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Academic Circle

Infinite Fire Webinar VIII – The Theosophical Movement

Posted on by BPH

This is the second of three webinars by dr. Marco Pasi in our Infinite Fire Webinar series. In his first webinar, Marco Pasi focused on the Austrian author and occultist Gustav Meyrink (1868-1932) and his esoteric novels, such as The Golem (1915). In his second webinar, he discusses the Theosophical movement, which arose in the late 19th century and was based on Theosophy, that is derived from Late Greek theosophia (ca. 500) ‘Wisdom concerning God or things divine’. Within the theosophical doctrines as espoused by the Theosophical movement, however, the concept of God was not so much present and the term ‘Divine Wisdom’ might be more apt.

Emblem of the Theosophical Society.

Emblem of the Theosophical Society.

The impact and influence of theosophical ideas went beyond the confines of its own organizations, including the Theosophical Society, which was its first and most prominent official body with its motto: ‘There is no Religion Higher than Truth‘. The Theosophical Society was co-founded in the autumn of 1875 by the Russian adventurer and occultist Madame Helena Petrovna Blavatsky (1831-1891) together with the former American army officer Henry Steele Olcott (1832-1907) and the Irish mystic and occultist William Quan Judge (1851-1896).

Madame Helena Petrovna Blavatsky

Madame Helena Petrovna Blavatsky

The Theosophical Society was based on a shared interest in occult phenomena and represented an esoteric organization that was ‘open’. People who showed an interest in the movement were able to join by paying a fee. It was not necessary to become an ‘Initiate’, as in the masonic tradition. Blavatsky was a compulsive writer, who wrote many articles as well as massive volumes, such as Isis Unveiled (1877) and The Secret Doctrine (1888), both of which were translated in a great many languages. Her articles and essays were eventually collected in a series of 15 volumes. In between the publication of Isis Unveiled and The Secret Doctrine, Blavatsky and Olcott travelled to India, where they met local Brahmans to discuss Indian esoteric traditions. Since that time, there was a stronger emphasis on Buddhism and Hinduism in their theosophical teachings and doctrines, which were formerly inspired mainly by Western esoteric currents such as Gnosticism, Hermeticism and Kabbalah. Already before her journey to the East, Blavatsky considered these Western esoteric currents as representing parts of the Eastern wisdom tradition.

Lucifer, the periodical of the Theosophical Society, Blavatsky, H.P. Collins, Mabel, London, 1887-1897.

Lucifer, the periodical of the Theosophical Society, Blavatsky, H.P. Collins, Mabel, London, 1887-1897.

From the Theosophical Society issued a vast number of books and periodicals, including Lucifer, the periodical which was named after the Promethean archetype of the ‘Light bearer’, who brought the gift of fire (and thus light) to humankind. Blavatsky underlined that in the Book of Revelation, Christ referred to himself as ‘the bright and morning star’, that is, Lucifer. And the Gospel of St. John (1.4) says, ‘In him . . . was the light of men.’ Blavatsky identified Christ with Prometheus, who brought fire and thus light to humanity and who was thus etymologically a Lucifer or Light bearer. Christ, Prometheus,and Lucifer were all symbolic bringers of Light to the world and consequently (human) savior figures. The periodical carried a kind of educational purpose by aiming, as its subtitle stated: ‘to bring to light the hidden things of darkness’. It aimed, as Blavatsky stated, ‘to fight prejudice, hypocrisy and shams in every nation, in every class of Society, as in every department of life’. On the cover of the periodical this Luciferian or Christ archetype is pictured holding aloft a Blazing Star that he is bringing to earth…

For more on the Theosophical Society, Madame Blavatsky, Olcott, other members of related societies and a broader perspective on the phenomenon of the Theosophical Movement, go to Marco’s webinar below. It is available in two parts on our Youtube channel:

Dr. Marco Pasi is Associate Professor at the Center for the History of Hermetic Philosophy and Related Currents (HHP) – The University of Amsterdam (UvA). He holds a laurea degree in philosophy from the University of Milan, a DEA and a Ph.D. in Religious Studies from the École Pratique des Hautes Études (Paris Sorbonne). He has published extensively on the history of modern Western esotericism, especially in relation to magic, art, and politics. He is the author of Aleister Crowley and the Temptation of Politics (2014), he has edited Peintures inconnues d’Aleister Crowley: La collection de Palerme (2008), and co-edited Kabbalah and Modernity: Interpretations, Transformations, Adaptations (2010).

Also he is a member of the research network ‘Enchanted Modernities’, funded by the Leverhulme Trust, which focuses on the influence of Theosophy and related movements on visual, musical, performing, and applied arts. In September the multi-day conference ‘Enchanted Modernities – Theosophy, Modernism and the Arts‘ took place in Amsterdam with a parallel exhibition running in the Ritman Library until May 23rd 2014; ‘Beauty as the Imprint of the Cosmos – the Metaphysical in Art‘.

One Response to Infinite Fire Webinar VIII – The Theosophical Movement

  1. Vara Sue Tamminga says:

    As always, I learn so much from these lectures, especially as you linked together so many different groups so that we can understand when and how they influenced each other or evolved often from the same source. The esoteric tradition attracts by its nature many very independent souls who prize their unique vision or spiritual gifts. Hence there are many splits or factions which emerge as they try to form lasting movements and organizations. I did not realize, for instance, that the Theosophical organization in India had influenced Indian Nationalism and the break from British rule. Of course, this impact makes perfect sense now that I consider it more carefully. It is wonderful to have a scholarly, historical assessment and understanding of these religious and artistic movements which are often so personal that it is difficult to understand objectively their history and influence. I am delighted that the Living Library is finally giving these pioneering individuals and groups the sympathetic yet also scholarly study which they deserve. The Ritman Library and the Esoteric Department at the University of Amsterdam is bringing the heritage of Western Jewish and Christian mysticism out of the shadows and into the honored walls of the university. I think of Isaac Newton who had to keep his alchemical and Biblical studies a closely guarded secret in order to keep his job at Trinity College in Cambridge. That secretive world existed just before the Glorious Revolution that put King William III and Queen Mary on the British throne. Today, the world is governed mostly by Democracies. Let us hope that King Wilhelm Alexander can oversee a University in Amsterdam which welcomes all Western mystics finally into the study of wisdom and truth.

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