John Algeo – USA
Original title: Senzar-The Mystery of the Mystery Language
[Note from the editor: this is a slightly revised version to suit Theosophy Forward’s template and to make the paper better readable]
WHAT IS SENZAR?
What then is this "mystery language" of HPB's? What kind of "language" is Senzar? Blavatsky says that the Hermetic Philosophers (that is, alchemists) of the Middle Ages
renovated the ancient symbolical language of the high-priests of antiquity, who had used it as a sacred barrier between their holy rites and the ignorance of the profane, and created a veritable Cabalistic slang. This latter, which continually blinded the false neophyte, attracted towards the science only by his greediness for wealth and power which he would have surely misused were he to succeed, is a living, eloquent, clear language; but it is and can become such, only to the true disciple of Hermes. (CW I, 13)
In this passage, Blavatsky is clearly talking about alchemical "jargon" and saying that properly understood it is full of high meaning, and also that it is a renovated form of the "ancient symbolical language," apparently a reference to Senzar. Similarly, Blavatsky says that the Jewish holy writings from the Pentateuch to the Talmud were written
in a kind of Mystery-language, were, in fact, a series of symbolical records which the Jews had copied from the Egyptian and the Chaldaean Sanctuaries, only adapting them to their own national history. (CW, XIV, 170)
Again, what is meant by "mystery language" here is an allegorical or symbolic use of narrative language, such as the biblical narratives of the creation, the fall, the crossing of the red sea, and so on (as interpreted in considerable detail by Alvin Boyd Kuhn, Geoffrey Hodson, and others). Blavatsky makes various references to such symbolism:
... the art of speaking and writing in a language which bears a double interpretation, is of very great antiquity;
... it was in practice among the priests of Egypt, brought from thence by the Manichees, whence it passed to the Templars and Albigenses, spread over Europe, and brought about the Reformation. (quoted from Charles Sotheran, CW, I, 126)
Senzar, always mysterious ....
The Hierophants and Initiates of the Mysteries in the Secret Schools ... had one universal, Esoteric tongue -- the language of symbolism and allegory. This language has suffered neither modification nor amplification from those remote times down to this day. It still exists and is still taught. There are those who have preserved the knowledge of it, and also of the arcane meaning of the Mysteries; and it is from these Masters that the writer of the present protest had the good fortune of learning, howbeit imperfectly, the said language. Hence her claim to a more correct comprehension of the arcane portion of the ancient texts written by avowed Initiates -- such as were Plato and Iamblichus, Pythagoras, and even Plutarch ... (CW, XIII, 153-54)
As the Egyptian hierophants had their private code of hieratic symbols, and even the founder of Christianity spoke to the vulgar in parables whose mystical meaning was known only to the chosen few, so the Brahmans had from the first (and still have) a mystical terminology couched behind ordinary expressions, arranged in certain sequences and mutual relations, which none but the initiate would observe. (CW V, 296)
It is hard to imagine plainer statements that those just cited. Clearly, the "one universal, Esoteric tongue" is "the language of symbolism and allegory." Blavatsky also speaks of the mystery language as involving ideographs, hieroglyphs, and pictorial representations. She claims that of all the sacred and philosophical works ever written, those whose texts were not already veiled in symbolism have been "copied in cryptographic characters." (I, xxiii-xxiv) Further, she says:
The Secret Doctrine teaches us that the arts, sciences, theology, and especially the philosophy of every nation which preceded the last UNIVERSALLY KNOWN, but not universal Deluge, had been recorded ideographically from the primitive oral records of the Fourth Race, and that these were the inheritance of the latter from the early Third Root-Race before the allegorical Fall. (II, 530)
... placed side by side with the hieroglyphic or pictorial initial version of "creation" in the Book of Dzyan, the origin of the Phoenician and Jewish letters would soon be found out. (CW, XIV, 206)
We have now to speak of the Mystery language, that of the prehistoric races. It is not a phonetic, but a purely pictorial and symbolical tongue. (II, 574)
The last cited statement shows that the Mystery language Senzar is not a spoken language, nor a system of writing that represents such a language, but is "purely pictorial and symbolical." In several places, Blavatsky is quite clear about the sort of thing the mystery language is. It uses written symbols that represent ideas, not the sounds of a language:
