Chakras into the west: James Morgan Pryse’s “The Apocalypse Unsealed”
For some time now, I’ve been idly collecting notes for a monograph – or perhaps a lecture or two – on the early twentieth-century European authors who played a role in shaping contemporary western discourse on the chakras; in particular, it’s reification into the ubiquitous seven-chakra schema reproduced ad nauseum in hundreds of contemporary new age, occult, and yoga texts, together with its increasing medicalisation.
The obvious sources for much of contemporary chakra discourse are Sir John Woodroffe, whose translation of the Ṣaṭ-chakra-nirūpaṇa, entitled “The Serpent Power” appeared in 1918, and Charles Webster Leadbeater’s 1927 book, The Chakras. I also thought it would be interesting to take a look at Jung’s 1932 Kundalini lectures, and how he interpreted chakras in terms of individuation. A recent blog post by scholar-practitioner Christopher Wallis: The Real Story on the Chakras has rekindled my interest in this project, and I thought that – rather than posting about the “big three” mentioned above, I’d write about a rather less well-known author with a rather novel interpretation of chakras – James Morgan Pryse.
James Morgan Pryse (1859-1942) was born in Cincinnati, Ohio, and was of Welsh descent. His father was a Presbyterian minister and a Grand Druid. Pryse’s initial chosen career was the law, but he seems to have eschewed the bar, and instead first ran a photography gallery and then edited a country newspaper. Together with his brother, James edited and ran several local papers, and in 1886 he joined a socialist colony in Mexico, organising its printing. It was at the colony that he encountered Theosophy, via correspondence with a Mrs. Van Planck.
Pryse played a key role in establishing Theosophical print presses – he and his brother John founded an American Theosophical publishing house – “The Aryan Press” in 1889. In 1890, at the request of H.P. Blavatsky, James moved to London, to set up and manage the H.P.B Press (a.k.a the ‘Blavatsky Press’) – producing the fortnightly periodical, Vahan as well as pamphlets and books. He became a close friend of Blavatsky, and attended her daily in the days before her death.
Following the death of Mme Blavatsky, Pryse moved to Dublin, where he managed the printing of the Irish Theosophist magazine and became active in Irish Theosophy. During this period he became friendly with the multi-talented “AE” (George William Russell, 1867-1935). Of Pryse, Russell writes 1
“The grey visitor was James M. Pryse who first instructed me in magic, conjuring up pictures in the astral light, and holding them before my inner eyes so that I could see initiation scenes, the evolution of the astral from the physical, the movement of cells and forces in the body. A good deal of what he wrote in the interpretation of the Apocalypse he showed me in the “glass”. He was one of the few members of the T.S. who knew things for himself and had a good deal of occult power. He was really rather a mysterious person whose talk and writing had personal knowledge behind it.”
Pryse taught Russell how to “psychometrize” countryside sites in order to give up their hidden past, and on one occasion, is said to have drawn a magical circle around Russell,and charged him not to leave it without permission. 2
In 1896 Pryse returned to the USA, following W.Q. Judge’s lead when, in 1895, the majority of the American theosophists seceded from the international Theosophical Society 3. He was involved in Katherine Tingley’s Point Loma community for a while, but later affiliated with the Theosophical Society of New York, which was independent of Tingley. In 1925, Pryse formed the Gnostic Society – a small group who met to discuss Pryse’s ideas about mystical Christianity.
Pryse was a prolific author, writing articles for Theosophical journals and at least a dozen books, such as The Evangel according to Iôannês (1898); Reincarnation in the New Testament (1904) and Adorers of Dionysos (1925). 4
However, the book I want to focus this post on is his 1910 work, The Apocalypse Unsealed subtitled: being an esoteric interpretation of the initiation of Iôannês (Apokalypsis Iōannou) commonly called the Revelation of (St.) John : with a new translation.
The main premise of The Apocalypse Unsealed is that The Revelation of St. John is not a historical or prophetic text, but rather, that it is a manual of spiritual development – an exposition of the Secret Doctrine which is alluded to in ancient writings such as the New Testament and the Upanishads. The book comprises of two sections – four preparatory chapters, followed by Pryse’s esoteric translation and commentaries on Revelations.
There is much of interest to esotericists (and esoteric historians) in Apocalypse. Pryse brings together elements of Platonic philosophy, Kabbalah, Christian Mysticism and “oriental wisdom” in a manner which will be doubtless familiar to students of Theosophy, producing a hybridised system.
