The first part of the question is easy to answer, the Occult is simply and plainly, the hidden. It's the second part of the question that poses the conundrum and usually causes the headaches and the arguments and sometimes the fistfights. And while we're asking questions, what kind of masochist would embark on yet another exploration of the subject in the first place? Haven't there been enough volumes written? Hasn't each angle been viewed? Aren't we tired of hearing even one more opinion on the existence or nonexistence of Occult Phenomena in our mundane reality?
Apparently not. It's as popular as ever.
Is there a remembered period in human history that has not included references to occult influence over the lives and fortunes of mortals? Can we look back far enough to a time when language exists, but whispers of magic, gods, demons and forces beyond our ken did not enjoy wide reign across our known territory? The answer is no. Of course, much of the mystery that grew around the bumps in the night at the beginning of our history is now bathed in light and the unexplained is explained. The sounds in the night that frightened humanity in its infancy slowly became known and understood, but other sounds flooded in to take their places. Did we look for those other sounds or simply accept that they were there?
Superstition plays a major role in explaining away the Occult. Some hold primitive or prehistoric beliefs and observations up to ridicule, therefore negating any power they hold. No matter the evidence or the long history of certain rituals or accepted beliefs, the hard line skeptic just has to say "Superstitious nonsense," and all further argument is fruitless and frankly circular. All attempts to reinforce the validity of the original argument only go to the fanaticism of the believer.
This is like measuring the world with a six-inch ruler and weighing it on kitchen scales. Limit the power of your tools and your calculations are destined to fit your methods. Relegating all superstitions to the dung heap with a single, wide shovel is one of the simplest ways of disposing of the problem of irritating facts that creep into a new science and can not be explained adequately. But shoveling everything unexplained, in one great push, is hardly a method to hold up to future scrutiny. Unless of course you're in a hurry to establish a new science to replace established lore.
Let's remember the many admonitions throughout history that warned against allowing a warlock, witch, sorcerer or demon to take possession of anything personal through which to work an evil spell or black magic. How we can laugh at that now! Whatever were we thinking? Boy the skeptics were right, weren't they. A witch stealing your nail clippings or locks of your hair for magic spells; pull the other one.
Does stem cell research ring a bell? How much genetic material is required to begin cloning operations to ultimately replicate portions of, or whole, human beings for any number of scientific, medical, military or possibly religious purposes? Will it be allowed to clone saints for the harvesting of Relics? If the finger bone of Sainte Joan goes for half a million, how much for a cloned head?
Hundreds of years ago Alchemists were working on more than just the transmutation of base metals into gold, they were also engaged in the same cloning problem, only they were attempting to create homunculi, tiny artificial people. To do their evil bidding, a hobby, something to impress their colleagues, who knows for sure?
What is known is that some of our most revered, modern scientists strolled down the same alchemical paths as Dr. John Dee, Johann Rudolf Glauber and Philippus Aureolus Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim, aka Paracelsus. (Now you know where the word Bombastic, to explain long winded, comes from.) Saint Albertus Magnus, Roger Bacon and Sir Isaac Newton all studied the hermetic tradition of alchemy.
Newton even relied on alchemy later in his inquiries into the structure and philosophy of nature, and in his work Opticks, Newton observed, "Nature seems delighted with Transmutations," almost as though the thought of nature's elements being affected by transmutation was a reasonable assumption. But Sir Isaac never mentioned homunculi, as far as is known, and alchemy fell into disrepute when it became known that there were more than four basic elements beyond earth, air, water and fire. The notion that anyone could tinker with them to change one into another eventually became as ridiculous as hiding your nail clippings from the local witch - until the dawn of the atomic age, that is, when elements enjoyed a great deal of tinkering.
Magic, the big brother of Alchemy, has always tugged at our imaginations with hints of wondrous things to be learned and marvelous feats to be performed. Magic can be the catch basin for a wide variety of Occult phenomena from bi-location (being in two places at one time - which may have given rise to the belief in doppelgangers), levitation (we will meet D.D. Home shortly), immunity from natural physical laws (the small woman who lifts a car off her injured child with the ease of lifting a toppled tricycle) and the many PSI phenomena currently under study and subject to wide documentation. Magic is the Occult theme most open to ridicule and dismissal by the skeptic and the rationalist.
But are they too quick to dismiss?
Magicians are not only mentioned in the Christian Bible, they get bad press. Simon Magus, founder of a major school of Gnosticism (a religion which began along side Christianity, but of which little is known since the Christians did a thorough house-cleaning and destroyed all documents of the sect), was referred to in the Acts of the Apostles as a wonder worker. But various Church Fathers were hostile to him and they gave his name to a sin; simony, because of a rumor he offered magical powers to the apostles for cash. (Since the Church Fathers had it in for him in the first place, maybe this story is a little on the slanted side and somebody had the taste of sour grapes in his mouth.)
