Tuesday 12 May 2015

In Search of the Miraculous #8: The Birth of a Modern Mythology

Madame Blavatsky 
It all came from her, this cranky middle-aged woman with the terrifying clear blue eyes who came to meet an investigator of the occult called Colonel  Henry Olcott at a haunted farm in Vermont in 1874. 

She said she was a Russian countess. She said she had a direct line to an Immortal Brotherhood of Ascended Masters in Tibet. She said she knew what had really happened in Atlantis and Lemuria. 

It all started with Madame Helena Petrovna Blavatsky. Or to be more accurate, with her, a retired senator from Minnesota, and a group of reputable scientists caught by a preoccupation with lemurs.

Colonel Olcott and Madame Blavatsky founded the Theosophical Society in 1874, taking the name "Theosophy" from a thesaurus. And between them they created the New Age movement and in so doing, Mme Blavatsky took Atlantis and made it a myth.

Some background: what you need to know is that at about the same time as all this was happening, a politician from Minnesota called Ignatius Loyola Donnelly, having retired from a career in Congress and the Senate, started thinking, so there are these pyramids in Egypt and there are all these pyramids down in South America, right? That can't be a coincidence, surely, right? 


The conditions were right for this sort of thing. It was the age of the privileged autodidact, the man (and occasionally woman) with independent means, intense curiosity and an equally intense disrespect for orthodox academic study.
In Donnelly's case, the result was the 1882 blockbuster Atlantis: the Antediluvian Age and its sequel the following year, Ragnarok: the Age of Fire and Gravel. They were huge successes. They made Donnelly literally world famous.

I cannot overstate the importance of these books. Without Donnelly, Atlantis, the invention of Plato, would never have left the realm of philosophical allegory and mythic fairytale. It was Donnelly who popularised the idea of Atlantis as literal historical fact; Donnelly who gave Atlantis a place. And it was Donnelly who invented, without even realising he'd invented anything at all, the concept of Atlantis as the cradle of all civilisation.

Every piece of fringe archaeology dedicated to revealing the ur-civilisation, from Lewis Spence to Otto Muck, to Charles Berlitz, to Graham Hancock, owes a debt to Donnelly. Phylos the Thibetan knew of Donnelly. Blavatsky read him. Cayce's sons read him. Erik von Däniken's alien astronauts use Donnelly's body of evidence. James Churchward couldn't have written about Mu without having read Donnelly on Atlantis. Even in my lifetime, Murry Hope treated him as authoritative.
Ignatius Donnelly
It's all nonsense, of course. Donnelly draws his suppositions based on the most shallow cosmetic similarities, a failing of methodology that writers like Graham Hancock would continue to use. When Hancock says in Fingerprints of the Gods that the Great Pyramid at Giza's circumference is twice pi times its height and the circumference of the Pyramid of the Sun in Mexico is four times pi times its height and therefore there must be a connection, even though they're thousands of years apart in construction, built for different purposes and the builders could have worked pi and the golden ratio out for themselves, he's doing what Donnelly did.

Ignatius Donnelly, without even realising it, invented fringe archaeology.

Actual science had a part too: in 1864 a Proper Naturalist, Paul Sclater, had already inadvertently added to the mythology of Atlantis, and all because of a primate.

The problem: lemurs. They're native to Madagascar. They're also present in fossil records in India. How did they appear in two sets of fossil records?

Bear in mind that the theory of continental drift, which we accept now as a given, was on the fringes of science until the 1960s, and that in the 19th century it was accepted by science that yeah, the map had changed, but that was because volcanic activity caused some landmasses to sink and others to rise.

Sclater posited, quite reasonably given what was known about geology, that there must once have been a land bridge between India and Madagascar. And he said, again quite reasonably, why don't we call this hypothetical land bridge Lemuria?

Now this in itself wasn't a massive thing. Hypothetical land bridges were not uncommon among early Darwinian thinkers (because no matter how improbable a land bridge was, it was still way more probable than God doing it in six days, six thousand years ago). 

And what caused Lemuria to catch imaginations was the Missing Link.
The theory of the Missing Link has, since then, been pushed aside in favour of other more workable theories, but back then, the Missing Link between ape and man was sought in earnest. And Ernst Haeckel and Alfred Russell Wallace, distinguished early Darwinian scientists both, independently said something to the effect of: "Wait, Lemuria is about where man should have evolved, right. What if the reason we haven't found the Missing Link yet is because the fossils were in Lemuria?"

