I wouldn’t be [Joyce’s] Messiah for a thousand million pounds. He would always be criticising the bad taste of his deity.” – AE Russell

To listen to a discussion of this topic, check out the podcast episode here.

Hello, dear readers. Let’s have some fun with Sanskrit today. We’re in the thick of it now, deep into the darkest reaches of “Proteus,” the point where you think you’ve got a handle on things and then BAM. Sanskrit. The art of “Proteus” is philology, so I think we should embrace James Joyce’s penchant for linguistic whimsy and dive in. This one gets weird.

On page 40 of my copy of Ulysses (the 1990 Vintage International edition), Stephen’s thoughts turn toward some self-deprecating topics, such as his shame around his own sexuality:

Cousin Stephen, you will never be a saint. Isle of saints. You were awfully holy, weren’t you? …On the top of the Howth tram alone crying to the rain: Naked women! naked women! What about that, eh?

And his embarrassment over his grandiose flights of fancy about his future literary success:

Reading two pages apiece of seven books every night, eh? I was young. You bowed to yourself in the mirror, stepping forward to applause earnestly, striking face. Hurray for the Goddamned idiot! Hray! No-one saw: tell no-one.

This is the Dedalus equivalent of a teenage kid singing into a hairbrush or playing air guitar in their bedroom.

Then there are the letter books:

Books you were going to write with letters for titles. Have you read his F? O yes, but I prefer Q. Yes, but W is wonderful. O yes, W.

Stephen cringes, knowing that:

Remember your epiphanies written on green oval leaves, deeply deep, copies to be sent if you died to all the great libraries of the world, including Alexandria?

Indeed, Young Joyce was concerned with his legacy, even before his greatest works took shape. Before leaving to study in Paris in 1902, Joyce instructed his brother Stanislaus to ensure, in the event of an untimely death, Joyce’s writings were to be submitted to all the greatest libraries of the world, including the Vatican.

Someone was to read them there after a few thousand years, a mahamanvantara. Pico della Mirandola like.

Just like our friend Joyce to drop a giant Sanskrit word on us with no explanation.

Let’s set the “maha-” aside for a moment. “Manvantara” is  best understood in terms of its counterpart, pralaya. Originating in Brahmanism ( the precursor to Hinduism, and by extension, Buddhism), manvantara and pralaya are periods of activity and repose, respectively. Since this concept arose in traditions that include reincarnation, they can be applied to that idea. In terms of the cycle of reincarnation, manvantara means the period when you’re alive in this world, while pralaya is the period between death and birth where you’re somewhere else. Stephen sees this endless cycle acted out by the tide, flowing in and out along Sandymount Strand, south of Dublin, over the eons. The water’s high for a while, then it’s low for another while. The flow and change represented by manvantara and pralaya fit snugly in the Protean theme of Ulysses’ third episode.

Stephen reckons someone will read his books after a few thousand years, which is a much longer time than humans live or the tides ebb and flow. So how long is a dang manvantara, anyway?

A manvantara is not a fixed period of time, but rather a relative period, so the length of a manvantara is relative to what happens during that particular manvantara. A manvantara can take place within a given system – an individual’s life on one hand or a larger cycle of the universe on the other. A mahamanvantara (maha- is a prefix meaning great) can be measured in trillions of years. Stuart Gilbert described it as the period in which “nations and civilizations are born, die, reappear and disappear.”

Stephen measures the mahamanvantara it will take people to notice his letter books in paltry millennia, so he may be getting off easy. Joyce liked to use this word in his writing to mean “a big, honking, long amount of time,” but like I said, it’s all relative.  Long before Ulysses was but a twinkle in Joyce’s eye, he wrote a poem denouncing the literary establishment in Dublin called “The Holy Office” in which he stated:

Though they may labour to the grave

My spirit shall they never have

Nor make my soul with theirs as one

Till the Mahamanvantara be done:

And though they spurn me from their door

My soul shall spurn them evermore.

That is to say, Yeats and his cronies can try as hard as they like, but they’d never corrupt Joyce’s soul in a bazillion years, even until the turning of the next cosmic cycle.

Though the Sanskrit terminology originated in Brahmanism in ancient India, Joyce likely encountered it through Western mysticism, specifically theosophy, a variety of occultism popular in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Joyce had quite a few occult and mystical influences in his early years (we’ve already encountered Joachim of Flora, Jakob Boehme, William Blake, Giordano Bruno and W.B. Yeats, to name a few).  Young Joyce, naturally curious and intellectual, was looking for a new school of thought to fill the void left when he abandoned his devotion to Roman Catholicism.

Madame Blavatsky, 1877

Joyce’s personal library was well-populated with books by occult writers, notably Henry Olcott and Helena Blavatsky, founders of the Theosophical Society in New York in the 1870’s. Joyce also attended meetings at the home of George (AE) Russell, who, upon leaving the Theosophical Society of Dublin, founded the Hermetic Society of Dublin (we’ll get to the hermeticists in a moment). Though Joyce dabbled in occult philosophy in his youth, he eventually became disillusioned with it. As a result,  references to theosophy and hermeticism found in Ulysses are parodical, and the portrayal of Russell in “Scylla and Charybdis” isn’t exactly warm and cuddly.

I believe that Joyce’s youthful interest in the occult had a subtle but significant influence on his writing, and I’d like to take a look at how two particular schools (theosophy and hermeticism) are evident in Ulysses. If you’re worried I’m about to start writing about Joyce donning black robes and summoning demons, you’ll be delighted to know Joyce’s occult interest was actually far more boring than that, mostly consisting of reading difficult books.

So, theosophy, what’s up with that?

Theosophy was originally synonymous with our modern definition of theology and was decidedly Christian. Jakob Boehme, the 17th century German Christian mystic who penned The Signature of All Things, is considered a theosophist writer. By the 19th century, the name “theosophy” was adopted for the spiritual system promoted by Helena Blavatsky. Theosophy encompasses a wide range of views, which I plan to explore occasionally as they arise in Ulysses. For our purposes today, Joyce was particularly intrigued by theosophical beliefs in reincarnation and the cyclical nature of the universe, very much in line with his interest in Vico’s cyclical view of history.

Theosophy embraces reincarnation as part of its cyclical worldview. Manvantara and pralaya are key concepts in these cycles, large and small. At its core, theosophy embraces concepts from a wide variety of traditions – Brahmanism as mentioned, Hinduism, Buddhism, as well as Christian mysticism and Kabbalah. It is also quite comfortable with supernatural phenomena like psychic abilities and channeling of spirits. As mentioned above, Young Joyce was an avid reader of theosophical literature, such as Blavatsky’s Isis Unveiled and Olcott’s Buddhist Catechism. Stuart Gilbert, for his part, quotes liberally from Isis and other theosophical works in Ulysses: A Study, the 1930 reading guide to the novel, which the James Joyce Centre described as “an act of ventriloquism, since much of the information was supplied directly by Joyce himself. Joyce steered Gilbert to certain sources and books that he had used, and let him know if he disagreed with Gilbert’s ideas.”

It can be inferred that this particular reading guide’s interest in Blavatsky and Olcott was likely endorsed by Joyce.

As mentioned above, theosophy draws on the beliefs and practices of many traditions. One such tradition is the hermetic magical tradition.  In multiple instances where theosophy is mentioned directly, it is mentioned in tandem with or equated with hermeticism, so we should have some knowledge of that tradition as well in order to understand Ulysses, and if you’re up to the challenge, Finnegans Wake.

A great example of this can be found on page 188 of my copy, in which Stephen is describing Russell in his mind:

Yogibogeybox in Dawson chambers. Isis Unveiled…. The faithful hermetists await the light, ripe for chelaship, ringroundabout him.

We see Isis Unveiled mentioned by name, and then a few lines later, “hermetists” (hermeticists) referenced directly.

Again, I am not suggesting James Joyce ever practiced any kind of magic, but I do think he got a decent exposure to hermetic ideas as a youth.

Hermes Trismegistos, 1624

Hermeticism takes its name from the mysterious figure Hermes Trismegistos, who is purported to be a hybrid of the Greek god Hermes and the Egyptian god Thoth and wrote its central texts at the beginning of the first millennium A.D. You may have heard the phrase, “As above, so below.” This is a central idea in hermetic magic, meaning that there are many correspondences between the material world as we know it and higher realms. A familiar example of this concept would be astrology, where constellations and the motions of planets can reveal personality traits or the trajectory of one’s life. Thoth, who is the ibis-headed Egyptian god of libraries and writers (and possibly Hermes Trismegistos himself), gets a shout-out in both A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Ulysses. And, after all, Stephen was hoping to get his letter books into the library of Alexandria, which burnt down in antiquity. Having a direct line to Thoth might help his case. (Can the umbilical phone call Thoth, too?)

