Let me tell you a story.
It’s about a strange, eccentric, rather magical and somewhat comical figure called Madame Helena Blavatsky, and a secret order of superhuman beings that she discovered / created, and then invited the world to join.
It’s about a great fiction, which became a religion, called Theosophy.
The Theosophical Society did a lot to introduce Eastern wisdom into western society, it popularized occult ideas like astral travel and the ‘Akashic Records’, and inspired everything from the Wizard of Oz to Twin Peaks. More negatively, Blavatsky’s occult view of history also fed into modern conspiracy theories, from David Icke to Qanon.
Blavatsky, nicknamed HPB, rose to prominence in the 1870s-1890s, during a period that’s been called a ‘mystical revival’. Darwin’s Origin of Species had been published in 1856, Christianity was declining in influence and materialism reached a high-point of influence around the mid-1870s. But it’s not accurate to say that Darwinism destroyed religion. Rather, the shock of Darwinism led to a period of intense spiritual creativity, as all sorts of new religious and spiritual movements sprung into existence to cater to people’s spiritual needs. It was an era when the ‘occulture’ — the usually underground culture of occult and alternative ideas — briefly went mainstream and mixed with all kinds of heterodox ideas, from vegetarianism to quantum physics to fascism.
The most popular new spiritual movement in the 1870s was Spiritualism, a fairly crude form of popular religion based on the idea that people can contact the spirits of the dead through seances and Ouija boards. Madame Blavatsky appeared in New York, seemingly out of nowhere, and declared that Spiritualism was not what people thought. Mediums were actually contacting the psychic shells of dead people, often controlled by mischievous spirits. Spiritualism, said Blavatsky, was a game for amateurs. The serious seeker learned magic.
Little was known about this chain-smoking, portly, Russian dame. One journalist speculated she was 500 years old and could conjure up money at will. Like many a great artist or magus, HPB successfully covered up her past, so she could mythologise herself. What is known for sure is she was born in the Russian Empire in 1831, into an aristocratic family. Her mother was a novelist who translated the novels of Edward Bulwer-Lytton, an English writer fascinated by the occult. She died when she was 28, leaving Helena and her sisters to be brought up by their grandparents. The father was absent, serving in the Russian army.
Helena was a dreamy child, who loved to read and day-dream. She discovered her great-grandfather’s enormous library, filled with occult texts (he was apparently initiated into the Rosicrucian secret society in the 18th century). Helena’s sister remembers:
Helena used to dream aloud, and tell us of her visions, evidently clear, vivid and as palpable as life to her…It was her delight to gather around herself a party of us younger children, at twilight, and after taking us into the large dark museum, to hold us there, spellbound, with her weird stories. Then she narrated to us the most inconceivable tales about herself; the most unheard-of adventures of which she was the heroine every night, as she explained.
There is a lot of the psychology of the guru in this reminiscence — the lonely child, weaving compensatory fantasies to get attention and provide support in the absence of stable attachments.
After her childhood, her biography gets murky. At 17, she agreed to marry the vice-governor of Erivan province, but then seems to have run away. She claimed to have travelled the world, seeking occult wisdom. She said she studied voodoo in New Orleans, lived with dervishes in Iran, fraternized with the Druze of Lebanon, conjured with the shaman of Mongolia, and journeyed to Tibet where she was initiated into a secret order of superhuman adepts known as The Masters.
This is the most lurid part of her world-view and, for her followers, the most enticing. She claimed that she had discovered the lost city of Shambhala, in the Gobi desert, and there encountered the ‘Great White Brotherhood’. They were led by the ‘Lord of the World’, who descended from the planet Venus. Other masters included Manu, Maitreya, Jesus, the Buddha, Mesmer, and two Indian gentlemen called Master Moray and Koot Hoomi. These two lived in a valley in Tibet, in an underground city with subterranean tunnels, from which they emerged occasionally to guide humanity and communicate with their favourite adept, Helena Blavatsky.
