Helena Blavatsky, Occultist and Founder of Theosophy

Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, Russian-born American theosophist, 1875
Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, Russian-born American theosophist, 1875. Helena Blavatsky (nee Hahn) (1831-1891), photographed at Ithaca, New York in 1875, the year she co-founded the Theosophical Society with Henry Olcott. Hulton Archive / Getty Images

Helena Petrovna Blavatsky (August 12, 1831—May 8, 1891) was a Russian spiritualist and philosopher and co-founder of theosophy, a religious philosophy based on a combination of Asian beliefs and occultism. Though considered by many to be a fraud, Blavatsky produced several major books, including "Isis Unveiled" and "The Secret Doctrine." Her Theosophical Foundation became quite popular during the 1800s and is still in operation.

Fast Facts: Helena Blavatsky

  • Known For: Creator of the occult religion known as theosophy
  • Also Known As: Yelena Petrovna von Hahn, Madame Blavatsky
  • Born: August 12, 1831 in Yekaterinoslav, Russian Empire (present-day Ukraine)
  • Died: May 8, 1891 in London, United Kingdom
  • Parents: Helena Andreyevna von Hahn, Pyotr Alexeyevich von Hahn
  • Spouse: Nikifor V. Blavatsky
  • Published Works: Isis Unveiled, The Secret Doctrine, The Voice of the Silence, The Key to Theosophy
  • Notable Quote: "It is an occult law moreover, that no man can rise superior to his individual failings without lifting, be it ever so little, the whole body of which he is an integral part. In the same way no one can sin, nor suffer the effects of sin, alone. In reality, there is no such thing as 'separateness' and the nearest approach to that selfish state which the laws of life permit is in the intent or motive."

Early Life

Madame Blavatsky, born Helena Petrovna von Hahn, was the oldest child of Helena Andreyevna von Hahn (a novelist) and Pyotr Alexeyevich von Hahn, both of aristocratic heritage. She was born in the Ukrainian town of Yekaterinoslav, which was at the time part of the Russian Empire.

Helena's father, Pyotr, was a captain in the Russian Royal Horse Artillery whose career required his family to move frequently. Soon after her birth, the family moved to Romankovo; a year later her mother gave birth to a son who died in early childhood. In 1835, Helena and her mother moved to Odessa to be near her mother's parents; there, Helena's younger sister Vera Petrovna was born. In 1836, the family moved to Odessa and Saratov, and a brother was born.

In 1842, Blavatsky's mother died and the children were sent to live with their grandparents in Saratov. She was educated in the usual feminine skills of art, music, and the French language. Blavatsky also had the opportunity to vacation at a camp where she learned to speak Tibetan and ride horses.

According to her later writings, it was in Saratov that Blavatsky discovered her great-grandfather's library of esoteric books. She also claimed to have seen visions of a "mysterious Indian." In addition, she had multiple paranormal experiences and traveled on the astral plane.

Madame Blavatsky
Madame Blavatsky. Bettmann / Getty Images 

Marriage and Travels

At the age of 17, Helena married Nikifor Vladimirovich Blavatsky, the vice governor of Eriyan Province, an area that includes portions of modern Armenia, Turkey, and Azerbaijan. Nikifor Blavatsky was in his forties when the couple married. Helena was clearly unhappy in her marriage and attempted to return home to her family several times. Finally, her husband and family agreed to let her return—but according to her own account, she ran away and began a long period of international travel.

According to Blavatsky herself, her travels (possibly paid for by her father) took her to Turkey, Egypt, Paris, and England. While in England, it is likely that she met the "Indian" of her childhood visions, a man called Master Morya. She then may have traveled to the United States, Canada, Mexico, South America, and India.

Virtually none of the stories of Blavatsky's travels can be corroborated by outside witnesses, and some of the stories are extremely unlikely to be true. According to The Paris Review:

Among the claims Blavatsky made about this time—or that were made about her—are that she smoked hashish with the Universal Mystic Brotherhood in Cairo, studied voodoo in New Orleans, found a lost Incan treasure in South America, performed as a concert pianist in England, visited the Mormons in Salt Lake City, was wounded and left for dead fighting alongside Garibaldi, survived two sea disasters, had an affair with Italian opera singer Agardi Metrovich, discovered an ancient language called Senzar, and studied in Tibet with a group of “Masters” who would later become central to her Theosophical teachings. 

