First published in 1877 and still in print, 'Isis Unveiled' is a true masterpiece of esoteric philosophy.
Since the founding of the Theosophical Society (T.S.) against the background of spiritualism and magic of the nineteenth century, members of the Society have become accustomed to a comfortable, credible, ordinary setting for their lives as against the rather incredible, extraordinary, and perhaps uncomfortable one of the Society’s founders and early members.
Although we now have considerable technical theosophical knowledge to understand at least intellectually the processes of ‘miracles’, they have to all intents and purposes disappeared from public concern, and even for members they no longer occur except as possibilities. Materialistic science, conventional religious beliefs and practices with the ‘authority’ of scriptures, have tended to make us prefer the known, the commonly acceptable and the predictable.
There are those, of course, who display an interest in ufos, crop circles, messages ‘channelled’ from extraterrestrial or discarnate beings, in person, as well as through living people, but the latter are mostly confined to select private groups of believers. The founding of the T.S. was, however, against a background of some very abnormal happenings, both historic and immediate, including initially and particularly a considerable number of phenomena by H.P. Blavatsky (H.P.B.) herself. Students will remember how, after she had met Col. Olcott at the Eddy brothers’ house in Chittenden, Vermont, where some extraordinary spiritualistic phenomena including apparitional materializations occurred, she told him that, although mediums were passive to whatever entity might manifest through them, she could produce such phenomena at will, and later on occasions proved it.
About a year after the founding of the T.S. in New York, H.P.B. began writing her first major work. It is very difficult to describe to anyone who has not read this book what a vast amount and diversity of knowledge is contained in it. It goes far beyond what even the most erudite scholar could possibly have known about in its entirety. It is important to note this because it raises the question of its authorship. Could it possibly have been H.P.B's own work? She had had no formal education and she was not fluent in English, especially the written word. The answer is in statements made in Old Diary Leaves by H.S. Olcott, her collaborator in founding the Society, and in some of H.P.B's letters and articles: a number of Masters had a hand in the writing of it and in the most extraordinary way.
Her manuscript demonstrates a number of variations in style and in her handwriting. Olcott has this to say:
The 'copy' turned off by H.P.B. presented the most marked dissemblances at different times. While the handwriting bore one peculiar character throughout, so that one familiar with her writing would always be able to detect any given page as H.P.B's, yet when examined carefully one discovered at least three or four variations of the one style, and each of these persistent for pages together, when it would give place to some other of the calligraphic variants.... One of these H.P.B. handwritings was very small but plain; one bold and free; another plain, of medium size and very legible; and one scratchy and hard to read, with its queer foreign-shaped a's and x's and e's. There was also the greatest possible difference in the English of these various styles. Sometimes I would have to make several corrections in each line, while at others I could pass many pages with scarcely a fault of idiom or spelling to correct. Most perfect of all were the manuscripts which were written for her while she was sleeping. The beginning of the chapter on the civilisation of ancient Egypt is an illustration. We had stopped at about 2 a.m. as usual, both too tired to wait for our usual smoke and chat before parting. The next morning when I came to breakfast she showed me a pile of at least thirty or forty pages of beautifully written H.P.B. manuscript, which, she said, she had had written for her by - well, a Master whose name has never been degraded like some others. It was perfect in every respect, and went to the printers without revision.
Olcott describes how a Master would do his 'stint' of writing by actually taking possession of H.P.B's body. She would be conscious of having been 'evicted' but remain quite conscious thereafter and be completely aware of what was going on. The following references to the Masters who took over H.P.B's body is interesting:
Then there was another Somebody who disliked English so much that he never willingly talked with me in anything but French; he had a fine artistic talent and a passionate fondness for mechanical invention. Another would now and then sit there, scrawling something with a pencil and reeling off for me dozens of poetical stanzas which embodied, now sublime, now humorous, ideas. So each of the several Somebodies had his peculiarities, as recognizable as those of any of our ordinary acquaintances or friends. One was jovial, fond of good stories, and witty to a degree; another, all dignity, reserve and erudition. One would be calm, patient and benevolently helpful; another testy and sometimes exasperating. One Somebody would always be willing to emphasize his philosophical or scientific explanation of the subjects I was to write upon, by doing phenomena for my edification; while to another Somebody I dared not even mention them.
Now when either of these Somebodies was 'on guard', as I used to term it, the H.P.B. manuscript would present the identical peculiarities that it had on the last occasion when he had taken his turn at the literary work. He would by preference write about the class of subjects that were to his taste; and instead of H.P.B. playing the part of amanuensis, she would then have become for the time being that other person. If you had given me in those days any page of Isis manuscript, I could almost certainly have told you by which Somebody it had been written.
Six or seven of the Somebodies can be identified by their characteristics and when it is considered that latterly all these 'correspondents' came to be known as Masters of the Wisdom, the vast learning in that book is easily explained. As has often been noted before, some 1,300 other works from remotest antiquity through mediaeval times to the modern, are quoted from. It would be fairly safe to say that there is no other work in the English language to compare with it. It is however, as the manner of its writing would suggest, a series of a large number of articles with no connective progressive narrative, for which reason it has received adverse literary criticism. It is obviously intended to be informative and not a story with a beginning and an end.
