Aryans in Arcadia
The early New Age movement was entwined with racist beliefs. Though modern adherents have moved on, cultural appropriation still links them to its troubling roots.
The Age of Pisces is described by astrologers as an age of monotheism; most agree that it began around the birth of Christ. Depending on who you ask we are either still in the Piscean Age, or have just recently—or are on the cusp of—turning over to the Age of Aquarius, the age of freedom, technology, and a new world consciousness. In the early 20th century an occultist writer named Alice Bailey popularized the connection between this astrological movement and the tenets of her strange spiritual philosophy that had begun to gain popularity among hippies and eccentrics. This connection would be shorthanded in the ‘60s and ‘70s when people began to put a face to the movement—it was simply referred to as the New Age.
The New Age movement can be difficult to define, because it encompasses a plethora of different practices and beliefs. In an essay titled Beyond Millenialism: the New Age Transformed author J. Gordon Melton sums up its effusiveness: “The movement as a whole was served by a number of schools, publishing houses, specialized organizations, networking services, and outreach groups."
Today we recognize aspects of the New Age all over: there are TV shows (Ancient Aliens), movies (What the Bleep Do We Know?!), bookstores have whole sections devoted to its literature, pharmacies carry supplements and non-FDA regulated herbal treatments based on the “Secrets of the [Insert Ancient Civilization Here]”, there are shops in even the most provincial of towns that sell crystals and have bulletin boards covered in flyers advertising meditation classes, healing seminars, and spiritual retreats.
By all accounts we do appear to be at least on the cusp of the Aquarian Age. Minds are being opened to a new way of existing, the benefits of which are health and prosperity, a cure-all for ennui and the soulless, mechanical progression of 21st century industrialization. Soccer moms and urbane city dwellers alike are drawing on a vast pool of resources—including Hinduism, Buddhism, Native American spirituality, Eastern medicine, alternative science and medicine—to strengthen themselves.
And what of these different cultures and religions? While Bailey’s melange of eastern and western influence suggest that she was an open-minded woman of the world, her writing often betrayed a much less harmonious perspective.
“In them, of course, the animal nature is awake and the desire nature is becoming rampant,” Bailey offers in volume II of her Treatise on Seven Rays (1942). “These people are to be found in all races to a small extent, and a number of them can be found among the negroes, which race contains a large number of those who are today relatively children. These are child souls, and though the mental equipment is there and some of them can be trained to use it, the preponderance of the life emphasis is entirely upon physical activity as it is motivated by the desire for satisfaction of some kind…”
She spends long sections throughout this same book discussing the “Jewish problem,” and espousing a myriad of other repugnant beliefs.
As with all dogmas, these views did not come out of thin air. Bailey may have been the jumping off point for the New Age movement as we know it today, but she only represents a point in time in which the movement not so much took shape as congealed.
The origins of the New Age can be traced back to the 19th century, when the European traditions of mysticism and the occult blended with the cosmologies of India, the Far East, Africa, and the Americas. At this time the world was just finishing the first push of Western colonialism, which had left large swathes of the globe under European rule. Those who had privilege traveled the world and reported back, either through letters or the quickly growing system of telegraph cables which would eventually leave virtually no part of the globe unreachable.
Esoteric literature (think Nostradamus) always had a foot in Europe, but as the new age of Imperialism geared up in the later part of the 19th century, fueled by the scramble for Africa, the works of those writing in the genre began to morph into a sort of metaphysical colonialism. The goal was no longer to explore just the physical world, or even the spiritual world, but also hidden past, unseen present, and glorious future. It was as if once the globe had been entirely sectioned off, and books and newspapers could describe any remote region of the planet to you, we needed another realm in which to go exploring.
One of the earliest examples: a boom in books about Plato’s lost city of Atlantis. Once an imagined scene of forgotten Hellenic grandeur, Atlantis was recast as the location of a hitherto unknown civilization, whose citizens possessed technologies and spiritual riches beyond any that had been discovered at the time.
It was proposed that the Maya, the Egyptians, and just about every other inscrutable civilization owed itself to this mysterious antiquity. In 1882, Minnesotan congressman Ignatius L. Donnelly published Atlantis: The Antediluvian World. Donnelly’s account of Atlantis, which combined many of the popular theories about the mythical continent, was one of the first true pieces of modern pseudoscientific writing. Through conjecture and archeological evidence—shaky at best—he made the case that nearly every major civilization in the history of man sprang from one root civilization which lived on Atlantis. It lacked any credibility, and went on to become one of the most popular and influential books of its era.
A few years after Donnelly’s account was published, a Russian noblewoman named Madame Helena Blavatsky published what would go on to become, arguably, the most influential occult book of all time. The Secret Doctrine (1888) is a massive two-volume tome wherein Blavatsky—channeling entities she calls the Ascended Masters—details the tenants of a new system of esoteric thought called Theosophy.
