The Element Encyclopedia of Witchcraft: The Complete A-Z for the Entire Magical World - Judika Illes 2005
Blavatsky, Helena Petrovna (August 12, 1831—May 8, 1891)
Witchcraft Hall of Fame
Author, visionary, occultist, philosopher, Helena Blavatsky was the founder of the Theosophical Movement and often described as the “Mother of the New Age.” Together with Henry Steel Olcott (August 2, 1832—February 17, 1907), she founded the Theosophical Society, responsible for introducing Eastern ideas of reincarnation and karma to Western occultism. She also played a crucial role in disseminating occult and spiritual concepts at the dawning of the twentieth century.
Popularly known as Madame Blavatsky or by her initials, HPB, Helena Petrovna von Hahn was born in Russia to a prominent and wealthy family. Her father was descended from German nobility; her mother, Helena Andreyevna, was a highly regarded novelist, unusual at a time when few women were published. She wrote under the pen name Zenaide R. and was called “the Russian George Sand.” Her grandmother was a Russian princess and noted botanist.
Little Helena spent much time with household servants who taught her Russian folkloric and magical traditions. She was fascinated by magic and ancient spiritual traditions from an early age. Voices spoke to her as a child including those of the stuffed, mounted animals in her grandfather’s private museum.
The countryside where they lived was allegedly shared with Rusalka (see FAIRIES: Nature-spirit Fairies: Rusalka). When not pleased with adult authority, little Helena would threaten to have the Rusalka tickle the offending adult to death.
A local fourteen-year-old boy once annoyed the four-year-old Helena as she was walking beside a riverbank with a nurse. She screamed that the Rusalka would get him so loudly that the boy ran away. He disappeared for several weeks until fishermen discovered his dead body. The official story was that he had been trapped in a whirlpool but local peasants believed that the Rusalka had followed through on Helena’s orders. Even at that early age, she was developing a reputation for magic power that never abated.
She married General Nikephore Blavatsky when she was seventeen; reports of his age range anywhere from 40 to 80; in any case he was much older than her. Three months later, she ran away for reasons unknown but subject to all sorts of speculation. She spent the next years traversing the globe: her activities between 1848 and 1858 are mysterious and fabled—she worked as a concert pianist in Serbia and a bareback rider in a Turkish circus. She worked as a lady’s companion and a spirit medium. In 1856, she was allegedly in India from whence she traveled to Tibet, among the first Europeans to do so. She may or may not have lived in Tibet for seven years.
She traveled back to Russia for a time, where she may or may not have had a son who died in young childhood. Many of her writings are contradictory as are reports allegedly told to other people. She cultivated an aura of mystery and, despite her superficial flamboyance, may have been an intensely private person.
Blavatsky may have fought with Garibaldi in Italy in 1867; she claimed to have been wounded by bullets and sabers. She may also have studied with Kabalists in Egypt and with Voodooists in New Orleans.
In 1873, Blavatsky boarded a boat for New York with just enough money to pay her passage. Arriving completely destitute, she moved into a residence for working women, laboring in a sweatshop sewing purses and pen wipers. Spiritualism was then very popular: Blavatsky had conducted séances in Russia and France and she began working as a spirit medium in the United States.
She was an unusual medium, commanding and summoning spirits rather than just channeling or receiving them. Her cast of characters included family members, two Russian servants, a Kurdish warrior and an Iranian merchant. Through Spiritualist circles, she met Henry Olcott, author, attorney, philosopher, and Freemason, on October 14, 1874. They became compatriots, allies and close friends.
On September 13, 1875, Blavatsky and Olcott formalized the Theosophical Society in her home at 302 West 47th Street in New York City. Olcott was President of the Society while Blavatsky was Corresponding Secretary.
Blavatsky’s home, birthplace of Theosophy, was dubbed The Lamasery. She held on-going salons there where adepts and occultists from all walks of life mingled, women as well as men, blacks, whites and Asians, Hindus, Jews and Christians.
Theosophy is a philosophical/spiritual organization dedicated to universal brotherhood and which emphasizes the study of ancient philosophies, religions, sciences, and spiritual traditions. The objectives of the Theosophical Society were:
To form a universal brotherhood of humanity without distinction of caste, color, creed, gender, race or religion
To encourage study of comparative religion, philosophy, and science
To investigate unexplained laws of nature and mysterious powers latent in people
“Theosophy” indicates sacred science or divine wisdom, deriving from Theos (god) and Sophia (wisdom) and was founded on the theory that all religion emanates from identical roots of lost wisdom.
