Pagan Studies

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The Endangered Occultist

When I first got interested in all the topics that would eventually lead me to my spiritual path, they were neatly shelved under the “Occult” section of the library or local book store at the mall. Thankfully, by the time I really got involved, there were a few more “how to” manuals out there, but talking to people who started not that much earlier than me, they would wax nostalgic about the days when the shelf was ten to twenty books at most, and the Satanic Bible sat next to books such as Isis Unveiled, The Secret Doctrine, The Sea Priestess, Drawing Down the Moon, something related to the Golden Dawn or Aleister Crowley, Mastering Witchcraft, Sybil Leek's Diary of a Witch, Magickal Rites from the Crystal Well, and what we now affectionately call "Uncle Buckie's Big Blue Book." Depending on how they arranged the books, you might even get Seth Speaks by Jane Roberts or one of the many Carlos Castaneda books thrown in there too.

If you were looking for more, you had to go into the mythology section, or look at the ancient philosophers from the Greeks and Romans. You had to look into folk lore, and your local library, in its own occult section, would have out of print books from the sixties and seventies, usually with many photos, detailing the history of occultism and hitting highlights such as tribal witch doctors in Africa, tales of Medea and Circe, a bit about Isis, the persecution of Witches by the Christian Church, some alchemy and Rosicrucians, through the modern revival of the Spiritualist Church, Theosophy, the Golden Dawn, ESP studies, and the rise of Wicca. Somewhere in there would most likely be a scantily clad photo of an Alexandrian circle for the sheer shock value.


I lived and breathed with these books, even before I gave Witchcraft a serious thought as a personal path. And they did lead me to herbalism and alchemy. Alchemy's story ended with a big thud in those days. No one then talked about being a practicing alchemist. So the story ends with "...and philosopher's discovered alchemy wasn't real. The four elements were not real, but this led to the founding of modern chemistry." Which is not entirely true. Many early scientists were also alchemists, and it did continue onward and get revived, like a lot of occult arts. But because that was the story I learned, I almost ended up being a chemist. I like to blame it on some strong past live memories of being an alchemist playing with bottles. But the idea of calculus every day of my life was enough to make me do a one-eighty into becoming a music major rather than a chemical engineer.

When the big boom of Witchcraft hit in the nineties, with movies like The Craft, TV shows like Buffy, Charmed, and Sabrina, there came an explosion of Witchcraft books, right along with the growth of the big box book stores like Barnes and Noble and later Borders. Fast forward to Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings and, while not the booming business of the nineties for Witchcraft publishers, the diversity of people interested grew, if not the sales. Not only did the occult section boom at this time, it got renamed. Depending on where you were, it was called New Age, Metaphysics, or Magickal Studies. Unlike most occultist of the time, I was fine with any of them, and the new mishmash of different topics exposed me to a lot of things that I would not have ordinarily picked up. Still, I missed the “Occult” section. There was a certain solidarity there. At this point, the clientele in the section got a little strange. You couldn't expect the person next to you, deeply ensconced in their angel book, would be cool that you were wearing a pentacle.

While the New Age was certainly "new" far before the 1980s or 90s, the term took the scariness out of much of the occult philosophy, making it palatable for people. Since I am wholeheartedly about using these things to heal and better our lives, if something could reach a person who needed it, who would otherwise not find it, then fine. I could deal with all the things that were not my cup of tea. One can really argue that the New Age movement began with Madame Blavatsky and the Theosophical Society, if not even before, and she, at her core, was pretty occult to me. Her newsletter was called Lucifer! I took a secret joy in knowing that, even if most New Age shoppers did not. New Age could bring together the growing interest in Shamanism and Buddhism with the occult movement. Tribal inspired wisdom could sit next to a Wicca 101 book, and a new shopper might pick up either.

