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Secrets of the Ancient Wisdom Tradition, Madame Blavatsky's First Work
By Helena P. Blavatsky
Theosophical Publishing HouseCopyright © 1972 Theosophical Publishing House
All rights reserved.
Old Things with New Names
There exists somewhere in this wide world an old book—so very old that our modern antiquarians might ponder over its pages an indefinite time and still not quite agree as to the nature of the fabric upon which it is written. It is the only original copy now in existence. The most ancient Hebrew document on occult learning—the Sifra di-Tseniuta [Book of Concealed Mystery]—was compiled from it, and that at a time when the former was already considered in the light of a literary relic. One of its illustrations represents the Divine Essence emanating from ADAM like a luminous arc proceeding to form a circle; and then, having attained the highest point of its circumference, the ineffable Glory bends back again and returns to earth, bringing a higher type of humanity in its vortex. As it approaches nearer and nearer to our planet, the Emanation becomes more and more shadowy, until upon touching the ground it is as black as night.
A conviction, founded upon seventy thousand years of experience, as they allege, has been entertained by Hermetic philosophers of all periods that matter has in time become, through sin, more gross and dense than it was at man's first formation; that, at the beginning, the human body was of a half-ethereal nature; and that, before the fall, mankind communed freely with the now unseen universes. But since that time matter has become the formidable barrier between us and the world of spirits. The oldest esoteric traditions also teach that, before the mystic Adam, many races of human beings lived and died out, each giving place in its turn to another.
As the cycle proceeded, man's eyes were more and more opened, until he came to know "good and evil" as well as the Elohim themselves. Having reached its summit, the cycle began to go downward. When the arc attained a certain point which brought it parallel with the fixed line of our terrestrial plane, the man was furnished by nature with "coats of skin," and the Lord God "clothed them."
This same belief in the preexistence of a far more spiritual race than the one to which we now belong can be traced back to the earliest traditions of nearly every people. In the ancient Quiché manuscript—the Popol Vuh—the first men are mentioned as a race that could reason and speak, whose sight was unlimited, and who knew all things at once. According to Philo Judaeus [De gigantibus 2], the air is filled with an invisible host of spirits, some of whom are free from evil and immortal, and others are pernicious and mortal. "From the sons of EL we are descended, and sons of EL must we become again." And the unequivocal statement of the anonymous Gnostic who wrote the Gospel according to John (1.12) that "as many as received Him," i.e., who followed practically the esoteric doctrine of Jesus, would "become the sons of God" points to the same belief. "Know ye not, ye are gods?" exclaimed the Master. Plato describes admirably in Phaedrus [246C] the state in which man once was and what he will become again, before and after the "loss of his wings," when "he lived among the gods, a god himself in the airy world." From the remotest periods, religious philosophies taught that the whole universe was filled with divine and spiritual beings of diverse races. From one of these evolved, in the course of time, ADAM, the primitive man.
The discoveries of modern science do not disagree with the oldest traditions, which claim an incredible antiquity for our race. Within the last few years geology, which previously had only conceded that man could be traced as far back as the tertiary period, has found unanswerable proofs that human existence antedates the last glaciation of Europe—over 250,000 years! A hard nut, this, for patristic theology to crack, but an accepted fact with the ancient philosophers.
Moreover, fossil implements have been exhumed together with human remains, which show that man hunted in those remote times and knew how to build a fire. But the forward step has not yet been taken in this search for the origin of the race; science comes to a dead stop and waits for future proofs. Neither geologists nor archaeologists are able to construct, from the fragmentary bits hitherto discovered, the perfect skeleton of the triple man—physical, intellectual, and spiritual. Because the fossil implements of man are found to become more rough and uncouth as geology penetrates deeper into the bowels of the earth, it seems a proof to science that the closer we come to the origin of man, the more savage and brutelike he must be. Strange logic! Does the finding of the remains in the cave of Devon prove that there were no contemporary races then who were highly civilized? When the present population of the earth have disappeared, and some archaeologist belonging to the "coming race" of the distant future shall excavate the domestic implements of one of our Indian or Andaman Island tribes, will he be justified in concluding that mankind in the nineteenth century was "just emerging from the Stone Age"?
Whether arrived at by the method of Aristotle, or that of Plato, we need not stop to inquire; but it is a fact that both the inner and outer natures of man are claimed to have been thoroughly understood by the ancient aerologists. Notwithstanding the superficial hypotheses of geologists, we are beginning to have almost daily proofs in corroboration of the assertions of those philosophers.
