The Scarlet Letter
Reviewed by Paradoxos Alpha
Historically, the Theosophical Society (T.S.) is perhaps the single most influential occult organization of modern times. It is interesting, and not too difficult, to note the similarities between O.T.O. and the T.S. Both came out of the late 19th Century climate of idealistic internationalism, complete with program statements devoted to “Universal Brotherhood.” Both appear to have direct esoteric debts to the Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor. Like the early O.T.O., the “second generation” of the T.S. (operating at about the same time) accreted to itself both a Masonic and an ecclesiastical rite. On the Masonic front, the Memphis and Mizraim patents from John Yarker to O.T.O. parallel the establishment of Theosopical Co-Masonry. And while O.T.O. includes the Gnostic Catholic Church with its roots in the French Gnostic revival, the Theosophical Society managed to acquire the Liberal Catholic Church, a British development of the Old Catholic Church. And many of the early contributors to O.T.O. were in fact Theosophists.
Just as Aleister Crowley became a font of esoteric doctrine for the O.T.O., the Theosophical Society—which was begun by American Spiritualist Henry Steele Olcott as the “Miracle Club”—found doctrinal leadership in Helena Petrovna Blavatsky. She authored two encyclopedic occult treatises: Isis Unveiled and The Secret Doctrine. She performed various supernatural feats and/or legerdemain, depending on which sources are to be credited. And she established the Theosophical Society international headquarters in Adyar, India.
Crowley recognized Blavatsky as a Sister of A.'.A.'. (i.e. a Master of the Temple 8°=3* in his system of spiritual grades), specifically pointing her out as his immediate predecessor in “The Temple of Truth,” published in The Heart of the Master through O.T.O. in 1938. He thought it especially noteworthy that he was born in the same year that the Theosophical Society was inaugurated. Crowley reissued Blavatsky’s Voice of the Silence (Extracts from the Book of the Golden Precepts, including “The Two Paths” and “The Seven Portals”) with his own commentary as Liber LXXI, a Class B publication of A.'.A.'.
While Crowley boasted that O.T.O. was “the first of the great Old Aeon orders to accept the Law of Thelema,” he evidently hoped that the Theosophical Society might be the second. In his Confessions, he claimed that the publication of Liber LXXI in the eleventh number of The Equinox was intended “to bring back Theosophists to the true principles of their founder.” Some correspondence of Crowley’s promoting himself as the Theosophical “World Teacher” has been published in The Scarlet Letter, Vol. II, No. 4. He also briefly attempted to recruit Katherine Tingley, a leader of the American section that seceded from the international T.S. after Blavatsky’s death.
In the present publication of The Book of Dzyan, Tim Maroney suggests that Crowley was “kin to Blavatsky by temperament.” (p. 47) Certainly, both of them issued doctrines with a pronounced anti-Christian streak. Both were impressive world travelers and (not unusually for intellectuals of their period) experimented with drugs. And they both depended on communications from ambiguously disincarnate—or at least absent—adepts bolstering their teachings: Blavatsky from Morya and Koot Hoomi; Crowley from Aiwass, Abuldiz, and Amalantrah.
Maroney’s book has much to offer any serious student of occultism. His historical essay on Blavatsky and her successors packs a remarkable amount of information and insight into less than sixty pages. The book is published under a curious aegis; the Chaosium game company has issued it as part of their series of Cthulhiana. Accordingly, Maroney details horror fantasist H.P. Lovecraft’s attitude toward Theosophy and his interest in The Book of Dzyan. As an appendix, the book includes a “suitably abridged” text of the Hodgson report, an investigation of Blavatsky’s Adyar operations that was commissioned by the Society for Psychical Research in 1884. The report proved to be extremely damaging to Blavatsky’s credibility.
The titled feature of the volume is a set of extracts from Blavatsky’s Secret Doctrine, particularly those which claim to directly recount the contents of the Stanzas of Dzyan, from a fabulously ancient manuscript which Blavatsky cited as the source for her central theses regarding cosmogony, prehistory, and evolution. The first section, “Theogenesis,” is decidedly metaphysical. According to Maroney, Crowley claimed that his own “Liber Trigrammaton” was comparable to the Stanzas of Dzyan, and if a parallel were drawn from Crowley’s book of trigrams, it would be to this “Theogenesis.”
“Anthropogenesis” is the second section of the Stanzas of Dzyan; as Maroney notes, it “reads like the outline of a Lovecraftian weird tale, peopled with magical characters and broods of terrible monsters.” (p. 64) The volume of The Secret Doctrine devoted to “Anthropogenesis” might be most easily compared with P.B. Randolph’s Pre-Adamite Man (1888): both are concerned with an esoteric pre-history and its historical consequences. In Crowley’s writings, the closest approach made to this topic is the “Æonic” historical model of Isis, Osiris, and Horus.
Crowley’s Æonic model is empirically insupportable when applied to history, as Maroney himself has pointed out in the pages of this journal. (“Facts and Phallacies,” The Scarlet Letter, Vol. V, No. 2) That fact does not detract from its interest as a myth, however. The Æonic scheme inflates the officer rotation of the Golden Dawn equinox ceremony into a template for cosmic events. It also adumbrates the same pre-conventional, conventional, and post-conventional dialectic that Nietzsche treats in section 32 of Beyond Good and Evil. Like Nietzsche’s model, which is also presented as historical in scale, Crowley’s may have more value and accuracy when applied on the level of personal development.
Maroney writes that Crowley “regarded his own system, Thelema, as the child of the Golden Dawn and Theosophy.” (p. 47) The following observations may shed light on some obscure features of the Æonic myth of Thelema.
The Æon of Isis can reference the Theosophical Society as the province of the Matriarch Blavatsky, whose Isis Unveiled was her great doctrinal debut. On those lines, the Æon of Osiris would be the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn under the Patriarch Mathers, with its Hierophant taking the god-form of Osiris. Then Crowley’s Thelemic organizing would be the Child Horus of these parents. Considering that, “in True Things, all are but images one of another;” (O.T.O. Liber CXCIV) it is unsurprising to see this pattern exhibited in the emergence of Thelema from earlier forms of occultism, and it may be repeated in the social dialectic of Thelemic organizing. As the Beast remarked in his Book of Lies (ch. 21):
That which causes us to create is our true father and mother; we create in our own image, which is theirs.
Let us create therefore without fear; for we can create nothing that is not GOD.
I recommend The Book of Dzyan as a fascinating study in the creativity of Blavatsky and her heirs.