Cover detial from the author’s Modern Occultism

The Age of Hermes

Late-ancient origins of the occult idea

Mitch Horowitz
34 min readMar 16, 2024


With usual restraint, a New York Post headline of June 19, 2018, announced: “This sex-­crazed cultist was the father of modern rocketry.” The occasion was a TV series dramatizing the life of pioneering rocket scientist Jack Parsons (1914–1952).

Parsons, cofounder of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory — some say its initials JPL mythically stand for Jack Parsons Lives — was among the brightest intellects in rocketry in the immediate post-­war era. He was handsome, deeply read, and well liked. “Jack is one hell of a nice guy and a number-­one rocket engineer,” science-­fiction writer Robert Heinlein wrote in a 1949 letter.

Parsons was also a dedicated occultist who collaborated with figures from British magician Aleister Crowley to Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard. Jack’s heterodoxy placed him on the wrong side of the nation’s defense establishment, which sidelined the energetic scientist and denied him coveted security clearances.

Although obscure when he blew himself up at age thirty-­seven in his Pasadena home laboratory while mixing pyrotechnics for a Hollywood special effects company, Parsons and his wife, artist and occultist Marjorie Cameron (1922–1995) — who believed he was murdered — have grown considerably in reputation since. As of this writing, Wikipedia’s article on Parsons surpasses in length (and visits) many pieces on major inventors, scientists, and statesmen.

How did such diffuse and seemingly contradictory thought currents galvanize within one person? In actuality, Parsons, for all his remarkable individualism, was a direct product and exemplar of theculture of magick, experiment, and search that sprang from modern occultism.

The passions that moved Jack touch many of us in modern life. Like him, we employ a vocabulary, outlook, and sense of possibility that emerged from the birth, rebirth, and winding path of occult spirituality. To trace the influence of that obsidian thread — its origin, entanglements, frictions, points of contact, key figures, and catalytic role in modern life — is the aim of this journey.

This book is as much the history of an idea as it is of people and events. The idea, simple in concept yet seismic in impact, is that there exist unseen dimensions or intersections of time, all possessed of their own events, causes, intelligences, and perhaps iterations of ourselves; the influence of these realms is felt on and through us without mediation by any religion or doctrine.

Since relatively early in the revival of the search for ancient spiritual concepts during the Renaissance — by spiritual, I mean extraphysical — the outlook I describe has been broadly, though not exclusively, known by the English term occult from Latin occultus for secret or hidden.

In strictest terms, occultism is a Western concept. Although there exist esoteric (Greek esoterikós for “inner”) teachings within Vedic, Buddhist, Animist, Taoist, Confucian, and Shamanic traditions around the world, the occult rose from the West’s rupture with its own religious past during the rise of the Abrahamic religions, Christianity in particular. Occultism differs from esotericism insofar as the esoteric usually corresponds to an exoteric or outer counterpart, generally a traditional religion of which esotericism reflects the inner core. The occult is independent of religion while not necessarily rejecting of it.

When I write of the West, I mean the Abrahamic sphere of influence, i.e., regions defined by traditions of Judaism, Christianity, and, to a degree, Islam. Hence, I am chiefly referencing territories occupied first by the Greek armies of Alexander the Great (356–323 B.C.) and later by the Roman Empire, extending from Ancient Egypt and Constantinople to the Mediterranean Basin, Persia, and much of Europe, as well as colonial and migratory offshoots, including the Americas.

Modern Occultism explores the roots, people, ideas, aesthetics, and practices that have shaped our conception of the occult, as we have been shaped by them. This book began, and is significantly expanded from, a twelve-­part course I delivered with the Theosophical Society in America. Our hundreds of online participants covered almost all fifty U.S. states, Canada, Mexico, and ranged overseas to Taiwan, Dubai, Singapore, Uganda, Turkey, Slovenia, Macedonia, Cyprus, Britain, Monaco, Australia, and the Netherlands. Our exchanges helped me reckon with much of the history I explore.

I describe myself as a critical but “believing historian” and I participate in many of the movements I consider. Hence, I am dedicated to documenting metaphysics in history and practice. Most historians of religion and spirituality are, in fact, believing historians. Many enduring books on both traditional and new religious movements are by writers who emerge from the congregations they document or adjacent ones. This is true, for example, of histories of recent religious movements like Christian Science and Mormonism just as it is of the historicism of Jewish sages and Catholic saints. [1]

Authors and scholars rarely reference themselves as critical believers to avoid the appearance of a gap in judgment. Indeed, some scholars and historians of esotericism take umbrage at being asked about the nature of their beliefs. But, in a sense, such questions are natural. People are generally born into Judaism, Christianity, or any number of traditional faiths. Occultism or esotericism, however, is something sought after. It does not readily present itself. Hence, scholarly attitudes often reflect a chronicler’s private outlook.

I venture that the participating querent can, with proper measure, stand at the center of the movements studied, at least those of a contemporary nature, and more fully perceive the values emanating from them, as well as fissures between ideal and practice.

One of the scholars of esotericism I most admire, Wouter J. Hanegraaff, sees it differently: “Students in the fields of religion, philosophy, and science must make up their minds about whether theywant to be gardeners or biologists. If they prefer the former, then the study of esotericism is not for them.” [2] I dissent from this framing. To follow the agrarian metaphor, there exists another option (at least), which is to be a scientific agriculturist. “Objectivity, in fact, is not just a single standpoint,” wrote philosopher Mary Midgley. [3]

In that vein, I am inspired by a passage from historian of esotericism and musicologist Joscelyn Godwin from the journal Theosophical History in July 1990: “My own mind is open to the possibility of events for which materialistic science, and the historical scholarship modeled on it, has no place; consequently, I do not automatically dismiss the idea of immaterial influences . . . Henry Corbin coined the valuable term of ‘hierohistory’ (hiérohistoire): the superior or sacred history that gives meaning to earthly events.”

