The Theosophical Society in America

Local Groups

From the Editor's Desk

Printed in the  Spring  2017  issue of Quest magazine. 
Citation:  Smoley, Richard, "From the Editor's Desk" Quest 105:2(Spring 2017) pg. 2

It has become commonplace to say that our country is entering into a dark time.

It may be so; it may not be so. Forebodings of this sort do not have much value as predictions. Dreaded events often never arrive. On the other hand, many nations have marched cheerily and optimistically into bloodbaths.

But there are two points that, I think, need to be made in the current circumstances.

1. All nations rise, reach their peak for a generation or two, then inevitably decline. This appears to be an organic process. As the British author Havelock Ellis remarked, a civilization is no more to be blamed for decadence than a flower is to be blamed for going to seed.

2. All nations undergo periodic convulsions of mass insanity. (I talked a bit about this issue in the editorial for the winter 2016 Quest.) This may be occurring in the U.S. today. It makes sense that it would, because mental illness of all kinds is now pandemic nationwide.

I have never read or heard anything by anyone that gives a really satisfactory explanation of either fact. In War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy argued that history was brought about, not by great men, but by the collective wills of all the individuals taking part in those events. I believe this is true, but it does not take us much further.

Of course no one wants to be scooped up and whisked along by events, but they happen nonetheless. How are we to conduct ourselves in the midst of them?

In the present, standing orders still apply. People of decency and integrity—no matter what their spiritual orientation is—are always bound to live by the highest and best principles known to them. This is necessary in good times, but even more necessary in bad times— if only because, as experience has proved, sometimes your decency is your only safeguard. As the I Ching says about such situations, “The superior man falls back upon his inner worth / In order to escape the dif­ficulties” (hexagram 12, “Standstill”).

It is also useful to remember that, as the Buddhists teach, current conditions represent the ripening of la­tent karma. The seeds of todays actions were sown a long time ago. They will play themselves out, whether we like it or not. There is little one can do to reverse them. Nobody could have stopped World War II on September 1, 1939. This helps explain why The Key to Theosophy (as quoted in Tim Boyd’s “Viewpoint” for this issue) says, “The Masters look at the future, not at the present.”

This does not, of course, mean that we should take no action in regard to present circumstances. But it does mean taking a longer view of them. Some eso- tericists say they are working with a view to fifty or a hundred years in the future.

In light of this consideration, it may be useful to consider how the last hundred years have borne fruit. As Tim goes on to say, one of the great challenges, as seen by the founders of the Theosophical Society, was to counter the “superstition” of organized religion. In one way, this goal has advanced: the intellectual main­stream acknowledges that much of the Bible is not lit­erally true and that many of the dogmas of Christianity make no sense. In another way, the outcome has not been so good, as fundamentalists of all stripes have be­come stronger or at any rate more vocal. To provide a variation on Greshams law, “Bad religion drives out good.”

The weakening of religion has, unfortunately, strengthened another trend that Theosophy set out to combat: the “brutal materialism” of science. Material­ism stands on a shakier conceptual foundation than ever, and yet the mainstream intelligentsia cling to it ever more desperately—fearing that without it, we will have to go back to believing that the world was created 6000 years ago.

It is time to start asking harder questions of science. Here is one: the current environmental crisis is almost entirely the result of scientific development. We would not be facing climate change to the degree that we are if nobody had invented the internal combustion engine. The usual response is to assume that these are unfor­tunate side-effects of technological development, and that science can fix them perfectly well if it is permitted to do so. I wonder. At this point we have to ask, are the present crises merely incidental to a materialistic worldview or a direct and inseparable consequence of them? After all, if the world is simply a mass of dead matter (with the curious exception of ourselves), it is nothing more than a lump of dirt to be mined. We need not bother about cleaning it up.

Just as immediately, we face problems from the softer sciences, such as economics. Many take it as a given that market forces will produce not only the most efficient economy, but also the most just and equitable distribution of wealth. It is not hard to see who might find such theories appealing. But they have proved to be wrong.

Religion, science, economics—all of these disci­plines are working on premises that have long been found to be incorrect. If you are working from false premises, you will end up with false conclusions. That is obvious. The world as we know it is working on these premises. You can decide for yourself about the results.

“The world has not yet experienced any compre­hensive awakening or rebirth,” says A Course in Mir­acles—a statement I find it hard to dispute. Whether we are in dark times or not, clearly there is still much work to be done.

Richard Smoley

Viewpoint: Our Lineage

Printed in the Spring 2017  issue of Quest magazine.
Citation: Boyd, Tim"Viewpoint: Our Lineage" Quest 105.2 (Spring 2017): pg. 10-11

By Tim Boyd, President

Tim BoydAt the time of this writing, we have just finished the 141st annual convention of the international Theosophical Society. Again this year it was held at the headquarters in Adyar. Year after year, this event is the largest purely Theosophical gathering in the world, with over 1000 people attending. Members from around the world and from every corner of India make their plans and adjust their schedules so that they can participate. The convention lasts for five days, and during the course of the event you meet people who have a long history with the TS. It is not uncommon to encounter members who have attended every convention for the past fifty, and in some cases sixty, years. Their memories of the past and observations about the present are priceless.

Today there are almost no members alive who remember any meaningful interaction with Annie Besant, who died in 1933, but there are members with fond memories of her successor, George Arundale, the third international president of the Society. More than one longtime member has recalled to me how patient and open he was with kids. During Arundale’s time there were quite a few children in and around Adyar. In meetings they would get up and behave as kids do. Often the meetings were held under the Great Banyan Tree. Arundale encouraged their play, even their climbing in the sacred tree, without ever losing the focus of his talk. These kids, now elderly members, can’t tell you much about the subjects of his talks, but they were moved by his warmth and his example to join the TS and delve into the teachings that he found so valuable.

Just this year, at the annual event of inducting new members, which traditionally follows the close of the convention, I had the experience of welcoming a young girl whom I had encountered as a little child the first time I came to Adyar. A broadening spectrum of current members has had interactions with each succeeding president, ranging from childhood memories to the memories of coworkers, advisors, and friends. One gets a picture of a line of individuals stretching back to the founders, each with very different personalities and focus. Some of them were stern; some playful; some mystical; some energetic and outgoing; some reserved and quiet; some poetic—but each one was fired by the light of some profound and ongoing experience of the wisdom described in Theosophy. Although each worked to address the needs of their time, ultimately all of them were focused on a vision of the future.

As humans, we are future-oriented beings. Whether it is our as yet unexpressed genetic material or the “powers latent” within us, we are continually under the influence of an ever unrealized future condition. In Mabel Collins’s classic The Idyll of the White Lotus “three truths” are given. The first of them is “The soul of man is immortal and its future is the future of a thing whose growth and splendor has no limit.” Try as we might to live in the moment, the focus of spiritual practice is on a state of being that is profoundly different from our normal present, a state that to our limited capacity seems separate from this moment, something arrived at through an unfoldment in time—a process of becoming.

