But there were others he had known merely by reputation or not at all—the Pnakotic Manuscripts, the Book of Dzyan, and a crumbling volume in wholly unidentifiable characters yet with certain symbols and diagrams shudderingly recognisable to the occult student.
—H. P. Lovecraft, “The Haunter of the Dark” (written 1935)
I learned of the city Shamballah, built by the Lemurians fifty million years ago, yet inviolate still behind its walls of psychic force in the eastern desert. I learned of the Book of Dzyan, whose first six chapters antedate the earth, and which was old when the lords of Venus came through space in their ships to civilise our planet.
—H. P. Lovecraft & William Lumley, “The Diary of Alonzo Typer” (written 1935)
As with The Witch-Cult in Western Europe (1921) by Margaret A. Murray, the Book of Dzyan did not originate in the creative mind of H. P. Lovecraft. Its literary genesis began in the theosophical writings of Helena Blavatsky…and to understand the Book of Dzyan properly requires a knowledge of the founding and development of Theosophy, from the 1870s though its discovery by Lovecraft and his contemporaries at Weird Tales in the 1920s and 30s. Because of the sometimes deliberate myth-making and contradictory claims made by some of the personalities involved, sorting fact from fiction can be a little difficult, but sheds some valuable light on the influence of one of the great occult and spiritual developments of the late 19th and early 20th century on the Weird Tales circle.
Helena Petrovna Blavatsky arrived in New York in 1873. At forty-two years old, she was already working as a medium and an occultist in Russia and Europe; now in America, she became involved in Spiritualism, wrote articles and established herself as a medium. In 1875 she claimed to have to have made contact with a group of Egypt-based mystic named the Brotherhood of Luxor, and convinced an associate Henry Steel Olcott to take out an advertisement in the Spiritual Scientist citing their names. Having done so, she convinced Olcott to create the “Miracle Club,” a short-lived organization devoted to psychical research. Olcott began to receive letters from the “Brotherhood of Luxor,” and William Quan Judge became attracted to the meetings being held in Blavatsky’s parlor, and the idea was started to create a society for occult research. Thus the Miracle Club transitioned into the Theosophical Society.
“And while there are those,” the mad Arab had written, “who have dared to seek glimpses beyond the Veil, and to accept HIM as a Guide, they would have been more prudent had they avoided commerce with HIM; for it is written in the Book of Thoth how terrific is the price of a single glimpse.[”]
—H. P. Lovecraft & E. Hoffmann Price, “Through the Gates of the Silver Key” (written 1932-33)
In 1875, Blavatsky began work on the book that would become Isis Unveiled. The title is an allusion to the Veil of Isis, promising the revelation of secrets. At this time, the Theosophical Society did not have a firm philosophical or magical framework, beyond Spiritualism that had begun to explore Western occultism. Blavatsky’s book would begin to rectify that situation; a mash-up of science, religion, mythology, and occultism which suggests two essential points: that neither contemporary science or religion know the truth of existence, and that there exists a unifying tradition of ancient wisdom represented by occultism. This was long years before Sir James George Frazer’s The Golden Bought: A Study in Comparative Religion (1890), and the mix of science, occult history, and comparative religion displays an outward modicum of erudition, learnedly quoting from diverse sources in different languages.
Erudition can be faked, however, and accounts of the book’s writing are muddled. Blavatsky was not a native English speaker, seems not to have had access to many of the worked cited; Alexander Wilder is credited with silently editing the book’s prose, and many of the primary sources were copied from secondary sources—a practice Lovecraft himself would follow in, for example, the invocation in “The Horror at Red Hook” copied from the Encyclopedia Britannica. Isis Unveiled also mentions the Brotherhood of Luxor (vol. 2, ch. 7), and gives them a Rosicrucian origin; the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn (founded 1887) would similarly draw on the idea of being descended from, or tied to, an existing occult group to establish its pedigree.
In later years, Blavatsky and her followers would claim Isis Unveiled or parts of it were dictated to her, making this a revealed work like “The Book of the Forgotten Ones” (1977) by Nema Andahadna, but in the text itself she begins:
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 Siphra Dzeniouta — was compiled from it, and that at a time when the former was already considered in the light of a literary relic.
