Modern Occultism

Wednesdays, 7 – 8:30 p.m. CT / 8 – 9:30 p.m. ET,  August 4 – October 20  
TS members: $175 • general public: $200

Occult scholar and widely known voice of esoteric ideas Mitch Horowitz (“solid gold”—David Lynch) presents a lively, intellectually serious historical and practical exploration of modern occultism. This twelve-week course provides a comprehensive overview of the ideas, people, movements, and practices that shape our concepts of the esoteric today—and what they offer the contemporary seeker.

Each class will be presented live with ample time for questions and exchange.
On-demand viewing will be available for missed classes.

No background reading is required for the course, but helpful supplementary books include Mitch’s Occult America, One Simple Idea, and The Seeker’s Guide to the Secret Teachings of All Ages.

 TS members: $175 • general public: $200

 Late registrants will receive recordings of all missed sessions for on-demand viewing.

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Enjoy a free introduction to the course—Occultism Today: Mitch Horowitz and Richard Smoley in Conversation

Course Syllabus:

  1. The Age of Hermes

Much of our definition of occultism today stems from the late-ancient philosophy of Hermeticism, a marriage of classical Egyptian and Hellenic thought. In this foundational session, we explore the connection that primeval seekers saw between psyche and cosmos (“as above, so below”). We also consider classical conceptions of astrology, alchemy, prophecy, magick, symbolism, sacred geometry, deity veneration—and the mythos of the legendary man-god Hermes Trismegistus. The legacy of gnostic thought is also explored.

  1. Renaissance Revival

The story of modern occultism begins with the Renaissance-era rediscovery of Hermeticism and the coinage of the term occult itself to refer to the mystery traditions of the ancient world. We explore the recovered Hermetic literature or Corpus Hermeticum, Christianized and occult variations of Kabbalah, the magickal tradition in Arabic texts such as The Picatrix, Cornelius Agrippa’s codification of occult philosophy, the reemergence of alchemy, the role of magicians such as John Dee—and the simmering backlash against the occult revival culminating in the Thirty Years’ War.

  1. Secret Brotherhoods

With the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648) devastating Central Europe, and a general backlash across the continent, a good deal of occult philosophy is driven underground. This gives rise to the modern “secret society,” including the Rosicrucians, Freemasons, Illuminati, and Enlightenment-age Royal Society whose college of scientist-seekers included mystics and Hermeticists. In this session, we strip away sensationalism and shibboleths to consider the historical meaning of esoteric fellowships and how they not only vouchsafed the most radical ideas of the Reformation but also provided a transition between occultic and Enlightenment-age thought, which were more symbiotic than is traditionally realized.

  1. Mystic America

With renewed persecution, war, religious retrenchment, and the persistent scourge of witch trials marring Europe, pockets of religious radicals ventured to the “New World” of the American colonies. Philadelphia and later the Burned-Over District of Central New York State become safe harbors for heterodox believers, ranging from Shakers to Pietists to mystics of every stripe, and also served to launch new religious movements from Mormonism to Seventh-Day Adventism. Freemasonry finds a hold among many of the founders and places its mark upon the dawning nation’s statutes of religious freedom. Enslaved people devise the magickal practice of hoodoo, perhaps the first wholly syncretic faith since gnosticism. Finally, the rise of Spiritualism, mediumship, and seances ignites a worldwide renewal of the occult.

  1. The Occult Revival, Part I

As esoteric experimentation thrives in America, a new wave of occult practice takes shape in the Old World—largely originated by the self-styled occult healer Franz Anton Mesmer whose trance sessions and theories of ethereal forces arouse fascination in pre-revolutionary Paris. The Romantic poets and dramatists, led by the influence of William Blake, revive mystical forms and ideas and make heterodox new readings of religious iconography, including the role of Satan. The Tarot deck, with religious imagery stemming from the early Renaissance, is remade as a specifically occult device. A range of bracingly original figures, from French mage Eliphas Levi to African-American magick worker PB Randolph, make their impact felt.

  1. The Theosophical Dawn

In the early 1870s a globe-travelling Russian noblewoman and occult explorer arrived in New York City—and the world would never be the same. Enter Madame HP Blavatsky. This session explores the formation of the Theosophical Society; HPB’s influence, efforts, and fateful partnership with Colonel Henry Steel Olcott; the aims of the early nucleus of Theosophical seekers; and the events that soon brought HPB and Olcott to India—with momentous results, from the ignition of the Indian independence movement to the Buddhist revival in the East. Mitch also considers how the next generation of Theosophical leaders, including Annie Besant and Charles Webster Leadbeater, impacted spirituality, politics, and culture—including the dawn of abstract art (Thought-Forms) and the emergence of Jiddu Krishnamurti.

  1. The Challenge of New Thought

By the mid-nineteenth century, the “Yankee Mystic” Ralph Waldo Emerson devised the philosophy of Transcendentalism in New England, which both inspired and coincided with a wide range of spiritual innovations, including the mental-healing movement of Phineas Quimby and the extraordinary religious expression of his onetime student, Mary Baker Eddy, who founded Christian Science. From this Transcendentalist milieu also emerged the philosophy of New Thought, a homegrown metaphysics that gave rise to myriad expressions of mind causation and instigated movements from self-help and recovery to the prosperity gospel and the “power of positive thinking.” This marks the birth of the American transcendental creed—rooted in the power of thought and a faith in continual self-improvement.    