Throughout her life, Blavatsky traveled the world, visiting the Americas, Asia and Europe. The influence of her travel, especially in Hindu and Buddhist regions, is evident in the theories outlined in The Secret Doctrine. The book is a babbling stream of mashed-up cosmology. For example: “First the Divine, the one from the Mother-Spirit; then the Spiritual; the three from the one, the four from the one, and the five from which the three, the five, and the seven.”
Some ten years earlier, Blavatsky and another occultist named Henry Steel Olcott had founded the Theosophy Society, whose objective was to “study and elucidation of Occultism, the Cabala etc.” The Theosophy Society and Blavatsky’s writings have been credited by many as the most important early building blocks for the modern New Age movement. Many of its core ideas can be found in today’s New Age practices, in some form or another: detachment from the material world, an alternative history of the universe, cyclical metaphysical spirituality, and spiritual channeling.
Beyond just the concrete examples of influence, Blavatsky and the Theosophy Society ushered in an era of “scientific” thinking—albeit one that did not require the use of the scientific method. There was no proof of Blavatsky’s ideas by virtue of their own spiritual principal: one was required to trust her whole-cloth. Where Donnelly opened the door to psuedoscientific thought with his theories on Atlantis, Blavatsky blew out the whole wall.
One of the more troubling theories that emerged from The Secret Doctrine is her concept of “root races.” The modern Theosophy Society describes the concept as such: “The main serial divisions of the human life-wave on any globe of a planetary chain; for instance, the root-races on our globe D include the third or Lemurian, the fourth or Atlantean, and the present fifth.”
The third and fourth root races are considered physically or spiritually incomplete, while the fifth root race, descendants of those who escaped Atlantis before it fell, are described as near-perfect beings. Blavatsky called these people the Aryans.
When The Secret Doctrine was published, the word Aryan had fairly recently been introduced into the English vernacular, having been adopted from the Sanskrit word arya, which was a ethnic self-identifying term that meant, “honourable, respectful, or noble.” It wasn’t until the 19th century that the term was adopted into English as the word Aryan, and at that time it was broadly used to describe people of European and Western Asian ethnic heritage. This was also how Blavatsky used the term in her writings, and in The Secret Doctrine she outlines five of the seven sub root races of the Aryan race: Hindus, Arabians, Persians, Celts, and Teutonic (or Germanic).
In addition to the fact that there are a few peoples absent from this list (more on that in a minute), this idea of superior races of beings, however esoteric it may be, is a direct byproduct of the colonialist attitudes of the time. Her assertion of Aryan supremacy, based not on provable science but upon her own mystic channelings, set a dangerous precedent for others to exploit.
According to the Theosophy Society, all races of people are equal, meaning the defective Lumerians or Atlaneans cannot be differentiated from the superior Aryans by the color of there skin. In The Secret Doctrine, however, Blavatsky doesn’t appear to actually believe that at all.
"Mankind is obviously divided into god-informed men and lower human creatures. The intellectual difference between the Aryan and other civilized nations and such savages as the South Sea Islanders, is inexplicable on any other grounds,” she writes. She goes on to list “Bushmen,” “the Veddhas of Ceylon,” and “some African tribes” as other races missing what she calls the “sacred spark”
“Verily mankind is 'of one blood,'” she clarifies, “but not of the same essence.”
Blavatsky may have had a racially-broad definition of the term Aryan, but she also makes it very clear that the Aryan is superior to other root races. What is important about this distinction is that her writings are some of the first to ever use the word Aryan in conjunction with the concept of racial supremacy.
In the early 20th century, an Austrian writer named Guido von List took many of Blavatsky’s ideas and created his own school of thought called Ariosophy. List was an Aryan supremacist similar to those we know and revile today. He took Blavatsky’s system of root races and added his own brand of Germanic pagan nationalism, positing that the fifth sub root of the Aryan race, the Germanic peoples, were the current supreme race. He is even credited with appropriating the swastika from Hindu tradition, which had been a favorite symbol of Blavatsky’s, and began using it as a symbol of the “Germanic Hero,” referring to it as the “hooked cross.”
Ariosophy was a peculiar offshoot of the nationalist movement brewing in Germany since the beginning of the 20th century, and one of its most zealous adherents was Lanz von Liebenfel. Since the 1904 publication of his book Theozoologie—a psuedoscientific text infused with Biblical rationale for Aryan purity that is too absurd to get into here—Liebenfel advocated extreme solutions for what he saw as the scourge of “lower races,” such as forced sterilization. An early advocate for many of the ideologies and policies that would later become hallmark of the Nazi regime, he published a magazine called Ostara, a Nationalist and Aryan supremacist publication named for the Germanic pagan goddess of spring.
