Early history of the Theosophical Seal

Katinka Hesselink 2006, 2008

We are all familiar with the Theosophical Seal. Publications by the Theosophical Society Adyar and the ULT (United Lodges) usually have one somewhere. The TUP (Theosophical University Press, Theosophical Society Pasadena) has a temple and Quest Books (Theosophical Society in America) have a Q. These symbols are not my current subject. The issue is the TS seal itself. When did it originate? What influences are shown in it? When, where and how did the aum get added on top? I will be able to answer these questions only to a certain extent. More research is necessary.

From Theosophy Company reprints of Blavatsky publications like The Secret Doctrine and The Voice of the Silence, one would suspect that the aum was added after her death, although that proves to be not the case. These United Lodge books are all publications from the last years of her life, and Theosophy Company has a reputation for facsimile reproductions to uphold. Indeed, checking against early versions of those books, I found that, as far as the covers were concerned, they were faithful reproductions. So where did the aum come from? My research is limited to TS seals published before 1950 and specifically on theosophical publications that survive in the Amsterdam theosophical library. This means that English and Dutch publications far outnumber publications in other languages.

In this paper I will go into those questions as well as show you some of my favorite renditions of the TS seal. Also I have the time to go into my thoughts on the esoteric meaning of the seal, though only briefly. This research is pertinent to avoid mistakes like the one made by prof. Goodrick-Clarke who, in discussing The Secret Doctrine (1888), notes suggestively:

So extensive was her (Blavatsky's) use of this latter eastern sign of fortune and fertility (the swastika) that she included it in her design for the seal of the Theosophical Society. (1)

I will show that in fact the seal was in use from 1875 and has sported the swastika since the beginning. The only significant change made in the seal later on is the addition of the Aum on top.

When did the seal start being used?

Isis Unveiled has no such symbol in it or on it. That book was published in 1877 and the TS itself started November 1875. The Preamble and Bylaws of the Theosophical Society as published on October 30th, 1875, already have the TS seal on the flyer. That is as early as it gets.

the preamble and bylaws of the Theosophical Society

[reproduced in Jinarajadasa, p. 21 as well as The Theosophist, August 1931, p. 647 (see pages 657 and 689 for later usuage of this seal]

Where did the early Theosophists draw their inspiration from?

This interesting question always brings out speculation that there was definite Eastern influence involved. Given that each of the seal’s constituent symbols also has Western roots, Eastern influence is by no means proven. The date of the origin also rules out the necessity of Eastern influence. In order to get this seal approved by the Western esotericists that were the majority of the members at the time, the Western aspects of it would have to be stressed.

Where did the early Theosophists get their inspiration?

There are three places I have found similar designs. Firstly, and among theosophists the best known, is Blavatsky’s seal. According to Jinarajadasa, who did have access to the Adyar Archives, it was in use already in 1875. [2] Blavatsky's personal seal

Jinarajadasa’s testimony dates Blavatsky’s seal at approximately the same time as the TS seal. The copy of envelope and letter that Adele Algeo sent me is to F.J. Lippett. Since all letters to him are dated in The Letters of H.P. Blavatsky, Volume 1 to before August 1875, it can be said with reasonable certainty that Blavatsky’s seal is older than the seal of the Theosophical Society. This still leaves open to what extent Blavatsky’s seal itself shows earlier influences. [3]

There is a seal with remarkable likeness to the theosophical seal that is a few decades older than the TS seal and in a book that Blavatsky undoubtedly knew about. She referred to it often:

seal in Dogme et Rituel de la Haute Magic

Dogme et Rituel de la Haute Magic, by Eliphas Levi. The picture shown here is from a Dutch reprint. An online search shows that this picture is present in all kinds of translations of this book and still popular enough to be used online in various languages. This seal does not have the swastika in a circle that Blavatsky’s seal and the TS seal do have. It does have the star of David in an ouroboros (snake that bites its own tail). Also, with the star of David turned into two people, the personal aspect of the symbol is foreshadowed. In the TS seal, the Egyptian cross is used for that same symbolic purpose. Looking closely at this seal there is even a cross (not an Egyptian cross) at the center. The seal as pictured here has a more pronounced dualism.

