What Is Occultism?

What Is Occultism?

by Dion Fortune, Gareth Knight

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Offers the reader an in-depth look at what occultism can be to the rational and well-trained practitioner. Fortune presents a clear discussion, sweeping aside our cultural assumptions and stereotypes. She is able to place occultism in its proper place asa philosophy that employs scientific and rational methodology to explore the meaning of life, while retaining


Offers the reader an in-depth look at what occultism can be to the rational and well-trained practitioner. Fortune presents a clear discussion, sweeping aside our cultural assumptions and stereotypes. She is able to place occultism in its proper place asa philosophy that employs scientific and rational methodology to explore the meaning of life, while retaining religious overtones. She reveals the heart of occult ethics and ideals that occult research seeks to aid people in achieving enlightenment.

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What is Occultism?


Red Wheel/Weiser, LLC

Copyright © 1967 Society of Inner Light
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-60925-460-5



Very few of those who are interested in occultism pause to ask themselves what occultism really is. They may know that the word "occult," means hidden, and that "esoteric," which is often used as its synonym, means "for the few." If they put the two together, they may conclude, and rightly, that occult science is really a branch of knowledge which is hidden from the many and reserved for the few.

An immense mass of verbiage has gathered around the Sacred Science since Mme Blavatsky drew back the curtain of the Sanctuary, and the Theosophical Society sought to popularise the ancient Mystery-teaching. Imagination, freed from the bonds of proof, has had free rein, and scoffers have found ample material that was legitimate game for their comments.

The pseudo-occultism of the present day, with its dubious psychism, wild theorising, and evidence that cannot stand up to the most cursory examination, is but the detritus which accumulates around the base of the Mount of Vision. All such worthless rubbish is not worth the powder and shot of argument; in order to form a just estimate of the Sacred Science we must study originals, and try to penetrate the minds of the great mystics and illuminati whose works bear evidence of first-hand knowledge of the supersensible worlds.

Leaving aside all theories and dogmatic teaching, we find a consensus of agreement on certain matters of experience. There are states of consciousness which transcend the normal, and when these states prevail, we can discern forms of existence with which normally we have no contact. All the seers are agreed on this point, and we may take it as being the fundamental experience from which occult science is derived. There are universal traditions concerning superhuman beings who taught occult science to the remote ancestors of the races and founded their civilisation; these statements, however, being unverifiable according to the accepted rules of evidence, will be put aside for the purpose of the present discussion.

Let us then concede, as we cannot very well deny in face of the available evidence, that the supernormal faculties of the human mind open up to man a supernatural range of experience. It is the cumulative supernatural experience of the ages, perceived by means of the supernormal faculties sporadically developed in mankind, that forms the subject-matter of occult science and the data for its speculations.

It is the sporadic development of the supernormal faculties, however, that makes evidential proof a difficulty.

Natural science lays its evidence before the five physical senses possessed by every normal human being; occult science makes its appeal to the judgment of senses but rarely to be found developed in human beings. The average man has to base his opinion in occult matters upon circumstantial evidence. Occult science, like classical music, reserves itself for the few whose training and natural gifts enable them to appreciate it. The Philistine is unapproachable because there is no common standpoint from which a start can be made.

In these latter days, however, there is a widespread occurrence of minor degrees of psychism. Many people have had experiences which have set them thinking and asking questions. They have glimpsed something outside the four walls of our everyday life, and they are no longer contented with the statement that nothing exists save that which we habitually see.

In their quest they may follow the line of experimental research, as the spiritualists have done; unearthing in the course of their work a vast mass of phenomena of the supersensible states of existence. Or, following another line of advance, they may ask their questions of those who go to tradition for their explanation.

Until one studies the literature of the subject, one is utterly unaware of its extent; it reaches from the oral traditions on the one hand, through the mythologies developed and systematised in the ancient literatures, to the writings of highly trained philosophers whose speculations led them "beyond our bourne of time and space."

It must, however, always be kept in mind that occultism is more than a philosophy or science: it is a vast range of experience, and it is this body of experience that its speculations seek to systematise and explain.

We can define occultism as an extension of psychology, for it studies certain little-known aspects of the human mind and the mind side of Nature. Its findings, rightly formulated and understood, fit in with what is already established in psychology and natural science. This mutual corroboration must be the test of occult science. There must be no discrepancies between its findings and those of natural science upon such points as natural science is in a position to test.

We must no longer content ourselves with wild statements of psychic experiences in proof of which no shadow of independent evidence can be offered. We must realise that if we are dealing with genuine phenomena, they will bear investigation. In seeking to investigate these little-known aspects of the mind, let us remember that they have their technique, and unless we are prepared to observe that technique we will no more obtain accurate results than we should if the object of our study were bacteriology.

