It is a sacrilege not to preserve the immortality of the soul, raising it to the level of the holy and uniting it to the divine with bonds which cannot be broken or loosened, but by contrast to pull and drag downwards the divine which is within us, confining it to the earthly, sinful and Giant- or Titanlike prison. (Damascius, Phil.Hist.19, Athanassiadi)

IN not defining Theosophy, the Theosophical Society acknowledges the difficulty in defining it because it can be interpreted in many different ways. It is beyond my scope to investigate the many interpretations given to Theosophy. In this article, I aim to provide an outline of the meaning attributed by Neo-Platonists and H.P.B. to Theosophy. I will not discuss Christian theosophy because there is no space to do so here, although I will briefly mention the Church father Origen of Alexandria (A.D.  184–253) and Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite (5th–6th century AD). Instead, I will focus on what Blavatsky claims to be the source of modern Theosophy.

In the book The Key to Theosophy Blavatsky, quoting Alexander Wilder (1823-1909),[1] said that according to Diogenes Laertius[2] the word Theosophy was coined, during the Ptolemaic dynasty,[3] by an Egyptian priest called Pot-Amun.[4] I have read all existent writings of Diogenes Laertius in search of Pot-Amun but could not find any reference to this Egyptian priest. Additionally, Blavatsky says that modern Theosophy is an offshoot of Neo-Platonic[5] philosophy. For instance, when asked about the meaning of the word Theosophy she replied:

“It comes to us from the Alexandrian philosophers, called lovers of truth, Philaletheians, from phil “loving,” and aletheia “truth.” The name Theosophy dates from the third century of our era, and began with Ammonius Saccas and his disciples, who started the Eclectic Theosophical system.”[6]

Up to date, the earlier reference to Theosophy[7] is traced back to a “fragment from the great scholar Apollodorus of Athens (c. 180 BCE)[[8]] who was a pupil of Aristarchus of Samothrace (c. 217–145 BCE), the head of the Alexandrian Library (c. 153 BCE).”[9] Moving forward in time, the word Theosophy was used by Church father Origen of Alexandria, who was taught by Ammonius Saccas,[10] on his Commentaries to Psalms.[11] Ammonius Saccas (3rd Century A.D.) did not write down his teachings. Also, no writing of one of Saccas’ most famous disciples, the Neo-Platonist Plotinus (A.D.204–270) has been preserved, except what was compiled by one of his disciple Porphyry (A.D. 234–305). In the compilation the word Theosophy was not used. However, Porphyry did use the word Theosophy (Theosophia) in his writings, and referred to it in the following manner:

“In the land of Hindus, divided in many ethnicities exists the ilk of theosophos, and the Greeks are accustomed to referring to them as gymnosophists [naked philosophers]. There are two sects of gymnosophists, one is headed by the Brahmans the others by the Shramana (śramana). While Brahmans maintain the hereditary succession of theosophia -exactly as happens with priesthood – the Shramana[12] comprises a social category composed by those who want to practice Theosophia.”[13]

Porphyry uses the word theosophos to refer to persons who are “wise on divine things” and theosophia (theosophy) to refer to the knowledge of divine things. Additionally, in his work On Abstinence from Animal Food, he uses the word theosophy, at least three times, to refer to people living a way of life which would lead to the union with the divine:

 “And a divine person is the one who tries to be free from the passions of the soul, fasting from food that instigates passion, nourishes itself with theosophia and in this manner resembles to noble and right divine forms also officiating mental sacrifices. One who appears before god, with white garment, pure soul and imperturbability derived from improper chyme and soul passions.”[14]

According to Porphyry, a theosophos is someone who tries to control their desires and respects all forms of life. For him, vegetarianism is a sine qua non condition for a virtuous life and has a dual function: a. the exercise of compassion; b. a self-cleansing process, meat strengthens pathos (passions) which should be kept at bay. He also refers to theurgy as practical Theosophy,[15] and intelligent-wisdom as an expression of this Theosophy. Theurgy, (Greek: θεουργία), meaning “divine act” is “a term coined by late second-century Neo-Platonists to describe the deifying effect of Chaldean rituals[[16]], the remnants of which are now preserved as the Chaldean Oracles.”[17] It was introduced in Neo-Platonism by Iamblichus (A.D. 245–325), leader of the Neo-Platonic School in Syria, and it is comprised of Egyptian and Chaldean ritual practices aiming at the intensification of the presence of higher beings on earth. Theurgy, according to Iamblichus, allows the divine to be revealed through the practitioners’ divine acts or work.[18]