Moreover, there exists a universal language among the Initiates, which an Adept, and even a disciple, of any nation may understand by reading it in his own language. We Europeans, on the contrary, possess only one graphic sign common to all, & (and); there is a language richer in metaphysical terms than any on earth, whose every word is expressed by like common signs.(CW, XIV, 10)
HPB's example is the Greek letter "Y", which she says is understood as representing the two paths of virtue and vice, white and black magic, and various other things. Such meanings correlate with the shape of the letter, which suggests the dividing of a way and a forced choice between alternatives. She elaborates the same idea elsewhere:
... all the ancient records were written in a language which was universal and known to all nations alike in days of old, but which is now intelligible only to the few. Like the Arabic figures which are plain to a man of whatever nation, or like the English word AND, which becomes ET for the Frenchman, UND for the German, and so on, yet which may be expressed for all civilized nations in the simple sign "&" -- so all the words of that mystery- language signified the same thing to each man of whatever nationality. There have been several men of note who have tried to re-establish such a universal and PHILOSOPHICAL tongue: Delgarme, Wilkins, Leibnitz ... (-- I, 310)
"Delgarme" is perhaps an error for George Dalgarno. He, Wilkins, and Leibnitz were three important figures in seventeenth-century efforts to design a "universal and philosophical" language. Dalgarno is little known today, but the other two were active in many endeavors.
John Wilkins (1614-72) was bishop of Chester but is best known as the chief founder and first secretary of the British Royal Society. Among his works is an ESSAY TOWARDS A REAL CHARACTER AND A PHILOSOPHICAL LANGUAGE, in which he invented a language and writing system that attempted to classify all reality and represent it unambiguously and rationally; Roget's Thesaurus was later based on Wilkins's classification of ideas.
Gottfried Wilhelm Leibnitz (1646-1716), the philosopher and mathematician, was secretary to a Rosicrucian Lodge in Nuremberg (according to the ENCYCLOPAEDIA BRITANNICA, 11th ed., XVI, 385). He wanted to devise a way of symbolizing thought that could be used by people of all languages and that would be free of all the vagueness and ambiguities that ordinary languages abound in, to use for peacefully settling disagreements. The invention of universal, philosophical languages was a pastime, if not an obsession, of the seventeenth century.
It is clear from the foregoing passages that the mystery language is no ordinary spoken language, but is instead a symbolic representation that can be "read," that is, interpreted, in any language whatever. These passages seem to say that it was a kind of ideographic writing, but other of Blavatsky's comments make it appear more general than that. In speaking of Confucius and his interpretation of the hexagrams of the I CHING, Blavatsky says,
... the STANZAS given in our text ... represent PRECISELY THE SAME IDEA. The old archaic map of Cosmogony is full of LINES in the Confucian style, of concentric circles and dots. (I, 441)
The Stanzas are like the symbols of the I CHING, lines and figures, circles and dots. Blavatsky frequently emphasizes the "geometrical" nature of the mystery language:
... it becomes easy to understand how nature herself could have taught primeval mankind, even without the help of its divine instructors, the first principles of a numerical and geometrical symbol language. Hence one finds numbers and figures used as an expression and a record of thought in every archaic symbolical Scripture. (I, 320-21)
From the very beginning of Aeons -- in time and space in our Round and Globe -- the Mysteries of Nature (at any rate, those which it is lawful for our races to know) were recorded by the pupils of those same, now invisible, "heavenly men," in geometrical figures and symbols ... The TEN POINTS inscribed within that "Pythagorean TRIANGLE" are worth all the theogonies and angelologies ever emanated from the theological brain. For he who interprets them -- on their very face, and in the order given -- will find in these seventeen points (the seven Mathematical Points hidden) the uninterrupted series of the genealogies from the first HEAVENLY to TERRESTRIAL man." (I, 612)
One of the keys to this Universal Knowledge is a pure geometrical and numerical system, the alphabet of every great nation having a numerical value for every letter, and, moreover, a system of permutation of syllables and synonyms which is carried to perfection in the Indian Occult methods ... (CW, XIV, 181)
In keeping with such comments on mathematical symbolism, Blavatsky refers to the Stanza's account of cosmic evolution as an "abstract algebraical formula" applicable to all evolutionary processes (I, 20-21).