We who live in the West occupy a peculiar situation regarding our religious past. With respect to religious history, our storyline differs from the development of religions in many of the Eastern cultures.

In the East, including China, India, Japan, and a variety of Asian societies, there prevails an ancient religious continuum. Vedism or Hinduism is one of the oldest continuously observed faiths in the world. The same is true of Buddhism. In Persia, although dominated by Islam, this is the case with Zoroastrianism. While certain societies, like mainland China, are officially atheistic there persist Taoist, Confucianist, and Animist traditions, which have timelines extending millennia.

In the West, including many parts of the Mediterranean and Near East, a different story prevails. The ancient cultures of Greece, Rome, Egypt, Mesopotamia, and the so-­called Biblical lands, for hundreds and in some cases thousands of years maintained distinct religious traditions, often polytheistic, nature-­based, and seasonal in practice, frequently possessed of an esoteric core, and steeped in varied observances we now call sacrificial, petitionary, ceremonial, astrological, divinatory, alchemical, ritualistic, and initiatory. Deity veneration was a common thread. Such traditions, extending across Europe and the Near and Middle East, commanded the dedication of millions of people for thousands of years.

Yet with the fall of Rome in the West and the spread of Christianity in the West and East these traditions, to a very great extent, disappeared for centuries. With the rise of Islam, further discontinuity swept away Persian and Arab faiths, ancient and more modern, two notable exceptions being Zoroastrianism and Yezidism. [4] Their priesthoods, temple orders, social systems, liturgies, parables, sacred texts, and lexicon of gods were wiped out or transmuted. Many of their books were destroyed in warfare or conflict, pillaged and pirated, or sequestered in monasteries or by private collectors; in other cases, they were buried and forgotten — and sometimes unearthed.

The unraveling of the ancient West began, more or less, following the reign of Roman Emperor Constantine, who converted to Christianity in 312 or 313 A.D. and in 330 A.D. relocated the locus of the empire to Constantinople, today Istanbul. Rome continued to wield dominant power in the West for about another 200 years; the Byzantine Empire itself staggered to a finish in 1453 when the Ottomans entered its last stronghold.

Current historians avoid the term Dark Ages. That phrase has fallen into disfavor because it implies that, other than subsistence living and feudal warfare, little civilizational activity occurred for hundreds of years between the fall of Rome in the West in 476 A.D. and the dawn of cathedral building in the mid-­1100s A.D. followed by the Renaissance around 1300 A.D. Past generations harbored the unspoken generalization that between Rome’s collapse and reemergence of learning traditions, seminary orders, and reasonably stable monarchies beginning in the 1100s, there existed a cultural ice age. That is, of course, inadequate. But it is also true that religious traditions of Western antiquity, later called occult, were to a very great extent obliterated by the dominance of Christianity, dissolution of Rome, and later advent of Islam in the early seventh century A.D.

Hence, when I use the Latin term occultus, it bears remembering that its adoption grew from an effort to identify, reference, and in some cases revive traditions that suffered decline and banishment in the West due to the schismatic discontinuity of our religious past.

Discontinuity, however, conceals hidden bonds. In many cases, when ancient Greco-­Roman temples were demolished or buried, their foundations were turned into building sites for the Notre Dame cathedral (construction beginning 1163 A.D.) and other expressions of Christianity throughout the Middle Ages. Although he effectively rendered Christianity into Rome’s state faith, Constantine himself combined Christianity with worship of the sun god, Sol Invictus, a practice continued by pilgrims on the steps of St. Peter’s Basilica into the mid-­fifth century A.D. [5] The Emperor Julian (331–363 A.D.), sometimes called Julian the Apostate, attempted to rollback Christianity as the official state religion. He began restoring some pagan and Jewish temples. But his reign was brief, from 361 to 363 A.D., so his program was not universally felt. Hence, there are no neat “starts and stops” in religious history; changes, even when overwhelming, proceed in an uneven or combinative manner.

In late antiquity, specifically the generations immediately preceding and following the death of Christ, we find formative — if indirect — connections to themes regarded as occult, esoteric, alternative, Gnostic, or, for that matter, New Age. The term New Age is often used as an epithet for everything considered trendy, fuzzy-­headed, and fickle in modern spirituality. I reject that usage and believe it fails to capture the experience of millions of seekers. I define New Age as a radically ecumenical culture of therapeutic spirituality.

Because many of our connections or parallels to ancient spirituality emerge from late antiquity, I want to take us back to the world of Alexandria in the era of Cleopatra. The name Cleopatra (69–30 B.C.) is, of course, as widely recognized as Caesar or Napoleon. Such figures can appear as impersonal memes like the visage of Washington gazing out from a dollar bill. But she was, of course, a full-­blooded figure with a life marked by ideals, missteps, and pathos.

Cleopatra was the final leader of what could be considered an independent Ancient Egypt. She ruled from 51 to 30 B.C., when she took her own life following naval defeat to the Roman fleet at Actium, suicide of her partner Mark Antony, and Rome’s siege of Alexandria. Cleopatra was not Egyptian but Greek by descent. Egypt’s ruling class had been Greek extending to the founding of Alexandria in 331 B.C. by Hellenic conqueror Alexander the Great. Thereafter the pharaonic system was revised and the Egyptian throne occupied by rulers stemming from the lineage of Alexander’s generals, called Ptolemies.

Cleopatra proved unique within the Ptolemaic lineage. Overall, the Alexandrian era spelled gradual decay of Egypt’s temple orders and religious systems. In one sense, the Greek administrative and ruling class was Philo-­Egyptian; rulers often admired and adopted Egyptian culture. But they intermarried to strictly preserve their Hellenic bloodline. As a result, and despite cultural affinity, Greek rulers often had a distant relationship to the millions who made up Egyptian civilization. Their concerns were chiefly economic and military versus religio-­cultural. Cleopatra differed. She was more than a Philo-Egyptian installed on a Hellenic throne. Although entangled in her own military campaigns, domestic crises, and geopolitical intrigues, she valued and sought revival of Egypt’s esoteric tradition. The leader did so primarily from the cultural and economic seat of Alexandria where she funded restoration of monuments, priesthoods, and temple orders.