The Emperor Julian the Apostate (A.D. 331–363) refers to theosophia in the following manner:

“You are yourself an ardent admirer of Iamblichus for his philosophy and of his namesake for his Theosophia. And I too think, like Apollodorus, that the rest are not worth mentioning compared with those two.”[19]

When Julian the Apostate mentions the theosophia of Iamblichus, he uses the term to refer to intelligent or inspired wisdom, leading someone into constructing its own personal theory about divine things.

Furthermore, in the Praeparatio Evangelica, a work of Christian apologetics written by Eusebius of Caesarea (A.D.260/265–339/340), we find another quote attributed to Julian the Apostate, also shedding some light on the earliest meaning attributed to theosophy:

“In addition to this, you have heard the theosophia mystica, which led the wonderful sages of Egypt to worship wolves and dogs and lions: you have learnt also the miracle of the beetle, and the virtue of the hawk. Laugh not then in future at their gods, but pity the thrice wretched human race for their great folly and blindness.” [20]

In this instance, Julian refers to theosophia mystica (mystic theosophy) as the secret divine-wisdom that influenced and led the Egyptians to create their religious system. Based on this, it is feasible to infer that Julian interprets theosophia as divine-wisdom, which may lead someone into creating their own personal theory about divine things.

On the other hand, in De Mysteriis, Iamblichus uses the word Theosophy to refer to divine inspiration and claims that the Egyptian theosophists had the knowledge of what he calls an ancient theurgic-wisdom.[21]

In the beginning of the 6th Century, the mystic writings of Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, a Christian Neo-Platonist famous for interpreting both the Neo-Platonic and Platonic philosophies in a Christian context, uses the term theosophy in his work The Mystical Theology where he tries to shed light on Christian theological and mystical ideas. In it he mentions theosophia in the following manner:

“Supernal Triad, Deity above all essence, knowledge and goodness; Guide of Christians to Theosophia; direct our path to the ultimate summit of your mystical knowledge, most incomprehensible, most luminous and most exalted, where the pure, absolute and immutable mysteries of theology are veiled in the dazzling obscurity of the secret Silence, outshining all brilliance with the intensity of their Darkness, and surcharging our blinded intellects with the utterly impalpable and invisible fairness of glories surpassing all beauty.”[22]

In this instance, theosophy is interpreted as divine-wisdom inspired by God, which cannot be transmitted by words. With the Areopagite, theosophy and mysticism are blended. Wisdom cannot be attained by a person, but flows from divinity. This wisdom is an ultimate mystery and cannot be transmitted by words, it is ineffable.

Moving forward in time, we find another interesting source shedding light on theosophy. This is the book History of Philosophy written by the German historian Johann Jakob Brucker (1696-1770). In spite of Brucker’s biases against theosophers, his article is quite interesting from a historical perspective. He referred to theosophists as a class of philosophers claiming to acquire their knowledge from divine revelation (apocalypse). According to him, theosophers were not satisfied with the literal analyses and interpretation of scriptures but:

“They had access to an internal supernatural light, superior to any other form of illumination from which is derived a mysterious and divine philosophy, manifested only to the chosen favourites of heaven… Philosophers of this class have not a common system but everyone follows the impulse of his own imagination.”[23]

Brucker also wrote that theosophers claim to have contact with celestial beings, which have the role of mediation between man and god. They acquire their power with the help of magic, astrology and other similar arts. He considers Philippus Aureolus Theophrastus, Paracelsus, (1493–1541) a theosophist, because he was contacting all kinds of persons professing knowledge of secret arts and borrowed some of his ideas from the Platonists and Cabbalists of Alexandria. He also considers Jacob Boehme (1575–1624) a theosophist, because after seven days of silence he entered in ecstasy and was touched by the intuitional vision of God. He also considers John Baptista Van Helmont (1580–1644) a theosophist, because his writings and theories united theosophical mysticism with scholastic studies. The same is attributed to Van Helmont’s son, Franciscus Mercurius Van Helmont (1614–1699), because he incorporates Cabalism from his father’s system. Still, according to Brucker, Peter Poiret (1646–1719) was also a theosophist because he converted himself to mysticism after meeting Jeanne-Marie Bouvier de la Motte-Guyon (1648–1717), also known as Madame Guyon, and became an enemy of Cartesian philosophy. For Brucker, the entire society of Rosicrucian (16th Century) was also formed by theosophists, because they claimed to have acquired their gift – to explain the most important secrets of nature – through divine revelation, and claimed to possess the philosophical stone. Brucker also mentions the following:

