Book Chapter

Occult Sciences



Ferguson C (2017) Occult Sciences. In: Holmes J & Ruston S (eds.) The Routledge Research Companion to Nineteenth-Century British Literature and Science. London and New York: Routledge, pp. 423-437.

First paragraph: The occult sciences were woven into the fabric of everyday life in nineteenth-century Britain. By no means the exclusive preserve of late Romantic all-male secret societies or, subsequently, of the urban bourgeoisie who formed the core membership of occult organizations such as the Theosophical Society or the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn (Campbell, Dixon, Wunder), they were available to the wider public in the fortunes told at local fairs, in the clairvoyant mirrors advertised in magazine classified columns, in the public lectures devoted to the speculative histories of alchemy and Rosicrucianism, in the dreamscrying techniques shared by word of mouth, and, perhaps most of all, in the pages of popular novels which, as the century progressed, became increasingly suffused with occult plots and tropes. The designation ‘occult science’ was liberally applied in this period to a dizzying gamut of old and new magical practices, including divination, geomancy, clairvoyance, palmistry, alchemy, tarot reading, ceremonial magic, astral projection, kabbalah, necromancy, angel invocation, demonology, astrology, and many others (Hanegraaff 234). These eclectic forms of what Wouter Hanegraaff terms ‘rejected knowledge’ offered to reveal to their users a mysterious, hidden world that lay beyond normal sensory perception, one that no microscope could ever penetrate and in which the supernatural intermediaries and forces increasingly ousted by scientific naturalism were still very much alive and open to supplication. Yet it would be inaccurate to regard these speculative entities and their occult invokers as simply the antithetical and much-maligned others to the secular science of the era. Not content with their de facto banishment from the realm of scientific rationalism, many nineteenth-century occult practitioners, as this chapter will demonstrate, worked relentlessly to insist on the affinities, complicities, and uncanny parallels between their own esoteric knowledge base and the emerging worldview of secular scientific naturalism.

Publication date31/05/2017
Publisher URL…ok/9781472429872
Place of publicationLondon and New York

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Professor Christine Ferguson

Professor Christine Ferguson

Professor in English, English Studies