They divided the interminable periods of human existence on this planet into cycles, during each of which mankind gradually reached the culminating point of highest civilization and gradually relapsed into abject barbarism. To what eminence the race in its progress had several times arrived may be feebly surmised by the wonderful monuments of old, still visible, and the descriptions given by Herodotus of other marvels of which no traces now remain. Even in his day the gigantic structures of many pyramids and world-famous temples were but masses of ruins. Scattered by the unrelenting hand of time, they are described by the Father of History as "these venerable witnesses of the long bygone glory of departed ancestors." He "shrinks from speaking of divine things" and gives to posterity but an imperfect description from hearsay of some marvelous subterranean chambers of the Labyrinth, where lay—and now lie—concealed the sacred remains of the King-Initiates.
The impenetrable veil of arcane secrecy was thrown over the sciences taught in the sanctuary. This is the cause of the modern depreciating of the ancient philosophies. Even Plato and Philo Judaeus have been accused by many a commentator of absurd inconsistencies, whereas the design which underlies the maze of metaphysical contradictions, so perplexing to the reader of the Timaeus, is but too evident.
The speculations of these philosophers upon matter were open to public criticism, but their teachings in regard to spiritual things were profoundly esoteric. Being thus sworn to secrecy and religious silence upon abstruse subjects involving the relations of spirit and matter, they rivaled each other in their ingenious methods for concealing their real opinions.
The doctrine of metempsychosis has been abundantly ridiculed by men of science and rejected by theologians, yet if it had been properly understood in its application to the indestructibility of matter and the immortality of spirit, it would have been perceived that it is a sublime conception. Should we not first regard the subject from the standpoint of the ancients before venturing to disparage its teachers? The solution of the great problem of eternity belongs neither to religious superstition nor to gross materialism.
If the Pythagorean metempsychosis should be thoroughly explained and compared with the modern theory of evolution, it would be found to supply every "missing link" in the chain of the latter.
There was not a philosopher of any notoriety who did not hold to the doctrine of metempsychosis, as taught by the Brahmans, Buddhists, and later by the Pythagoreans, in its esoteric sense, whether he expressed it more or less intelligibly. Origen and Clement Alexandrines, Synesius and Chalcidius, all believed in it; and the Gnostics, who are unhesitatingly proclaimed by history as a body of the most refined, learned, and enlightened men, were all believers in metempsychosis. Socrates entertained opinions identical with those of Pythagoras; and both, as the penalty of their divine philosophy, were put to a violent death. The rabble has been the same in all ages. Materialism has been and will ever be blind to spiritual truths. These philosophers held with the Hindus that God had infused into matter a portion of his own Divine Spirit, which animates and moves every particle. They taught that men have two souls of separate and quite different natures: the one perishable—the astral soul, or the inner, fluidic body—the other incorruptible and immortal—the augoeides, or portion of the Divine Spirit; that the mortal or astral soul perishes at each gradual change at the threshold of every new sphere, becoming with every transmigration more purified. The astral man, intangible and invisible as he might be to our mortal, earthly senses, is still constituted of matter, though sublimated.
But the too great dependence upon physical facts led to a growth of materialism and a decadence of spirituality and faith. At the time of Aristotle, this was the prevailing tendency of thought. And though the Delphic commandment was not as yet completely eliminated from Grecian thought and some philosophers still held that "in order to know what man is, we ought to know what man was "—still materialism had already begun to gnaw at the root of faith. The Mysteries themselves had degenerated in a very great degree into mere priestly speculations and religious fraud. Few were the true adepts and initiates, the heirs and descendants of those who had been dispersed by the conquering swords of various invaders of old Egypt.
The time predicted by the great Hermes in his dialogue with Asclepius had indeed come: the time when impious foreigners would accuse Egypt of adoring monsters and naught but the letters engraved in stone upon her monuments would survive—enigmas incredible to posterity. Their sacred scribes and hierophants were wanderers upon the face of the earth. Obliged from fear of a profanation of the sacred mysteries to seek refuge among the Hermetic fraternities—known later as the Essenes—their esoteric knowledge was buried deeper than ever. The triumphant brand of Aristotle's pupil [Alexander the Great] swept away from his path of conquest every vestige of a once pure religion, and Aristotle himself, the type and child of his epoch, though instructed in the secret science of the Egyptians, knew but little of this crowning result of millenniums of esoteric studies.
As well as those who lived in the days of the Psammetichus, our present-day philosophers "lift the Veil of Isis"—for Isis is but the symbol of nature. But they see only her physical forms. The soul within escapes their view, and the Divine Mother has no answer for them.
Our modern science acknowledges a Supreme Power, an Invisible Principle, but denies a Supreme Being, or Personal God. Logically, the difference between the two might be questioned; for in this case, the Power and the Being are identical. Human reason can hardly imagine to itself an Intelligent Supreme Power without associating it with the idea of an Intelligent Being. The masses can never be expected to have a clear conception of the omnipotence and omnipresence of a Supreme God, without investing a gigantic projection of their own personality with those attributes. But the kabbalists have never looked upon the invisible EN-SOF otherwise than as a Power.
