Helena Petrovna Blavatsky (1831–1891) Author, occultist, psychic, and cofounder of the Theosophical Society. Known as Madame Blavatsky or HPB, she introduced many Western mystics to the Eastern religions and promoted the influence of Hinduism and Buddhism on Hermetic philosophy. By redefining evolution as a multistage spiritual quest for perfection with the One instead of the mechanistic system many believed it to be, Madame Blavatsky gave wisdom seekers a way to reconcile religion and science.
Helena Petrovna was born in Ekaterinoslav (now Dnepropetrovsk, Ukraine), Russia, on July 31, 1831, the daughter of Colonel Peter von Hahn and Helena Andreyevna de Fadayev. Helena Andreyevna wrote novels about the constricted lives of Russian women and was called the George Sand of Russia. She died in 1842 at age 28, and 11-year-old Helena Petrovna and her brother and sister were packed off to live with their maternal grandparents. Helena’s grandmother was Princess Helena Pavlovna Dolgorukov de Fadayev, an eminent botanist. Both women exerted tremendous influence on young Helena, supplementing her own tendencies for stubbornness, fiery temper, and nonconformity.
The peasants who served in her grandmother’s house regaled Helena Petrovna with stories of the supernatural, and accounts tell of the girl’s early psychic abilities. She read the occult books in the library of Prince Pavel Dolgorukov, her great-grandfather, who had been initiated into Rosicrucian Freemasonry under the Rite of Strict Observance in the 1770s. The rite, founded by German Baron von Hund around 1754, claimed that its legitimacy came from Unknown Superiors, later identified as descendants of the fabled order of The Knights Templar; higher degrees involved study of alchemy, magic, and the kabbalah. Prince Pavel reputedly had met the flamboyant Count Cagliostro, who introduced Egyptian Freemasonry to Europe, and the enigmatic Comte de St. Germaine, who allegedly began life in Atlantis and had reincarnated through the lives of many of history’s greatest adepts.
Freemasonry provided the model for Madame Blavatsky’s later conception of the masters, combining secret societies with a select group of wise teachers.
In 1849 at age 17, reportedly to spite her governess, Helena Petrovna married 40-year-old Nikifor (also spelled Nicephor) Vassilievitch Blavatsky, the vice-governor of Erivan province in Armenia. The new Madame Blavatsky abandoned her husband on their honeymoon, never consummating the marriage, and took the advice of an old family friend: travel the world and seek wisdom.
From 1849 through 1858, HPB traveled to Turkey, Greece, North America, and back to the Middle East, sometimes accompanied, sometimes alone—an extraordinary act for a woman in the Victorian age. One of her favorite fellow travelers was Albert Rawson (1828–1902), a young American explorer, artist, and author. Together they studied with a Coptic magician in Cairo. Rawson made many trips to the Middle East, writing about the region’s history, geography and language; he also joined several secret Masonic lodges with ties to Muslim groups and was initiated by the Druze sect in Lebanon into the ways of the Sufi . Madame Blavatsky met with her first adept “Master” while visiting London in 1851. She and Rawson toured North and South America, then India, in 1852 but could not enter Tibet, the home of the Masters. She went to America in 1854 before returning to India, and this time traveled to Tibet, Kashmir, and Burma.
Russia beckoned at Christmas 1858 but only long enough to collect Hungarian opera singer Agardi (Agadir) Metrovitch. Rumors had circulated for years that while HPB may not have slept with Monsieur Blavatsky she certainly had lovers and perhaps a son Yuri, who was deformed. Madame Blavatsky apparently adored the boy, who died at age five, but maintained that he was the son of her friends, the Metrovitches. Now she and Agardi were traveling companions, with Metrovitch singing and HPB giving piano recitals in Serbia and Transylvania during 1865. The two also joined Garibaldi’s Italian campaign to overthrow the Hapsburgs. In 1868, while visiting Florence, HPB supposedly heard from her future Master, Morya, to meet him in Constantinople and go with him to Tibet. HPB allegedly became a disciple (chela), studying with Morya and the other Masters near the grand monastery of Tashi Lhunpo at Shigatse from 1868 until late 1870.
In 1871, HPB and Metrovitch planned a return to Cairo when an explosion on the boat killed Metrovitch. Madame Blavatsky continued on, and in 1872 she and colleague Emma Cutting established the Societé Spirite for the study of occult phenomena. The Societé closed in 1873 under charges of fraud.
