The Theosophical Society is an international, nonsectarian, esoteric organization founded in New York City in 1875 by Madame Helena P. Blavatsky, a Russian-born mystic; Colonel Henry Steel Olcott, an American attorney and federal government official; William Q. Judge, an American attorney; and others. The society espouses a philosophical system that teaches the acquisition of knowledge of a transcendent reality through revelation or through practice of the occult tradition.
The society derives its name from the term theosophy, originating from the Greek words theos, “god,” and sophia, “wisdom.” According to the society, all religions stem from the same roots of ancient wisdom, repeating myths and symbols, and that study of these secrets will lead to truth and spiritual oneness. Theosophy attempts to provide answers to the great imponderables of life by looking to the common denominators in all wisdom through the ages.
The spiritual work involved is theurgy, or “divine work.” The Theosophical Society (TS) was strong in England, where it attracted the interest and participation of the leading occultists of the day, many of whom were members of Rosicrucianism and Freemasonry. Some of the founders and principles of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn attended TS meetings and gave lectures, among them Samuel Liddell MacGregor Mathers and William Wynn Westcott.
Blavatsky preferred Eastern mystical approaches to esoteric study rather than Western ritual Magic, but a growing interest in magic among TS members led her to form a special Esoteric Section devoted to magic. However, the section emphasized only training in magical theory and principles and not in actual ritual skill. The training consisted of learning Symbols, Correspondences, Numbers, the Elements, and so forth.
To placate magically inclined members, the section engaged in magical “experiments” to attempt to produce occult phenomena: raising the ghost of a flower, evoking a dream by placing a symbol beneath a pillow, and so forth. Most of the experiments failed, probably because Blavatsky and those leading the experiments were not committed to magic itself. William Butler Yeats was among those who left the TS because of these dismal results and found a more receptive environment soon in the Golden Dawn. The Esoteric Section was abandoned, and the TS returned to its original focus.