Max Théon - the Unknown Occultist
Théon was in many ways a latter-day Gnostic, an enigmatic occultist whose evolutionary and occult teachings were indirectly taken up by the Indian philosopher-sage Sri Aurobindo, and may have also had some influence on the metaphysics of both H.P. Blavatsky and, A Polish Jew, he travelled to London, France, Egypt, and finally Algeria, founding several esoteric groups along the way. He was known under several names, but we can refer to him as "Max Théon", the pseudonym he adopted while in Algeria.
Théon and his knowledge is truely extraordinary. At the very least he was, and is, equal in importance in understanding the development of modern Western esotericism, to figures such as Blavatsky, Steiner, Crowley, Gurdjieff, and Alice Bailey. Yet this figure, who was active in Paris around the turn of the century (he apparently commuted between Algeria and Paris), has been until only very recently virtually unknown outside the Mother and Sri Aurobindo's talks! Now however the situation is changing, and hermetic scholars like Christian Chanel and T Allen Greenfield have written on this important figure. At the time of writing however there was no web site devoted to Theon and his teachings. So I decided to put this one up, to honour an esoteric teacher I have, ever since I fiurst heart of him, felt a very strong connection with.
The following biographical review is based in part on the account given by Pascal Themanlys, and in part on the Mother's references to Théon during private talks, in part on and some scattered information from elsewhere.
"I don't know if he was Russian or Polish (a Russian or Polish Jew), he never said who he really was or where he was born, nor his age...[Mother's Agenda vol 1, p.219]
He had assumed two names: one was an Arabic name he had adopted when he took refuge in Algeria...After having worked with Blavatsky and having founded an occult society in Egypt, he went to Algeria, and...called himself `Aia Aziz' (...meaning `the beloved'). Then, when he began setting up his Cosmic Review and his 'cosmic group', he called himself Max Théon, meaning...the greatest God! And no-one knew him by any other name than these two...
He had an English wife.
He said he had received initiation in India (he knew a little Sanskrit and the Rig-Veda thoroughly), and then he formulated a tradition which he called the `cosmic tradition' and which he claimed...(predated) the Cabala and the Vedas."
Max Théon was born in 1848 in Warsaw in Poland, and studied the ancient tradition. Since there are no conditions to the transmission of knowledge and each initiate is free to use it as he sees fit in this respect, Théon's early fellow-initiates approved his mission to bring light to Western seekers. However, they wished to avoid the responsibility involved in such a work of dissemination, and asked not to be connected with his work.introduction to Visions of the Eternal Present
Finally, some information from the Web on Théon. This is from the OTO history documents (the O.T.O., based on the teachings of Crowley, is the most important post-war magickal/occult organisation)
Born in Poland, Théon travelled widely in his youth. In Cairo, he became a student of a Coptic magician named Paulos Metamon.
The first sentence is most probably correct (Mirra mentions he was initiated in India). The second I do not know enough to comment on. The O.T.O. material also mentions Théon in connection with the The Hermetic Brotherhood Of Luxor (correct), and says that his original name was Louis-Maximilian Bimstein (incorrect, for reasons to be demonstrated shortly)
Spurious information on Théon
Théon is unfortunately someone who, like other important but mysterious esoteric figures, has had a lot of spurious information develop around him. Two bits of wrong information in particular that can be mentioned here are currently on the web. One is Theosphical, and the other Thelemic.
The Theosophical material, which goes back to Blavatsky, does not mention Théon by name, but is very slanderous of the Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor, the occult organisation Théon founded. According to the Theosophical glossary "the Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor (H. B. of L.) A spurious "esoteric" society started about 1884 in England, which later spread to America before it was exposed as a fraud in Yorkshire by Theosophists around 1887." In fact the order was founded in 1870, not in 1884 (unless this is a different organisation of the same name, which in view of Blavatsky's connection with Théon I doubt, and the H. B. L., Théon, and 1884 are also mentioned in OTO history documents), and rather than being a fraud was significant enough to have been connected with the O.T.O.