—H. P. Blavatsky, Isis Unveiled, vol. 1, ch. 1
Not much else on this “old Book” is written, nor are such pseudobiblia limited to Lovecraftian fiction; the Western esoteric tradition is replete with mythical or fictional volumes such as the Book of Thoth or spuriously attributed to legendary figures such as the Sixth and Seventh Books of Moses. In Vajrayana and Tibetan Buddhism and Bön, there is also a tradition of terma, where esoteric teachings may be hidden or concealed in texts that are only discovered later in a system of continuous revelation. So Blavatsky’s Isis Unveiled, which focuses strongly on the errors of Judeo-Christian religion and the comparable merits of Buddhism, was drawing from very different traditions of occult and esoteric literature…and almost assuredly also from the novels of Edward Bulwer-Lytton such as Zanoni (1842) and Vril: The Power of the Coming Race (1871). Much as Lovecraft was to influence contemporary occultism in works like Necronomicon Gnosis: A Practical Introduction (2007) by Asenath Mason, so did earlier forebears draw inspiration from fiction.
When Isis Unveiled was finally published in 1877, it was not the complete system of Theosophy; it was a precursor to ideas that would be more fully developed in her later books. Blavatsky’s habit of not citing the secondary sources she was quoting the primary sources from also eventually brought accusations of plagiarism, most notably from William Emmett Coleman, but it also provided the impetus for her relocation to India, where the Theosophical Society, which had almost sputtered out, could be reincarnated as a viable organization.
Blavatsky and Olcott moved to India in 1879. There she met Alfred Percy Sinnett, who would condense and popularize her ideas in a book titled Esoteric Buddhism (1883). During these years the Theosophical Society grew. Following the Masonic model, individual “lodges” had been formed in different localities by members. Once in London in 1885 she established her Blavatsky Lodge; and in 1888 she established the “Esoteric Section,” an inner circle within the society; and the Theosophical Publishing Company. It was this imprint which would publish her massive masterwork, The Secret Doctrine (1888/1889). This treatise purports to be “Stanzas Translated with Commentaries from the Secret Book of Dzyan.”
It is more than probable that the book will be regarded by a large section of the public as a romance of the wildest kind; for who has ever even heard of the book of Dzyan?
—H. P. Blavatsky, The Secret Doctrine vol. 1, preface
Like Isis Unveiled, The Secret Doctrine was claimed to draw from an ancient, apocryphal text that Blavatsky had revealed to her by her supposed masters—now “The Great White Brotherhood” or mahatmas—in India and Tibet. Indeed, Blavatsky informs the readers that that book first mentioned in Isis Unveiled is the very same as the Book of Dzyan:
The “very old Book” is the original work from which the many volumes of Kiu-ti were compiled. Not only this latter and the Siphrah Dzeniouta but even the Sepher Jezirah,* the work attributed by the Hebrew Kabalists to their Patriarch Abraham (!), the book of Shu-king, China’s primitive Bible, the sacred volumes of the Egyptian Thoth-Hermes, the Puranas in India, and the Chaldean Book of Numbers and the Pentateuch itself, are all derived from that one small parent volume. Tradition says, that it was taken down in Senzar, the secret sacerdotal tongue, from the words of the Divine Beings, who dictated it to the sons of Light, in Central Asia, at the very beginning of the 5th (our) race; for there was a time when its language (the Sen-zar) was known to the Initiates of every nation, when the forefathers of the Toltec understood it as easily as the inhabitants of the lost Atlantis, who inherited it, in their turn, from the sages of the 3rd Race, the Manushis, who learnt it direct from the Devas of the 2nd and 1st Races. The “illustration” spoken of in “Isis” relates to the evolution of these Races and of our 4th and 5th Race Humanity in the Vaivasvata Manvantara or “Round”; each Round being composed of the Yugas of the seven periods of Humanity; four of which are now passed in our life cycle, the middle point of the 5th being nearly reached. The illustration is symbolical, as every one can well understand, and covers the ground from the beginning. The old book, having described Cosmic Evolution and explained the origin of everything on earth, including physical man, after giving the true history of the races from the First down to the Fifth (our) race, goes no further. It stops short at the beginning of the Kali Yuga just 4989 years ago at the death of Krishna, the bright “Sun-god,” the once living hero and reformer.
—H. P. Blavatsky, The Secret Doctrine vol. 1, introduction
If Isis Unveiled is the start of Theosophy, The Secret Doctrine is the formal codification of it—a grand cosmogenic saga of revelations, the cycles of the ages, the incarnations of humanity and root races, all couched in a language which is half-derived from Buddhism and Hinduism, occult terminology, Spiritualism, and even a bit of contemporary science.
