In the 24 illuminating episodes of Secrets of the Occult, you will see that the mystic and obscure are threaded through our ordinary lives in more ways than you may realize. This revealing course is taught by Richard B. Spence, a Professor Emeritus at the University of Idaho, and covers a wide array of subjects and experiences that fall under the umbrella of the occult and stretch from the ancient world to the 21st century.
Secrets of the Occult
Richard B. Spence is a Professor Emeritus at the University of Idaho. He holds a PhD in History from the University of California, Santa Barbara, where he also taught as a visiting assistant professor. His research areas include Russian and military history, espionage, occultism, secret societies, anti-Semitism, and true crime. He is the author of several books, including Trust No One: The Secret World of Sidney Reilly and Secret Agent 666: Aleister Crowley, British Intelligence and the Occult. He has also been a contributor for HISTORY®.
01: What Is the Occult?
The occult, in the popular imagination, is often associated with evil, cheap magic tricks and superstitions. But the world of the occult is much deeper and broader than that, encompassing an entire philosophy and way of life for some believers. In this introductory episode, you will consider what the occult really is and how occult practices seek to alter our everyday perspective.
02: Fauns, Fairies, and Djinn
Occultism posits that we are surrounded by a hidden world inhabited by intelligent beings that we don’t typically encounter in our everyday lives. These beings—fauns, fairies, pixies, elves, Djinn, and others—speak to something deep in the human psyche. Consider these various “others” and their role in cultures around the world.
03: The Christmas Tree and Other Rituals
Here, consider the occult concepts and symbolism embedded in common religious practices across different traditions, including the Christmas tree and Santa Claus, a Native American Ghost Dance of the 19th century American West, and a contemporary inauguration ceremony in Switzerland. What do we hope to accomplish through rituals?
04: Practical Magic: Love, Money, and Health
Are occult techniques just “mental hacks” that allow us to tap into our own natural abilities? Turn now to the utilitarian side of occultism: practical magic. Whether practitioners hope to achieve great wealth, find love, or enact revenge, magical practices have been employed for centuries for protection and to influence the world around us.
05: Alchemy, Astrology, and Divination
Consider the three pillars of occultism: alchemy, astrology, and ritual magic. Through an exploration of these physical and cosmic forces, you will get a better understanding of key terms and concepts of the occult, including common practices like Tarot reading, Chinese I-Ching divination, and the Kabbalah.
06: Talking with the Dead
Can certain individuals actually speak to people beyond the grave? Delve into the world of spirit communication and necromancy from Stone Age shamans to Harry Houdini’s anti-spiritualist crusade of the early 20th century. Along the way, trace the fascinating intersection of spiritualism and literature and witness the invention of the Ouija board.
07: The Occult Ancient World
From the late Ice Age to the 14th century, explore the origins and influence of occult ideas and practices. As you examine numerous cultures and practices from around the ancient world, you will consider practices like human sacrifice, effigies, magic spells, divination, and thaumaturgy, as well as early occult practitioners, including Druid shamans and the Knights Templar.
08: Vampires, Werewolves, and Zombies
Creatures like vampires, werewolves, and zombies have become modern pop culture mainstays, but their origins are much older and more interesting than their current iterations would suggest. Where do these stories of human transformation and walking revenants originate and why do they appear in countless cultures around the world?
09: Religious Faith and the Occult
Here, consider the very close relationship between mainstream religion and the occult. From snake handling and speaking in tongues to relics and miracle working, you will see how thin the veil is that separates our understanding of established religious practices and their occult origins and will discover where some of the most well-known symbols and rituals were conceived.
10: Mysterious Places
Certain places hold a special fascination for those seeking supernatural activity or occult power. Visit two notorious locales with a reputation for strange occurrences and unique purposes: the ancient structure known as Stonehenge and the famously complex “haunted” house built by the American heiress Sarah Winchester.