The on-line Tales of Thelema by T Allen Greenfield, presents a fictional assemblage of romantic stories and anecdotes, among which some historical references are mixed. Mentioned here is a supposed episode of the life of Théon as a young boy, Louis-Maximilian Bimstein, (b. 1850) with his father Rabbi Bimstein, soon to leave Warsaw for Cairo. The story has young Louis recalling an early meeting in 1860 in Frankfurt with an elderly man, Franz Joseph Molitor, a member of the Frankists. A little later, following reference to a prophet who would "announce the Aeon" (i.e., Crowley), he announced he would call himself "Max Théon" - the Great God. Of course, pious Jews referribng to the prophet of the new aeon is a humorous fiction. The narrative continues:
He (Molitor) led them to a chamber below ground, surprisingly dry, illuminated by seven torches, encircling a blazing star with the letter "F" in its center, a sign known to all followers of Jacob Frank.
In order to determine the validity of this with a friend, Yakov Leib Ha-Cohen, who is a world-class authority on Jacob Frank, and comes from a family of Frankists. He confirmed that there was no such "sign" in Frankism.
In fairness to the author, it should be stated that "Tales of Thelema" is a collection of just that -- tales, fiction. It makes no claim to be more nor less than historical fiction. I thought it best to mention this however because historical fiction can sometimes be confused for statements of fact, and conversly works of historical fiction can be used as vehicle for presenting fact. In any case the author has presented his nonfiction views on Theon, in Story of the Hermetic Brotherhood of Light (Looking Glass Press).
Because "Louis-Maximilian" seems like an unusual name to come from an East European Jew (Moses, Isaac, etc are a lot more plausible), I originally believed this name to be bogus. However, I have since been told told that Bimstein is a Jewish German-sounding name (like Bernstein, Rothschild, Bronstein, etc) as it was usual for all Jews (Ashkenaze) who were speaking Yiddish.
Bimstein means "pumice stone" and is perhaps the indication that someone in the family was dealing with those objects which were much precious for the beauty of women. And Louis-Maximilian is an homage to the Austrian Emperor of that time, as a kind of protection (very usual too). The part of Poland where Théon's family was living (Silesia with Krakow as capital) was a part of the Hungarian-Austrian Empire till the Seven Years War between Prussia and Austria, and after the war was in Prussia (that is the part with most important coal industries and the biggest Jewish community till Hitler).
In Sujata's Book there is the photocopy of Théon's marriage certificate in England where he indicates his name and also that his father was a "Rabbi" and was called Leon Judas (= Lion of Juda, traditional too among Jews, also to be found under the names of Löwy, Lévy, Lévi, etc from German Löwe = Lion).
In an email T Allen Greenfield has informed me that, in the context of the late Holy Roman and later Austro-Hungarian empire, the name "Louis-Maximillian Bimstein" is not at all odd. This was an Empire with radically differing overlapping cultures and languages. Jews typically spoke Russian, Hungarian, German and Yiddish, and had personal names for their encounters with different ethnic groups. They might have a hebrew name, a hungarian name, a German name, and so on. Apparently one can find the Bimsteins including Louis-Max's father and sister by a bit of searching in the Jewish Gen data base.
The Young Théon
Max was exceptionally young when he mastered different occult lores and became proficient in occultism. He spoke several languages with ease, and was adept at many crafts. A diversity of subjects interested him - scientific or artistic or sociological. He could always hold his own against the experts in any line.
