Occultism, a term designating the study of esoteric phenomena and knowledge, experienced a real boom in the 19th century. This pivotal period in history was marked by a mixture of scientific exploration, fascination with the mystical and revolutionary aspirations. This article aims to explore the different currents of occultism that emerged in the 19th century, their major concerns, the emblematic figures of the time and their influence on society.
Occult ceremonial lamp on Relics.es
Historical and cultural context:
The 19th century: era of social, scientific and industrial upheavals.
The 19th century was a period marked by major social, scientific and industrial upheavals. This era, also known as the Age of Enlightenment, was characterized by major advances in many fields and laid the foundations of modern society.
Socially, the 19th century witnessed profound changes. The ideas of the French Revolution, such as equality, liberty and fraternity, continued to influence social and political movements. The industrial age brought about massive urbanization, with rural populations moving to cities in search of job opportunities in factories and emerging industries. This created new social classes, with a burgeoning bourgeoisie and a working class that often faced difficult working conditions.
On the scientific level, the 19th century was marked by important discoveries and advances. Advances in the fields of physics, chemistry, biology and medicine have radically transformed the understanding of the world and of man himself. Eminent figures such as Charles Darwin, Louis Pasteur and Michael Faraday revolutionized their respective fields and laid the foundations of modern science.
From an industrial point of view, the 19th century was the century of the industrial revolution. Technological innovations, such as the steam engine, railways and textile machinery, led to a dramatic increase in production and trade. It also led to major changes in lifestyles, with production becoming increasingly mechanized and centralized.
In this context of social, scientific and industrial upheavals, occultism has found fertile ground to flourish. Scientific progress and societal transformations have raised deep questions about the meaning of life, the nature of reality and the place of man in the universe. Occultism offered an alternative to the strictly rational worldview, exploring hidden and mysterious dimensions of existence. He was also influenced by the revolutionary ideas of the time, seeking to push back the limits of knowledge and free the individual from the constraints imposed by society and mainstream science.
Thus, the 19th century was a time of profound transformations and challenges, in which occultism emerged as a movement in its own right, offering an array of beliefs, practices and ideas that continued to shape thought and culture up to the present day.
Scientific rationalism and its limits in the face of metaphysical questions.
In the 19th century, scientific rationalism was on the rise and was considered the preferred method for acquiring knowledge and understanding the world. Under the influence of the Enlightenment, science was seen as the path to objective truth and understanding of natural phenomena. However, this rational approach had its limits when it came to dealing with metaphysical questions and aspects of reality that escaped traditional scientific methods.
Scientific rationalism was based on observation, experience, logic and empirical verification. It aimed to explain natural phenomena through universal laws and deductive principles. This has led to remarkable progress in many fields, such as physics, chemistry and biology. Scientists managed to break down matter, discover the laws of gravity, electromagnetism and identify basic biological mechanisms. These advances helped shape the modern world as we know it today.
However, scientific rationalism has come up against limits when it comes to dealing with metaphysical questions and unmeasurable or unobservable aspects of reality. Questions about the meaning of life, the existence of God, the soul, consciousness, and other intangible phenomena could not be rigorously addressed by the traditional scientific method. Scientists found themselves in uncharted territory, where answers could not be obtained through observation and experimentation alone.
It is in this context that occultism found its place. He sought to explore the unseen dimensions of reality and to answer metaphysical questions that went beyond the bounds of rational science. Occultists have used methods such as astrology, alchemy, magic, and communication with spirits to access supposedly higher knowledge and hidden truths. They believed in the existence of occult forces, invisible worlds and mystical powers that could be studied and mastered.
Thus, 19th century scientific rationalism paved the way for a growing need to explore metaphysical questions and non-scientific realms of reality. Occultism has filled this void by offering alternative answers and different approaches to understanding the universe and the human condition. This tension between scientific rationalism and metaphysical aspirations marked the era and helped shape the intellectual and cultural landscape of the 19th century.
The emergence of spiritualism and theosophy.
The emergence of spiritualism and theosophy in the 19th century marked an important turning point in occultism and the search for esoteric knowledge. These movements brought new insights into communication with spirits, the existence of invisible worlds, and cosmic laws.
