Isis Unveiled: A Master-Key to the Mysteries of Ancient and Modern Science and Theology, published in 1877, is a book of esotericphilosophyand Helena Petrovna Blavatsky‘s first major work and a key text in herTheosophical 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 Unveiledis 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, theVedas, 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, 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.
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 Unveiledmakes 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 Unveiledwas 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.”