At Master Morya’s suggestion, HPB traveled to the United States in 1873. She quickly acquainted herself with the occult community in New York, impressing her hosts with some of the psychic phenomena that she used to perform in Russia: mediumship, Levitation, out-of-body projection (see Astral Travel ), telepathy, clairvoyance, clairsentience, and clairaudience. But the real success of her New York stay was meeting Colonel Henry Steel Olcott (1832–1907), a lawyer, agricultural expert, and journalist, in 1874. Olcott was investigating seances that had purportedly produced material spirits at a farm in Vermont, and initially Blavatsky loyally defended the notion of Spiritual materialization, claiming she had spoken with the spirit “John King.” She dropped King soon thereafter, however, concentrating on Masters Serapis Bey and Tuitit Bey. Olcott and HPB became lifelong friends, living together in an apartment dubbed the “Lamasery.”
William Quan Judge (1851–96), an Irish-born New York lawyer, frequently joined Olcott and HPB at the Lamasery during the summer of 1875 to discuss occultism. HPB and Olcott often sponsored lectures at the apartment, and after hearing noted Freemason and kabbalist George Henry Felt on September 7, Olcott proposed forming a society for esoteric studies. The group chose the name Theosophical (Greek for “wisdom concerning God”) because of its Western and neo-Platonist emphasis. The Theosophical Society officially organized on November 17, 1875.
Other, more mundane matters intruded on HPB’s pursuits in 1875, however. She received word that her long forgotten husband, Nikifor Blavatsky, had died, legally freeing her to marry. She quickly wed Russian peasant Michael C. Betanelly but claimed this marriage too was unconsummated. In any case they divorced when HPB learned that Blavatsky was inconveniently alive.
With the formation of the Theosophical Society, HPB settled down with Olcott and wrote Isis Unveiled (1877), her first attempt to explain not only Theosophy but the Brotherhood of the Great White Masters, Freemasonry, rosicrucianism, the kabbalah, Hinduism and Buddhism, and Gnostic Christianity. She explained that all faiths derived from an ancient wisdom-religion: a Hermetic guide to the cosmos, human life, and all of nature, ageless and containing the “alpha and omega” of universal science. HPB posited that each of us contains a “divine spark” from the Great One and that this “spark” descends into the dense matter of a human spirit to the darkest, densest point. At this juncture the divine spark starts its ascension, aided by the teachings of the Masters, until it rises to the highest level and is joined with the One.
The brilliance of this explanation is that there is development both down and up for the soul’s enlightenment— an idea not much different from the theory of evolution put forth by Charles Darwin. Madame Blavatsky managed to combine mechanized, cold science with the embracing warmth of religion.
By 1878, the popularity of Isis Unveiled had eclipsed the society, which was in danger of collapse. In July, Madame Blavatsky became the first Russian woman to acquire United States citizenship, primarily to keep the British Raj from suspecting her as a spy. She and Olcott returned to India in December, where they gained support for their work and theories from journalist A. P. Sinnett, statesman Allen O. Hume, and various high-caste Indians who applauded HPB’s positions on their religions in the face of Western missionary efforts. HPB hooked Sinnett completely, arranging for him to receive letters from the Masters Morya and Koot Hoomi. When Sinnett returned to London in 1883, he became president and secretary of the London lodge of the society.
Olcott and HPB, reveling in their success, moved the society’s international headquarters to Adyar, near Madras, in December 1882 to be nearer the Masters. HPB did not travel throughout most of 1883 but stayed in India writing for the journal The Theosophist and honing her philosophies. She and Olcott returned to Europe in 1884 where Theosophical Society lodges were opening in England and Germany.
Then disaster struck. Madame Blavatsky’s previous friend Emma Cutting, now Coulomb, and her husband claimed in the press that the Madame was a fraud and had manufactured the Masters’ letters and manipulated the various appearances by the adepts. Counteraccusations placed the Coulombs’s motivation for exposure on bribes offered by Christian missionaries who were determined to discredit Theosophy. Richard Hodgson, head of the London Society for Psychical Research (SPR), traveled to Adyar and prepared a damning report, accusing HPB of fraud. The Theosophical Society, afraid of further bad publicity, forbade HPB to pursue redress in the courts, and she left India for good in 1885 in poor health and demoralized.
Madame Blavatsky devoted her last years to writing. She began her major work, The Secret Doctrine, in 1885 while living in Würzburg, Germany, accompanied by the Swedish countess Constance Wachtmeister. She moved to London in 1887 for the last time, where she released The Secret Doctrine in 1888.
This enormous, two-volume work encompassed all of HPB’s theories on the evolution of the soul, the source of all religions, karma and Reincarnation, and the birth of the cosmos. The first volume, “Cosmogenesis,” outlines in detail how a new cycle of the universe begins, descending from spirit to matter and back again. Like human ascension to perfection with the One, the cosmos also must take a seven-stage evolutionary journey to go from matter to spirit. The second volume, “Anthropogenesis,” describes people’s similar passage, although unlike the universe, people must compensate for their mistakes through karmic Reincarnations until they have attained enlightenment. HPB claimed that the process of the soul, from its descent into darkest matter to its ascension to spirit, was not outlined in Isis Unveiled because she had later learned these teachings from an ancient Chaldean Book of Numbers. Other passages supposedly came from a manuscript called The Book of Dyzan. Nevertheless, HPB stressed that the final purpose of a person is the emancipation of his or her soul, and that by many Reincarnations and much study, humans can be gods.