In 1889, Annie Besant would review The Secret Doctrine, conduct an interview with Blavatsky, and become a convert to Theosophy; Besant would swiftly rise through the ranks and became the President of the Theosophical Society. Blavatsky would continue to write and publish, including The Key to Theosophy and The Voice of Silence in 1889. The Voice of Silence is:
The following pages are derived from “The Book of the Golden Precepts,” one of the works put into the hands of mystic students in the East. […] The work from which I here translate forms part of the same series as that from which the “Stanzas” of the Book of Dzyan were taken, on which the Secret Doctrine is based.
—H. P. Blavatsky, The Voice of Silence, preface
Helena Blavatsky would die of influenza in 1891. The Theosophical Society would continue to print and re-print her work—and many individual theosophists would expand upon or elaborate the mythology that Blavatsky created. Notable for our purposes is William Scott-Elliot, who in silent collaboration with Charles Webster Leadbeater produced two volumes expanding on Blavatsky’s occult history of the root-races: The Story of Atlantis (1896) and The Lost Lemuria (1904); these would be reprinted in a combined edition The Story of Atlantis & The Lost Lemuria (1925). Scott-Elliot quotes from “The Book of Dzyan” a handful of times; these are taken from the “Stanzas of Dzyan” in The Secret Doctrine.
In the United States, Alice Bailey joined the Theosophical Society in 1917. Like Besant, she began to climb the ranks, and her initial theosophical writings were well-regarded; but in 1921/1922 a dispute with Besant led to Bailey’s expulsion from the Society. Undeterred, Bailey formed her own organization and continued writing. Her book A Treatise on Cosmic Fire (1925) contains 13 additional “Stanzas of Dzyan” with Bailey’s commentaries on the same. If readers need an analogy, Alice Bailey was to H. P. Blavatsky what August Derleth was to H. P. Lovecraft.
Lovecraft had obviously heard of the The Book of Dzyan by at least 1935 when he wrote “The Haunter in the Dark” and co-wrote “The Diary of Alonzo Typer.” In other stories and writing he shows at least a basic awareness of the existence of Theosophy and some of its ideas:
At this time a wave of interest in spiritualistic charlatanry, mediumism, Hindoo theosophy, and such matters, much like that of the present day, was flourishing; so that the number of weird tales with a “psychic” or pseudo-scientific basis became very considerable.
—H. P. Lovecraft, Supernatural Horror in Literature (written 1925-1927)
Theosophists have guessed at the awesome grandeur of the cosmic cycle wherein our world and human race form transient incidents. They have hinted at strange survivals in terms which would freeze the blood if not masked by a bland optimism. But it is not from them that there came the single glimpse of forbidden aeons which chills me when I think of it and maddens me when I dream of it.
—H. P. Lovecraft, “The Call of Cthulhu” (written 1926)
A smattering of theosophical lore, and a fondness for the speculations of such writers as Colonel Churchward and Lewis Spence concerning lost continents and primal forgotten civilisations, made Reynolds especially alert toward any aeonian relic like the unknown mummy.
—H. P. Lovecraft & Hazel Heald, “Out of the Aeons” (written 1933)
A few of the myths had significant connexions with other cloudy legends of the pre-human world, especially those Hindoo tales involving stupefying gulfs of time and forming part of the lore of modern theosophists.
—H. P. Lovecraft, “The Shadow out of Time” (written 1935)
The questions start to multiply: Where did Lovecraft learn about the Book of Dzyan? How much did he know or read about Theosophy? How did Helena Blavatsky and her associates influence H. P. Lovecraft and his contemporaries? How did Theosophy influence the Cthulhu Mythos?
It should be stated at the outset that the Mythos as a whole was always more than just H. P. Lovecraft. In creating his artificial mythology, he borrowed elements from writers like Robert E. Howard (Nameless Cults, Bran Mak Morn, etc.), Clark Ashton Smith (The Book of Eibon, Tsathoggua, etc.), and others, and they in turn borrowed from him. In the 1920s and 30s when Lovecraft & co. were in contact with one another, each of them had different opportunities to come into contact with Theosophy and its ideas, and each author used those ideas in their fiction in their own ways. Lemuria and Atlantis, for example, form common elements in the fiction of Howard, Lovecraft, and Smith; but while these all draw some inspiration from the theosophical versions of these legendary lands, they aren’t necessarily deliberately working to make them match Theosophy. They were weird talers writing their own fiction with their own settings; informed by Theosophy, but not trying to write expansions of the Blavatsky mythos.