  1. The Parapsychology Revolution

With occult and alternative spirituality flourishing, a group of late-nineteenth century scientists, including Frederic Myers and William James, determined to devise clinical protocols to study the supernatural. So was born the field of parapsychology. This session looks at the men and women who sought to study claimed occult phenomena, from table-rappings and mediumship to clairvoyance and after-death survival. Mitch also considers  the twentieth-century efforts of pioneering parapsychologists such as JB and Louisa Rhine who popularized ESP; Charles Honorton whose experiments in telepathy broke through to skeptics; and Ian Stevenson who codified the study of reincarnation. Mitch considers where the field of parapsychology stands today, its challenges, and promise.

  1. Politics and the Occult

The occult and politics have had a fitful and uneasy relationship in the modern era. Mitch carefully considers the questions of occult influences on fascistic movements (a historically fraught topic rife with misunderstanding); the marriage between esoteric and progressive movements, including the impact of Spiritualism on suffragism (culminating in the presidential candidacy of medium Victoria Woodhull) and of New Thought on Marcus Garvey and other figures of Black liberation; how Theosophical culture touched a remarkable range of political leaders, including Mahatma Gandhi and US. Vice President Henry Wallace; the humanistic outlook of Rudolf Steiner; the activities of occult figures near centers of power such as Rasputin; and the challenge presented when occultism intermingles with worldly machinations.

  1. Secret Teachings Old and New

The occult openings that emerged in Theosophy’s wake became permanent fixtures of the Western landscape. In this session we explore some of the most remarkable and enduring figures to emerge through these openings, including Manly P. Hall author of the magisterial codex to symbolism and myth The Secret Teachings of All Ages; artist, magician, and provocateur Aleister Crowley; occult scholar Rudolf Steiner; medical clairvoyant Edgar Cayce; folklorist and witchcraft revivalist Gerald Gardner; and the extraordinary spiritual philosopher G.I. Gurdjieff. The new culture of occultism also produced popularized variants of astrology, Tarot, yoga, and even Hermeticism in the form of the pseudonymously authored manual The Kybalion. Never had occultism, or modern versions of it, gained such currency in Western life.

  1. The Occult Revival, Part II

As America and Europe emerged from World War II, new forms of rebellion appeared, including the Beat movement which helped popularize Zen and other Eastern religious expressions. A cohort of sixties experimenters offered psychedelics as a doorway to the infinite. The Woodstock generation popularized all forms of religious experimentation, including witchcraft, neopaganism, and yogic philosophies. The Maharishi Mahesh Yogi (with a little help from The Beatles) made Transcendental Meditation a household term. A charismatic art student named Carlos Castaneda wove powerful tales of initiation to an Indian shaman. The Ouija Board, a holdover from the Spiritualist era, outsold Monopoly. A goateed Anton LaVey shocked the world with The Satanic Bible. The catalogue goes on…but this session does more than consider colorful personalities and novel expressions—it asks: what of lasting value emerged from the next-wave occult revival of the sixties and seventies?     

  1. Aquarius Rising: Occultism Today

Our current world stands at a remarkable threshold. Although it is easy to dismiss today’s culture of “cafeteria religion,” never have more people faced greater choices and avenues of exploration in spirituality. How will these choices be used? There are, in fact, positive signs of new openings and study, even in our divided era. New theories in interdimensional mechanics are questioning the hold of materialism on modernist thought. Academia is newly embracing study of the esoteric, including Theosophy. A rising network of scholars are translating previously unread works of Hellenic astrology. An extraordinary range of artists are experimenting with ceremonial and chaos magick. The once-obscure New Thought teacher Neville Goddard is now widely viewed as a mystical analog to quantum theory. The frontiers of placebo studies are validating ideas once confined to New Thought. Academic ESP research has survived withering attacks. Wicca and witchcraft are bounding faiths worldwide. And the study of UFOs, while not specifically related to the occult, has entered a new stage of acceptance, suggesting a broader opening to questions of the extra-normal. The occult revolution, it seems, is not only in full swing—but quite possibly poised for a new era. What are its potentials and perils?


No background reading is required for the course, but helpful supplementary books include Mitch’s One Simple Idea, and The Seeker’s Guide to the Secret Teachings of All Ages.

Mitch HorowitzMitch Horowitz is a historian of alternative spirituality and one of today’s most literate voices of esoterica, mysticism, and the occult. He is among the few occult writers whose work touches the bases of academic scholarship, national journalism, and subculture cred. Mitch is a writer-in-residence at the New York Public Library, lecturer-in-residence at the Philosophical Research Society in Los Angeles, and a PEN Award-winning historian whose books include Occult America, One Simple Idea: How Positive Thinking Reshaped Modern Life; and The Miracle Club. The Washington Post says Mitch “treats esoteric ideas and movements with an even-handed intellectual studiousness that is too often lost in today’s raised-voice discussions.” He has discussed alternative spirituality across the national media and is collaborating with Emmy-nominated director Ronni Thomas on a feature documentary about the occult classic The Kybalion, shot on location in Egypt. Mitch received the Walden Award for Interfaith/Intercultural Understanding. The Chinese government has censored his work. Visit him at

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