“Although the eccentricities of this sect [Theosophists] are too various to be deduced into a regular system, they are all to be traced back to one common source, the renunciation of human reason. The whole dependence of these philosophers is upon human inspiration in which intellect remains passive and they wait in sacred stillness and silence of the soul for Divine Illumination.”[24]

Brucker describes theosophists as a group of people not satisfied with intellectual explanations of teachings, but interested in accessing a supernatural divine-wisdom (divine light).

As we can see, prior to the foundation of the Theosophical Society, in late antiquity, the word Theosophy was used to refer to a way of life which would lead to the knowledge of divine things. Theosophy was also considered as a divine-wisdom resulting from a process of illumination. Divine-wisdom could be acquired either by way of Theurgy or by a way of life based on ethical precepts and virtues, linked to some religious or philosophical tradition, which would lead to divine-wisdom. This viewpoint on theosophy of late antiquity also influenced a number of mystic and esoteric currents as outlined by Brucker.

If we analyse the writings of Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, under the light of the early interpretations of theosophy, previously outlined here, we will see that indeed her writings are within the tradition of theosophy as a process of divine illumination. For instance, H.P.B.’s description of how she acquires knowledge leads us into the realms of Theosophy as a process of illumination derived from an unknown and mysterious source:

“Knowledge comes through visions, first in dreams and after [in] images which appear to my inner eye during meditation. In this way I learned all the system…. Never not even one word was given to me through a normal way…. I was never taught anything written, and the knowledge I have is so clear.”[25]

Additionally, H.P.B. also said that:

“… higher intuition acquired by Theosophia – or God knowledge, which carries the mind from the world of form into that of formless spirit, man has been sometimes enabled in every age, and in every country to perceive things in the interior or invisible world. Hence, the “Samadhi,” or Dhyana Yoga Samadhi, of the Hindu ascetics; the “Daimonion-photi,” or spiritual illumination, of the Neo-Platonists; the “Sidereal confabulation of souls,” of the Rosicrucians or Fire-philosophers; and, even the ecstatic trance of mystics and of the modern mesmerists and spiritualists, are identical in nature, though various as to manifestation. The search after man’s diviner “self,” so often and so erroneously interpreted as individual communion with a personal God, was the object of every mystic, and belief in its possibility seems to have been coeval with the genesis of humanity – each people giving it another name.”[26]

In H.P.B.’s words, this high-intuition is Theosophy. She also says that “theosophy is the shoreless ocean of universal truth, love, and wisdom, reflecting its radiance on the earth.”[27] In this instance, she links Theosophy to virtue echoing Porphyry’s viewpoint, while suggesting that a virtuous life is a sine qua non condition for someone to become a theosophos. The examples outlined here suggest that it is possible to establish a link between some of the ideas presented by the Theosophical Society to ideas traditionally linked to Theosophy, prior to the foundation of the Theosophical Society in the 19th Century. However, this is not a linear process and Theosophy nowadays is considered by many Theosophists as a specific doctrine linked to H.P.B.’s teachings. In such cases, Theosophy is translated as the teachings of planetary chains; the sevenfold constitution of the human being; rounds; seven races and so on and so forth. These notions form a doctrine showing how the cosmos and beings evolve toward higher levels of awareness. In such instances, the traditional emphasis given to Theosophy as an ethical way of life, leading to illumination is replaced by an emphasis on a technical doctrine. Yet, the interpretation of Theosophy in terms of doctrine is also valid, in light of earlier interpretations of Theosophy which also considered it as wisdom-teachings.