Spiritualism, founded by Allan Kardec in the 1850s, was based on the idea of communicating with the spirits of deceased people. Kardec claimed to receive messages from spirits through mediums and published them in his works, including "The Book of Spirits" and "The Book of Mediums". Spiritualism aroused great interest at the time, attracting followers who sought to connect with their deceased loved ones and obtain answers about the afterlife. He also offered a moral and ethical worldview, emphasizing reincarnation, individual responsibility, and spiritual evolution.
Theosophy, on the other hand, was founded by Helena Blavatsky in the 1870s. Blavatsky claimed to be in contact with spiritual masters and higher beings, from whom she drew her teachings. In her major work, "The Secret Doctrine", she presented an esoteric system of knowledge, combining elements of Eastern religions, occult philosophy and esoteric sciences. Theosophy aimed to uncover universal laws, explore the unseen worlds, and promote universal spirituality and human brotherhood.
These movements had a significant impact on the culture of the time. Spiritism enjoyed considerable popularity, with the holding of seances, the establishment of groups and circles of mediums, as well as abundant publications on the subject. He also influenced famous figures of the time, such as Arthur Conan Doyle, the author of Sherlock Holmes, who was a strong advocate of spiritualism.
Theosophy, on the other hand, was behind the formation of the Theosophical Society, which aimed to promote the teachings of Blavatsky and explore the esoteric dimensions of reality. The Theosophical Society played a key role in spreading occultism in the West and influenced important figures of the time, including writer and thinker WB Yeats.
These movements also paved the way for new reflections on spirituality, the nature of reality, and the search for meaning. They challenged established religious dogma and offered alternatives to traditional belief systems. Although they also generated controversy and criticism, spiritualism and theosophy helped to broaden the horizons of occultism in the 19th century and left a lasting legacy in the search for knowledge.
Spiritualism and Spiritism:
The movement of turntables and the craze for communication with spirits.
The movement of turntables was one of the most remarkable and controversial phenomena of the 19th century era. It sparked widespread interest in communicating with spirits and paved the way for the development of spiritualism.
The phenomenon of turning tables was popularized by the Fox sisters, Margaretta and Catherine, in the United States in the 1840s. The sisters claimed to be able to contact spirits by placing their hands on a table and receiving responses in the form of blows or movements of the table. This phenomenon quickly gained popularity and attracted the attention of many people curious to understand these seemingly supernatural manifestations.
The turntable movement then spread to Europe, where it expanded rapidly. Spiritualism sessions have multiplied, bringing together participants wishing to communicate with their deceased loved ones or to receive messages from the spirits. Turntables became the preferred means of communication, but other methods were also used, such as automatic writing, where mediums claimed to write under the influence of spirits, and mediumship seances where spirits were believed to manifest directly through the mediums.
The craze for communication with spirits was fueled by several factors. On the one hand, 19th century society was facing profound social, economic and technological changes, and many people sought answers and comfort in the face of these upheavals. The movement of the turning tables offered a promise of direct contact with spirits and the possibility of receiving advice, revelations or messages from deceased beings.
On the other hand, the movement of the turntables correlated with the ideas of the time about scientific progress and the search for hard evidence. The physical manifestations observed during the seances seemed to provide tangible validation of the existence of spirits and their interaction with the world of the living. However, it also sparked debate and criticism from skeptics and scientific rationalists who questioned the authenticity of the phenomena.
The Turning Table Movement eventually laid the foundation for Spiritualism, which became a more structured and organized movement with the arrival of Allan Kardec and his works. Spiritism took a more systematic approach to communicating with spirits, offering ethical principles, methods of practice, and a vision of the afterlife based on reincarnation and spiritual evolution.
Seances and the popularity of mediums.
Seances and the popularity of mediums enjoyed great notoriety in the 19th century. These practices were closely linked to the widespread craze for communication with spirits and played a key role in the development of the spiritist movement.
Seances were organized gatherings where participants, called sitters, came together in an attempt to make contact with spirits. Seances were often held in specific conditions, such as dark rooms or dedicated halls, to promote concentration and communication with spirits.
During a seance, a medium played a central role. The medium claimed to be able to receive and transmit messages from spirits. Mediums used different techniques to facilitate communication, such as automatic writing, where they claimed to be inspired by spirits to write messages, direct speech, where spirits spoke directly through the medium, or the levitation of objects or tables.
The popularity of mediums has been fueled by fascination with their supposed abilities to make contact with the spiritual world. Many psychics became famous personalities of their time, attracting large audiences to their seances. Some mediums, such as Daniel Dunglas Home, Eusapia Palladino and Florence Cook, gained international fame through their performances at seances.
