In popular occulture, the Theosophical Society formed in 1875 has had a diffuse influence comparable to Modern Spiritualism. Scholars have long used Theosophical archives. Arthur Nethercot, for example, spent many weeks in the TS headquarters archives at Adyar, India, in writing his 2 volume biography of Annie Besant. (On September 30 and October 1st 2017, there is a London conference on Annie Besant research; for details please email me.) Greg Tillett, with the support of international TS president John Coats, similarly studied at Adyar the controversial Theosophical clairvoyant C.W. Leadbeater for “The Elder Brother” (1982). For Dr Tillett’s current work, see his blog.
Joy Dixon examined the archives of the Theosophical Society in England (TSE) for her groundbreaking “Divine Feminine; Theosophy and Feminism in England” (2001). These examples could be multiplied.
Institutional developments have also encouraged scholarship. The journal “Theosophical History”, founded in 1985, and its associated occasional papers have provided a focus, and the TSE has hosted a series of Theosophical History conferences in London , the latest in 2016. There is a natural interface with the Association for the Study of Esotericism, and with the European Society for the Study of Western Esotericism.
Nevertheless, there remain serious problems in gaining access to material. For some years, the Adyar archives have not provided a safe and dependable service even to Theosophists, but the location has now been cleared of chemicals, and a new purpose-built building is planned. The T.S. in America, based at Wheaton, in contrast provides an archival service of international quality. But the archives of the T.S. Pasadena, which include papers from the T.S. foundation in 1875, are currently closed because of staff shortage.
Whereas archives relating to the Golden Dawn are now mostly available, the esoteric school of the Adyar T.S. founded at the same time, gives no access to scholars.
To quote a 2013 new item from the journal “Theosophy Forward”:
“On Oct 21 2007, a fire near San Diego destroyed the stock, library and archives of Point Loma Publications. (Fortunately, much of the archives had already been copied by Alexandria West.) A year or two later, heavy rain came through the roof of a London library. It stopped one floor short of the bookcase containing Madame Blavatsky’s own copy of “Spiritual Scientist” with her handwritten comments about the medium D.D. Home. Less fortunate were the birth records of Dr Eric Dingwall (biographer of Home) which had already been eaten by termites in Ceylon. Meanwhile, peacefully hundreds of Theosophical pamphlets rested in lodge bookcases in five continents. In silence their modern paper began to disintegrate, and their staples rotted.”
In 2013, a “Friends of Theosophical Archives” was formed, not limited to any Theosophical body, to raise awareness of these problems and encourage solutions. Edited by Erica Georgiades in Greece, its newsletter has become indispensable reading for news of esoteric archives.
Digitisation is naturally having major impact on archives. The International Association for the Preservation of Spiritualist and Occult Periodicals, founded by Marc Demarest and his team, has already made available thousands of pages of relevant source material, including several hundred books. There is a useful Theosophy Wiki established by TS Wheaton, and utilising especially the papers of Boris De Zirkoff, editor of the Collected Writings edition of Madame Blavatsky.
Among facebook pages which regularly announce new archival finds, are those of the “Friends of Theosophical Archives” and of the” Theosophical Society in London.”
In 2014, Tim Boyd, who was already president of the TS in America, assumed office as international president of the Adyar-based Theosophical Society, and has pursued a more open policy, encouraging scholars. It is fitting that the Popular Occulture project was announced at the TH conference at the Theosophical Society in London in September 2016.
Leslie Price is associate editor of the journal “Theosophical History”.