The founders of the TS were keenly focused on the future. The Key to Theosophy says, “The Masters look at the future, not at the present, and every mistake is so much more accumulated wisdom for days to come.” The future weighed heavily on H.P. Blavatsky, who on occasion stated that the teachings she was sharing could not be understood, or clearly implemented, until the next century. In the Western world the language to express Theosophical concepts was still forming, and the science capable of reaching into the unseen world around us was also in its formative stages.

The wisdom teachings of Theosophy were reintroduced and the TS was begun in order to stem the tide of two currents in human thought, the “brutal materialism” of science and the “superstition” of dead-letter religion. Theosophy defined a future direction that was characterized by a radical unity described as “universal brotherhood.” Paradoxically, this union is both potential, a future possibility, and also quite actual and immediate. But our current capacity to consciously experience this broader dimension of our being is limited, and we look to the future for this greater, all-embracing consciousness to unfold. At the same time we are told about it, and occasionally experience it, in moments of overwhelming love and insight. The teachings and the practices that arise from Theosophy are said to be able to move individuals toward the experience of that brotherhood. The Great Ones see and occasionally share their visions of future events. To their eyes, both cataclysms and peaceful times are incidents in the cycle of unfoldment of that future whose “growth and splendor” is without limit. Towards the end of HPB’s life, she said, “If you could foresee what I foresee, you would begin heart and soul to spread the teaching of universal brotherhood. It is the only safeguard.”

In the lovely story The Idyll of the White Lotus, there is a moment that occurs just before the hero dies. After a mixed life of high spiritual experience and conscious misuse of spiritual wisdom, he finds himself circled by white-robed figures. “Some were old men, stately and strong; some were young and slender, with faces of fresh light.” They are priests, similar in dress to the ones who had knelt and worshipped him earlier in his life, but they do not kneel. Instead they look down on him with “eyes of pity and love.” During the hero’s experience, different members of this group come and speak with him, communicating profound truths, shining a light of understanding onto the winding path of his life’s journey, and preparing him for his future challenges and future role. It is a beautiful image of the spiritual lineage that supports every wisdom tradition.

Traditions around the world recognize the reality of lineage. Whether it takes the form of ancestor worship, silsila, the “chain” of initiation in Sufism, the “just men made perfect” of the Bible (Hebrews 12:23), or the hierarchy that culminates in the Masters of the Wisdom of Theosophy, everywhere there is a recognition that throughout time there has been a body of “knowers” supporting every advance in self-understanding and the betterment of human consciousness.

The spiritual life does not take place in isolation. Our every effort toward deeper awareness or greater self-understanding has been attempted by countless others throughout time. The combined successes and failures of our predecessors are a shared experience. The living record of this pilgrimage of the human family becomes distilled in that long line of seekers who stand behind us, but also with us, and within us. Although the founders of the TS in their wisdom never gave a precise definition of Theosophy, HPB once commented that “Theosophy is the accumulated wisdom of the ages, tested and verified by generations of seers.” At all times and for every generation, there are those who have gone ahead of us in this process of transformation—some to depths we cannot fathom. These are the great men and women who not only lead the way, but continually reach back to guide and help the human family, from which they are inseparable. The religions of the world and our own personal sense of need have cultivated in us the habit of calling out to these Great Ones for help in matters great and small. At every step, the advice given is that the ultimate responsibility is ours.

All you can do is to prepare the intellect: the impulse toward “soul-culture” must be furnished by the individual . . . fortunate they who can break through the vicious circle of modern influence and come up above the vapours! . . . We have one word for all aspirants: TRY” (Mahatma Letters, letter 35).

To conclude, let me share this year’s President’s Message to the 141st annual convention, whose theme was “Beyond Illusion: A Call to Unity.”

 As humans, we are complex beings. Every moment there are multiple inner and outer voices calling for our attention, and the powerful habits we have cultivated over time continually propel us from one sensation to another, one thought to the next, and from judgment to judgment. Duality and the oscillation between its poles is the predominant feature of our reality. Whether we name it maya, samsara, or illusion, it has become our conditioned response for seeing the world. Great teachers have come among us to exemplify another possibility. Our own occasional experiences of unselfishness and a transcendent peace confirm for us the truth of their perennial teachings. There is another way to see and experience the world, another vision that exceeds our habitual view. Seeing the habits of our minds breaks our bondage to them. “To form a nucleus of the universal brotherhood” is our invitation to see anew. It is a call to unity.

May we see what we see. May we hear what we hear. May we be open to the presence of that endless line of Great Ones who continually knock at the door of our hearts.

The Rainbow Body: How the Western Chakra System Came to Be

Printed in the Spring 2017  issue of Quest magazine.
Citation: Leland, Kurt,"The Rainbow Body: How the Western Chakra System Came to Be" Quest 105.2 (Spring 2017): pg. 25-29

By Kurt Leland

Kurt LelandOn a summer day in 2014, while browsing among the bulk bins of the local food co-op, I came across a small advertising brochure that someone had abandoned. The cover showed a twenty-something white female dressed in a sheer white tunic and seated in a yogic meditation pose. Superimposed on her torso were seven colored medallions, each containing a letter of the Sanskrit alphabet. They ranged from red at her seat to purple at the crown of her head, following the order of the spectrum. Closer inspection revealed that each medallion had a different number of petal-like rays. 

These medallions were representations of the seven chakras (Sanskrit for “wheels”), a schema that originated centuries ago in India in connection with a type of yoga that has become a staple of contemporary yoga classes and New Age metaphysics. The chakras are said to appear to clairvoyant vision as whirling disks or vortices of light, hence their name. Ancient texts taught that their activation through strenuous meditative and ritual practice would result in a seven-step process of consciousness expansion leading to enhanced spiritual powers, enlightenment, and liberation from the karmic law of rebirth. 

The product in the brochure was called “Organic Chakra Balancing Aromatherapy Roll-Ons.” It was made by Aura Cacia, an American company that markets scented essential oils manufactured from herbs and flowers for healing purposes—hence aromatherapy. The brochure opened into a vertical table of color-coded correspondences identifying the locations, qualities, and effects on emotion, mind, and spirit of chakras that have been “balanced” through the use of these aromatherapy roll-ons—one for each chakra, each compounded of a different formula of essential oils. 

Several half-amused questions came to mind: Could a scent really “open the floodgates of compassion and understanding” associated with the heart chakra? Why was the “empowering” third chakra associated with a “delicate citrus blend”? How would a fully enlightened being smell when wearing all seven scents at once? 

