Tag Archives: personal narrative

Inside the Occult

Hermetic Library fellow T Polyphilus reviews Inside the occult: The true story of Madame H. P. Blavatsky by Henry Steel Olcott:

Henry Steel Olcott's Inside the Occult


Inside the Occult is a 1975 reprint of the first of six volumes from Henry Steel Olcott’s Old Diary Leaves, in which he provides a memoir of the Theosophical Society, for which he was a founder and the first president. Although Daniel Grotta-Kurska (better known as a Tolkien biographer) provides a new introduction for this reprint, Olcott’s original foreword is omitted. This volume covers the period of 1874-1879, and might have been titled “H.P.B. and Me: Origins of the Theosophical Society.”

Old Diary Leaves was written after the death of H.P. Blavatsky, the famous sybil who had been Olcott’s chief collaborator in the creation of the Theosophical Society, as well as their most conspicuous link to the Masters, Adepts, or to use the later-standard Theosophical jargon, Mahatmas. Olcott and Blavatsky had had some disagreements in the period between the events described in this volume and her later death, but his memories of her here are highly complimentary. She is presented as noble in intention, if flawed in character, and certainly in possession of supernatural powers, although these are employed in strange mixtures with trickery for purposes that are inscrutable often even to herself. Olcott suggests that he and Blavatsky’s other close associates at the time may have had their perceptions routinely altered by post-hypnotic suggestions of her devising.

Olcott discusses the manner in which H.P.B. served as a vehicle for a variety of adepts who were understood to have guided the creation of the Theosophical Society and the authoring of Isis Unveiled, that erratic compendium of lore that was such a touchstone for the occultism of its era. It is important to note that Blavatsky did not profess herself, nor was she viewed by Olcott as, a passive trance medium for spirits of the dead after the fashion of the Spiritualism of the time. Spiritualism had provided the setting for these two to encounter each other initially, but their own later Theosophical occultist reading of Spiritualist phenomena held such operations to be misunderstood and misrepresented by their advocates. The “spirit controls” were actually “elemental and elementary” spirits being given undeserved free rein among human dupes. Blavatsky’s possession by her Masters was in contrast a conscious collaboration with still-living humans of supernatural puissance.

In a somewhat tentative passage, that is still one of the most striking in the book, Olcott goes so far as to hypothesize that the woman Helena Blavatsky may have actually died a violent death in Europe before he met her, and that during the entire period of their association, she was animated by the combined efforts of a group of adepts who were using her as their worldly instrument.

Not all of the book is about H.P.B., however. The essential narrative is that of the creation of the Theosophical Society, from its initial combinations of Spiritualist and occultist milieux and eventual addition of Eastern (i.e. south Asian) philosophies, up until the establishment of the British branch of the Society and the departure of Olcott and H.P.B. from New York to found the new headquarters in India. A full chapter gives an accounting of the “first cremation in America,” as engineered by the founding Theosophists. And there is a great deal of anecdote and description regarding the New York apartment “Lamasery” where H.P.B. wrote Isis Unveiled, and where Olcott presided over their “little Bohemia” of Victorian esotericism. Also, Olcott discusses his own experiences of astral projection, encounters with adepts, and other phenomena from which he exempts H.P.B. as an actor.

There is just no getting around the Theosophical Society in the history of modern esoteric movements, and this firsthand account of its origins is both entertaining and revealing. [via]



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Hermetic Library Journal submissions to the Symposium forum for Summer Solstice 2013

There’s only two months until the March 21st, 2013 deadline to participate in the inaugural issue of the Hermetic Library Journal from the Benefit Anthology Project! Release is planned for June 21st, 2013. Consider letting others whom you think may be interested know about this as well, but consider submitting your written and visual work. If you have any questions, comments or wish to contribute to this project; contact the librarian.

The Symposium is an opportunity for readers to write on a topic pre-selected for each issue, which for this issue is Intolerance and Tolerance. Non-fiction and personal narrative is encouraged, but a wide range of personal expression is possible. Submissions to the Symposium may be heavily edited but the creator will be contacted with proposed edits prior to publication, unless this is waived when submitted. Anonymity in publication is available, but not in the submission process, and the name used in publication may be presented in abbreviated or anonymous form at the discretion of the Journal. This is not an opportunity to slander, libel or flame others, so do not do so; and, where speaking of others, names should be changed and indicated to the Journal as such. Also, speak for yourself, your own thoughts and ideas.

