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Volume 3727
Our Weird, Nasty Sister
By: Scott Van Wynsberghe
Reprinted from Canada's National Post - with permission


     You know things are getting odd when your reputation depends on a dubious mystic. The planet Venus, however, has often been unpredictable, and, 125 years ago, it wound up with 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 and thereby ushered in decades of fascination for our closest planetary neighbor, the 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 in her twilight years in the late 1880s (she died in 1891), the Russian-born Blavatsky had toured the world in search of arcane knowledge ranging from Western paganism to Eastern metaphysics. She had also 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).

     Regardless of Blavatsky's reputation, it says a lot that she focused on Venus for one of her final projects. Prior to 1887, the planet 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, an 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, founded by her, was ominously entitled Lucifer, and its first issue was dated September, 1887. Inside, one found her essay "The History of a Planet," which clarified the title of the magazine. 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 who 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 worse results, because large amounts of carbon dioxide were 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 that it sometimes outdid Mars -- even, amazingly, in the UFO field. Of course, Venus has always 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."

     Along with the UFOs came several movies during the 1950s and 1960s, some of which were significant. The 1968 zombie film Night of the Living Dead -- basically, the source of all zombie entertainment today -- had a sketchy premise about Venusian infection. Other Venusian films include It Conquered the Earth (1956), Twenty Million Miles to Earth (1957), and Queen of Outer Space (1958). There was also a 1954 British serial, Masters of Venus (linking Venus to Atlantis) and a 1964 Venusian episode of the TV show The Outer Limits (starring William Shatner).

     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 spacecraft 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 500 degrees Celsius. In 1965, science fiction writer Larry Niven provided the first realistic portrayal of the place -- oven-like, lifeless -- in a story fittingly entitled "Becalmed in Hell." (Adding insult to injury, astronomer Carl Sagan and writer Brian Aldiss eccentrically attempted in the 1960s to replace the adjective "Venusian" with "Cytherean." Arthur C. Clarke, of 2001: A Space Odyssey, scoffed.)

     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."


Scott Van Wynsberghe lives in Winnipeg, whining about 30-degree summer heat.


     The term "sister planet": Although not much used today, due to our growing knowledge of the intense differences between Venus and Earth, this term was once so common that the science fiction writer Poul Anderson wrote a 1959 short story entitled "Sister Planet." The story is included in Brian Aldiss, ed., "All About Venus" (New York: Dell, 1968 softcover reprint of 1968 hardcover original).

     Blavatsky's background: For a general overview, see Bruce F. Campbell, "Ancient Wisdom Revived: A History of the Theosophical Movement" (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1980), Chapter 1. Blavatsky was originally married to a Russian general but dumped him and wandered the world for years before striking up an apparently platonic partnership with a fellow-spiritualist in New York, Henry Olcott, in 1874. As soon as Blavatsky was on the scene, Olcott began receiving mysterious letters from supposed masters of supernatural lore. It would be a good guess that Blavatsky wrote the letters herself, because, as noted by Ruth Brandon in "The Spiritualists" (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1983), 237-238, the 1885 denunciation of her by the Society for Psychical Research specifically cited fraudulent letters as one of her techniques. As for the plagiarism accusation by William Emmette Coleman, details can be found in L. Sprague de Camp, "Lost Continents: The Atlantis Theme in History and Science" (New York: Dover, 1970 softcover reprint of 1954 hardcover original), 57-58, and in Francis King's study of mystical-fascist connections, "Satan and Swastika" (St. Albans, UK: Mayflower, 1976), 50. In just one of Blavatsky's books, Coleman reportedly found some 2,000 copied and uncredited passages. Unfortunately, as related by de Camp, Coleman was never able to convert his research into a definitive form, because he lost all his books and papers in the San Francisco earthquake of 1906 and then died in 1909.

     Achille Eyraud: entry for Venus, by Brian Stableford, in John Clute and Peter Nicholls, eds., "The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction," rev. ed. (London: Orbit, 1999).

     Thomas Lake Harris: de Camp, 58.