The preface to The Voice of the Silence describes The Book of the Golden Precepts, on which the Voice is based:
The original PRECEPTS are engraved on thin oblongs ... They are written variously, sometimes in Tibetan but mostly in ideographs. The sacerdotal language (Senzar), besides an alphabet of its own, may be rendered in several modes of writing in cypher characters, which partake more of the nature of ideographs than of syllables. ... A sign placed at the beginning of the text determines whether the reader has to spell it according to the Indian mode, when every word is simply a Sanskrit adaptation, or according to the Chinese principle of reading the ideographs. The easiest way, however, is that which allows the reader to use no special, or ANY language he likes, as the signs and symbols were, like the Arabian numerals or figures, common and international property among initiated mystics and their followers. (Voice, 6-7)
Presumably, Blavatsky does not mean that the same script can be read either phonetically or ideographically, making sense both ways. Such a script would be difficult to imagine. Rather she seems to mean that some parts of the PRECEPTS are written in Tibetan or another ordinary language, whereas other parts are written in ideographs or symbolic signs, with an indication to readers of what sort of communication they are about to encounter. That is very much the kind of mixed text she has described the Stanzas of Dzyan as also containing.
The cipher-like appearance of Senzar is amusingly involved in an affair that gave HPB some pain. In a letter to A.P. Sinnett, Blavatsky answered a charge made against her of being a Russian spy:
Coulomb stole a "queer looking paper" and gave it to the missionaries with the assurance this was a cipher used by the Russian spies(!!) They took it to the Police Commissioner, had the best experts examine it, sent it to Calcutta[,] for five months moved heaven and earth to find out what the cipher meant and -- now gave it up in despair. "It is one of your flapdoodles" says Hume. "It is one of my SENZAR MSS," I answer. I am perfectly confident of it, for one of the sheets of my book with numbered pages is missing. I defy any one but a Tibetan occultist to make it out, if it is this. (Letters of HPB, 76)
Senzar must, then, be capable of looking like a cipher, though it is not what we usually mean by that term.
However, Blavatsky also associates Senzar with the pictographs of the American Indians:
The Red Indian tribes of America, only a few years ago, comparatively speaking, petitioned the President of the United States to grant them possession of four small lakes, the petition being written on the tiny surface of a piece of a fabric, which is covered with barely a dozen representations of animals and birds ... The American savages have a number of such different kinds of writing, but not one of our Scientists is yet familiar [with], or even knows of the early hieroglyphic cipher, still preserved in some Fraternities, and named in Occultism the SENZAR. – (II, 439)
The Indian petition referred to here is similar to the pictograph in as shown in Part one. The fact that Blavatsky refers to Senzar as a "hieroglyphic cipher" should not be given undue weight. HPB did not use terms for languages and writing systems with the precision of a linguist today. The context in which she uses the expression in discussing the Indian pictograph makes it clear that for her terms like HIEROGLYPH and CIPHER simply denote a picture-like form of written communication. All we are safe in concluding from her remark is that Senzar involved a pictorial representation of occult ideas.
In describing the "old book" referred to in Isis Unveiled and said in The Secret Doctrine to have been written in Senzar, Blavatsky says:
One of its illustrations represents the Divine Essence emanating from ADAM like a luminous arc proceeding to form a circle; and then, having attained the highest point of its circumference, the ineffable glory bends back again, and returns to earth, bringing a higher type of humanity in its vortex. As it approaches nearer and nearer to our planet, the Emanation becomes more and more shadowy, until upon touching the ground it is as black as night. (ISIS, I, 1, cited in SD I, xlii)
Is it possible that the "illustration" described here is an example of Senzar, comparable to the Amerindian pictographs?