Very few Christians understand, if indeed they know anything at all, of Jewish theology. The Talmud is the darkest of enigmas even for most Jews, while those Hebrew scholars who do comprehend it do not boast of their knowledge. Their kabbalistic books are still less understood by them; for in our days more Christian than Jewish students are engrossed in the elucidation of their great truths. How much less is definitely known of the Oriental, or the universal Kabbala! Its adepts are few, but these heirs-elect of the sages who first discovered "the starry truths which shone on the great Shemaia of the Chaldean lore" have solved the "absolute" and are now resting from their grand labor. They cannot go beyond that which is given to mortals of this earth to know; and no one, not even these elect, can trespass beyond the line drawn by the finger of the Divinity itself.
Travelers have met these adepts on the shores of the sacred Ganges, brushed against them in the silent ruins of Thebes and in the mysterious deserted chambers of Luxor. Within the halls upon whose blue and golden vaults the weird signs attract attention, but whose secret meaning is never penetrated by the idle gazers, they have been seen but seldom recognized. Historical memoirs have recorded their presence in the brilliantly illuminated salons of European aristocracy. They have been encountered again on the arid and desolate plains of the great Sahara, as in the caves of Elephanta. They may be found everywhere, but make themselves known only to those who have devoted their lives to unselfish study and are not likely to turn back.
Thoroughly acquainted with all the resources of the vegetable, animal, and mineral kingdoms, experts in occult chemistry and physics, psychologists as well as physiologists—why wonder that the graduates or adepts instructed in the mysterious sanctuaries of the temples could perform wonders which even in our days of enlightenment would appear supernatural? It is an insult to human nature to brand magic and the occult science with the name of imposture. To believe that, for so many thousands of years, one-half of mankind practiced deception and fraud on the other half is equivalent to saying that the human race was composed only of knaves and incurable idiots. Where is the country in which magic was not practiced? At what age was it wholly forgotten?
In the oldest documents now in our possession—the Vedas and the older laws of Manu—we find many magical rites practiced and permitted by the Brahmans. Tibet, Japan, and China teach in the present age that which was taught by the oldest Chaldeans. The clergy of these respective countries prove, moreover, what they teach: namely that the practice of moral and physical purity and of certain austerities develops the vital soul-power of self-illumination. Affording to man control over his own immortal spirit gives him truly magical powers over the elementary spirits inferior to himself.
In the West we find magic of as high an antiquity as in the East. The Druids of Great Britain practiced it in the silent crypts of their deep caves; and Pliny (Natural History 29.12, 30.4, etc.) devotes many a chapter to the "wisdom" of the leaders of the Celts. The Semotheesthe Druids of the Gauls—expounded the physical as well as the spiritual sciences. They taught the secrets of the universe, the harmonious progress of the heavenly bodies, the formation of the earth, and above all the immortality of the soul. Into their sacred groves—natural academies built by the hand of the Invisible Architect—the initiates assembled at the still hour of midnight to learn about what man once was and what he will be. They needed no artificial illumination to light up their temples, for the chaste goddess of night beamed her most silvery rays on their oak-crowned heads; and their white-robed sacred bards knew how to converse with the solitary queen of the starry vault.
On the dead soil of the long bygone past stand their sacred oaks, now dried up and stripped of their spiritual meaning by the venomous breath of materialism. But for the student of occult learning, their vegetation is still as verdant and luxuriant, and as full of deep and sacred truths, as at that hour when the archdruid performed his magical cures and, waving the branch of mistletoe, severed with his golden sickle the green bough from its mother oak tree.
Magic is as old as man. It is as impossible to name the time when it sprang into existence as to indicate on what day the first man himself was born. Whenever a writer has started with the idea of connecting its first foundation in a country with some historical character, further research has proved his views groundless. Odin, the Scandinavian priest and monarch, was thought by many to have originated the practice of magic some seventy years B.C. But it was easily demonstrated that the mysterious rites of the priestesses called Völvos, Valas, were greatly anterior to his age. Some modern authors were bent on proving that Zoroaster was the founder of magic because he was the founder of the Magian religion. Ammianus Marcellinus, Arnobius, Pliny, and other ancient historians demonstrated conclusively that he was but a reformer of magic as practiced by the Chaldeans and Egyptians.
Excerpted from Isis Unveiled by Helena P. Blavatsky. Copyright © 1972 Theosophical Publishing House. Excerpted by permission of Theosophical Publishing House.
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