Blavatsky, Helena Petrovna (1831–1891)
One of the most influential occult thinkers of the nineteenth
century, Blavatsky left behind conflicting images of adventuress,
author, mystic, guru, occultist, and charlatan. Born at Ekaterinoslav,
Russia, July 31, 1831, she was the daughter of Col.
Peter Hahn, a member of a Mecklenburg family settled in Russia.
With the aid of Col. Henry Steel Olcott and William Q.
Judge, she founded the Theosophical Society in New York in
1875. In order to gain converts to Theosophy, she felt obliged
to appear to perform miracles. This she did with a large measure
of success, but her ‘‘methods’’ were on several occasions
detected as fraudulent. Nevertheless, her commanding personality
secured for her a large following.
An enigmatic personality, she was brought up in an atmosphere
saturated with superstition and fantasy. She loved to
surround herself with mystery as a child and claimed to her
playmates that in the subterranean corridors of their old house
at Saratow, where she used to wander about, she was never
alone, but had companions and playmates whom she called her
‘‘hunchbacks.’’
She was often discovered in a dark tower underneath the
roof, where she put pigeons into a mesmeric sleep by stroking
them. She was unruly, and as she grew older she often shocked
her relatives by her masculine behavior. Once, riding astride a
Cossack horse, she fell from the saddle and her foot became entangled
in the stirrup. She claimed that she ought to have been
killed outright were it not ‘‘for the strange sustaining power she
distinctly felt around her, which seemed to hold her up in defiance
of gravitation.’’
According to the records of her sister, Blavatsky showed frequent
evidence of somnambulism as a child, speaking aloud
and often walking in her sleep. She saw eyes glaring at her from
inanimate objects or from phantasmal forms, from which she
would run away screaming and frighten the entire household.
In later years she claimed to have seen a phantom protector
whose imposing appearance had dominated her imagination.
Her powers of make-believe were remarkable. She possessed
great natural musical talents, had a fearful temper, a
passionate curiosity for the unknown and weird, and an intense
craving for independence and action.
At the age of 17, she was married to General Blavatsky, an
old man from whom she escaped three months later. She then
fled abroad and led a wild, wandering life for ten years all over
the world, in search of mysteries. When she returned to Russia
she possessed well-developed mediumistic gifts. Raps, whisperings,
and other mysterious sounds were heard all over the
house, objects moved about in obedience to her will, their
weight decreased and increased as she wished, and winds swept
through the apartment, extinguishing lamps and candles. She
gave exhibitions of clairvoyance, discovered a murderer for the
police, and narrowly escaped being charged as an accomplice.
In 1860 she became severely ill. A wound below the heart,
which she received from a sword cut in magical practice in the
East, opened again, causing her intense agony, convulsions,
and trance. After Blavatsky recovered, her spontaneous physical
phenomena disappeared, and she claimed that they only
occurred after that time in obedience to her will.
She again went abroad, and, disguised as a man, she fought
under Garibaldi and was left for dead in the battle of Mentana.
She fought back to life, had a miraculous escape at sea on a
Greek vessel that was blown up, and, in 1871 in Cairo, she
founded the Societé Spirite. It was a dubious venture that soon
expired amid cries of fraud and embezzlement, reflecting considerably
on the reputation of the founder.
Her closer ties with Spiritualism dated from her arrival in
New York in July 1873. Blavatsky first worked as a dressmaker
to obtain a living and, after her acquaintance with Col. Henry
Steel Olcott at Chittenden, Vermont, in the house of the Eddy
Brothers, she took up journalism, writing mostly on Spiritualism
for magazines and translating Olcott’s articles into Russian.
‘‘For over 15 years have I fought my battle for the blessed
truth,’’ she wrote in The Spiritual Scientist, published in Boston
(December 3, 1874); ‘‘For the sake of Spiritualism I have left
my house; an easy life amongst a civilised society, and have become
a wanderer upon the face of this earth.’’
Her second marital venture, which occurred during this period,
ended in failure and escape. The starting point of her real
career was the foundation of the Theosophical Society in 1875.
It professed to expound the esoteric tradition of Buddhism and
aimed at forming a universal brotherhood of man; studying
and making known the ancient religions, philosophies, and sciences;
investigating the laws of nature; and developing the divine
powers latent in man. It was claimed to be directed by secret
Mahatmas, or Masters of Wisdom.
Olcott, who was elected president, was a tireless organizer
and propagandist. His relationship to Blavatsky was that of
Blatchford, Robert (Peel Glanville) Encyclopedia of Occultism & Parapsychology • 5th Ed.
194
pupil to teacher. He did the practical work, and Blavatsky the
literary work. Their joint efforts soon put the society on a prosperous
footing, and at the end of 1878 a little party of four left,
under their leadership, for Bombay. Soon after the theosophical
movement gained added impetus from the publicity
launched by A. P. Sinnett, editor of the Pioneer, who had embraced
Buddhism in Ceylon.
