An introduction to the occult and esoteric knowledge


The occult category is normally a small shelf-marker found in the more appealingly titled ‘Mind Body Spirit’ section in bookshops. The books found above this tiny marker will usually have burgundy covers and extravagantly gothic typography. The general impression is that the occult is to do with demonic forces, virgin sacrifices, and folks who have a propensity to wear a lot of black – and there are very few publishers willing to counteract the cliché of what an occult title should look like. Occasionally, all pretence of accurately cataloguing occult books is done away with and the marker just says ‘Occult/Satanism’.

This is deeply unfair as all the perkier genres such as ‘spirituality’, ‘esoteric knowledge’, ‘divination’ and ‘Wicca/Paganism’, which enjoy whole shelves of their own, are all sub-headings under the main category of ‘The Occult’ (also the title of a brilliant and important book by the author Colin Wilson – published by Watkins with nary a gothic typeface in sight). The word ‘occult’ needs rehabilitation, given that it simply means ‘hidden’ or ‘secret’. Hollywood has a lot to answer for since it has inextricably linked the occult with evil in the popular imagination. Then there are those orthodox religious leaders who vilify and condemn divination and other occult practices – following on in a long tradition of persecuting so-called heretics. And, of course, tarot readers the world over groaned at the implication that the Death card means actual death in Live or Let Die, the 1973 film adaptation of Ian Fleming’s 1954 novel of the same name. While there is no denying that demons and death have a part to play in the occult, it isn’t the whole story.

Before we decided on the parameters of science and established what acceptable scientific methods are, an interest in the occult gave us information about the world around us; for example, alchemy was a forerunner to chemistry – and indeed zinc and phosphorus were discovered by alchemists, not chemists. Astrological and astronomical ideas were considered quite compatible by medieval scholars attempting to help traders circumnavigate the globe. The poet and artist William Blake (1757-1827) was inspired in his work by lifelong visions of ghosts and angels. So, with just these three examples representing an immeasurable treasury, we can argue that we have a deep cultural, philosophical and physical debt to the occult. How do we unravel such a huge subject into bookshop categories that respect this complexity while still ensuring that everyone finds the angel they’re after, even the one who is an adversary of the Abrahamic God?

It’s not as easy as you’d think because wherever you have passionate and enthusiastic readers of a niche genre, you will have differing ideas of what should and shouldn’t be included. One person’s fantasy desert island bookshelf will differ from another’s.

However, a good place to start is The Golden Bough by J. G. Frazer, a much revised classic first published in 1922 by MacMillan. This gives an excellent background into magical practice and ritual, wide-ranging and compendious, even though it was initially only intended by the author to cover one small aspect of the priesthood at the temple of Diana at Aricia; it ended up covering many of the philosophical beliefs behind magic and the occult.

Following on from this, you should definitely make space on your shelf for Robert Graves’ The White Goddess, first published in 1948 and never out of print. This explores the idea of a central goddess behind all the others mentioned in European Paganism and how poetic myth is linked to this deity. It is required reading for those interested in goddess religions, an area currently seeing a revival.

Richard Cavendish, author of many books on the occult – including 1967’s The Black Arts – was also the general editor for Man, Myth & Magic: An Illustrated Encyclopaedia of the Supernatural, a vitally important occult part-work released in the 1970s, which covered all aspects of the occult and featured contributions from well-regarded academics including Mircea Eliade and Robert Charles Zaehner. The first issue’s cover featured a painting by Austin Osman Spare, a celebrated artist and occultist. Our ideal occult bookshelf should definitely include Borough Satyr: The Life and Art of Austin Osman Spare, Robert Ansell’s insightful biography of this fascinating character.

Another contributor to Man, Myth & Magic was John Symonds, an author who was also the literary executor of Aleister Crowley. No matter how ignorant of the occult a person may be, most will have heard of Crowley. In 2002 the BBC conducted a poll into the 100 Greatest Britons in history and Crowley appeared at number 73. He captured the public’s imagination with his theatrical eccentricity, his heroin addiction, his bi-sexual sado-masochism and his breaking of just about every taboo going – yet, in a close reading of his work, there is much that can be found in centuries-old traditions of magic found throughout the world. For example, while the magical use of menstrual blood may have been shocking for Edwardian sensibilities, it was a standard idea in witchcraft traditions around the world for centuries.

Still, Crowley was arguably the most important western occultist of the 20th century, founding the Thelemite religion and influencing many writers and artists even after his death. He claimed The Book of the Law was revealed to him in 1904 during a trip to Egypt. This book must have a place on any bookshelf dedicated to the occult, given Crowley’s wide-reaching influence. For one small example, see the work of L Ron Hubbard in setting up the celebrity-endorsed Scientology religion. The whole story of rocket scientist Jack Parsons, and his involvement with Hubbard, Crowley and the occult, is revealed in the excellent Sex and Rockets: The Occult World of Jack Parsons by John Carter, published by Feral House in 2005 – another one that should be afforded shelf space.

Crowley’s friends Israel Regardie and Kenneth Grant are also notable authors for our list, although Regardie’s writings are by far the more accessible of the two. Gerald Gardner, the founder of Gardnerian Wicca, was also influenced by Crowley’s writings. His Witchcraft Today, first published in 1954, is a good place to start.

Witchcraft and Wicca (two distinct traditions often confused by those not in the know) are sub-sections of the occult that deserve their own huge bookshelf, or indeed library, so perhaps not the area to explore in depth here.

A quick aside on Satanism: generally, the most popular books you’ll find under this section will be two or three written by the founder of the Church of Satan, Anton LaVey. LaVey was a really fun character, looking very much like Ming the Merciless and running around with a lion cub as his pet. LaVeyan Satanism as a doctrine isn’t as spooky as you’d imagine. It is essentially materialist and individualist in nature and teaches personal freedom and manipulation of others through an understanding of human nature and behaviour. So, despite LaVey claiming to have killed the Hollywood starlet Jayne Mansfield as a by-product of a curse he placed on her boyfriend, his brand of Satanism is essentially harmless and a great deal more self-help than you’d expect.

However, the sensationalism of Satanism means it is often kept on the highest shelf, ensuring that those who want to look up other, less jazzy, occult titles put on the same shelf are forced to feel like we’re browsing for porn magazines.

In fact, Satanism isn’t occult’s dark side; it is mainstream prejudices that are far more worrying. For example, the depiction of Voodoo as terrifying and debased is frankly racist, given that it is actually a West African religion deserving of as much respect as any polytheistic religion, for example Hinduism. Mind you, the Indiana Jones film franchise also showed a healthy degree of disrespect for the latter religion with Kali-worshippers shown as monkey brain-eating barbarians. Also racist was the 19th century obsession with the pseudo-science of phrenology (the idea that skull size and shape is connected to intelligence or morality or personality traits); this is often lumped in with palmistry or face reading, occult practices that have a venerable history in providing both personality and divinatory information.

So we’re nearing the end of this feature and readers versed in the occult will be screaming out names in frustration: what of Dion Fortune? Madame Blavatsky? Alex Sanders? Patricia Crowther? Louis Culling? P.B. Randolph? Michael Bertiaux? Joel Biroco? Lon Milo Duquette? Payam Nabarz? Marian Green? Or Alan Moore?(Yes, the comic book god is also a magician.) And that’s only in the west, what about eastern occult writers? What of the thousands of other important occult writers or occultists whose books and journals should be on our shelves? Well, now we know not to fear the word, we can begin our exploration into this diverse and fascinating area.

Vicky Hartley is the Marketing Director and Head of Digital for Watkins Publishing Limited (including Duncan Baird Publishers)