I will now show in detail different interpretations of Theosophy by H.P.B. For instance, she links some symbols to divine-wisdom (Theosophy): the Ophis (Serpent) is interpreted as a “symbol of divine-Wisdom and Perfection.” The Swan or Goose, Hansa, is interpreted as representing divine-wisdom beyond the reach of human understanding, wisdom in darkness;[28] Atma-Vidya is interpreted as the “true Spiritual and Divine wisdom;”[29] divine-wisdom is represented by the Sun and by Hermes (Mercury [Hermes]), from whom Thoth-Hermes “received his divine-wisdom;”[30] “Phta, the Egyptian Creative Intellect (or Divine Wisdom);” Kwan-Shi-Yin and Kwan-Yin are interpreted as the male-female principle in Kosmos, “Nature and Man, of divine wisdom and intelligence.”[31] Theosophy is also interpreted by her as an expression of divine-wisdom; a virtuous life; divine knowledge which may be acquired from within; as the body of teachings of H.P.B. and other Theosophists; as eternal truths; as ancient wisdom-tradition and so on. All this can be resumed to a threefold interpretation of Theosophy, as provided by H.P.B.:

a. Theosophy interpreted as beyond the reach of human-beings, described in The Secret Doctrine, as wisdom in darkness.[32] This is considered as an apophatic wisdom or wisdom obtained by way of negation and is exemplified, in some Stanzas of The Secret Doctrine, in the following manner: Time was not; Universal Mind was not; The Seven ways to Bliss were not, and so forth.[33]

b. Theosophy within the reach of human beings, but impossible to be understood intellectually. This is described in The Secret Doctrine as creative-intelligence.[34]

c. Theosophy as perennial-philosophy, wisdom-religion, ancient-wisdom and so forth. This is considered as a body of teachings taught throughout the ages.

This last interpretation involves a threefold aspect:

1 – Theosophy as a doctrine such as the one comprised in the writings of H.P.B. and others, i.e. planetary chains; the invisible constitution of the human-being and so forth;

2 – Theosophy as hidden knowledge taught throughout the ages by way of myths, symbols, with occult meanings and able to be deciphered only by those initiated in the mysteries of the mind;

3 – Theosophy as a perennial ethical system capable of leading someone to realise divine-wisdom by way of enlightenment.

As briefly demonstrated H.P.B. conveys different meanings to Theosophy. Additionally, in The Key to Theosophy, H.P.B. explains that:

“Theosophy, in its abstract meaning, is Divine Wisdom, or the aggregate of the knowledge and wisdom that underlie the Universe — the homogeneity of eternal GOOD; and in its concrete sense it is the sum total of the same as allotted to man by nature, on this earth, and no more.”[35]

She continues saying that some members of the Theosophical Society may wish to practice Theosophy while others may wish to know it. Then she proceeds explaining that Theosophy, in relation to the Theosophical Society, should be understood and interpreted only in its abstract sense, because as long as imperfections are expressed in human nature no organisation can ever be considered a vehicle of Theosophy. To that she adds that to assume that the Theosophical Society is a vehicle of Theosophy would be a sacrilege with catastrophic consequences, such as those we have witnessed in Christian churches. However, in another instance she says, in The Original Programme of The Theosophical Society that:

“To say that theosophy has no need of a Society — a vehicle and centre thereof, — is like affirming that the Wisdom of the Ages collected in thousands of volumes at the British Museum has no need of either the edifice that contains it, nor the works in which it is found.”[36]

In a different instance she says:

“Theosophy is the shoreless ocean of universal truth, love, and wisdom, reflecting its radiance on the earth, while the Theosophical Society is only a visible bubble on that reflection. Theosophy is divine nature, visible and invisible, and its Society human nature trying to ascend to its divine parent. Theosophy, finally, is the fixed eternal sun, and its Society the evanescent comet trying to settle in an orbit to become a planet, ever revolving within the attraction of the sun of truth. It was formed to assist in showing to men that such a thing as Theosophy exists, and to help them to ascend towards it by studying and assimilating its eternal verities.”[37]

On one hand, she says that the Theosophical Society cannot ever assume to be a vehicle of Theosophy.[38] On the other hand, she claims that the Theosophical Society is a vehicle of Theosophy.[39]  Perhaps, she meant that The Theosophical Society should be a vehicle to remind people that something such as Theosophy exists. Care should be exercised when assessing such ambiguities.  It is not a rare phenomenon to find ambiguities in esoteric writings, and the student should exercise discernment on such matters.