Walking through fire
What has survived in records (discounting the many grapes stems stuck to the stories) is that Simon was a magician of great power. Two of the many magical feats attributed to him are, "the ability to make his body float in the air and the ability to make heavy furniture move without touching it." Other incredible feats Simon was recorded to have performed included walking unharmed through fire.
These records come to us through long corridors of shadowed time and shrouded in doubtful veracity from elders who had reason to obscure the whole story of Simon. What we can take from this is the belief that Simon Magus may have had mediumistic talents that were shunned by the church, but impressive enough to survive in diluted and biased form to this day.
Other records of a different man survive for us both in tact and in amazing detail. That Simon Magus could levitate, move heavy objects without touching them and walk through fire is not such a terrible stretch of credulity when viewed along side Daniel Dunglas Home.
Home, like Magus and others throughout history, stands as a Pythagorean figure, balancing between intellectualism and magic. Home demonstrated to scientific observers his ability to levitate and actually float through the air and move heavy furniture with his mind, not only one or two times, but on hundreds of occasions over a period of some forty years.
He was born in the village of Currie, near Edinburgh, Scotland, on March 20, 1833 and was a weak and delicate boy subject to fainting spells and suffering from tuberculosis. He was a precocious child, able to play piano and sing soprano, recite whole poems and sermons from memory and able to "see" things that were happening in other places from the age of four. His mother was a Highlander who came from a long line of seers, so it didn't strike anyone as unusual that young Daniel had certain gifts, as well.
Home lived with his aunt and her husband and it's not clear why he moved in with them and didn't remain with his natural mother. When he was nine he moved with his aunt, Mrs. Cook, and her husband to America and when he was thirteen he had a vision of a friend appear at the foot of his bed and execute three circles in the air. Home explained that his friend had died three days earlier and when this proved to be true, his aunt was not entirely happy. She grew less happy as other of Daniel's talents began to manifest.
Four years later Home's mother died and this seemed to release the floodgates of his occult abilities. Tables began sliding around the rooms without the aid of visible means and raps sounded from all parts of the house. Mrs. Cook accused Daniel of bringing the Devil into her house and threw a chair at him. A Baptist minister was called in and asked Daniel to kneel beside him and pray and the knocks accompanied their prayers like a metronome marking time.
It's important that we look closely at D.D. Home for a while, simply because his fame was international and his seemingly impossible spiritual gymnastics so openly witnessed and meticulously recorded that the only way to discredit him as an example of the reality of Occult phenomena is to attack him on a personal level. Which was done ad nauseum, as we'll see.
As for his Occult powers themselves, they are legend and manifold. Home broke onto the scene a two full years before the Fox Sisters uttered their infamous invitation, "Here Mr. Splitfoot, do as I do," and ushered in the age of Spiritualism. By that time Home had been a growing phenomenon in his own light and the world was eager to welcome him and to test his abilities; which soon revealed themselves as staggering.
In his definitive history, "The Occult, " Colin Wilson reports, "A committee from Harvard, including the poet William Cullen Bryant, testified that the table they had been sitting around, in broad daylight, had not only moved enough to push them backwards, but had actually floated several inches off the ground. The floor vibrated as if cannons were being fired, and the table rose up on two legs like a horse rearing. Meanwhile, Home kept urging those present to hold tightly on to his arms and legs. There could be no doubt whatever that this was genuine.
"Home's manifestations can only be described as spectacular, as if the 'spirits' were determined to convert the world by sheer weight of evidence. On one occasion, as a heavy table shook and vibrated, the crashing sound of waves filled the room, together with the creaking of a ship's timbers. The 'spirit' spelled out its name with the use of an alphabet, and was immediately recognized by someone present as a friend who had drowned in a gale in the Gulf of Mexico. The laws of nature were suspended by the spirits. When a table tilted, the objects on it seemed to be glued to its surface; a burning candle not only continued to burn, but the flame burnt at an angle, as if still upright."
Other startling and fully recorded manifestations performed by Home in full view of witnesses included his handling of burning coals from the fire grate, breathing on them to make them glow and passing them around to those witness in his circle who wished to feel the fire, yet not be burned. On one occasion a researcher asked that Home's protection be lifted for a moment to compare the results against what had already been observed. Within a heartbeat a massive boil rose and the witness was badly burned.
From his book on Home's life, (reprinted by the Society for Psychical Research in 1924), Lord Adare describes, " And he began to handle fire. He would cross to the firegrate, and stir the red-hot coal with his fingers, then kneel down and bathe his face in the coals as though they were water. His hair was not even singed. He would carry a burning coal to the circle-it was so hot that no one else could endure it closer than six inches, unless Home deliberately transferred his immunity to them. Lady Gomm took a red-hot coal and felt it to be slightly warm. She put it down on a sheet of paper and it instantly burst into flames. Home sometimes declined to allow people to hold the coal, on the grounds that their faith was not strong enough."