For a time, she revived Egyptian mystery tradition while managing to protect the empire from excessive encroachment by Roman forces. Following Cleopatra’s reign, however, Egypt became a Roman military province and agricultural redoubt. But thanks in part to Cleopatra’s influence, religious practices endured in Alexandria. Following her death, the city continued to function as a cultural hub. In generations ahead — and this is vital to our concerns — a cohort of urban-­dwelling, Greek-­Egyptian scribes, many of them part of the administrative class, began writing down aspects of Egyptian esoteric philosophy in Greek.

This undertaking proved enormously significant in future centuries because it served to preserve and translate some of Egypt’s esoteric philosophy into an expository literary form that modern Westerners, who had little understanding of hieroglyphs or Demotic (a hieratic script used for official business), could grasp. Indeed, the West did not even begin to decipher hieroglyphs until after the discovery of the Rosetta Stone by Napoleon’s invading armies in 1799.

These Greek scribes wrote down ideas that were previously passed on through oral tradition, or almost certainly so. Most of the ancient religious and philosophical ideas that reach us today began in oral form and were only later committed to writing by figures who we call Homer or Plato or Pythagoras, or in the last case by his students. In actuality, we know little about the identity or even the verity of such figures. It was common in the ancient world that scribes — we wouldn’t consider them distinct authors in our modern sense — affixed the name of a venerated or legendary figure to their writings in order to lend them gravity. What are the gospels themselves but oral tradition, written by evangelists, Luke, Mark, etc., whose personhood is undetermined? It is a modern innovation that a writer or author has an individual identity.

In Ancient Egypt, the Mediterranean, the Biblical lands, Hindustan or Ancient India, China and Japan, it was common that a scribe functioned on behalf of a government, army, empire, academy, or royal court. In many cases, we do not know if authorial names represent single, demarcated personas. For example, we do not know the identity of Lao Tzu, the legendary author of the Tao Te Ching (c. 400 B.C.). We do not know with any certainty the identity of Sun Tzu, author of The Art of War (c. 500 B.C.) who was not credited until about 100 B.C., which would be four centuries after the death of Zhou dynasty general Sun Tzu (c. 544–496 B.C.), an honorific title meaning “Master Sun.” Very little is understood about the author other than historical consensus that such a figure existed as a commander in the dynastic emperor’s army.

One of humanity’s oldest forms of writing — and also an oracular tool — is the ancient Chinese I Ching, or Book of Changes, a pictogrammatic alphabet of sixty-­four hexagrams. First published in the late-­ninth century B.C., the oldest attributed author is Fu Tsi or Fuxi, a mythical ruler, somewhat like King Arthur, said to command China during the third millennium B.C. Nor do we know the identity of Homer (c. eighth century B.C.) or if he was a singular being. Indeed, most of the ideas and mathematical formulas attributed to Pythagoras (c. 570–495 B.C.), who tutored students at an academy reputed to be in Croton, Italy, were not written down, in this case by his students, until centuries after the Greek sage died around 495 B.C.

Such is the case with the late-­ancient Greek-­Egyptian literature I’ve referenced, which was often attributed to Hermes or Hermes Trismegistus, an appellation of honor that Greek-­Egyptians bestowed upon Thoth, Egypt’s god of writing and intellect. They saw the ibis-headed god as “three-­ times greater” than their own god of intellect, communication, and writing, Hermes, later the Roman god Mercury. Hence, late-­ancient Greek scribes and builders termed this being Thrice-­Greatest Hermes or Hermes Trismegistus.

I’ve noted all this to frame the vintage and sourcing, sketchy and uncertain, for our antecedents of the occult. The timing of this record later became a source of controversy, to which we return. But for now, I want to note that our references to history often pay too little acknowledgment to the complexities of what the recorded past, as it reaches us, consists of.

“The earliest that Hermes attains the actual epithet ‘Thrice Greatest,’” writes scholar of religion M. David Litwa in Hermetica II (Cambridge University Press, 2018), “it seems, is with Thrasyllus of Alexandria, famous astrologer of the emperor Tiberius (reigned 14–37 A.D.).” Earlier references to Thoth as three-­times great extend to the second century B.C. [6]

To lend gravity to their work, as we’ve seen was customary in many ancient traditions, as well as to honor the source of their ideas, anonymous Greek-Egyptian scribes often affixed this title to their transcripts. Hence, their literature came to bear the name of the mythical being Hermes Trismegistus. In later centuries, this oeuvre was called Hermetic literature or Hermetica, a term that entered English in the early seventeenth century.

There exist many diffuse and, as they have survived, disorderly Hermetic tracts. Some were ceremonial and magical in nature, oriented toward specific spells, prayers, or alchemical operations; these are generally called technical Hermetica. Others were more philosophical and existential. Within these tracts appears a discernable core. The outlook animating the philosophical Hermetica can more or less be distilled this way: all of creation emanates from one great higher mind, which the Greeks called Nous. [7] This higher mind creates through the exercise of thought. Creation expands outward through concentric circles or planetary spheres of reality — humanity appears within one of these concentric circles.

