Isis Unveiled (book)

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ARTICLE UNDER CONSTRUCTION
ARTICLE UNDER CONSTRUCTION

1886 edition. Photo by Joma Sipe.

Writing the book

Between September 17 and October 16, 1875, Mme. Blavatsky was visiting with Professor and Mrs. Hiram Corson in Ithaca, New York for about three weeks. Their son Eugene Corson reported that,

She spent her time at her desk, writing, writing, writing most of the day and way into the night, carrying on a huge correspondence by long letters. Here she started Isis Unveiled, writing about twenty-five closely written foolscap pages a day. She had no books to consult; my father's very extensive library was almost wholly on English literature, Early English, Anglo-Saxon, English poetry, and classic literature, and she rarely consulted him about anything.

On one occasion she asked him for a Greek word on some text in the New Testament, and when my father said he could not remember it but would look it up for her at once, she said to him, half irritated and half joking: "You school-boy! Why, don't you know it?" My father got the Greek for her, and she went on with her writing.[1]

During 1886 and 1887, H. P. Blavatsky wrote, and then reworked it with the assistance of Colonel Olcott.

Involvement of Alexander Wilder

After HPB finished the text, she involved Alexander Wilder.

When the work was ready, we submitted it to Professor Alexander Wilder, the well-known scholar and Platonist of New York, who after reading the matter, recommended it to Mr. Bouton for publication. Next to Colonel Olcott, it is Professor Wilder who did the most for me. It is he who made the excellent Index, who corrected the Greek, Latin, and Hebrew words, suggested quotations and wrote the greater part of the Introduction 'Before the Veil.' If this was not acknowledged in the work, the fault is not mine, but because it was Dr. Wilder's express wish that his name should not appear except in footnotes. I have never made a secret of it, and every one of my numerous acquaintances in New York knew it." [2]

As Boris de Zirkoff pointed out,

"Many statements by HPB, particularly in Isis Unveiled, the Key and the Glossary are taken from Dr. Alexander Wilder's small booklet: New Platonism and Alchemy, Albany, N.Y., 1869.[3]

Sources of the material

Madame Blavatsky's mode of writing was unconventional. She wrote of very complex and abstract concepts, quoting many sources accurately, but rarely referring to any book in the process. Witnesses speculated that she was engaged in automatic writing, or clairvoyantly saw the words in the astral plane.

The Corson family gave this account:

But quite aside from any evidence during her visit at Ithaca, many very reliable witnesses have repeatedly testified to her writing without the books before her or within her grasp. Olcott, who was longest associated with her intimately, who followed her by day while she wrote Isis Unveiled, and much of her other writing, can testify that she wrote automatically or clairvoyantly. She herself never took any credit for what she wrote, but always insisted that she was simply the amanuensis..[4]

Antiquarian bookseller Charles Sotheran, another of the founding members of the Theosophical Society, provided assistance in finding quotations and in locating books.[5]

Advertisement from New York Tribune, Saturday, September 29, 1877.

Publication

Isis Unveiled was published on September 29, 1877. The first printing consisted of 1,000 copies that were sold within ten days. This original edition had a red binding with a symbolic figure of Isis in gold on the spine.

The first copy off the Press was secured by James Robinson, a lawyer, and taken to the newspaper for advance notice.

As far as it is known, the original manuscript was destroyed.

About the title

Initially the title was to be The Veil of Isis. However, an editorial footnote to a letter by Madame Blavatsky discussed the change to the final title:

This was the original title of Isis Unveiled, changed to this latter after Vol. I had been printed off, upon the discovry that book entitled The Veil of Isis existed already.[6]

Impact of the work

Despite the important impact this book had at the time, it was regarded by Mme. Blavatsky and the Masters of Wisdom as having several flaws, some due to the fact that it was the first, tentative effort, to bring to the West a certain truths. Mahatma K.H., for example, was ready to admit that from the point of view of Westerners the book "often and purposely mislead the reader by withholding the necessary explanations and have given but portions of the truth".[7]