From the research of Patrick Deveney it appears that the basis for this seal is the same as the basis for the TS-seal: a Masonic seal – to be precise the standard A&A and A&P lodge seals:

supposed freemasonry seal

Unfortunately this picture comes without references in his article in ‘ Keeping the Link Unbroken, Theosophical Studies Presented to Ted G. Davy on his Seventy-fifth Birthday ’. However standard it may be, I have not been able to find this online. This suggests that even if it is Masonic, it is likely to be fringe-masonry. The amount of people who would recognize her seal or the TS seal as masonicly inspired would then be a only a few dozen. Those few dozen might still be interesting as either sources or influential people who might be interested in theosophy, but it does become rather far-fetched to assume a significant connection there. [4]

In a private e-mail Brian Scanlon found a remarkable likeness to the Theosophical Seal though. It is Frontispiece engraving from Johann Michael Faust, Philalethes Illustratus, Frankfurt, 1706. ( online here ):

Closely matching original of Theosophical Seal This lovely picture raises as many questions as it answers. Adam McLean tells me in a private e-mail (3-18-08) that the book  Philalethes Illustratus is about alchemy. He adds: 

The ouroboros is a well know symbol in alchemy, as is the interwoven triangles. These were often brought together in alchemical emblems. There was a particular focus on this image in the early 18th century, through its use as an illustration in the influential 'Golden Chain of Homer', written or edited by Anton Josef Kirchweger, first issued at Frankfurt and Leipzig in four German editions in 1723, 1728, 1738 and 1757. A Latin version was issued at Frankfurt in 1762, and further German editions followed. In the late eighteenth century
Sigismund Bacstrom made a rather poor translation of the work into
English. Blavatsky was very interested in this work and apparently
wanted to write a commentary on it. Part of this was published in the
Theosophical Society Journal 'Lucifer' in 1891. The Rev W. A. Ayton, the alchemical enthusiast, and
contact of Blavatsky, used a variation of this image as a letterhead on his papers.

leaterhead Ayton

This is a copy of the letterhead of Rev W. A. Ayton which Adam McLean sent me. Ayton is mentioned in Blavatsky's diary in 1878 and 1879 (BCW I, p 410, 421 and II, p. 42). Note that where Blavatsky's seal has astrological connotations with for instance the sign of the Leo in the right-bottom corner, Ayton has an actual lion in exactly the same spot as well as a sun and moon. Adam McLean notes (3-18-08) that Ayton was a member of the Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor and his seal is similar to theirs. 

It's clear at this point that the Theosophical Seal has a western esoteric background. Seen through the Eliphas Levi seal the cross was turned into an Egyptian cross, which makes sense as an Egyptian source for the early theosophical adepts was hinted at in their name: the Brotherhood of Luxor (whether a connection with the Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor should be assumed is an open question of theosophical history [5] ). 

The circle on top with the swastika inside is present in Blavatsky’s seal. I have not been able to find any precursors to that. In this respect Blavatsky’s seal was clearly the example for the Theosophical Seal.

When did the aum come in?

Looking at old versions of The Secret Doctrine, The Key to Theosophy and the Theosophical Glossary, one does not usually find the seal of the Theosophical Society with an aum on top. This is quite reasonable, because the letters of the aum are in Devanagari, one of the writing systems used for Sanskrit. The rest of the symbol isn’t in any script, but consists of figurative symbols that can be deciphered with intuition alone. This has led me to the hypothesis that the seal is (excepting the aum on top) a form of Senzar. I can’t prove this assertion, but it does follow the line of John Algeo ’s paper on Senzar. He posits the hypothesis that Senzar is a figurative form of writing, developed for and by initiates. It is universal, because the shapes have intrinsic meaning. This is an interesting hypothesis, but my research hasn’t been able to add evidence other than what John Algeo has already put together.

