Helena Petrovna Blavatsky (1831-1891) was the co-founder of the Theosophical Society and a key player in the revival of the Esoteric tradition in the west. Her writings provided the foundational doctrines for the Theosophical Society and helped popularize and re-imagine ancient occult ideas for the modern, scientifically-thinking audience of the nineteenth century. Blavatsky and the Theosophical Society emerged during a time of great unsatisfied spiritual hunger in the wake of the scientific revolution and its accompanying hostility towards Christianity. Established biblical concepts of man’s origins and special place within the God-ordered created cosmos had been challenged and deposed among the intellectual elite.
Traditional trust in the providence of God was also being challenged by the new-found command of nature provided by the technologies of the industrial revolution. The Origin of Species (1859) by Charles Darwin, which proposed the theory of evolution based on natural selection, struck a seemingly-fatal blow to the credibility and authority of the biblical account of human origins.
This new, purely materialistic paradigm of life had created an unbridgeable chasm between science and Christianity in the West. In this new mechanical and rational world, there seemed no room for meaning and purpose. Through the Theosophical Society, Helena Blavatsky helped bring a palatable form of spirituality fully compatible with the concept of progressive evolution to the modern, educated western mind.
Blavatsky was able to adapt ancient neo-platonic creation myths and blend them with Eastern religious ideas to offer the spiritually thirsty a new cocktail to satisfy their need for meaning and purpose.
Helena Petrovna Blavatsky: Early Life
Blavatsky was born into the prominent von Hahn family on August 12, 1831 in Ekaterinoslav (modern-day Dnipro), Ukraine. Her mother was a renowned novelist and her father a captain of artillery, thus the family traveled constantly. Following the death of her mother, Blavatsky spent several years living with her grandparents during the early 1840’s. It is said that during this period she first began to exhibit psychic powers. Her grandmother’s father, Prince Pavel Dolgorukov (d. 1838) was an initiate of Rosicrucian Freemasonry in the 1770’s. He had amassed a large occult library which Blavatsky would spend her days lost in. She was particularly inspired by Freemasonry, with its foundation of esoteric wisdom motivating the worldwide web of secret societies and dedicated to transforming the world. Many of her early ideas arose from her study of Freemasonry. An old family friend, himself a Freemason and mystic, encouraged her to take her journey abroad.
At age eighteen (1849), Blavatsky married, but the marriage lasted only three months. After leaving her husband she began her twenty-five-year pilgrimage around the world, where she encountered various gurus and occultists in her search for the esoteric secrets of the ancients. Blavatsky’s wanderings are difficult to arrange in chronological order as her (generally uncorroborated) accounts are often contradictory. Her early travels took her to Greece, Eastern Europe, and Egypt before heading to Paris and London during the summer of 1850. The teachings that Blavatsky claimed to have received throughout her wanderings became the basis for the doctrines of the Theosophical Society she later founded.
Blavatsky claimed to have first met her Master in Hyde Park during her time in London. This tall Hindu man, as she described him, convinced her that she had a critical mission ahead of her. She was determined to fulfill his prophecy, but her Master insisted that she must first journey to Tibet, where she would receive the required training. Blavatsky’s determination to reach Tibet was initially thwarted. After visiting the Americas she attempted to enter Tibet via Nepal in 1852, but was unable to enter until a later visit in 1856.
Blavatsky’s wanderings continued throughout India, Kashmir, Burma, and Europe before returning home to Russia in 1858.
Blavatsky’s return to her motherland was accompanied by the resurfacing of the psychic phenomena that had allegedly accompanied her during her childhood. Her sister, Vera Petrovna de Zhelihovsky documented and described Helena’s various abilities, including telepathy and telekinesis. Her sister also said Blavatsky had claimed to have the ability to mediate between humans and beings beyond the earthly realm as we knew it. After recovering from a serious health scare while living in the Caucasus, Blavatsky’s psychic powers were said to have grown even stronger.
In (approximately) 1865, Blavatsky resumed her travels, visiting Italy, Eastern Europe, Egypt, and Persia (Iran). Her friendship with the revolutionary Agadir Metrovitch, a member of the Italian society known as the Carbonari, may well have brought her into contact with the organization whose membership included Guiseppe Mazzinni (1805-1872). Blavatsky was known to have supported their cause and was even wounded during the battle of Mentana (November 3, 1867). The Carbonari were defeated by the Papal and French armies. Blavatsky escaped with multiple gunshot wounds and even managed to survive being stabbed in the chest.
Blavatsky left Italy in 1868 for Constantinople (Istanbul), summoned by her Master. Together with Master Morya (as she referred to him) they traveled through India and into Tibet. Here she met another Master, known as Koot Hoomi, an associate of Master Morya. These two mystics ran a school near the grand monastery of Tashi Lhunpo in Shigatse, and were said to have superhuman powers. Blavatsky was finally ready to be taken on as their disciple and relished the opportunity to finally be initiated into the ancient wisdom she longed for. The two Masters were permitted full access to the Tibetan monastery and all of its sacred Buddhist literature was shared with Blavatsky, who remained in the Himalayas until 1870. Blavatsky considers this time as being the most critical period of her preparation to bring spiritual enlightenment to the West.
Blavatsky’s travels continued as she left Tibet for the Middle East in (approximately) 1870, where her accounts describe her meeting with other Masters who would initiate her into the occult mysteries of the Greeks, Copts, and Druze. During her stay in Cairo, Blavatsky founded the “Societe Spirite”. This society seemed to have a dual agenda. The first was a public program dedicated to the investigation of occult phenomena, inspired by the spiritualist trend which had become popular in America. The second goal of the society, far more important to Blavatsky and only known to a select few members, involved the practice of highly secretive occult rituals. These may well have resembled those practiced during the founding of the Theosophical Society.