While for a time I liked to be able to say I was involved in metaphysics (going “beyond physics”) I”m not sure that was really true in the classical sense of it. While there was the bookstore's Metaphysical section, Aristotle, Socrates, Plato and the like were still in the philosophy section. The oldest books in the Metaphysical section were written in the late 1800s usually. When trying to politely explain all my weirdness to a friend of a friend, and using the term metaphysics, she inquired how many years of college did it take to become a metaphysician, and if I got my degree at M.I.T. as we were hanging out in Cambridge, MA. I just quietly blushed. She was far more impressed with the word and it painted a picture I did not mean to convey.

A different conversation that started similarly progressed into a discussion about Plato, and when this gentleman realized I was far more interested and versed in Aleister Crowley than Plato, at least at the time, he said “Oh, you're really an occultist” and walked away. But I realized, yes, I think I am. Not to say an occultist couldn't or shouldn't be a proponent of ancient Greek philosophy, as I certainly think one should. But I was probably twenty-two at the time and in a rock band. My interest was in all the controversy of Crowley, not something that would be required reading from my college philosophy professor.

Out of the three new labels, Magical Studies probably was the most accurate, but least used. No one really defined whose definition of magick was being used, though the K was usually not present, so we could have Hermetic Ceremonial Magick and Witchcraft books alongside crystal healing, channeling, occult conspiracy, and ancient alien books. Sometime astrology and tarot was worked in with it. Other times they got their own sections, but usually right next to the Magical Studies section.

Likewise, with the changing bookstore sections, the retail shops underwent a change. At one point, you most likely had to go to a major metropolitan area—in a less than cheery section of town because rents were cheaper—to purchase your supplies. One shop would cater to a wide and diverse magickal community that usually included Wiccans and Pagans, Ceremonial Magicians, African diasporic religions like Santeria and Voodou, and a variety of Satanists. There would be all sorts of strange things in there, not pertaining to your own path, and some of the more daring practitioners would experiment with other things. I'm sure that's how so much of the Hoodoo and New Orleans Voodoo practices got entwined with Wicca. By the time I was practicing, most shops carried the big seven day glass jar pull out candles to carve and dress, but few Wicca books at the time really made mention of them.

Soon more gift shops that carried incense and statues, along with esoteric books, began popping up. You could take your parents to them and there would be no fear. If any pentacles were to be found, they were usually in the glass jewelry case next to some other very lovely pieces. A wider selection of crystals were available, and many of the pieces too large to fit into a small charm bag. Often the owners and staff didn't have a connection to the magickal communities, and went about, intentionally or not, building a community around the store. I don't really think it was better or worse, but it certainly was different from what had happened before. Different people gathered, with different needs and issues. Some shops focused on a safe space for spiritual exploration. Other shops were about healing, and providing healing resources for people on a healing path. Few that stayed in business stayed true to the vision of serving the practicing occultist. Many occultists were now getting their supplies online anyway, so a shop had to provide something more. Those that provided spell preparation or casting services, carving candles and mixing oils, seemed to last longer than others. Yet the people partaking of these services were not occultists.

I love the remaining truly occult store of an earlier age to shop at but, as someone involved in publicly teachings, seeing tarot clients and working with the public, I have to say many of my best experiences have been in these more multi-cultural, multi-faith New Age stores and centers. The people there are often more easier and open to new ideas and trying new experiences, while the clientele in the occult shop can have the attitude of “I've seen everything. I've done everything. I know everything.” That's one of the dangers of the occultist.


For the longest time, the greatest divide I saw was between the New Age and the Occult perspective, and the gap growing wider, with exaggerated archetypes of the Fluffy Bunnies vs the Dark Ones characterizing the conversation. Having a foot in both worlds, I can tell you there is a little truth to both and a lot of falsehood.