     Blavatsky's magazine Lucifer and her Venus essay: The founding of the magazine is noted by Campbell, 48. The essay is reprinted in Blavatsky's "Collected Writings," Vol. 8 (Wheaton, IL: Theosophical Publishing House, 1960), 14-28. According to the entry for "Phosphorus" in Pierre Grimal's "The Penguin Dictionary of Classical Mythology," trans. A.R. Maxwell-Hyslop, ed. Stephen Kershaw (London: Penguin, 1991 UK softcover reprint of 1951 French original), the Greeks referred to the so-called Morning Star as Phosphorus, Heosphorus, and Eosphorus, all of which was rendered by the Romans simply as Lucifer. Brian Aldiss, in Aldiss, ed., 12, says the situation was more complicated than that: The Greeks used the name Phosphorus if Venus was in its morning mode and "Hesperus" when it appeared at night (with at least the mathematician Pythagoras understanding that the two were really one). Worse yet, the poet Homer referred to Venus as "Callisto." In any event, Aldiss confirms that the Romans used the name Lucifer in the sense of Venus being a bearer of light, but he also notes that the writer Cicero used it only for the morning version and instead employed the name "Vesper" for the evening appearances of Venus. As for the unclear useage of the name Lucifer in Isaiah 14:12, the matter is addressed by Otto Kaiser in "Isaiah 13-39: A Commentary" (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1974), 29-40. The passage, says Kaiser, appears to be a sarcastic tirade aimed at a Babylonian king who met a bad end, but other interpretations are open. In the original Hebrew, the monarch is mockingly addressed as Helel (Shining Star), son of Shachar (actually a pre-Israelite god of the Canaanites, associated with the dawn). Greek translators took all this to mean Venus, thus setting the stage for trouble in future Latin translations. For the transition of the Lucifer of Isaiah into Satan, see Jeffrey Burton Russell, "Satan: The Early Christian Tradition" (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1981), 130-131 and note 59. Regardless of Blavatsky's poor record elsewhere, she does not come off badly here.

     Frederick Spencer Oliver: de Camp, 71.

     W. Scott-Elliot: de Camp, 60.

     Percival Lowell: William Sheehan and Thomas A. Dobbins, letter to the editor, "Sky and Telescope," October 2002; Leon Jaroff, "What Lowell Really Saw When He Watched Venus," "New York Times," 10 September 2002.

     1895-1911 novels: Venus entry in Clute and Nicholls, eds.; Den Valdron, "Pulp Venus," ERBzine No. 1513. Note that the Serviss book was earier serialized, in 1909.

     Svante Arrhenius: Arrhenius's Venusian proclamation was in his 1918 book "Destinies of the Stars," which is excerpted in Aldiss, ed., 19-21.

     1920s-1930s spectroscopic results: Bernard Lovell, "Some Mysteries of Venus Resolved," "Times" (London), 30 October 1967, as reprinted in Aldiss, ed., 211.

     Denial of the spectroscopic data: In the undated (but 1960s) Ace pocketbook edition of Pirates of Venus -- which was originally serialized in 1932 -- Burroughs's hero Carson Napier concedes scientific doubts about Venus on 14, but that is the last we hear of them. As for Weinbaum, he very specifically addressed spectroscopy in his 1935 tale "Parasite Planet," which is included in "The Best of Stanley G. Weinbaum" (New York: Ballantine, 1974 softcover reprint of 1974 hardcover original). On 76, he argues that the data only applied to the upper clouds of Venus, not the surface. One thing to bear in mind when dealing with novelists of the early 1900s is the degree to which they could have been influenced by the occult thinking of their time. Carson Napier may have reached Venus by rocket, but, once there, he maintained contact with Earth through telepathy, which he had learned from a mystic in India.

     I AM: Campbell, 161-163; David Stupple, "The I AM Sect Today: An Unobituary," "Journal of Popular Culture," Spring 1975.

     C.S. Lewis: "Perelandra" is excerpted in Aldiss, ed., 55-70, and it is negatively analyzed by A.N. Wilson in C.S. Lewis: A Biography (London: Collins, 1990), 182-185.

     John Whiteside Parsons: Jacques Vallee, "Messengers of Deception: UFO Contacts and Cults" (Brisbane, Australia: Daily Grail, 2008 softcover reprint of 1979 hardcover original), 12, 216.

     L. Ron Hubbard: Hubbard's claim to have visited Venus is strangely absent from most literature on Scientology, but author John Godwin found out about it for his book "Occult America" (New York: Doubleday, 1972). The whole of Chapter 4 is devoted to Scientology, and it relates Goodwin's interview with Scientology spokesman George B. Mustain. When asked about Venus, Mustain suggested that such accounts were actually meant to be taken as "shall we say, allegories."

