The Astral Tramp, A biography of Sepharial (review)

Katinka Hesselink, 2003

Kim Farnell has written a book that pulls one of the early theosophists and co-workers of H.P. Blavatsky out of the shadows. The name Sepharial will hardly ring a bell with many theosophists. This was the name he used in astrological circles, where the use of a pseudonym was accepted practice. In theosophical circles Sepharial was known as Walter Old (which was his birth name).

This review mostly centres on his involvement with theosophy and the Theosophical Society. He started corresponding with H.P. Blavatsky in 1887, joined the Blavatsky Lodge and the Inner Group and became a frequent speaker at lodge meetings in London and Birmingham. It was Blavatsky who gave him the nickname of Astral Tramp, from which the title of the book stems. His list of activities in theosophical circles goes on and on. He was Editor of the Vahan, general secretary of the British Section, leading a study group in White Chapel etc. When H.P. Blavatsky died, he was the one holding her hand. After her death he did not waver in his devotion to theosophy. He founded new lodges, attended meetings where he could and lectured in each of them, aside from continuing many of the activities I mentioned before this.

So why is his name not better known in theosophical circles? The answer is pretty simple. Walter Old was involved in the Judge Case, the row which eventually led to the splitting of the Theosophical Movement into various organisations. It was in fact the material Walter Old brought with him on his trip to Adyar that convinced Colonel Olcott that W.Q. Judge was not in fact sending through messages from the Masters, but was only pretending to do so. For all those interested in this argument, this book gives the side of the person who brought it out into the open. In theosophical circles the side of Judge has generally been taken as the true one, probably to a large extent because he has been defended by his followers a lot more vehemently than Olcott and Annie Besant have been.

After reading this book, it seems to me that Olcott and Annie Besant were in a very tight fix. On the one hand they (and Walter Old) had vowed not to slander anybody who was a member of the Esoteric Section. This made Judge in effect inapproachable. Weirdly enough this aspect of the situation has hardly been stressed, though it was probably the reason Walter Old was expelled from the Esoteric Section. On the other hand, Judge was in a position of leadership, both in the Theosophical Society in the USA, as well as in the Esoteric Section. Besant and Judge were co-heads of this organisation. If such a position of authority is misused, other leaders are usually thought to have the responsibility of doing something about it. So they did. In the end Judge got off on a technicality. What would have happened next, if Walter Old hadn't intervened, is something history doesn't say. Walter, clearly unhappy about the result, made the documents public, that had convinced Colonel Olcott, by sending them to a newspaper. Walter Old became very unpopular and eventually resigned from the Theosophical Society.

After this he continued to be an active astrologer and had quite an interesting life, reading about which will help one understand esoteric history in the first half of the twentieth century a lot better.

The Astral Tramp, a biography of Sepharial, by Kim Farnell, Published by Acella Publications, 1998. ISBN 1-898503-88-5

The book is available by ordering it from the author: