There are certain words that have an ingrained ability to elicit strong responses in many, if not most, people.
Though the word “occult” may not carry the same weight and sense of taboo in some circles as it did as recently as two or three decades ago, it is still a concept with a good deal of heft and perhaps even more misunderstanding behind it.
However, as John Michael Greer – author of the book that is at the heart of this review post – reminds us in the introduction to The Occult Book, etymologically speaking, the word “occult” simply means hidden.
Information that is, or which is perceived to be of an, occult nature has often been shrouded in mystery – or even secrecy.
At times, this has been a matter of necessity or even life and death for those in possession of certain information. In other instances, the choice has stemmed from the desire to keep particular concepts or facts within a tightly knit group or community.
Whether you are a fellow witch, Wiccan, Pagan or not, chances are there are various images or thoughts that spring to mind immediately for you when you hear the word “occult”.
Most of us associate it with things of a mystical, esoteric, magical/magickal nature, the supernatural, and perhaps even certain hard or impossible to explain phenomena. Some may link it, often unfairly and inaccurately, primarily to Abrahamic concepts pertaining to evil, the devil, or black magic.
In the broadest of senses, such things do, circumstantially, fall under the header of the occult. However, to focus solely or primarily on that relatively small fraction of a much larger and broader concept is to do the word, and moreover, the field, of the occult a great disservice.
As touched on above, in this book review post, we’re going to be shining the spotlight on The Occult Book: A Chronological Journey from Alchemy to Wicca by John Michael Greer, which was published in 2017.
This gorgeous-looking book is not a handbook or how-to guide on occult subjects, but rather a concise, engaging look at about one hundred key points in the history of the occult over the past two thousand or so years.
Author: John Michael Greer
Page count: 224
An informative and enjoyable look at the history of the occult
The Occult Book explores the vast history of the occult in chronological order, starting with the oldest dates included here first and working its way up until the year 2012.
At 224 pages, this book is not encyclopedic in size or scope. Nor does it need to be.
There are other titles pertaining to the occult, the history of witchcraft, and related subjects that serve as more exhaustive reference books on the market (including, by the same author, The New Encyclopedia of the Occult).
Instead, it is a fact-filled look at various standout points and/or figures who have left their mark on the worlds of the occult, astrology, divination, witchcraft, alchemy, and magic/magick.
The mix of relevant visuals and lively, fascinating text presented by Greer helps to ensure this book is a page-turner from start to finish.
Each entry is presented in the same way. One page of text is accompanied on the facing page with an image (be it artwork or a photograph) pertaining to the event, person, or group highlighted in said writing.
Beginning in the 6th century BCE with Pythagoras, The Occult Book guides readers on a compelling and well-laid-out journey from the time of the ancient Greeks to the modern world of Wicca, witchery, and Neopaganism.
Along the way, we encounter a fair number of events, groups, and figures that one would expect in a book on the history of the occult. For example, the horrifically brutal Burning Times to the founding of the Order of the Golden Dawn, Marie Laveau (pictured above in the image of her – a painting by George Catlin from 1835 – included in this book) to Gerald Gardener.
However, we’re also treated to a look at various people and happenings that may be less common occult-related household names for some of us, such as Miriam the Alchemist and Johannes Bureus.
John Michael Greer, the author of The Occult Book is a Druid and Free Mason who has written a wide array of books on topics pertaining to Druidry (for example, The Druid Magic Handbook and The Druidry Handbook, both of which I strongly recommend), the occult, paranormal activity, and politics. In addition to having penned a number of novels.
Widely considered to be one of the modern era’s most knowledgeable experts on these areas, Greer is a prolific author whose titles I’m always happy to encounter and whose writing, both in book and blog post form, I highly respect.
His nonfiction books are generally written in a tone that is upbeat and informative with little perceivable bias, and one senses his own deeply rooted connections to the subjects he covers.
Greer has long been involved with areas pertaining to hermeticism, Druidry (for example, he served for twelve years in the distinguished position of Grand Archdruid of The Ancient Order of Druids in America), ceremonial magic, and astrology.
In the selection of historical events and people highlighted in The Occult Book, these interests shine through and enrich this title all the more.
While various happenings and individuals connected to witchcraft (both past and present) are touched on in this book, it is important to keep in mind as you read through it that The Occult Book is not a history of witchcraft or magick exclusively.
Interestingly, and perhaps intentionally (though such is only a guess) as the book progresses into the 20th and 21st centuries, Greer makes little mention of key occult figures who are presently alive.
There are some names – Scott Cunningham, for example – who have passed, however, that I feel this book could have benefited from making mention of. Just as it could have from looking at more of today’s (living) highly influential figures and their works.
Indeed, the number of entries pertaining to the past 125 years or so are relatively small in relation to those from earlier points in history. That isn’t to say they’re lacking, but that there are perhaps some other figures and events that this book would have benefited from touching on as well.
Of course though, as this is not, again, an encyclopedic title, there will always be suitable entries that could have appeared, but which were either not considered or which ultimately did not make the cut.
How The Occult Book by John Michael Greer rates with me
In a way, this book is a bit like a taster menu of occult subjects. Each course (aka, book entry) has its own distinct appeal and fascination, the whole body presented works excellently together, and it is apt to whet your appetite for more.
By this, I mean that each of the entries in this book provides you with enough information to familiarize yourself with the event, group or person covered, but does not, as a single page of text per entry, share every last thing one could learn about a particular topic.
For those who love to use the books we read as springboards for further research, this approach is welcome and useful alike.
One of the things that leaps out at the reader as soon as they encounter The Occult Book is what an aesthetically pleasing book it is both inside and out.
From the sturdy (hard) cover in captivating shades of midnight blue and embossed metallic gold foil to the abundance of terrific images housed between that stunning cover, this book is as much a treat for the eyes as it for the knowledge-seeking mind.
Another point that may strike fellow readers is that, while women are not excluded from this book by any means, the majority of entries do focus on men. In particular, often, though not always, European or North American white males.
It should go without saying that the history of the occult, magick, and witchcraft is one that encompasses the majority of cultures that have existed throughout the course of human civilization and that these areas have been engaged in by people of a wide range of genders and ethnicities.
Naturally, an even broader range of representation would have been welcome here. However, once more, it is important to keep in mind that a book like this, which presents quick summations of “just” a hundred or so points in the colossal history or the occult cannot possibly cover every person or happening pertaining to this topic.
This book is a concise, breezy, name-and-date focused look at the history of the occult world over the past two millennia.
It makes for an excellent introduction to the subject for readers all but the youngest ages (as I was reading it, I found myself reflecting on how much I would have lapped up The Occult Book in my youth), while still being visually and informatively captivating enough to appeal to many whose own knowledge on occult matters is anything but beginner level.
Working on a scale of 1 – 5, with five being the highest possible rating, I would give The Occult Book by John Michael Greer 4 stars out of 5.
★ ★ ★ ★ ☆
Have you read The Occult Handbook? Who, or what, are some events or figures that spring to mind when you think about the world of the occult? 🕯️📖🔮