The predominant question was, how did we get here from there? The list of chakra qualities was familiar from dozens of New Age books on the subject: grounding in the first chakra, sensuality or sexuality in the second, empowerment in the third, compassion in the fourth, communication in the fifth, intuitive insight in the sixth, and enlightenment in the seventh. Yet anyone who looks into the origins of the chakra system in India may be astonished to find that the chakras have colors, but there is no rainbow; they have qualities and spiritual powers, but not those on this list. No scents are involved. The idea of chakra balancing is never mentioned in the scriptures. The chakras are to be pierced, dissolved, and transcended to achieve a state of “liberation within life” rather than an emotionally and spiritually balanced lifestyle (whatever that might mean). 

I first heard of the chakras in the late 1970s from a friend who was a disciple of an Indian yogi. I learned their locations and how to breathe to purify them. Through the metaphysical grapevine, I learned of a list of chakra qualities similar to the one in the Aura Cacia brochure. A few books on the subject were available in metaphysical bookstores, but I did not buy or read them. 

Fast forward to 2002. I was asked to write a book on the spiritual effects of music. I considered using the chakra system as a framework for describing mystical or peak experiences associated with composing, performing, and listening to music. Dozens of books on the chakras were now available, with many variations in listing the colors and qualities. I wanted to work with the most authentic list of qualities I could find. But research into ancient Indian systems confused me—some had as few as four chakras, and others as many as forty-nine. Several questions drove me, though they were still unresolved when the book was published in 2005: 

When did the term chakra first come into the English language? 
When did the rainbow color scheme originate, and who was responsible for it? 
Where did the ubiquitous New Age list of chakra qualities come from, and how long has it been around? 

In the summer of 2012, Quest Books, a publishing imprint of the Theosophical Society in America, approached me about annotating a new edition of The Chakras, published in 1927 by Charles W. Leadbeater, a clairvoyant who worked within the TS. This book had been in print continuously for nearly ninety years. Though considered a classic in the field of New Age chakra studies, it was not an easy read. Leadbeater used obscure terminology, assuming his Theosophical readership would understand it without explanation. Furthermore, there were several ways in which his clairvoyant perceptions of the chakras differed not only from ancient Indian texts, but also from recent New Age books. I tried to create an “authoritative,” stand-alone text, with notes explaining all the terms and an afterword that placed the book in context within the evolution of the New Age version of the chakra system. 

This project allowed me to solve the problem of where the rainbow color scheme came from. Being under a tight deadline, I was unable to pursue the other questions. However, in the summer of 2014, I received a request to give a talk on the chakra system at the Theosophical Society in Milwaukee later that year. That opportunity allowed me to further my research. I was able to trace the first references to the chakra system in English. I was also able to track the century-long evolution of what I call the Western chakra system. This evolution began in the 1880s, in the writings of H.P. Blavatsky, one of the founders of the Theosophical Society, and was more or less complete by 1990, when actress Shirley MacLaine appeared on the Tonight Show and amused a TV audience of millions by affixing colored circles representing the chakra system onto talk-show host Johnny Carson’s clothing and head. I have concluded that the evolution of the Western chakra system was an unintentional collaboration among the following: 

• Esotericists and clairvoyants (many with a Theosophical background) 
• Scholars of Indology (the study of Indian culture, including religious beliefs) 
• Mythologist Joseph Campbell 
• Psychologists (Carl Jung and the originators of the human potential movement at Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California) 
• Indian yogis (some of whose “ancient” teachings made use of Leadbeater’s color system)
• Energy healers (Barbara Brennan, author of Hands of Light, a best-selling manual of energy healing, and others) 

Surprisingly, the two primary strands of this evolutionary sequence—the rainbow color scheme and the list of qualities—did not come together in print until 1977. Thus the much-vaunted “ancient” chakra system of the West is barely forty years old, its history obscured by the habit of New Age writers, both in print and on the Internet, of failing to include notes and sources for their information—a habit that Olav Hammer, a Swedish professor of the history of religion, calls   

I wrote Rainbow Body: A History of the Western Chakra System from Blavatsky to Brennan for people who want to know about the real history of the Western chakra system—a wild and wacky story that somehow produced a body of spiritual and alternative healing practices that have profoundly influenced the lives of millions. But what is the Western chakra system? To my knowledge, the term has not previously been used, except informally, to differentiate versions of the chakras evolved in metaphysical circles in the West from their Hindu forebears. Here are the salient features, listed in the chronological order in which the Western chakra system’s components were recognized, schematized, and adopted: 

    • A seven-chakra base (1880s)
    • Association of each chakra with a nerve plexus (1880s) 
    • A list of vernacular (non-Sanskrit) names (1920s) 
    • Association of each chakra with a gland of the endocrine system, with minor variations from system to system, especially with regard to the pituitary and pineal glands (1920s) 
    • Single colors attributed to each chakra in order of the spectrum—either seven colors, including indigo, or six colors plus white (1930s) 
   • An evolutionary scale of psychological and spiritual attributes, functions, or qualities assigned to each chakra, eventually becoming the familiar single-word list given earlier 

To this listing may be added a number of less common attributes (in alphabetical order):  

    • Associations with layers of the aura, subtle bodies, and planes 
    • Developmental stages in the evolution of humanity 
    • Developmental stages in the evolution of the individual
    • Diseases of mind or body associated with each chakra
    • Elements (earth, water, fire, air, and ether)
    • Positive and negative emotions for each chakra
    • States of consciousness and psychic powers 

Beyond these categories, there is an endless number of correspondences based on Western esotericism or alternative healing practices, including but not limited to the following: 

    • Alchemical metals
    • Astrological signs and planets
    • Foods and herbs
    • Gemstones and minerals
    • Homeopathic remedies
    • Kabbalistic sefirot (“spheres” or “principles” pertaining to various aspects of creation)
    • Musical notes
    • Shamanistic totem animals 
    • Tarot cards 

  Chakras according to Gichtel
  This diagram is taken from a nineteenth-century French translation of Johann Georg Gichtel’s Theosophia practica (1701), as reproduced in C.W. Leadbeater’s book The Chakras. Entitled “The Dark, Natural, Terrestrial Human according to the Stars and the Elements.” It shows a possible forerunner of the Western chakra system. The planets and elements, and some of the deadly sins, are connected with certain human centers (e.g., Saturn, at the crown, with orgueil, “pride”; Jupiter, in the forehead, with avarice). The text on the bottom half of the chart reads: “The element of fire resides in the heart; the element of water, in the liver; earth, in the lungs; and air, in the bladder.”

