Helena Petrovna Blavatsky was a prominent nineteenth century occultist who, along with Henry Olcott, formed the American Theosophical Society in 1875 (Bevir 2003:100). Helena Petrovna Hahn wad born in Ekaterinslow, Russia on July 31, 1831 (Kingsland 32). The Hahn family was rather affluent, with both Helena’s father, Colonel Peter Hahn, and mother being descended from nobility, German and Russian respectively (Kingsland 32; Bevir 2003:100). When she was eleven years old, Helena was put in the custody of her grandmother living in Saratow, her mother having passed away a few years before, and her father traveling quite often due to his military position (Kingsland 37). After living with her grandparents for roughly five years she married General Nokifor Blavatsky; she was seventeen at the time and he was many years her senior (Kingsland 37; Prothero 202). Though the marriage did not last and the pair separated after three months, they were never legally divorced (Bevir 1994:749; Bevir 2003: 100; Kingsland 37).
After leaving her husband in 1948, Blavatsky traveled extensively while studying the occult (Kingsland 39). Blavatsky had previously toured through England and visited Paris with her father at the age of thirteen, but it was not until after the end of her marriage that she traveled outside of Europe (Kingsland 37). Though it is generally agreed upon that Blavatsky traveled a considerable amount after leaving her husband, the places to which she traveled, in which order, and at what dates are rather contested. There is a consensus however, that she traveled to Constantinople immediately after leaving Russia (Bevir 1994:749; Kingsland 37; Prothero 202). There is some speculation that after leaving Constantinople Blavatsky traveled to Greece and Egypt, but there is no overarching agreement one her destination upon leaving the city (Kingsland 37). Her extensive travels, which are occasionally referred to by some as a wanderjaher (Kingsland 53), are believed to include multiple visits to India and North America, as well as several countries in Europe, Southeast Asia, and South America (Kingsland 40-58). It is during this time that the title Madame Blavatsky begins to be used. Two of the places that Blavatsky is believed to have visited in search of occult knowledge are Quebec City, Canada around 1851 to consult with Indigenous tribes, and New Orleans to investigate reports of Voodoo practices (Kingsland 40, 42). As well, in the latter part of 1852, Blavatsky is speculated to have attempted to enter into Tibet for the first time in order to search for the physical location of her occult teachers, usually referred to as the Masters or the Mahatmas, but was denied entrance into the country, and thus in 1953 returned to England after having spent some time in Singapore and Java (Kingsland 43).
During her travels, Blavatsky fell ill a number of times. One such instance of illness was in 1858, while Blavatsky was in Russia visiting family, and was believed to be caused by an old internal injury that had re-opened (Kingsland 46). Blavatsky was again struck by illness while staying at Ozoorgetty in Mingrelia in 1863 (Kingsland 47). This bout of illness was very severe, and Blavatsky was escorted by servants to Tiflis, where her grandparents lived at the time, in order to receive medical treatment (Kingsland 48). During both of incidences of illness, Blavatsky was believed to be the source of strange phenomena reported by those around her at the time (Kingsland 46-49). Blavatsky is also speculated to have spent seven years in Tibet receiving occult training from her masters (Crow 695; Kingsland 50). However, this assertion is highly contested due to the uncertainty of Blavatsky’s whereabouts during certain years and speculation on whether she received the training over those years intermittently or consecutively (Kingsland 50). Additionally, there are some that believe that Blavatsky’s occult gifts allowed her to astral project and receive instructions from her Masters on an astral plane rather than the physical one (Kingsland 50).
Between 1863 and 1867 Blavatsky traveled around Europe, and in 1867 left Europe to, again, travel to India; during this time, she did not contact her family (Kingsland 50). In late 1870, Blavatsky’s aunt, Madame Fadeeff, received a letter from Mahatma K.H., one of Blavatsky’s masters, which is considered “the first record of any phenomenal letter from a Master” (Kingsland 51). Blavatsky’s family was informed that she was in good health and gave an approximate date for her return to Russia (Kingsland 50-51). Blavatsky is said to have completed her wanderjaher in 1873, at the age of forty-two, and in July of 1873 she traveled to New York (Kingsland 52-53).
In New York, during September of 1875, Helena Blavatsky, along with Henry Olcott, founded the Theosophical Society (Bevir 1994:751; Bevir 2003:100; Crow 693; Prothero 205). This, however, was not the first attempt by Blavatsky to create a social organization dedicated to studying the occult. In 1871, a few years prior to the founding of the Theosophical Society, Blavatsky had formed the Société Spirite in Cairo, Egypt (Kingsland 51-52; Prothero 202). The purpose of this previous society was the investigation into spiritual phenomena and spiritual mediums (Kingsland 51). However, the Société Spirite was rather short lived, with some blaming its demise on Blavatsky’s deficit of organizational skills (Prothero 202), and others on the flawed character of other members of the group (Kingsland 52). At the start of the Theosophical Society, Blavatsky was voted to be the Society’s Secretary, and Olcott was voted in as the Society’s first President (Crow 705; Bevir 2003:100). The focus of the Theosophical Society shifted over time, and it is believed that in the early days of the Society, its main purpose was to “attempt to reform spiritualism” (Prothero 198). It was only after the Theosophical Society’s Headquarters were moved to India in 1878-1879 that the Society began to express its “three basic aims [of]: [promoting] the brotherhood of man, [investigating] the hidden powers of life and matter, and [encouraging] the study of comparative religion” (Bevir 2003:100). This change in the purpose of the Society is often attributed to Blavatsky incorporating more aspects of Eastern religions, particularly Hinduism and Buddhism, into the Society’s doctrine and practices (Bevir 1994:748, 756-759; Bevir 2003:104; Crow 695, 702, 710).