In 1858, she returned to the Russian Empire, where she found her family in Pskov. Suffering an accident, she was in a coma briefly. After she recovered, she claimed to have developed full control of her paranormal abilities.

Time in Tibet

Between about 1860 and 1870, Blavatsky claims to have traveled from Russia to Turkey and thence, through India, to Tibet. There, she wrote, she and her Indian "Master," Morya, stayed with the "Master" Koot Hoomi. She also claimed to have studied with monks in a Tibetan monastery where she learned the mysterious language Senzar—which she associated with the lost continent of Atlantis. By the time she left Tibet, Blavatsky wrote, she had learned to develop her powers of clairvoyance and telepathy, could control others' minds, could materialize and dematerialize objects, and was able to travel easily on the astral plane.

All of these claims have come under attack from biographers who point out that Tibet was closed to all Europeans during the time Blavatsky claimed to have visited. In addition, her claims of secret and occult knowledge were highly questionable. On the other hand, her knowledge of Mahayana Buddhism was very impressive, and could potentially have been developed at a monastery.

Development of Theosophy

After returning home and embarking on further travels, Blavatsky arrived in New York City in 1873. While investigating paranormal phenomena in Vermont, she met a reporter named Henry Steel Olcott, who became fascinated by Blavatsky and her beliefs.

The Theosophist Magazine cover
The Theosophist Magazine cover. Vol. 1, No. 1. Wikimedia Commons / Pubic Domain

Together, Blavatsky and Olcott started up a newsletter entitled The Spiritual Scientist and named themselves and their organization the Brotherhood of Luxor. The Brotherhood later became the Miracle Club, and it was under that name that they ran lectures and programs in New York. Finally, the Miracle Club was renamed the Theosophical Society. The word "theosophy" is based on on the Greek words theos and sophia, and thus means "wisdom of the gods." The Theosophical Society attracted quite a few prominent New Yorkers.

In 1875, Blavatsky began writing her most famous book, "Isis Unveiled." This massive tome would reveal the "ancient mysteries" which, she claimed, had been revealed to her in Tibet. The work was published in 1877 to moderate acclaim and interest.

Theosophy in India

In 1879, Blavatsky and Olcott headed to Adyar, India, to establish the headquarters of the Theosophical Society. There, they began publishing a journal called The theosophist and gathering followers. Many of Blavatsky's ideas reflected traditional Indian beliefs, and both Blavatsky and Olcott officially converted to Buddhism.

Within a few years, however, Blavatsky came under attack by Indian journalists for falsely claiming psychic powers. Soon after, the London Society of Psychical Research investigated Blavatsky and found she was a fraud. The report by the Psychical Society was later found to be biased.

Later Years

In failing health, Blavatsky returned to Europe in the late 1880s, where she worked on literary projects. The most important of her works, "The Secret Doctrine," was completed in 1888.

Death

In 1891, Blavatsky was living in Britain when she contracted the flu. She died on May 8, 1891, at the Besant home. Theosophists still celebrate the day of her death as White Lotus Day.

Legacy

Helena Blavatsky's greatest contribution was in her writings, in which she described the complex ideas embodied in theosophy. While Blavatsky herself held controversial beliefs and engaged in a wide range of psychical activities, the basic philosophy of theosophy (as expressed in the present-day Theosophical Society's website) is quite simple:

A primary idea is the essential oneness of all beings. Life is everywhere throughout the cosmos because all originates from the same unknowable divine source. Consequently, everything from the subatomic to plants, animals, humans, planets, stars, and galaxies is alive and evolving. Each is divine at its root and expresses itself through spiritual, intellectual, psychological, ethereal, and material ranges of consciousness and substance. Evolution reflects this emerging self-expression of faculties which differentiates into material forms; develops spiritual and conscious aspects; and, over cosmic time-periods, returns to the divine source. The life of the individual, of humanity, and of the entire earth is part of this cosmic process.

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