When I tell people I’m interested in the field of western esotericism, they usually look at me blankly. (Really blankly. Since I’m a religious studies major, they expect me to aspire to the sisterhood.) I then have to explain: I am interested in occult groups and mystical movements that use atypical means of contacting the divine, like magic.
Inevitably, the reaction is one of two things: Jonestown or Waco.
These reactions are common because, over time, the meaning of cult—and, by extension, the occult— has changed and many different concepts have been conflated in the public mind to create one large, insidious monster. For those of us looking at esotericism, it can be problematic. So let’s unpack these three terms and figure out what cult is really about.
First up is the term cult. I want to look at this from a religious perspective, and for that we have to go back to antiquity. If we want to talk about the religious practices and ritual of people living in the Greco-Roman world, we talk about cult. In this context, cult refers to a normative religious practice which was bound up throughout society. This meant worshiping the gods, sacrificing animals to them and partaking in other cultural activities (such as parades, feasts and initiatic ceremonies) dedicated to the gods. In this context, cult is not a pejorative term, it simply describes the religious practices of a group of people.
When we turn to the modern world, however, cult takes on some sinister connotations. We still use it to refer to the practices of a group of people, but now the meaning is laboured with the idea that the people involved are doing something deviant. So now when we hear the word cult, yes, we think of doomsday cults (like David Koresh’s Branch Davidians or Heaven’s Gate) or groups of people practicing Satanism in cemeteries after dark. New religious movements, such as Mormonism and Scientology, also get categorized here sometimes. The connotation is nefarious: People are doing things that most of society does not partake in. The practices are extreme (sacrifice, mind control, psychological and sexual abuse) and exist on the fringe of religious or social belief.
So then, what is the occult? The baseline definition is that occult simply means “hidden,” i.e. it is a set of beliefs and practices designed to uncover an otherwise concealed reality. While this true, I think going with this definition also overlooks the ways in which occultism overlaps with the previous two categories.
So yes, occultists search for a hidden reality. But what are the methods? Do they share similarities with the Greco-Roman cult of yore? Well, in many ways, yes. Some groups claim basis in antiquity, referring to the Greco-Roman or Egyptian mysteries as a template for practice. You find this frequently with modern occultism: The Egyptology of Thelema, the heavy Greek influence on the Aurum Solis, and the emphasis on initiatory-based knowledge all take a page from ancient cult. You could also look at the Neo-Platonic heritage of western esoteric cosmology to see the ways that the occult has incorporated ancient thought into its structures. So in this sense, occult groups are reinterpreting ancient cult practices and beliefs.
Like modern cults, occult groups exist on the fringe of society. Despite the prevalence of daily horoscopes, the majority of people would not consider themselves occultists. If they did, I wouldn’t have to explain what occultism is and talk about Waco all the time. So in this respect, occult groups can be categorized, albeit loosely, with cults. They are a group of people with a set of practices that are practiced by a minority of people.
However, occult groups are not cults in the modern sense of the term. They are not as focused on mind control or explicit abnormal behaviour* as much as they are about acquiring knowledge or honing their connection to the divine in a way that is not mainstream. Of course, many of these techniques—divination, spellcasting, and ritual—are going to seem weird to outsiders. Unless you were a 2nd century Greek, then it would seem perfectly normal.
Many at this point would be inclined to shout “Satanism!” at the mere mention of these practices which are obviously witchcraft. But not only does this impose a Christian worldview on pagan practices, it overlooks the role the church played in exploring these areas and bringing many of these ideas to the foreground. (How you doin’ Marsilo Ficino?) Where some see perversion of doctrine, others see a more direct route to the divine. One that can be traversed with the aid of magic. And this is at the heart of western esotericism. It’s mysticism—with a twist.
How did cults and the occult become nearly interchangeable terms? I wish I had the answer. Obviously, when examining these terms, there is much to sift through and where the demarcations are is not so simple.
What we see in these three distinct, but superficially similar, terms are small overlaps when applied to groups and their specific practices. While there are some similarities between “cults” and “occult” groups, overall these are two distinct categories and should not be confused with one another. That “occult” and cults” are used interchangeable is a misappropriation of terms, and bringing in ancient notions of “cult” just confuses the playing field further. Still, the identification of these divergent ideas is persistent, and the differences need to be explained in order to avoid the negative connotations associated with our modern use of cult and misunderstanding the subject entirely.
* This is not to say that it doesn’t happen, just that it isn’t a defining feature of occultism.
Photo by Vinish K. Saini