The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana

by Jess Nevins


copyright © Jess Nevins 2022

Theosophy is a broad set of philosophical and mystic beliefs which became popular in the last quarter of the nineteenth century. Roughly, Theosophy argues that: God is infinite, unknowable by humans, and the source of all matter and spirit; reincarnation and karma govern spiritual growth; and that all human souls are a part of the universal soul.

The Victorian fad for Theosophy began in 1875, when Helena Blavatsky and Henry Olcott founded the Theosophical Society in 1875. Blavatksy (1831-1891) was the Russian wife (separated) of a provincial governor and had been interested in Spiritualism and the occult for many years. Olcott (1832-1907) was a Spiritualist and social reformer. Their Society was an attempt to revise the essentially proletarian Spiritualism and remake it for a bourgeois audience. Female mediums were replaced with male “adepts,” ghosts were replaced with souls linked to the “oversoul,” and the simpler dynamic of open access to ghosts via the mediums was replaced with a complicated hierarchy of adepts and Masters who were rarely seen by the average person. The goals of the Theosophical Society were to form a universal brotherhood without regard for race, creed, or sex, to study comparative religion and philosophy, and to investigate occult laws. But the primary written sources for Theosophy–Blavatsky’s Isis Unveiled (1877) and The Secret Doctrine (1888)–incorporated Rosicrucian philosophy, the Vishnu Purana (circa 450 C.E.?), Alexander Winchell’s pseudoscientific study of geology, World-Life (1883), Ignatius Donnelly’s crackpot study of Atlantis, Atlantis: The Antediluvian World (1882), and the Rig Veda (1500-1200 B.C.E.), among others (see: Mission to India from Europe, Mission to Europe from Asia) and created a cosmology and mystical philosophy which theorized that humanity had been spiritually evolving for millennia, beginning with the First Race and proceeding through the Hyperboreans, Lemurians, Atlanteans, and the present race of humanity, the “Root Race.” Each race had been destroyed by a disaster, but a surviving “saving remnant” remained to guide the next race. The Atlantean remnant was the Hidden Masters of Tibet, who had “opened the Akashic Record” to Blavatsky so that she could spread the gospel of Theosophy.

Theosophy became a faddish belief for many middle and upper-class Europeans at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries. It also provided substantial material for fantasy and occult writers during those decades, who combined it with the Lost Race genre in writing occult fantasies.

For Further Research

René Guénon and Alvin Moore, Theosophy: History of a Pseudo-Religion, transl. Sophia Perennis (Hillsdale, NY: Sophia Perennis, 2004).