A key remnant of philosophical Hermetica (some would argue for it being technical but it conveys an existential outlook), produced in very late antiquity is The Emerald Tablet. The magical text was first translated from Latin into English by Sir Isaac Newton (1643–1727). In this work appears the famous dictum, “as above, so below,” which I believe parallels the Western Scriptural precept, “God created man in his own image.” [8]

As it happens, Newton’s interest in late alchemy, which did not fully come to light until the mid-­twentieth century, was stoked by the writings of a mysterious Eirenaeus Philalethes, the pseudonym of Harvard-­educated colonial-­era alchemist and medical practitioner George Starkey (1628–1665). “Both Starkey and Philalethes wrote about the properties of matter as well as its structure,” noted Michael Meyer of the Science History Institute, “and these ideas influenced Newton’s thinking and practice, including perhaps his thinking about light and how white light could be broken down and recombined in ways similar to matter.” [9]

Newton’s magical interests were revealed by none other than seminal economist John Maynard Keynes (1883–1946), whose analysis of boom-and-­bust cycles did much to stabilize market economies in the twentieth century. In 1936, Keynes purchased Newton’s dust-gathering papers and discovered, to his surprise, the mind not of a hardened materialist but a learned mage. Ten years later, Keynes announced in a posthumously read speech, “Newton, the Man,” delivered at the Royal Society as part of the tricentennial of Newton’s birth (postponed due to World War II):

Newton was not the first of the age of reason. He was the last of the magicians, the last of the Babylonians and Sumerians, the last great mind which looked out on the visible and intellectual world with the same eyes as those who began to build our intellectual inheritance rather less than 10,000 years ago. Isaac Newton, a posthumous child born with no father on Christmas Day, 1642, was the last wonderchild to whom the Magi could do sincere and appropriate homage.

Returning to the philosophical Hermetica, its recurrent ideal is that just as humanity was created by an infinite mind, Nous, so can we create within our own sphere of existence. The secret of human development is discovering the psyche’s causative dimensions and the expansion to which they point.

In a key Hermetic tract, translated from Greek to Latin during the Renaissance, man is urged toward awareness of how his mind, through its ability to visualize all things, originate new concepts, and surpass physical boundaries, reflects innate divinity:

See what power you have, what quickness! If you can do these things, can god not do them? So you must think of god in this way, as having everything — the cosmos, himself, (the) universe — like thoughts within himself. Thus, unless you make yourself equal to god, you cannot understand god; like is understood by like. Make yourself grow to immeasurable immensity, outleap all body, outstrip all time, become eternity and you will understand god. Having conceived that nothing is impossible to you, consider yourself immortal and able to understand everything, all art, all learning, the temper of every living thing. [10]

Yet there also exists tension between man’s self-­actualization — a process that makes him greater than the gods who are fixed in ­ existence — and physical limitations man suffers in his sphere of existence. This parallels Psalm 82:6–7, “Ye are gods . . . but ye shall die like men.”

Hence, within the cosmic framework you occupy, you, too, are capable of thought causation. But the Hermetic literature cautions that the individual, although possessed of faculties of this higher mind, is restricted by physical parameters of the concentric circle he dwells in. That is not cause for despair or fatalism; again, one of the central principles of Hermeticism is that the individual is ever in the process of becoming, of growing closer in nature to the gods. In Book I of the Corpus Hermeticum, often called “Poimandres” (a Greek-­Egyptian term of unknown origin, possibly meaning man-­shepherd), the individual rises through the planetary spheres shedding vices picked up earlier when descending through the spheres. Each planet rules a vice, a schema that scholar of esotericism Richard Smoley calls the origin of the Seven Deadly Sins

Hermeticism posits what we might call a theory of reincarnation or eternal recurrence, which holds that the individual occupies a physical form that dissipates but the psyche is rejoined to universal life stuff, which could be considered thought. Psyche is then reprocessed into life (which does not necessarily mean that the personality remains intact) where it may traverse circles of existence that approach nearer to the center of being.

Although book XII of the Corpus Hermeticum expounds on “cyclical recurrence,” the role of reincarnation is ambiguous. Souls “are dissolved not to be destroyed but become new,” Hermes tells his disciple Tat. [11] The late-­ancient Hermeticist Stobaeus (c. early fifth century A.D.) heads a section of his Anthology “On the Incarnation and Reincarnation of Souls,” with Isis telling Horus, “Those sent down to rule, Horus my child, are sent from the upper zones. When released, they return to the same regions or ascend even higher unless some of them did something <against> the dignity of their own nature and the precept of divine law.” [12]

In his 2022 study Hermetic Spirituality and the Historical Imagination, Wouter J. Hanegraaff issues an important caution to interpreters of the Hermetica: these texts have undergone immense shuffling, rewriting, and copying even in their late-­ ancient environs. “This means,” he writes, “that precisely those elements in the Hermetica that strike us as familiar (those that make us feel comfortably ‘at home’ in our own mental world, surrounded by concepts and ideas that we readily know and understand) are most likely to lead us astray.”

This is because material that appears “familiar” or, I would venture, parallel to modern concepts, seems so because ancient scribes were adapting source material to which they had access to reflect rising norms, conceptions, or vernacular of the day, which also populated the more canonical literature to which we’re accustomed. There was the further issue of their own religious outlook and preferences. From our modern vantage point, there exists no pure Hermeticism.

Another of the ways the Hermetic seeker discovers his capacities as a creator is through what came to be called alchemy, a term shrouded in etymological mystery. Although the word alchemy appears in Arabic in the centuries following Christ, we do not know precisely where it comes from. It is tantalizing and important to understand the possible origin of the word and what it means for modernity’s connection to Ancient Egypt.

Alchemy was practiced in Persia, North Africa, and later different parts of the Mediterranean and Western world; it was an effort on the part of ancient and early modern seekers and proto-­scientists to transform gross into fine matter. Or, as is typically heard, lead into gold. There was a physical dimension to alchemy as there was a psychological and mystical dimension. Every thought system in the ancient world intermingled. There wasn’t a difference between so-­called science (not yet extant) and spirituality. Astrology and astronomy were adjoined; art, mathematics, and sacred geometry or use of numbers to unlock the code and system of the universe were adjoined; architecture and worship were adjoined; chemistry and mysticism, in alchemy, were adjoined.