With his refinement, his aristocratic bearing, he became a much sought-after guest in London's high society. Very quickly he gained a reputation almost matching that of the Count of Saint-Germain - in the Court of Louis XV - who claimed to be several centuries old. Théon never made any such claims. But rumours about him flew around at a great pace. Some spoke of his earthly immortality, others said he was the son of a Russian Prince, and so on and so forth. Dr. Théon's enigmatic personality aroused everybody's curiosity, but he took good care never to satisfy itMirra the Occultist
Théon's association with Madame Blavatsky, the founder of the Theosophical society, is most interesting, for it indicates at least one way in which Théon's teachings could have shaped subsequent Western esoteric understanding. Not directly, but through the medium of Theosophy. (This of course is to say nothing regarding the nature or influence of the esoteric societies Théon himself founded - whatever they may have been). According to the Mother, it was Théon who taught Blavatsky Kabbalah [This is in Mother's Agenda, either vol 1 or vol 3]. It is also interesting that the concepts of Seven Planes of existence, the central importance of evolution, and a reincarnating Soul or Higher Self which is distinct from the psycho-physical personality, were common to both Théon and Theosophy; and in fact still are central teachings in all Theosophical and Theosophically-derived systems of thought.
Mirra says that
"...Barlet [mispelled Barley in the Agenda]...met Théon in Egypt when Théon was with Blavatsky; they started a magazine with an ancient Egyptian name..., and then he told Théon...to publish a Cosmic Review and the 'Cosmic Books'...." Mother's Agenda Mother's Agenda, vol 3, p.452
I have attempted to follow up the above references, by checking the biographies of Blavatsky, of which there are a number available. And although Blavatsky was twice in Egypt (in Alexandria and Cairo) in the 1850's and in 1871, and during the second visit founded a spiritualist society, the Société Spirite, which was to study the teachings of the well-known medium Allen Kardec, and which apparently collapsed after only a fortnight, nowhere is there any mention at all of Max Théon, or Barlet, or a magazine with an ancient Egyptian name. Logically, the period when Blavatsky and Théon met would have been during her second visit. But it appears that this was a part of her life which Blavatsky preferred to remain silent about. Indeed, whilst she did not mention Théon, she was very hostile and vocal towards the hermetic society he established.
In his biographical chapter on Théon, Christian Chanel considers it unlikely that Théon and Blavatsky met:
"Various remarks attributed to Mirra Alfassa by her biographers connect Theon with Madame Blavatsky's first attempt at public work: the "Société spirite" she started in Cairo in 1871. But they are too insubstantial and contradictory to allow us to accept them [footnote: they consit of remarks mnade by The Mother" concerning events fifty years before. See Satprem I, 180-181, repeated in Nahar II 48, 51). While it is not impossible that Theon was in Egypt in 1871-2, and there met Blavtasky and her former teacher, the Coptic magician Paulos Metamon...it seems unlikely, especially if he was in Paris in 1870, and in England by 1873."
Christian Chanel, The Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor p.9, (Samuel Weiser, 1995)
On the other hand a book by R. Paul Johnson, The Masters Revealed: Madame Blavatsky and the Myth of the Great White Lodge, SUNY Press, argues that the "mahatmas" were dramatised historical adepts with invented names. According to Johnson, Tuitit Bey is actually Max Theon (Louis Maximilien Bimstein). In this book (I think, I need to check up the quotations) Johnson supports Mirra's assertions that Blavatsky learned Kabbalah from Theon (when i have the quote I'll include it in this page)
It is perhaps worth noting also that Pascal Themanlys, in his hagiographic essay on Theon, "Prophecy and Meditation in the Light of the Kabbalah" (see A Way of Meditation in the Light of the Kabbalah mentions both Madame Blavatsky and Mirra Alfassa as Theon's pupils (Ansgar Edtion 2002 p.4)
The Hermetic Brotherhood Of Luxor
The Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor was a mystical society which Théon established (or took over, for the organisation seems to predate him) when visited London in 1870.
