“To know, to dare, to will, to keep silence—such are the four words of the magus…”
–The Doctrine and the Ritual of Magic, Eliphas Levi
The earliest use of the term “occult” emerged in the 16th century when studies such as astrology and natural magic were catalogued under the occult sciences. Fast forward to the 19th century and the word picked up momentum with the French associating it with esoteric groups. It’s believed that the phrase “occult” finally made its debut in the English language circa 1875 when esoterist Helena Blavatsky (more on her later) began using it in her works. Although the mention of the occult seems quite recent, traces of it might have existed for much longer, into the far reaches of centuries past.
The dark arts, black magic, Satanism, witchcraft, paganism, mysticism—these are just a few of the practices commonly connected to occultism. All the greater are the number of individuals throughout the ages to have been linked to the practice of it. In his book The Black Arts, Richard Cavendish says, “The magician sets out to conquer the universe. To succeed he must make himself master of everything in it—evil as well as good, cruelty as well as mercy, pain as well as pleasure.” Perhaps this is the mission to unite the souls I’m about to mention here; a common purpose propelling them throughout their lifetimes. Presented in chronological order, let’s have a look at some of history’s most formidable occult figures.
Anne Marie de Georgel & Catherine Delort (Early 1300s)
This pair from Toulouse, France, is the first known to share details of a sabbath, also known as sabbat. Sabbaths were generally recognized as witches’ congregations and what happened during these meetings was usually up for speculation by outsiders. Anne and Catherine though, purportedly devotees of Satan and his minions, delivered enticing details of their experiences. Both women claimed to serve a he-goat present at these sabbats who taught them spells and other sorcery and commanded them to worship the Devil and defy God. According to records, they even said they consumed the corpses of newborns. The duo was tried in 1335.
The only information I’ve come across on these two women is in Richard Cavendish’s The Black Arts. Although the veracity of Anne and Catherine’s statements is unknown, it’s important to consider the greater repercussions their accounts might have add on future women being tried as witches. It’s quite likely Anne and Catherine were tortured and forced to admit to practices they did not do. Stories like these were passed down and influenced society’s view of the occult as evil, setting in motion the horrific acts that would be committed towards the persecuted during the witch trials.
Nicolas Flamel (1330-1418)
Legends as grand as King Arthur and his knights surround this Frenchman, so information regarding him should be taken with a grain of salt. He was a bookseller and scribe, normal occupations, and apparently led a life of little intrigue, until accounts that came posthumously created the mysterious man we know today. In the 17th century, an alchemical work was published called Exposition of the Hieroglyphical Figures and credited to Flamel. The introduction relays his quest for The Philosopher’s Stone. He had obtained a book that turned out to be a significant magical text, The Book of Abramelin. From that, he and his wife discovered how to make the stone and The Elixir of Life. Some believe that the couple achieved immortality.
Whether or not these stories hold any validity, there’s no doubt that Flamel and his supposed alchemical practices have influenced occult followers. Certain principles of alchemy are present in occult studies, such as the four elements. Plus, attempts have been made by others to craft their own elixir of life, most notably by Johann Conrad Dippel, a person worth looking up who almost made it on this list.
Mother Shipton (1488-1561)
We’ve heard of history’s most famous prophet Nostradamus, but Mother Shipton is another prominent soothsayer who has gone under the radar. Like Nicolas Flamel, fact and fiction tend to blur together when discussing the English clairvoyant. Highly circulated tales say she had a hideous appearance, her father was the Devil and that as a baby she could levitate. In 1862, a book titled Life, Prophesies and Death of the Famous Mother Shipton written by a man named Charles Hindley surfaced. In it, he listed several predictions he alleged were made by Mother Shipton. The most notorious is the following: “The world to an end shall come / In eighteen hundred and eighty one.”
Obviously, an apocalypse didn’t occur in 1881, but it’s been conjectured that the oracle referenced chilling events that happened that year. Cataclysms included the “Great Comet of 1881,” Eyemouth Disaster, Khios Earthquake and the Mother Shipton Meteorite. It’s been said the prediction was a forgery, but there are people who believe in Shipton’s prowess as a clairvoyant and that her other prophesies have accurately foretold certain affairs. She continues to be an important figure to modern-day fortune tellers, mediums and psychics. I recommend visiting this Mother Shipton website, which provides an academic study of the woman.