I’ve also been digesting something of vast interest as background or source material—which has belatedly introduced me to a cycle of myth with which I have reason to believe you are particularly familiar—i.e., the Atlantis-Lemuria tales, as developed by modern occultists & the sophical charlatans. Really, some of these hints about the lost “City of the of the Golden Gates” & the shapeless monsters of archaic Lemuria are ineffably pregnant with fantastic suggestion; & I only wish I could get hold of more of the stuff. What I have read is The Story of Atlantis & the Lost Lemuria, by W. Scott-Elliot.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Clark Ashton Smith, 17 Jun 1926, Dawnward Spire, Lonely Hill 106
From existing accounts, Lovecraft’s first brush with actual Theosophy was W. Scott-Elliot’s book, and in “The Call of Cthulhu” the only theosophical text cited is “W. Scott-Elliot’s Atlantis and the Lost Lemuria).” Robert E. Howard came across his first information from somewhere else, possibly the Oriental Library Clinic, a journal with some theosophical items:
About Atlantis — I believe something of the sort existed, though I do not especially hold any theory about a high type of civilization existing there — in fact, I doubt that. But some continent was submerged away back, or some large body of land, for practically all peoples have legends about a flood. And the Cro Magnons appeared suddenly in Europe, developed to a high stage of primitive culture; there is no trace to show that they came up the ladder of utter barbarism in Europe. Suddenly their remains are found supplanting the Neanderthal Men, to whom they have no ties of kinship whatever. Where did they originate? Nowhere in the known world, evidently. They must have originated and developed through the different basic stages of evolution in some land which is not now known to us. The occultists say that we are the fifth — I believe — great sub-race. Two unknown and unnamed races came, then the Lemurians, then the Atlanteans, then we. They say the Atlanteans were highly developed. I doubt it. I think they were simply the ancestors of the Cro Magnon men, who by some chance, escaped the fate which overtook the rest of the tribes. All my views on the matter I included in a long letter to the editor to whom I sold a tale entitled “The Shadow Kingdom,” which I expect will be published as a foreword to that story — if ever. This tale I wove about a mythical antediluvian empire, a contemporary of Atlantis.
— Robert E. Howard to Harold Preece, 20 Oct 1928, Collected Letters of Robert E. Howard 1.237
Clark Ashton Smith came at it from still a third way, possibly Sinnett’s Esoteric Buddhism:
It is good to know that you liked this last story. As to that problem of transmission—well, it seems to me that the author has to be omniscient or nothing: though one might get the story out of the “astral records” (preserved somewhere in the ether, and accessible to adepts) which are mentioned in the literature of esoteric Buddhism! The tradition of Hyperborea, Mu and Atlantis were supposedly preserved in these records! […] I have never seen The Riddle of the Pacific, nor the book by Scott-Elliot either, and must find out if they are locally procurable.
— Clark Ashton Smith to H. P. Lovecraft, 17 Nov 1930, Dawnward Spire, Lonely Hill 271-272
Lovecraft & co. do not seem to have deliberately sought out any additional theosophical lore for a while. However, in the intervening period they became friends and correspondents with another weird taler, E. Hoffmann Price—the only man to actually meet all three of them, an ex-army officer and astrologer with a taste for Persian carpets, wine, and occultism. In 1932, Lovecraft visited New Orleans; he was not then in contact with Price, but their mutual friend Robert E. Howard managed to get them in touch with one another. The two men became immediate friends, and even began a collaborative story, a sequel to Lovecraft’s “The Silver Key.” Later on, Lovecraft would write:
By the way—Price has dug up another cycle of actual folklore involving an allegedly primordial thing called “The Book of Dyzan”, [sic] which is supposed to contain all sorts of secrets of the Elder World before the sinking of Kusha (Atlantis) and Shâlmali (Lemuria). It is kept at the Holy City of Shamballah, & is regarded as the oldest book in the world—its language being Senzar (ancestor of Sanscrit), which was brought to earth 18,000,000 years ago by the Lords of Venus. I don’t know where E. Hoffmann got hold of this stuff, but it sounds damn good. I shall ask him to spill particulars to you and me—though you may have met this cycle before. It reminds me of the Scott-Elliot stuff connected with theosophy.
