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. 

8 thoughts on “The Occult in Modern Culture

  1. Although I agree to some part that the occult does not play a major role in contemporary society, I disagree with the idea that it used to play a larger role. Yes, a number of artists were influenced by esoteric traditions as Theosophy, but esoteric traditions were almost allways operating in the margins of society. According to F. Yates and W.J. Hanegraaff the sixties provided a framework in which certain esoteric traditions could become more mainstream. Hence, the rise of New Age. Furthermore, it is during the sixties that Yates and others started the academic study of esotericism. So, from the sixties on there is a growing interest in esotericism from the academic world, it is even recognized as the third pillar of western culture. The other two being Faith and Reason.

    As an aside, Hanegraaff defined the word occult as the modern form of esotericism, therefore occultism can only occur in the modern world. For more information I recommend Hanegraaff’s book “New Age Religion and Western Culture”.

  2. Thanks for your comments Guido.

    I have read (bits of Hanegraaff’s book, it is excellent).

    I stand corrected – the influence of the esoteric/occult is most likely not much different over time. The emphasis has changed. What used to be hidden is now emerging into the mainstream through the New Age movement.

    Occult is latin for hidden, ‘the sixties’ have, however, popularised what used to be hidden – the occult is not occult anymore. I would use the terms the other way around – esotericism for the current situation and occult for the past.


  3. Good article. Hanegraaf is a dutch scientist, a rather good one!
    I think occultism en esoterism coming together in the modern time. Occult is just hidden, nothing more, nothing less.

  4. Hi, I’m writing my dissertation at university on Demonology & The Occult In Western Film where I am focusing on symbology & how film makers covertly push satanic & lucifarian doctrines on the public via their narrative. The only problem is that I can’t find ANYTHING on the subject in any books or any actual books covering the subject, with the exception of YouTube where people like David Icke, Alex Jones & Mark Dice post up their own findings (but where they find this I have no idea as there is no actual academic books on the subject to actual prove or disprove such research. Especially for a dissertation)

    I need your help…..Do you know of any books or literature on the subject, or can you recommend any other ways to write this dissertation?


    • Hi Michael,

      Your hypothesis sounds a bit like a Christian conspiracy theory, which will be almost impossible to reasonably argue for in a dissertation.

      I would start with a literature review of what occult ‘doctrines’ actually are. There is a huge amount of literature in that area.

      One method of linking this to film is by semiotically analysing the films under consideration. Your main methodological problem will be to prove that any connection you find is intentional. Any connections are most likely due to shared cultural schemes and not purposeful propaganda.

      Remember that to write a good dissertation on cultural issues requires a neutral point of view.

      Good luck!

      • But on another note, I’m not trying to say that film makers intentionally are supporting the occult or demonology, I’m trying to explore what these types of films look like from an occult & demonic point of view to an individual that is interested in the subject. Mainly me.

        I also want to look into symbology of the occult that is used covertly, such as the All Seeing Eye, Eye of Horus etc etc where it is hidden in film and unless you are actually savvy about what these symbols mean, then you wouldn’t even notice them.

        Maybe I should be more specific in my dissertation header LoL

        • Michael,

          The occult or demonic point of view is not a scientific point of view. A good journal for you to start reading is Esoterica.
          Your use of the word covertly implies that there is malicious intent by the film makers.
          If you seek to turn this tipic into a dissertation you will need to think about what your hypothesis is. What are you trying to prove? Any university will drill you very hard in your ability to be able to spell out exactly what it is you are researching and what your contribution to the field will be. There are some good books and online sources to help you shape a dissertatio proposal.

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