At the end of our last exploration of America’s magical history two months back, the fledgling Theosophical Society had apparently breathed its last. Its original branch in New York City had stopped meeting, the handful of lodges elsewhere were struggling, and its two most important and knowledgeable members—Emma Hardinge Britten and Helena Petrovna Blavatsky—had both left the United States for the far corners of the world. To all appearances, the hope of a public organization teaching occult philosophy right out there in the open in the Western world had vanished into the realm of might-have-beens.
Two factors militated against its disappearance, however. The first was Blavatsky’s own formidable talents as an author, organizer, and occult impresario. Once she and Henry Steel Olcott had settled in Chennai, India, in 1879, she wasted no time. Letters went out to New York City and the handful of other local groups the original Society had founded, announcing that the Society was still very much in business and beginning the work of reorganization. Shortly thereafter hints of an extraordinary new body of doctrine began to spread through the crawlspaces of the occult scene all through the Western world.
Matters reached the boiling point once two leading English members of the Society, A.P. Sinnett and A.O. Hume, began receiving letters from a mysterious figure, the Master Koot Hoomi, setting out the tenets of a secret Eastern wisdom supposedly handed down from the immemorial past. Books promptly appeared, first from Sinnett’s pen—The Occult World and Esoteric Buddhism—and then from others, all of them passing on the same set of occult teachings and helping to feed the growth of the Theosophical Society, while Blavatsky herself worked on her second great book, The Secret Doctrine, a sprawling account of the entire body of teaching that claimed to be a commentary on the Stanzas of Dzyan, an eldritch text—the phrase, as we’ll see, is entirely appropriate—as old as the world. Meanwhile visitors to Blavatsky’s home in Chennai returned with awed reports of the astonishing psychic phenomena they had witnessed there, and those reports found eager readers in the newspapers of the time.
Subsequent investigation by the Society for Psychical Research (SPR) turned up plenty of evidence that Koot Hoomi, the letters, the teachings, and the psychic phenomena were all manufactured by Blavatsky, and the skeptics of the time had a field day with the results. None of that slowed the growth of the Theosophical Society in the slightest, and there was good reason for that. Blavatsky knew exactly what she was doing; she understood far better than the skeptics that a great many people in the Victorian era were sick and tired of the Hobson’s choice between dogmatic Christianity and equally dogmatic scientific materialism that was presented to them by the approved authorities of their culture; they wanted a third option that held out the hope of direct personal experience of spiritual realities, and if that third option annoyed the defenders of the status quo, so much the better. In times and places where that’s the case—and of course we live in another of those today—the rantings of self-proclaimed skeptics simply attract more people to whatever cause they happen to denounce.
That, in turn, was the second factor that kept the Theosophical Society from vanishing. More than anything else, the longing for a third spiritual option not so tightly shackled to the status quo was the reason why Theosophy exploded into prominence in the 1880s, especially but not only in the United States. Here in America, lodges sprang up in every city of any size, and in some fairly modest towns; from these, public lectures and inexpensive books spread the new gospel far and wide, and concepts that Blavatsky borrowed from the spiritual traditions of India—reincarnation, karma, cosmic cycles in which worlds are born and die, and much more—became part of the common parlance of the cultural avant-garde in most Western countries.
Blavatsky provided all of these things to her followers, and much more. She’s half the reason you’ve heard of a place called Atlantis. (The other half was a remarkable American eccentric named Ignatius Donnelly, one of the founders of modern alternative culture, whose 1882 book Atlantis: The Antediluvian World burst into popular culture right when Theosophy was hitting its stride.) It’s due to Blavatsky, more to the point, that you’ve heard of Atlantis as a prehistoric civilization with advanced technologies that destroyed itself when its loremasters turned to evil. That’s not in Plato and it’s not in Donnelly; Blavatsky originated it, and fit it into a vast alternative history in which Atlantis was only one of a series of lost continents and our present age is the fifth of seven ages in the present cosmic cycle.
One way to think about the remarkable spread of Theosophical ideas is to say that Theosophy was the previous century’s equivalent of Wicca. In some ways the parallels are quite exact. Both movements had distinctly dubious origins—the Masters and their world-old teachings turned out to be just as difficult to document in the light of serious research as the medieval Pagan witch-cult on which Wicca based its historical claims. Both movements took the form that they did because of the impact of a single colorful personality—Gerald Gardner in the case of Wicca, H.P. Blavatsky in the case of Theosophy—who drew together the work of many previous writers and thinkers into a workable unity, and decked it out with colorful pageantry well suited to the popular culture of their era. Both movements replaced the officially approved narrative of human history and prehistory with a radically different alternative vision of the past. Both movements spoke to significant cultural needs that the established spiritual and secular options of their respective times failed to address, and both movements turned into vehicles that could be used, and were used, by forceful and talented women to elbow their way into the mostly male preserves of alternative spirituality in America.
