Theosophy, or “divine wisdom”, is an ancient doctrine, dating back at least to the 3rd century among the Manichaeans, who were an Iranian dualist sect. Similarly, this was adopted by the Bogomils in Bulgaria in the 10th century and the Cathari in Italy beginning in the 12th century. Then, in the 19th century, the doctrine was revived in America by “Madame Blavatsky” and a number of spiritualists. The thing is that the woman was a highly controversial figure, championed by die-hard supporters as an enlightened mystic and derided as a charlatan and a plagiarist by her many critics.
The rather enigmatic herstory of Helena, who was an obese asexual chainsmoking syncretist and occultist, was quite unique, to say the least. To begin with, Madame Blavatsky was born as Helena Petrovna von Hahn to an aristocratic family among the Russian Empire in what is now Ukraine on August 12th of 1831. Her father was Pyotr Alexeyevich von Hahn, a descendant of the German aristocracy, while her mother was the daughter of Russian Princess Yelena Pavlovna Dolgorukaya. Plus, her great-great-grandfather was a French nobleman who had fled to Russia to escape persecution, there serving in the court of Catherine the Great.
Regardless, according to the accounts of her relatives, Helena Petrovna von Hahn socialized largely with lower-class children and she often enjoyed playing pranks on people. So, just as the Hindu prophet Krishna had been in his youth, she too was a trickster. More importantly, as a result of her father’s career, Helena’s family frequently moved to different parts of the Empire, so she never kept friends for very long as a child. This largely mobile adolescence influenced her nomadic lifestyle in later life. So, young Helena became quite well-traveled right from the start and she never really fully settled down as a result of this.
In the early 1840s, Helena discovered the personal library of her maternal great-grandfather, the Russian Rosicrucian Prince Pavel Vasilevich Dolgorukov. The collection contained a variety of books on esoteric subjects, encouraging her burgeoning interest in the occult. Helena then developed an unshakeable obsession with Eastern and Western mysticism. In line with this, at the age of just 17, she agreed to marry Nikifor Vladimirovich Blavatsky, a 39-year-old Vice Governor, because she was attracted to him for his esoteric beliefs. However, this wasn’t enough to keep them together, so she left him three months later to venture out on her own, never having consummated the marriage.
As was to be expected, by the early 1870s, Helena Petrovna Blavatsky (HPB) became involved with the spiritualist movement. However, she tended to argue against the mainstream idea that the entities being contacted were the souls of the dead. Instead, she believed that what people interacted with was merely some kind of psychic residue. Nonetheless, the vaudeville circuit of seances brought her to America. Thus, in 1875, while living in New York City, Blavatsky co-founded the Theosophical Society (TS) with Henry Olcott and William Judge. Therefore, after several iterations the Society’s primary objectives were established:
- To form a nucleus of the universal brotherhood of humanity without distinction of race, creed, sex, caste, or color.
- To encourage the study of comparative religion, philosophy, and science.
- To investigate the unexplained laws of nature and the powers latent in man.
As part of this, Blavatsky claimed to be in contact with the “Masters of the Ancient Wisdom”. HPB portrayed the TS as being part of one of many attempts throughout the millennia by the purported hidden hand of the “Hierarchy” to guide humanity towards its ultimate, immutable evolutionary objective. This is one of the many reasons that a number of New Age thinkers see Blavatsky as the mother of the movement. She’s a kind of fairy godmother of the faithful if you will. Moreover, in line with the Theosophical Society’s synthesis of the Eastern and Western philosophies and theologies, their seal incorporates the aum, ankh, swastika, hexagram, and ouroboros symbols. This is then encircled by the Society’s official motto.