— H. P. Lovecraft to Clark Ashton Smith, c.10 Feb 1933, Dawnward Spire, Lonely Hill 404
What you say of your new tale, and of the Pushkara-Plaksha-Kusha-Shâlmali-Mt. Wern-Senzar-Dzyan-Shamballah myth-cycle which you have dug up, interests me to fever heat; and I am tempted to overwhelm you with questions as to the source, provenance, general bearings, and bibliography of all this unknown legendry. Where did you find it? How can one get hold of it? What nation or region developed it? Why isn’t it mentioned in ordinary works on comparative folklore? What—if any—special cult (like the theosophist, who have concocted a picturesque tradition of Atlanteo-Lemurian elder world stuff, well summarised in a book by W. Scott-Elliott) cherishes it? For gawd’s sake, yes—send along those notes, and I’m sure that Klarkash-Ton, High-Priest of Tsathoggua, would (unless he knows about the cycle in question, appreciate them as keenly as I. […] Meanwhile, as I said before, I’m quite on edge about that Dzyan-Shamballah stuff. The cosmic scope of it—Lords of Venus, and all that—sounds so especially and emphatically in my line!
— HPL to E. Hoffmann Price, 15 Feb 1933, Selected Letters 4.153
Price duly copied out a load of quotes from several theosophical books, which he sent to Lovecraft. The notes themselves are not known to survive, but in a later letter, Price describes some of the materials her had transmitted to Lovecraft:
Get Annie Besant’s THE PEDIGREE OF MAN. The copy I studied is borrowed, else I would gladly lend it. It came from Theosophic Book Corporation, Fine Arts Bldg., Chicago, and is dated (with owner’s signature) Nov. 1910. Published by Theosophical Publishing Society, Theosophist Office, Adyar, Madras, s. 1908. Price, 1 rupee.
Printed by Freeman & Co., Ltd., Tara Printing Works, Benares.
145 pages of text, charts, tables, diagrams: and a mine of occult lore in condensed, terrifically condensed form. Maybe THE OCCULT SOCIETY, 604 Locust St., Phila. Pa. might be able to get it, although their catalog does not list it.
The quotations I sent you are from Leadbeater’s INNER LIFE, page 105, under “symbology”. Each quotation is the germ of a novelette in my deft hands!
The job I finished last night is based on some of the note I sent you. Help yourself there’s enough for all.
W. Scott-Elliot’s book has not passed through my hands. I got mine from the sources: Blavatsky’s Secret Doctrine, 1st edition, with excerpts from the Book of Dzyan.
It is hard reading, some of it—but it’s right up your alley. It takes guts to wade through it, unless you have a taste for it; and you have. However, that remains to be seen. Try it and see.
Read, use, copy—and if you please, send on to Klark-Ashton, with request to use, then forward to Barlow. You see, I promised Barlow a piece de resistance: the whole works of a 1st draft, from plot germ–research–prelimary [sic] scribblings–all the dirt & crap of composition. I will do so, and therefore ask you to pass these 4 pages to Smith with this request, so that Barlow will get a real gem, even though not all handwritten.
— E. Hoffmann Price to H. P. Lovecraft, 18 Feb 1933, MSS. John Hay Library
Lovecraft appears to have duly copied the notes and sent them on to various correspondents.
As you have probably recognised, that mystic primal dope from Price (notes of which I’ll send you soon) was conventional theosophical stuff (Besant, Leadbeater, &c) after all. Do you know anything about the real source of this? Does it have any real Oriental source, or is it just a synthetic concoction of the theosophists? I’ve read almost nothing in that line.
— H. P. Lovecraft to Clark Ashton Smith, 21 Feb 1933, Dawnward Spire, Lonely Hill 406
By the way—it turns out that Price’s mystical legendry was, after all, only the stuff promulgated by the theosophists—Besant, Leadbeater, &c. I thought it sounded like that. Do you know anything of the origin of that stuff? It pretends to be real folklore—at least in part (of India, I suppose)—but I have a certain sneaking suspicion that the theosophists themselves have interpolated a lot of dope. There are things which suggest a knowledge of certain 19th century conceptions.
— H. P. Lovecraft to August Derleth, c.27 Feb 1933, Essential Solitude 2.547-548
Lovecraft’s inquiries as to the source of all this material, which was ultimately the Book of Dzyan that Blavatsky had claimed as the ultimate source for so much of her work, would turn up empty:
The Book of Dyzan [sic] is new to me—I haven’t read any great amount of theosophical literature. I’d be vastly interested in any dope you or Price can pass on to me. Theosophy, as far as I can gather, is a version of esoteric Yoga prepared for western consumption, so I dare say its legendry must have some sort of basis in ancient Oriental records. One can disregard the theosophy, and make good use of the stuff about elder continents, etc. I got my own ideas about Hyperborea, Poseidonis, etc., from such sources, and then turned my imagination loose.
