HIST 3406: The Occult in Western History

Another autumn course is this course on the occult that I’m team-teaching with a delightful colleague, David Leeson. The Occult in Western History surveys esoteric beliefs and practices from ancient times through the twentieth century. Thankfully, I have my colleague to tackle everything after the witch-hunts!

I look upon this course as a way to discombobulate the students, forcing them to clearly articulate what they know and believe as well as what people in the past knew and believed (and the essential differences between the two). How does it change our understanding of early Christianity when we acknowledge how it related to magical beliefs of the time and created new secretive philosophies to engage thinkers? How are alchemy and chemistry related and yet also distinct? How much of the occult can be explained by a lot of lonely people throughout history who just want to find true love (or epic wealth or gain respect or whatever they lack)?

The trick is not to make it all about lecturing but to get the students to participate. This is the second time we’re teaching the course so I’ve added even more questions and discussion prompts to my daily lists. In the opening weeks of term we’ll be reading The Perfect Discourse and using that to lead them into the hermetic occult tradition. Then they’ll pursue some research projects before wrapping up their term work with a study of Nightmare Alley.

I expect we’re going to have a lot of fun along the way, not the least of which will be bringing up and appropriately debunking pop culture takes on the occult like this:

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