     Aetherius Society: As noted in Douglas Hill and Pat Williams, "The Supernatural" (New York: Signet, 1967 softcover reprint of 1965 hardcover original), 231, the Aetherius Society was created in the U.K. by George King, who said he was in telepathic contact with a Venusian named "Master Aetherius." According to Douglas Curran, "In Advance of the Landing: Folk Concepts of Outer Space" (New York: Abbeville, 1985), 62-69, King moved to Los Angeles in 1960. That same year, as recounted by Paris Flammonde in "The Age of the Flying Saucers" (New York: Hawthorne, 1971), 139-140, King appeared on the then-popular "Long John Nebel" radio show and fell into an ambush when the comedian Jackie Gleason called him a fraud and dared him to sue. King declined.

     Eckankar: Godwin devotes Chapter 6 of his book to Eckankar, whose founder, Charles Twitchell, portrayed the sect as being based on secret Venusian teachings. 

     Venus and false UFO reports: J. Allen Hynek, "Twenty-One Years of UFO Reports," in Carl Sagan and Thornton Page, eds., "UFOs: A Scientific Debate" (New York: Barnes & Noble, 1996 hardcover reprint of 1972 hardcover original), 40; J. Allen Hynek, "The Hynek UFO Report" (New York: Dell, 1977), 16; Jacques and Janine Vallee, "Challenge to Science: The UFO Enigma" (New York: Ace, 1966 softcover reprint of 1966 hadcover original), 130-132; Frank B. Salisbury, "Can Science Solve the UFO Mystery?" and "Are UFOs From Outer Space?" in Curtis G. Fuller, Mary Margaret Fuller, Jerome Clark, and Betty Lou White, eds. "Proceedings of the First International UFO Conference" (New York: Warner, 1980), 90-91, 105-106. Note that Hynek, despite his admissions about Venus, still showed anger about the tendency of debunkers to use the planet, as shown in his book "The UFO Experience" (New York: Ballantine, 1974 softcover reprint of 1972 hardcover original), 231.

     Venus and 1950s "contactees": J. Gordon Melton, presentation of preliminary research findings during panel discussion, in Curtis et. al., eds., 380; Jerome Clark and Loren Coleman, "The Unidentified: Notes Towards Solving the UFO Mystery" (New York: Warner, 1975), 213.

     Venusian films: "The Night of the Living Dead" is discussed in detail in Clive Barker and Stephen Jones, "Clive Barker's A-Z of Horror" (New York: HarperPrism, 1997 U.S. edition of 1997 U.K. original), 244-245. For other movies and serials, see John Stanley's "Creature Features" (New York: Boulevard, 1997). The Venusian episode of "The Outer Limits," entitled "Cold Hands, Warm Heart," is detailed in David J. Schow and Jeffrey Frentzen, "The Outer Limits: The Official Companion" (New York: Ace, 1986), 284-288. The episode poignantly marks one of the very last attempts by science fiction to portray life on Venus before mounting scientific evidence in the 1960s made that futile.

     Venus surveyed by Earth probes: For extremely good coverage of just the first quarter-century of Venusian exploration, see Joel S. Levine, "Planetary Atmospheres," in Robert A. Meyers, ed., "Encyclopedia of Astronomy and Astrophysics" (San Diego, CA: Academic press, 1989), 370-372.

     Larry Niven: "Becalmed in Hell" is included in Niven's collection "All the Myriad Ways" (New York: Ballantine, 1971).
     "Cytherean" versus "Venusian": In a 24 March 1961 essay for the magazine "Science," 858n1, Carl Sagan argued that the adjective "Venusian" was not proper English. Technically, he insisted, the correct terms were "Venerean" or "Venereal," but those had awkward connotations. Since the Greek goddess Aphrodite was also associated with the planet, that opened the possibility of "Aphrodisian" or "Aphrodisiac," but those were also hopeless. Finally, Sagan noted that Aphrodite was born out of the sea at the Greek island of Cythera, so he proposed "Cytherean," which actually had some tradition of useage dating back to the 1800s. Brian Aldiss, in Aldiss, ed., 11-12, picked up on this notion and endorsed it. However, Arthur C. Clarke, in "The Promise of Space" (New York: Pyramid, 1970 softcover reprint of 1968 hardcover original), 263n, complained that, "'Cytherean' is correct, but no one except classical scholars understands what it means." As shown by the word-frequency charts of Google's Ngram Viewer, the word never truly caught on. For the record, Edgar Rice Burroughs tried "Venusan" for the exploits of Carson Napier. Ugh.

     Interest dwindles: The Venus entry in Clute and Nicholls, eds., lists just three serious Venusian novels published after 1965. John Stanley's film guide lists only a few Venusian movies dated later than 1968, and one of them -- "The Illustrated Man" (1969), based on three stories by Ray Bradbury -- was an embarassment because of its hopelessly out-of-date presentation of a wet Venus.


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