— Clark Ashton Smith to H. P. Lovecraft, 1 Mar 1933, Dawnward Spire, Lonely Hill 408
The same can no doubt be said of Robert E. Howard, whose versions of Atlantis and Lemuria are different from, but complementary, to Clark Ashton Smith’s. For his part, Lovecraft and Price continued to correspond on the subject.
By this time you’ll have received the forwarded matter from Price to be sent to Barlow. I am very curious about this holy city of Shamballah, said to exist unimpaired somewhere in the Gobi; though built by the Lemurians or 3d root race several million years ago. It is here that the Book of Dzyan— parts of which are older than the earth—is kept. Shamballah would make a splendid fictional theme. I wonder if any theosophists or Hindoos pretend to have visited it? As you say, the theosophic myth-cycle is probably based on ancient Indian lore with certain 19th century accessions. Price mentions A. P. Sinnett’s “Esoteric Buddhism”, Besant’s “Pedigree of Man”, Leadbeater’s “Inner Life”, & Blavatsky’s “Secret Doctrine” in his bibliography (I’ve read none of these)—to which might be added Scott-Elliot’s “Atlantis & the Lost Lemuria”, which I read some years ago. I think I must do some research along this line when I get the time. I found Scott-Elliot quite an imaginative stimulus. […]
P.S. Just heard from Price. He says that according to theosophists, Shamballah keeps itself from invasion through adverse thought-waves which deflect all attempts to reach it—producing bad weather, apparent accidents, &c.
— H. P. Lovecraft to Clark Ashton Smith, 15 Mar 1933, Dawnward Spire, Lonely Hill 410, 411
This is what Lovecraft was referring to in “The Diary of Alonzo Typer” when he wrote of “Shamballah, built by the Lemurians fifty million years ago, yet inviolate still behind its walls of psychic force in the eastern desert.” Nor does it appear that Lovecraft ever delved much deeper into the fine points of Theosophy, despite assurances in his letters to friends that he should do. From all that Lovecraft was getting second- and third-hand, he’d already decided that pretty much all of Theosophy had to be a 19th century hoax—albeit a fun one:
Thanks exceedingly for the sidelights on the theosophical cycle. Sinnett must surely be a standard authority, since both you & the Peacock Sultan recommend him. This stuff is certainly worth looking up—the matter of the invisible planets being especially promising. As you say, there is probably a good bit of genuine tradition in the lore of theosophy. One thing we can say for the Hindoos is that their mythology shews a better grasp of the earth’s transience & insignificance in time & space than any other known to history & anthropology. I wonder how these legends of early things compare with what Col. Churchward claims of the Himalayan priests & their records in the primal Naacal language which tell of sunken Mu?
Obviously, these traditions are very old among the Hindoos; & it would be interesting to discover how they arose. Originally the Aryan creators of Brahmanism had a mythology of personified natural forces homologous to those of the Greeks & Romans, & of our Northern ancestors. Could the theosophical cycle have arisen out of these, or were its germs derived from the non-Aryan subject races of India? Since the Brahmans arrived in India about 2000 B.C., there was plenty of time for the crystallisation of a definite new myth-cycle before the earliest contacts with the Western World. It is not likely that any “Atlantis” ever existed. The evidences of geology & natural history are that no connexion betwixt various Atlantic islands has existed since the appearance of man on the planet. But of course there may well have been important pre-Aryan civilisations & legends in India. Indeed, we know there were pre-Aryan cities on the Indus river.
The notion of the “Akashic” records is indeed an unique one. But I don’t think there’s much ground for assuming any truth in these tales. To begin with, they assume an antiquity for mankind which is against all the indications of palaeontology & geology. As for the pineal gland—modern endocrinology has fairly well established its actual function in the human system . . . as a regulator of the chemical & biological changes attending adolescence & maturity. But surely the legends lose nothing in picturesqueness & imaginative value through being merely legends. […]
From something Price says, I take it that Blavatsky is the best “authority” anent the Book of Dzyan (not Dyzan, as I first carelessly transcribed it). Accounts of Holy Shamballah would seem to vary—but it’s great fictional stuff in any form!
— H. P. Lovecraft to Clark Ashton Smith, 24 Mar 1933, Dawnward Spire, Lonely Hill 411
The interesting part of this exchange is that Lovecraft appeared quite ready to incorporate some of this theosophical material into the nascent Mythos:
What you say of the theosophy cycle & of the special fictionally developable features interests me tremendously. I simply must look up Blavatsky, Besant, Leadbeater, Sinnett, &c. One could, as you say, derive a whole canon of tales from it. It seems to make my Yog-Sothoth stuff pallid by comparison! These Akashic records tickle my imagination. It is from them, of course, that the Book of Eibon & the Pnakotic Manuscripts were first devised!
