The Theosophical Glossary (book)

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Boris de Zirkoff's copy - a 1952 replica of 1892 first edition

The Theosophical Glossary was written by Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, but published posthumously in 1892 after some editorial work by G. R. S. Mead. An ambitious work, the glossary included 2797 terms from Sanskrit, other oriental languages, Kabbalah, Freemasonry, Rosicrucianism, Hermeticism, Egyptology, Judeo-Christian studies, and other sources. The manuscript did not benefit from an opportunity for the author to review and revise it, due to her death on May 8, 1891. Consequently, the quality is uneven, and the glossary entries include errors, especially in Sanskrit. This volume has to be read with discrimination, as Madame Blavatsky herself recommended for any form of study.

NOTE: A detailed analysis by Boris de Zirkoff of the glossary is provided in this wiki article as an aid to readers, along with a link to his annotated copy of the glossary.

An HTML version of the glossary is available at

Two other resources that should be consulted for comparison to The Theosophical Glossary, or to supplement its information, are Occult Glossary by Gottfried de Purucker and the Encyclopedic Theosophical Glossary at Theosophical University Press Online. See also the Collation of Theosophical Glossaries.

Writing and publication

Many definitions used in this glossary were published previously in other Blavatsky works such as Isis Unveiled and The Key to Theosophy. Madame Blavatsky, known as HPB, combined these with definitions from Western esotericism that were provided by her associate William Wynn Westcott. She also wrote and assembled many additional definitions, working in her own unique style, which was psychically inspired rather than scholarly. When writing, she turned herself over to her higher mind, or served as an amanuensis to her Masters. In many cases the resultant wording was identical to that published by other writers, but any effect of seeming plagiarism was purely unintentional. During the last months of preparing the manuscript, HPB was very ill, and was also working intently on other writing projects.

Elsie Benjamin wrote of the glossary:

The fact that the book wasn't prepared until shortly before her death, would seem to indicate that its preparation was one of her last literary undertakings, and with all the other terrific amount of literary work she had on her hands, I THINK the book was compiled by one or more of her students.[1]

Clearly Madame Blavatsky had the opportunity to review only a few pages of the manuscript before her death. The work of editing the glossary was taken over by G. R. S. Mead, then only 28 years old. He was well-educated in philosophy, but not as an orientalist. Perhaps he was under some pressure to get the manuscript into print quickly. In his preface to the book, Mead freely admitted that he had not been able to undertake the scholarly work needed to verify the glossary entries and identify their sources. According to HPB's wishes, he did acknowledge the assistance of William Wynn Westcott and the works of four authors as significant sources of information: Ernest John Eitel, John Dowson, H. H. Wilson, and Kenneth R. H. MacKenzie.

Daniel H. Caldwell has shared a very thorough chronology of the writing and publication of this book.

Editions and availability online

Compared to other Blavatsky works, the glossary has had relatively few reprintings, and no new editions have been issued. Even Boris de Zirkoff, editor of her Collected Writings, did not attempt the much-needed revision.

All English printings except the 1918 Krotona version have been photographic reproductions of the original.

  • London: Theosophical Publishing Society; New York: The Path Office, 1892. No digital version available.
  • Krotona, Hollywood, Los Angeles: Theosophical Publishing Society, 1918. Available at Hathitrust. 360 pages.
  • Los Angeles, Theosophy Co., 1930, 1952, 1966, 1971, 1973, 1990. Photographic reproductions of the original 1892 version. 389 pages. 1930 copy available at Hathitrust.
  • Ann Arbor: Gryphon Books, 1971. Facsimile reprint. 389 pages.
  • Detroit: Gale Research Co., 1974. Facsimile reprint. 389 pages.

The glossary has been translated into Russian, French, and Spanish.

The Union Index of Theosophical Periodicals lists 106 articles about or extracted from the Glossary. From 1894 to 1913 the journal Le Lotus Bleu regularly printed entries from the French edition, Glossaire Theosophique, and other journals have frequently based articles on the Glossary.

Abbreviations used in definitions

Immediately following most of the terms in the glossary, there is a gloss in parentheses identifying the language or tradition from which the term is derived. The most common is (Sk.), for Sanskrit. These glosses are presented as abbreviations in italics. In addition, over 100 entries are followed by [w.w.w.], representing William Wynn Westcott as the source.