Against this ‘White Brotherhood’, there was a secret order of ‘Dark Forces’, black magicians seeking to gain power and harm humanity. In the words of Peter Washington: ‘Occasionally the war between the Lords and Brothers reaches a violent public climax in events such as the crucifixion of Jesus, when the esoteric becomes exoteric and the secret struggle is briefly revealed.’
There you have the ‘occult view of history’ found in every conspiracy theory — things are not what they seem. There is a hidden, esoteric significance to worldly events. When Trump tweets Covfefe, he’s not just old and tired, he’s sending a hidden message to the White Brotherhood in their battle with Dark Forces.
This conceit of a hidden order of exotic superhuman beings, which you just might discover and get initiated into, is of course, total Hollywood catnip. It’s the story of Pythagoras, and his journey to the East and initiation into occult secrets. It’s the story of the Rosicrucians, the Masons, the Illuminati, of Gurdjieff’s ‘meetings with remarkable men’, of Carlos Castaneda’s initiation by Don Juan, of Rhonda Byrne’s initiation into ‘The Secret’. It’s the story of Luke’s initiation into the Jedi, Paul Atreides’ initiation into the Bene Gesseret in Dune, Harry Potter’s initiation into the Order of the Phoenix. It’s why we love the Avengers and X-Men films — who doesn’t love a secret superhuman order that saves the world! Imagine if such an order really existed, sought you out, offered you the prospect of psychic superpowers.
The immediate inspiration for HPB’s tall tale seems to have been Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s novels, particularly Zanoni — which tells of a secret order of Rosicrucians who have psychic powers and who live for centuries — and The Coming Race, which tells of a subterranean master-race. Lytton was in turn inspired by the Rosicrucians, a legendary secret society of the 17th century.
The Rosicrucians, by the way, most likely did not exist. Their manifesto was published in 1615 as a sort of literary game (read Frances Yates’ book on this), and then the story took hold and was widely believed across Europe, prompting both fascination and paranoia, and inspiring actual secret societies like the Masons and Bavarian Illuminati. This is often the way with occult history — something begins as a fiction or game, and then takes on a life of its own in reality. That’s very likely what happened with Qanon.
We could speculate as to Blavatsky’s psychological reasons for inventing The Masters — did these solicitous phantoms fill the place of her neglectful father? What they did, for sure, is provide a woman with a patriarchal glove-puppet, thereby adding to her authority in a man’s world.
Beyond her fictionalizing, Madame Blavatsky really does turn up in New York in 1875, in the flesh, claiming to be an initiate in a superhuman order of magical adepts. She finds at least one person who believes her — Colonel Henry Olcott, a seeker after occult wisdom. They gather a small circle of seekers around them and, on the 17th of November 1875, they formed the Theosophical Society, with three objectives:
1. To form a nucleus of the universal brotherhood of humanity without distinction of race, creed, sex, caste, or colour.
2. To encourage the study of comparative religion, philosophy, and science.
3. To investigate the unexplained laws of nature and the powers latent in man.
These objectives were somewhat contradictory. Was it an occult organisation dedicated to magic, a political movement for globalism, or a network for academic research? No matter. A seed was planted, and it began to sprout. Olcott and Blavatsky became firm friends — he nicknamed her Jack, while she produced mysterious letters from The Masters for him. They all tended to say ‘do exactly what HPB tells you’.
The two set off for India, where they established the Society’s headquarters outside Chennai — they’re still there, beautiful but rather deserted now. Blavatsky became something of a hit with Anglo-Indian society, winning influential followers like the civil servant A.O Hume and the newspaper editor Alfred Sinnett. She impressed them with her conjuring tricks — on a tea party with the Sinnett family, an extra guest joined, and there weren’t enough cups for tea. Madame Blavatsky pointed to a place on the ground and told a servant to dig. There, buried, was an extra cup. Abracadabra! I’m afraid a great deal of religious history comes down to such conjuring tricks.