Some of the seals without the aum:

The Key to Theosophy, by H.P. Blavatsky, second reprint 1890

The open mouth the serpent has in these and other Dutch versions of the seal was a trend started by the Theosophical artist J.L.M. Lauweriks on this cover for the first issue of Theosophia, the Dutch theosophical magazine in 1892. Notice the aum in white on top. (Jansen 1997, p. 57)

Secret Doctrine, third and revised edition, 1893

Five Years of Theosophy, second and revised edition 1894, reprinted 1910

Amsterdam 1907, 'De Geheime Leer' (translation of The Secret Doctrine)

's Gravenhage 1917, lodge pamphlet on 'Autocratie en Democratie' (The Hague)

Isis Unveiled, 1919 Point Loma edition

Ex Libris, Theosophical Library Amsterdam, early 20th century

Ex Libris Theosophical Library Amsterdam, early 20th century

Key to Theosophy, Covina California, 1946

And so on and so forth. These are usually quite charming and I’m personally biased towards not having an aum on the seal, for artistic reasons. The aum breaks up the circular feel to the design.

The aum

So when did the aum appear? For a long time during my research it seemed it appeared only in the beginning of the 20th century. From that one might conclude that Besant’s pro-Indian attitude might have had something to do with it. This impression is incorrect. The first appearance of the aum on top of the seal is in the Theosophist, volume VII, 1886. In 1886, according to the Boris de Zirkoff chronology in volume VII of the Collected Writings, Blavatsky is already working on The Secret Doctrine and the Coulomb troubles had escalated into the SPR case. Blavatsky has already moved to Europe at this time and is probably not greatly involved in the Theosophist. She had already been gone from India for more than a year by then. This might lead to the conclusion that this is an Olcott invention. That too would be a simplification: The curious thing is that, in the Theosophist, the aum was there first. From the journal’s inception in 1879 it has an aum on an inside cover and prominently in the top middle on the cover. In 1886 the theosophical seal is placed under it, on the inside cover. The aum and seal aren’t together as clearly as in later designs. They could as well be interpreted as simply two symbols placed on top of each other.

Examples of theosophical seals with an aum:

Paris, 1895; La Clef de la Theosophie. This is obviously an almost fascimile copy of the way the seal looks in the early Theosophist. 

1922 Some Observations on the Study of The Secret Doctrine of H.P. Blavatsky; Wadia, B.P. New York, Theosophical Association of New York (ULT publication? 1922 is the year Wadia joins the ULT and leaves TS Adyar)

The Messenger, Chicago 1925

1961 Psychologie en Theosofie; De Invloed van Jung en Krishnamurti op enkele theosofische leringen, Gover, D.G. Amsterdam Uitgeverij der Theos. Ver. Ned. Afd.

This leaves me to add only one more observation, before I come to the questions still open in this research. As you can see I have shown you three TS seals with the aum. This is no accident. In the period of my research the seal without an aum far outnumbers the seal with the aum, in the collection of the theosophical library in Amsterdam. Seals with aum were found mostly in theosophical magazines and on ULT publications. This may mean that the seal on Wadia’s booklet on the Secret Doctrine may in fact be an early ULT publication. There is absolutely no consistency in these seals. TS Adyar is a rather flexible organization, with no central governing on details such as the TS seal. This means that on every publication the decision had to be made anew whether to include the TS seal or not and if so, which rendition of it. Artists have been redrawing the TS seal for a century now and the aum became more prominent only slowly. Each theosophical publishing house probably had some sort of policy in this matter, but I haven’t been able to discern what this policy may have been.

theosophist seal in 1917 and later. For instance, while the Theosophist had an aum since 1886, it only got merged with the seal in 1917.

Besant and Jinarajasa were editors at the time.

The Theosophical World: scan of first page in 1939 seal in 'The Theosophical World' 1939

In 1939, when Arundale converted ‘The Adyar News’ into ‘The Theosophical World’ he chose a seal without either an aum, or ‘there is no religion higher than truth’.

This is evidence of the lack of consistency I was talking about. It also makes for more interesting research. Most English publications (books and pamphlets) in the first half of the 20th century don’t have the TS-seal at all. When they do, they don’t include the aum.