Senzar is identified with alchemical recipes, scriptural myths and parables, ideographs, visually evocative letter shapes, geometrical figures, ciphers, pictographs, and symbolical drawings. What all of these have in common is not that they are the same or even similar systems of communication, but rather that they are all examples of the symbolical mode of meaning. They are symbols pointing to a reality beyond themselves.
A script that can be read either phonetically or ideographically, and makes sense both ways, is difficult to imagine. Perhaps this description is deliberately mystifying (one of HPB's famous "blinds") and means no more than that a language written in a phonetic script can be used to express archetypal symbolic ideas. In interpreting passages like this, one is never sure whether HPB is using a term in its technical sense or whether she is using it impressionistically for effect.
AN EXAMPLE OF SENZAR
Is Senzar quite unrecoverable, or is it possible that we have it all about us? In particular, can we have had a Senzar text lying under our noses ever since the publication of The Secret Doctrine? The proem to that work begins with these words:
An Archaic Manuscript -- a collection of palm leaves made impermeable to water, fire, and air, by some specific unknown process -- is before the writer's eye. On the first page is an immaculate white disk within a dull black ground. On the following page, the same disk, but with a central point. (I, 1)
Later more symbols from the manuscript are described and reproduced:
The first illustration being a plain disk A, the second one in the Archaic symbol shows a disk B with a point in it -- the first differentiation in the periodical manifestations of the ever-eternal nature, sexless and infinite ... In its third stage the point is transformed into a diameter, thus C It now symbolizes a divine immaculate Mother-Nature within the all-embracing absolute Infinitude. When the diameter line is crossed by a vertical one D , it becomes the mundane cross. Humanity has reached its third Root-Race; it is the sign for the origin of human life to begin. When the circumference disappears and leaves only the + it is a sign that the fall of man into matter is accomplished, and the FOURTH race begins. (I, 4-5)
From the left to the right A - B - C - D
One document that we are told is written in Senzar is the palm-leaf manuscript of the Stanzas of Dzyan. The content of the manuscript is described as these and other visual symbols. Of course, it is possible that the symbols are simply illustrations for a text of a more conventional sort, written in an alphabet or ideographic script also of a more conventional sort. But it is equally possible that these symbols -- these circles and lines -- are the "hieroglyphic cipher," the "geometrical figures and symbols" of Senzar. And indeed, the latter seems more likely, as the cut of Ockham's razor. Moreover, the version of cosmogenesis in the Book of Dzyan is said to be "hieroglyphic or pictorial" (CW XIV, 206), an apt description of these symbols.
In her discussion of myths about the origins of the gods, Blavatsky quotes a sentence from the Book of Dzyan (I, 434):
[Note from the editor: these symbols could not be reproduced on our JOOMLA template. Instead and for all clarity a photo of this particular paragraph is placed here,]
Most of the geometrical symbols in that sentence stand primarily for numbers in an obvious way. The first five represent 31415, the number of pi (the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter: 3.1415). The next four stand for 4311 or 432, representing the number of years in a cycle totaling 4,320,000. The last two are more general symbols, zero representing the world boundary or ring pass not, and the point representing the nondimensional, unmanifested first logos. This sentence shows the use Blavatsky has described of geometrical symbols -- that is, Senzar -- in the Book of Dzyan.
Most significantly, Blavatsky speaks of "the 'Mystery-language' of the prehistoric ages, the language now called SYMBOLISM" (I, 309). If the "Mystery-language" is Senzar, then Senzar is symbolism -- a system of symbols that are traditional, secret in their interpretation, but also known all over the world. The symbols HPB describes from the palm-leaf manuscript are precisely the symbols we find from Polynesia to the caves of the Pyrenees, from the oldest rock carvings of Africa to present-day dream symbolism. They are truly a universal language. Senzar -- in the Book of Dzyan.