The comparison between the two movements can only be taken so far, however. In particular, Gerald Gardner’s decision to use the figure of the witch as the centerpiece of his newly minted Old Religion turned out to have very mixed consequences. The witch in European folklore and history is a marginal figure, poor, isolated, despised, and vulnerable. Wicca thus inevitably attracted a great many people who fancied an equally marginal status for themselves in contemporary Western societies, and by and large obtained it. That’s a central reason why so few Wiccan organizations have been able to fund and maintain the meeting spaces and other properties that most American spiritual movements—including those founded and run by the very poor—have been able to provide for themselves as a matter of course.
Theosophy didn’t have so problematic an image to work with, didn’t suffer under the same self-inflicted burden, and so succeeded easily at tasks at which most Wiccan groups failed. In particular, Blavatsky’s movement was not especially attractive to the self-marginalized. Theosophists, in fact, found a great many recruits among the financially and socially successful, and so had no trouble creating and funding a network of local organizations with their own meeting halls, libraries, bookstores, retreat centers, and other amenities, many of which still exist today. Success in those basic organizational tasks thus gave Theosophy an impact on the popular culture of its time far greater than Wicca has had or will ever have.
Because the Theosophical Society formally rejected the idea of requiring members to subscribe to any set of dogmas, furthermore, it drew members and supporters from an extremely wide range of people with alternative interests in late nineteenth century Western culture. Over what we may as well call the Theosophical century, from 1880 to 1980, if you were interested in any form of occultism or alternative spirituality, the odds were very high that you shopped at a Theosophical bookstore, took in lectures or practiced yoga at a Theosophical lodge, studied books by Theosophical authors, or were otherwise influenced in one way or another by Blavatsky’s grand creation.
All this helped drive the most remarkable phase of Theosophy’s career, which we can follow best through the example of a young many from upstate New York named Lyman Frank Baum. Born in 1856, Baum was theater-mad from an early age—not an uncommon thing in an era where live theater was far and away the most colorful entertainment option available—but his talents as an actor and playwright weren’t substantial enough to pay the bills, and he ended up in the retail industry and journalism instead. His first real success came from a magazine, The Show Window, which sold to the retail trade and offered ideas for store window displays and visual merchandising. His habit of telling lively stories to his children inspired his next two ventures, a pair of Mother Goose books for children. Those sold well, and led him to envision something more ambitious, a children’s fantasy story set in an imaginary kingdom called Oz.
More went into that fantasy story than the workings of a busy imagination, though. Baum was a Theosophist; his wife was the daughter of Matilda Joslyn Gage, a leading feminist and political radical of the age, who had found her way to Theosophy. That was a well-trodden path just then, for the feminist movement launched with such a display of unity at the Seneca Falls Convention of 1848 had split into two quarreling factions by the end of the century. The largest faction upheld Victorian moral ideas and insisted that feminism was inseparable from Protestant Christianity and the prohibition of alcohol, while a smaller faction rejected the Victorian moral consensus and championed something much closer to what feminism became after the 1960s.
By the last years of the nineteenth century it was clear that the conservative Christian wing of feminism was in the ascendant, and so a great many women in the other faction found themselves unwelcome in feminist circles. A significant number of those ended up in the Theosophical Society, and Matilda Joslyn Gage was among those. She’s an important figure in our story for more reasons than one; she played a central role in redefining medieval witchcraft as a protofeminist goddess-worshiping cult stamped out by evil inquisitors, and her 1893 book Woman, Church, and State, a counterblast against the conservative Christian wing of the feminist movement, was the first English language source for the wildly inaccurate claim that nine million witches had been burnt during the witchcraft persecutions of the late Middle Ages.
That will be relevant to our tale later on. More important to the present story is that her daughter and son-in-law followed her to Theosophy and found it congenial. Baum in particular seems to have made a very thorough study of occult philosophy. If you’re wondering, in other words, why the characters in The Wizard of Oz sort themselves out neatly according to the four magical elements—the Scarecrow, who wants a brain, to Air; the Tin Woodsman, who wants a heart, to Water; the Cowardly Lion, who wants courage, to Fire; Dorothy, who just wants to get back home to Kansas, to Earth; and Toto the dog, whose name literally means “from the whole” in Latin, and who reveals the little man behind the phantasm of Oz the Great and Powerful, to Spirit—well, now you know why.