To make sense of how the Western chakra system evolved, I had to deal with the early evolution of the system in India, from the first to the sixteenth century CE. Then I had to trace the movement of this Eastern chakra system to the West. It turns out that Mme. Blavatsky and the Theosophical Society played a key role in transmitting these teachings from 1879, when she arrived in India, until her death in 1891. Blavatsky and subsequent generations of Theosophical clairvoyants, including Leadbeater, Annie Besant, Rudolf Steiner, and Alice Bailey, significantly altered these ancient teachings. 

During the fifty years from Blavatsky’s arrival in India to the publication of Leadbeater’s The Chakras, several components of the Western chakra system fell into place: the seven-chakra base, the locations in association with nerve plexuses, and the non-Sanskrit names. From the 1920s to the 1950s, the Western chakra system gradually acquired its association with the rainbow colors and the endocrine glands. The key players during this period were not only well-known psychics, such as Alice Bailey and Edgar Cayce, but also several who are mostly unknown: Ivah Bergh Whitten, an early color therapist working in the United States (her teachings were disseminated through the writings of her primary student, Roland Hunt, author of The Seven Keys of Color Healing, a standard manual for over forty years); S.G.J. Ouseley, a British color therapist; and the mysterious American yogini Cajzoran Ali. The latter was born in Iowa under the name Amber Steen, got married to a dark-skinned Indian swami who turned out to be a confidence man from Trinidad, and worked as a yoga teacher in the United States and France under numerous aliases. Though she was the first to bring the chakra system and the endocrine glands together in a book published in 1928, her previously untold story, as these details suggest, turns out to be the wackiest of all. 

From the 1930s to the 1970s, a parallel strand of development in the Western chakra system involved German Indologists Heinrich Zimmer and Frederic Spiegelberg (both had been forced out of Nazi Germany and worked in American universities), the Swiss psychologist Carl Jung, and the American mythologist Joseph Campbell. Each interacted with the others under the inspiration of The Serpent Power, a book published in 1919 by an Indian High Court judge, Sir John Woodroffe, using the pseudonym Arthur Avalon. Woodroffe’s was the first scholarly publication in English of one version of the Western chakra system—the same one that influenced Blavatsky when she became aware of it forty years before. 

Zimmer inspired Campbell to investigate the chakra teachings of the late nineteenth-century Indian saint Sri Ramakrishna. Spiegelberg inspired Michael Murphy, the founder of Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California, to investigate those of the early twentieth-century yoga master Sri Aurobindo. Esalen produced the human potential movement, a loose-knit band of psychologists, philosophers, and bodyworkers, including Abraham Maslow and Ram Dass. This movement was an important influence on the hippie counterculture of the late 1960s and early 1970s. 

It was at Esalen that the list of chakra qualities with which we are now familiar emerged from a fusion of Ramakrishna’s and Aurobindo’s teachings. Furthermore, Ken Dychtwald, one of the bodyworkers who lived at Esalen during this time, became the father of the Western chakra system when he inadvertently brought together the color healers’ list of rainbow colors and endocrine glands and the human potential movement’s list of chakra qualities in a book and article published in the summer of 1977. The book, Bodymind: A Synthesis of Eastern and Western Approaches to Self-Awareness, Health, and Personal Growth, was published in June 1977, and a related article, “Bodymind and the Evolution to Cosmic Consciousness,” was published in the July-August 1977 issue of Yoga Journal. That article contains a list of chakra qualities very similar to the one I saw in the Aura Cacia brochure four decades later. Thus 2017 represents the fortieth anniversary of the birth of the Western chakra system, reverently referred to in yoga classes and New Age books as “ancient.” 

In the 1980s, writers such as Anodea Judith (Wheels of Life) began consolidating information from various chakra systems to resolve such controversies and reinforce the hegemony of the system we now consider traditional. This was also the decade when innovative practitioners in the developing field of energy medicine began applying the chakra system to various forms of bodywork, including acupuncture, Polarity Therapy, and Reiki. Toward the end of the decade, best-selling author and actress Shirley MacLaine was offering public workshops on the chakras—and her October 4, 1990, appearance on the Tonight Show could be called the Western chakra system’s coming-out party. It was no longer an esoteric yoga teaching but an aspect of popular culture. 

In the 1990s, books, workshops, websites, and music based on the chakras proliferated, touching on many forms of spiritual and healing practice—though often repeating what had gone before. However, there was one further, ongoing stage in the development of the Western chakra system: the codifying of esoteric teachings on chakras, subtle bodies, and planes and their use in astral projection. Speculations on such topics accompanied the development of the Western chakra system like a shadowy secondary rainbow during much of the twentieth century and emerged into their clearest presentation in the energy healing work of Barbara Brennan. Her immensely popular book Hands of Light, which correlates the chakras with seven subtle bodies, planes, and layers of the human aura, was first published in 1988 and remains in print today. 

Contemporary historians of South Asian religions who specialize in fields in which the chakras play a part sometimes rail against Western New Age appropriation of these teachings. Nevertheless, the unintentional collaboration of esotericists, clairvoyants, scholars, psychologists, yogis, and energy healers that produced the Western chakra system probably mirrors the spread of Tantric teachings throughout East Asia over many centuries. In both cases, a constant selection and recombination of details determined what was left out and what was passed on. If that spreading fulfilled ancient cultural and spiritual needs, the same thing could be said of the modern West—even if the result has been commodified in ways unimaginable in the India of a thousand years ago (as in the case of aromatherapy roll-ons). 

I see the development of the Western chakra system as the embodiment of a deeply meaningful archetype of enlightenment, common to East and West—that of the spiritually perfected being, graphically represented by the image seen so often on covers of books on the chakras: a resplendent, meditating human form, shining with the rainbow-colored light of having fully realized our spiritual potential, each chakra representing an evolutionary stage on this sacred developmental journey. 

Composer and author Kurt Leland lectures regularly for the TSA. His books include a compilation of Annie Besant’s articles: Invisible Worlds: Essays on Psychic and Spiritual Development (Quest Books, 2013). This article, which originally appeared in New Dawn magazine, is adapted from his latest book, Rainbow Body: A History of the Western Chakra System from Blavatsky to Brennan (Ibis, 2016). His consulting practice, Spiritual Orienteering, is based in Boston. He can be reached at Videos of his lectures can be found on the TS YouTube channel



President’s Diary

Printed in theSpring 2017  issue of Quest magazine.
Citation: Boyd, Tim"President’s Diary" Quest 105.2 (Spring 2017): pg. 42-43

Tim BoydIn mid-October my wife, Lily, and I traveled from Adyar to the Indo-Pacific Federation’s conference in Auckland, New Zealand. Every three years the get-together takes place in a different part of the region. The last one in 2013 was in Bali, Indonesia. The geography for the region is quite large, stretching from Japan, Korea, the Southeast Asian region, including Malaysia, Singapore, Vietnam, Thailand down through Indonesia, Australia and New Zealand, then back east to India and Sri Lanka.

