Blavatsky, Helena (1831–1891)

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Blavatsky, Helena (1831–1891)

Russian spiritual leader, author, mystic, and a founder of the Theosophical Society. Name variations: Madame Blavatsky or simply HPB. Born Helena (Elena or Helen) Petrovna Gan on July 31, 1831, in Ekaterinoslav, Russia; died of flu complications on May 8, 1891, in London, England; daughter of Captain (later Colonel) Peter Alekseevich Gan (1798–1873, a career military officer) and Elena Andreevna (Fadeeva) Gan (1814–1842, an author who wrote novels as "Zinaida R-va"); sister of writerVera Zhelikhovskaya (1835–1896); married Nikifor Vasileevich Blavatsky, in 1849; children: one child, Nikolai, who died a few years after his birth around 1862.

Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, termed both a charlatan and a great thinker, occasionally at the same time, was an exceptionally complicated figure who inspires deep reactions to this day. Charismatic and compelling, yet often belligerent and coarse, she established an international organization that preached a Universal brotherhood of all peoples based on Western and Eastern philosophies. At the same time, much of her fame was and is based on the numerous psychic illusions and tricks that she and her followers experienced—phenomena she almost certainly staged herself. One of her most notable achievements was the introduction, albeit in a slightly altered form, of Eastern philosophies to Western audiences.

Helena's parents, Captain Peter Alekseevich Gan and Elena Andreevna Gan , were married in 1830 in Ekaterinoslav, Russia (now Dnepropetrovsk, Ukraine). Helena, their first child, was born on the night of July 30–31, 1831, an auspicious beginning, since Russian folklore has it that those born on that night are endowed with the power to control spirits. The Gans also had a son Sasha, who died in 1833 shortly after his birth, a second daughter Vera, born in 1835, and another son Leonid, born in June 1840.

The maternal side of Blavatsky's family descended from the Dolgorukovs, an influential family of the Russian nobility—her grandmother was a princess—and Helena had a very privileged childhood. She received instruction in many subjects and learned to speak several languages. She also had an unusually liberal access to books and journals and absorbed considerable quantities of information on a wide range of topics, including science, philosophy, and the occult.

Blavatsky also traveled a great deal during her childhood as her father was often transferred about Russia as part of his military service. After living in a series of provincial towns in the early 1830s, the family was eventually relocated in 1836 to the capital St. Petersburg. When Peter was shortly transferred once again, this time his family did not follow him; they moved instead to Astrakhan province with Blavatsky's grandparents. The Gans' later travels included Poltava and Odessa.

When Helena was approximately five years old, her mother began writing novels, a career she pursued under the name "Zinaida R-va," as Russian women often wrote for publication under pseudonyms. Elena Gan's promising career was short-lived, however, as she died only five years later, in June 1842. Blavatsky and her siblings moved in with their maternal grandparents in Saratov.

According to her family's later reminiscences, Helena's connections with inexplicable occurrences began early. As a child and young adult, she apparently experienced hallucinatory visions and occasionally wrote messages in handwriting other than her own. She was also reportedly able to move objects without touching them—a phenomenon known as telekinesis.

In July 1849, at the age of 17, she married 40-year-old Nikifor Blavatsky, a highly placed state official who was later made the vice-governor of Erevan Province. The marriage lasted only a few months, however, when she abruptly left him and, after several months visiting relatives, Russia as well.

The chronology of the 20 years of Blavatsky's life after the disintegration of her marriage are difficult to untangle. In later years, she tended to embroider her past as she saw fit. According to her version, one accepted by most of her followers, in the 1850s Blavatsky traveled to the Americas and the West Indies, as well as Tibet and India, where she made her first contact with a Brotherhood of Mahatmas (learned sages). She also reportedly wandered among the native tribes of the Russian Caucasus for a time in the early 1860s. She later maintained that she spent the years 1867 to 1871 traveling about the Orient and Europe, at which time she professed to have fought alongside Italian leader Guiseppe Garibaldi in the 1867 Battle of Mentana.