A list of common abbreviations follows:

Alch. = Alchemical sources
Arab. = Arab traditions
Assyr. = Assyrian language
Celtic = Celtic language
Chald. = Chaldean language
Chin. = Chinese language
Copt. = Coptic mythology
Eg. = Egyptian mythology
Esot. = Esoteric sources
Germ. = German language
Gn./Gnost. = Gnostic sources
Gr. = Greek language
Heb. = Hebrew language
Hind. = Hindu religion
Iceland. = Icelandic language
Irish = Irish traditions

Jap. = Japanese language
Kab. = Kabbalah
Kolarian = Kolarian tribe in India
Lat. = Latin language
Mazd. = Mazdaism or Zoroastrianism
Mex. = Mexican traditions
Mong./Mongol. = Mongolian language
Mys./Mystic = mysticism
Occult. = Occultist literature
Pali = Pali language
Pers. = Persian language
Peruv. = Peruvian language
Phoen. = Phoenician language
Prakrit = ancient Indian dialects
Quiché = Guatelamalan; Popol Vuh
Ros. = Rosicrucian sources

Russ. = Russian language
Saxon = Saxon language
Scand. = Scandinavian mythology
Septuag. = Septuagint
Sing. = Singhalese language
Sk. = Sanskrit language
Slavon. = Slavonian tradition
Syr. = Syrian language
Tah. = Tahitian language
Tam. = Tamil language
Tib. = Tibetan language
Vulgate = Vulgate Bible
Zend = Zend-Avasta scripture
Zohar = Zohar commentaries

Reviews and criticisms of the Glossary

The eagerly-awaited Glossary was quickly found wanting, after its release in 1892. Several criticisms were leveled against the work:

  • Errors were made in transliteration of Sanskrit terms.
  • Definitions of terms were erroneous.
  • Important concepts and persons were omitted.
  • Sources of definitions were not identified.

Review by Colonel Olcott

Henry Steel Olcott, President-Founder of the Theosophical Society, wrote one of the earliest reviews. He praised the production of the book, its paper, binding, and timeliness; and its definitions of terms from The Secret Doctrine. He expressed great regret, however, that Sanskrit scholars had not been consulted to review the manuscript.

Nothing could have been more timely for, with the expansion of our literature, fresh Oriental terms are being introduced which, without interpretation, are meaningless to the Western reader. The present work supplies a crying want, therefore, and will add enormously to H. P. B.s literary reputation while, at the same time, going to show her extraordinary clairvoyant intuition. Needless to say, she never made the least pretence to what is called scholarship, i.e., acquiring her knowledge in the usual way by book-study: it came to her mainly while in the act of writing. In a letter to her sister, quoted by Mr. Sinnett in his biography of her, she very clearly describes this mental process. But when it came to quoting or translating from current literature, her habit was to ask the help of those who were learned in the specialities she might be discussing. When she first undertook the “Secret Doctrine” there was an agreement between her and the late erudite Mr. T. Subba Row, that he should edit the portions relating to Indian Philosophy, verify her transliterations and correct her interpretations of Sanskrit words. If she had lived to bring out the Glossary, this would undoubtedly have been her course, and the work would have been free from the large number of errors which now characterize it, and which are more than likely to be pointed out by unfriendly Orientalist critics. Deserving of all praise, as Mr. Mead’s industry and skill in editing this are, he would have done better service to H. P. B. by calling upon some one or more of our most competent Indian colleagues to have verified the renderings of the Sanskrit words and phrases; the more so as they would doubtless have considered it a labor of love. Accuracy would not then have been sacrificed to speed. As it stands, the Glossary must be taken as giving the meanings which H. P. B. supposed the words to have, and which interpret the ideas she put in to English words while writing. In this respect it is invaluable to theosophical students. But from the point of Sanskrit scholarship it appears full of blunders. In imitation of H. P. B.’s own example, I have asked an English-knowing Sanskrit pandit to report upon the Sanskrit words under the initial A. He says:

Spine label on Boris de Zirkoff copy

“The transliteration of the Sanskrit words is sometimes so bad that readers may often confound them for others which have a different meaning. With this general remark, I may say that out of 154 words beginning with A, put down as Sanskrit, 28 words are so transliterated that some of them would not, in their new garb, be taken to be Sanskrit. Eighteen of the words are very badly explained, as, for instance, Adhyátma vidya, which literally means 'the Science of Atma,’ and not ‘the esoteric luminary.’ (This mistake is copied from Dr. Eitel.) Amitábha is a Sanskrit expression, meaning ‘boundless splendor' not a ‘Chinese corruption of the Sanskrit Amrita Buddha,’ as explained. The Amitábhas are certain Devas who are said, in the Vishnu Purana, to rule the sky in Raivata and Sávarni Manvantaras. Aindriya means literally ‘pertaining to the senses,’ not ‘Indrani, the wife of Indra.’ Apana is wrongly explained as 'inspirational breath' and is not ‘a practice in Yoga.’ It means the 'wind' or 'vayu' which is said to be in the lower portion of the body. Prána, again, is ‘not expirational breath.’ Arasamaram is not Sanskrit but pure Tamil, and means simply the Pipal tree, literally, ‘the king of trees.’ Two of the erroneous renderings of Sanskrit under the letter A have been taken over from Dowson’s ‘Classical Dictionary of India,’ and five from Dr. Eitel’s 'Sanskrit-Chinese “Dictionary.’ Under the letter B there are seven mis-translations; under C one; and under D fourteen. Thus, overlooking minor ones, in the first four letters of the alphabet, out of 303 words, there are no less than 40 glaring mis-translations. I have examined no farther.”

Among the many proofs of the incompleteness of the MS. must be mentioned these: Sankara, Founder of the Adwaita school, is mentioned, but not Ramanuja and Madhava, the equally well known Founders of the other two great schools, the Dwaita and Vishisthadvaita ... All these would have been rectified if H. P. B. had lived.

In his modest Preface to the Glossary, Mr. Mead disclaims all "pretension to the elaborate and extraordinary scholarship requisite for the editing" of the work, and candidly admits the likelihood of there being mistakes in transliteration: he tells us also that, for the interpretation of facts relating to the Kabalah, to Rosicrucian and Hermetic doctrines, H. P. B. availed of the Help of our erudite brother W . Wynn Westcott. It is a thousand pities that the Sanskrit portions were not sent here for verification by Mr. Gopalacharlu, Prof. Manilal, Mr. Govinda Dasa, of Benares, or R. Sundara Sastri, of Kumbakonam — all F. T. S.’s and staunch friends of H. P. B. Permitting the work to be hurried out with so many errors of omission and commission in its Sanskrit department, are we not playing into the hands of Prof. Muller and other Sanskritists who concur with him in calling us a lot of pseudo-scholars?

As for the explanations of terms pertaining to occultism and the Secret Doctrine in particular, words of praise are superfluous, for H. P. B. wrote upon those themes with perfect knowledge of her subject and with unequalled force and brilliancy. For this reason, I repeat, the work should be in every Theosophist’s library.[2]

Spine label on Boris de Zirkoff copy

Critique by Boris de Zirkoff

Boris de Zirkoff, editor of Madame Blavatsky's Collected Writings, wrote an article in his journal Theosophia called "Who Played That Trick on H. P. B.? the Puzzle of 'The Theosophical Glossary.'"[3] He reiterated much of the criticism expressed by Colonel Olcott, and also his praise of definitions written purely by Madame Blavatsky without reference to other sources.

As far as Mead is concerned, he lets us know, in his Preface to this work, that H.P.B. desired to express her indebtedness “as far as the tabulation of facts is concerned,” to four works, namely, the Sanskrit-Chinese Dictionary of Eitel, the Hindu Classical Dictionary of Dowson, Wilson’s Vishnu-Purâna and the Royal Masonic Cyclopaedia of Kenneth R. H. MacKenzie. He also points out the definitions signed W.W.W. are by W. W. Westcott...

A careful analysis of the definitions and of the probable sources from which they were borrowed, has disclosed that out of the 2,767 definitions, a minimum of 2,212 have been taken from the works of a large number of scholars, either verbatim or with very minor alterations, and with no acknowledgement whatsoever; in a few cases a line or two has been added, giving an occult interpretation probably by H.P.B. herself; such instances are very few...