Marie Laveau (Around 1801-1881)
Considered one of the most famous witches in history, Marie Laveau is as revered today as she was more than a century ago. Every year, tourists flock to New Orleans to explore the city she called home. It’s said her grandmother was an influential priestess and that she came from a background rooted in African spirituality. The title of Voodoo Queen was no mere stage name but was passed on to her, and it was a role she assumed with much pride.
People sought out her magical aid for their troubles and for guidance. Various reports have emerged regarding Laveau’s spiritual gifts, which speak of her ability to predict the future, read minds, as well as place and remove curses. Some sources allege she owned a pet snake named after the African god Zombi. Occasionally, Laveau hosted rituals for the community, which caused quite the sensation, piquing public interest. People talked of the chanting and spirit possessions that would occur during these gatherings.
A recent biography called The Magic of Marie Laveau by Denise Alvarado sheds light on a facet of the Voodoo priestess that many may not know—that Laveau was a devout Catholic. The author discusses how Laveau balanced these two spiritual realms, possibly incorporating Catholic customs with magical practices. It’s a very interesting notion and shrouds this woman all the more in mystery. Her body rests at Saint Louis Cemetery No. 1, but some individuals claim to have seen Madam Laveau after her death. Whether or not her spirit haunts the streets of New Orleans, her presence can still be seen throughout pop culture and she continues to be a significant figure for practitioners of Voodoo today.
Eliphas Levi (1810-1875)
Spiritualism and the occult truly blossomed in the 19th century, finding a foothold in many facets of society, and Eliphas Levi greatly influenced the occultists that would emerge during this era. Born Alphonse Louis Constant, he had a Catholic upbringing but was at odds with the church’s teachings from an early age. He studied to become a priest but was expelled for his heretical viewpoints, ones he made no effort to hide.
It appears that Levi was destined to take the road less traveled, that of the left-hand path. It was Levi that gave us the well-known image of Baphomet and the inverted pentagram. He made great use of the Tarot, and books he published on magic and rituals would later influence occultists such as Aleister Crowley. These include Dogma and the Ritual of High Magic, The History of Magic and The Key of the Mysteries among others. When occultist A.E. Waite translated his work Doctrine and Ritual, he found that Levi disclosed vital information about an occult society of which he was a member. Not surprisingly, this led to his expulsion from the group.
Oddly enough, he didn’t practice magic as much as he theorized about it, but there was one ritual he performed alone that involved necromancy. He attempted to evoke philosopher and magician Apollonius of Tyana. Although he wasn’t certain if it was Apollonius that appeared, whatever apparition did come through physically touched him and left him shaken. After the experience he made it a point to caution anyone trying to do similar feats. His teachings would go on to shape the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn and Helena Blavatsky’s Theosophical Society.
Helena Blavatsky (1831-1891)
Russian-born Helena Blavatsky was a worldly woman who was no stranger to controversy in her time. Stories surrounding her life have been scrutinized by critics and biographers, but nevertheless, like her predecessor, she left a major imprint on spiritual and occult landscapes. Blavatsky’s early encounters with magic occurred as a child while living with her grandparents. She stumbled upon a collection of esoteric books that belonged to her great-grandfather and claimed to have had paranormal experiences.
One of her most fantastic accounts involves the international travels she went on after escaping her marriage. Turkey, Egypt, India, Mexico and England are just a few of the countries she purportedly visited. Although the extensive traveling sounds amazing, it’s her experiences in these places that were truly extraordinary, such as studying voodoo in New Orleans and discovering lost Incan treasure in South America. In records detailing her time in Tibet, she wrote that she studied with monks where she advanced her clairvoyant and psychic abilities. And, in “An Unsolved Mystery,” she recalls meeting the reincarnated forms of magician Alessandro Cagliostro and his wife in Paris in 1861.
It’s easy to see why these accounts would come under question and at this point it’s difficult to separate fact from fancy. One thing that is certain is her establishment of Theosophy, a religion that merges philosophy and mysticism. The doctrine came to Blavatsky from a secret brotherhood that she referred to as the “Masters.” She fervently believed that an ancient religion existed at one time and was the origin of all religions. She blamed Christianity for erasing traces of its presence in the Western world. After founding the new religion, Helena would go on to write her most renowned publication, Isis Unveiled. It’s a groundbreaking work that is recognized by many scholars to be invaluable to the development of Western Esoterism.