On page 15 of Apocalypse, Pryse introduces the Chakras in relation to the sympathetic nervous system – relating the seven principal chakras to the seven ganglia – mūlādhāra to the sacral ganglion; adhisthāna to the prostatic; and so forth. Pryse writes:
“When through the action of man’s spiritual will,whether by his conscious effort or unconsciously so, as far as his phrenic mind is concerned, the latent kundalinī (speirêma), which in the Upanishads is poetically said to lie coiled up like a slumbering serpent, is aroused to activity, it displaces the slow-moving nervous force or neuricity, and becomes the agent of the telestic or perfecting work. As it passes from one ganglion to another its voltage is raised, the ganglia being like so many electric cells coupled for intensity; and moreover, in each ganglion or chakra, it liberates and partakes of the quality peculiar to that centre, and it is then said to “conquer” the chakra.”
This passage is interesting – it indicates that the mapping of the chakras to the sympathetic nervous system was already in place in Theosophical discourse by this period. The same placements are briefly given in C.W. Leadbeater’s first volume of The Inner Life, first published in 1910.
Pryse continues, describing the three principal nādīs and twelve forces – seven lunar tattvas – which he equates with seven pneumata, and five solar prānas – which he says, in the Apocalypse, are termed anemoi – “winds”. According to Pryse, the Apocalypse equates these twelve forces with the twelve signs of the zodiac.
In chapter 4: “The Drama of Self-Conquest”, Pryse relates the chakras to the “seven churches” given in Revelations 1.11 (KJV), saying that the order in which these cities are named is the same order as that of the Chakras in the Upanishads. So for example, Ephesos “a city celebrated for its great temple of Diana, the “many-breasted mother” who appears in the Apocalypse as “the Woman clothed with the Sun, the moon beneath her feet,” 5 is equated with mūlādhāra chakra. The city of Thyateira, Pryse equates to the anāhata chakra, as Thyateira is a city noted for the manufacture of scarlet dyes, “the name being thus a covert reference to the blood and circulatory system.”
The seven chakras are also the seven seals of Revelation. Pryse writes 6:
“The sacrificial Lamb, the neophyte who has attained to the intuitive, noetic consciousness – which is symbolised by his having seven horns and seven eyes, that is, mental powers of action and perception – opens the seals (arouses the chakras successively. As they are opened, however, they change to zodiacal signs.”
In a similar fashion, Prsyse equates the seven trumpets with the activity of the chakras, and also the seven mountains; whilst the “river of life” and the two “trees of life” are equated to the three nādīs. Following general Theosophical doctrine concerning the absolute necessity of celibacy for spiritual development, Pryse writes 7:
“…in the solar body the “accursed” function, sex, does not exist, and the forces come from above, from the brain-region. … The generative function is strictly nothing but an animal one, and can never be anything else. True spirituality demands its utter extirpation; and whilst its proper exercise for the continuation for the human race, in the semi-animal stage of its evolution, may not be considered sinful, its misuse, in any way, is fraught with the most terrible consequences physically, psychically, and spiritually; and the forces connected with it are used for abnormal purposes only in the foulest practices of sorcery…”
The “foulest practices of sorcery” is possibly a reference to the Theosophical view of tantra during this period. See this post for a discussion of Mme. Blavatsky’s views on tantra, sorcery, and the “misuse” of chakras.
Apocalypse was an influence on D.H. Lawrence’s psychological works, in which he brought together Theosophical ideas with psychoanalysis. I’ll leave that discussion for a follow-up post.
Dara Eklund (ed) Echoes of the Orient: The Writings of William Quan Judge Volume II (Theosophical University Press, 2009)
James Morgan Pryse, The Apocalypse Unsealed (John M Pryse, New York, 1910)
- see: http://www.katinkahesselink.net/his/ae.html – where you can also read an obituary for Russell written by Pryse. ↩
- Pryse may also have influenced WB Yeats, although that’s a connection I haven’t as yet had time to pursue. ↩
- The Irish Theosophists also followed Judge. ↩
- Dionysos was illustrated by John Augustus Knapp, best-known for the Revised New Art Tarot (1929). ↩
- Apocalypse, p37 ↩
- Apocalypse, p40 ↩
- Apocalypse, p216 ↩