We can summarize what Blavatsky says or implies about Senzar as follows:
- The Stanzas of Dzyan in The Secret Doctrine are based on an original Senzar version, and the original text of the Stanzas is described as pictographs and geometrical figures. The text of the Stanzas in The Secret Doctrine is not the original, but is a paraphrase based on Blavatsky's understanding of the original and adapted to our ability to grasp the ideas symbolized.
- Senzar is the "Mystery language" used by initiates all over the world and from the earliest days of humanity. It is not a language known to philologists.
- The Mystery language was originally the common property of all human beings and was, indeed, the one language of our race, but by the time of our present humanity it has become an esoteric, that is, an inner or private system.
- Despite the fact that HPB sometimes calls it "speech," the Mystery language is not normal spoken language, but is "pictorial and symbolical."
- On the one hand, the esoteric language is allegory like that found in the writings of the alchemists and Jewish scriptures.
- On the other hand, the esoteric language is a form of written symbols that can be interpreted in various ways and by various spoken languages, especially geometrical figures with a hieroglyphic, cipher-like appearance.
- The Mystery language is what we now call symbolism: it speaks to our unconscious minds and can be only imperfectly translated into ordinary, logical language.
Thus we can think of Senzar as being the whole complex of sacred symbols with expressions of various kinds, but of two chief types:
- the archetypal symbols in myths and fairy tales, allegories and parables, alchemical recipes and biblical history -- stories that have a hidden meaning underneath the obvious narrative, stories that bear "a double interpretation"; and
- a visual representation of those archetypal symbols in pictographs or hieroglyphic and cipher-like characters whose meaning the initiated can interpret independently of any language.
If Senzar is the system of such symbols, many of the puzzles about it are automatically cleared up. Blavatsky's comparisons of Senzar with ordinary human languages are no problem. She used terms like LANGUAGE, SPPECH, HIEROGLYPH, IDEOGRAPH, and CIPHER loosely. She was no philologist and had no interest in the detailed distinctions that academic scholars make when they talk about such matters. For her it was enough to convey a general meaning and let her readers work out the details for themselves. So the symbolic system of Senzar is a "language" in the broad sense of the term, but radically different from ordinary languages like Sanskrit, Latin, and English.
If Senzar is a system of verbal and iconic symbols, then we can understand why the Stanzas of Dzyan in The Secret Doctrine are necessarily imperfect paraphrases of their original. They are efforts to put into ordinary language ideas that can be expressed fully, albeit obscurely from the standpoint of language, only by symbolic signs and diagrams. That is exactly what Blavatsky seems to be saying in the recapitulation to volume I of The Secret Doctrine:
But such is the mysterious power of Occult symbolism, that the facts which have actually occupied countless generations of initiated seers and prophets to marshal, to set down and explain, in the bewildering series of evolutionary progress, are all recorded on a few pages of geometrical signs and glyphs.(I, 272)
Those "few pages of geometrical signs and glyphs," the original of the Stanzas of Dzyan, have been paraphrased and explicated in many of the world's scriptures. They have certainly occupied, and bewildered, several generations of Theosophists since 1888, when H.P. Blavatsky published her articulation of them in The Secret Doctrine.
We can also understand the association of Senzar with devanagari and Egyptian hieroglyphs. By its etymology, devanagari is a form of "divine" or "sacred" writing; so is Senzar. Hieroglyphs are based upon symbolic pictures and thus fall into the same broad class as the symbols of Senzar. It is not that spoken Sanskrit or Egyptian and Senzar are related to Senzar, but rather that Senzar consists of sacred symbols, as devanagari also does, and that Senzar and hieroglyphs reflect the same archetypal images. Devanagari and hieroglyphs both express, in varying ways, the primordial symbolism that Blavatsky calls Senzar.
