Sunday, November 20, 2011

Blavatsky and Fairies

Volume 22, Issue 1, of The Australian Journal of Anthropology for April 2011 carries a paper by Anna Branford on “Gould and the fairies.” “This paper examines Stephen Jay Gould’s concept of science and religion as ‘non overlapping magisteria’ with reference to Spiritualism, specifically the case of the Cottingley fairies.…This paper offers discussion of the relationship between religion and science. In doing so, it problematises the common use of the terms ‘faith’ and ‘belief’ to characterise the experience of religious conviction.

In 1873, a Russian traveller, Madame Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, arrived in New York and is said to have demonstrated considerable skills in clairvoyance, telekinesis and mediumship. There she met with Colonel Henry S. Olcott, editor for the New York Tribune and a keen Spiritualist. With his assistance, she founded a system of belief, thought and investigation called Theosophy, guided by the central tenet that ‘There is no religion higher than truth’. Blavatsky reworked concepts such as reincarnation, karma and meditation, which she presented with the authority of having been taught by masters during travels through Asia, particularly Tibet. She formulated an ‘integration of Eastern mysticism with traditions of Western Spirituality’ (Weisberg 2004: 263). Historian of religion, David S. Katz, identifies her as among the greatest of the ‘entrepreneurial professional occultists’ (2005: 169). Beginning with Blavatsky’s establishment of an independent ‘Theosophical Society’ in New York City in 1875, Theosophy flourished in the United States, India, Germany and Austria, with many branches also operating across the United Kingdom. It was at one such branch, the Bradford Theosophical Society, that Polly Wright, mother of one of the young fairy photographers, had first crossed paths with Edward L. Gardner, president of the Blavatsky Lodge in London.

The paper, which is now available online, also gives some background of the Cottingley fairies and can be read here.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Laura Holloway-Langford

Indiana University Press announces the publication next year of Diane Sasson’s Yearning for the New Age: Laura Holloway-Langford and Late Victorian Spirituality as part of its Religion in North America series. It is scheduled for release May 31, 2012, and will sell for $35.00. According to the publisher’s blurb:

This biography of an unconventional woman in late 19th-century America is a study of a search for individual autonomy and spiritual growth. Laura Holloway-Langford, a “rebel girl” from Tennessee, moved to New York City, where she supported her family as a journalist. She soon became famous as the author of Ladies of the White House, which secured her financial independence. Promoted to associate editor of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, she gave readings and lectures and became involved in progressive women’s causes, the temperance movement, and theosophy—even traveling to Europe to meet Madame Blavatsky, the movement’s leader, and writing for the theosophist newspaper The Word. In the early 1870s, she began a correspondence with Eldress Anna White of the Mount Lebanon, New York, Shaker community, with whom she shared belief in pacifism, feminism, vegetarianism, and cremation. Attracted by the simplicity of Shaker life, she eventually bought a farm from the Canaan Shakers, where she lived and continued to write until her death in 1930. In tracing the life of this spiritual seeker, Diane Sasson underscores the significant role played by cultural mediators like Holloway-Langford in bringing new religious ideas to the American public and contributing to a growing interest in eastern religions and alternative approaches to health and spirituality that would alter the cultural landscape of the nation.

The book contains a number of new Mahatma letters to Holloway based on Sasson’s research.

Blavatsky in Fiction, Ctd

Jess Nevins continues his look at the most noteworthy science fiction and fantasy works from 1885 to 1930. The year under review is 1886 and the works chosen are F. Anstey’s A Fallen Idol, Marie Corelli’s A Romance of Two Worlds, Rosa Praed’s The Brother of the Shadow, Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mister Hyde, and H. Rider Haggard’s She.

Two of the books mentioned referenced Theosophists as part of their plot. F. Anstey’s A Fallen Idol features the effect on a number of lives of an ill-fated Eastern idol brought to London. This period piece by Anstey (Thomas Anstey Guthrie, 1856-1934) remains an entertaining and insightful read.

Mrs. Praed appears on the list again with The Brother of the Shadow. Nevins says: Despite the much greater use of Theosophical ideology —Praed was involved with Madame Blavatasky and the Theosophist Society almost from the beginning —Brother is a moderately fun late Victorian romantic occult fantasy. Brother has good characterization (especially for the doctor), an agreeably smooth style, hidden Tibetan occult masters, psychic death rituals, and a pleasant lack of racism in its treatment of Indians. One might describe Brother as Bulwer-Lytton without his bombast, straining for affect, or moments of genius.

Links for the novels noted are given at the io9 site.

Edith Nesbit

The English children’s writer Edith Nesbit is the subject of an extensive biographical sketch by Leslie Evans in a Nov. 1st post at the Boryana books website. Referring to Julia Briggs’ 1987 biography A Woman of Passion: The Life of E. Nesbit, 1858-1924, Evans says: “Briggs quotes a March 1884 letter from Edith to Ada Breakell listing several books she is reading. These include, Edith writes, ‘an intensely interesting book which Harry [her brother, married to Ada Breakell] would like called Esoteric Buddhism by Sinnett.’

A. P. Sinnett was a recently converted disciple of the Russian mystic Madame Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, the founder of the occult Theosophical Society. Sinnett’s book had little to do with any recognized school of Buddhism but was devoted to Blavatsky’s schema of world evolution from the mythical continents of Lemuria and Atlantis, and the teachings of her claimed Mahatmas or Ascended Masters of Tibet, essentially all-wise spirit guides who live on the Astral Plane and from there influence the course of human history. Sinnett was the recipient of a series of alleged letters from the Mahatmas, the question of their authenticity raising a heated controversy even in circles sympathetic to the idea of spirit communication.

Now Blavatsky’s Mahatmas are “Ascended Masters of Tibet, essentially all-wise spirit guides who live on the Astral Plane and from there influence the course of human history” !