— H. P. Lovecraft to Clark Ashton Smith, 8 Apr 1933, Dawnward Spire, Lonely Hill 414
Glad you duly received the Price notes with data on the theosophical myth-cycle. I copied a good deal of this, & took the names of the books from which Price dug up this dope. Beside the body of tradition, my own Cthulhu-Yog-Sothoth stuff sounds quite pallid & unconvincing! Much of this stuff undoubtedly represents actual beliefs current among the HIndoos, although a great deal has undoubtedly been added by the theosophists of the 19th century. Smith is following this research still further, & has unearthed a great deal of interesting data which Price does not include. It surely does form an admirable background for fantastic fiction.
— H. P. Lovecraft to R. H. Barlow, 9 Apr 1933, O Fortunate Floridian 60
The Lovecraft-Price collaboration went through a couple of drafts. The initial draft was written by Price, and was later published separately as “The Lord of Illusions” (MSS. John Hay Library). As was his habit, Lovecraft completely re-wrote the story in a handwritten draft (MSS. John Hay Library). Another draft of the story, probably typed by Price, is much expanded and includes several theosophical references (MSS. John Hay Library); a letter from Price to Lovecraft contains several notes on this or a related draft (MSS. John Hay Library), including more theosophical lore and even a lengthy quote from Blavatsky’s The Voice of Silence. Ultimately, the theosophical references were dropped from the final version of the story which appeared in the July 1934 issue of Weird Tales—with the main surviving remnant being, perhaps, the “Swami Chandraputra.”
By the summer of 1933, Lovecraft has absorbed about as much theosophical knowledge that he can confidently rattle off a list of titles to a correspondent:
Another cycle of impressive-sounding folklore or pseudo-folklore is that sponsored by the modern theosophists. Some of this is undoubtedly genuine Hindoo myth, but I suspect that the cult of theosophists has mixed with it a great deal of synthetic fakery of 19th century origin. The best books of this sort of thing to read are the following:
Besant, Annie—The Pedigree of Man
Blavatsky, Helena—The Secret Doctrine
Leadbeater—The Inner Life
Scott-Elliot, W.—Atlantis & the Lost Lemuria
Sinnett, A. P.—Esoteric Buddhism
More of this stuff can be found in the catalogues of the Occult Society, 604 Locust St., Philadelphia, Pa. Those theosophical mystifications involved vast gulfs of time & cycles of change—pre-human aeons & life coming from other planets—not found in other folklore.
— H. P. Lovecraft to Natalie H. Wooley, 18 Jul 1933, Letters to Robert Bloch & Others 190-191
There are a handful of other references to Theosophy and the Book of Dzyan in the letters of H. P. Lovecraft and his contemporaries, but they are few, far between, and show no greater knowledge of the theosophical texts than what Lovecraft already had in 1933. Near the end of his life, however, he finally managed to get access to one of the books he had heard about:
Thanks, by the way, for the loan of the Blavatsky opus—which I shall read with the most intense interest. I’ve never read any of the classics of theosophy, though I’ve always been meaning to. I wonder if anybody has ever tried to isolate the real Oriental folklore in them from the 19th century fakery & interpolations? I may have fumbled the allusion to the Book of Dzyan, since all I know about it is something in a letter of Price’s which spoke of the early parts as having been brought from an older solar system than ours. Of course the text ridiculed in the Necronomicon is the merest imitation!
— H. P. Lovecraft to Henry Kuttner, 30 Nov 1936, Letters to C. L. Moore & Others 257
This was probably The Secret Doctrine. However, at this point Lovecraft already dying, and it seems unlikely he managed to wade through its 1,500+ pages in the few months remaining to him. The last word on Price’s theosophical notes came over a decade after Lovecraft’s death:
I imagine that Lovecraft derived his information about Shamballah from E. Hoffmann Price, who in turn probably drew the data from Blavatsky or some other theosophical authority. I have some notes that Price gave me, in which Shamballah is mentioned:
“The word came from Shamballah, the Holy City, to destroy Atlantis 850,000 years ago, and overthrow the Lords of the Dark Face. The divine race of Aarab escaped the catastrophe, and in Al Yemen they reared the mighty Himyar palaces, with prodigious bulks, uncounted domes.”