Joyce would have been exposed to hermetic ideas mainly through his theosophical texts, but also through Dublin literary elites like Russell and Yeats. Russell, as mentioned before, founded the Hermetic Society of Dublin, the offices of which were several times vandalized by a youthful Joyce and Oliver St. John Gogarty. Yeats was an avid member of the Order of the Golden Dawn, a hermetic magic organization whose membership included Aleister Crowley.

Joyce never embraced hermeticism, but the idea of meaningful correspondences is a major organizing principle of Ulysses. Joyce was heavily influenced by symbolist poets like Arthur Rimbaud and Stéphane Mallarmé;  both wrote about the connection between poetry and magic. Mallarmé believed that this connection manifested in words through multiple layers of meaning and analogy. While he may have had differing metaphysical views to Mallarmé, Joyce clearly saw the power of multi-layered symbolism and correspondence.

Since Joyce had no belief in higher realms, “As above, so below” was replaced with “As here, so there.” The Gilbert schema introduced readers to the corresponding organs, colors, etc. for each chapter. At first glance, these correspondences seem random and obscure, but they offer a more complex symbolism because they allow Joyce to portray Dublin not only as a city, but as a body, its people and places correspondent to the functions of organs. The correspondent organ to “Lestrygonians” is the esophagus. The correspondent organ to “Sirens” is the ear. Many of the corresponding organs are quite delightful even if you have only a passing familiarity with the novel. Joyce’s irreverence allowed him to find humor in this concept that may have been missed by a serious hermeticist, such as how he connects a group of bloviating reporters with lungs in “Aeolus.”

The passage about the letter books, Alexandria and the mahamanvantara is rounded out with a reference to Pico della Mirandola:

Remember your epiphanies written on green oval leaves, deeply deep, copies to be sent if you died to all the great libraries of the world, including Alexandria? Someone was to read them there after a few thousand years, a mahamanvantara. Pico della Mirandola like.


Giovanni Pico della Mirandola

Giovanni Pico della Mirandola was, amongst other things, a Renaissance magician of note who died quite young. He is best known nowadays for a speech called the Oration on the Dignity of Man, which sounds very nice and noble. However, it was a speech he never actually delivered because  it was the preamble to a treatise he intended to submit to the Pope on how magic and Kabbalah are the truest proofs of the divinity of Christ. Needless to say, it did not go over well.

Pico was undoubtedly a genius, possessing an intimate knowledge of Hebrew and Kabbalah that he used to bring his magical beliefs to the people of Florence in the 1400’s. As the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy puts it, “he wanted to convince people to use magic and Kabbalah in order to change themselves into angels.” Unfortunately, Pico died in his early 30’s, so much of what is know about him is filtered through hagiography written by his family. He was undoubtedly brilliant and eccentric, but finished few of his projects and published even fewer.

I think Stephen thinks of Pico as a genius who peaked early and was largely forgotten by history as a result. He’s afraid that the name Dedalus might wind up similarly obscure. What’s interesting to me is that he chose to name drop Pico, who is a fairly obscure figure. He seems to be pairing a theosophical concept (mahamanvantara) with a proponent of magical practice. We learned when looking at Joyce’s critical writings that he sometimes included obscure references with the intent that  readers would seek out their source and learn something new. Perhaps we can only know his intention after a mahamanvantara.


Further Reading:

Carver, C. (1978). James Joyce and the Theory of Magic. James Joyce Quarterly, 15(3), 201-214. Retrieved from

Ellmann, R. (1959). James Joyce. New York: Oxford University Press.

Gifford, D., & Seidman, R. J. (1988). Ulysses annotated: Notes for James Joyce’s Ulysses. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Gilbert, S. (1955). James Joyce’s Ulysses: a study. New York: Vintage Books.

Tindall, W.Y. (1954). James Joyce and the Hermetic Tradition.  Journal of the History of Ideas, 15(1), p. 23-39. Retrieved from

“Theosophy.” Encyclopedia of Occultism and Parapsychology.  Retrieved April 13, 2019 from


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