Blavatsky remained in India from 1878 until 1887, when she moved to London England and began a new branch of the Theosophical Society known as the Esoteric Section (Crow 704). The inception of the Esoteric Section was publicized in Lucifer, a journal published by the Theosophical Society along with The Theosophist (Bevir 2003:102), in October of 1888 (Crow 704). The creation of this supposedly higher order group within the Theosophical Society was aimed at providing what was to be considered a more practical form of occult teachings and “a deeper study of esoteric philosophy” to a select group of students who would study directly under Blavatsky (Crow 704). Those of whom were chosen to be a part of the Esoteric Section had to take an oath wherein they were sworn to secrecy about the teachings that would transpire, as well as “a pledge of obedience to [Blavatsky] her[self]” (Crow 706), thus making Blavatsky the sole head of the Esoteric Section (Crow 706). However, Blavatsky did not stop at the creation of the Esoteric Section, which boasted a healthy number of students, and went on to create the ‘Inner Group,’ which was seen as being the next level above the Esoteric Section (Crow 707). The members of Blavatsky’s Inner Group were hand picked by her, and fit the description of the students from the Esoteric Section who supported Blavatsky most loyally; although, the justification given by Blavatsky for entrance into the Inner Group was based on a member reaching a certain point in learning the teachings of the Esoteric Section that they required more advanced teachings than other members (Crow 707). It is believed that the creation of the Esoteric Society, and subsequently the Inner Group, produced a rift between Blavatsky and Olcott (Crow 705). Blavatsky wanted the Theosophical Society to keep its membership more exclusive and hierarchal, thus making its teachings less accessible, and Olcott wanted the Society’s teachings to be more publicly accessible and to focus more on social reform (Prothero 207-208).
Blavatsky’s position within the Theosophical Society was not only as the Secretary to the Society at large, as well as the head of both the Esoteric Section and Inner Group, but she was also responsible for the Society’s doctrine and created a vast amount of literature (Bevir 2003:100). Prior to the founding of the Theosophical Society, Blavatsky had wrote a number of journal articles that defended spiritualism (Bevir 2003:100). The first book of Blavatsky’s to be published was Isis Unveiled in 1877, which consisted of two volumes that “claimed to examine religion and science within the context of Western occultism and spiritualistic phenomena” (Crow 694), and it was through the publication of these volumes that Blavatsky established her position as the member in charge of the Theosophical Society’s doctrine (Crow 701). After the establishment of the Theosophical Society, Blavatsky continued to write articles on the occult which were run in journals published by the society, such as Lucifer and The Theosophist which was first published in 1879 (Kingsland 115, 252). The next substantial work put out by Blavatsky was The Secret Doctrine, which was published in 1888, and outlined Blavatsky’s beliefs on the evolution of humanity which she broke down into seven phases (Crow 696, 700). Before her death in 1891, Blavatsky was able to complete The Voice of Silence and The Key to Theosophy, both of which were published in 1889 (Kingsland 115, 237).
Helena Petrovna Blavatsky died on May 8th, 1891 (Henderson; Kingsland 252). In the years leading up to her death, Blavatsky had fallen gravely ill a number of times, and is said to have been healed by her Masters on more than one occasion (Kingsland 114-119). After Blavatsky’s death, Olcott is said to have re-ordered the Theosophical Society to better align with his vision of what the Society should be, thus moving away from Blavatsky’s highly esoteric structure (Prothero 210). Blavatsky’s death is still honoured by those who are a part of the Theosophical Society today (Henderson).
Bevir, Mark (1994) “The West Turns Eastward: Madame Blavatsky and the Transformation of the Occult Tradition.” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 62:747-76. Accessed on October 2, 2018. doi: 10.1093/jaarel/LXII.3.747
Bevir Mark (2003) “Theosophy and the Origins of the Indian National Congress.” International Journal of Hindu Studies 7:99-115. Accessed on October 4, 2018. doi:10.1007/s11407-003-0005-4
Crow, John L. (2012) “Taming the Astral Body: The Theosophical Society’s Ongoing Problem of Emotion and Control.” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 80:691-717. Accessed on October 2, 2018. doi:10.1093/jaarel/lfs042.
Henderson, Helene (Ed.) (2015) “Death of Blavatsky (Helena Petrovna).” In Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary. Detroit: Omnigraphics Inc.
Kingsland, William (1985) The Real H. P. Blavatsky: A Stud in Theosophy, and a Memoir of a Great Soul. London: Theosophical Publishing House LTD.
Prothero, Stephen R. (1993) “From Spiritualism to Theosophy: ‘Uplifting’ a Democratic Tradition.” Religion and American Culture: A Journal of Interpretation 3:197-216. Accessed on October 2, 2018. doi:10.2307/1123988.
The Secret Doctrine
The Voice of Silence
The Key to Theosophy
The Metropolitan Gentry
William Quan Judge
George H. Felt
This article was written by Krystal Goltz (Fall 2018), who is entirely responsible for its content.