Closely related to astrology and magic was the practice of the occult which was another feature of ancient science. The word occult is derived from Latin, meaning hidden or concealed. It refers to aspects of the world that are not directly perceptible either to the ordinary senses or to our everyday intelligence. More importantly, it implies secret knowledge that is given only to a chosen few.
The power resulting from knowledge must have impressed human beings from very ancient times. After all, those who could read and write, let alone predict the motion of planets or recognize the healing properties of herbs, could do a lot more than the ignorant lot. This aspect of knowledge makes one feel that if it was shared with others, one would be sharing one’s powers. Also, much of religious knowledge was believed to have been revealed by supernatural entities, hence not for general distribution. These gave rise to the idea that knowledge must be kept secret.
Occult practice was there in all ancient civilizations. The priests of ancient Egypt, the philosophers of China, the rishis of India, the Pythagoreans in Greece, and alchemists everywhere, all indulged in esoteric activities, expressly prohibiting the vast majority of people from their own knowledge and understanding, not unlike the proceedings of secret committees and agencies associated with the governments of the modern world.
Aside from secrecy, mysticism and supernaturalism were also associated with the occult.. A whole complex of ideas and beliefs was developed regarding the nature of matter, mind, and the cosmos. Those who were versed in the occult sciences were supposed to have extraordinary powers: they could travel vast distances in incredibly short times; they could transmute metals or make themselves and the metals vanish; they could communicate with the dead, read people’s minds, rejuvenate themselves, see and hear events occurring miles away, and live incredibly long lives.
Hindu yogis were presumed to have occult powers. One Indian scholar describes occult powers as follows: “Also known as Siddhis, Ashvarayas, Tant Mant, miraculous powers, spiritual powers, supernatural powers, magical powers, psychic powers, super human powers, super sensory phenomena, extrasensory perceptions, and so on, are in fact divine powers which can be manifested by any living being who has obtained mastery over the forces of the creation or nature through special training and practice of certain substance or Mantras.”
In the Jewish tradition there arose the Kabbalah which was a mystical magical interpretation of various authors. Its goal was to control spirits and demons. It emerged in the 12th century C. E. and became prevalent in Spain and France. The book of splendor (Sefer ha-zohar) is generally regarded as its source. However, it is based on the Old Testament Revelation. But some have described it as mathematical in its framework because it deals with anagrams of the names of angels and involves various numerological theories such as gematria, notarikon, and temurah.
In medieval Christian Europe, occult practices received a fresh boost through a host of secret organizations which traced their roots to ancient leaders. A fourteenth century German by the name of Rosenkreutz traveled to Syria and Egypt, and brought with him the secret knowledge of those traditions. He founded a secret society which was revived in the seventeenth century. The Rosicrucians believe that their society dates back to ancient Egyptian times, and they use a variety of symbols, including the rose and the cross, in the context of their activities. Known as the Ancient Mystical Order Rosae Crucis, this nonsectarian society continues to this day with thousands of members from all over the world. The organization teaches, among other things, “specific knowledge of metaphysics, mysticism, psychology, parapsychology and science not taught by conventional educational systems or traditional religions.” Its goals is “to enable everyone to live in harmony with creative, cosmic forces for the attainment of health, happiness, and peace.”
Frances Yates tells us that “The Elizabethan world was populated, not only by tough seamen, hard-headed politicians, serious theologians, it was a world of spirits, good and bad, fairies, demons, witches, ghosts, conjurors. …The dominant philosophy of the Elizabethan age was precisely the occult philosophy, with its magic, its melancholy, its aim of penetrating into profound spheres of knowledge and experience, scientific and spiritual, its fear of the dangers of such a quest, and of the fierce opposition which it encountered.”
Occultism gradually went out of style for some time, but then there was a revival in the course of the l9th century, especially with the founding of the Theosophical Society (1875) which attempted to bring all of these beliefs and practices under one fold, and give them a scientific basis. The society has branches all over the world where the teachings of its founders are studied systematically in efforts to blend science and mysticism. Members of occult societies continue to talk about the supernatural powers of deceased leaders who are reported to have traveled to the Moon and to Mars in disembodied forms, though few claim to be doing such things now. However, many people still imagine that certain individuals have performed and can perform such extraordinary feats as creating things out of nowhere.