Alchemy is the root of the modern term chemistry but, as noted, its etymology is unsettled. The likelihood is that alchemy is a Latin-Anglicized version of Ancient Egypt’s name for itself. The term Egypt is Hellenic in nature. Ancient Egyptians referred to themselves through the hieroglyphic characters K M T or Kemet. The term means Black Land. Egypt referred to itself as the Black Land to connote the rich soil and fertility that the Nile River brought to Central Egypt. The desert, the outlying regions, were called the Red Land, where life was harsher and less fertile. Al is Arabic for “the,” hence there’s every possibility that alchemy is an Arabic and later Hellenic version of Ancient Egypt’s name for itself. We are uncertain about the phonetic pronunciation Ancient Egyptians used. In Hebrew, one of several neighboring languages, the sounds for S and T were sometimes transliterated — insimilar vein an early Greek phonetic pronunciation of Kemet is Chemi. Hence, Al-­Chemi or alchemy.

Modern people speak of black magic or black arts with sinister connotation. But if the etymology I’m describing is correct, the sinister connotation is culturally conditioned. Black arts or black magic — used as a persecutory epithet in the West starting in the fifteenth century — would, in its purest form, reference the origin of alchemy: the Black Land and its arts of transformation.

Alexandria is also the birthplace of Western astrology, although the concept’s antiquity runs deeper. Astrology as practiced today in the West does not reflect the astrology of the early ancients although it springs from it foundationally. Astrology itself dovetails with the Hermetic worldview: “as above, so below.” All is interconnected, including psyche and cosmos.

Astrology’s earliest origins are traceable to 2,000–1,600 B.C. in Mesopotamia, sometimes referred to as Babylon, but the Babylonian Empire was only one later phase that Mesopotamia or modern-­day Iraq passed through. Extending to deep antiquity, at least the second millennium B.C., we find the earliest threads and stirrings of astrological forecasting. Moving forward to the second and third century B.C. in Mesopotamia, we see greater formality and codification of astrological principles. Greek scribes and thinkers in Alexandria took a mélange of Mesopotamian and Egyptian ideas and curated them into the earliest form of what we consider astrology in the West.

One of the key episodes in the codification occurred in Alexandria around 150 A.D. At that time, Hellenic astrologer and mathematician Claudius Ptolemy issued a work called Tetrabiblos (“four books”) in which he took strides devising the system of astrology adapted in the modern West. Here is Alexandria, almost 200 years following the death of Cleopatra, still serving as a springboard for concepts that modern people call occult. Regarding Ptolemy’s codification of astrological principles, he was not the only Hellene attempting this; but his authorial voice survived time and marked a critical turning point in formulating the modern philosophy.

Ptolemy argued that the signs of the zodiac, e.g., Aries, Taurus, Sagittarius, Capricorn, Gemini, are keyed to the seasons. This reflected a subtle and important standard, which fostered two divergent systems: Vedic or sidereal astrology and tropical or seasonally based astrology. The former prevails in the East and the latter in the West. (The Chinese zodiac is based on the lunar calendar and has little in common with either.) The division of the two systems can be understood by considering that the night sky looks differently to us today than it did to dwellers of antiquity. The location of celestial objects remains constant but our vantage point has shifted due to a slight wobble in earth’s axis. This results in the precession of the equinoxes, in which the zodiac wheel appears to cycle gradually backwards, a phenomenon first detected by Greek astronomer and mathematician Hipparchus (190–120 B.C.).

A dweller of ancient Mesopotamia who walked outside at dawn on March 21 or 22 would, like us, observe the vernal or spring equinox. This occurs when the sun rises in the crisscross of two imaginary lines: the celestial equator and the ecliptic. Earth’s equator “pushed out” into space is the celestial equator. If you positioned earth at the center of the solar system with the sun tracing an arc throughout the sky, that forms the ecliptic, which is also the zodiac wheel. Hence, on the morning of the vernal equinox, you see the sun rising in this crisscross of the celestial equator and the ecliptic, heralding the dawn of spring.

In the centuries before Christ, the sun rose in that crisscross in the sign of Aries. The ram, symbolizing fertility, birth, boldness, and new beginnings, naturally suits the advent of spring. Due to earth’s wobble on its axis, however, the appearance of the vernal equinox recedes one degree every seventy-­two years. Each zodiac sign contains 30 degrees. In about 2,160 years, the vernal equinox recedes through an entire zodiac sign. It then enters a different sign. The equinox recedes around the zodiac wheel once every 26,000 years, sometimes called a Platonic year.

In the Christian era, after the Emperor Constantine converted in 312 or 313 A.D., and Christianity began its rise to dominance, the vernal equinox entered Pisces, the fish. Christ was said to be a “fisher of men” one of whose miracles was creation of “loaves and fishes” to feed a crowd. The vernal equinox lingered in Pisces for centuries, again to the eye receding one degree every seventy-­two years, so that in our era the vernal equinox now falls in Aquarius. Hence the term Aquarian Age or “dawning of the Age of Aquarius,” as went the popular song from the sixties-­era musical Hair.

Aquarius is traditionally represented as the water bearer and a sign of mysticism, revolution, innovation, and change. As such, the Aquarian Age is considered one of spiritual and social experimentation. In certain Gnostic teachings, Aquarius marks the ascent of the zodiac (with Leo commencing descent). There also exist lower iterations of Aquarius, such as mechanical, insincere virtue. A wide range of spiritual writers in the early twentieth century spoke of this dawning Aquarian Age. A channeled reinterpretation of Christ’s philosophy called The Aquarian Gospel of Jesus the Christ by retired Civil War chaplain Levi H. Dowling (1844–1911) appeared in 1908 and helped popularize this notion.

Returning to Alexandria around 150 A.D., Ptolemy contended he was aware of the precession of the equinoxes. But he argued that this fact does not alter the basic principles of astrology, which are keyed to the seasons and function as compass points or windows onto the cosmos. His reasoning prevailed and most Westerners use the Ptolemaic system with its fixed seasonal or tropical coordinates. Western astrologers also use star-­based or sidereal coordinates, reflecting the actual position of the stars and planets vis-­à- vis earth’s vantage point, when referencing epochal ages like Aquarius.

