The (all too) secret history of Vril

Julian Strube's first book, Vril, becomes a standard reference for knowledge about this peculiar concept and its even more peculiar history.

Julian Strube’s first book, Vril, becomes a standard reference for knowledge about this peculiar concept and its even more peculiar history.

It is astonishing how much of modern occultism is dependent on works of fiction. The machinations of secret societies, the malicious rituals of satanic cults, and the magicians’ adventures on the astral plane have all been portrayed in great detail in works of fiction, which have in turn directly influenced the creation of real organisations and inspired new ritual practices among self-styled occultists. The entire current of Rosicrucian initiatory societies even had its main impetus in a text considered by its authors to be a playful ludibrium – although no doubt one that expressed deep convictions. This dynamic of fiction turning to fact is itself perhaps nowhere better explored than in Umberto Eco’s work of fiction, Foucault’s Pendulum. In recent years there has been quite some interest in such dynamics among contemporary scholars of religion as well – focusing on what they call “invented”, “hyperreal”, or “fiction-based” religions. While these scholars tend to focus on relatively recent cases – Jediism, Tolkien-spirituality and the sort – we have every reason to believe that this is a much older process. Particularly, it would seem, in the Western esoteric context.

A case in point is the concept of “vril” – an occult fluid or force that can be manipulated, controlled and directed by spiritually advanced initiates. It was invented by the the author and politician Edward Bulwer-Lytton (1803-1873) in his novel, The Coming Race (1871).

Here, the vril force is connected with a subterranean race that have mastered its secrets and wield awesome technological powers as a consequence. A recent book by Julian Strube uncovers the strange history of the vril force, from its first appearance with Bulwer-Lytton’s Coming Race, to its post-WW2 associations with “nazi occultism” and flying saucers. It’s a fascinating ride: the story of vril takes us through the  reception of Bulwer-Lytton in Theosophical milieus at the turn of the century, to spokespersons of the Anthroposophical movement, and elements of the völkisch-oriented, racist, “ariosophical” movement in Germany. Strube’s Vril: Eine okkulte Urkraft in Theosophie und esoterischem Neonazismus is thus a solid piece of detective-work, tracing the twists and turns in the evolving mythology of this one, particular “occult force”-concept. Since vril continues to be associated with a relatively popular mythology of “occult nazism”, and remains in place in the speculations of contemporary neo-nazi esoteric groups, Strube’s book is also a valuable contribution to the slowly growing academic scholarship that debunks and replaces grossly inaccurate pop-history on the subject.

I had been looking forward to writing up a short review of this book since it appeared in my mailbox a few months ago, but Wouter Hanegraaff beat me to it with his excellent post over at Creative Reading. Instead of reproducing that here, I suggest you go read it. And get the book.
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This blog post by Egil Asprem was first published on Heterodoxology. It is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

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3 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. When that is said, I believe many 19th century occultists used fiction to popularise their ideas?

    • Also – no doubt about it. But Bulwer-Lytton’s becoming an occultist was very much despite himself. And it had great impact (think of how Blavatsky can quote Zanoni as the words of an actual secret chief, for example)

  2. […] some of which I’ve payed tribute to on Twitter. Julian Strube’s (German) book on Vril is notable, and has attracted some attention in the German press lately. Also from Germany, Monika […]


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