In a normal year the event attracts sixty to seventy members. This year the organizers had to close registration early. They had allowed for around 120 people at Auckland’s Rose Park Hotel, but well before the start of the conference all spots were taken. I found myself joking that the Indo-Pacific was the largest region in the world because this meeting had delegates coming from Brazil, the U.S., and France, in addition to more local members. The conference featured speakers from throughout the region, including Vic Hao Chin from the Philippines, Linda and Pedro Oliveira and Dorothy Bell from Australia, John Vorstermans from New Zealand, me, and others.

During the conference I got a chance to talk with the delegation from Singapore led by Sanne and Lily Chong. The group in Singapore is remarkable. Not too many years ago the membership was dwindling. Problems had arisen with the property that had been the longtime home for the lodge, and energy seemed to be waning. The membership had sunk to seven members. Today, thanks to the work of Sanne and Lily, and the strong sense of cooperation that has been fostered among their members, membership is more than 400 in that single lodge.

  YTsfrom India
  From left: Young Theosophists Aditya Mathur from India, Lara Sell from New Zealand, Prachi Mathur (Aditya’s older sister), and Angelique Boyd—all under twenty-five—at a reception at Adyar following the international convention.

I had wanted to talk to the group about hosting the Theosophical Society’s World Congress. The World Congress can be held every seven years. The last one was in Rome in 2010. Except for the second congress in 1925, which was held at the international headquarters in Adyar, there has never been a World Congress in Asia. They have been held in Europe, North and South America, Africa, and Australia, but not Asia. After some initial deliberation, the Singapore group embraced the project wholeheartedly. So in August 2018 the eleventh World Congress will be held in Singapore. I have no doubt that it will be a wonderful event.

In addition to the normal program, there were two nights of entertainment that included members, and on the first night there was a professional classical flutist. On both nights we had a performance by a musical family of members from Bangalore, India who call themselves “The Bangalore Cousins.” Each night they had the audience singing and dancing in the aisles.

While in New Zealand we visited with three of the groups. The first stop was in Wellington, on the southern tip of the northern of the nation’s two main islands. Then we visited with the group in Christchurch, on the southern island, before returning to spend some time with the Auckland branch.

After we returned to Adyar the next stop was a visit to Delhi in the north. Several months earlier I had been invited to address a meeting of the Indian Council on Cultural Relations (ICCR). The ICCR is a government-funded organization focused on cultural diplomacy, which operates worldwide promoting relationships based on India’s cultural heritage. I had been invited to say something about the TS. It was an invitation-only event and involved around seventy diplomats and academicians. The title of the talk was “The Theosophical Society: India’s Gift to the World.”

The current president of the ICCR is a truly phenomenal man named Professor Lokesh Chandra. Author of no less than 600 books, he is something of a cultural icon within India. After the talk, he and I and a group of ten other professors and diplomats had dinner together. During the meal Professor Chandra spoke most highly of the work of Annie Besant in India and made an offer to the TS [r1] to publish her collected works. During my talk I had highlighted her role and the influence of the TS in India’s independence movement. He made a statement which was startling to me, coming from someone of his level of study and understanding of India’s history. He said that Annie Besant’s role in India was more important than Gandhi’s, and he gave reasons for his belief. It was a stimulating evening, and the council has asked that I address them again next year.

Every year at Adyar, as around the Theosophical world, November 17 is celebrated as Foundation Day—the anniversary of the 1875 founding of the TS in New York City. This year we had invited a special guest to take part in the occasion. Phillip Min, chief consul for the U.S. consulate in Chennai, was our main guest. The consulate in Chennai is actually the busiest U.S. consulate in the world. For some reason, more visas are processed here than anywhere else. Consul Min joined us for a tree-planting ceremony prior to the evening talks. During that time he and I had a chance to revisit memories of our mutual hometown, New York. In addressing the gathering, Consul Min chose to focus on the American cofounder of the TS, Colonel Henry Olcott. He gave a talk that was insightful, accurate, and highly appreciative of Olcott’s life and work. He also used the occasion to talk about some of the things going on currently in U.S.–India relations. All in all, it was a fascinating evening.

YTsfrom India   
 Prairie School students enjoy an audience with Santa at the 2016 Christmas party.

In late November we returned to the U.S. to celebrate the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays. Every year at Olcott, we get together with the kids from the Prairie School, our staff, and volunteers for our Christmas party. It’s always a fun time, with stories, songs, games, and jokes—especially when our national secretary, David Bruce, is the master of ceremonies. As in previous years, Santa Claus made an appearance— truly the most authentic Santa you could ever see. For whatever reason, our head of maintenance and grounds, Mark Roemmich, has never seen this Santa. Each year Mark seems to be out of the room when Santa arrives. I will say no more.

While holiday celebrations were going on in the U.S., across the ocean in Adyar preparations were under way for the 141st International Convention. On December 11 and 12 a powerful cyclone made landfall directly on the city of Chennai. Cyclone Vardah did extensive damage throughout the city and at our Adyar campus. Over 200 trees were uprooted; roads within the campus were impassable; and electricity was out for three days. The immediate aftereffects of the storm were disheartening. With convention less than three weeks away, the situation was dire. Somehow our workers, with help from a number of volunteers, managed to clear the roads and move the fallen trees away from critical areas. Remarkably, no one was injured and no buildings were severely damaged.

On December 30 the annual all-day meeting of the General Council took place. The next day it was followed by the opening of the convention. The convention is filled with traditions including the prayers of the religions, the Besant lecture, the Theosophy-Science Lecture, the opening of the Vocational Training Center stall, and the inauguration of the Indian Convention. As in the past two years, all convention talks were live-streamed and archived. Videos of all the convention events can be found at; for a look behind the scenes see the President’s Blog for December 2016 at

Last year we had invited leading representatives from some of the other Theosophical groups to address the convention. Although I had not given it any thought at the time, Herman Vermeulen, leader of the Point Loma TS in The Hague, made the point in his talk that it was the first time that a leader of another TS organization had spoken to the convention. This year we continued the new tradition, inviting Carolyn Dorrance from the United Lodge of Theosophists, and Barend Voorham, from the Point Loma group, to address the convention. Featured TS-Adyar speakers included Vic Hao Chin, Linda and Pedro Oliveira, Professor R.C. Tampi, John Vorstermans, Trân-Thi-Kim-Diêu, and others.

One memorable event during the convention was the first ever performance of the Global Rhythms Children’s Choir. The choir is the brainchild of Srinivasan (Srini) Krishnan, an international music educator. Along with a group of prominent local supporters, he put together a group of more than 500 children to perform music from around the world. Some of the finest musicians in India took the stage to accompany the children, with the help of Srini’s  close friend A.R. Rahman (Academy Award–winning composer for the movie Slumdog Millionaire). The 564 children surrounded the audience of Theosophists and sang songs that ranged from Sufi ballads to Bollywood classics to songs by pop vocalist Adele to their rousing and unexpected finale, “We Will Rock You.” Old members and new, Westerners and Indians, were moved to tears, laughter, and vigorous applause at the precision, vitality, and innocence of these kids.

