Friday, April 5, 2013

Handbook of the Theosophical Current

On several occations I have commented on the fact that there are no doctoral thesis on the history of the Theosophical Society in Sweden. This lack of academic interest is certainly surprising seen in the context that theosophy had a very extensive cultural impact in Sweden between 1891-1930. Theosophical ideas influenced authors like August Strindberg, Gustaf Fröding and Selma Lagerlöf. Well known members were countess Constance Wachtmeister, psychologists Sidney Alrutz and Bror Gadelius and painter Gustaf Fjæstad, member of the Rackstad colony of artists in Värmland. Swedish king Oscar II (1829-1907) was strongly influenced by theosophy and invited both Henry Steel Olcott and Annie Besant for audiences at the royal castle.

Academic research on theosophical history and the esoteric tradition is sadly lacking in Sweden but international interest has been on the rise for several decades. The latest example is the 494 page tome Handbook of the Theosophical Current with contributions from twenty scholars specializing in religion and philosophy. Editors are Olav Hammer, Professor of the History of Religions, University of Southern Denmark and Mikael Rothstein, Associate  Professor at the Department of Cross-Cultural and Regional Studies, University of Copenhagen, Denmark.

That theosophy and its many off-shoots are important chapters in cultural history is very clearly emphasized by Hammer and Rothstein in the introduction. They even place theosophy as “one of the modern world´s most important religious traditions” and “vastly understudied”.  Handbook of the Theosophical Current covers classical theosophy, Alice Bailey, Rudolf Steiner, the I Am movement, Summit Lighthouse and the Roerichs. But there is no mention of the Swedish esotericist Henry T. Laurency, which is surprising as his books have now been translated in many languages and his contribution to the esoteric tradition has been noticed from many countries.

Handbook of the Theosophical Current is definitely an important and basic textbook on the esoteric tradition. But why the extreme price? $220 from Amazon (SEK 1.626 from Bokus). This makes it a tome  of interest only to the real connoisseur, collector of esoterica or the university libraries. So far I have only read six of the twenty contributions. As my special area of interest is the historical and "phenomena connection" between the ufo contactee movement and the esoteric tradition I will just give a few comments on the chapter Mahatmas in Space by Mikael Rothstein.

Unfortunately Mikael Rothstein´s contribution is the weakest chapter of those I have studied. A peculiar tendency among academic researchers of the ufo contactee phenomenon is to concentrate on the peripheral and extreme ufo cults like Unarius, Aetherius Society or the Rael movement, while more or less ignore the most important and influential contactees like George Adamski, Orfeo Angelucci, Daniel Fry, George Van Tassel and Howard Menger. Mikael Rothstein concentrate on George King och his Aetherius Society. As a first introduction to the connection between ufo contactees and theosophy Rothsteins contribution gives a rather misleading view of the subject. What should have been included is a study of theosophical themes and ideas in the philosophy of the five contactees I mentioned. George King was regarded as an outsider and quite "far out" even among mainstream contactees. King never, to my knowledge, participated in the large Giant Rock Spacecraft Conventions hostad by George Van Tassel. A good popular book which presents the mainstream ufo contactees is Flying Saucer Pilgrimage (1957) by Bryant and Helen Reeve.

Even more remarkable is that Rothstein never mentions the large influence of Borderland Sciences Research Foundation (BSRA), created in 1945, on the ufo contact movement. Already in 1946 BSRA declared that an unknown flying object observered over San Diego was an extraterrestrial spacecraft. An information received by the unusually gifted medium Mark Probert. BSRA´s first two directors, Meade Layne and Riley Crabb were much influenced by theosophy. During his stay at Hawaii Riley Crabb was leader of the Honolulu Lodge of the Theosophical Society.

Riley Crabb (1912-1994)

Mikael Rothstein writes that the Theosophical Society and theosophists "normally disregarded or even actively opposed" the "Space Brother perspective". This is a misleading statement as there were many  theosophists who took an active part in the ufo movement. In Sweden the ufo movement in the 1950ies was actually started by members of the Theosophical Society (Adyar). Boris de Zirkoff, E.L. Gardner and N Sri Ram wrote articles where they were very open to the possibility of visits by "flying saucers". Danish theosophist and Liberal Catholic bishop Otto Viking wrote an article, Flying Saucers and Religion, for Flying Saucer Review in 1955. In 1964 his theosophical ufo novel, A World Intervenes, was published by Exposition Press in New York.

Academic research on the ufo contact movement and its relation to the esoteric tradition is to a large extent uncharted territory. Good contributions have been made by J Gordon Melton, David Stupple and Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke. But my wish is that scholars will start researching the mainstream contactees of the 1950ies. Hopefully they will then also discover that much of the basic empirical data can be found at the Archives for UFO Research in Norrköping, Sweden.