The ancient Greek symposium was a social event where celebrants gathered to debate and revel in each other’s company, with various entertainments that included wine, women and song. The use of the word ‘symposium’ in English for events where speeches are made is not exactly what the original events were, but the rhetorical contests and dialogues that have come down to us in ancient Greek literature are the inspiration for that use. I propose something not quite so formal as a modern symposium, but not quite so wild as the ancient event.

Have you ever read the Sun magazine’s “readers write” section? If not, you should check out Snow, their recent theme January 2013 as an example. I’ve long wanted to do something like that, and here’s my chance. I am going to announce a more or less broad suggested theme for each issue of the journal and publish concise and thoughtful reader responses.

The Journal, in general, and this section, specifically, is intended to be a hospitable environment where no one ends up in hospital or therapy, including myself. I feel I must be clear this Symposium is not going to be a space to slander, libel, flame or otherwise attack people or points of view; but rather to offer readers an opportunity to offer personal thoughts and ideas about the specific topic selected.

The theme for this issue’s Symposium, a section of the Journal offering a reader’s forum, is Intolerance and Tolerance. Read more about the idea of the Symposium in the call for submissions and in the Symposium section of the submissions guidelines.

For general information, please read the call for submissions and the terms & conditions for submissions. If you have any comments, questions or concerns; or want to submit your work for an anthology, just contact the librarian.

More on the Copiale cipher and the revealed rites of a secret society of Oculists

I’d posted previously about the success made cracking the Copiale cipher, and that the text revealed the ritual of a previously lost German secret order called the Great Enlightened Society of Oculists, at “The Book of Law of the Venerable Secret Order of the Eye“. Today I noticed that over on Danger Room, there’s a nice long-form piece by Noah Shachtman about this that offers quite a bit of narrative and more information at “They Cracked This 250 Year-Old Code, And Found a Secret Society Inside“. There’s also images of several items used by the society to gander at there as well, such as a blindfold with lenses and more, including the personal narrative by Shachtman of traveling to see the trove of materials first hand.

“The master wears an amulet with a blue eye in the center. Before him, a candidate kneels in the candlelit room, surrounded by microscopes and surgical implements. The year is roughly 1746. The initiation has begun.

The master places a piece of paper in front of the candidate and orders him to put on a pair of eyeglasses. “Read,” the master commands. The candidate squints, but it’s an impossible task. The page is blank.

The candidate is told not to panic; there is hope for his vision to improve. The master wipes the candidate’s eyes with a cloth and orders preparation for the surgery to commence. He selects a pair of tweezers from the table. The other members in attendance raise their candles.

The master starts plucking hairs from the candidate’s eyebrow. This is a ritualistic procedure; no flesh is cut. But these are “symbolic actions out of which none are without meaning,” the master assures the candidate. The candidate places his hand on the master’s amulet. Try reading again, the master says, replacing the first page with another. This page is filled with handwritten text. Congratulations, brother, the members say. Now you can see.” [via]

“It was the fall of 1998, and Schaefer was about to leave Berlin to take a job in the linguistics department at Uppsala University, north of Stockholm. Hock announced that he had a going-away present for Schaefer.

She was a little surprised—a parting gift seemed an oddly personal gesture for such a reserved colleague. Still more surprising was the present itself: a large brown paper envelope marked with the words top secret and a series of strange symbols.

Schaefer opened it. Inside was a note that read, “Something for those long Swedish winter nights.” It was paper-clipped to 100 or so photocopied pages filled with a handwritten script that made no sense to her whatsoever:

Arrows, shapes, and runes. Mathematical symbols and Roman letters, alternately accented and unadorned. Clearly it was some kind of cipher. Schaefer pelted Hock with questions about the manuscript’s contents. Hock deflected her with laughter, mentioning only that the original text might be Albanian. Other than that, Hock said, she’d have to find her own answers.” [via]