That same year, HPB immediately began work on a book outlining her Theosophical worldview. Then, in 1877, Isis Unveiled: A Master-Key to the Mysteries of Ancient and Modern Science and Theology was finally published. In Isis Unveiled, HPB quoted extensively from other spiritual texts, which were not always cited. Regardless, in 1882, the headquarters of the Theosophical Society moved with Blavatsky and Olcott from New York to Adyar, India, where it remains to this very day. Word of this spread quickly, so by 1885, the Theosophical Society had experienced rapid growth, with 121 lodges having been chartered across the world. Theosophy had gone mainstream, influencing the work of Symbolist poets and Abstractionist painters in the process.
However, in 1886, while living in Belgium, Blavatsky received messages from members of the Society’s London Lodge who were dissatisfied with Alfred Sinnett’s leadership. So, she arrived in London in 1887, initially staying in the home of a Theosophist named Mabel Collins. Then, she moved into the home of fellow Theosophists, Bertram Keightley and his nephew Archibald. Thus, during the Victorian crisis of faith, she established the Blavatsky Lodge as a rival to that run by Sinnett, draining much of its membership. Her meetings were held at the Keightley house on Thursday nights, with Blavatsky greeting many visitors including the influential Irish poet W. B. Yeats and even Gandhi when he was still just an impressionable teenager fresh off the boat from Bombay.
Soon, Madame Blavatsky gained an international following as the leading theoretician of the philosophy of Theosophy. At her peak of success, in 1888, Blavatsky published her magnum opus The Secret Doctrine, the Synthesis of Science, Religion, and Philosophy. The First Volume is named Cosmogenesis, and the Second Volume is entitled Anthropogenesis. In it, she described an extensive alternative history of humanity from the Atlanteans to the Aryans and beyond. Her mysterious masterpiece is a rich source of mystical and mythological material that scholars will undoubtedly still be unpacking for millennia. On top of that, she concluded the Second Volume by mentioning forthcoming volumes, stating that:
“Until the rubbish of the ages is cleared away from the minds of the Theosophists to whom these volumes are dedicated, it is impossible that the more practical teaching contained in the Third Volume should be understood. Consequently, it entirely depends upon the reception with which Volumes I. and II. will meet at the hands of Theosophists and Mystics, whether these last two volumes will ever be published, though they are almost completed.”
Of course, the Third Volume in the full set was published by Annie Besant, not by Madame Blavatsky. Similarly, the Fourth Volume was published years after Blavatsky died and the Society was under new leadership. With that being said, by the time it was all said and done, Madame Blavatsky had authored more than a dozen different books, numerous articles for newspapers and magazines, several short stories, and countless correspondences. On top of that, her radical Theosophical doctrines influenced the development of other esoteric currents like Anthroposophy and Ariosophy, for better or worse, including the rise of Nazi propaganda.
HPB even performed hundreds of hoaxes with the help of assistants, for instance by seemingly materializing letters in response to questions that were put forward to the “Mahatmas”. However, Alexis and Emma Coulomb then exposed how they helped Blatvatsky get the letters in the box from behind the wall of the “Shrine Room” at the TS Headquarters in India. So, in the end, with her reputation tarnished, Madame Blavatsky moved back to England and tried to distance herself from illusory theatrical spiritualist phenomena, but the media wouldn’t let her hide from her mistakes. The fact of the matter was that she had tried to trick the world and almost got away with it. Granted, this doesn’t mean that everything that she did was fake, but it does cast a lot of doubt on her abilities as a medium.
Either way, when her time finally came, during the bleak winter of the Britain flu epidemic of 1891, Madame Blavatsky contracted the most virulent strain of the virus. This led to her tragic demise at the age of just 59, on the afternoon of May 8th. As a result of this, that date came to be commemorated by Theosophists as “White Lotus Day”, which has been celebrated ever since. In this way, and many others, HPB’s legacy still lives on. In fact, to this very day, there are tens of thousands of Theosophists in dozens of countries all around the world. More importantly, Blavatsky inspired Gandhi who inspired MLK, and that spirit of universal brotherhood still lives on in others. With that being said, the herstory of Helena needs to be told and retold until Madame Blavatsky becomes a household name, once and for all.