She had another collaborator; although not a Master of the Wisdom, of whom Olcott writes:
We worked in collaboration with at least one disincarnate entity - the pure soul of one of the wisest philosophers of modern times.... He was a great Platonist; and I was told that, so absorbed was he in his life-study that he had become earth-bound, i.e., he could not snap the ties which held him to earth, but sat in an astral library of his own mental creation, plunged in his philosophical reflections.... There he was, willing and eager to work with H.P.B. on this epoch-making book, toward the philosophical portions of which he contributed much. He did not materialize and sit with us, nor obsess H.P.B. medium-fashion; he would simply talk with her psychically by the hour together, dictating copy, telling her what references to hunt up, answering my questions about details, instructing me as to principles, and playing the part of a third person in our literary symposium....
Another incident, though not relevant to the writing of Isis is:
One evening in New York, after bidding H.P.B. good-night, I sat in my bedroom finishing a cigar and thinking. Suddenly there stood my Chohan beside me. The door had made no noise in opening, if it had opened, but at any rate there he was. He sat down and conversed with me in subdued tones for some time, and as he seemed in an excellent humour towards me, I asked him a favour. I said I wanted some tangible proof that he had actually been there, and that I had not been seeing a mere illusion or maya conjured up by H.P.B. He laughed, unwound the embroidered Indian cotton fehta [That fehta is still to be seen at the T.S. Headquarters at Adyar] he wore on his head, flung it to me, and - was gone. That cloth I still possess, and it bears in one corner the initial ... M of my Chohan in thread-work.
Not all of Isis was the direct work of these 'visiting' Masters. Olcott records that H.P.B. herself was a very competent author:
I have spoken of the part of Isis that was done by H.P.B. in propria persona which was inferior to that done for her by the Somebodies. This is perfectly comprehensible, for how could H.P.B., who had no previous knowledge of this sort, write correctly about the multifarious subjects treated in her book? In her (seemingly) normal state, she would read a book, mark the portions that struck her, write about them, make mistakes, correct them, discuss them with me, set me to writing, help my intuitions, get friends to supply materials, and go on thus as best she might, so long as there were none of the teachers within call of her psychic appeals. And they were not with us always, by any means.
She did a vast deal of splendid writing, for she was endowed with a marvellous natural literary capacity; she was never dull or uninteresting; and she was equally brilliant in three languages, when the full power was upon her. She writes to her Aunt that when her Master was busy elsewhere, he left his substitute with her, and then it was her 'Luminous Self', her Augoeides, which thought and wrote for her. About this I cannot venture an opinion, for I never observed her in this state:...
Speaking for herself, concerning another form of assistance that H.P.B. got while writing Isis:
When I wrote Isis, I wrote it so easily that it was actually no labour, but a real pleasure. Why should I be praised for it? Whenever I am told to write, I sit down and obey, and then I can write easily upon almost anything - metaphysics, psychology, philosophy, ancient religions, zoology, natural sciences, or what not. I never put myself the question: 'Can I write on this subject?' or 'Am I equal to the task?' but I simply sit down and write. Why? Because somebody who knows all dictates to me.... My Master and occasionally others whom I knew in my travels years ago.... Please do not imagine that I have lost my senses. I have hinted to you before now about Them ... and I tell you candidly, that whenever I write upon a subject I know little or nothing of, I address myself to Them, and one of Them inspires me, i.e., He allows me to simply copy what I write from manuscripts, and even printed matter that passes before my eyes in the air, during which process I have never been unconscious one single instant.... It is that knowledge of His protection and faith in His power, that have enabled me to become mentally and spiritually so strong ... and even He (the Master) is not always required; for, during His absence on some other occupation, He awakens in me His substitute in knowledge.... At such times it is no more I who write, but my inner Ego, my 'luminous self', who thinks and writes for me.
In another letter ... whether you believe me or not, something miraculous is happening to me. You cannot imagine in what a charmed world of pictures and visions I live. I am writing Isis, not writing, rather copying out and drawing what she personally shows to me. Upon my word, sometimes it seems to me that the ancient Goddess of Beauty in person leads me through all the countries of past centuries which I have to describe. I sit with my eyes open, and to all appearances see and hear everything real and actual around me, and yet at the same time I see and hear that which I write. I feel short of breath; I am afraid to make the slightest movement, for fear the spell might be broken. Slowly, century after century, image after image, float out of the distance and pass before me, as if in magic panorama; and meanwhile I put them together in my mind, fitting in epochs and dates, and know for sure that there can be no mistake. Races and nations, countries and cities, which have for long disappeared in the darkness of the prehistoric past, emerge and then vanish, giving place to others, and then I am told the consecutive dates.
Hoary antiquity makes way for historical periods; myths are explained to me with events and people who have really existed; and every event which is at all remarkable, every newly turned page of this many-coloured book of life, impresses itself on my brain with photographic exactitude. My own reckonings and calculations appear to me later on as separate coloured pieces of different shapes in the game which is called casse-tête (jigsaw puzzles). I gather them together and try to match them one after the other, assuredly it is not I who do it all, but my ego, the highest principle which lives in me. And even this with the help of my Guru and Teacher who helps me in everything. If I happen to forget something, I have just to address him, or another of the same kind in my thought, and what I have forgotten rises once more before my eyes - sometimes whole tables of numbers passing before me, long inventories of events. They remember everything. They know everything. Without Them, from whence could I gather my knowledge?
So runs the extraordinary story behind the great work Isis Unveiled. Attempted only in part here, the story has never been written fully, but remains embedded in various historical accounts, articles and notebooks.
The article first appeared in The Theosophist of October 1998