With the exception of a few Christmas carols, my education about angels was really lacking. Archangels weren’t even mentioned, and saints were uncomfortably avoided. This apparently was due to my protestant parents thinking that it was all too catholic to factor in to their belief system.
In my shamanic training it has been impressed upon me that the lineage of one’s knowledge is an important thing to understand. This idea itself may come from the traditions of many indigenous cultures that are organized by material clan associations, and the etiquette of establishing your tribal belonging by a recitation of your own ancestors.
So lately, having been introduced to Doreen Virtue’s oracle cards, and having had a healing session in which an ascended master participated, I’ve been wondering about the ancestors – that is, about the conceptual origins -- of the beliefs regarding ascended masters – something I’d never heard of until very late in life. Where did this come from, I wondered.
The Term Ascended Masters Comes from a 1924 Book
Baird Spalding, a mining engineer from New Cohocton, NY, wrote a book called Life and Teachings of the Masters of the Far East in which he claimed to have been with other unnamed scientists who encountered such masters on a trip to the Himalayas in 1894. The book described the masters as immortals who shared their magical miracles and gave the scientists room and board.
Despite this book providing no proof of its claims, it became quite popular in the spiritualist circles of the day. Guy Ballard, a friend of Spalding’s and fellow engineer from Kansas, connected Spalding’s ideas to his own.
Ballard himself claimed a mystical encounter with a Saint German while on a hike at Mt Shasta, wrote his own book called Unveiled Mysteries and another titled The Magic Presence. And soon after Ballard began identifying himself and his wife as the sole accredited messengers of Saint German -- who actually was not a saint, maybe the illegitimate son of a Spanish queen with a title of Count, and possibly more rumored figure than human. Their teachings evolved into something called the I AM Activity, and later into the Ascended Masters Teachings.
Both Spalding and Ballard seem to have been influenced by the writings of Helena Petrovna Blavatsky (1831-1891), co-founder of the Theosophical Society that gained a substantial following in the early half of the 20th century. Blavatsky was a self-taught spiritualist from a Russian-German aristocratic family who was originally influenced by the teachings of the Russian Orthodox church. In her young adulthood she travelled the world soaking up esoteric and magical spiritualities from various cultures, and forming a complex of ideas that figured into her several books.
Seeking ancient wisdom in an era when much of that was difficult to come by, and often denied to women, Blavatsky drew from available if obscure older sources such as Hermeticism (esoteric sciences including alchemy) and Neoplatonism, as well as the contemporary ideas from a growing reform movement in Hinduism.
For a variety of reasons she attracted a large amount of criticism, partly due to how her psychic claims were marketed in America and elsewhere. She may have been among the first to speak to the general public about knowledge believed known only to initiated masters of ancient knowledge in the remote and exotic locales of the Himalayas.
Madame Blavatsky, as she was introduced to her audiences, developed a whole hierarchy of initiations, populated by various humans whose lives had profound spiritual impact on their times and cultures. And she also proposed a complicated system of “rays” that factored into astrology that are still found in some modern day astrological texts, although they are rarely used by most astrologers. I personally don’t find much value in the idea of rays in astrology.
Nonetheless, the ideas put forth by the Theosophical Society, and the I AM teachings evolved during the new age spiritual movements of the 1960s and Count Saint-Germain became popularized once again through the work of Summit Lighthouse and Elizabeth Clare Prophet and others, including more recently Doreen Virtue.
The Deeper Context of the Rise of Ascended Master Ideology
To really have a full appreciation for how these ideas catch on and have staying power, it is useful to briefly review their historical backdrop. Blavatsky lifetime spanned the Victorian era – a time when British imperialism ruled much of the world despite undercurrents of unrest against the dying vestiges of colonial powers everywhere.
Daily life was quite uncertain for millions of people, populations were exploding, the Great Migration to America took place spurred by Ireland’s Potato Famine, and many wars came and went – including the Opium War, the devastating Crimean War, two Boer Wars, a failed rebellion in India against British occupation, then later occupation of Egypt and other countries of the Middle East.
Darwin published his Origin of the Species causing new questioning in educated circles on the religious myths for the structures of life. It was a time, as Charles Dickens noted, of the best and the worst.
In the United States, there was the systematic destruction of Native America, its culture and spiritual wisdom, and the infamous Trail of Tears removal of millions of tribal peoples from their ancestral lands, while the government continued warring against tribes and breaking treaties across the country. Not to mention the civil war that has forever scarred relations between north and south in the US.
In short, life as was known was coming to an end, privileged society felt understandably threatened, and an unconscious existential angst prevailed. In times like these – not so different from chaos and turmoil of 2017 – there is something in human nature that turns to mystical questions and experiences.
So there is the lineage and context for the development of the idea of ascended masters.
There may be interesting similarities between this idea of ascended masters, and the ancient pantheons of gods and goddesses throughout the world who may have served much the same purpose in the daily lives of ordinary people yearning for answers and experiencing mysteries that are difficult to explain. Where there is yearning, there can be self-delusion.
A few years ago some people were oddly claiming ascended master status for all kinds of rather recently deceased people, including Julia Child.
In shamanic practice, and in much of Pagan tradition, the concept of ascended masters just doesn't figure in. For the most part, we don't revere or rely on spiritual teachers from long ago in history for spiritual guidance or protection, although they may be given the same respect as any other cultural Ancestor. If we need to give their status an additional descriptor, it might just be that of enlightened beings.