Tim Boyd



The Mystery of the Seven Seals

Printed in the  Spring  2017  issue of Quest magazine. 
Citation:  Smoley, Richard, "The Mystery of the Seven Seals" Quest 105:2 (Spring 2017) pg. 30-34

By Richard Smoley

Until baptism . . . fate is true. But afterward the astrologers are no longer correct.
                                                                        —Excerpta e Theodoto, 78.

Richard SmoleyThe New Testament is probably the most widely read book in the world. And yet it is also a book that is mysterious and not fully understood. In some cases, this is because what the churches teach today no longer corresponds with what the New Testament says. This is the case with the nature and person of Jesus. (See my article, “The Strange Identity of Jesus Christ,” in Quest, fall 2015.) In other instances, it is not so much that the teaching has been changed, but that it has been lost completely.

This is true of the early Christian view of cosmology. It is peppered throughout the New Testament but has been completely overlooked or forgotten. The result is that many parts of the text are baffling or incomprehensible today.

Here’s one example—the angels. Today angels are golden-haired beauties who save you from car wrecks. There is even a magazine, Angels on Earth, that is devoted to printing readers’ experiences of encounters with angels. It has a circulation in the hundreds of thousands.

But in the first century AD it was not so. Here is a curious fact: in the New Testament, the apostle Paul never speaks of angels in a favorable way. Examples: “For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, . . . shall be able to separate us from the love of God” (Romans 8:38–39; biblical quotations are from the King James Version). “For I think that God hath set forth us the apostles last, as it were appointed to death: for we are made a spectacle unto the world, and to angels, and to men” (1 Corinthians 4:9; emphasis added in both passages).

In both examples, the angels are not friends of humanity but barriers to God.

To understand the implications of this fact, it might be best to begin with the cosmological worldview that was current in the first century CE. It is based on the seven planets as known at that time: the moon, Mercury, Venus, the sun, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. They were believed to revolve around the earth, each in its own crystalline sphere. Beyond these was the realm of the fixed stars, and beyond that, God himself.

In English the word heaven has two meanings, one having to do with the physical sky (usually in the plural form heavens), the other having to do with the spiritual realm. The ancient Greek word ouranós had a similar dual sense. The heavens above, including the spheres of the planets, were regarded both as physical space and as a spiritual dimension.

It’s difficult for us today to understand this worldview. Although we do think of heaven in the spiritual sense as being “up there,” we understand it as a metaphor only. The realms of the physical planets and stars in outer space, to our minds, have no spiritual component.

In antiquity it was not so. The physical heavens were identified with the levels through which the soul had to ascend after death. These levels, and the planets associated with them, were, as often as not, viewed as a series of gates that blocked the soul from its ascent to its true home.

Each of these planets had a vice associated with it, which is where we get the concept of the seven deadly sins. The soul could only ascend if it shed these vices. The process is described in the Poimandres, a treatise that makes up part of the Corpus Hermeticum or “Hermetic body” of writings, generally dated to the early centuries of the Common Era:

The human being rushes up through the cosmic framework, at the first zone [the moon] surrendering the energy of increase and decrease; at the second [Mercury] evil machination, a device now inactive; at the third [Venus] the illusion of longing, now inactive; at the fourth [the sun] the ruler’s arrogance, now inactive; at the fifth [Mars] unholy presumption and daring recklessness; at the sixth [Jupiter] the evil impulses that come from wealth, now inactive; and at the seventh [Saturn] the deceit that lies in ambush. (Poimandres, 1.25)

Each of these seven spheres was also ruled by a planetary archon, who could be viewed as an angel or as a god.

The New Testament also taught that these planetary spheres were ruled by corrupt forces. The epistle to the Ephesians, according to most scholars, was not written by Paul, but it is close to his thought. It says: “For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in [heavenly] places.” (Ephesians 6:12. The word “heavenly,” in the King James Version, appears in a note. But it is closer to the Greek epouraníois than is the reading in the main text, “high places.”) This verse makes it clear that the “principalities” and “powers” were not the Roman emperors, but “spiritual forces of evil.” Paul himself in Romans 8:38–39 (quoted above) uses more or less identical terms in the same way.

Let’s go ahead 500 years, to the single most important Christian work on angelology: the Celestial Hierarchy of Dionysius the Areopagite.[*] He lists orders, or “choirs,” of angels, each class having a different name. Two of these are the “Principalities” and “Powers.” Pseudo-Dionysius’s system was taken up by Dante in his Divine Comedy, among others.

Notice the change here. For Paul and the author of Ephesians, writing in the first century, the “principalities” and “powers” are among the forces of “wickedness in heavenly places.” For Pseudo-Dionysius, writing 500 years later, they are honorable members of the heavenly hierarchy.

It would be an intricate task to show when and how this change came about. For our purposes, it’s enough to know that it did come about. Thus the mainstream Christian view of the angels as unilaterally benevolent simply does not go back to the earliest times of the faith.

In fact, among the early Christians—at any rate among the ones who wrote the New Testament—there was a widespread belief that the celestial realms were occupied by evil forces. The struggle of the Christian was to rise above them, to contend with them, and possibly to defeat them.

This theme too appears throughout the New Testament. In Luke 10:18 we find a mystifying verse. It appears in this context: Jesus has sent out seventy disciples to preach his message. They return “with joy, saying, Lord, even the devils are subject to us through thy name.” Jesus replies: “I beheld Satan as lightning fall from heaven.”

A similar idea appears in John 12:31: “Now is the judgment of this world: now shall the prince of this world be cast out.”

The upshot of all these details is clear: the authors of the New Testament believed that somehow Satan and the forces of “spiritual wickedness” had ensconced themselves in the celestial spheres, and that it was the task of Christ (and his followers) to cast them down. The verse from Luke quoted above makes it sound as if this has already happened: the verses from Paul and Ephesians suggest that the struggle was still going on.

To understand this picture more fully, we will have to turn the most enigmatic book of the Bible: Revelation.


A diagram from Pryse’s Apocalypse Unsealed illustrating the seven chakras along the spine, and their connections with symbols in Revelation. Pryse uses isopsephy (Greek numerology) to identify some of the key figures and symbols in the text.

[*] Dionysius the Areopagite is a figure mentioned in Acts 17:34 as a contemporary of Paul. This work is attributed to him, but was very likely written 500 years later, in the sixth century CE. Hence the author, otherwise unknown, is often called “Pseudo-Dionysius.”