Additionally, H.P.B. also links virtues to Theosophy and suggests that the Theosophical Society should be an organisation promoting a way of life capable of leading to the realisation of Theosophy. In this instance, she emphasizes Theosophy as a set of ethical-moral principles, which can be taught both intellectually and in practical ways.

In closing, we saw that Theosophy may be interpreted as a synonym of truth; as an ethical system; as a doctrine; as divine-wisdom with gradations, i.e. beyond the reach of human understanding; within the reach of human understanding. We also saw that Theosophy, as wisdom-tradition, may be considered as a doctrine; occult knowledge taught by way of symbols with hidden verities able to be deciphered only by the initiated; a perennial ethical system. Theosophy is considered to be, at least by H.P.B., a perennial ethical system which may lead someone into enlightenment. This Theosophy is not accessible to everyone as it is also part of a body of occult knowledge taught by the initiated. The manner in which this occult knowledge is handled is by way of a symbolic and mystic/occult language. Theosophy also has gradations and in its most visible aspect, t can be accessed by way of comparative studies, as it is in the very heart of religions, mythologies and some philosophical systems. It can be also demonstrated in practical terms by way of philanthropic work and the practical promotion of universal brotherhood, whilst its most transcendental aspect is related to a profound change in human nature leading to enlightenment. Considering all of this, it seems that, as H.P.B. said, Theosophy indeed resembles a shoreless ocean.


[1] Alexander Wilder was an American Scholar and Neo-Platonist.

[2] Diogenes Laertius was an ancient Greek biographer who catalogued the life of eminent philosophers.

[3] Ptolemy (303–282 BC) was a general of Alexander the Great. The Ptolemaic dynasty ruled Egypt for 275 years. It was the last dynasty of ancient Egypt.

[4] Blavatsky 1889.

[5] The term Neo-Platonism is a neologism coined in the 19th Century by Thomas Taylor (1758-1835). See Rangos 2015.

[6] Blavatsky 1889: Section I.

[7] There may be earlier references.

[8] I haven’t read the fragment yet, so I cannot comment it.

[9] Santucci, cited in H.P. Blavatsky’s Theosophy in Context: The Construction of Meaning in Modern Western Esotericism, Rudbøg T.  p. 76.,  2012/2013, PhD thesis, University of Exeter.

[10] Ibid. See also Edwards 2018.

[11] Rudbøg 2012:75.

[12] A śramana is a nomadic ascet in some traditions, of ancient India, such as Jainism,

Buddhism and Ajivika.

[13] Πορφύριος, Περί Αποχής Εμψύχων, 17, π 237, β. και β. 4,17,227.)

[14] Πορφύριος, Περί Αποχής Εμψύχων 141-44σ-βΙΙ)

[15] Beatrice 2001: xxix.

[16] The Chaldean Oracles are hexameter verses written by Julian the Chaldean and his son Julian the Theurgist. Chaldean is a term metaphorically used as the oracles are related to middle Platonism. It has been suggested the technique used to write the Chaldean Oracles was one of “calling and receiving,” and the oracles were extracted from Plato’s soul. The oracles were considered sacred by Porphyry. Majercik 1989:1-5.

[17] Shaw 2013

[18] ibid.

[19] Epistle 12:14.

[20] Theol. Et Scr. Eccl., Praep. Evang: iii-v-4-2.

[21] Siemons 1988: 8.

[22] Pseudo. Dyon. Myst. Theol. I

[23] Brucker: 1742: v2-c3.

[24] Brucker: 1742: v2-c3.

[25] Blavatsky, 1910: 685.

[26] Blavatsky, 1879: 1-1.

[27] Blavatsky, 1889:siv.

[28] Blavatsky 1888: V1-79

[29] Ibid, p.169.

[30] Blavatsky 1888, vl. I Stanza I.

[31] Ibid.

[32] ibid, p. 353.

[33] Ibid.

[34] See Ibid. HPB used the notion of intelligence interchangeably with the one of consciousness [awareness]; as an expression of Mahat, universal soul; as manas; as ineffability and in a number of different ways. Ineffability is a “mystical negative experience, which defies expression,” i.e. cannot be described by words, James 1902.