Mediums were seen as intermediaries between the world of the living and the spirit world. They were often revered by their followers and aroused strong interest from the media and the general public. Seances were often covered in the newspapers, and detailed reports of the spirits' manifestations and messages were published, arousing both fascination and skepticism.
However, psychics were also subject to controversy and accusations of fraud. Some were suspected of using tricks, illusions or manipulations to create the phenomena observed during the seances. Debates about the authenticity of mediums and spiritual manifestations were frequent, fueled by skeptics who questioned the veracity of the phenomena.
Despite these controversies, seances and the popularity of mediums have left a lasting mark. They contributed to the emergence of a spiritual subculture, with circles of mediums, discussion groups and publications dedicated to the exploration of paranormal phenomena. Their influence was also felt in the development of occultism, parapsychology and consciousness research.
The great figures of spiritualism: Allan Kardec, the Fox sisters, Helena Blavatsky.
The great figures of 19th century spiritualism played a crucial role in establishing and spreading this practice. Among the most influential figures are Allan Kardec, the Fox sisters and Helena Blavatsky.
Allan Kardec, real name Hippolyte Léon Denizard Rivail, was a French educator who became the main promoter and organizer of spiritualism. After witnessing a seance of turning tables in 1854, he was deeply intrigued and began to investigate spiritistic phenomena. He published several works on the subject, including "The Book of Spirits" in 1857 and "The Book of Mediums" in 1861, which laid the theoretical and ethical foundations of spiritualism. Kardec brought a systematic approach to communicating with spirits, developing principles and practices for spirit seances. His work exerted a significant influence on the development and popularization of spiritualism, particularly in Europe and Latin America.
The Fox sisters, Margaretta (Maggie) and Catherine (Kate), were two young American girls who were instrumental in sparking the craze for spiritualistic phenomena. In 1848, they claimed to come into contact with a spirit that manifested in knocks and noises in their home in Hydesville, New York. The Fox sisters became famous for their table-turning demonstrations, where they claimed to communicate with spirits by placing their hands on a table. Their success was the catalyst for the widespread craze for spiritualism, not only in the United States, but also in Europe.
Helena Blavatsky, on the other hand, was a Russian writer and occultist who founded the Theosophical movement in the 19th century. Blavatsky claimed to be in contact with spiritual masters and higher beings, from whom she drew her teachings. His major work, "The Secret Doctrine", published in 1888, presented a complex synthesis of different esoteric and spiritual traditions, combining elements of Eastern religions, occult philosophy and esoteric sciences. Blavatsky's theosophy aimed to unveil universal laws and promote human brotherhood and spiritual pursuit.
These figures all contributed to the rise of spiritualism and the exploration of communication with spirits. Their writings, teachings and experiences have influenced the development of spiritual movements, sparked intellectual debates and opened new perspectives on the nature of reality and the search for meaning.
Esotericism and occultism:
Esotericism as a path of knowledge reserved for an elite.
Esotericism is often considered as a path of knowledge reserved for a restricted elite, because of the complexity of its teachings and the need for a thorough initiation to access it. This perception stems from several historical, philosophical and socio-cultural factors.
Historically, many esoteric traditions date back to antiquity and were transmitted orally or in writing within circles of initiates. Esoteric knowledge was often kept secret and reserved for those deemed worthy of it. This selective transmission contributed to the preservation and protection of these teachings, while creating a distinction between those who had access to this knowledge and those who did not.
Philosophically, esotericism often relies on complex concepts and ideas that require some intellectual and spiritual preparation to be fully understood. Esoteric thought systems may include symbols, archetypes, correspondences, rituals, and practices that require deep immersion and personal commitment to integrate and use effectively. This requirement of deepening makes esotericism less accessible to the general public and creates a distinction between those who have the necessary knowledge and skills and those who do not have them.
Socio-culturally, esotericism has often been associated with secret societies, fraternities, or hermetic organizations that have kept their teachings and practices restricted to their members. These restricted groups were often perceived as guardians of esoteric knowledge, thus creating an aura of mystery and exclusivity around esotericism.
