As psychologist Terrence William Deacon says, humans are a symbolic species. Across communication forms we use symbols to convey complex meanings. At an iconic level, symbols are easy to interpret, however, at an advanced level, they are difficult and cannot be understood without education.
Woodcut illustration from an edition of Pliny the Elder’s Naturalis Historia, 1582
For most of human history, education has been a privilege only few have had access to. Mostly, but not always, it has been men who have dominated systems of learning. Knowledge was hidden from most of the population, and virtually all women, hence it is no surprise that once literacy levels began to increase there was a surge of interest in what was unknown, forgotten, or occult. The learning of hidden symbols has a mystical quality to it, especially when considered in relation to religious examples.
All religions use symbols to explain theology, perform rituals, and express faith; that is simply human nature. At face value, the term occult is benign, as it reflects the notion that complex symbolism is hidden until an initiate is educated to knowledge; however, over the years the word has picked up negative connotations. The Catholic Church has been one of the main players in contributing to the idea that religious practices that use symbols with hidden meanings are evil; although, this appears to be biased because hidden Church symbols are considered to be Holy.
Ultimately, whether or not a religious group, that is a cult, is destructive or beneficial needs to be assessed in accordance with whether or not practitioners are harmed or healed, not the symbols that they use.
It is only in very recent history (the past few decades) that things have really begun to change, especially in terms of most people of all genders having access to basic education. As time progresses, there is probably going to be a lot of hidden knowledge that is unearthed. For example, a lost city of Egypt has recently been discovered near Luxor and new Greek treasures found at the temple of Artemis. Advanced research technologies and access to information via the internet are facilitating a new form of Renaissance, the likes of which we probably cannot fully fathom until several more years into the future.
Humans have a long history of being fascinated with the supernatural, the unseen, the spiritual. The tenants of such beliefs need to be viewed alongside and intertwined with examinations of symbolism. Contemporary psychology research supports the hypothesis that the meaning of any symbol is only as powerful as that which humans give it. And how much power a person attributes to a symbol needs to be assessed in conjunction with their personal beliefs, cultural influences, and historical context.
Trying to interpret symbols out of the historical and cultural context of their makers is to re-tell a new story. Sometimes it is fine to do so, other times it can lead to great error, like mistakingly thinking that Cleopatra really wore a corset (reference: Giambattista Tiepolo The Banquet of Cleopatra, 1743-1744). In modern media studies, awareness of visual communication often comes under the discipline of Codes and Conventions. To put it briefly, these are written and symbolic devices used to convey meaning. Mass media work by specified codes; artists can use mass media codes and conversations or they may invent their own symbolism.
Symbols have the capacity to unite people and evoke a sense of belonging through their shared meanings. Symbols can also confuse and isolate people if they are not privy to the visual code that others are using. On this note, there is an element of fun and intrigue in cracking so-called occult symbolism.
And lastly, sometimes, the meanings of symbols can appear hidden but really, it could just be a question of Can You See the Turtles?