This leads me quite naturally to my conclusion and the open questions still left unanswered.

Conclusion

The theosophical seal with or without an aum was not dominant all through the 20th century or even in the 19th century theosophical publications. Though it has an early history, traced back to November 1875, it was never the sole symbol for the Theosophical Society or its publications. Many publications by theosophical publishing houses don’t have the TS seal at all.

The Aum was originally part of the Design of The Theosophist, though it’s rendition was not correct devanagari. In 1886 the TS seal was put below that aum. Slowly other publications followed suit. The first instance of this I could find was a French edition of Blavatsky’s Key to Theosophy published in 1896. By the end of the period I studied the aum was still not always included when the seal was included. More rigorous research would be necessary to find out when the aum did become an almost obligatory part of the TS-seal, as it is now. To be certain, one would also have to look at French, Spanish, Portugese, Hindi and various other languages as well. It seems to me likely that the aum became popular after world war II, to counter the Fascist associations the swastika had come to have in most people’s minds from the usuage of that symbol in Nazi Germany.

Call for help!

It would be very interesting to be able to elaborate this research with the following:

I would be very grateful to anybody who can send me originals or copies of the above. High quality scans would also be very welcome. Katinka Hesselink

Footnote

[1] Goodricke-Clarke, 1985, 1992, 2004, p. 20

[2] Jinarajadasa, p. 19 with the heading ‘H.P.B.'s Seal in 1875’ and The Theosophist, August 1931, p. 645 where a larger description is given. A copy of an early letter (undated) that Adele Algeo sent me confirms the description by Jinarajadasa.

[3] One might speculate that Blavatsky’s personal seal was related to her family seal. This is not true. An impression of Blavatsky’s family seal in the Wheaton Theosophical Library shows no resemblance to the Theosophical Seal and a lot of resemblance (though I did not get a close look) to a pen drawing published in The Theosophist August 1931, p. 636 that is tentatively identified with her family coats-of-arms. Mary K. Neff (1967 (1937), p.283) reproduces this picture with the simple statement ‘H.P.B.’s coat of arms (countess)’.

[4] This would have to be looked up in the Kenneth Mackenzie’s The Royal Masonic Cyclopaedia that Blavatsky referred to rather often. See the Blavatsky Collected Writings , Volume 1, p. 307-312 for Blavatsky referencing this book as a Masonic source and defending her own Masonic diploma as authentic in 1878. If this seal is in there, the possible audience for recognising her own seal and the TS seal as masonic does grow to an interesting audience for her work.

[5] C. Jinarajadasa says about the Brotherhood of Luxor versus the Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor (in Letters from the Masters of Wisdom: second series, Transcribed and Annotated by C. Jinarajadasa, with a foreword by Annie Besant, 1977 (1925), p. 9, 10):

The Brotherhood of Luxor which was directing H. P. B. and H. S. O. must be distinguished from “The Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor” This was a spurious organisation started somewhere about 1883. The papers about it in the Adyar records show that its principal agent in U. S. A. was a certain “M. Theon, Grand Master pro tem. of the Exterior Circle”. This person’s real name was Peter Davidson, who, in the secret instructions issued, signs himself “Provincial Grand Master of the Northern Section”. The originator of this “H. B. of L.” seems to have been a Hindu, Hurrychund Chintamon, at least one of the records says so. Whether this was the Hurrychund Chintamon of Bombay, who was in correspondence with the Founders in 1875, and who quarrelled with them and with the Arya Samaj over funds sent by the T.S. to the Arya Samaj, I have no means of ascertaining. He seems to have had as fellow-workers Davidson and a certain D’Alton, alias T. H. Burgoyne. Burgoyne seems to have passed under several aliases and was sentenced in 1883 to prison for swindling under the name of Thomas Henry Dalton. Davidson, who was at the time in England, seems to have returned to America. It is not easy to under stand how Thos. M. Johnson, the well-known writer and publisher of The Platonist, of Osceola, Mo., U.S.A., was brought into this quack organization. Writing in 1886 Mr. Johnson, in a letter now among the records concerning “H. B. of L.,” adds to his signature an inscription showing him to be the President of the American Central Committee of the “H. B. of L.” In 1875 when H.P.B. tried to found the Theosophical Movement, she had a definite seal, symbolical of the Brotherhood of Luxor, printer on her note-paper. This seal of hers was imitated with modifications by Davidson for use of the “H. B of L.” From some of the secret instructions, now among the records, of this organization, which Colonel Olcott rightly calls a “gudgeontrap,” it is evident that its “occult”’ teaching was distinctly allied to the questionable practices of the darker Tantric cult of India.