Now a third wave has been added to the mix, coming from the Pagan world. This new voice was from the religiously-minded Pagan, who seemed either purposely divorced from anything occult, or simply ignorant of it and expressing no interest in it. Often such practitioners focus exclusively on one culture. I don't have a problem with that. I know many Witches and Magicians who do not take the eclectic approach. But in understanding how we got to our practices, and the freedoms to practice in the way we do today, there is no connection and fidelity to what has gone on before in the modern era, only a fidelity to what has gone on in the ancient past. I've had more conversations in the larger Pagan gatherings with those who have no concept Madame Blavatsky or Dion Fortune, and if there is an acknowledgement of Gerald Gardner, there is also a desire to disconnect and distance from him. While I can understand that for some practitioners, I don't think we would be collectively here today, at a larger Pagan gathering, if it was not for the forces these figures set into motion. While I think it's wonderful to have so many resources to work with today, in the days of the one short shelf of Occult books, you were hungry for things, and at least picked up a Madame Blavatsky book, even if you didn't buy it. You got some sense of connection beyond one area of expertise and one group. The story of magickal spirituality was part of a wider human story, spanning many times, places, cultures and people, and it now included you. Your path was part of the great human story, and magick was a guiding force to it all.

While I know quite a few religious-minded Pagans who I would also see as occultists, their path simply took them to a place of both devotion and reconstructionism, there is another strain that brings what I would characterize as the religious fervor of more mainstream Christian religions to their Paganism. There is a tone of fundamentalism to their belief. The first time I experienced it, the attitude shocked me. Now I'm a bit better braced for it, though I'm always trying to understand the why behind it.

While I most definitely teach a more occult than religious perspective on Witchcraft, even though legally I would define it as a religion, I often warn students about the dangers of coming to Witchcraft with previous fundamentalism intact. You can observe some people simply filing off the serial numbers of other images of deity, usually Christian, replacing them with Pagan deities, but holding the same philosophical and moral structure as before.

Those that avoid this trap of simple substitution can seek to reconstruct and live in the exoteric Pagan religions of the past, and have no desire for the esoteric, for the mysteries. Prayer and offerings are made to the gods to receive blessing and boons, but the work goes no further. There is little talk of personal self development, evolution, or consciousness expansion. Magick is simply sacrifice. There is no desire to explore the mechanisms of the universe by which magick operates, or to set forth your will, to find your Will with a capitol W, and realize your own divine nature. Since that was the whole things that attracted so many of us to these paths, that view perplexes me.

Times change and people change, and this is a trend I have to accept, but in accepting other points of view and perspectives, I fear the occultist's point of view is vanishing. Like an activist advocating for an endangered species, I'm advocating for a resurgence of the occultist perspective. It's not an easy path, so I'm not surprised that those of a stricter religious paradigm are becoming more popular. For some it's easier to believe than explore and experience.

To me the occultist is the esoteric scientist, bravely exploring, often in their own body and consciousness, the hidden and unseen world. The answers of others simply lay a path out before us, but it must be walked, experienced first hand. No one, god or human, can do it for you. We are often labeled eclectic, but like a good scientist using data from all over the world, if someone comes up with a better name and theory for a phenomenon, we use it. A scientist in America is not going to ignore data from a previous experiment and theory in Japan. And in using that information, will give due credit to the source by retaining the name, or even comparing it to others who have come up with similar ideas and related terminology.

The great divide of hard polytheism verses soft polytheism, monism, dualism or any other –ism that seems to be such a strong part of the conversation for some is not a great divide for the occultist. Like the quantum physicist, when something shows up in our perception like a particle, we treat it like a particle. When it shows up like a wave, we treat it like a wave. If the experience shows up like an individual entity, I experience the individual entity. If the experience shows up like a web or wave of connection, I experience a greater connection. While I believe the gods are as separate and distinct as people are (though in a different order of being with a different life cycle) I also don't believe people are as separate and distinct as they think they are. Take away a physical body and give the entity the ability to manifest in several physical places at once due to ritual, and the waters get even murkier, but it's the exploration that is enlightening. The occultist wants to hear about your own experiences, and share, but not be bound by anyone else's perception as being the “right” way. I was pleasantly surprised to be on a panel of other teachers and authors years ago, from soft to hard polytheist, and essentially we all expressed this same understanding, letting down the moderator, who was hoping for a good philosophical argument.

