Let’s take a moment to think about the word, “Occult.” Now that I’ve said it you probably have an immediate scene set in your mind- likely something dark, maybe with witches, people practicing something macabre and evil in secret. Am I close to painting your picture? Well, the funny reality is that while we paint a dark picture regarding the Occult and Occult Studies, in all actuality, the word simply means ‘hidden’. Having come from the Latin word occultus, “knowledge is hidden”, Occult has taken on a new meaning of its own in the modern world. Why “hidden”? Simply put, centuries ago, the phrase occult was used to reference anything nonmainstream that had to be practiced in secret. It was the hidden practices that go on that most people didn’t know about. By that definition and the origin of the word, even Christianity in all its many sects was considered an ‘occult’ practice back in its early days when Christians as a whole were being persecuted.
In fact, there were many sects of Christianity and Judaism that disappeared throughout history, taking their secrets with them. While the mainstream religion we know of today won the war and rose to common, mainstream practice, there were many ‘occult’ sects of Christianity that didn’t make it out into the modern world. And today, I’m going to discuss two rather interesting variants of those with you.
Gnosticism was an interesting and, most definitely, darker variant of Christianity and Judaism that became popular in the late 1st century AD in Roman Egypt. In its core, Gnostics (named by the idea that enlightenment can be gained through ‘gnosis’ or knowledge and understanding) believed that the material universe was created by an evil god, making the existence and life we live a flawed, evil existence in which we had to overcome to enter into the spiritual salvation of eternity. Basically, they believed this life was created by an evil deity to test us and see if we were worthy to live in a real, spiritual afterlife. Rather than focusing on the Christian ideals that we know today, they placed value in divinity, mysticism, spirituality, and enlightenment. They believed that knowledge of the divine was the most important thing to find salvation and that it came from an inward ‘knowing’. It seemed to be a more spiritual and meditative sect of Christianity.
Regarding Jesus, they believed him to be the Gnostic savior who achieved enlightenment and represented a supreme being to serve as an example on earth.
The early Orthodox Christian Churches denounced Gnosticism when they rose to power, though Gnostics saw their values as working in alignment with the mainstream church. The Orthodox Church destroyed a lot of their religious texts and documents and more or less pushed Gnosticism to the sidelines, forcing its members to practice in secret, thus making it an occult study by the true definition of the word. And as we all know, those who win the wars get to write the history, so with the Gnostic materials were more or less destroyed, the Orthodox Christian figures wrote about them as heretics, painting their image as an affront to God and mainstream Christianity. Due to this, Gnostics practiced in secrecy for a time before more or less fizzling out of history. After the discovery of Egypt’s Nag Hammadi library in 1945, which contained Gnostic writings and texts, people began talking about the long-forgotten Christian religion again; however, scholars argue whether it should be considered an early form or Christianity or rather its own religion.
Hermes Trismegistos brought the idea of Gnosticism to a new sect of Christianity with Hermetism, also referred to Hereticism. Hermetism held onto most of the Gnostic beliefs, back when both sects of religion were flourishing in Roman Egypt, but the main difference was that believers of Hermetism had a more optimistic view on God. They believed that he was the creator, and the material world, rather than being an evil creation from an angry god, was, in fact, a beautiful creation of his image. They did, however, see the material world as a distraction from the divine nature of humanity, believing that people needed to refocus and look for inward knowledge to find enlightenment. They did see human impulses, such as sexual desire, as evil urges. Hermetism was a closer link to what we see as Christianity today but, again, with a much more spiritual and divine approach. Due to its focus on divination, alchemy, and knowledge, it was, too, painted as a form of heresy throughout history. Eventually, it evolved from less of a practice into more of a word to reference the ancient Egyptians desire for knowledge of alchemy and magic, and it ultimately became a popular term used by modern occultists. While it wasn’t as aggressively persecuted as Gnosticism, it did lose its popularity and become more of a parlor idea or term.
Christianity, in itself, was largely considered a hidden occult practice until it was legalized by the Edict of Milan in 312. In its early centuries prior to legalization, Christians were wildly persecuted by the Jews, the Romans, and we cannot ignore the fact that different sects persecuted each other time and time again. After legalization in 312, Christian sects began to fight and persecute each other even more famously. Many older ‘occult’ sects of Christianity (such as Gnosticism and Hermetism as mentioned above) in that time were pushed out by the mainstream Orthodox Church, being erased or heavily removed from history. Even into the 21st century, we’ve seen sects of Christianity persecuted despite Christianity as a whole being the largest religion across the globe at this time. Even today, there is a ‘Christian persecution complex’ emerging where people believe that Christian values and ideals are being oppressed by the government.
All in all, we should start to take the emotion and fear out of the word ‘occult’, as it has been weaponized by mainstream groups for us to regard it with fear and disgust. In reality, it is just a word, a term used to reference the beliefs, spirituality, and practices people conduct in secrecy, feeling that if they practice them in the mainstream, they may be harassed or persecuted. Have some of these been dark, twisted, and perhaps, even ‘evil’? Absolutely. But on the other hand, many occult ideals are harmless and even inspiring or ‘good’ in nature (which is all subjective anyway). So, I hope I’ve changed your opinion on this word a bit and also helped you to see that even our mainstream ideals were once an ‘occult’ sect, placed in the backgrounds of history.