As centuries passed, Vedic or Eastern astrologers, who are part of Hindu religious tradition, determined that the sidereal system is simply more accurate. They calculated precession into their forecasts. Hence, Vedic astrologers, unlike their Western counterparts, use the actual physical position of celestial objects apropos earth’s vantage point. Astrology remains part of Hindu religious tradition. Before marriage, modern Hindu couples often consult an astrologer to determine when or whether to have a child, buy a home, set the wedding date, and so on.

Ptolemy instigated a series of debates that have never been settled because they go to the heart of what reality is if one takes seriously occult and esoteric traditions. In addition to questions of precession, there is debate over whether celestial objects are causative or correlative. In dominant Mesopotamian and Egyptian perspectives, the zodiac reflects synchronistic pictures of what is occurring on earth, i.e., correlative. But Ptolemy, in a perspective that gained sway within the Hellenic world, maintained that the position of celestial objects are causes; not just correlations but actual influences. Hence, in the Ptolemaic view, Mars, Venus, Jupiter, and so on, do not just symbolize what the individual experiences upon first breath — the starting point of life in the astrological schema — but instigate or influence it.

Among those who engage astrology, it has been argued that the ancient craft is less determinative of life today than in antiquity because life is now more flexible than it was in an era when an individual was all-­but-­certain to die in the same caste or status into which he was born.

I am delving into some of this material because I want to elucidate the foundations (or one might say fissures) that modern occultism stands on. When considering themes like alchemy, astrology, and Hermeticism itself, it is important to realize that we do not have uninterrupted, uniform connections.

It is also important to recall, as alluded earlier, that during the early Middle Ages, or what used to be called the Dark Ages, many of these ideas were either adapted into Christianity (especially for seasonal festivals and feast days) or simply vanished from view. For example, Halloween is rooted in the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain (pronounced saa’wn), which marked a seasonal change; observers often lit bonfires throughout the night to honor and consort with spirits of dead relatives. It is a period when the veil between the seen and unseen world is considered thinnest. By the early Middle Ages, the church incorporated the enduring pagan ceremony into its calendar as All Soul’s Day on November 1, although adaptations, of course, survive. Historians eschew the term Dark Ages because, again, it connotes a period of dormancy and immobility; but there was, in fact, discontinuity of tradition and belief.

If one considers how ancient religious ideas fell into disuse, suppression, and prohibition during the years in which Christianity progressed throughout Western, Middle Eastern, and Near Eastern life — although certain retentions linger in folk traditions (nothing totally vanishes) — you can see why there exists no neat thread of connection to any of these ancient practices. Sometimes within modern life, we reach parallel insights, which correlate with ancient ideas. Modern people occasionally re-embrace antique ideas and revive or remake them, as has been attempted within traditions from Freemasonry to witchcraft. But we rarely experience uninterrupted connection.

This is at the heart of why occult connotes hidden or secret. Occultism is, in effect, a revivalist movement. It is a reclamation and adaptation of spiritual themes and methods that once flourished and were later suppressed by a cultural order that remains dominant. Hence, there is a perpetual outsider quality to occultism. As with “black magick,” many modern people consider occultism sinister. That is cultural conditioning. Was humanity more sinister in Cleopatra’s era than in modern centuries? Who could witness the mass carnage of the twentieth century — Stalin, Hitler, Mao — and even suggest as much? Rather, it is simply that victors generally classify vanquished on their own terms. As pagan and Christian powers clashed for control in late antiquity, Christendom was eventually able to classify nature-­based religions and mystery traditions as heretical and thus evil. Had paganism triumphed, its dominant culture would have classified Christianity the same way. It is human nature. There are no “good guys” and “bad guys” in this historical drama. I should mention that I use the term pagan fitfully since it is actually a Latin-derived (paganus) epithet used by early Christians to denote people who lived in outlying areas or backwater villages who were slow to learn of, and thus adopt, Christianity. The term pagan entered English in the seventeenth century.

Obviously there’s nothing intrinsically sinister about the occult — but is there something secret? If ideas that are suppressed, unseen, or neglected for centuries connotes hidden, then the answer is approximately yes.

Another variant of belief that persisted in the late-­ancient world, suffered brutal suppression, and experienced modern rediscovery is Gnosticism. This term, too, was first used as a pejorative at its scholarly inception in the seventeenth century. Within Gnosticism — from Greek gnosis for higher knowing — certain doctrines of the ancient occultic or esoteric worldview were combined with notions emanant from Judaic Scripture and early Christianity into a compelling and original mélange of thought and practice, which has reemerged today within scholarly and spiritual subcultures.

The basic outlook of Gnosticism, broadly speaking, is that among deific energies of creation there exists a cosmic clash between forces of material malignance versus spiritual harmony. In one variant of Gnostic belief, our world is ruled by a vengeful and maleficent God sometimes called by the Greek-­Latin term demiurge. The demiurge is based on Hebraic Scriptural concepts of a punitive and “jealous God” referenced in Exodus, Deuteronomy, Isaiah, and elsewhere. In the Gnostic mythos, Sophia, or divine wisdom, grew impregnated with negative emotions and birthed the earthly demiurge who usurped her power.

This ersatz deity placed men and women into a so-­called Garden of Paradise, which was more a veil of shadows keeping them from knowledge of their true spiritual selves. In some narratives, the wisdom-­proffering serpent is considered heroic. Men and women are spiritual beings imprisoned in flesh and kept in darkness in this world of illusion and appearances, or what in Vedic tradition is sometimes called maya or samsara. In Gnostic thought, there exist governors, known by the Greek term archons, who function as deputy rulers of our corrupt physical world.

The false God, or demiurge, is at once demanding, punishing, and covetous of loyalty, like a cruel parent. In some Gnostic texts, the figure of Christ is an authentic, liberating, freeing counter to the demiurge, a force of creation, beneficence, and spiritual evolution intended to vanquish forces of illusion and malevolence. These themes reemerge in modern conspiracist culture.