Occultist study the universe to understand themselves and humanity better, and study themselves to understand the universe better. We are not only mapping out human consciousness, but realize that consciousness changes in every generation, every century, and every age or aeon, and there is always new terrain to explore. As we explore and make maps, as we heal and achieve greater wholeness, we blaze a trail for others, and in turn, rely on those who have gone before, who make the first marks upon the trail for us to follow, to guide us, or for us to purposely ignore and go another way. But they are our points of reference. To the occultist, religion and science are not divided. Many of the worlds' great philosophers and scientists could be classified as occultists today.

Learning magick from a somewhat scientific lens was what drew me to Witchcraft. I was lucky enough to start with a teacher and a tradition that described Witchcraft as three fold – a science, art, and religion. You started with the first and progressed through the others, but the foundation was your understanding of the occult principles on how the universe worked. I don't think my skeptical ex-Catholic self could have entered in any other way. More dogma or religious paradigms certainly wouldn't have won me over, and it took me quite a while to be comfortable with the science and art, before embracing the calling as a religion, and my ministry as a priest. And that framework allows me to present all three aspects in a non-dogmatic, not overtly religious way that allows the experience of the individual to guide. In those old occult picture books in the library, I was fascinated with the wickedest man in the world, because he didn't seem that wicked to me. But the motto of his order, the A:.A:. always stuck with me. The motto is "The method of science, the aim of religion.”

While I'm in love with the wide body of lore available to us today and wouldn't want to go back to just having twenty books on the shelf of Occultism, I did like the chain of connection it gave us to the not only the recent past, but the ancient past, creating a solidarity amongst magickal and psychic practitioners, no matter how we self identify. It gave me a sense of sisterhood and brotherhood that transcends, that links my work with the stone age wise woman, the Egyptian priestess, the medieval Witch, the Christian saint, the Islamic alchemist, the Taoist, tantrik Buddhist, and native American shaman. The occultist worldview sold me an image of the New Age where everyone would be an initiate of the mysteries, in their own way, thinking for themselves and feeling deeply, and I still hold to that vision. I encourage people to explore that chain of esoteric philosophers, or perhaps look at it as a tree with many roots, or a tapestry of many threads. Explore the connections beyond whatever it is you are practicing yourself. Explore the mysteries within your own practice, beyond the outward religious rites into the mysteries themselves. Think about how you got here. Who might be your spiritual ancestors, even if they don't believe or practice what you now believe and practice. Gather together. Share your information and experience with those on the path, and be open to what insights other share with you. This is the spirit of the occultist, looking to solve the secrets of the universe.

b2ap3_thumbnail_johfra_uniomystica.jpg(Art from the Artist Johfra. Recently got two of his Zodiac Prints for the Temple of Witchcraft in a local antique store, and became a bit obsessed. His art really has the occult feel that I'm talking about in this article. For more information on his art, particularly form this period, visit


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Christopher Penczak is the co-founder of the Temple of Witchcraft, a system, tradition and religious nonprofit organization focused on magickal education and building community. He is an award winning author of over twenty books, including The Inner Temple of Witchcraft, The Three Rays of Witchcraft and Ascension Magick and a co-owner of Copper Cauldron Publishing, a company dedicated to producing inspirational products of magick and art for the evolution of consciousness for individuals and the world. Based in New England, he travels internationally to teach magick and healing.


  • Taylor Ellwood
    Taylor Ellwood Tuesday, 16 April 2013

    I really resonate with this post. The misgivings you've expressed are similar to ones I've expressed as well. I feel the same concern at the drive to divorce magic from paganism, in what I feel is a rather futile exercise to gain acceptance from the mainstream.

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