Grigori Rasputin (1869-1916)
If you look up Grigori Rasputin on the web, you’ll be confronted with images of a bearded man looking into the camera with a startling, ominous gaze. He doesn’t appear to be someone with whom I’d feel comfortable being alone, but he managed to get into the good graces of Emperor Nicholas II and his family. Also Russian, Rasputin was a mystic and holy man. A pilgrimage he took in 1897 would transform him entirely. During this time, he traveled to places such as Greece and Jerusalem where his abilities as a healer and seer became widely known. It wasn’t long before word of him reached St. Petersburg, home to Russia’s royal family.
Through clever networking on his part, he was finally introduced to the Czar and his wife Alexandra. The couple’s son suffered from hemophilia and Rasputin was the only person able to cure him. From that point, the mystic became indispensable to the imperial clan. Alexandra in particular took a liking to Rasputin and consulted with him frequently on various matters. This relationship would spawn rumors that the two were having an affair.
A tryst with the king’s wife wasn’t the only allegation against Grigori. Many at court were suspicious of his motives and were uncomfortable with his role as advisor to the queen during World War I in the absence of Nicholas II who was off commanding the army. Stories circulated of his carnal appetite, hinting at an immoral nature that he managed to conceal from his benefactors. In regard to his clairvoyant gifts, he supposedly foretold the calamity that would come to Russia as a result of the war. His most eerie prediction, however, would be his last—the prediction of his death and demise of the Tzar and his family.
He wrote a letter to Nicholas II detailing that he’d most likely be assassinated and warned him that a similar fate would befall his family. A few weeks later, Rasputin was murdered by nobles. The Czar and his family were killed more than a year after.
Aleister Crowley (1875-1947)
Of the individuals I’ve discussed thus far, Aleister Crowley is probably the most famous today. His name and face have become synonymous with the occult over the past few decades and he’s definitely a favorite among rock musicians, including The Beatles, David Bowie and Jimmy Page. So, who was this person referred to as “The Wickedest Man in the World” and the “Great Beast?”
Born in 1875, the year Eliphas Levi died, Crowley believed he was the reincarnation of the deceased occultist. With this conviction firmly imprinted on his mind and soul, he set out to revolutionize the occult scene. He was raised in an Evangelical household but rejected those beliefs at a young age. In his early 20s, he became involved with the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, a secret society dedicated to studying the occult, paranormal and metaphysics. He was initiated and began to move up in the ranks, but eventually had a falling out with fellow members. Crowley proudly led a life of debauchery, indulging in alcohol, drugs and sex with men and women, and this didn’t sit well with initiates of the order. This was of little consequence to Crowley who would go on to establish his own religious sect.
While in Egypt, his wife Rose claimed the god Horus was attempting to deliver messages to Aleister. Not long after her experiences, he would receive important communication from Aiwass, a messenger of Horus, which he recorded in what is now known as The Book of the Law. It revealed that the coming of a new Aeon was on the horizon and that Aleister was its prophet. This work and the philosophy it promoted, “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law,” would be the foundation of the Thelema religion.
Crowley would go on to live an existence filled with intrigue, scandal and, of course, magick. It was his idea to add the letter “k” to form the word “magick” to separate it from stage magic. He was also an avid mountain climber and was rumored to have served as a spy for British Intelligence. For anyone curious to learn more, I recommend the biography Aleister Crowley: Magick, Rock and Roll, and the Wickedest Man in the World by Gary Lachman, former member of the group Blondie.
Anton Szandor LaVey (1930-1997)
This is another occult figure whose spirit continues to thrive in the new millennium. Like Crowley, Anton LaVey demonstrated a fascination with macabre subjects as a child, devouring horror classics and pulp fiction. It was clear that he was unlike anyone his age. The mundane routine of extracurricular activities and school bore him, and he couldn’t help but be drawn to the bizarre. When he dropped out of high school, he joined a carnival troupe as a musician. He possessed strong musical abilities, a gift his parents fostered at a young age. He took a liking to the keyboard and would go on to play the instrument as he got older for gigs he booked at bars, lounges and spook shows.
