The Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor and The Theosophical Society

Emma Hardinge in the 1850s

The shared roots of the Theosophical Society and the Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor have become better understood in recent years. In The Unseen Worlds of Emma Hardinge Britten, Robert Matthiesen draws a distinction between what he calls the Earlier and Later Theosophical Societies:

“Only in 1879 did a reorganized Theosophical Society once again begin to meet in India and elsewhere, but only about four of the founding members ever took much part in its activities. The large majority of them kept their distance from it, and a few of them, above all Emma Hardinge Britten, eventually became severe critics of its undertakings. Because of this great discontinuity of membership, I am inclined to speak of two Theosophical Societies (the one of 1875-76; the other from 1878 on) as separate organizations, which I shall call the Earlier and the Later Theosophical Society. The insistent claim of the Later Theosophical Society (in all its variant forms) to be the legitimate heir of the Earlier one, and the true custodian of its heritage, may have some basis in law, but it can easily obscure any profound historical examination of the Earlier Theosophical Society on its own terms…Unlike the Later Theosophical Society, the Earlier one was the joint creation, in varying but still significant ways, of most or all of its founding members.”(pp 32-34)

Emma Hardinge Britten was the most prominent of the Earlier TS authors, her Modern American Spiritualism (1870) making her the preeminent Spiritualist historian of the 19th century.  Her Art Magic and Ghost Land were the first two books published by a TS Founder, and lay the groundwork for much that came after: e.g. claims of mysterious adept co-authorship and use of the term Theosophy to describe a body of teachings that can be traced back to antiquity. But Emma was so unhappy with the direction taken by the Later TS that she eventually wrote that its new claims and theories rested “at most, on the authority of a `band of brothers,’ who are of no more authority than any other band of brothers, of whom there are hosts in the East, as elsewhere, and who singly or severally are only authoritative– beyond their particular sphere of discipleship– in as far as their teachings correspond to such laws, principles, and facts, as are already proven, or are capable of being proven.” (Nineteenth Century Miracles, p. 303.)  Six years later in her journal The Two Worlds, Britten was sharper in her criticism of the Theosophical Mahatmas: “The most unfortunate feature of all these claims is, however, that there is not one shadow of evidence given of its truth, except that it is the teaching of some unknown `Mahatmas,’ of whose existence again there is not even a shadow of proof, and of whose supposed doings three parties have publicly asserted the whole story to be a fiction, and the result of gross imposture.  If there are `Mahatmas,’—if these Mahatmas, can give any authoritative proof of their existence even, why is not that proof forthcoming?  Meanwhile, against the possibility of any such proof, first comes the pamphlet of Madame Coulomb, then of the exhaustive researches, also published, of Dr. Richard Hodgson, and finally the tremendous and disgraceful revelations made in the New York Sun, as late ago as July 20th.”  (9/12/1890, p. 519)

Britten wrote in Nineteenth Century Miracles that “as long as the Society existed in that city on its original lines, the author’s name was retained as a member of the first council.”(p. 302) In the same section she describes those original lines later abandoned by Blavatsky and Olcott: “…it was deemed desirable to conduct the proceedings on the basis of a secret society…results attainable only to those who could, and would pursue, their studies, to the innermost depths of nature’s laboratories.”(p. 296)  The Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor emerged in Great Britain in 1884 to offer what the original TS had provided briefly but then abandoned: instruction in practical occultism within the framework of a secret society.   An Esoteric Section within the TS was created by HPB partly in response to the success of the HBofL recruiting prominent Theosophists, especially in America and France, and William Q. Judge’s pleas for a competing alternative.  Emma lent tacit support and the HBofL regarded her Art Magic and Ghost Land as foundational documents — the “stones rejected by the builders” of the Later TS.  She denied authorship of the HBofL’s major doctrinal work The Light of Egypt, but endorsed its value:

“We deeply regret that other matters of pressing moment have, of late, occupied our columns to the exclusion of those notices of books, pamphlets, and tracts, which we have received in great numbers, and which we hope yet to call attention to.  This apology relates especially to the noble, philosophic, and instructive work, published by George Redway of London, entitled “The Light of Egypt.”  We had hoped to have found space to give abundant quotations from this admirable treatise, one which supplies not only fine suggestive views of planetary cosmogony, but also furnishes a good corrective, founded, on the basis of science, fact, and reason, to the groundless assertions of theosophy, some of which appear in quotation in this numbers Leader.  Ere we close this merely preliminary notice that we have been favored with a copy of “The Light of Egypt,” we would call its author’s attention to the fact that a certain American editor of a Theosophical Magazine, entitled The Path, after venting on this fine work all the abuse, scorn and display of ignorance and insolence that his malice could dictate, ends by adding that this book is “by Mrs. Emma Hardinge Britten.”  We trust it needs no open disclaimer on our part to assure the gifted author of “The Light of Egypt” that this rude and uncalled-for piece of mendacity could only have been designed by the writer to add injury to insult, and compel the Editor of this journal to express her regret that she has not the smallest claim to stand in a position implying ability far beyond her capacity to attain to.  It is hoped that this public disclaimer will be sufficient to atone for the intended injury to the esteemed author of “The Light of Egypt,” and explain to him the animus with which his comments on the fantastic theories of the day are received by a prominent Theosophical journalist. (The Two Worlds, August 18, 1889, p. 481.)

The bitter tone of Britten’s remarks about the TS in later life reflected disappointed expectations, in the opinion of Robert Matthiessen.  Her support of the HBofL was presumably based not only on doctrinal agreement (anti-reincarnationist in the later TS sense) but on support for its pursuit of practical rather than theoretical occult study.  The HBofL made the same kind of confusing assertion that the Later TS made, claiming to be the same Brotherhood of Luxor that had really been a different entity. The British HBofL leaders claimed that their work had begun in 1870 in Egypt. But as best historians can tell, there was never any HBofL as a formal organization before 1884; the previous Brotherhood of Luxor referred to an informal network of associates in early 1870s Egypt.  Hence, when the Later TS leaders attacked the HBofL as an upstart group falsely claiming to have existed fourteen years earlier than it actually was created, they were justified. But then so were the HBofL leaders equally justified in arguing that the TS after its move to India was not at all the same organization it had been– and that their own teachings were more in line with those of the original TS.   More than a century since these organizations diverged, we have considerable historical evidence available to disentangle the conflicting claims.