Blavatsky's odd remark that "'Amida' is the Senzar form of 'ADI'" (CW, XIV, 425) is also explicable. Since Amida (or Amitabha) is one of the representations of the power of the primordial Adi Buddha, it is a symbol of that power. Adi Buddha is the absolute, which cannot be described or conceived, but can be symbolized, for example, by the figures of the Dhyani Buddhas, of whom Amida is one. If Senzar is a system of symbols for expressing the otherwise inexpressible, it makes perfect sense to say that "'Amida [the personification of boundless light] is the Senzar form [symbolic expression] of 'ADI' [the Absolute]." Far from being a mistake, HPB's comment is a simple truth, but symbolically expressed.
Blavatsky tells us that the marvelous Kumbum tree is a fact. Whether, however, it is a botanical as well as a symbolic fact is unclear. It is certainly the latter. The tree in whose branches the universe grows, the tree that produces the letters of the alphabet as its fruit, is a widespread symbol. It is a species that includes the Yggdrasil of the Northmen and the Kabbalistic Tree of Life, upon whose branches appear the letters of the Hebrew alphabet and which therefore includes in embryo the whole of the Torah.
That the Kumbum tree should grow in Tibet and bear the sacred symbols of Senzar on its leaves and bark is quite consonant with a view of Senzar not as an ordinary language, but as the primordial symbolism of the human species. The tree of humanity -- which Stanza 7 refers to as "the man-plant, called Saptaparna" (I, 231) -- spontaneously produces those symbols that HPB names Senzar. They are written upon our souls as Senzar is said to be upon the leaves and inner bark of the wonderful Kumbum tree.
The Kumbum tree is the Cosmos and the microcosm of humanity. However deep one goes into the Kumbum tree, peeling away its bark, one discovers the sacred letters of the Senzar alphabet empressed there. However deep one goes into the fabric of the universe or into the levels of the human soul, one discovers the primal symbols of the Ancient Wisdom, the Secret Doctrine, in living shapes. We and the universe in our unity are the source of that Doctrine. We are the Kumbum tree that bears that Wisdom.
To literalize HPB's statements about the Kumbum tree -- to suppose that it is a tree like an oak or a pine, only queerer -- is to miss the significance and the magnificence of the symbol. The marvel of the Kumbum tree is not that it is a sight for tourists. The real marvel is that we are that tree. And so it is with other theosophical marvels. So it is with Senzar.
Senzar is the one language of the youth of humanity because it is the collection of symbols found worldwide and throughout the ages. It goes back to the earliest, prephysical and preintellectual, human races. Symbols are universal, for they arise spontaneously in the dreams and visions of all humans everywhere and have been recorded with remarkable consistency throughout human history, as C.G. Jung and his followers have demonstrated.
Ordinary language is a product of the mind and could not exist before the mind was activated, as HPB makes clear in her history of human speech. However, symbols are prelinguistic and prelogical. Their proper place is not the conscious mind, but the unconscious. They belong to our most remote past and speak to us irrationally and therefore most powerfully.
Senzar is "the Mystery-language of the prehistoric ages, the language now called Symbolism." It is our first, our common language, the language of the unconscious, the universal language of symbolism -- the one language that expresses the one knowledge. And that is marvel and mystery indeed.
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--. ISIS UNVEILED. Ed. Boris de Zirkoff. 2 vols. Wheaton, Ill.: TPH, 1972.
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--. THE SECRET DOCTRINE. 2 vols. Centennial Edition (1888 facsimile reprint), Pasadena, California: Theosophical University Press, 1973.
--. THE SECRET DOCTRINE. Ed. Boris de Zirkoff. 2 vols. Madras: Theosophical Publishing House, 1978.
--. THE THEOSOPHICAL GLOSSARY. Los Angeles: Theosophy Co., 1973.
--. THE VOICE OF THE SILENCE AND OTHER CHOSEN FRAGMENTS FROM THE BOOK OF THE GOLDEN PRECEPTS. London: Theosophical Publishing Society, 1892.
THE MAHATMA LETTERS TO A.P. SINNETT from the Mahatmas M. & K.H. Ed. A.T. Barker. 3rd ed. Ed. Christmas Humphreys and Elsie Benjamin. Madras: TPH, 1962, 1972.