LaVey was keen on studying human nature and was an astute observer of people’s behaviors. These observations in conjunction with influences from philosophers, such as Nietzsche and Ayn Rand, would contribute to the teachings of the Church of Satan when he founded it in 1966, year one in the Age of Satan. At its core, LaVeyan Satanism, as it is also referred, encourages the individual to view herself as god of her own will. According to the Church, the devil embodies the pursuit of personal freedoms, similar to Thelema’s “Do what thou wilt” philosophy, as long as no harm comes to others. I became curious about LaVey and his congregation as a teen and in college got my hands on his first book, The Satanic Bible. It left an impression on my budding mind, especially since I had been questioning my Catholic upbringing.
After establishing the Church, Anton gained notoriety among celebrities and the elite of society. The media labeled him The Black Pope. Members of his sect have included Jayne Mansfield, Sammy Davis Jr. and Marilyn Manson. Burlesque star Dita Von Teese recommended his work The Satanic Witch in her book Burlesque and the Art of the Teese. In 2017, dark art gallery Lethal Amounts held a special ceremony on Halloween honoring his memory. And, people proudly don the Sigil of Baphomet, the Church of Satan’s official emblem, on t-shirts, jewelry and tattoos, whether they follow the religion or not. Of his three children, it appears his son, Satan Xerxes Carnacki, is active within the organization. Although he died more than 20 years ago, his influence today blazes brighter than the flames of hell.
Santa Muerte & Las Enriquetas (?-Present)
Many may be familiar with the vision of a skeletal female figure draped in a flowing garment from her head to her feet, sometimes shown wielding a scythe. This is Nuestra Señora de la Santa Muerte (Our Lady of Holy Death), a saint who’s woven into the fabric of Mexican folk culture and Catholicism. Although her image transformed somewhat when the Catholic religion was introduced by the Spaniards, the existence of this deity can be traced back to pre-Columbian times when the Aztecs worshipped a goddess called Mictecacihuatl (Lady of the Dead). The underworld was her domain and she was often portrayed with skull-like features. Some suggest that the Europeans may have introduced the image of the Grim Reaper to the natives, thus fusing together the indigenous idol and Western death lord, producing the present depiction we have of Saint Death.
Death is not a taboo topic in Mexican culture; it’s embraced as a natural part of human existence. The Day of the Dead is a perfect example of this. To celebrate, families erect altars paying homage to the deceased and welcoming their spirits back to the earth. One would assume that Santa Muerte sits right at home within the pantheon of Catholic saints, but she doesn’t. Unfortunately, Saint Death has been shunned by the Catholic Church and any veneration to her is condemned. The Vatican has been very vocal on this point. Our Lady is considered Satanic and rooted in the occult. Her popularity among cartel members, criminals and the destitute further vilifies her to those who do not seek to understand.
In 2001, one woman named Enriqueta Romero took the bold step of erecting a shrine dedicated to Santa Muerte outside of her home in Mexico City. Romero, who is in her 70s, has been praying to the saint since she was 12 and has always felt a deep connection with her. The altar gained widespread attention with people making pilgrimages to the site to pay their respects and leave a petition with the female grim reaper.
Enriqueta Vargas, also called La Madrina Vargas, was another advocate of Santa Muerte. She was definitely a trailblazer in the Santa Muerte Internacional (SMI) movement, becoming a devotee after the murder of her son. A charismatic persona, Vargas transformed the temple SMI, spreading its message throughout Mexico and Latin America. She, as well as several supporters of the temple, claimed to have had supernatural experiences connected to the saint. Sadly, Lady Death took her disciple in December of 2018. The organization, located in Tultitlán, Mexico, continues to be a sanctuary for those wanting to dedicate themselves to the holy icon.
Both Enriqueta Romero and Enriqueta Vargas took courageous actions to prove that Santa Muerte does indeed deserve a place among the living. The 21st century has witnessed a resurgence of Saint Death and her following continues to grow. Widely misunderstood, this deity is not a representation of evil and should not be feared. Rather, Our Lady of Death is a voice for the marginalized, a symbol of female empowerment, a reminder of our mortality.
There you have it. More than 10 of the most influential people in occult history. When taking a step back to consider the individual journeys of this group, it’s apparent that they all led incredible lives. Many incidents are questioned but they relentlessly pursued their visions, never faltering in their beliefs in a greater universal force that humanity can wield.
“The complete man, who has experienced and mastered all things, has vanquished Nature and mounted higher than the heavens. He has reached the centre where man becomes God. The achievement of this is the Great Work, the supreme magical operation, which may take a lifetime or many lifetimes to complete.”
-The Black Arts, Richard Cavendish