Revelation has a grip on the Western imagination like no other work. In Doctor Zhivago, Boris Pasternak wrote, “All great, genuine art resembles and continues the Revelation of St. John.” Its images and themes have long since soaked into the popular imagination: the Beast, the Whore of Babylon, the number 666, the Four Horsemen. Nonetheless, very few have managed to pull its narrative together and explain it in terms that might have made sense to its original audience in the first century CE.

But it is possible to do this in light of the ideas I have sketched out above.

To begin with, a very brief sketch of this enigmatic book: John—traditionally associated with Jesus’s “beloved disciple,” although he probably did not write it—has a vision of the “Son of man” among seven golden candlesticks, which represent seven churches, all of them in Asia Minor. The messages are unenthusiastic at best: to the one in Ephesus, for example, he says, “I have somewhat against thee, because thou hast left thy first love” (Revelation 2:4).

Then John has a vision of heaven, where he sees “seven lamps of fire burning before the throne, which are the seven Spirits of God.” A book with seven seals is presented, and these seals are opened, each revealing some new and terrible manifestation: the renowned Four Horsemen, “a great earthquake,” and cosmic cataclysm: “The stars of heaven fell unto the earth . . . And the heaven departed as a scroll when it is rolled together” (Revelation 6:12–14).

When these are completed, seven angels sound seven trumpets, with similar tribulations: a star named Wormwood falls upon the waters of the earth, “and the third part of the waters became wormwood: and many men died of the waters, because they were made bitter” (Revelation 8:11).

Finally, the climactic moment arrives: “And there was war in heaven: Michael and his angels fought against the dragon: and the dragon fought and his angels. . . . And the great dragon was cast out, that old serpent, called the Devil, and Satan, which deceiveth the whole world: he was cast out into the earth, and his angels were cast out with him” (Revelation 12:7, 9).

The images in Revelation have been used so often, and in so many ways, that certain facts have become obscured. In the first place, the vision does not have to do with some imagined end of the world in the immeasurably remote future. It is something that the prophet sees as happening in his own time.

In the second place, we may wonder why the number seven is repeated and emphasized to an almost maniacal degree. In the light of what we’ve already seen, the reason becomes clear: it has to do with the realms of the seven planets. They have been inhabited by corrupt forces, including evil angels. The opening of the seven seals and the blast of the seven trumpets culminate in a war in which all of them, led by Satan, are cast down from the heavens onto the earth. Revelation appears to be describing a great purge of the cosmic realms that, the prophet believes, has been initiated by Christ, “the Son of man,” “the Lamb.” (Remember the line from Luke in which Jesus says he sees Satan falling “as lightning” from heaven.)

At this point the action switches to earth. Then ensues “the judgment of the great whore that sitteth upon many waters.” She sits on “a scarlet-coloured beast, . . . having seven heads.” The text explains, “The seven heads are seven mountains, on which the woman sitteth” (Revelation 17:3, 9). The identification of this woman and beast are obvious: it is Rome, which was built on seven hills. It has “seven kings. Five are fallen, and one is, and the other is not yet come; and when he cometh, he must continue a short space.” If we identify them with the Roman emperors, the first five are Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, and Nero, who was overthrown in 68. By this reckoning Galba would be the sixth, although he reigned for only seven months. This takes us up to 69 CE, known as “the year of the four emperors,” because four emperors followed one another in quick succession. The prophet believes that there will be another, but that he will not be around long, and that he will be the last. The prophet was partly right. Galba was followed by Otho, who ruled for a mere three months, but Otho was far from the last. The line of Roman emperors continued on for centuries.

If this is actually what John has in mind, we find ourselves in the midst of the Jewish War (66–73 CE), in which the Jews revolted against Rome. It would seem that the prophet is writing around this time, and he expects it to usher in the Last Judgment, which will end in a final battle with the result that “Babylon the great is fallen” (Revelation 18:2). After that, the prophet sees “a new heaven, and a new earth, and the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven” (Revelation 21:1–2).

If this is what the prophet foresaw, he was wrong. The Jews were crushed. The Temple in Jerusalem was sacked and Judea itself partly depopulated. Rome, the “great whore,” was not overthrown, and celestial forces did not descend to destroy it. The Roman Empire continued to last for centuries. The Last Judgment did not occur. Nor did the world end.

An illustration from James Morgan Pryse’s Apocalypse Unsealed, connecting the seven gods (and planets) with seven levels in man. Pryse also associates each of the seven Greek vowels with these levels.


In any event, we can sum up the action of Revelation as follows: Christ, the Lamb, is slain and resurrected. He ascends into heaven and purges the seven heavens of evil influences, led by Satan. They are cast down to earth, and are embodied in the Roman Empire, which itself will be crushed by heavenly forces led by the Lamb, culminating in a new world.

I can’t claim to understand the entire symbolism of Revelation, which is profound and multilayered, but I am willing to say that this, at least in part, is what is going on here. Nevertheless, we still face one major question. Why and how did the heavenly realms come to be infested with evil influences?

One answer appears in the passage from the Poimandres that I quoted above. Here the planetary zones seem to be identified with evil propensities. Could the Hermetic texts—of which the Poimandres is a part—be the sources of this doctrine of “spiritual wickedness in heavenly places”? Or could both the texts and this doctrine have come out of the same stream?

It is possible. Scholar Brian Copenhaver observes that the Hermetic texts “can be understood as responses to the same milieu, the very complex Greco-Egyptian culture of Ptolemaic, Roman, and early Christian times”—meaning the long period between the fourth century BCE and the second century CE. This was also the milieu in which Christianity arose. One may have influenced the other, or they may both derive their ideas from a common source.

The Poimandres does not portray these cosmic forces as inherently evil. When the cosmic man is created, it is said that the seven “governors”—of the planets, that is—“loved the man, and each gave a share of his own order.” But man, like Narcissus, fell in love with his image in the natural world, and fell. Thus his nature is twofold: immortal, given by God, and mortal, born of his infatuation with matter. He is in bondage to things over which he should be master. The qualities that the “governors” gave him become vices that he has to overcome.

The Hebrew Bible hints of similar things. Over and over we encounter entities called “the host of heaven” or “the sons of God.” Here is one example. The prophet Micaiah says, “I saw the Lord sitting on his throne, and all the host of heaven standing by him on his right hand and on his left” (1 Kings 22:19). In this passage, the host of heaven is part of Yahweh’s heavenly court, and thus part of the cosmic order.

But here is another verse. It is a warning given to the children of Israel by Moses, “lest thou lift up thine eyes unto heaven, and when thou seest the sun, and the moon, and the stars, even all the host of heaven, shouldest be driven to worship them, and serve them, which the Lord thy God hath divided unto all nations under the whole heaven” (Deuteronomy 4:9).