[35] Blavatsky 1889, section IV.

[36] Blavatsky 1886.

[37] Blavatsky 1889, section iv.

[38] Blavatsky 1889, Section IV.

[39] Blavatsky, 1886.



Beatrice, P., F., 2001. Anonymi Monophysitae Theosophia: an Attempt at Reconstruction. Boston: Brill, p. xxix.

Blavatsky, P., H., 1877. Isis Unveiled. Pasadena: Theosophical University Press Online Edition, p 434. <> Accessed 7/7/2017.

—–1879. ‘What is Theosophy,’ in The Theosophist, v. 1, n.1.

—–1886. The Original Programme of the Theosophical Society. <> Accessed 7/7/2017.

—–1888. The Secret Doctrine. Pasadena: Theosophical University Press Online Edition. <> Accessed 7/7/2017.

—–1889. The Key to Theosophy. Pasadena: Theosophical University Press Online Edition. <> Accessed 18/9/2017.

—–1889. The Voice of the Silence. Theosophical University Press Online Edition. <> Accessed 7/7/2017.

—–1889. ‘What Shall We do for our Fellows-Men,’ in Lucifer, vol. v, no. 26, pp. 156-165.

—–1890. E.S.T.S. Instructions No. I. <> Accessed 10/9/2017.

—–1891. “There is a Road Step and Thorny,” in Lucifer, vol. ix, no. 49, p. 4.

—–1910. ‘Knowledge Comes in Visions,’ in The Theosophist, v.i, p. 685.

Brucker, J. J. 1742–1744. History of Philosophy. Enfield, W., (Trans.), 1791, vol. ii, chapter, iii.

Edwards, Mark J. 2018. “Origen.” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Zalta, E. (ed.).

James, William, 1902. The Varieties of Religious Experiences. Longman. < james-varieties/james-varieties16.html> Accessed 11/20/2015.

Julian the Apostate, Letters (1923) Works vol. 3, pp.2-235. < julian_apostate_letters_1_trans.htm> Accessed 11/20/2015.

Malinowski, B.,/ Redfield, R., 1954. Magic, Science and Religion. Doubleday, Garden City, N.Y.

Majercik, R., 1989. The Chaldean Oracles: Text, Translation and Commentary. New York: Brill, pp 1-5.

Pasnau, R., 2015. ‘Divine Illumination,’ in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy < https://plato. > Accessed 10/1/207.

Πορφύριος, Περί Αποχής Εμψύχων, Μαρίας Ι. Σίδερη (μετ.). ΕΛΛΑΣ: Εκδόσεις Πύρινος Κόσμος.

Pseudo-Dionysius, Mystic Theology. Parker, J., (trans.), 1897. London: Grand Rapids, MI: Chris­tian Classics Ethereal Library. <,_Dio­nysius_Areopagita,_Works,_EN.pdf> Accessed 1/10/2017.

Rangos, S., 2015? ‘Neoplatonism,’ in Encyclopedia of Plato <­lemma&id=876&lang=2> Ac-cessed 7/7/2017.

Shaw, G., 2013. ‘Theurgy,’ in The Encyclopedia of Ancient History. John Wiley & Sons, Inc. <> Accessed 10/06/2017.

Rudbøg T., 2012/2013.  H.P. Blavatsky’s Theosophy in Context: The Construction of Meaning in Modern Western Esotericism, p. 76. PhD thesis, University of Exeter.

Theosophical Society, 1924. ‘Resolution of Freedom of Thought,’ in Theosophy Wiki. <> Accessed 24/6/2017.

Written by

Erica Georgiades MRes Religious Experience (Candidate) UWTSD; PgD (Merit) Ancient Mediterranean Religions UWTSD; BA (Honours) in Philosophy and Psychological Studies (Open). Erica is the Editor of the FOTA Newsletter, a researcher on Theosophical History; secretary of the International Theosophical History Conference since 2018. She is the Director of the European School of Theosophy since 2016; and a member of the Theosophical Society since 1991. Recently she started practising archery where she lives, in Athens, Greece. She is also a deep ecologist, animal-rights activist, pro-non-human animals personhood.

Latest comment
  • What a profound explanation about the meaning of THEOSOPHY!

    A lot to think and ponder on it!
    Well done dear Erica.

    Much appreciated.