This wasn't bad science. It all made sense based on what Victorian naturalists knew. Yeah, better theories came along, but what came next wasn't their fault. 

It wasn't long before real science had given up on both Lemuria and Missing Links but it didn't matter. Madame Blavatsky had done her work. Lemuria and Atlantis became the home for theosophical dreams.

Her two great works, the colossally plagiarised Isis Unveiled and the huge,  near-impenetrable Secret Doctrine (1888), lay out a vast system of evolutionary occult science. In the second volume of The Secret Doctrine, subtitled Anthropogenesis, she explains further, quoting a fictional book written on palm leaves called The Stanzas of Dzyan (Lovecraft would later co-opt it into his own mythology) that mankind would have a cycle of seven Root Races, each with seven subraces. White people, the Aryans, are the fifth. Atlanteans, whose remnants she claims survive in Asians and Semitic peoples, were the fourth. Lemurians, who she said were, let's just get it out there, the origins of black people, were the third, the earliest of whom were dual sexed, mindless and boneless. Some had sex with beasts, and primates were, she said, the result. The second were etheric people inhabiting Hyperborea (another mythical lost continent, beloved of Lovecraft's friend Clark Ashton Smith); the first were entirely astral and had no bodies at all.
For all the colossal length of The Secret Doctrine, very little detail is offered. It's all bitching about scientists and churchmen, cosmology and spiritual development stuff, and a LOT of Hindu philosophy, whitened up for Western consumption. Its racial attitudes are horrible, but reflect mistakes made by reputable scientists and well-meaning autodidacts in good faith (which isn't an excuse, I should add). Even now, it's fair to say that Darwin's defenders, although fine scientists, are still at times guilty of horrible, icky racist attitudes (as anyone who's read Richard Dawkins' "Dear Muslima" letter knows, for example).

Essentially, it's all derivative,  but Blavatsky's success wasn't in making anything new, it was in marketing it.

As a prophet, she seemed pretty unlikely. She chainsmoked. She had a great love of toilet humour and practical jokes: she called CW Leadbeater "WC" and owned a stuffed baboon that she dressed in a suit and glasses, and called Prof Fiske (the real Fiske was a prominent follower of Darwin). 

Great White Masters in Tibet wrote to her, she said. She used to receive magic letters from the Mahatmas in Tibet, Master Koot Hoomi and the others, written in gold on green paper, that would just appear, precipitated into the air. Sometimes they were addressed to her friends (Colonel Olcott more than once received one saying "you should listen to Mme Blavatsky. She knows what she's talking about").

She'd do other stuff, the sort of thing that nowadays you'd categorise as conjuring tricks, like smash crockery and then magically unsmash it.

Here's an instructive story: so in 1884, Emma Coulomb, a former housekeeper with whom Mme Blavatsky had had an acrimonious falling out, threatened to blow Blavatsky's operation wide open, by spreading around any number of incriminating letters and revealing where Mme Blavatsky kept her conjuring equipment.
"The Board of Trustees resisted at first, threatening the Coulombs with instant eviction for gross libel and dereliction of duty, but their faith was shattered into as many pieces as the general's saucer when they visited the shrine room to investigate. One of them struck the shrine saying, "You see, it is quite solid," and the middle panel flew up in his face, revealing the truth of Emma's charges. The following night the board members burnt the incriminating cupboard and entered into negotiations with the Coulombs."
Peter Washington, Madame Blavatsky's Baboon, p.81
It's like a comedy. What was worse (or better) is that Emma Coulomb made sure that a dossier of incriminating letters was given to Rev. Patterson, Principal of Madras Christian College and Mme Blavatsky's archenemy, who brought in Richard Hodgson, an investigator of the Society for Psychical Research, who was, depending on who you read, either a professional debunker or a principled investigator into the paranormal. He wrote a full report which was published in the SPR's journal in 1885, in which he concluded that Blavatsky was a fraud and that Olcott, her partner in running the Theosophical Society, was a gullible fool.

What makes this story so important, and in its own way miraculous, is that it didn't change anything. None of this would in the long run harm Blavatsky's reputation one jot. She had such immense charisma that she simply explained it all away. The people who thought she was a charlatan already thought so; her followers believed everything she said.

And so, when she died, "HPB" was more or less sainted. 

This charisma was the beginning of the New Age movement. If it weren't for her, Atlantis and Lemuria would have been just another entry in the treasury of discarded scientific theories.

But Helena Blavatsky, through weight of personality alone made them a mythology and laid the foundations of a complex and bizarre story.