Unveiling Isis: HPB's First Book

By John P. Van Mater

H. P. Blavatsky's first major work — Isis Unveiled: A Master Key to the Mysteries of Ancient and Modern Science and Theology — was begun in 1875, the year she founded the Theosophical Society. HPB mentions that when she was called upon by her teachers to write so extensively, she was at a loss, for although she spoke several languages fluently, she did not feel at home in English. Judging from the over 30 articles previously published in various newspapers and periodicals, however, her English was more than adequate and she wrote with gusto. That same style appears in Isis Unveiled, where she was never hesitant in coming forward when she felt a principle was being compromised.

Having only a small library, HPB was aided by her teachers in finding material. Several other people also helped her, notably Colonel Henry S. Olcott — principal co-founder of the Society — who assisted her for months in organizing and editing the manuscript, and Dr. Alexander Wilder, scholar and Platonist, who helped to write the introduction, corrected foreign terms, added valuable material here and there in both volumes, and cut out much extraneous matter. Even so, its two volumes comprise some 1,300 pages.

Originally HPB titled her work A Skeleton Key to Mysterious Gates, but her publisher, J. W. Bouton, insisted on calling it The Veil of Isis. Volume 1 was actually in the press with this title on its running heads when Bouton was told of a book published in 1861 called The Veil of Isis or the Mysteries of the Druids. So he changed the title to Isis Unveiled, which he actually preferred.

The first 1,000 copies of Isis Unveiled were sold in 10 days, and it received favorable reviews. The New York Herald called it "one of the remarkable productions of the century," while The New York Independent said "The appearance of erudition is stupendous." The book was reprinted a number of times during HPB's lifetime, and has remained in print ever since. The variety of subjects touched upon, the treatment of alchemy and the secret sciences, her description of some incidents she herself must have witnessed in her extensive travels, all give Isis Unveiled a verve and impact which are still potent today. Volume 1 is titled Science; Volume 2, Theology. A glossary of terms is included as part of the Introduction.

What, we may ask in the first place, is the import of the goddess Isis in the title? People are prone to consider old stories and myths as primitive imaginings. Scholars such as Joseph Campbell and Mircea Eliade have largely succeeded in restoring myths and legends to their proper place as symbolic representations of the beliefs of ancient peoples who were in no way inferior to us, intellectually or spiritually. Indeed, the ancients themselves often materialized their god or gods, which originally were regarded as symbols of cosmic nature's living inner structure.

Let us try to find the true import of what Isis represented among the Egyptians and what is meant by the "veil of Isis." In one interpretation Isis stands for the second aspect of the trinity of Osiris, Isis, and Horus. Such a trinity is found in nearly all great religious systems. It corresponds in Christian terms to the Father, Holy Ghost, and Son, and among the Hindus to Parabrahman, Mulaprakriti, and Brahman.

Isis among the Egyptians was the more open or easily seen side of the goddess Neith, who represented the occult or hidden wisdom which through the centuries was handed down in Mystery schools all over the ancient world. These schools, although decadent in later times, still attempted to carry forward the divine theosophia or ancient wisdom which forms the basis of all the great systems of thought through the ages. The Great Temple of Neith was located at Sais which, like Alexandria, was situated on a branch of the Nile that flowed through the Delta.

The historian Plutarch visited Egypt in the late first or early second century AD. He was a highly developed human being, an initiate and one-time priest of Delphi. These honors must have been an "open sesame" for him when visiting Egypt, for he was given a great deal of respect by his Egyptian counterparts, who may have recognized him as a brother. One reason for assuming this is that his essay "Osiris and Isis" is expressed not in Plutarch's usual straightforward style, but in rather difficult language, as though he was making sure he would not divulge teachings belonging to the sanctuary which had been given to him in confidence. The ancient policy of withholding esoteric teachings from public knowledge operated universally among nearly all the religions down the ages, East and West, including the early Christian faith, whose origins can be traced to several groups with esoteric roots. Jesus himself is reported to have said that to the multitudes he spoke in parables, while to his disciples it was given to know the secrets of the Kingdom of Heaven.

At the time Plutarch came to Egypt, Alexandria was its capital city. The great Library of Alexandria, though somewhat past its prime, was still the center of learning in the Mediterranean world. Plutarch did not live to see the revival of Platonism in Alexandria called Neoplatonism. This movement for 300 years infused esoteric Platonism into the thought-life of the Mediterranean world until it was smothered by the shroud of dogma and the consequent onset of the Dark Ages.

Plutarch records the following inscription from the portico of the Temple of Isis at Sais: "Isis am I, I am all that was, that is, and that shall be and no one of mortals has ever lifted my veil." The great Neoplatonist Proclus, writing in Athens nearly 400 years later, mentions another sentence which was part of this inscription: "And the fruit that I brought forth became the sun."

What has this to do with the veil of Isis and HPB's book? The ancients viewed the cosmos, the sun, and the earth as animated beings governed by lives of multimyriad types. They saw nature's laws and operations as the overdwelling activity of superior beings whose very presence ensures the harmony of the spheres. Thus the veil of Isis is the world we see around us, and to speak of Isis unveiled refers to penetrating to some extent this veil that hides the true causal universe which animates and controls every aspect of what we see around us.

Let us look once more at the inscription upon the temple of Isis. Who among mortals has succeeded in going behind the veil of the apparent world? Only those who are ready to do so, disciplined, purified, strengthened. When the hierophant declared him sufficiently ready, the prepared neophyte sent his percipient consciousness behind the outward seeming and confabulated with the gods. This is what is called initiation and the successful initiate returned clothed with the sun, surrounded with a nimbus. This is the original reason why kings are crowned, for in the early times when the gods taught mankind, initiate-kings literally crowned themselves: it was no empty formalism. And such people did rule by divine right — the right of their inner spiritual accomplishments.

What about the last sentence supplied by Proclus, "And the fruit that I brought forth became the sun?" Here Isis acts in her role as the cosmic mother, the second person of the trinity Osiris, Isis, and Horus. When the solar entity was born, the fruit that Isis brought forth was Horus, the god of the sun, or the god that is the sun. It is inspiring to think, as poetically phrased, that we are all children of the sun, potential divinities.

In her books, HPB speaks out fearlessly against materialism in science and against blind, unthinking dogma in religion. The great value of Isis Unveiled is that it treats convincingly of the hidden side of nature and of man, thus parting at least the so-called veil of Isis. Although seemingly without much structure as a book, Isis opened the door for the more systematic Secret Doctrine, in which HPB's teachers could say more and more explicitly. Significantly, HPB's masterwork, The Secret Doctrine, quotes from Isis Unveiled at least 100 times. After more than a hundred years, we have yet to scratch the surface of these marvelous books.

  • (From Sunrise magazine, June/July 1997. Copyright © 1997 by Theosophical University Press)

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