The Occult in Modern Culture

Masconic headstone at Malbork castle.

Masconic headstone at Malbork castle.

The occult—literally the hidden—plays a very minor role in contemporary society. This is, however, only a recent phenomenon as esotericism has played an important role in Western culture until the early twentieth century.

Several well known artists such as Mondriaan, Duchamp and Kandinsky were heavily influenced by esoteric traditions. Nowadays, followers of occultism are placed in the same category as those who believe that Elvis is still alive.

The social status of occultism has been demoted. The most important cause of this, according to Gibbons (2003), is the meeting between the Beatles and Maharashi Mahesh Yogi in 1967 and the subsequent mass-popularisation and vulgarisation of esoteric knowledge, commonly known as New Age.1

I concur with Gibbons that the proliferation of New Age as a social movement and the vulgarisation of esoteric knowledge is one of the reasons that esotericism is now not acknowledged as one of the major sources of Western culture. The advent of science has, of course, a role to play as well. History is always a rewriting of past events and in most current histories, the influence of the occult on Western culture is simply ignored. It is no secret that Newton, the genius of modern science, was preoccupied with alchemy. History writing does, however, make the assumption that his alchemy and his physics are two separate entities. In many histories esotericism is viewed as an aberration in cultural history.

During a recent visit to Poland I came across some nice examples of esoteric symbolism. This photo is taken at Malbork castle, a former stronghold of the Teutonic knights. This is a detail of a headstone showing some Masonic symbols. The Teutonic knights were a crusading order of knights under Roman Catholic religious vows. Their Christianity obviously did not prevent them from using occult symbolism, a combination which nowadays would be met with great suspicion.

The serious study of esotericism unveils forces within the history of Western culture that contemporary cultural studies ignore. Whether you are a believer or not, the influence of the occult on Western culture cannot be ignored.

  1. Tom Gibbons, The occult and early modernism, Quadrant (November 2003), p. 82-84.