Arthur EdwardWaite, the occultist and head of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn after 1903, was attracted to Theosophy but did not always trust HPB’s sources or methods. Author and researcher Paul Johnson presented findings in his books In Search of the Masters: Behind the Occult Myth (1990) and The Masters Revealed: Madame Blavatsky and the Myth of the Great White Lodge (1994) that most of HPB’s philosophy was a mash of Freemasonry, Rosicrucianism, the kabbalah, Sufi sm, and any other esoteric idea that she encountered. And while Hodgson’s damaging report from the SPR was retracted years later, a cloud surrounded HPB and the Society.
Madame Blavatsky wrote two more books in 1889: The Key to Theosophy and The Voice of the Silence. She continued making converts, attracting a young woman activist named Annie Wood Besant. Besant and her friends, supporters of progressive causes, reinvigorated the society when she became its president after Olcott’s death in 1907.
By the end of 1890, HPB’s health had declined so badly that she could no longer walk and rode in a conveyance that resembled a giant baby’s perambulator. She suffered from Bright’s disease, heart disease, and rheumatism and had survived influenza. Madame Helena Petrovna Blavatsky died at her London home on May 8, 1891, and was cremated. One-third of her ashes remained in Europe, William Judge took one-third to America, and Annie Besant scattered the remaining third in the Ganges River. Theosophists commemorate her death each May 8 as White Lotus Day.
Madame Blavatsky and Theosophy introduced the West to the ancient Eastern religions and managed to blend their ideas with Western occult thought. Her support of Indian religions and culture energized the Indian nationalist movement; both Gandhi and Nehru looked to Theosophy as a means to rediscover their heritage. Finally, with the assertion that spiritual knowledge could coexist with natural science, Madame Blavatsky was a major voice ushered in the emerging New Age. See also brotherhoods.
FURTHER READING :
Goodrick-Clarke, Nicholas. Helena Blavatsky. Part of the Western Esoteric Masters Series. Berkeley, Calif.: North Atlantic Books, 2004. Guiley, Rosemary Ellen. Harper’s Encyclopedia of Mystical & Paranormal Experience. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1991.
Blavatsky, Madame Helena
Author, visionary, occultist Helena Petrovna Blavatsky (12 August 1831–8 May 1891) is often called the “Mother of the New Age.” Together with Henry Steel Olcott (2 August 1832–17 February 1907), she founded the Theo sophical Society, responsible for introducing Eastern ideas of Reincarnation and karma to Western occultism. Many theories of the lost lands of Atlantis and Lemuria are based on her writings.
Madame Blavatsky, or HPB, as she was called, was born at midnight on the threshold between 30 and 31 July according to the Western calendar; her birthday of 12 August reflects the Russian calendar. A member of the Russian nobility, she left home to travel around the world, working as a concert pianist in Serbia, a bareback rider in a Turkish circus, a lady’s companion, and a spirit medium. She labored in sweatshops in the United States, so poor that she once faced eviction from her apartment. In 1856, she may have been among the first Europeans to travel to Tibet, where she may have lived for seven years. She may have studied with Vodouistes in New Orleans and Kabbalists in Egypt.
HPB Demonstrated strong magic powers, allegedly able to make things move without touching them, as well as make things dematerialize or materialize at will. Her own personal spirituality seems to have been a merger of Buddhism, occultism, and Russian Orthodoxy.
Always a controversial, strong-minded woman, people either adored or loathed her. Indeath, she has evolved into an Ascended Master and may be invoked by mediums, shamans, and students and practitioners of esoteric and magic arts. Madame Blavatsky was very poor for much of her life; she may be petitioned for financial as well magical assistance. She was an extremely successful author; ask her for publishing advice. She may be invoked on behalf of those wrongly accused.
Blavatsky’s two opuses, Isis Unveiled (1877) and The Secret Doctrine (1888), remain in print. Many biographies of her exist: some treat her as a goddess; others as a charlatan. Sylvia Cranston’s H.P.B.: The Extraordinary Life and Influence of Helena Blavatsky (Tarcher, 1993) is an unbiased, neutral look at Blavatsky’s life and accomplishments.
Offerings: Vodka and cigarettes on a regular basis, plus traditional Russian food; candles
See also: Ascended Master; Morya; Serapis Bey
From the Encyclopedia of Spirits: The Ultimate Guide to the Magic of Fairies, Genies, Demons, Ghosts, Gods & Goddesses– Written by Judika Illes Copyright © 2009 by Judika Illes.
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