She could also manifest bouquets of roses from the air, conjure up the sound of bells, and produce letters from the Master Koot Hoomi, replete with occult advice. Her followers were never quite sure if she was for real or a charlatan. A.O Hume wrote to her: ‘If they don’t exist, what a novel writer you would make! You certainly make your characters very consistent. When is our dear old Christ — I mean KH [Koot Hoomi] again to appear on the scene — he is quite our favourite actor’. The letters from the Masters were convincing enough for Sinnett, the leading journalist in India, to publish them as The Mahatma Letters in 1923.
Sometimes she published under her own name as well. She wrote two big (1400 pages plus) books — Isis Unveiled in 1877, and The Secret Doctrine in 1888. They explore the same basic theme:
1) There is a perennial philosophy at the esoteric core of all the great religions. A secret doctrine, known to initiates and hierophants. This idea of a ‘prisca theologia’ , or perennial wisdom, is found in many occult traditions, from Neoplatonic magic to Rosicrucianism to contemporary New Age perennialism. Blavatsky helped popularise the idea, and was extremely well-read in the world’s religions, although her interpretation of some traditions — particularly Buddhism — is pretty idiosyncratic.
2) Although she claimed the doctrine is perennialist, it’s also quite anti-Christian and anti-Jewish. The Secret Doctrine is basically Hindu-Platonist. The Universe is spirit, you are a part of this divine spirit. All beings are in a cycle of death and rebirth until they realize their divinity.
3) The adept is dedicated to the ‘Great Work’ of realizing their divinity. Along the way, they acquire all sorts of psychic and magical powers — astral travel, feats of memory and inspiration, even the ability to control others with their mind (like a Jedi). Unlike mystical traditions, where the aim is the surrender of the ego, the aim of occultism is the perfection of the will and the acquirement of powers.
4) Theosophy is the middle-ground between fundamentalist religion and fundamentalist materialism, both of which are in error. This is a classic idea of late 19th century spirituality. Blavatsky, like other spiritual innovators of the time, presented her own version of evolution, in which matter descends from Spirit and then re-ascends through various incarnations. She also drew on Darwinism to suggest that various different species of humans had existed before, but she developed this into an outlandish theory of ‘root races’ — she suggested four different human species had previously existed, of different levels of spiritual aptitude, culminating in the ‘Atlanteans’, a race of magicians who lived in Atlantis and had advanced technology. Each species died out when the Spirit was done with it. She claimed a new species of human was now arising in California. We are at a cusp of a New Age, when occult wisdom will become widely known and humans — or at least, a few special humans — will evolve into a more powerful species.
This spiritual evolution theory could, of course, have racist ramifications. She suggested some ethnic groups were evolutionary throwbacks — ‘the ‘sacred spark’ is missing in them [she wrote] and it is they who are the only inferior races on the globe, now happily — owing to the wise adjustment of nature which ever works in that direction — fast dying out’.
Later Theosophists would develop her racial ideas into aggressively racist theories of Aryan supremacy or anti-Semitism. In her defence, she was anything but a white supremacist — she suggested white people were less capable of magic than Indians, Tibetans or Arabians, and she often railed against the racism of the English in India.
But Theosophy probably developed a sort of inverse racism, where certain ethnicities — particularly Indians and Tibetans — were exoticised and eroticized as magical beings. There was one instance of a young Indian Theosophist, Mohini Chatterjee, travelling to London and provoking a sort of mass orgasm among middle-aged female Theosophists, one of whom provoked scandal by exposing herself to him on Hampstead Heath.
Theosophy attracted a wide variety of people, from James Joyce to Thomas Edison, and was popular with liberal reformers and feminists. Perhaps the secret of its appeal was that it told its followers they were special, they were initiates into a secret order, they were at the vanguard of human evolution. And, like a good computer game, it offered a hierarchy of initiation, a way to ‘level up’.
Blavatsky died in 1891, in the midst of scandal, having been exposed by an investigator from the Society for Psychical Research, who claimed to have discovered proof that she forged the letters from the Masters herself. No shit Sherlock. It was also suggested she was a Russian secret agent. Certainly, many Theosophists were actively involved in the Indian nationalist movement — Gandhi was first introduced to the Bhagavad Gita through Theosophy.
