Everybody in occultism has heard of the Secret Chiefs who direct world affairs from behind the scenes with their awesome powers. H.P. Blavatsky was probably most responsible for popularizing this idea and much controversy has ensued over whether she was faking those “letter from the Mahatmas” or not. Mr. Johnson takes a middle course between the two extremes on this subject; he concludes that HPB really was the representative of a world-wide network of Adepts which she deliberately mythologized for various reasons. The book is mostly a series of capsule biographies of real people that HPB was known to be in contact with (though some cases rest on circumstantial evidence.) These people range from European explorers, occultists, and revolutionaries to Sufi mystics to Indian Rajas. The fact that an overwhelming number of these figures were involved in revolutionary or anti-colonial political movements goes a long way to explaining Blavatsky’s concealment of their identities, and Mr. Johnson presents (for example) internal memos from British intelligence showing that she was watched by Colonial authorities in India.
Another interesting aspect of the “Myth of the Masters” is how it was inflated by HPB’s disciples, much to her annoyance. Mr. Johnson takes great pains to show how the most extravagant claims originated outside of Blavatsky’s control. The result is kind of an object-lesson in human credulity.
The two major problems with this book are, first, that it is really to short– the biographical material is so brief that one feels at time as if one is reading a “Cliffs Notes” version of the real book (indeed this is apparently a “popular edition” of the author’s Master’s Thesis.) The second problem is that many of the “Masters” listed really do not seem to have much real connection to Blavatsky or Theosophy except that the author seems to think they should! Perhaps this due to the above-mentioned abridged quality of the work, and if so I do hope he expands on these points in future editions.
Secret Agent 666 is a terrific read. Author Spence is no kind of expert on occultism, and seems basically unperceptive on even such related topics as Freemasonry. But he does have useful expertise on British espionage in the first half of the 20th century. Although Spence has documentary support for Aleister Crowley’s status as an asset of the British intelligence apparatus, he also uncovers evidence of apparent “scrubbing” throughout the archives of various UK and US agencies. Much of the narrative he presents, then, is admittedly speculative.
The best-supported details for Crowley’s career as a propagandist agent provacateur are those for the World War I period, and perhaps as much as half of the book focuses on that interval. Spence’s references are far-ranging, and include sources of dubious value, but the conclusions he draws from them are still credible, and framed with appropriate caveats. His most important source throughout is Crowley’s Confessions (and not just the published version), to which he brings vast amounts of missing context by identifying the political allegiances and intelligence activities of Crowley’s many associates.
The presentation refrains from any attempts to interpret Crowley’s “Secret Chiefs” as his superiors in espionage. In fact, his supervisors were more likely to appear in the form of his A∴A∴ pupils, such as Gerald Yorke. Still, anyone interested in the intersection between occultism and international politics would be well-served by placing this book on a reading list just next to K. Paul Johnson’s works on the Theosophical Masters.
Spence is in no hurry to make Crowley either a villain or a hero. He does opine that the Beast was always a loyal Englishman, who relished clandestine intelligence and propaganda work, and had a long history of doing such work. Also, he disclaims any reductionism with respect to Crowley’s occult activities: The fact that a particular magical retirement might have have been opportune for a certain spy operation does not mean it wasn’t also a genuine spiritual undertaking. For those already familiar with Crowley’s general biography and magical accomplishments, the result is the restoration of missing pieces of the mage’s career, with reasonable explanations for many previously-murky travels and initiatives. [via]
The first additions to a new section for forewords and other front matter by Hermetic Library fellow Joscelyn Godwin have just been added on his pages. We are working together to get many from Joscelyn’s extensive corpus of front materials online. I’m sure you will agree this ongoing project is an exciting development that will offer many interesting and important additions to the library. For now, an initial two are available and, to the best of my knowledge, both of these are now available online for the first time, as will most, if not all, of the future additions. For my part, I’m quite excited to be able to help make this happen and moreover to share these with you all.