Blavatsky’s extremely influential twovolume work Isis Unveiled, published in 1877, is Theosophy’s manifesto, attempting to unify various strands of mystical philosophy into a cohesive, coherent spiritual world-view. It draws heavily on Egyptian Mysteries and Kabalah, however Blavatsky gave primacy to India in the diffusion of the original root religious system. She described the old Pagan deities as necessary personifications of natural forces, and Christ as merely one adept of that ancient “true” religion.
Controversially, Blavatsky did not give credit to human mentors or teachers but claimed that the information in Isis Unveiled was given to her by direct revelation from superior beings, the immortals who had first given the universal religion to Atlantis. She described these beings as the “Mahatmas,” the “Ascended Masters of the Hidden Brotherhood” or “The Great White Brotherhood of Masters.”
She defined these beings as those whose esoteric training and absolute purity have resulted in supernatural powers. They were literally immortal: the Masters inhabit bodies (material or semi-material) at will. The Masters communicate with each other telepathically, forming a link between humans and the ruling divine hierarchy. Home base for all Ascended Masters is a secluded Tibetan valley.
The Brotherhood of Masters includes all great spiritual leaders and occult teachers of the past including Abraham, Cagliostro, Confucius, Jesus, King Solomon, Lao Tzu, Mesmer, Moses, and Plato. The Brotherhood usually remains hidden from all but a very few because when they have attempted to transmit information to humanity through human agents, those agents were too often met by disbelief or worse: persecution by humans under the influence of malign powers called “The Dark Forces.” The crucifixion of Jesus is but the most obvious example of this persecution.
If talk of “Ascended Masters” and “The Dark Forces” reminds you of Star Wars, then you have some idea of how far Blavatsky’s ideas and influence has traveled, although she is rarely credited in mainstream sources, perhaps because of the aura of controversy that still surrounds her. Many theories of the lost lands of Atlantis and Lemuria are also based on Blavatsky’s writings.
According to Blavatsky, all history has a hidden esoteric meaning: history recounts the secret struggle between powers of light and dark. The Brotherhood works in secret to direct, preserve, and protect Earth’s destiny.
She claimed Isis Unveiled was written under the influence of spirits who held ancient books filed with Gnostic and Kabalistic instruction open before her while she smoked hashish and wrote down information as fast as she could.
Other information was channeled, while other pages, she claimed, simply appeared. She would leave an empty desk but would return to discover pages of the manuscript waiting for her, a writing technique that very many authors, including this one, would absolutely love to emulate if only they could.
Isis Unveiled was also written as a challenge to Darwinism, which she accused of narrowing the notion of science so that it applied only to the Material Universe, disregarding the existence of all else. She suggested Buddhism as a doctrine that could reconcile modern science and religion.
Isis Unveiled was a huge bestseller. Among those who claimed to be influenced by the work were Mohandas Gandhi and Thomas Edison. (One stated purpose of the early phonograph was to speak to the spirit world.) Others influenced by Blavatsky included philosophers Krishnamurti and Rudolf Steiner and artists Vasili Kandinsky and Piet Mondrian. Among her personal students was W.B. Yeats, prior to his entry into the Golden Dawn (see DICTIONARY: Golden Dawn).
On December 17, 1878 Blavatsky and Olcott left New York to go live in the native quarter of Bombay, India. She continued to be dogged with controversy. She was accused of fraudulence; although never proven, she was never able to live down the stigma of the accusation. Others simply treated her as a joke.
Blavatsky evoked powerful reactions from people, both negative and positive. She was an independent, earthy, stubborn, frank-speaking, bohemian, rather authoritarian, Russian woman who had traveled the globe by herself, sans chaperone. She was not considered a “respectable woman.” She was accused of being a sexual libertine; a generation before Aleister Crowley, many perceived Blavatsky to be a “wicked woman.”
Her allegiance to India and the Himalayas as the ultimate home of spiritual truths also offended Western occultists, particularly those with a Christian orientation such as Dion Fortune (see page 732). Various Western mystical organizations, including those founded by Fortune and the Christian occultist Anna Kingsford (see page 744), were stimulated by a reaction against Blavatsky’s internationalist orientation with its emphasis on cultural diversity.
Blavatsky was a complex, contradictory person: although she was allegedly a powerful medium herself, she despised other mediums. She despised High Ritual Magic and Darwinism equally. She met MacGregor Mathers (see page 749) in Paris and was impressed with him but allegedly felt he was wasting his gifts with Ceremonial Magic.