Sunday, September 16, 2012

Venus has always appealed to New Agers

According to Scott Van Wynsberghe in the Canadian newspaper National Post, September 4, 2012:

The existence of the planet has been known to humanity, in one way or another, for thousands of years. Yet much of its modern reputation rests on a dubious Russian-born mystic named Helena Blavatsky.

Celebrated as the co-founder (in 1875) of the occult movement Theosophy, but also denounced as a charlatan, Blavatsky issued a sort of planetary manifesto on behalf of Venus in 1887 that helped usher in decades of fascination with our closest planetary neighbour, Earth’s so-called “sister planet.”

Considering how its rival Mars has regularly hogged humanity’s attention, Venus needed the help, and it snagged a big fish with Blavatsky. Although she was already in her twilight years in the late 1880s (she died in 1891), Blavatsky had toured the world in search of arcane knowledge ranging from Western paganism to Eastern metaphysics. She also has exploited a number of men along the way, and otherwise misbehaved so badly that she was accused of both systematic plagiarism (by near-contemporary scholar William Emmette Coleman) and spiritualist fraud (by Britain’s Society for Psychical Research, in 1885).

Prior to 1887, Venus had received only sporadic interest. French novelist Achille Eyraud imagined a trip there in an 1865 book that apparently had little impact. More important was American occultist Thomas Lake Harris, who, around Eyraud’s time, wrote about such topics as his belief in a Venusian master-race that oversaw early human development. L. Sprague de Camp, a historian of such claptrap, regarded Harris as a forerunner to Blavatsky.

Blavatsky issued her Venusian manifesto in the form of a magazine and an essay. The magazine, which she founded, was ominously entitled Lucifer, and its first issue was dated September 1887. Inside, one found her article entitled The History of a Planet, which clarified the publication’s title. Venus, she announced, was an occult casualty of early Christian arrogance — “sacrificed to the ambition of our little globe to show the latter [as] the ‘chosen’ planet of the Lord.”

In ancient Greek times, Blavatsky continued, Venus had been known under a variety of names that came to be translated by the Romans into Latin as Lucifer (“Light-bringer”). Unfortunately, an ambiguous Old Testament passage (Isaiah, 14:12), once rendered into Latin, also used that name and gradually came to be regarded by early Christian theologians as a reference to Satan. So Venus became tainted, along with all pagan beliefs associated with the planet, making Blavatsky’s initiative an effort to reclaim that non-Satanic pre-Christian heritage. (For the record, Blavatsky was rather accurate about that problematic Isaiah passage, judging from Bible scholars Otto Kaiser and Jeffrey Burton Russell.)

Regardless of the state of what might be called Venusian popular culture before Blavatsky, that culture certainly flourished after her — but it was weird.

According to L. Sprague de Camp, one Frederick Spencer Oliver claimed in an 1894 tome that he had encountered a secret society of mystics that had taken him on an out-of-body visit to Venus. Likewise, around the turn of that century, British Theosophist W. Scott-Elliot began reiterating the notion of Venusian supervision for prehistoric humanity.

Not helping matters at this point was astronomer Percival Lowell, now infamous for claiming non-existent canals on Mars. Lowell insisted he saw spoke-like structures spreading from a central hub on the face of Venus, but nobody else did, and it is now thought that glaring light from the planet inadvertently illuminated the blood vessels of Lowell’s eye, as in an ocular examination.

Such novelists as Gustavus W. Pope (1895), John Munro (1897), George Griffith (1901), and Garrett P. Serviss (1911) all described trips to Venus. Going by Den Waldron, who has reviewed some of this material for the ERBzine website, the Serviss book may be particularly important, because it describes a Venus that is partly oceanic. This concept of a “wet” Venus received backing in 1918, when Sweden’s Nobel-laureate chemist (and part-time astronomer) Svante Arrhenius recklessly declared in a book that “everything on Venus is dripping wet.”

Sorry, Svante: As described by British astronomer Bernard Lovell in a 1967 article for the Times of London, a spectroscopic analysis of light from Venus in 1922 showed very little water or even oxygen. This study was repeated a decade later with even more disappointing results, with large amounts of carbon dioxide now turning up. However, the influence of Venusian popular culture was such that denial set in. In a 1932 adventure set on Venus, Edgar Rice Burroughs acknowledged discouraging data but went ahead with his tale anyway. Another science fiction writer, Stanley G. Weinbaum, did the same thing in a 1935 short story.

Occultists were even more oblivious. In 1934, the American couple Guy and Edna Ballard formed the “I AM” sect, which drew heavily on Theosophy, and featured Venusian elements. In 1943, Britain’s C.S. Lewis restaged the Garden of Eden fable on Venus in his Christian-mystical novel Perelandra. In 1945, John Whiteside Parsons ­— a ubiquitous figure who linked the worlds of rocketry, science fiction and the supernatural — reportedly had a vision in the Mojave Desert involving a Venusian. In turn, Parsons knew L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of Scientology, who later claimed his own Venusian experience (although this would be downplayed by Scientology officials in the early 1970s). Other religious groups related to Venus included the Aetherius Society (founded in 1956) and Eckankar (1965). By the 1950s, Venus was so influential in popular culture that it sometimes outdid Mars — even, amazingly, in the UFO field.

Of course, Venus always has had the advantage of its brightness, which has caused countless mistaken reports of flying saucers. Although UFO researchers can be touchy about Venus, such prominent figures as J. Allen Hynek, Jacques Vallee and Frank Salisbury all conceded that the planet caused a lot of false sightings. As well, many of the people who surfaced in the 1950s to report not just sightings but actual contact with alien beings were talking about Venusians. In a 1977 survey by J. Gordon Melton, a sampling of 35 of these early “contactees” featured 13 cases of Venusians and only 11 with Martians. Suspecting something other than spacemen, UFO writers Jerome Clark and Loren Coleman have commented: “The Venusian claims usually contain the strongest religious overtones..."

...And then it all came crashing down. In 1962, the U.S. unmanned space vehicle Mariner 2 flew close to Venus and became the first Earth probe to complete an interplanetary mission. A flurry of U.S. and Soviet spacecrafts followed, and the results were nasty. The atmosphere turned out to be mostly carbon dioxide (with a bit of sulfuric acid) and was so thick that surface pressure was 90 times that of Earth, while the surface temperature was not far off 500C...

...So the fun was gone, and Venus really did merit a Satanic image. Interest among authors and filmmakers dwindled, although environmental scientists now had a poster girl for the dangers of greenhouse gases. “Venus,” concluded space historian William Burroughs in 1998, “was a warning.”

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