In fact many references in the Hebrew Bible to the “host of heaven” amount to warnings against worshipping them, or condemnations for having done so.

The host of heaven plays an ambiguous role in the Hebrew Bible. Again these beings—personifications of the stars and the planets and the signs of the zodiac—are not necessarily evil; they are part of the celestial court. At the same time there is a strong temptation to worship them that is repeatedly and vehemently denounced. As in the Poimandres, man is not meant to worship the seven heavenly “governors” or to be subject to them.

The ascent portrayed in the Poimandres has to do with the fate of the soul after death. The ascent through the spheres happens to the virtuous, those who obey this divine dictum: “Let him <who> is mindful recognize that he is immortal, that desire is the cause of death, and let him recognize all that exists.” (The bracketed insertion is the translator’s.) Salvation here comes from gnosis: insight into one’s own true nature and estate. One who lacks such insight, “the one who loved the body that came from the error of desire goes on in darkness, errant, suffering sensibly the effects of death.”

But there is another thread that we need to take up at this point. It is initiation. As is often said, initiation is a kind of death and rebirth. On the simplest level, this has to do with a death to one’s former life and a birth to a new, higher life. But there is more to it than that. In a famous passage, Cicero, the great Roman statesman and philosopher, writes about initiations into the mysteries: “So in very truth we have learned from them the beginnings of life, and have gained the power not only to live happily, but also to die with a better hope” (Cicero, Laws 2.14.36; my emphasis).

This theme keeps appearing around the ancient mysteries. They have to do with death, not merely in a symbolic sense, but in a highly practical one. In some way they prepare the candidate for death; they make the process that he undergoes in the afterlife easier and more assured of success. It seems likely to me that the pagan mysteries had more than a little to do with this process. The mysteries of Mithras in fact took place in seven stages of initiation, which were very likely connected to the seven planets.

We then turn back to the epigraph of this article, a quotation from the Excerpta e Theodoto (“Excerpts from Theodotus,” a Gnostic figure from the second century CE): “Until baptism . . . fate is valid. But afterward the astrologers are no longer correct.” Christian baptism, viewed esoterically, raises the candidate up beyond the levels of the seven planets, which rule fate. The initiate is free from the influence of the planets and thus from fate.

This passage also emphasizes that liberation is not merely due to a rite but is the result of gnosis. It goes on to say: “It is not only the cleansing that is liberating, but the knowledge [gnosis] of who we were, and what we have become, where we were or where we have been thrown, where we hasten, what we are cleansed of, what birth is and what rebirth is” (Excerpta e Theodoto, 78; my translation).

Thus, at least for some early Christians, baptism was correlated with a liberating ascent through the realms of the planets, whose associated vices had been made inoperative. The initiate reaches a level of consciousness and being that is above the domain of the planets.

The Theosophist who examined these questions most thoroughly was James Morgan Pryse (1859–1942), an associate of both H.P. Blavatsky and William Q. Judge. In 1910 he published The Apocalypse Unsealed, an esoteric interpretation of Revelation. For Pryse, Revelation is about initiation—indeed he translates the Greek word apokálupsis as “initiation.” Here too initiation is a liberation from the spheres of the seven planets. They are embodied in us as the seven chakras, which he connects with the seven principal ganglia of the nervous system (Pryse, 16–18; see illustration). Initiation is an ascent through these spheres of the planets—again, the chakras. The famous beast whose number is 666 is not Nero but, numerologically, hē phrēn, the lower mind, centered in the heart (Pryse, 26).

Certainly much of this teaching has been obscured over the centuries. A typical Christian today would be unlikely to recognize it. The view of the planetary spheres as benign completely supplanted this older view, and then the idea of the spheres was abandoned altogether.

But did any fragment of this early teaching survive in later Christianity? Yes, it did—in a curious form. Eastern Orthodox teaching refers to “aerial tollhouses” that the soul must pass through while ascending after death.

Seraphim Rose, a twentieth-century American Orthodox monk, writes, “The particular place which the demons inhabit in this fallen world, and the place where the newly-departing souls of men encounter them—is the air” (emphasis Rose’s). He quotes a liturgy written by John Damascene in the eighth century: “When my soul shall be about to be released from the bond with the flesh, intercede for me, O Sovereign Lady [i.e., the Virgin] . . . that I might pass unhindered through the princes of darkness standing in the air.”

The metaphor of aerial tollhouses is in fact used. Another passage from John Damascene: “O Virgin, in the hour of my death rescue me from the hands of the demons, and the judgment, and the accusation, and the frightful testing, and the bitter toll-houses.” At each tollhouse, the soul is presented with all the sins it has committed of that kind: lying, envy, fornication, and so on. If it is found guilty of any of these sins, it is cast down to hell. If it is innocent, it is permitted to ascend.

These ideas clearly go back a long way. A nineteenth-century historian of theology, Metropolitan Macarius of Moscow, writes: “Such an uninterrupted, constant, and universal usage in the Church of the teaching of the toll-houses, especially among the teachers of the 4th century, indisputably testifies that it was handed down to them from the teachers of the preceding centuries and is founded on apostolic tradition.”

The resemblance between these ideas and those in the Poimandres is striking. One could cite other parallels, such as the seven hekhalot (palaces) of heaven mentioned in the early Kabbalah. Even the later Kabbalah often hints that the angels—including the good ones—are not necessarily the friends of man.

It would be foolish, I think, to argue that all these teachings are exactly the same, or were so in antiquity. Then as now, there was a panoply of religions and beliefs and cults, and it would be useless to try to show that their doctrines were identical. Nevertheless, the resemblances are unmistakable.

From a broader perspective, we can see the theme of man trying to situate himself in the cosmos. He looks up at the sky and sees the stars and planets and feels some connection with them. But what sort of connection? Are these entities hostile, beneficent, indifferent? And what of the unseen realms that, however dimly, each of us knows to exist?

The questions multiply. The picture of the seven planetary realms no longer fits in with astronomy, and yet one senses that it remains profoundly true. We may have to wait till death—or initiation—to find out more.


Copenhaver, Brian P. Hermetica: The Greek Corpus Hermeticum and the Latin Asclepius in a New English Translation, with Notes and an Introduction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992.

“James Morgan Pryse,” Theosophy Wiki;; accessed Jan. 4, 2017.

Pryse, James Morgan. The Apocalypse Unsealed. 4th ed. Los Angeles: John M. Pryse, 1931.

Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite. The Celestial Hierarchy.; accessed Feb. 26, 2016.

Rose, Seraphim. The Soul after Death. Platina, Calif.: St. Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, 1980.

Richard Smoley’s
latest book is How God Became God: What Scholars Are Really Saying about God and the Bible. An earlier version of this article appeared in New Dawn magazine.






facebook twitter youtube twitter