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5 Historical Mystics Who Embraced Occultism

These leaders looked outside science and established religion for answers.

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  • Aleister Crowley in 1910.Photo Credit: Wikipedia

Mysticism. It’s a word we all know, but do we really know what it means? According to Merriam-Webster dictionary, mysticism is "the belief that direct knowledge of God, spiritual truth, or ultimate reality can be attained through subjective experience (such as intuition or insight)". Derived from the Greek word “myein,” meaning “to close,” the term once described initiates into “mystery religions” or secret cults in the Hellenistic Age. The rites and rituals of these groups were often wholly or partly secret, meaning that only members of the faith had access to them. Hence, the idea of mysticism became tied to a sense of possessing secret knowledge or insight not granted to everyone.

Throughout history, there have been plenty of major figures who claimed to have such insight. Some of these are religious leaders, while others head up their own cults, begin secret societies, or have the ear of the crowned heads of the world. 

Whether or not their claims are genuine or if they are simply manipulating others for their own gain is a subject of considerable contention, but there’s no denying that these five historical mystics changed the world, regardless of whether they actually knew universal secrets or not.



Born in the Siberian village of Pokrovskoye in 1869, Grigori Yefimovich Rasputin rose to prominence as an important figure in the court of Czar Nicholas II, until he was assassinated in 1916. Part of the reason for Rasputin’s influence in court was that he claimed to be a faith healer who was capable of treating the emperor’s only son, who suffered from hemophilia. 

A controversial figure in Russian politics, Rasputin presented himself as a holy man, even though he held no official position with the Russian Orthodox Church. So many rumors circulated about Rasputin and his relationship with the Czar’s family—it was suggested that he had seduced the empress, and maybe even her daughters—that it is difficult to know what was true about the notorious figure. Even his death feels like something larger than life. Having already survived one assassination attempt, Rasputin was eventually poisoned, shot, and thrown into an icy river.

Madame Blavatsky


Unlike Rasputin, Helena Petrovna Blavatsky was born into aristocracy. She became one of the founders of the Theosophical Society and was known as that movement’s leading theoretician. According to Blavatsky, Theosophy was “the synthesis of science, religion, and philosophy,” an “Ancient Wisdom” which provided the underpinnings of all the world’s religions. To put it another way, all religions had some things right and some things wrong, and Theosophy was the way to find the truth in each of them.

Though she was frequently accused of producing fraudulent paranormal phenomena, Blavatsky was an influential thinker through Europe and the United States during her lifetime, and her writings and teachings helped to introduce many Hindu and Buddhist ideas into Western thought, as well as paving the way for numerous other esoteric movements.

Aleister Crowley


Probably the most controversial figure on this list, Aleister Crowley is nonetheless one of the most significant figures in modern occultism. As founder of the religion known as Thelema and head of the British branch of the Ordo Templi Orientis, Crowley exerted enormous influence over esoteric thought at the beginning of the 20th century.

A prolific writer, Crowley published numerous books, poems, essays, and short stories throughout his life, many of them promoting Thelema and his various occult beliefs. In addition to being an occultist, he was also bisexual and a drug user, which may have driven some of the public animosity toward him. He was sometimes referred to as “the most evil man alive,” a label he seemed to embrace, calling himself “666” and “The Beast.” When George Ivanovich Gurdjieff, another important mystic of the age, met Crowley, Gurdjieff referred to him as “dirty inside.” In spite of this, Crowley lived to a ripe old age and died of bronchitis, and his teachings continued to impact Western thought long afterward, especially during the counterculture of the 1960s.

John Dee

1527-1608 or 1609

John Dee has been credited for coining the term "British Empire," but that's not all he's known for. As the court astronomer to Elizabeth I, John Dee had the ear of the crown in numerous important matters, including advocating for the foundation of British colonies in what was then deemed the New World. Besides his influence over English policy, Dee also boasted one of the largest libraries in the world.

Unfortunately for him, the astronomer and alchemist gradually fell out of favor at court. He took pilgrimages to other parts of Europe in the hopes of furthering his occult knowledge, but returned to find that his library had been ransacked and many of his books and instruments stolen. By the time Elizabeth I was succeeded on the throne by James I, Dee had virtually no remaining support from the crown, and he is said to have died in poverty in London.

Hildegard von Bingen

c. 1089-1179

One of the earliest known Christian mystics, Hildegard von Bingen was an important writer and thinker of the church and is also considered by many scholars to be the founder of the tradition of scientific natural history within her native Germany. A polymath, Hildegard von Bingen wrote everything from botanical and medical texts to hymns, poems, and music, as well as what is widely considered the first morality play.

In 2012, she was recognized as a saint by Pope Benedict XVI, who also named her a Doctor of the Church for her “holiness of life and the originality of her teaching.” Throughout her life, Hildegard von Bingen experienced visions of what she called “The Shade of the Living Light.” These visions prompted the first of her theological texts, though she was reluctant to record her visions for much of her life. It was only after receiving what she believed was a commandment from God to “write down that which you see and hear,” that she began recording her visions for posterity.