According to the O.T.O. documents, the H. B. of L. surfaced publicly in England in 1884 (this is the year that Blavatsky says (incorrectly). The origins of the H.B. of L. are unclear, but there is some evidence linking it with the Brotherhood of Luxor, which was involved in the founding of the Theosophical Society, the 18th century Austrian Masonic/Rosicrucian splinter group known as the Fratres Lucis, as well as the latter's 19th century English spiritualist namesake, Hermetic Brotherhood of Light. According to violin-maker and Scottish philosopher Peter Davidson, Théon came to England in 1870, where he and Davidson established an "Outer Circle" of the H.B. of L. In 1873, Théon, then just twenty-six, was made its Grand Master; Peter Davidson was the Order's frontal Chief. Blavatsky, Olcott, Barlet and many other occultists of the time were among its members. But in 1877 Blavatsky and Olcott severed their relation with the H.B. of L. It is known that Blavatsky's first Master was the magus Paulos Metamon, whom she had met in Asia Minor in 1848 and again in Cairo in 1870. Metamon was either a Copt or a Chaldean. Many people, including Barlet, believed that "Dr. Max Théon was the son of 'the old Copt."'
In 1883 by Thomas H. Burgoyne (aka Thomas Dalton, 1855-1895) joined the H. B. of L. He later wrote a book summarizing the basic teachings of the H.B. of L., titled The Light of Egypt. The function of this "Outer Circle" of the H.B. of L. was to offer a correspondence course on practical occultism; which set it apart from the Theosophical Society. Its curriculum included a number of selections from the writings of Hargrave Jennings and P.B. Randolph.
The Tales of Thelema (which as I have already pointed out is unreliable in several areas) states that in 1873 Carl Kellner (who was later to found the modern O.T.O.) reached Cairo for the first time, being one of many westerners of his day to make the "journey to the East" (others included Madame Blavatsky, the rosicrucian and teacher of sex-magic Pascal Beverly Randolph, and Richard Burton, the English adventurer). In Cairo Kellner "met for the first time with another, quite mysterious young man, then going by the name of Aia Aziz...When Herr Kellner met Aziz he had just been named Grand Master of the Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor, a hybrid body with elements of freemasonry, ancient Egyptian religion and Ansari Islamic Tantrism." Aziz introduced Kellner to Randolph, who is here referred to as his student. Irrespective of the factuality or otherwise of this information, there is no doubt that there was a lot of important occult activity going on at this time, several decades before the founding of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn.
The first volume of "The Light of Egypt," originating from the pupils of Max Théon at the time of the H. B. of L., had nine editions in one hundred years in the U.S. The book is attributed to its secretary, Th. H. Burgoyne. One of the purposes of publishing the book was to clarify vulgarized conceptions about reincarnation and 'karma,' and to modify the influence of simplified Buddhism.
Max and Alma
It was at a party of London's high society that Max Théon was introduced to a young Irish poetess. She had a calm look, full of light. Touching hands for the first time revealed to them the harmony of their deepest beings.introduction to Visions of the Eternal Present
By May 1884 Max and Alma knew each other well enough to go to theatre together. On 21 March 1885, Max and Alma were married. One of the two witnesses was Augusta Roife, who was also known as Miss Teresa. The three of them went to live in N°ll Belgrave Road, St. John's Wood, Marylebone, which was Alma's residence.
A little later Théon began holding seances. Soon, however, the couple realized that England was not the best place to pursue occult knowledge, and the next year they went to the Continent. On March 9, 1886, that the three crossed over to France and reached Paris. They spent a few days there sightseeing, before seeking a house. In November Théon began holding seances in France. But after several moves around France they decided to make a larger change. Therefore in December 1887, the Théons left France for Algiers. Three weeks later Teresa joined them in Oran. After several months' search they finally found a place in the suburbs of Tlemcen. They acquired, in Madame Théon's name, a large villa on a hillside with extensive grounds. which took about a year to make the place livable. On May 1, 1889, they came to live in Zarif. It was to become their base.
Mirra the Occultist
Around the turn of the century the Théons decided to found the Cosmic Movement. Among the most important of Theon's students at this time were Louis Themanlys, a spiritual philosopher and writer, and Charles Barlet a metaphysician. Louis was also a friend of Matteo Alfassa, Mirra's brother, and so it was from Louis that Mirra first heard about Théon and the Cosmic Philosophy. Together they established the Cosmic Review - intended for the "study and re-establishment of the original Tradition".