Sources and references

Algeo, John. Senzar: The Mystery of the Mystery Language. London: Theosophical History Centre. 1988.

Autocratie en Democratie, 's Gravenhage 1917, lodge pamphlet (The Hague)

Blavatsky, H.P.; The Key to Theosophy, second reprint 1890

Blavatsky, H.P.; Secret Doctrine, third and revised edition, 1893

Blavatsky, H.P. La Clef de la Theosophie, Paris, 1895

Blavatsky, H.P.; De Geheime Leer, (translation of The Secret Doctrine) Amsterdam 1907

Blavatsky, H.P.; Isis Unveiled, 1919, Point Loma edition

Blavatsky, H.P.; Key to Theosophy, Covina California, 1946

Blavatsky, H.P.; H.P. Blavatsky Collected Writings, The Letters of H.P. Blavatsky, Volume 1, edited by John Algeo et al. Wheaton, Illinois, 2003.

Deveney, John Patrick; Ozymandias: Why Do We Do What We Do?, Some Ruminations on Theosophical History, Curiosity, Diligence and the Desire to Penetrate the Veil and Find the Inside of History; or, An Attempt to Explain the Feeling that The Truth Is Out There and Lies in the Details, in Keeping the Link Unbroken, Theosophical Studies Presented to Ted G. Davy on His Seventy-fifth Birthday, edited by Michael Gomes, TRM 2004

Five Years of Theosophy, second and revised edition 1894, reprinted 1910

Goodrick-Clarke, 'The Occult Roots of Nazism', London, New York 1985, 1992, 2004, p. 20

Gover, D.G.; Psychologie en Theosofie; De Invloed van Jung en Krishnamurti op enkele theosofische leringen, Amsterdam Uitgeverij der Theos. Ver. Ned. Afd., 1961

Jansen, Ruud; ‘…een kern van broederschap… 100 jaar Theosofische Vereniging’, Amsterdam 1997

Jinarajadasa, The Golden Book of the Theosophical Society, 1975-1925, Adyar, Madras, India, Theosophical Publishing House, 1925

Jinarajadasa, C., ed, Letters from the Masters of Wisdom: second series, 1977 (1925)

Levi, E. the Dutch translation of his book Dogme et Rituel de la Haute Magie: Leer en Ritueel der Hoogere Magie; Levi, Eliphas, Amsterdam, Celebesstraat 65, Theosofische Uitgeverszaak "Gnosis", 1856, [date of Dutch reprint unknown] Checked against an 1861 French edition which has this seal opposite the titlepage in the first volume: Dogme et rituel de la haute magie, par Éliphas Lévi, Deuxiéme édition très augmentée, avec 24 figures.

Neff, Mary K. Personal Memoirs of H.P. Blavatsky, Quest Book paperback edition 1967 (original edition 1937)

Theosophist, volume I through XXXVIII, Reprinted and bound editions in Amsterdam Theosophical Library.

Specifically: Theosophist, August 1931 H.P. Blavatsky Centenary Number for reprints of Blavatsky’s Seal and the earliest TS Seal.

Wadia, B.P. Some Observations on the Study of The Secret Doctrine of H.P. Blavatsky; New York, Theosophical Association of New York, 1922 (ULT publication? 1922 is the year Wadia joins the ULT and leaves TS Adyar)

On the internet

http://www.alchemywebsite.com/amclglr8.html Alchemical and hermetic emblems 141-160, checked March 17th 2008