There are 124 terms signed by W. Wynn Westcott; 217 terms identical, or practically so, with the corresponding terms in the Glossary of the 2nd edition of The Key to Theosophy; about 25-30 terms from The Secret Doctrine; and about 70 terms from Isis Unveiled.

We are faced here with a perfectly honest but woefully inadequate attempt on the part of various early scholars to grasp the subtle meaning of Oriental and other ancient terms, and to render their phonetic or actual form in English letters...

To publish the Theosophical Glossary as it now stands simply means to perpetuate willingly and deliberately hundreds of errors; it also means to ascribe them, at least partially so, to H.P.B., imagining that the definitions are hers, as no source of reference is given; while in reality, when adequate explanation and analysis of the text is made, nothing could be more erroneous than to imagine that H.P.B. was herself responsible for the majority of the definitions in the book...[4]

Daniel Caldwell on other critiques

Blavatsky scholar Daniel H. Caldwell wrote a lengthy posting in the Internet discussion group Theos-talk in which he refuted some of the claims made by Boris de Zirkoff and other critics. He presented a very logical case that some of the erroneous glossary entries had been published previously by HPB herself, and that young G. R. S. Mead should not bear all the burden of the glossary's flaws. See "Some Observations on the Claims made by Boris de Zirkoff and others." In his view the estimable Mr. de Zirkoff seems to have overstated the case that Mead played a "trick" on HPB.[5]

For more on the Theosophical Glossary, visit the Blavatsky Study Center website.

Comments by Elsie Benjamin

Elsie Benjamin commented about this controversy:

Do you Know -- I think it is very salutary that we have these uncertainties, because it throws us back onto our own investigations and intuitions, if we find something that seems not "to ring true" to us, or something that we think may be a misprint. Which of course doesn't mean that we should immediately reject it, but they are points to ponder over and see whether we can accept them. Remember HPB's advise to the American Convention: "orthodoxy in Theosophy is a thing neither possible nor desirable. It is diversity of opinion, within certain limits ... a certain amount of uncertainty, etc. that keeps the Society a healthy body."[6]

Analysis of sources, by Boris de Zirkoff

Boris de Zirkoff devoted a considerable effort to analyzing the sources of the Glossary entries. He took a 1952 replica of the 1892 first edition and penciled marginal notes beside most of the terms. Here is a scan of his annotated copy.

Richard Robb, Michael Conlin, and Janet Kerschner worked together to expand Mr. de Zirkoff's notes identifying his sources:

Abbreviation # of
Author Title Digital links
Wilhelm Wägner
M. W. MacDowell
W. S. S. Anson
Asgard and the Gods. Adapted by M. W. MacDowell, and edited by William Swan Sonnenschein
(afterwards Stallybrass) Anson. London, 1880; 2nd ed, 1882; 5th ed 1887.
1882 edition
James Bonwick Egyptian Belief and Modern Thought. London: Kegan Paul & Co., 1878. 1876 edition
Bishop E. Harold Browne Unidentified
[NOTE: Glossary term Dionysos]
Isaac Preston Cory Ancient Fragments of the Phoenician, Carthaginian, Babylonian, Egyptian, and other authors. First edition 1832. The 1876 abridged edition was reduced by 30%.
[NOTE: Glossary term Odacon - see 1832 edition under Berossus.]
1832 edition
1876 abridged edition
John Dowson A Classical Dictionary of Hindu Mythology and Religion, Geography, History, and Literature.
London: Trübner & Co., 1879.
1879 edition
John William Draper History of the Conflict between Religion and Science. New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1875.
[NOTE: Glossary term Ecbatana]
1875 edition
Ernest John Eitel (1) Handbook of Chinese Buddhism, being a Sanskrit-Chinese dictionary.
Hong Kong, 1870; London: Trübner & Co., 1888 2nd ed.
(2) Buddhism, its Historical, Theoretical and Popular Aspects. Hong Kong: Lane Crawford & Co., 1884.
Handbook 1888 edition
Buddhism 1884 edition
Robert Spence Hardy (1) Eastern Monachism. London, 1850.
(2) A Manual of Budhism in its Modern Development. London, 1853; 2nd edition 1880. Translated from a Singalese manuscript.
Monachism - 1860 edition
Manual 1860 edition
H. P. Blavatsky 469 terms were written by HPB in whole or in part Not applicable
H. P. Blavatsky Isis Unveiled. New York: J.W. Bouton, 1877. 1893 edition
H. P. Blavatsky The Key to Theosophy. London: Theosophical Publishing Company; New York: W.Q. Judge, 1889. 1889 edition
C. W. King The Gnostics and Their Remains. London: Bell and Dalby, 1864. 1864 edition
1887 edition
Kenneth R. H. MacKenzie The Royal Masonic Cyclopaedia. London: Hogg, 1877. limited access
limited access
S. L. MacGregor Mathers The Kabbalah Unveiled. London: G. Redway ; Boston: Occult, 1887.
[NOTE: Glossary term Siphra Dtzeniouta]
1962 edition
Preston Isaac Myers Qabbalah. Philadelphia, 1888. 1888 edition
Paracelsus Unidentified writings
[NOTE: Glossary terms include Alchemy, Akasa, Gnomes, Limbus Major, Mysterium Magnum, Necromancy, Pentacle, Sylphs]
Pop. Encycl.
Alexander Whitelaw
Charles Annandale
The Popular Encyclopedia; or, Conversations Lexicon. London: Blackie & Son, in many editions.
[NOTE: Glossary term Alchemy]
Public Domain Sources
in Wikipedia
Emil Schlagintweit Buddhism in Tibet. Leipzig: E. A. Brockhaus and London: Trübner & Co., 1863. 1863 edition
H. P. Blavatsky The Secret Doctrine. London: Theosophical Publishing Co., Ltd., 1888. 1888 edition
James Ralston Skinner The Source of Measures. Philadelphia: D. McKay Co., 1886.
[NOTE: Glossary term Anuki]
1886 edition
George Smith The Chaldean Account of Genesis. New York: Scribner, Armstrong, & Co., 1876. 1876 edition
H. P. Blavatsky The Voice of the Silence. London: Theosophical Publishing Co. and New York: W. Q. Judge, 1889.
[NOTE: Glossary term Shangna]
1889 edition
W. W. W.
William Wynn Westcott Westcott, a member of Blavatsky's Inner Group, assisted her directly with contributions to the glossary. His written works were published in ten volumes as the Collectanea Hermetica. various sources
Wilson, H.H.
Horace Hayman Wilson Vishnu Purana. London: John Murray, 1840.

The second edition in six volumes, edited by Fitzedward Hall, London: Trübner & Co., 1864-1877, was the version referenced in The Secret Doctrine.
[NOTE: Glossary terms Anyamsam, Pums, Yuga, Svabhavika]
1840 edition
1864 edition
H. P. Blavatsky Five Years of Theosophy. London: Reeves and Turner, 1885. 1885 edition
more research is needed
Check mark.jpg
check for references


  1. Mrs. Harry Benjamin, "Theosophical Glossary and the Psychic," Theosophy World (August 1996). Available online.
  2. H. S. Olcott, "Theosophical Glossary by HP Blavatsky," The Theosophist 13.7 (April, 1892), 444. Available from IAPSOP website.
  3. Boris de Zirkoff, "Who Played That Trick on H. P. B.? the Puzzle of 'The Theosophical Glossary.'" Theosophia 24.113 (Winter, 1967-1968), 12. It was reprinted in The Canadian Theosophist Vol. 49, May-June, 1968.
  4. Boris de Zirkoff, "Who Played That Trick on H. P. B.? the Puzzle of 'The Theosophical Glossary.'" Theosophia 24.113 (Winter, 1967-1968), 12. It was reprinted in The Canadian Theosophist Vol. 49, May-June, 1968.
  5. Daniel H. Caldwell, "Some Observations on the Claims made by Boris de Zirkoff and others " in Blavatsky Archives website. Accessed May 20, 2019.
  6. Mrs. Harry Benjamin, "Theosophical Glossary and the Psychic," Theosophy World (August 1996). Available online.