Channel(ing) surfing

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Dan Piraro, "Changing Channels", Bizarro Blog 12/12/2021:

I often walk past the United Lodge of Theosophists, 1917 Walnut St. in Philadelphia, but I've never gone in — mainly because it's never been open when I've happened to pass it, as far as I can tell. But the organization is alive and well, at least based on the web site.

Helena Blavatsky, the co-founder of the Theosophical Society, lived for some time in Philadelphia even closer to Penn, at 3470 Sansom St., where Judy Wick founded the White Dog Café in 1983.

Blavatsky's Wikipedia entry has this to say about her influence on linguistics:

American scholar of religion Jason Josephson-Storm has argued that Blavatsky and her Theosophical Society influenced late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century academic linguistics. Josephson-Storm notes that Blavatsky's linguistic theories and typologies were widely circulated in Europe, and that influential linguists such as Émile-Louis Burnouf and Benjamin Lee Whorf either practiced Theosophy as promoted by the Theosophical Society or publicly defended its doctrines. Ferdinand de Saussure is also known to have attended séances and wrote a lengthy analysis of the Theosophical claims about linguistics and India, "la théosophie brahmanique (Brahamanic Theosophy)" while delivering his Cours de linguistique générale.

See also:

"How fakirs became fakers", 6/25/2004
"Sanskrit resurgent", 8/13/2014


  1. J.W. Brewer said,

    December 15, 2021 @ 4:50 pm

    I can't immediately find a free copy online (although I haven't looked very hard), but there's a 1998 scholarly-journal article entitled "Back to Blavatsky: the impact of theosophy on modern linguistics", whose first page (before the authors actually lay out their thesis …) can be previewed here:

  2. Michael said,

    December 15, 2021 @ 6:15 pm

    Interesting, but I don't understand the relationship between the cartoon and the words of your post. Blavatsky was the leader of Theosophy, while the cartoon depicts a Spiritualist seance. Spiritualism and Theosophy were competing schools, and Blavatsky spent quire a few words condemning Spiritualism, and especially their practice of speaking to the dead in her book "Studies in Occultism."

    [(myl) Blavatsky seems to have held various views at various times, but according to "Madame Blavatsky's Seances: Theosophy's Connection to Popular Occultism", 10/2/2009:

    Helena Petrovna Blavatsky (1831-1891), a founder of the Theosophical Society, not only found seances appealing but practiced them to great effect before audiences in New York and Adyar, India, where she moved the T.S. headquarters in 1979 [sic]. The conjuring of spirits drew potential converts to Theosophy; Blavatsky in turn gave seances an intellectual sheen by investing them with Theosophy’s mix of Western philosophy and Hindu and Jewish mysticism. According to Matthew Mulligan Goldstein, Blavatsky’s injection of intellectualism “turned spiritualism away from what had seemed in the 1850s its anti-authoritarian, anti-institutional direction, and set [it] on a path toward hermetic elitism.”

    So sensational were Blavatsky’s Adyar seances that the Society for Psychical Research sent Richard Hodgson to investigate in 1883. When he reported back that her spirits were conjured from bedsheets, mirrors and the like, Blavatsky was discredited. In 1885 she moved back to London, where she spent her remaining six years writing The Secret Doctrine, her spiritual masterpiece.


  3. John Swindle said,

    December 16, 2021 @ 3:09 am

    The source is mistaken in saying that Blavatsky moved the Theosophical Society’s headquarters to Adyar, India, in 1979. More like 1882, Blavatsky having arrived in India in 1878.

    [(myl) The cited date of 1979 is clearly a typo — probably the author's intent was 1879.]

  4. Stephen Goranson said,

    December 16, 2021 @ 12:14 pm

    Coincidentally (woo?) , I'm reading portions of the New Yale Book of Quotations, edited by Fred Shapiro.

    Madame Blavatsky appears with these words:

    {Theosophy] is the essence of all religion and of absolute truth, a drop of which only underlies every creed.
    [The Key to Theosophy, sec. 4 (1889).

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