By April 1972, the Society had seemingly disbanded and Blavatsky journeyed throughout Europe. She claimed to have received word while in Paris from Master Morya, who instructed her to travel to the United States in 1873.
Until this point, the accounts of Blavatsky’s life are difficult to corroborate as we are dependent primarily on Blavatsky’s own writing. Paul Johnson, who has carried out extensive (although somewhat controversial) research on Blavatsky, concluded that Master Morya was not actually a real person, but rather a personification of a concept. This may have been inspired by the Freemasonic and Rosicrucian idea of the invisible adepts, secretly working for the evolution of humanity. This idea has become fundamental to much of modern Western esotericism and New Age spirituality.
Whether Blavatsky embellished her almost-mythical accounts of her early years or not, it is clear that she was inspired by the occult from an early age and spent a tremendous amount of her early years traveling and meeting with many mystical people. By the time she traveled to America it was clear that she had learned a great deal about the occult and was ready to reveal the secrets she had discovered to the world.
Helena Petrovna Blavatsky: Later Life
Upon Blavatsky’s arrival in the United States, she was filled with a tremendous sense of anticipation; writing that she came to the U.S. with ‘feelings not unlike those of a Mohammedan approaching the birth-place of his prophet.’ Spiritualist activity was thriving in 1870’s American cities and it did not take long for Blavatsky to meet like-minded people. In 1874 her possibly most significant meeting occured, with a New York lawyer named Henry Steel Olcott (1832-1907). Olcott had been investigating spiritualist phenomena in Chittenden, Vermont, where there were reports of phantom forms appearing at the Eddy brothers’ home.
Olcott and Blavatsky would go on to co-found the Theosophical Society after concluding that the American spiritualist movement lacked the depth she associated with occultism and its ancient wisdom. Blavatsky abandoned the investigation of phenomena which captivated so many Americans possessing the idea of a “Universal Mystic Brotherhood.” Blavatsky had been conferring with spirit beings (some who she identified as Masters) during her flirtation with the American spiritualist movement, but it was not until she rejected it that she began to develop her own doctrines. These were firmly rooted in the far more ancient Western esoteric traditions. She first began to make these ideas public in her articles for the Boston-based Spiritual Scientist magazine. Blavatsky expounded on the various manifestations of the occult throughout the ages, drawing from her studies of people like Eliphas Levi. This gave her articles a tremendous amount of depth when compared to the relatively trivial psychic messages that were being circulated throughout spiritualist circles. By 1875, Blavatsky was attracting groups of people curious to find out more about the occult and would host gatherings at her apartment in New York.
In September 1875, after a lecture by Freemasonic kabbalist George Henry Felt, Olcott proposed that a society should be founded for the study of the occult. Olcott went on to become president, with George Felt among the vice presidents and Blavatsky as corresponding secretary. The name “Theosophical” was chosen by the group (theosophia was a Hellenistic term meaning “wisdom concerning God”) and among its stated aims were “to collect and diffuse a knowledge of the laws which govern the universe.”
Blavatsky’s first major work, Isis Unveiled, was published on September 29, 1877, while she was still living in New York. The 1268-page work was divided into two volumes, the first called “The ‘Infallibility’ of Modern Science,” and the second called “Theology”. Blavatsky wrote in the preface that Isis Unveiled“is a plea for the recognition of the Hermetic philosophy, the anciently universal Wisdom Religion, as the only possible key to the Absolute in science and theology.” She identifies this Wisdom Religion with the ancient concept of magic, a divine science which would enable the practitioner to attain and experience the Divine.
The first volume discussed the workings of the universe and life. The second volume was an exercise in comparative religion, with Blavatsky highlighting what she believed to be the similarities between Christianity and Eastern religions. She argues that they all share the same common ancestor which she refers to as the “wisdom-religion”.
Blavatsky and Olcott left New York in 1879. The same year, the pair published the first copy of the Theosophical Society’s monthly magazine, The Theosophist. According to Olcott’s diary, this is the year that Blavatsky would begin writing what many consider to be her greatest work, The Secret Doctrine. In the build-up to its publication, the magazine Lucifer was established in 1887. By this time, Blavatsky had settled in London where The Secret Doctrinewas published, another two-volume work dealing with ‘Cosmogenesis’ and ‘Anthropogenesis’. Blavatsky first discussed the nature of reality, both material and spiritual. In the second volume, Blavatsky focused on the origins and destiny of humanity. She taught that there are seven “Root Races” that are evolving and that the Anglo-Saxons belong to the fifth Root Race. She also expanded upon her concept of a cosmic Hierarchy of super-intelligent beings, responsible for overseeing and guiding the evolution of the universe.
Blavatsky began exhibiting symptoms of influenza on April 26, 1891, and eventually died on May 8 of that year.
Although the final seventeen years of Blavatsky’s life were an incredibly productive time, they were also tumultuous. There were many allegations of fraud, plagiarism, as well as lawsuits that were brought against Blavatsky. Helena Petrovna Blavatsky’s ability to synthesize and eloquently articulate the knowledge that she passionately believed would bring about the evolution of humanity was the main reason over one hundred notices appeared in the British press to commemorate her death. The Ancient Wisdom of her Masters that she believed was her destiny to communicate to humanity has continued to provide the foundation for the modern New Age movement.
Goodrick-Clarke, Nicholas (2004). “Helena Blavatsky (Western Esoteric Masters)”.
Goodrick-Clarke, Nicholas (2008). “The Western Esoteric Traditions: A Historical Introduction”.
Faivre, Antoine (2010). “Western Esotericism: A Concise History” (SUNY series in Western Esoteric Traditions)
Hanegraaff, Wouter J (2006). “Dictionary of Gnosis and Western Esotericism”.