Isis on Reincarnation

Controversy was aroused in the 1880's when reincarnation was taught by Mme. Blavatsky and her Adept teachers because the concept had allegedly been previously rejected in Isis Unveiled:

Reincarnation, i.e., the appearance of the same individual, or rather of his astral monad, twice on the same planet, is not a rule in nature; it is an exception.[8]

In light of later teachings, it is obvious that by "astral monad" the author was not referring to the reincarnating entity, that is, to the higher ego. As Mme. Blavatsky wrote:

In Isis we refer to the personality or the finite astral monad, a compound of imponderable elements composed of the fifth and fourth principles.[9]

Thus, in Isis, Mme. Blavatsky was challenging the teaching of the Spiritists, who were teaching the reincarnation of the personal ego, something that in the Theosophical view only happens in exceptional cases:

It is preceded by a violation of the laws of harmony of nature, and happens only when the latter, seeking to restore its disturbed equilibrium, violently throws back into earth-life the astral monad which had been tossed out of the circle of necessity by crime or accident. Thus, in cases of abortion, of infants dying before a certain age, and of congenital and incurable idiocy, nature’s original design to produce a perfect human being, has been interrupted. Therefore, while the gross matter of each of these several entities is suffered to disperse itself at death, through the vast realm of being, the immortal spirit and astral monad of the individual — the latter having been set apart to animate a frame and the former to shed its divine light on the corporeal organization — must try a second time to carry out the purpose of the creative intelligence.[10]

However, as it was recognized by the Masters, the passages in Isis can be misleading. Master Morya wrote to Mr. Sinnet:

By-the-bye, I’ll re-write for you pages 345 to 357, Vol. I., of Isis — much jumbled, and confused by Olcott, who thought he was improving it![11]

To this, Master Koot Hoomi commented:

If M. told you to beware trusting Isis too implicitly, it was because he was teaching you truth and fact — and that at the time the passage was written we had not yet decided upon teaching the public indiscriminately.[12]

For more information see:

Online versions

Online resources

Articles

Additional resources

Notes

  1. Eugene Rollin Corson, Some Unpublished Letters of Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, London: Rider & Co., 27-28.
  2. H. P. Blavatsky, "My Books" in Theories about Reincation and Spirits and My Books (Point Loma, California: Theosophical Publishing Co., 1922), 33-34. Written April 27, 1891.
  3. Boris de Zirkoff to Armand Courtois. January 18, 1970. Boris de Zirkoff Papers. Records Series 22. Theosophical Society in America Archives.
  4. Eugene Rollin Corson, 31.
  5. Josephine Ransom, A Short History of The Theosophical Society (Adyar, Madras, India: The Theosophical Publishing House, 1938), 114.
  6. C. J. [C. Jinarājadāsa], "Two Glimpses of HPB (II) 1888," The Theosophist 53.12 (September,1932), 726. Note: The Veil of Isis was probably a work written by Thomas E. Webb in 1885, published by Dublin, Hodges, Figgis, & Co.
  7. Vicente Hao Chin, Jr., The Mahatma Letters to A.P. Sinnett in chronological sequence No. 92 (Quezon City: Theosophical Publishing House, 1993), 295.
  8. Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, Isis Unveiled vol. I, (Wheaton, IL: Theosophical Publishing House, 1972), 351.
  9. Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, Collected Writings vol. IV (Wheaton, IL: Theosophical Publishing House, 1991), 185.
  10. Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, Isis Unveiled vol. I, (Wheaton, IL: Theosophical Publishing House, 1972), 351.
  11. Vicente Hao Chin, Jr., The Mahatma Letters to A.P. Sinnett in chronological sequence No. 44 (Quezon City: Theosophical Publishing House, 1993), 123.
  12. Vicente Hao Chin, Jr., The Mahatma Letters to A.P. Sinnett in chronological sequence No. 44 (Quezon City: Theosophical Publishing House, 1993), 259.