The publicity had its disadvantages as well. The attention of
the Society for Psychical Research (SPR) was aroused at reports
of the theosophic marvels, and Richard Hodgson was
sent to Adyar, India, where the central headquarters of the
theosophical movement was established, to investigate. The investigation
had a disastrous effect for Blavatsky and dealt a
nearly fatal blow to Theosophy. Hodgson reported that he
found nothing but palpable fraud and extreme credulity on the
part of the believers. The Coulombs, a couple who had joined
Blavatsky in Bombay in 1880 and were her acquaintances from
the time of the Cairo adventure, confessed to having manufactured,
in conspiracy with Blavatsky, a large number of the theosophical
miracles they revealed the secret of the sliding panels
of the shrine in the Occult Room through which, from Blavatsky’s
bedroom, the ‘‘astral’’ Mahatma letters were deposited;
disclosed impersonation of the Mahatmas by a dummy head
and shoulders; declared that the Mahatma letters were written
by Blavatsky in a disguised hand and that they were projected
through cracks in the ceiling by means of spring contrivances;
and they produced the correspondence between them and Blavatsky
in proof of their self-confessed complicity. Hodgson’s investigations,
which lasted for three months, entirely demolished
the first private and confidential report of the SPR issued
in December 1884, which was theoretically favorable to Blavatsky’s
claims. Hodgson’s conclusions were published in the Proceedings
of the SPR
‘‘In the first place a large number of letters produced by M.
and Mme. Coulomb, formerly Librarian and Assistant Corresponding
Secretary, respectively, of the Theosophical Society
were, in the opinion of the best experts in handwriting, written
by Madame Blavatsky. These letters, which extended over the
years of 1880–1883, inclusive, and some of which were published
in the Madras Christian College magazine for September,
1884, prove that Mme. Blavatsky has been engaged in the
production of a varied and long-continued series of fraudulent
phenomena, in which she has been assisted by the Coulombs.
The circumstantial evidence which I was able to obtain concerning
the incidents referred to in these letters, corroborates
the judgment of the experts in handwriting.
‘‘In the second place, apart altogether from either these letters
or the statements of the Coulombs, who themselves allege
that they were confederates of Mme. Blavatsky, it appears from
my own inquiries concerning the existence and the powers of
the supposed Adepts or Mahatmas, and the marvellous phenomena
alleged to have occurred in connection with the Theosophical
Society,
1. That the primary witnesses to the existence of a Brotherhood
with occult powers—viz., Madame Blavatsky, Mr. Damodar
K. Mavalankar, Mr. Bhavani Shankar and Mr. Babajee D.
Nath—have in other matters deliberately made statements
which they must have known to be false, and that, therefore,
their assertions cannot establish the existence of the Brotherhood
in question.
2. That the comparison of handwriting further tends to
show that Koot Hoomi Lal Sing and Mahatma Morya are fictitious
personages, and that most of the documents purporting
to have emanated from these ‘‘personages’’ and especially from
‘‘K.H.’’ (Koot Hoomi Lal Sing) are in the disguised handwriting
of Madame Blavatsky herself, who originated the style of the
K.H. handwriting; and that some of the K.H. writing is the
handiwork of Mr. Damodar in imitation of the writing developed
by Madame Blavatsky.
3. That in no single phenomenon which came within the
scope of my investigation in India, was the evidence such as
would entitle it to be regarded as genuine, the witnesses for the
most part being extraordinarily inaccurate in observation or
memory, and having neglected to exercise due care for the exclusion
of fraud; while in the case of some of the witnesses there
has been much conscious exaggeration and culpable misstatement.
4. That not only was the evidence insufficient to establish the
genuineness of the alleged marvels, but that evidence furnished
partly by my own inspection, and partly by a large number
of witnesses, most of them Theosophists, concerning the
structure, position and environment of the Shrine, concerning
‘‘Mahatma’’ communications received independently of the
Shrine, and concerning various other incidents, including
many of the phenomena mentioned in the Occult World, besides
the numerous additional suspicious circumstances which
I have noted in the course of dealing in detail with the cases
considered, renders the conclusion unavoidable that the phenomena
in question were actually due to fraudulent arrangement.’’
On the basis of Hodgson’s findings, the committee of the
SPR declared ‘‘For our own part we regard her neither as the
mouthpiece of hidden seers nor as a mere vulgar adventuress;
we think that she has achieved a title to permanent remembrance
as one of the most accomplished and interesting impostors
in history.’’
The publication of the report, which followed the printing
of the Coulomb letters in the Madras Christian Magazine, created
an immense sensation. In response, Olcott, whose honesty
was not impugned by the report, banished Blavatsky from
Adyar. The proofs of her guilt were overwhelming, for the defense
was built up with great difficulties. With the Theosophical
Society thus discredited, recovery looked hopeless.
Nevertheless, Annie Besant, who would become Blavatsky’s
successor, and Sinnett valiantly took on the task. Hodgson answered
and insisted on his conclusions. In the literature that
subsequently grew up on the subject, V. S. Solovyoff claimed in
A Modern Priestess of Isis (1895) that Blavatsky acknowledged her
fraudulent practices to the author. Blavatsky’s Posthumous Memoirs
(1896) was a most curious artifact of the time that was said
to have been dictated by Blavatsky’s spirit. The text (which furnished
strong, internal proofs of its apocryphal character) was
obtained in independent typewriting on a Yost machine under
the supervision of the spirit of its inventor, Mr. G. W. N. Yost.