The thread of influence between Blavatsky and Liebenfel was quite strong, both in terms of content and ideas, as well as the brazen disregard for science. Blavatsky’s absurdist theories of Aryan superiority over the Atlaneans and Lemurians is the antecedent to Liebenfel’s absurdist theories of Teutonic Aryan superiority over the Jews. If we continue further down this thread of influence, we eventually reach a young Adolf Hitler—a fan of Ostara.
According to Liebenfe, he even met young Hitler in 1909 and discussed his theories. When Hitler began to rise to power, Liebenfel wrote in the preface to issue 3.1 of Ostara, “One shall remember that the swastika and fascist movements are basically offspring of Ostara.”
Hitler later denied any connection to Liebenfel, and persecuted followers of List as charletans and occultists. It seems likely, however, that a politician as pragmatic and calculating as Hitler would have distanced himself from this sect of radical pagans, in order to better court the majority Christian citizens of his country.
Modern adherents to Theosophy balk at the notion that Hitler was influenced by Blavatsky, and claim that all he did was bastardize her ideas. That, however, is a mistake. Hitler may have twisted the actual content of her writings, but he was following her playbook. She considered herself a humanist, and would have despised the Nazis, but by positioning herself into a place of influence on the back of racial theory invented out of thin air, she enabled her words and ideas to be interpreted in just such a way.
Even today, strands of these threads are present in the way in which some interact with the New Age. The physical colonialism of Blavatsky’s day has given way to a different kind, one that sees non-Western cultures stripped for parts in the cultural marketplace.
One common example is the spiritual practices of Native Americans, which have been fetishized to the point of absurdity by the Western gaze and are widely appropriated in a number of New Age practices. By focusing on one aspect of the Native American experience, it becomes difficult to attain the big picture, the fullness of their cultural lives. When we fawn over vision quests or sweat lodge ceremonies, we do not create time to recognize that modern Native Americans suffer appalling rates of school dropouts, child mortality, suicide and teenage pregnancy, and the lowest life expectancy of any ethnic group in the United States. All of it is the result of the colonialism that gave us access to their culture in the first place.
The popular TV show Ancient Aliens exemplifies the dangerous levels to which this trope is taken. The idea that aliens visited our distant ancestors is one with deep roots in the revisionist history of Blavatsky and Donnelly, but it truly got its start with the 1968 publication of Erich von Daniken’s Chariots of the Gods?
Since then, ancient astronaut hunters have spent decades poring over archeological sites, artwork, texts, cultures, and religions for clues of possible contact between ancient civilizations and alien visitors. Anyone who has watched the show knows the pattern these theories follow: the achievements of Ancient Civilization X are so beguiling, from a western viewpoint, that the only reasonable explanation is that they were influenced by advanced aliens.
It's easy to get wrapped up in the engaging speculations about how cities could have been built with levitating technology, or whether inscrutable aboriginal artwork primitively depicts spacecrafts. The uncanny parallels between religious monuments and landing strips fascinated millions—I know I certainly have been.
What the ancient astronaut theory relies on, however, is the problematic pedestal of our Western worldview, interpreting ancient cultures from our own experience. Stylized depictions of men and structures becomes space suits and aircraft. Religious texts become histories of alien invasion. Reading between the lines, this is saying: “Western culture is so far infallible—so how do these other people fit into its narrative?”
This disregard for non-Western culture hinges on the notion that it's more plausible that aliens descended from the sky with laser cutters and levitation devices than the proposition that non-white people could build a pyramid using engineering and hard work.
Ancient alien theorists point to “insurmountable” obstacles each civilization faced, but all are explained by archeology, and even the own words of the people themselves. Their beliefs can seem innocuous, as we’re reminded that these ancient peoples are long since dead (though modern Maya might disagree.) But the consequences of denigrating non-Western peoples are sinister, as history has proven, time and time again.
The white supremacist movement has always been adamant that ancient Egyptians were not black, but instead olive-skinned Europeans, because the idea that non-white people could build such an advanced civilization is preposterous. Replacing them with aliens is no better.
From Blavatsky to Ancient Aliens, there's is a long history of new age belief opening the door to racist ideology. This is a problem not just with individual practitioners, but with philosophies at the core of the movement.
We are not one. We do not have a universal consciousness. Some of us are born privileged, and some of us are born disadvantaged. To use the most attractive parts of a group’s culture and spiritual practice to pretend otherwise others them further.
It’s time to stop and look back on the things that have become normal, and for some, a way of life, and think about the people from whom we took these things. Who are they? Where are they now? How is their quality of life?
It’s time to ask them how we can help, and if they are willing, how we can participate in their culture with them in a way that uplifts, not harms.
White believers may be soon entering the Age of Aquarius, but if we continue to march through the hole created by Blavatsky we will leave our brothers and sisters robbed of their cultures and stuck in the uncompromising Age of Pisces.
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