However, it is important to note that this perception of esotericism as a path reserved for an elite is not universal. Over time, many esoteric teachings have been made more accessible to the general public through writings, conferences, and organizations that seek to spread this knowledge. Moreover, the evolution of media and technology has also allowed a greater dissemination of esotericism, especially through books, online courses and virtual communities.
The fascination for alchemy, astrology and magic.
In the 19th century, the fascination with alchemy, astrology and magic experienced a significant revival. These realms were seen as means of accessing higher knowledge and powers, and they were studied and explored by many intellectuals, occultists and researchers of the time.
Alchemy, which dates back to ancient times, was considered an esoteric discipline aimed at transforming basic substances into precious substances, such as lead into gold, while also pursuing symbolic inner transformation. In the 19th century, alchemy received renewed interest, not only as a laboratory practice, but also as a symbol of spiritual transformation and the search for truth. Alchemists such as Paracelsus and Albertus Magnus have been studied and their writings reexamined to extract symbolic and philosophical teachings.
Astrology, which is based on the idea that the positions of the stars influence terrestrial events and individual characteristics, has also experienced a resurgence of interest. In the 19th century, many works on astrology were published and horoscopes were often consulted for information on personality, destiny and astral tendencies. Astrologers were sometimes seen as spiritual advisers and guides, offering personalized astrological interpretations and predictions for the future.
Magic, as a practice aimed at influencing the natural world by supernatural means, also captured the imagination of the 19th century. Ritual magic, spells and talismans were explored by occultists and scholars in search of occult powers and connections to the unseen world. Secret societies and esoteric groups have formed to study and practice different forms of magic, such as Hermeticism, Kabbalah, and ceremonial magic.
The fascination with alchemy, astrology and magic in the 19th century can be attributed to several factors. On the one hand, these fields offered alternative perspectives on reality, human nature and spirituality, which challenged the dominant scientific and religious paradigms of the time. They also offered a path to knowledge and individual power, which could be attractive in a period marked by profound social and scientific upheavals.
Secret societies and initiatory orders: the Golden Dawn, the Order of the Temple.
In the 19th century, secret societies and initiatory orders experienced a significant boom. Two of the most famous examples are the Golden Dawn and the Order of the Temple.
The Golden Dawn, founded in 1888 in London, was an esoteric secret society dedicated to the study and practice of the occult. The order was created by William Wynn Westcott, Samuel Liddell MacGregor Mathers and William Robert Woodman. The Golden Dawn incorporated teachings from various esoteric traditions, including alchemy, astrology, Kabbalah, and ceremonial magick. Its members, who included writers, occultists and artists, gathered for rituals, esoteric studies and self-development work. The Golden Dawn had a huge influence on the development of occultism and inspired many other esoteric groups thereafter.
The Order of the Temple, also known as the Order of the Templars, has a history dating back to the Crusades of the Middle Ages. However, in the 19th century there was a revival of interest in the Knights Templar, fueled by romantic and esoteric tales of their alleged wisdom and secret knowledge. Several initiatic orders were formed, claiming to be the spiritual and esoteric heirs of the Order of the Temple. These orders, such as the Order of the Temple of Jacques de Molay, the Order of the Solar Temple, and the Sovereign and Military Order of the Temple of Jerusalem, attracted members seeking to explore the mysteries and supposed teachings of the Templars.
These secret societies and initiatory orders have attracted the attention and interest of a wide range of people. They provided a framework for the study of occultism, ritual practices, esoteric teachings and mystical experiences. These groups often saw themselves as custodians of secret knowledge, reserved for a spiritual elite. They were instrumental in transmitting and preserving esoteric traditions, while stimulating a widespread interest in the occult and the exploration of hidden mysteries.
It should be noted that some of these initiatory orders and secret societies have also been criticized and have been the subject of accusations of fraud or manipulation. The line between genuine pursuit of esoteric knowledge and false pseudo-initiatic orders has sometimes been blurred, leading to controversy and debate over their legitimacy.
The Golden Dawn, the Order of the Temple and other secret societies and initiatic orders have contributed to the popularity and fascination with esotericism
Conclusion: In the 19th century, occultism was both a refuge for those who questioned scientific certainties and a source of inspiration for artists and thinkers in search of new horizons. Spiritual and esoteric movements have explored dimensions of reality often overlooked by science, but have also generated debate and controversy. The influence of occultism on the society and culture of the time remains an important legacy, testifying to humanity's enduring attraction to mystery and the search for meaning.