Madame Helena Blavatsky was the 19th century’s most famous and notorious occultist. She was also the godmother of the New Age movement.
Helena Blavatsky was the late 19th century’s most famous and notorious mystic, occultist, and medium. In an era rife with spiritualism and occultism, Madame Blavatsky, as she was usually known, co-founded the still-existing Theosophical Society in 1875, aiming for a “synthesis of science, religion, and philosophy.”
So who was this mysterious woman, chased by scandal her entire life? Blavatsky was born Helena von Hahn in Ukraine in 1831. At 17, her family married her off to Governor Blavatsky, an imperious man over 20 years her senior. After 3 months, she took one of his horses and left him; keeping his name, however, for the rest of her life. There she met many other ‘Masters,’ astral beings with great psychic powers, including the immortal Count of Saint-Germain. Blavatsky said the Masters bestowed upon her the ‘Sacred Secret Sciences.’ As one would expect, suspicion and scandal followed such a person. In Egypt, she formed the Societe Spirit. But after repeated accusations of swindling and bogus phenomena, officials forced them to disband and leave Cairo, else face arrest. Unperturbed, Blavatsky simply moved elsewhere.At age 20 in London, she claims to have met a ‘Master,’ a tall, handsome Indian prince named Morya. She says he recruited her on a ‘Great Mission’ to help all of humanity. She began to study Eastern mysticism and slowly gained a reputation in England as a spirit medium, claiming both telepathy and telekinesis as well.
Blavatsky gave occultism an Eastward orientation and helped turn Europeans and Americans towards Eastern religion. She claimed to be in contact with the ‘The Masters’, astral beings of great psychic powers who bestowed upon her the ancient secret science of Theosophy. The society grew from a modest start in 1875 to become a multi-national organization with thousands of members and branches that still exist today.
In 1874 she ended up in Chittendon, Vermont, in the thick of what Bevir calls the era’s “epidemic of raps.” These sensational events were said to be spirits making rapping sounds on tables and walls, allegedly trying to communicate with the living. “On her arrival, the spirits became more spectacular than ever before.” A reporter wrote about her for his newspaper, and Madame Blavatsky was soon quite a celebrity in the spiritualist movement. While some have described Blavatsky as a charlatan who faked the paranormal phenomenon, Bevir concentrates on two of her verifiable contributions to Western religion: giving occultism an Eastward orientation and helping to turn Europeans and Americans towards Eastern religions and philosophies. He argues that she was, in fact, instrumental in encouraging “the West to turns towards India for spiritual enlightenment.” Blavatsky dug deeper than most spirit-rappers, founding the Theosophical Society and publishing articles about her philosophy; she thought her “contemporaries needed a religion that could meet the challenge of modern thought, and she thought that occultism provided just such religion.” She arrived in the U.S. in 1873 after much travel, the extent of which is debated. As Mark Bevir writes, “some people say she visited spiritual Masters in Tibet, whilst others said she had an illegitimate child, worked in a circus, and earned a living as a medium in Paris.” She does seem to have gone to the Middle East and Egypt, long an inspirational source for European occultism going back at least to the hermetic tradition of the Renaissance.
At age 42, she said Master Morya sent her to America in 1873. Blavatsky’s reputation as a medium grew rapidly in New York City as she began writing in various spiritualist periodicals. She married again, to Michael Betanelly to gain U.S. citizenship. Similar to her first marriage, they separated after 4 months. She claimed neither marriage was ever consummated and she remained caste her entire life. A year later, she met Colonel Henry Steel Olcott, a lawyer investigating the occult, not as a skeptic, but as a believer. Blavatsky so impressed Olcott with her psychic abilities and mystical knowledge they became business partners. Together they co-founded the Theosophical Society. Theosophy, or Divine Wisdom, is a mystic philosophy believing in ‘ancient secrets’ including cosmic evolution, spiritual planes, and universal religion.
She wrote her first book, Isis Unveiled claiming it was copied (not written) with ‘her hand in the astral light.’ After all, the rise of spiritualism and occultism were intimately tied to a contemporary crisis in Christianity. One aspect of this crisis was liberal Christian antipathy to the idea of eternal damnation, thought incompatible with the notion of a loving God. The other aspect was science: geology had shown the dating of the world to be far older than the Bible’s teachings and Darwinism upended centuries of dogma. People were searching for ways to believe in such a context. The excitements of Spiritualism offered a new way to connect with the spiritual, outside of old orthodoxies. Blavatsky, for one, had no problem incorporating Darwinism in her reading of Hindu cosmology, solving, at least in her mind, the struggle between science and religion. She “drew on Victorian orientalism to argue that the source of the ancient wisdom was India.” She lived in India from 1879-1885, where Theosophy spread rapidly (to the annoyance of Christian missionaries and the ruling British).
Blavatsky was now 51 and her health began to deteriorate in the intense Indian heat. In London, the Royal Academy formed the Society for Psychical Research (SPR) to scientifically investigate paranormal phenomena. Two TS employees declared Blavatsky a fraud who used sleight of hand and trap doors to fool its members. They said the Masters were her complete invention with which she duped a gullible Olcott. “For our part we regard her neither as a mouthpiece of hidden seers, nor a vulgar adventuress. We think she is one of the most accomplished, ingenious, and interesting imposters in history.’ The SPR considered the Masters a Blavatsky fabrication aided and abetted by confederates. All her psychic phenomena were various forms of deception, helped by the credulity of dupes like Olcott.
Never one to be slowed by scandal, Blavatsky carried on, returning to London and with the help of British society, started a second magazine, Lucifer (Lightbearer). In London, Blavatsky finished her second and third books, The Secret Doctrine and The Key to Theosophy. She also launched an attack against Christian churches. ‘Only Theosophy,’ she decreed, ‘offered the secret doctrine that lay hidden beneath all earthly religions.’ Needless to say, both clergy and scientists rose up against her.
In the U.S., the New York Sun resurrected the old accusations from Egypt and reported the results of the SPR. This included a brand new charge of plagiarism. The article stated Blavatsky stole much of the material in her three books from existing Buddhist and Hindu texts. The TS promptly sued the newspaper which reported: ‘The ingredients of a successful charlatan are having no conscience, some brains, much courage, corrosive selfishness, vainglorious ambition, and monumental audacity. Blavatsky has all these.’
In 1891, Blavatsky came down with a severe case of influenza.
Already suffering from a weak heart, rheumatism, and Bright’s disease, she passed away on May 8th at only 60. Her detractors consider her one of the most successful charlatans of the 19th century. Her Theosophy supporters believe her one of their founding saints.
Regardless of your personal beliefs, Madame Blavatsky managed to lead an international organization in an age when very few women wielded such power. Say what you will about Blavatsky and her followers, but if chicanery was their only sin, it pales in comparison to today’s modern New Age Cults.