Some Gnostic groups — their beliefs varied widely — emphasized so-­called Apocrypha or “hidden things,” writings roughly contemporaneous with Scripture that ecclesiastical authorities deemed unacceptable, of questionable legitimacy, and noncanonical, although acceptance differs by denomination. Another class of non-­canonical books is called pseudepigrapha (“false writings”), late-­ancient books of dubious authorship that often feature biblical figures. One is the “Testament of Solomon” (c. first century A.D.) a Greek text in which the archangel Michael gives Solomon a ring with a pentagram on it that allows the king to command demons and enlist their aid in construction of the temple. Some pseudepigraphic works have commonalities with biblical and rabbinic texts.

One of the most enduring and influential works of Apocrypha is the Hebraic Book of Enoch, produced around 300–200 B.C. The name Enoch appears several times in Scripture, including as the son of Cain and also as the descendant of Seth, the third and final son born to Adam and Eve after the fratricide. The latter Enoch — who we reencounter when meeting Renaissance magician John Dee — is considered Noah’s great-­grandfather. Referencing the latter Enoch, Genesis 5:24 remarks enigmatically: “And Enoch walked with God: and he was not; for God took him” (KJV).

The Book of Enoch, which actually consists of five distinct tracts, tells the story of a biblically aged figure, thought to be the latter Enoch to whom it is attributed. In an act of gnosis, the patriarch bursts through the world of illusion and experiences the unseen world. The narrative also tells of a class of angels called Watchers, a subset of which descended to earth as fallen or rebellious angels, who then instruct humanity and mate with mortal women, giving birth to the Nephilim, a marauding race of giants. To some interpreters, this triggered the flood.

Mediterranean Gnostic sects often combined elements of Christianity and Judaism with retentive practices from paganism, hence assembling a syncretic faith that honored the Christian salvific message but maintained initiatory and esoteric practices of pre-­Christian antiquity; some included Persian gods, such as the sun deity Abraxas (sometimes also an archon). These sects and groupings were often violently suppressed or eradicated by Christian troops and governments. This persecution culminated in 1209 with the Crusader massacre of thousands of men, women, children, and refugees attached to the Gnostic Cathar sect in Southern France. Strands of the movement survived another century.

Although the Book of Enoch has circulated in various forms since the early 1700s (though not in English until 1821), it is important to note that many Gnostic texts we know today, including some of the Gnostic gospels, such as Thomas and Philip, did not come to light until discovery of a cache of ancient Gnostic texts in the wake of World War II in 1945 at Nag Hammadi in Upper Egypt. A local farmer discovered thirteen leather-­bound papyri manuscripts buried in a sealed jar — an event that reignited interest in Gnosticism and opened new vistas on the ancient practice.

Indeed, Gnosticism as both revival movement and adapted retention has, over the past eighty years or so, attained considerable popularity in the West. Prior to the Nag Hammadi discoveries, other forms of Gnostic literature were available and Gnosticism was discussed but largely within academic and esoteric niches. Since then, Gnostic texts have grown far more widely disseminated within popular and public circles. Within the Nag Hammadi cache were also partial or complete Hermetic and Platonic texts.

Hence, we in the twenty-­first century occupy an unusual position vis-­à-­vis Gnosticism, not entirely unlike what our forebearers in the Renaissance found themselves facing with Hermeticism, whose manuscripts were rediscovered in the mid-­to-­late 1400s, as explored in the next chapter. It will be fascinating to see how modernity’s reencounter with Gnosticism develops.

With regard to Hermeticism and astrology, modern people are likewise recipients of new discoveries, translations, adaptations, and understandings. The famous Emerald Tablet, mentioned in connection with Isaac Newton, is a case in point. Until the 1920s, The Emerald Tablet was widely deemed a medieval fakery written in Latin. But since then, scholars have discovered progressively earlier fragments and translations of the work. [13] The earliest source we now have of The Emerald Tablet is from the eighth century A.D. in Arabic. German scholar of alchemical texts Julius Ruska (1867–1949) estimated the composition of The Emerald Tablet to sometime between 600 and 750 A.D., with the original possibly in Greek. [14] (Hermetic works got translated not only into Latin but also Arabic, which likewise served as a source of retention.)

Until recently, Hermeticism itself was widely considered an ersatz philosophy, which many scholars of religion considered a faux antique “mutt” of pseudo-­Egyptiana and Neoplatonism. But as we’ve uncovered other texts of contemporaneous and deeper antiquity, we find correspondences between Hermeticism and Ancient Egypt. This turnaround began, in part, through a remarkable book, The Egyptian Hermes by Garth Fowden, published by Cambridge University Press in 1986. Since then, and also dated to the discovery of earlier Coptic texts in the 1970s, the view has shifted with Hermeticism now better understood as an authentic retention of aspects of Egyptian antiquity.

What’s more, our generation possesses the first truly serviceable English translations of the Hermetic literature most especially Brian P. Copenhaver’s 1992 Hermetica from Cambridge University Press. Another important translation is from Clement Salaman, who with a team of collaborators published The Way of Hermes in 2000 with Inner Traditions. And there exist other translations, including of technical Hermetica, such as the notable Greek Magical Papyri in Translation (Volume 1) by Hans Dieter Betz published in 1996 with University of Chicago Press. All of this scholarly and highly readable material opens doors closed to recent generations.

I must add a word about a historically important 1906 translation by G.R.S. Mead (1863–1933), Thrice-­Greatest Hermes, a then-­exhaustive three-­volume set. Mead, a brilliant scholar and translator who was secretary to Russian occultist and Theosophy cofounder Madame H.P. Blavatsky (1831–1891) in London during the final three years of her life, created a translation that filled a yawning historical gap since the prior significant translation was from John Everard (c. 1584?–1641), posthumously published in 1650. The Everard translation is, along with Walter Scott’s (1855–1925) 1920s-­era efforts, widely considered historically unreliable. For its part, Mead’s work, although a key resource, is rendered in almost leaden Victorian prose, which seems to echo the language of the King James Bible. I think Mead miscalculated that this literary device would bring gravity to his text. Nonetheless, his work is a widely credited influence on Carl Jung, Hermann Hesse, and W.B. Yeats and provided a generation of modern seekers with an entry point to Hermeticism. Wouter J. Hanegraaff made an important note in Hermetic Spirituality and the Historical Imagination: “While G.R.S. Mead’s edition and translation was universally ignored by scholars because of the author’s Theosophical commitments . . . he sometimes saw more clearly than his learned despisers . . .”

