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Isis Unveiled: A Master-Key to the Mysteries of Ancient and Modern Science and Theology, published in 1877, is a book of esoteric philosophy and Helena Petrovna Blavatsky's first major work and a key text in her Theosophical movement. It has been described by scholars as a "plagiarized occult work".
The work was originally entitled The Veil of Isis, a title which remains on the heading of each page, but had to be renamed once Blavatsky discovered that this title had already been used for an 1861 Rosicrucian work by W.W. Reade. Isis Unveiled is divided into two volumes. Volume I, The 'Infallibility' of Modern Science, discusses Occult science and the hidden and unknown forces of nature, exploring such subjects as forces, elementals, psychic phenomena, and the Inner and Outer Man. Volume II, Theology, discusses the similarity of Christian scripture to Eastern religions such as Buddhism, Hinduism, the Vedas, and Zoroastrianism. It follows the Renaissance notion of prisca theologia, in that all these religions purportedly descend from a common source; the ancient "Wisdom-Religion". Blavatsky writes in the preface that Isis Unveiled is "a plea for the recognition of the Hermetic philosophy, the anciently universal Wisdom-Religion, as the only possible key to the Absolute in science and theology."
The work is argued by many modern scholars such as Bruce F. Campbell and Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke to be a milestone in the history of Western Esotericism. Blavatsky gathered a number of themes central to the occult tradition—perennial philosophy, a Neo-Platonic emanationist cosmology, adepts, esoteric Christianity—and reinterpreted them in relation to current developments in science and new knowledge of non-Western faiths. In doing so, Isis Unveiled reflected many contemporary controversies—such as Darwin's theories on evolution and their impact on religion—and engaged in a discussion that appealed to intelligent individuals interested in religion but alienated from conventional Western forms. Blavatsky's combination of original insights, backed by scholarly and scientific sources, accomplished a major statement of modern occultism's defiance of materialist science.
In later theosophical works some of the doctrines originally stated in Isis Unveiled appeared in a significantly altered form[note 1], drawing out confusion among readers and even causing some to perceive contradiction. Specifically, the few and—according to many—ambiguous statements on reincarnation as well as the threefold conception of man as body, soul and spirit of Isis Unveiled stand in contrast to the elaborate and definite conception of reincarnation as well as the sevenfold conception of man in The Secret Doctrine (1888). Blavatsky later asserted the correctness of her statements on reincarnation and the constitution of man in Isis Unveiled, attributing the resulting confusion and alleged contradictions to the more superficial or simplified conceptions of the ideas in Isis Unveiled compared to those of later works.[note 2][note 3]
Detractors often accuse the book of extensive unattributed plagiarism, a view first seriously put forth by William Emmette Coleman shortly after publication and still expressed by modern scholars such as Mark Sedgwick. Indeed, Isis Unveiled makes use of a large number of sources popular among occultists at the time, often directly copying significant amounts of text. Bruce Campbell concluded that the large number of borrowed lines suggested plagiarism "on a large scale." Swedish scholar Sten Bodvar Liljegren has written that a main source for Blavatsky's Theosophical ideas was Egypt and Isis Unveiled was heavily influenced by Edward Bulwer-Lytton's novels.
Magician Henry R. Evans described the book as a "hodge-podge of absurdities, pseudo-science, mythology and folk-lore, arranged in helter-skelter fashion, with an utter disregard of logical sequence." Cultural historian Geoffrey Ashe wrote that Isis Unveiled combines "comparative religion, occultism, pseudoscience, and fantasy in a mélange that shows genuine if superficial research but is not free from unacknowledged borrowing and downright plagiarism."
- This shift in thought is marked by Blavatsky and the Theosophical Society's move eastward to India.
- In the article Theories about Reincarnation and Spirits Blavatsky elaborately addressed the confusion related to the statements on reincarnation of Isis Unveiled, stating in particular that: "[… T]he doctrine [of reincarnation] is maintained now as it was then. Moreover, there is no 'discrepancy' but only incompleteness — hence, misconceptions arising from later teachings.".