Théon declared that his wife Alma was the moving spirit behind this idea. Thus, it was thanks to Madame Théon that all the science of the occult that Théon had accumulated could be put into practice.
Théon and Mirra
Théon's house in Tlemcen. Mirra Alfassa Morisset is looking out the window at the top right
In Paris in 1905 Mirra Morisset (who later in India became known as the Mother) first contacted Théon, and later she joined him and his wife in Tlemcan, Algeria, for the purpose of learning occultism [Glimpses of the Mother's Life, p.57, also photographs facing p.172]. Théon himself, despite his great intellect, apparently had little clairvoyant ability, for rather than attempt to perceive the occult realms directly, he would employ the services of his wife Alma, and later of Mirra as well.
Max Theon, drawn by Mirra
The six-pointed star of course is the symbol of Judaism, but the lotus and the square make it something else. According to Mother, Théon claimed that this symbol is the Seal of Solomon (a legendary occult symbol) [Mother's Agenda, vol 3, p.454]. Significantly, Blavatsky also refers - in a discussion on Kabbalah - to the over-lapping triangles as Solomon's Seal, although her figure does not include the central square and lotus [H. P. Blavatsky, Isis Unveiled, Quest Books].
In fact, the Mother designed Sri Aurobindo's symbol directly from Théon's, making only minor changes in the proportions of the central square [Mother's Agenda, vol 3, p.454].
The symbol on the left is Théon's original; that on the right is the version Mirra designed for Sri Aurobindo.
The later years
In 1908 the death of Alma, his wife and companion of twenty-three years (from March 1885 to September 1908) was a terrible blow to Théon. He fell a prey to a profound depression. The Themanlys took their broken-hearted Master to their Normandy home and for several months nursed him with loving care, until he was somewhat recovered and could travel. He then returned to Tlemcen. But before doing that he told the members of the Cosmic movement that as the Heart of the Movement had stopped beating, the publication of the Cosmic Review would stop too.
Théon's visits to France then became extremely rare. Many people believed he had died in 1913 or thereabouts, but in fact he had been badly injured in a car accident, and was only able to walk after a year.
He was still in Tlemcen and recovering from his injuries when the 1914 war broke out. He held a war to be "the greatest crime, because life is sacred." According to Théon, as with Plato, the ideal political system is a Government by the Wise.
During the four years of war they did not move from Tlemcen apparently. His devoted secretary Teresa remained his companion. their last visit to Paris was in 1919-1920. Finally, according to a small paragraph in a newspaper published at Tlemcen, Théon died on 4 March 1927, and the funeral was held on 6 March 1927.
It is fascinating to consider the influence on Blavatsky; especially how similar some of the ideas and style of Théon's cosmic tradition was to Blavatsky. And it is even more astonishing to consider that the teachings of the Mother and Sri Aurobindo are today the only ones that in properly diffuse the Cosmic Tradition.
Mirra in contrast to Blavatsky seems to have been more faithful to Théon's conceptual scheme, as it really is an excellent system. While at times not very impressed with Théon's personality (although she thought very highly of his wife, Alma Théon), she obviously thought very highly regarding his metaphysics, for she retained his concepts, and even his curious terminology, which she passed on to Sri Aurobindo [The Mother, Mother's Agenda, vol 3, p.58, Institute for Evolutionary Research, New York, 1982]. Thus Théon's metaphysic found its way, through Mirra's mediation, into Sri Aurobindo's comprehensive cosmology. Théon, Blavatsky, Aurobindo and Mirra were all occultist-mystics who brought together the occult (knowledge of and interaction with the intermediate worlds) and the mystic-yogic realities.
Sujata Nahar, Mother's Chronicles, book three - Mirra the Occultist, Institut de Recherches Évolutives, Paris
OTO history documents
Pascal Themanlys, introduction to Visions of the Eternal Present, edited by Argaman in Jerusalem, 1991
by Alan Kazlev 2005.