11: Crime and the Occult
Dive into the seedier side of the occult with a look at the superstitions, symbolism, and nefarious deeds that have helped stigmatize occult practices over the centuries. From medieval Italy to 21st-century Mexico, you will see why criminals so often embrace the occult and how this unsavory connection affects our cultural perceptions of occultism.
12: UFOs and the Occult
Science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke famously said that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” With that in mind, explore the surprising connection between the occult and another unexplainable mystery of the universe that began to take hold of the imagination in the mid-20th century: UFOs.
13: The Occult Russian Revolution
Genuine belief in the occult is often relegated a distant, more superstitious past. But, as you will see, modern history has strong ties to occult beliefs and practices. In this episode, you will meet the “Mad Monk” Rasputin and consider the power of the occult to influence the political transformation of Europe in the 20th century and beyond.
14: Hitler, Nazism, and the Occult
Consider an unsettling question: Was Hitler the sole mastermind of the Nazi regime and its monstrous crimes or was he the pawn of darker forces? Reveal the realities of Nazi occultism, a convoluted tangle of charlatanism, appropriation, and pure evil that had horrifying—and very real—consequences.
15: The Occult Soviet Union
Look at the larger context of occult influence in the Red Russia of Vladimir Lenin and Joseph Stalin and better understand how the Bolsheviks set out to create a new system of faith and mysticism to replace the pre-Soviet one. Was the Soviet “experiment” simply one vast ritual to manifest a new reality?
16: Satanism and the Occult
Is Satanism just an aspect of occultism? Or the essence of it? Is the occult—in all its manifestations—just a gateway drug to evil and damnation? Trace the origins of Satan as far back as the Sumerians of ancient Mesopotamia and consider the modern manifestations of the devil in figures like Anton LeVay and the “Satanic panic” of the 1980s.
17: The Occult Renaissance and Reformation
Between the 14th and the 17th centuries, science and the occult began to separate, as a new, mechanical conception of the world arose. And yet, as you will see, the occult never really disappeared, it simply changed with the times. Ponder the mysteries of the Rosicrucians and the occult roots of science.
18: Witchcraft and the Occult
Take a closer look at witchcraft, one of the best-known, and perhaps most misunderstood, aspects of the occult. Consider what witchcraft really is and how it has been popularly conceived with a look at the controversial work of two 20th-century witchcraft scholars, Margaret Murray and Montague Summers.
19: The Occult Enlightenment
The Age of Enlightenment saw the ascendance of reason, empiricism, and science, yet mysticism of every sort flourished. Occultism came out of the shadows, and into the mainstream. Take a closer look at the 18th century and see how the decline of religious conviction contributed to the rise of occult scholarship and organizations.
20: American Occultism
The American melting pot makes for an especially diverse range of uniquely American esoterica. Take a tour of American occultism with a look at colonial witch trials, supernatural locales, caches of hidden knowledge, multicultural magical practices, unique religious sects, and more.
21: The Occult’s 19th-Century Revival
Occult beliefs, practice, and organizations have been around virtually forever, often operating out of public view. But as you will discover, the 19th century introduced an “occult revival” that captured the public imagination and sparked renewed interest in spiritualism and the supernatural, with fascinating repercussions.
22: Aleister Crowley’s Occult Life
Meet the best-known and most influential occultist of the 20th century, Aleister Crowley, the self-proclaimed Great Beast 666. Discover the real human being behind the notorious occultist, look at what drew him to the occult and how it affected him, and reveal perhaps his greatest secret of all: his work as an agent of British intelligence.
23: Popular Occulture
Take a closer look at the influence of the occult on modern pop culture, including its presence in art, literature, film, and music. Consider such disparate works as Alice in Wonderland, the music of Mozart, and the cult-classic science fiction film Zardoz to better understand the way occult ideas and beliefs shape our entertainment.
24: The Techno-Occult
Conclude this course by revisiting some of the themes of the previous episodes, while also focusing on the present and future state of the occult. As you explore subjects like lucid dreaming, synchronicity, and even quantum mechanics, consider a fundamental principle of occult philosophy: the illusory nature of reality itself.