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Emma Hardinge Britten

Emma Hardinge Britten
and the Origins of OTO

By T Allen Greenfield copyright © 2002. All rights reserved.

“To arrive at this state, severe and painful as well as long continued discipline is necessary. Having acquired this perfect equilibrium, the next step is power…The arts necessary for study to the practical occultist are…a knowledge of the qualities of drugs, vapours, minerals, electricity, perfumes, fumigations, and all kinds of anaesthetics…

“I have simply to add, that, whilst there are, as in Masonry, certain preliminary degrees to pass through, there are numerous others to which a thoroughly well organised and faithful association might advance.”
– Emma Hardinge Britten, The Two Worlds November 18,1887

“Among the emblems most commonly seen in this connection are the following: the phallus, the lingam, the triangle, all the different methods of exhibiting the cross, the serpent with its tail in its mouth, and a vast number of such geometrical signs as include the triangle, cross and circle.”
– Emma Hardinge Britten, Art Magic, p. 57, section V

For a person who has not enjoyed the general recognition of the modern occultist movement Emma Hardinge Britten obviously deserves, there are quite a variety of metaphysical movements which lay claim to her legacy, albeit selectively. She was present at the small gathering of occultists that constituted the birth of the Theosophical Society (about which I shall have more to say presently). She is highly spoken of by the remnants of the Spiritualist Movement – though she clearly saw trance channeling in a fundamentally different light from that which most fascinates the vast majority of Spiritualists, namely, communication with the dead.

Her writings and fundamental ideas overlap, to a breathtaking extent, with those of P.B. Randolph, Peter Davidson and Max Theon, and she anticipates the sexual gnosis of these contemporary 19th Century occult geniuses, and their respective organizational vehicles, including the Brotherhood of Eulis and the Hermetic Brotherhood of Light. Rene Guenon, in fact, tells us that Britten was a member of the HB of L. The HB of L, in turn, became, through Papus and, arguably, Carl Kellner, a profound influence on the central gnosis of the pre-Crowley Ordo Templi Orientis, and, ultimately, one can see much similarity between the ideas about the occult expressed in the 19th Century by Britten and those offered in more detail by Crowley in the early 20th Century.

Emma Hardinge was born in England in 1823. Her father was a Sea Captain, Floyd Hardinge. She quickly took to the arts, teaching music by age eleven and later earning a living as a music instructor. She made something of a name for herself in theater early in life, taking up the study of the occult in an Orphic Society at the same youthful age as the beginning of her musical career, in the 1830s, and continued this association until the late 1840s.

It was here that she apparently first discovered her own mediumistic abilities, as well as an association with secret initiatory societies and the Cabalistic and Magical conceptions that would profoundly influence her life’s work. Among her contacts was the mysterious “Louis ” to whom she would later attribute her masterworks, Art Magic and Ghost Land, both published in 1876.

In 1856 she came to America as a contract theatrical performer, and ran directly into the then very faddish Spiritualist Movement, especially in the person of the medium Ada Hoyt, and became a dedicated Spiritualist from that point on. However, as indicated, she seemed a good deal less interested in the “communication with the dead” which was and is the central obsessive point of departure for Spiritualism, and more to occult teachings and the application of trance channeling to these teachings. She tells us in the magazine she founded and published in Manchester for five years, The Two Worlds, “The persons I came into contact with were representatives of many other countries than Great Britain. They formed one of a number of secret societies…They claimed that alchemy, medieval Rosicrucianism, and modern Freemasonry were offshoots of the original Caballa, and during the last 150 years new associations had been formed, and the parties who had introduced me into their arcanum were a society in affiliation with many others then in existence in many countries…” (issue of November 18, 1887,pp. 3-5). A bit earlier,in Art Magic (New York, 1876) she had made clear that her channeling was from early-on not primarily an attempt to communicate with discarnate human beings (that is to say, the dead), but rather the unseen world of planetary spirits, angelic beings and elementals, in order to summon and control them, through ritual, drug-induced or meditation-induced altered states of consciousness, and the insights gained through initiation.

Though she unquestionably made a profound impact upon Spiritualism with both her powers of persuasion and her outstanding mediumship, this approach clearly links her to the occultism then bubbling up all over the globe rather than the Spiritualist Orthodoxy which then had a vast popular following. The present writer has taken as his fundamental approach to the history of occultism the practice of “following the unique ideas”. These ideas are clearly more in tune with those of Randolph, Davidson, Papus, Reuss and later Crowley, than with those of conventional Spiritualism. Her description of the ancient emblems associated with spiritual gnosis”…the phallus, the lingam, the triangle, all the different methods of exhibiting the cross, the serpent with its tail in its mouth, and a vast number of such geometrical signs as include the triangle, cross and circle“ are largely reproduced in the official seal of the HB of L, the immediate precursor of the OTO and the source of its central mystery. The seal contains triangle and circle, the serpent with its tail in its mouth, and–arguably–the cross and phallus. There is every reason to believe that Ms. Britten was, throughout her career primarily influenced by magick rather than mediumship, in the strict sense. Nevertheless, her spiritual powers included “automatic and inspirational writing, psychometry, healing, prophecy and inspirational speaking,” As a conventional medium, she produced outstanding results. In an account published on the Internet by the First Spiritual Temple and cited in numerous other sources,” As a young medium, she furnished one of the best attested cases of early Spirit return. A member of the crew of the mail steamer, Pacific, which had sunk in the ocean, controlled young Emma and, in trance, disclosed the facts of the tragedy. Because of the nature of the details given through her mediumship, Emma Hardinge was threatened with prosecution by the owners of the boat when the story was made public, but all the details were found to be true and accurate.“