- In The Key to Theosophy Blavatsky explains that the sevenfold conception of man is the threefold conception of man, refined. In section 6, Theosophical Teachings as to Nature and Man, under the heading The Septenary Nature of Man it is asked: "Is it what we call Spirit and Soul, and the man of flesh?", to which is replied: "It is not. That is the old Platonic division. Plato was an Initiate, and therefore could not go into forbidden details; but he who is acquainted with the archaic doctrine finds the seven in Plato's various combinations of Soul and Spirit.".
- Hart, James D; Leininger, Phillip. (1995). The Oxford Companion to American Literature. Oxford University Press. pp. 71-72. ISBN 0-19-506548-4 "After a period of spiritualism in America, Mme Blavatsky with the aid of Colonel Henry S. Olcott founded her Theosophical Society and published Isis Unveiled (1877), a plagiarized occult work denouncing the spiritualism she had formerly advocated."
- Santucci, James A., ‘Blavatsky, Helna Petrovna’, in Dictionary of Gnosis & Western Esotericism, ed. by Wouter J. Hanegraff (Leiden & Boston: Brill, 2006), pp. 180
- Blavatsky, Helena P., Isis Unveiled: A Master-Key to the Mysteries of Ancient and Modern Science and Theology (Pasadena, CA: Theosophical University Press, 1999), vol. I. p. vii.
- Goodrick-Clarke, Nicholas, The Western Esoteric Traditions: A Historical Introduction (Oxford & New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), pp. 215-217.
- Campbell, Bruce F. Ancient Wisdom Revived: A History of the Theosophical Movement (Berkeley & Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press, 1980), pp. 34-38.
- Helena Blavatsky: Western Esoteric Masters Series, ed. by Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke (Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books, 2004), pp.9-10.
- Blavatsky, H.P. (November 1886). "Theories about Reincarnation and Spirits". Articles from The Path — April 1886 to March 1896 (Theosophical University Press) I (8): 232.
- Blavatsky, H.P. The Key to Theosophy. Theosophical University Press: Online Literature. ISBN 1-55700-046-8.
- Goodrick-Clarke, Nicholas, ‘The Coming of the Masters: The Evolutionary Reformulation of Spiritual Intermediaries in Modern Theosophy’, in Constructing Tradition: Means and Myths of Transmission in Western Esotericism, ed. Andreas B. Kilcher (Leiden & Boston, MA: Brill, 2010).
- Sedgwick, Mark. (2004). Against the Modern World: Traditionalism and the Secret Intellectual History of the Twentieth Century. Oxford University Press. p. 44. ISBN 0-19-515297-2 "Isis Unveiled was extensively plagiarized from a variety of standard works on occultism and Hermeticism (134 pages from Samuel Dunlap's Sod, the Son of Man, 107 pages from Joseph Ennemoser's History of Magic, and so on)."
- Bader, A. L. (1958). Through a Glass Darkly: Spiritualism in the Browning Circle by Katherine H. Porter; Bulwer-Lytton's Novels and "Isis Unveiled" by S. B. Liljegren. Victorian Studies. Vol. 2, No. 2. pp. 183-184.
- Fritze, Ronald H. (2009). Invented Knowledge: False History, Fake Science and Pseudo-Religions. Reaktion Books. pp. 41-42. ISBN 978-1-86189-430-4
- Evans, Henry R. (1897). Hours with the Ghosts, or, Nineteenth Century Witchcraft: Illustrated Investigations into the Phenomena of Spiritualism and Theosophy. Laird & Lee. p. 266
- Ashe, Geoffrey. (2001). Encyclopedia of Prophecy. ABC-CLIO. p. 251
- Farquhar, J. N. (1915). Theosophy. In Modern Religious Movements in India. Macmillan Company.
- Garrett, Edmund (1894). Isis Very Much Unveiled: Being the Story of the Great Mahatma Hoax. Westminster Gazette.
- Liljegren, Sten Bodvar (1957). Bulwer-Lytton's Novels and Isis Unveiled. Lundequistka Bokhandeln.