This would be a fine story if it weren’t for the fact that the story comes from Talbot Mundy’s 1923 adventure novella The Nine Unknown. It’s fiction.
Now, that should be the end of the story. But the fringe have an answer for that, arguing that Mundy was actually reporting a genuine legend that had been discussed in the nineteenth century speculations of French occultist Louis Jacolliot, a fellow who was himself no stranger to inventing fake facts, having created the supposedly ancient Agrouchada-Parikchai from scraps of real Indian texts and Freemason conspiracies.
According to Mysterious Universe, “Jacolliot stated that the Nine Unknown Men did in fact exist, and this mention of advanced knowledge well before it was ever thought possible, although not concrete evidence of their existence, is certainly eerie.” This fact, most online fringe sources agree, was allegedly reported in Jacolliot’s Occult Science in India (1879). It was not. The English translation contains no trace of it, nor does the original French version. The book contains only one line that might associated with it, attributed to Jacolliot’s fake Agrouchada-Parikchai: “The preservation of this fire should be given in charge to nine Brahmins and their wives.” It’s not the same thing.
So where did this claim come from?
Like so many dumb fringe ideas, it comes from Louis Pauwels and Jacques Bergier’s Morning of the Magicians (1960), where you will find almost the entirety of Swancer’s Mysterious Universe article given, almost verbatim, and with the same quotations and “facts.” Heck, the article even ends with the same “fact or fiction?” get out of jail free disclaimer that concludes the chapter in Morning. I can’t say this more plainly: Swancer’s article is as close as one can come to rewriting a chapter of a book and calling it “original” work.
Anyway, our Francophone authors provide no sources for their assertions, but they claim that Mundy was the first to report the facts, identifying his book as fiction laced with “scientific inquiry.” We know from Bergier’s letters and other writings that he was a huge fan of Talbot Mundy and, like Blavatsky with Bulwer-Lytton, considered his fiction to have secret and occult hidden meanings. “All mysterious India appears in it,” Bergier wrote of The Nine Unknown, according to Brian Taves’s critical biography of Mundy.
I can’t stress enough that almost every iteration of the story found online is a simple rewrite of Morning of the Magicians, usually point for point, in order, and without even a little critical analysis. This is an embarrassment because the copyists don’t realize that the English edition of Pauwels and Bergier re-translated French translations of English originals, so we end up with Mysterious Universe stating:
H.G. Wells once wrote of Asoka in his book Outline of World History, “Among the tens of thousands of names of monarchs accumulated in the files of history, the name of Asoka shines almost alone, like a star.”
Given the way Pauwels and Beriger operated, I wouldn’t put it past them to have imagined the nine Brahmins who tend the sacred fire in Jacolliot as being the same as the nine priests of the nine planets (the sun, the moon, and the seven non-earth planets recognized in the 1800s), which were an essential part of his occult system. This they could reasonably conclude as “evidence” of the Nine Unknown Men, though no such term appears in the book. However, Jacolliot wrote dozens of books, and unfortunately Pauwels and Bergier didn’t specify which one they were using. I was unable to find any references to nine men in the Google Books scans of the French editions of Jacolliot’s works, but that isn’t necessarily conclusive. A more generalized search for the French name given for this group, the Neuf Inconnus, returns no relevant results before Pauwels and Bergier either, suggesting that their phrasing is a direct translation from Mundy.
Pauwels and Bergier were notorious for borrowing from secondary materials, and Jacolliot appears frequently in one of their obvious inspirations, the works of Helena Blavatsky. In Isis Unveiled, Blavatsky specifically cites Jacolliot as her source for a “sub-brotherhood” of the “occult fraternity” of the Hermetic Brotherhood, the Pitris, whom she called “yet more arcane, perhaps” than the Hermetic sect. Since Pauwels and Bergier don’t specifically say that Jacolliot actually writes about Nine Unknown Men or their particular powers and attributes in any detail—only that “Jacolliot states categorically that the society of the Nine did actually exist” (Jacolliot est formel: la société des Neuf Inconnus est une réalité.)—it is reasonable to think that they read into the claims about an occult fraternity and a priesthood of the nine planets (or, more accurately, of “the nine principle divinities which rule the planets”) a confirmation of Mundy’s more elaborate version. That Blavatsky’s discussion of Jacolliot comes right after an (unrelated) mention of the Emperor Asoka only heightens the feeling that this is where the authors began.
Pauwels and Bergier had enormous influence on the fringe, with their chapter serving as the foundation for claims in five decades’ worth of books, many published in India, and the websites that copied shamelessly from one or more of them. Writing in The Stargate Conspiracy (2001), Lynn Picknett and Clive Prince, misunderstanding Morning of the Magicians, asserted that Jacolliot “popularized” the Nine Unknown Men, probably because they got it from a mixed up version of the Pauwels and Bergier account that had been circulating since it was published in 1986 in K. L. Bhowmik’s Culture of the Past (“The legend of Nine Unknown Men was brought to light by Jacolliot, a French writer.”). Either that, or they have terrible reading comprehension.