Emma returned to England in 1866, and married Dr. Britten in 1870. It was shortly thereafter that she produced the remarkable books Art Magic and Ghost Land, even as she and her husband traveled the world in support of the Spiritualist cause. Her great contribution to Spiritualism as such is unquestionably “The Seven Guiding Principles of Spiritualism,” but she placed great emphasis, like Randolph and Davidson and later Crowley, on the power of Will, the intervention of varying groups of supposed “secret chiefs” or “masters”, and even, as early as the 1850s, the idea of soul affinity, closely in line with Max and Mary Theon’s Pathetique, Peter Davidson’s Arch-Vril, Ruess & Kellner’s sexual magick and Crowley’s “Energized Enthusiasm”. As Godwin, Chanel & Deveney astutely observe, ”…in her writings she shows that she was in full accord with the doctrine of ‘soul affinity’ between man and woman that is the highest justification of sexual magic.“

Her ideas were radical thinking in Victorian Times, and I say again, to find the path to the present, follow the unique ideas.

This leaves for consideration Britten’s early connection with, and subsequent rejection of, The Theosophical Society. That this was the exact course followed by the leadership of the HB of L at about the same time seems worth noting.

Dr. Britten and Emma were present at what turned out to be the founding meeting of the Society in New York on September 7, 1875 at the home of Madame Blavatsky. Perhaps the key to the presence of Britten among the seventeen persons there gathered was the theme of the evening, an illustrated talk by George Felt who, according to the memoirs of Col. Olcott, “had discovered that the old Egyptian priests were adepts in magical science, had the power to evoke and employ the spirits of the elements, and had the formularies on record; he had deciphered and put them to the test, and succeeded in evoking the elementals. He was willing to aid some persons of the right sort to test the system for themselves, and would exhibit the nature-spirits to us all in the course of a series of lectures…” The later turn to a decidedly Eastern system of metaphysics was the apparent source of the estrangement of Britten, Davidson and others. Rene Guenon asserts that Blavatsky and Olcott had been recruited by Felt into the HB of L that same fateful year, 1875, but were expelled in 1878. Whether this explains the subsequent Eastern approach of the Theosophists, and the ongoing hostility to the work of the HB of L is beyond the scope of this work. It is sufficient here to note that Britten, in her journal The Two Worlds ( May 8, 1891 edition), refers to the quintessential public work of the HB of L, The Light of Egypt, in the most favorable light. She says,”…there is nothing comparable to it in the English language.“ Interestingly, The Light of Egypt is later mistaken for her work, even as her work has been erroneously attributed to the contemporary leadership of the HB of L.

The HB of L, in various guises, continued, under Peter Davidson and Max Theon, as a stand-alone body until about 1912. Somewhere around the beginning of the 20th Century, by the sometimes obscure alchemy that often characterizes the transformation of occult bodies of manifestation, the essential knowledge, wisdom and core practices of the HB of L melded into the Ordo Templi Orientis. While other bodies could lay claim to the influence of individuals once associated with the HB of L, only the OTO carried on communicating the unique ideas championed in the previous century by the HB of L, the Brotherhood of Eulis, Emma Britten,P.B. Randolph, Peter Davidson and other, lesser lights. By 1917 the OTO Grand Master of that time, Theodor Reuss, could justly claim: The leading organization in this movement is determined to set the peoples an example, which they may follow.

THE HERMETIC BROTHERHOOD OF LIGHT, known as the O.T.O., stands for a practical brotherly cooperation between All, men and women alike, without distinction of creed, race or nation, for the advancement of humanity.

Select references

  • Works of Emma Hardinge Britten
  • Art Magic, New York, 1876
  • Extemporaneous Addresses, London, 1866
  • Faith, Fact and Fraud of Religious History, Manchester, 1896
  • Ghost Land, Boston, 1876
  • Modern American Spiritualism, New York, 1870
  • Nineteenth Century Miracles, New York, 1884
  • The Two Worlds, Manchester, 1880s
  • The Western Star, U.S., 1872
  • The Unseen Universe,Britain, 1892-93
  • Guenon, Rene, various works consulted
  • Godwin, Joscelyn, et al, The Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor , NY, 1995
  • Greenfield, T Allen, The Story of the Hermetic Brotherhood of Light, Sweden, 1997
  • Olcott, Col. H.S., Old Diary Leaves, Volume one consulted
  • Waite, A.E. , various works consulted

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