The impact of all this on the American imagination was considerable. The Wizard of Oz was the bestselling children’s book in America for two full years after its publication and went on to become one of the great children’s novels of American history. Baum went on to write thirteen more books about Oz, quite a few of which were just as laden with occult symbolism as the first, and a flurry of other children’s novels, most of which are undeservedly forgotten now.
One of those may have gone on to have a huge if unrecognized indirect impact on American culture further down the road. That’s The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus, which Baum published in 1902 and which became another bestselling children’s book in its day, in Britain as well as America. Among its interesting features, it places relations between mortal humans and immortal beings at center stage—the infant Claus, a human, is found and fostered by the immortal wood nymph Necile, just for starters—and in it the three greatest immortals, the Master Woodsman of the World, the Master Husbandman of the World, and the Master Mariner of the World, have important roles.
It’s heady stuff, and if you happened to be a lonely, bookish boy with a lively fantasy life when it was a bestseller, it’s quite conceivable that it could have sparked a whole cascade of daydreams, and eventually stories, in which interaction between mortals and immortals was a constant theme and a Master Mariner of the World was a central character in the earliest versions of the resulting legendarium. And of course if your name happens to be J.R.R. Tolkien, and you fill a famous trilogy with your mature reflections on these same themes, these ideas would end up splashed all over the American imagination once your trilogy became standard reading all over the cultural avant-garde of the Western world.
No, I don’t know for a fact that Tolkien was influenced by The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus, but when I first read the book some years ago I was struck forcefully by just how many of the key themes of the earliest phases of Tolkien’s great legendarium can be found in its pages. Tolkien was certainly powerfully influenced in later years by the books he read in youth—for example, the scene in The Fellowship of the Ring where Frodo is imprisoned by the barrow-wight is influenced, almost to the point of unconscious plagiarism, by a comparable scene in Walter de la Mare’s 1910 fantasy The Three Mulla-Mulgars—and we know, thanks to the labors of his son Christopher, that the themes I’ve described were major influences from the earliest sketches Tolkien wrote to his last writings on Middle-earth.
What makes this especially fascinating to me is that Tolkien, devout Roman Catholic that he was in later life, was profoundly influenced by the Theosophical alternative history. From a timeline divided into numbered ages—the Third Age of Middle-earth would fit quite comfortably into the historical cycles Blavatsky described—to an Atlantis-story that is Blavatskian through and through, dominated by the conflict between a majority that worshiped the power of evil and a minority that fled the doomed continent at the last moment, Middle-earth is a creation of the Theosophical century. “I am a servant of the Secret Fire,” Gandalf says at the Bridge of Khazad-dûm; that term is nowhere defined in Tolkien’s papers, but any well-read Theosophist knows what it means. It seems likely that during his younger years, before middle age brought its traditional conservatism, Tolkien fed his imagination with scraps of Theosophical literature.
He was far from the only iconic fantasy writer of the era to do so. Robert E. Howard, creator of Conan the Cimmerian and a flurry of other brawny and adventuresome heroes, drew extensively on one of the standard Theosophical alternate-history volumes—William Scott-Elliot’s The Story of Atlantis and the Lost Lemuria—to create his own alternative past, with the usual collection of drowned continents, sinister enchanters, and evolutionary machinery. Howard’s friend and indefatigable correspondent H.P. Lovecraft was even more familiar with Theosophy than Howard, and mined it systematically for themes onto which he could place his own inimitable spin: “Theosophists have guessed at the awesome grandeur of of the cosmic cycle wherein our world and human race form transient incidents,” he wrote in “The Call of Cthulhu.” From Talbot Mundy and A. Merritt to a forgotten galaxy of less gifted authors, twentieth-century fantasy fiction was awash in Theosophical ideas; in a very real sense, that’s what sets apart the fantasy of that era from its less impressive epigones today.
That was only one aspect, though an important one, of the penetration of Theosophical ideas throughout American popular culture in the first three quarters or so of the twentieth century. If you know your way around Theosophy, very little in US alternative culture in that era will come as any surprise to you. Out of that process emerged some of the most impressive creations of the Golden Age of American occultism, some of the silliest, and some that managed to combine the brilliant and the absurd in equal measure. Over the months to come, we’ll discuss those—beginning with the occult movements that rose up to contend with the Theosophical Society in its early days, and ending with those that were around to pick up the pieces when the Theosophical Society crashed and burned in one of the great self-inflicted disasters of occult history.