During one of his séances, according to Adare's published account, " Home himself floated around like a balloon. He floated out of one window head first-it was only open a foot-and returned through another window."
Adare and his friends witnessed so many phenomena that the sheer quantity overwhelms. Fireballs wandered around the room and through solid objects; spirits appeared; winds howled; doors opened and closed; flowers fell from the ceiling; spirit bands played; furniture moved and Home would elongate. Standing against a wall, while one man held his feet, another his waist, and another watched his face, Home's height would actually increase from five feet ten to six feet six inches, both heights being marked on the wall.
That scoundrel Home
And maybe it was the sheer overwhelming of the so-called rationalists that made them behave so badly-so irrationally toward Home in trying to determine whether he was genuine or not. Charles Dickens openly referred to him as "that scoundrel Home," but refused to attend a séance in order to see for himself. Robert Browning became almost hysterical if Home's name was mentioned and once threatened to throw him out of his house-he referred to Home as "that dungball."
Rumor had it (perhaps a rumor begun when Dickens hinted at Home's influence over young men in an article) that Home was homosexual and although there is no proof, Browning was violently upset over the idea and was flagrantly unfair to Home. In fact, Browning portrayed Home as Mr. Sludge, a fake medium, which spread the erroneous impression that Home had been exposed. Browning's wife, on the other hand, was totally convinced of Home's powers and would have invited him into her circle of friends, if not for her husband's violent and irrational objections.
Although Dickens's objection to and dislike of Home is unclear, Robert Browning may be an easier mater to understand. E.J. Dingwall, author of "Some Human Oddities" and "Very Peculiar People," and a skeptic, attributed Browning's reaction to Home in terms of his own upbringing. Browning was ardently attached to his mother, to such an extent that his poetic identity was eroded. His reaction to Home's supposed homosexuality may have been based on a recognition of it in himself.
"What is finally convincing about Home," says Wilson, "is the sheer volume of the evidence. He continued to perform feats like this for the remainder of his life, and hundreds of witnesses-perhaps thousands-vouched for the phenomena. Home's powers were so strong that he never asked for the lights to be lowered. He would allow himself to be tied if necessary: but often as not, he sat in full view of everyone, in a chair apart from the main table so there could be no doubt that he could not make the table tilt or float."
There are volumes covering the phenomenon of this one man and he is only one among many to whom similar powers are ascribed. Casanova, Caliostro, Saint-Germain were all touched with formidable powers; but lived more as adventurers than as occultists. Madame Blavatsky, Rasputin and Aleister Crowley each come to mind, strikingly, as those to whom occult powers may well have been gifted, but each cheated consistently and constantly to give their powers more weight in the eyes of their audiences. Even the Fox Sisters later admitted that most of their later séances were faked for show business sake.
Perhaps like a gifted poet, one must also have inspiration as well as hidden talents? Many truly gifted mediums admitted they resorted to fakery at times throughout their careers simply to keep their audience happy. Luckily they were always caught out and exposed as charlatans. Daniel Dunglas Home was never exposed as a fraud and his amazing powers remain, even into the 21st Century, as unexplained evidence of the existence of Occult powers latent within humankind.
Colin Wilson maintains that primitive man, "believed the world was full of unseen forces . . . The Age of Reason said that these forces had only ever existed in man's imagination; only reason could show man the truth about the universe. The trouble was that man became a thinking pygmy, and the world of the rationalists was a daylight place in which boredom, triviality and 'ordinariness' were ultimate truths."
Wilson points out that primitive man may have had the right idea in accepting input from unseen forces as a real part of the universe of man. Otherwise he closes his eyes to a vastness of possibility, to the riches he is able to sense when he uses his whole being, in favor of trivial everydayness, of minute concentration on, "the suffocating world of his personal preoccupation."
Maybe, as we grew in sophistication and became part of a herd mentality, we simply decided we no longer needed those senses we were born with to survive. You remember the ones, the sense that something is about to happen and if you don't duck you may get hit in the head? Or the sense that if you walk that path instead of this one, your luck may change for the better, but you stay on your current path, ignoring that little voice in your head that you haven't heard since you were a child, and the bus that's ten minutes late runs you over because you weren't expecting it?
Poets, musicians, composers, artists, artistic thinkers, philosophers and those who spend a lot of time outside in nature are said to have a closer connection to those senses others have eroded from their lives. Could it be that these people, like primitive man, still accept input from unseen forces in the universe as completely natural and completely welcome? Are they happy knowing that they can't know everything, yet? Are they satisfied that they don't have to explain a thing to make it real? They, more than the rest of the world, seem content knowing that the journey is more important and more fulfilling than the ultimate arrival.
Colin Wilson says, "In the past few centuries, science has made us aware that the universe is stranger and more interesting than our ancestors realized. It is an amusing thought that it may turn out stranger and more interesting than even the scientists are willing to admit."