Blavatsky nevertheless succeeded in living down every attack
during her lifetime, continued her work, gained many new adherents
to Theosophy, and published a work, The Secret Doctrine,
which was claimed to have been written in a supernormal
condition. Whatever conclusions are reached about her complex
character, it must be admitted that she was an extraordinarily
gifted individual and it does seem probable that she indeed
possessed psychic powers which, however, fell far short of
the miraculous feats she constantly aimed at. Even Solovyoff
admits some remarkable experiences, and though he furnished
natural explanations for many of them, the assumption that
withstands challenge is that she had, as plainly pointed out by
Olcott himself, unusual hypnotic powers.
Her famous feats of duplicating letters and other small objects
are plainly ascribable to this source when common fraud
does not cover the ground. She never troubled about test conditions.
Most of her phenomena were produced under circumstances
wide open to suspicion and strongly savoring of a conjuring
performance; like the finding of an extra cup and saucer
at a picnic at Simla in 1880 in the Sinnett garden under the
ground at a designated spot; the clairvoyant discovery of the
lost brooch of Mrs. Hume in a flower bed; the astral dispatch
of marked cigarettes to places she indicated; and the Mahatma
scripts imposed over the text of private letters which the post
had just delivered.
There is no end of these and similar miracles, and the testimony
of the truth is sometimes so surprising that one can conclude
that imposture occasionally blended with genuine psyEncyclopedia
of Occultism & Parapsychology • 5th Ed. Blavatsky, Helena Petrovna
195
chic performance. The general character of Blavatsky’s
phenomena is of a different order from those of the Spiritualist
medium. Her early physical phenomena subsided at a later
age, although the power to cause raps remained, and once, in
New York, Olcott claimed that he witnessed the materialization
of a Mahatma from a mist rising from her shoulders. As a rule
the Mahatmas were not supposed to depend upon Blavatsky’s
organism for appearance, and controlled her body but seldom.
Isis Unveiled and the Secret Doctrine were claimed to have been
produced under such control.
Whereas there is a limit to the phenomena of every Spiritualistic
medium, Blavatsky apparently knew none. From the materialization
of grapes for the thirsty Col. Olcott in New York
to the duplication of precious stones in India, or the creation
of toys for children out of nothingness, she undertook almost
any magical task and successfully performed it, to everyone’s
amazement.
Sinnett must have genuinely suffered in his admission
‘‘That she sometimes employed the Coulombs, husband and
wife, as confederates in trickery is the painful though hardly intelligible
state of the facts. Even with me she has done this. For
example on my return to India, after having published the Occult
World—after she knew that I was rooted in a personal conviction
not only that she possessed magic powers, but that I was
in touch with the Masters and devoted to the theosophical
cause, she employed M. Coulomb to drop a letter from the
Master intended for me through a crack in the rafters above,
trying to make me believe that it had been dropped by the Master
himself—materialised then and there after transmission by
occult means from Tibet. M. Coulomb told Hodgson that he
had been so employed on this occasion, and his statement fits
in with the minor circumstances of the incident.’’
The Hodgson Report left a deep shadow over Blavatsky’s
final years. Besant’s conversion to Theosophy resulted after she
had been requested by W. T. Stead to review The Secret Doctrine
in 1889. Blavatsky suggested that she read the Hodgson Report
before forming any firm conclusions, but Besant was not adversely
affected and requested to be Blavatsky’s pupil. Thereafter
Besant provided a secure refuge for the aging Theosophist
at her own home in London. In her last years here, Blavatsky
became the center of a memorable group of talented individuals.
She died peacefully May 5, 1891.
Blavatsky’s character was too complex for instant judgments.
She manifested elements of philosophical mastery and
undoubtedly perpetuated numerous psychic frauds. The
Hodgson Report, which cast such a shadow over Blavatsky’s
later years, is not itself beyond reproach. Hodgson was criticized
for jumping to conclusions on inadequate evidence and
for unsatisfactory examination of the handwriting evidence
(though the main body of the report stands as written). The
April 1986 edition of the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research
published a persuasive contribution by Vernon Harrison,
‘‘J’Accuse An Examination of the Hodgson Report of
1885,’’ a paper later reissued in booklet form by the Theosophical
History Centre in London.
It is somewhat easier to assess Blavatsky’s long-term effect
on Western culture. She exercised an enormous influence over
some of the most talented individuals of her time, and they
passed along her ideas to a wider culture. Through the Theosophical
Society, she stimulated translation of important
Hindu scriptures and philosophical works. She encouraged national
pride in Indian culture, literature, religion, and aspirations
for home rule, and she founded an important archive of
Sanskrit manuscripts at Adyar, Madras.
The Theosophical Society she co-founded was a forerunner
of the famous secret society the Hermetic Order of the Golden
Dawn and numeorus other occult groups. The Irish literary renaissance
owes much to the Hindu mysticism of William Butler
Yeats and George W. Russell, who were both influenced by
the teachings of the Theosophical Society.
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