After her death, the global brotherhood of Theosophists splintered into various national factions. In the US, the movement focused on a commune in California called Point Loma; there were also freelance Theosophist channelers, like Alice Bailey and Edgar Cayce, who drew on Blavatsky’s baroque mythology of Atlantis. In Germany, Theosophy splintered into Anthroposophy, led by Rudolf Steiner, and Ariosophy, a racist-nationalist movement that would attract some leading Nazis. In India, the Theosophical Society declared that a young Indian boy called Jiddu Krishnamurti was actually the coming Messiah. When he came of age, he dissolved the order and launched himself as a freelance guru, and the movement never quite recovered.
The Theosophical Society always attracted artists, unsurprisingly for a movement that emphasized the magical power of the imagination. It influenced modernist painters like Mondrian, modernist composers like Scriabin, pop fantasy writers like Frank Baum, creator of the Wizard of Oz. It was also a central influence on the world of Twin Peaks — its co-creator, Mark Frost, said in a 1992 interview:
The whole mythological side of Twin Peaks was really down to me, and I’ve always known about the Theosophical writers and that whole group around the Order of the Golden Dawn in the late nineteenth, early twentieth century — W B Yeats, Madame Blavatsky and a woman called Alice Bailey, a very interesting writer.
It’s easy to see the influence. FBI agent Dale Cooper, like Blavatsky, is a fan of Tibetan wisdom, and draws on the power of intuition and dreams.
He is contacted by an order of superhuman beings, like Blavatsky’s Masters, who guide him in his mission.
He eventually journeys into the Black Lodge where he confronts his doppleganger — this is an occult idea known as the ‘Dweller on the Threshold’. Blavatsky writes that this is ‘a term invented by Bulwer Lytton in Zanoni; but in Occultism the word …refers to certain maleficent astral Doubles of defunct persons’.
As a teenager, I was a total Twin Peaks fanatic. I bought the soundtrack and the spin-off ‘Diary of Laura Palmer’, I went to Twin Peaks cabaret nights, I even came second in a Twin Peaks fancy dress competition. But I recognize the story is a fiction. I don’t actually believe in Bob or that the Owls are not what they seem.
The risk with mass occultism is that some people can’t tell the difference between stories and reality. They get lost in fiction. This is what happens with conspiracy theories, which have a close connection to the history of Theosophy. On the one hand, Christian fundamentalist conspiracy theorists see Theosophy as part of a Satanic plot to build a New World Order. On the other hand, New Age conspiracy theorists like David Icke draw on the mythology of Theosophy to argue there is a hidden elite of black magicians — the Rosicrucian-Illuminati-Masonic-Theosophist-Jews-Democrats — who control the world through a network of subterranean tunnels.
Perhaps the greatest danger with the spiritual journey is the need to feel special, initiated, elite. That, and the risk that, at, as you venture beyond the everyday ego and ordinary reality, you get lost in dreams, caught up in myths and cosmic dramas, rather than focusing on practical wisdom that helps you and others. The good stuff in Theosophy is the introduction to the world’s perennial wisdom — the teachings of the Buddha, the Bhagavad Gita and so on. All the outer husk in Theosophy — the hidden Masters, the root races — is fiction. It’s a good yarn, but dangerous if you take it too seriously.
Blavatsky’s two main books, Isis Unveiled and The Secret Doctrine, are both available free online. They’re enormous — you can read abridged editions by Michael Gomes.
Two good popular introductions to her life and work, and to the history of the movement, are Peter Washington’s Madame Blavatsky’s Baboon, and Gary Lachman’s Madame Blavatsky: The Mother of Modern Spirituality.
Academic studies of Theosophy include Joy Dixon’s Divine Feminine: Theosophy and Feminism in England; and Wouter Hanegraaff’s paper on Theosophical Imgination.
The Theosophical Society is still going, and offering online events, here.