djurdjevic turns us to Yugoslavia, where an ‘occult boom’ appeared in the 1970s but not without historical precedent. A key figure in Yugoslav occultism was Zivorad Mihajlovic Slavinski, whose published works emphasize a mix of magic, Kabbalah, I Ching, Zen Buddhism, and of course OTO and Aleister Crowley, demonstrating once again the intellectual and institutional ties across the myriad manifestations of esoteric thought.
The sixth and seventh chapters present two of the more surprising and illuminating examples of occult creativity and syncretism. Francesco Baroni shares information on esoteric Christianity in Italy, showing how the common enemies of occultism and Christianity are combined in the work of Tommaso Palamidessi. In fact, Palamidessi strives “to revive the glorious tradition of Christian esotericism, identified with the teachings of the early fathers” featuring “reincarnation, the doctrine of subtle bodies and of chakras, and a refined ascetic discipline whose focal point was the ‘prayer of the heart’” (p. 109). Yet more remarkable, and reprehensible, is ‘esoteric Hitlerism,’ a movement not entirely restricted to Germany or the West, which, as Arthur Versluis reveals in the seventh chapter, holds Adolf Hitler as “an avatar, a divine being” (p. 121) “prefiguring and representing primordial man” (p. 128). Blended with various occurrences of esoteric Hitlerism are the standard ingredients of sexual magic, Luciferianism, and Eastern religion, with a dash of nationalism.
PierLuigi Zoccatelli deals with sexual magic in Colombia, tracing the relationship between another stalwart of occultism, Gurdjieff, and Samael Aun Weor, who founded a Colombian Gnostic movement in the last century. Identifying the themes of “personal evolution, social transformation, and, ultimately, a transformation on the cosmic scale” in the so-called Gurdjieff Work (p. 138), Zoccatelli shows how Weor’s teachings emphasized many of the same ideas, culminating in his “three factors of the revolution of consciousness” including the annihilation of the negative ego, the birth of “internal bodies or superior existential bodies (often via sexual practices), and “the sacrifice for mankind” (p. 142). Meanwhile, in the ninth chapter, Thierry Zarcone finds occultism in the unlikely setting of Islamic Turkey. But then, Islam has had its own brand or brands of esotericism, and Zarcone argues that Batiniyya or Batinism (after the Arabic word batin for inner or hidden) “fits more or less the definitions of Western esotericism” (p. 151). What follows is a fascinating discussion of Islamic occult ideas; of Turkish occultism with its characteristic alchemy, amulets and talismans, and magic; and of exchanges between Turkey and Europe.
Continuing outside of the West, Henrik Bogdan’s chapter concentrates on the Holy Order of Krishna in India, portraying “how aspects of occultism can acquire totally new meanings when migrating into a new context” (p. 178). In analyzing this case of Indian esotericism, Bogdan finds influences from theosophy (a Western movement drawing on Indian sources), Freemasonry, hypnotism, and a number of other standard occult elements. Equally interestingly, Bogdan traces the impact of Indian occultism back to the West, on Kenneth Grant, a protege of Crowley. For fans of the Irish poet W. B. Yeats who are not familiar with his more occult side, Emily Aoife Somers’ discussion in the eleventh chapter will be eye-opening. Yeats, as well as Japanese playwright Izumi Kyoka, dabbled in the potentialities of esotericism and Japanese no plays, resulting in “the other-worldy features of mugen no (no drama that frequently deal with ghosts and the supernatural)” (p. 203). For both writers, themes of twilight, of in-betweenness, and of ghosts and spirits combine modernist sensibilities and staging with traditional no styles. The volume concludes with a study of the relatively obscure “Australian trance occultist and visionary artist Rosaleen Norton” (p. 231). Nevill Drury’s essay offers a portrait of an idiosyncratic woman whose work stressed Pan as her “supreme deity” (p. 235) while also re-imagining Hecate, Lilith, and Lucifer, Kabbalah, and (self)hypnosis.
Occultism in a Global Perspective is a book of profound significance for anthropologists, despite the fact that none of its contributors are anthropologists. Indeed, other than the Comaroff’s work on “occult economies” (which does not take ‘the occult’ particularly seriously), anthropologists have paid fairly little attention to occultism, which is strange and unfortunate. These essays illustrate that occultism is a widely practiced congeries of ideas and rituals, and occultism clearly raises issues of syncretism, globalization, and the porosity if not inadequacy of standard categories like ‘religion.’ Hopefully this collection will inspire more research and theorizing on occultism, esotericism, and such modern forms of vernacular religion, psychology, and social change.
A very interesting set of essays illustrates the intellectual and institutional relations between occult and esoteric traditions in the West and beyond, with clear implications for anthropological thinking on religion, syncretism, and globalization.
Partridge, Christopher 2004 The Re-Enchantment of the West. Volume 1: Alternative Spiritualities, Sacralization, Popular Culture, and Occulture. New York: T&T Clark International.
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