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Exploring Occult Symbolism From a History and Herstory Perspective of Education: Part 2 – Cults and the Occult

When Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press, the first full book he published was the Bible. However, did not make a lot of money because most people still could not read, let a lone read Latin, the language of the Bible. Gutenberg died penniless but his invention prospered and revolutionised the world.

Some wealthy Italian families (they weren’t called Italians back then, rather, they were Venetians, Florentines, Romans, etc.,) already had an interest in old manuscripts, especially those of Greek Philosophers, and were in the process of making copies of old ancient text by hand. They saw the potential to speed up the process by printing, hence, Venice, Florence, Rome, and Germany, became the first major epicentres of book publishing. Unlike Gutenberg, who did not have a ready made literate customer base, families, like the Medici’s, had members within the Church, politics, and military who could read and were eager to maintain superiority over others through advanced knowledge.

Early Printing Press

Source: Wikipedia Commons

I sometimes wonder if the Europeans of the late 1400s who were involved in those early days of printing realised what a monumental role they were playing in facilitating social change? Did they realise that the mass production of literature would increase literacy levels that, in turn, would spark revolution after revolution? What is known is that when it became apparent that books and learning were encouraging people to challenge authorities and the status quo, the Pope attempted to censor and control what books were and were not allowed to be published. It became canonised law that books, especially those of a religious nature, had to receive an imprimatur which in Latin means “let it be printed”. A person found to be illegally printing books without the Pope’s approval, or any person in possession of non-approved publications, could be fined, brought before a court, and/or integrated by inquisition panels.

As time went on, it also became apparent that brute force could not prevent people from learning non-Church approved literature, so the control tactics became more emotionally driven. That is, Christians were warned that certain reading material was heretical and if the devout wanted to be assured an eternity of bliss in heaven, then they needed to stay clear of some books, if not, they would burn in hell. Between 1560 and 1948, twenty editions of Index Librorum Prohibitorum (List of Prohibited Books) were published by various Popes.

Many people today would recognise some of the authors who had work on forbidden list: Rene Descartes, Francis Bacon, John Locke, Immanuel Kant, and Simone de Beauvoir. Nicolaus Copernicus, Galileo Galilei, and Dante Alighieri had their works banned for a period of time and then later Pope’s removed them from the index.

The Church’s totalitarian approach lead to a kind of underbelly of education. It was probably obvious to many that the Church leaders were keeping secrets, but working out was true and what was false was difficult. Like a person who has been in a relationship with a narcissistic partner, it takes some time to realise the depths to which they have been gaslighted. l have no doubt that many secret societies were established; that is, people gathering in groups trying to put pieces together and/or groups led by people who claimed they knew all the answers. Hence the idea of cults and occultism developed alongside each other.

If the Catholic Church’s version of history is accurate, then all groups of people who operated outside of mainstream Christianity (or other recognised religion such as Islam or Judaism) were involved in cults. Further, if they did not abide by the Pope’s version of Bible interpretation, then they may be called occultists. To be an occultist was akin to being a heretic. Making cults and occultism derogatory, was just par and parcel with trying to maintain control. (See below for discussion on cults.)

The word “cult” comes from the Latin, cultus, which was a reference to the attentive agricultural practices of seeds being cultivated. Like almost all aspects of Ancient Roman life, farming involved an element of religious devotion with growing practices tied to the moon and seasonal cues. Hence, a grower didn’t just cultivate seeds, they had knowledge of the earth and its elements, thus, they cultivated themselves via the obtaining of wisdom about nature. Gradually, over time the symbolic gesture of seeds growing was applied to the concept of ideas growing, hence the term cults became known as a reference to groups of people devoted to an ideology, and culture became a reference to masses of people who shared common ideas, customs, beliefs, and attributes.

Initially, the Latin definition of a cultus did not carry any negativity, it simply referred to groups of people who practiced shared worship or homage to deity or doctrine. When the word transferred over to French, as culte, in the sixteenth century, it began to pick up negative connotations of groups of people who adhered to ideologies contrary to social norms, and this association has remained in the English usage of the term of cult.

In a metaphorical sense, a cult is like a seedling, whereas a culture is a crop that has developed from thereof. E.g., Early Christianity began as a cult then grew so big that it became a culture.

Whether or not a cult deserves to be perceived to be negative or benign can be a matter of opinion. If the cult is at odds with an alternative belief system (particularly if that cult has mainstream acceptance) then it may be judged poorly.

My personal view is that if a cult prescribes any form of abusive, controlling, or trauma-inducing practices (physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually), then it can rightly be defined as a destructive cult. Alternatively, if a group of people who prescribe to a shared belief system encourage positive behaviours like love, non-judgment, kindness, inclusiveness, and trauma-formed healing practices, then it is a positive cult. Within this definition is the capacity for varying degrees of negative and positive traits within cults.

Over the years, I’ve read many conspiracy theories about secret brotherhoods (good and bad). The name of some groups pop up more frequently than others, like the Knights Templars, the Freemasons, Rosicrucians, and the alike. (It is my understanding that Judaism and Islam have their equivalent in Kabbalah and Sufism respectively, however, I am not as well versed in their histories.) What I have generally noted is that these theories are not grounded in a deep and sincere appreciation of historical considerations, social constraints, and above all humanness. Suggestions that some groups are associated with supernatural beliefs and practices that extend back to ancient cultures like the Egyptians, don’t capture a very basic life principle: nothing is permanent except change. To modify, reinvent, and appropriate are standard behaviours when the paradigm of humans as creative beings is taken into account.

Movies like The Da Vinci Code romanticise a Holy Grail notion of Christian mysticism (comically, the friend I mentioned in the epilogue recently remarked that they didn’t want to watch The Da Vinci Code with me because they knew I’d constantly be critiquing the misrepresentations of history). Certainly, I would agree there are connections between past and present beliefs, and religious practices, but the weaving of influences and events is a lot more complex and nuanced by various factors than some conspiracy theorists acknowledge.

Personally, I like to take a pragmatic approach that incorporates an understanding of the history religions, blended with contemporary understandings of trauma-formed psychology. Above all, issues relating to cults and the occult are about education.

PART THREE: History of education (westernised version)

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Exploring Occult Symbolism From a History and Herstory Perspective of Education: Part 1 – Introduction

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