Similar developments are occurring through Project Hindsight and other efforts relating to new translations of previously unknown or untranslated Hellenic works of astrology.

Hence, our generation is experiencing a petite Renaissance of rediscovery and reengagement with primary occult and esoteric writings. Seen in a poetic light, the ancient esoteric traditions could be said to have prophesized their own revival. One of the most moving works of Hermeticism is a dialogue called Asclepius named for the disciple to whom Hermes Trismegistus speaks. At this point, we do not possess the original Greek but know the full work only in Latin and some fragments in Coptic. (Scholars have been discovering progressively earlier fragments and references so that situation, too, may change.) In Asclepius, the unknown writer forecasts the division and fall of Ancient Egypt. In achingly melancholic language the tract intones,

Oh, Egypt, Egypt, there will remain of your religion only fables. Those who follow your ideas will be thought mad. Those who disparage your ideas will be celebrated, will be extolled, will be uplifted. The world will be turned upside down, but oh, Egypt, Egypt, there will come a day when the gods are returned to their thrones and you are praised in your glory once again.

This is my adaptation. The Asclepius prophecy corresponds in tone to the Vedic description of the present Hindu cycle of Kali Yuga, considered an age of spiritual degeneration: “These will all be contemporary monarchs, reigning over the earth; kings of churlish spirit, violent temper, and ever addicted to falsehood and wickedness . . . Wealth and piety will decrease day by day, until the world will be wholly depraved.” [15]

The Library at Alexandria (c. 285 B.C.–275 A.D.) underwent several catastrophes during its existence, including fires and conflagrations among warring forces. But a final confrontation between Egypt, then a Roman protectorate, and invaders from Palmyra in 270 A.D. apparently resulted in its ultimate devastation. Some of its scrolls and manuscripts may have already been safeguarded and moved elsewhere.

One of the last Hermeticists, the Macedonian writer Stobaeus, whose birth and death dates are unknown, wrote in the early fifth century A.D. at the outer cusp of classical antiquity. In 529 A.D., the Roman Emperor Justinian closed the Platonic academy in Athens, leaving figures like Stobaeus nowhere to write and teach; they would be marked heretics throughout the West and Near East. Many historians consider the closing of the academy, once headed by one of the last Neoplatonic philosophers Proclus (412–485 A.D.), the coda of classical antiquity.

About thirty years before the abolishment of this last pagan redoubt, Stobaeus, echoing Asclepius, wrote: “Up, Up O ye gods! . . . the dawn of a new day of justice invites us.” [16]

The voices of Asclepius and Stobaeus prophesized their imminent end. But also, a day of renewal. Part of the gambit of this book is that the Hermeticists and their cohort were, whether by accident or insight, not wholly wrong.


[1] Examples include the work of Robert Peel (1909–1992), Richard Lyman Bushman (b.1931), D. Michael Quinn (1944–2021), Gerhsom Scholem (1897–1982), and John W. O’Malley (1927–2022).

[2] Western Esotericism: A Guide for the Perplexed (Bloomsbury Academic, 2013).

[3] The Myths We Live By (Routledge, 2004).

[4] The Yezidis practice an esoteric tradition dating to the Middle Ages. They are today among the world’s most oppressed religious minorities. There is no shorthand for Yezidi practice, which involves worship of a rebellious angel. For background, I recommend Peter Lamborn Wilson’s Peacock Angel: The Esoteric Tradition of the Yezidis (Inner Traditions, 2022).

[5] The Early Church by Henry Chadwick (Penguin Books, 1967, 1993).

[6] Hermetica translated by Brian P. Copenhaver (Cambridge University Press, 1992).

[7] Hanegraaff disputes this widely held translation and argues that the term Nous is closer to “light.”

[8] From Newton’s translation: “Tis true without lying, certain and most true. That which is below is like that which is above.” Litwa (2018) provides an annotated translation from Latin: “True it is, without falsehood, certain and most certain: that which is above is like that which is below, and that which is below is like to that which is above, to accomplish the wonders of a single reality.”

[9] “Isaac Newton and the American Alchemist,” Distillations, July 14, 2016.

[10] Hermetica, book XI, translated by Copenhaver (1992).

[11] My reference to “cyclical recurrence” is from Hermetic Spirituality and the Historical Imagination by Wouter J. Hanegraaff (Cambridge University Press, 2022). Translation of Hermes to Tat is Copenhaver (1992).

[12] Litwa (2018).

[13] This history is well summarized in “Historical Note Concerning the Emerald Tablet” in Meditations on the Tarot written anonymously by Catholic scholar and Traditionalist Valentin Tomberg (1900–1973). The posthumous work is itself something of a mystery, thought to date to 1967 with its first publication in French in 1980 and its English publication five years later. I published a 2002 edition at Penguin Random House, which includes the translator’s corrections and an afterword by Traditionalist theologian Cardinal Hans Urs von Balthasar.

[14] Tabula Smaragdina. Ein Beitrag zur Geschichte der hermetischen Literatur [Emerald Tablet. A contribution to the history of Hermetic literature (Heidelberg: Carl Winter, 1926).

[15] The Vishnu Purana translated by H. H. Wilson, 1840.

[16] Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition by Frances A. Yates (University of Chicago Press, 1964).



Mitch Horowitz

"Treats esoteric ideas & movements with an even-handed intellectual studiousness"-Washington Post | PEN Award-winning historian | Censored in China