Occultism, however, is more than a science to be pursued objectively; it provides also a philosophy of life derived from its experiences, and it is this philosophical, or even religious aspect, that attracts most of those who devote their lives to it. Out of experience of the rare states of consciousness which it studies comes a greatly changed attitude towards revealed religion, for the seeker has now penetrated to the planes whence the revelations come, and for him they have an entirely different significance and validity. He is no longer dependent upon faith, he has had personal experience, and out of that experience he tends to formulate a religious belief in which he himself aspires to share in the work usually assigned to saints and angels as the ministers and messengers of God. From time immemorial the training and teaching of specially selected individuals have gone on with that end in view, and the schools dedicated to that work are known as the Mystery Schools.

Experience of the rarer forms of natural phenomena brings the conviction that their influences, in a subtle and little-understood fashion, affect normal human life very much more than is realised, especially in the spheres of disease and therapeutics.

But in addition to their teaching concerning the nature of the invisible planes of existence, the Mystery Schools teach the great fundamental doctrine of reincarnation, that is to say, the oscillation of the soul between the seen and the Unseen. This is a concept which changes our entire attitude towards life, and on this point occultism has not only a philosophy, but a system of ethics.

To the man or woman dissatisfied with the conventional explanations of a philosophy and a science limited to the evidence of the five physical senses, occultism opens a rich vein of ore to be had for the working. Its speculations throw light upon every aspect of life; they explain much that, considered only from the mundane aspect, is inexplicable, and they place religion upon a basis of experience, not of blind belief.

Those are the gifts that are available for men through the opening of the Mysteries; an opening which has been going on for the last fifty years, till now the doors stand wide and beams of light shine out from within.



Whatever path in life a man may have chosen for himself or have had forced upon him, there comes a time when he looks back and asks himself whether it has been worth while, when he looks ahead and asks himself whether it is right to go on or had he better say "Mea culpa" and retrace his steps? The more sincere he is, the more faithful he is to the highest he knows, the oftener will come the heart-searching which is the highest tribute to Truth, a tribute infinitely higher than belief or sacrifice. It has nothing in common with the wavering which is the product of a lack of stamina, nor the abandonment of principles which comes in the absence of real convictions; it is not the product of weakness, but of strength, a strength that

"Can make one heap of all its winnings, And stake it on one turn of pitch and toss"

of an integrity which really believes that "There is no religion higher than Truth" and is prepared to face martyrdom for it, even that hardest of martyrdoms which is received in the house of one's friends.

That which remains after such an acid test of intellectual honesty may indeed be ranked as pure gold, and it is such gold, bought at such a price, that is the standard of value for our human life on this globe: by it every attainment and revelation must be tested in our limited and relative world. It is the Word made flesh among us.

Those of us who have chosen the Path of Occultism are even more in need of self-criticism than most people, for we have chosen for our study a subject in which there is no standard of criticism and in which each is a law unto himself, claiming, if he be so minded, independent revelation from sources beyond the judgment of human reason—a possession as unsatisfactory as a private printing-press for bank-notes.

We know that revelations, or, more truly, realisations, come to human consciousness, just as we know that bank-notes are legal tender, but we must never forget that revelations and bank-notes further resemble each other in that they have no value unless they represent actualities. For a bank-note to have value it must be redeemable in gold at any moment. For a revelation to have value it must be valid in a spiritual crisis.

Self-questionings are like a trial balance which enables the banker to estimate his solvency. He does not wait for a run on the bank to prove whether his gold reserve is equal to his note issue.

The revelations, the secret traditional wisdom that never gets tested by impartial criticism, the unknown powers, all the mystery and imaginings that constitute occult science, badly need such a periodical trial balance if they are to maintain any semblance of solvency.

When we look back upon the history of occult science, the outlook is not encouraging. Why is it that occultism has produced such a crop of charlatans and few, if any, intellects of the first water?

The grandeur of its theories ennobles human life and enables us to see our fate and acts in a perspective related to the cosmos; but is that glorious background interstellar space or painted canvas?

There is only one test, to walk straight up to it and see whether the stones of the Path are beneath one's feet or if one has simply torn one's way into the sordid back premises of a theatre.

Speaking for myself, I essayed that experiment upon my first introduction to occult science. In brilliant colours, books, lectures, and personal talks depicted occult arts and astral phenomena and a cosmogony of the type of the elephant who stood upon a tortoise, and I saw at the first glance that I was dealing with painted cloth and put my foot through it to show my opinion of it.

Then I used my knowledge of psychology to enable me to go behind the scenes and penetrate into the minds and motives of those who were staging the puppet-show I had been invited to witness. I saw the wires that supported the fairies and the machine that enabled the god to appear at the critical moment; the manager with one eye on the box office, the author with a much-revised manuscript; the producer in consultation with the stage-carpenter and limelight man; the actors trying to synthesise their egos and their parts.

Then I penetrated deeper behind the scenes of the theatre; I saw the different esoteric schools as dressing-rooms in which the actors made up for their parts; I discovered the dirty and draughty stone stairway by which they entered the theatre, and I descended it; I issued forth by the stage door into the sordid purlieus of theatre-land where men and women fought outside gin-palaces and children sprawled in the dirt of the gutter, and there, lifting my eyes for relief from the sordidness of it all, I saw above me the very stars in their remote and shining reality that had been depicted upon the painted scenery of the theatre.