S. is supposed to exist, invisible, somewhere in the Gobi desert. It was, I seem to remember, built by the lords of the Flame who came down from Venus. In it is kept the Book of Dzyan, older than the world.
— Clark Ashton Smith to Donald Wandrei, 27 Oct 1948, Selected Letters of Clark Ashton Smith 354-355
It plays like a telephone game. H. P. Blavatsky invents a fictional book for Isis Unveiled, fleshes it out in The Secret Doctrine and The Voice of Silence; other writers like W. Scott-Elliot and Alice Bailey write their own books expanding on it, and so the idea of the Book of Dzyan is carried to H. P. Lovecraft, who plops it into some of his final stories, and thus makes Theosophy and the Book of Dzyan an extension of the Cthulhu Mythos—which, to be fair, also already implicitly includes real-world works like the Christian Bible, Jewish Talmud, Islamic Koran, etc., but those books aren’t listed among the Mythos tomes in the library of the Church of the Starry Wisdom.
At least one friend tweaked his nose about how he presented the book in “The Haunter of the Dark”:
On that same page, I might suggest that while the Book of Dzyan could be used by a malignant cult, its connotation is quite the opposite. The original is supposed to be in Shamballah, where it was deposited by the children of the fire mist, when they came to earth 18 million years ago, from Venus.
— E. Hoffmann Price to H. P. Lovecraft, 3 Feb 1936, MSS. John Hay Library
Blavatsky always alleged that she was drawing from a real source; scholars have yet to identify any esoteric Buddhist work which matches the Stanzas of Dzyan, though not for lack of trying (see Blavatsky’s Secret Books). Looking at the history of her writing and development, the idea that the whole Book of Dzyan is essentially a fabrication, a close cousin of the Necronomicon, seems abundantly clear—but it becomes a matter of trust and faith. For those who believe in Theosophy, the Book of Dzyan may be as real and accurate as the Book of Mormon is to the Church of Latter Day Saints.
In the Mythos, however, it is mostly one tome among many. At least two dozen stories reference the Book of Dzyan, some only occupying space on a Mythos bookshelf (especially in the Call of Cthulhu Roleplaying Game), a few in greater detail. Ex Libris Miskatonici (1993) by Joan C. Stanley and Dan Harms in The Starry Wisdom Library (2014) give Blavatsky’s book rather more attention and respect, attempting to parse the difference between Theosophy’s cosmic vision and Lovecraft’s cosmic horror. Stanley makes no bones; she claims that this is completely separate from the Theosophical book of the same name. Harms’ version pays homage to Stanley’s, but hews closer to the source material, trying to thread the needle that would make the Book of Dzyan more realistic, and yet distinct from Blavatsky’s version.
The wider impact of Theosophy—and thus The Secret Doctrine‘s—influence on the Mythos and Lovecraftian literature is much wider but more nebulous. Lovecraft and his contemporaries didn’t replicate much of the inherent racism and antisemitism present in Blavatsky’s writing, but it’s difficult not to see the influence of those cycles of humanity in Robert E. Howard’s “Hyborian Age” essay, and by extension the tales of Kull, Conan, Bran Mak Morn, Solomon Kane, and Turlough Dubh O’Brien; in the Atlantis, Poseidonis, and Hyperborea cycles of Clark Ashton Smith; in “The Call of Cthulhu” and “The Shadow out of Time,” and however many stories that came after, drawing on or referencing those traditions…and other media besides. When the time comes to look up information on the Mythos in “The Collect Call of Cathulhu,” an episode of The Real Ghostbusters cartoon, Egon tells Ray to check the Book of Dzyan. (The Necronomicon Files 287)
Beyond even that…the Lovecraftian occult has a habit of seizing on any occult reference in the Mythos and weaving that thread into their own tapestry. Kenneth Grant considered Blavatsky’s Book of Dzyan and Lovecraft’s Necronomicon “akashic grimoires” (The Necronomicon Files 110).
Readers that want a version of The Book of Dzyan on their shelves could do worse than The Book of Dzyan: The Known Text, The Secret Doctrine, Additional Sources, A Life of Mme. Blavatsky (2000, Chaosium), part of the Call of Cthulhu Fiction series.
For the biographical details of Blavatsky’s life, this article largely relies on Madame Blavatsky: The Woman Behind the Myth (1980) by Marion Meade.
Thanks to Rick Lai for transcripts of E. Hoffmann Price’s letters.
Bobby Derie is the author of Weird Talers: Essays on Robert E. Howard & Others (2019) and Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos (2014).