Tuesday, January 20, 2009

What’s the Deal with Vril?

Fans of Mike Mignola’s Hellboy comic book series have heard of it and it’s name has become synonymous with a popular British food product, but what exactly is Vril?

In 1870 English novelist Edward Bulwer-Lytton published a science fiction story called Vril: The Power of the Coming Race. The story was told in first person by an anonymous narrator who claimed to have come into contact with a subterranean race of angel-like beings called the Vril-ya. In Bulwer-Lytton’s story the Vril-ya powered their entire civilization with a mystic, infinitely renewable energy source called Vril which could be used for everything from medicine to weaponry to bathwater.

Vril was an immediate best seller, but not for the reasons Bulwer-Lytton had anticipated. As it would turn out people all over Europe thought that the story was true and that there really was a subterranean race in possession of an all powerful energy source. "Vril Societies" began to spring up, primarily in England, France, and Germany. These were groups of people who dedicated their spare time – which they apparently had ample amounts of – to trying to make contact with the Vril-ya, and by 1873 some people began claiming that they indeed had.

The idea that so many people would believe that a work of fiction was fact may strike us as odd today (though one only needs to think of The DaVinci Code phenomena a few years back to see a contemporary example) but the truth was that in the late 19th-Century people were actually used to hearing claims such as those made by Bulwer-Lytton’s narrator, and usually the people making them wanted to be taken seriously.

The most famous example of this is undoubtedly the Russian occultist and medium Madame Blavatsky (1831-1891) who as early as 1870 claimed to be in contact with an advance race of beings known as the “mahātmās” who were hidden away deep within the Tibetan Mountains. Many of Blavatsky’s claims were even more sensational than those found in Vril, however unlike Bulwer-Lytton, Blavatsky meant every word of it and just like with Vril people believed her. In 1875 Blavatsky founded The Theosophical Society, an organization dedicated to spreading the spiritual and religious teachings of the “mahātmās.” Chances are that Blavatsky’s “mahātmās” were no more real than Bulwer-Lytton’s Vril-ya, but just the same before her death in 1891 over twenty-five people claimed to have personally encountered the “mahātmās” and many hundreds more professed to believing they existed.

By the late 1880s businesses even began cashing in on people’s belief in the Vril-ya and Vril, both of which had gained widespread recognition. It was in 1889 that Scottish grocer John Lawson Johnston founded the Bovril Company which produced a thick, salty beef extract similar to gravy. The name of the product, Bovril, was a combination of the words Bovine and Vril which helped the product to become an instant British staple as it was seen as being the “food of the master race” as author Ian Crofton puts it.

Belief in the reality of Bulwer-Lytton’s Vril continued right up into the 1930s and just like in Mignola’s Hellboy comics it wasn’t long before the Nazi’s got involved. In 1938, SS leader Heinrich Himmler organized an expedition to travel to Tibet and attempt to make contact with the Vril-ya. The prevailing idea amongst some of the Nazi Parties’ occult specialists was that the Vril-ya were ancestors of the “Aryan race,” though some in their ranks disagreed. However, even if it turned out that this wasn’t the case the Nazis were still assured that the Vril-ya would at least have some cool Vril powered super-weapons which would help them take over the world.

It should surprise no one to learn that in addition to the Vril-ya, Himmler’s expedition also hoped to make contact with Blavatsky’s “mahātmās” as well. It should also surprise no one to learn that the expedition failed to make contact with either the Vril-ya or the “mahātmās” or any other advance subterranean race on this expedition or the six subsequent expeditions which followed. One thing you can say about the Nazis is that even when their wrong their persistent.

After World War II belief in the literal reality of Bulwer-Lytton’s Vril began to fade and the various "Vril Societies" began to disband. People finally figured out that Vril was indeed a work of science fiction and not fact. Nevertheless, the legacy of Vril – no matter how mythological it may have been – continues on even today. The original book by Bulwer-Lytton is still in print (though it now resides in public domain) and the Bovril Company is still around making their Bovril beef gravy. The Vril-ya themselves also continue to pop-up from time to time in comics, music, TV, books, and yes conspiracy theories in which it is still whispered that they might be real.

…The Theosophical Society persists to this day.

Pictures: Top Left: Vril: The Power of the Coming Race (2008 Edition) by Edward Bulwer-Lytton.

Center: A Bovril advertisement from 1892 depicts Bovril as an "infalible power" on par with the Pope.

Sources: The Totally Useless History of the World (2007) by Ian Crofton, Hollow Earth : The Long and Curious History of Imagining Strange Lands, Fantastical Creatures, Advanced Civilizations, and Marvelous Machines Below the Earth's Surface (2006) by David Standish and Lost Lands, Forgotten Realms (2007) by Dr. Bob Curran.

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