Then, and then only, did I see the significance of the drama and realise that it was not an attempt to deceive but to portray, and I was glad to go in humility and gratitude to the front entrance and pay the price of a seat that I might watch the interpretation of life that was being represented therein. I had had my lesson and learnt the function and limitation of a school of initiation.

We have to distinguish between the symbolic expression of abstract ideas and the actual delineation of concrete objects. It is said of the Mysteries that the candidate was led on from degree to degree and shown more and more recondite symbols of the Godhead, and at the end, when the final curtain was drawn aside, was revealed to him an empty shrine and a voice whispered in his ear, "There is no God."

Whoever has penetrated behind the drop-scene, which is also the Veil of the Temple, knows this to be true. There is no God of Israel to fight for him in battle and snuff up the savour of burnt offerings, but—there is a Logos, and the nature of the Logos can only be apprehended by those who can meditate in an empty shrine, that is to say, can think without a symbol. The training of the degrees is designed to teach the mind to rise to the abstract and transcend thought, for it is only when thought ceases that apprehension begins.

No one can teach occult science who is not able to draw aside the curtain and reveal the empty shrine, who does not know that the occult doctrines are a system of algebra that enables the mind to function beyond the range of thought. Whoever thinks that the Planes and the Rays and the Hierarchy exist in time and space is not an initiate and therefore cannot be an initiator.

The difference between the occultaster and the occultist is that the former believes that the innermost shrine contains the god, and the latter knows that the God is within him. The former believes in revelation and the latter in realisation. The former believes in a special message to himself from his Master, a special mandate from Heaven; the latter knows that in God we live and move and have our being. The former believes in the astral plane as objective reality; the latter knows it to be objective imagination.

This does not mean, however, that the astral plane is non-existent, but it does mean that it is the psychology of the objective imagination which is the true study of the practical occultist.

This brings us back to the point from which we started. Is occultism worth while? It is just as much and as little worth while as mathematics, to which it is precisely analogous. The mathematician neither bakes a loaf nor digs a field, but his science is the fundamental basis of knowledge to whose terms all things must be reduced for final and accurate expression. What mathematics are to matter and force, occult science is to life and consciousness, there is possible no final expression or synthesis without the use of its peculiar methods. Therefore I maintain that it is worth while, and am satisfied that the time I have spent in its pursuit has not been wasted.

But, on the other hand, I maintain that some occult systems I have met with are not worth while. Though an initiatory system may justly be likened to a theatre, the teaching it conveys may not only be likened to such a play as Hamlet, but to such another as Sweeny Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street. People who would sit enthralled through one of these plays would walk out in the first act of the other. Ninety percent of the books on occultism are conceived in the spirit and written in the manner of the penny gaff; they offend the taste of any educated person. As long as the occult doctrines are presented in such a guise they can never command the respect of those whose respect is worth having. There must always, it is true, be milk for babes and strong meat for strong men, but there is no need to accept silliness for simplicity, or intellectual confusion for profound wisdom. Large chunks of unverified and unverifiable statements and a thick treacly smear of sentimental humani-tarianism are the mixture from which all too many esoteric books are compounded, and they make one ashamed to call oneself an occultist. Such a book as The Ancient Wisdom commands respect as a literary production even from those who do not accept its conclusions, but some of the utterances that have been given to the world in the name of Occult Science are simply in execrable taste and would disgrace a patent medicine.

We must remember that the Sacred Science only exists on this plane in the consciousness of its students; cosmic law and occult doctrine, as we know them, are only human conceptions of that which transcends any powers of direct perception possessed by the incarnated ego, and can be no more than an approximation, an attempt to conceive with the aid of a symbol that which in itself is unthinkable.

There is no Royal Road to initiation, but only the path worn by many wandering feet. Up this we must struggle as best we may with for our guide none other than our highest realisation, and if the light that is in us be darkness, how great is that darkness? An order or fraternity upon the physical plane is what we make it; the Masters upon the astral planes are what we conceive them to be. It is only through human consciousness that Spirit can work upon the plane of matter. The astral plane is simply thought into existence and thought out of existence by the composite imagination of the globe, and we are freed from its dominion when we realise its subjective nature.

Excerpted from What is Occultism? by DION FORTUNE. Copyright © 1967 Society of Inner Light. Excerpted by permission of Red Wheel/Weiser, LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Dion Fortune (1891-1946), founder of The Society of the Inner Light, is recognized as one of the most luminous figures of 20th-century esoteric thought. A prolific writer, pioneer psychologist, powerful psychic, and spiritualist, she dedicated her life to the revival of the Western Mystery Tradition. She was also a member of the Order of the Golden Dawn, whose members included at various times such people as A.E. Waite, Aleister Crowley, and W.B. Yeats.

Gareth Knight is one of the major occult practitioners and authors of today. His many books include Experience of Inner Worlds, Magical World of the Tarot, Secret Tradition in Arthurian Legend.

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