While her wanderings might not have been quite as wide-ranging as she later claimed—she most probably did not make it to either the Americas or India, nor is it likely that she was at the Battle of Mentana—she did spend most of the 1850s traveling extensively throughout Europe, as well as Turkey and Egypt. Although her exact activities are impossible to determine, she probably served for a time as a lady's companion to raise money, and at one point she became involved with Hungarian opera singer Arkadi Metrovich, with whom she toured Europe. She also maintained her interest in the occult, and while in Paris in 1858 she met Daniel Home, a famed American medium.

It is accepted that in late 1858 Blavatsky returned to Pskov, Russia, to spend time with her recently widowed sister Vera. Although she later claimed to have left again almost immediately, it seems likely that she remained in Russia for most of the following decade. While there, she was briefly reunited with her husband Nikifor, although the marriage was as disastrous as ever. She also apparently became involved with Nikolai Meyendorff, a Russian devotee of Spiritualism, which is the belief that the spirits of the dead can be contacted through mediums and seances.

Gan, Elena Andreevna (1814–1842)

Russian author. Name variations: Helena Gan; (pseudonym) Zinaida R-va or Zenaida R-va. Born Helena Andreevna Fadeeva in 1814; died in June 1842; daughter ofElena Fadeeva (1788–1860, a botanist with international connections); married Captain (later Colonel) Peter Alekseevich Gan (1798–1873, a career military officer), in 1830; children:Helena Blavatsky (1831–1891), son Sasha (who died in infancy, 1833), Vera Zhelikhovskaya (1835–1896, a writer), Leonid (b. June 1840).

One of the Russian Romantics, Elena Gan wrote novels which probed the lot of the intellectual outsider. Her writings include Utballa (1838), Dzhellaledin (1843), originally published as The Moslem in 1838, Teofaniia Abbadzhio (1841), and A Vain Gift. The later books hint of a "developing social pathos and a movement towards realism cut short by her premature death," wrote Claire Buck in The Bloomsbury Guide to Women's Literature.

In late 1861 or early 1862, Helena gave birth to a son, Nikolai. She claimed Meyendorff was the father, a fact he denied, claiming in turn that Helena was still involved with Metrovich and that he was the father. In any event, Nikolai's

life was a short one; having been born with an unidentified deformity, he died in 1867. Following his death, Helena stayed in Russia for several more years. She spent time with various family members, including her cousin Sergei Witte, the future finance minister under Tsar Nicholas II.

The disparate versions of Blavatsky's life begin to reconverge with the summer of 1871, when she and Arkadi Metrovich set sail for Cairo on the S.S. Eumonia. Disaster struck on July 4, when the ship's powder magazine exploded, killing virtually all of the ship's 400 passengers. Blavatsky was among the 17 who were saved, although Metrovich was not as fortunate. Blavatsky continued on to Cairo alone, where she stayed briefly, setting up a society to study Spiritualism. She soon abandoned that endeavor and toured Europe for several more months.

For our own part, we regard [Helena Blavatsky] neither as the mouthpiece of hidden seers, nor as a mere vulgar adventuress; we think that she has achieved a title to permanent remembrance as one of the most accomplished, ingenious, and interesting impostors in history.

—Richard Hodgson

In July 1873, Blavatsky left Europe and immigrated to the United States, where she settled in New York City. While in the U.S., she dabbled further in the Spiritualist movement, which had recently gained a large American following, investigating psychic phenomena, attending lectures, and becoming acquainted with other devotees. It was while investigating the site of a reported Spiritualist phenomenon in 1874 that she met Henry Steel Olcott (1832–1907), a lawyer and journalist as well as a follower of the Spiritualist movement. They began working together, writing and translating articles on Spiritualism and related subjects. Their working collaboration was to continue for most of the rest of Blavatsky's life.

Blavatsky soon began to turn away from orthodox Spiritualism when she revealed that she was communicating telepathically with an organization of learned men living in Egypt, the Brotherhood of Luxor, who were serving as her spiritual mentors. She convinced Olcott of the presence of the Brotherhood and helped turn him away from conventional Spiritualism as well. On September 8, 1875, they, along with an American named William Judge, established the Theosophical Society which was based on the teaching she was receiving from the Brotherhood. The date of the Society's inauguration, November 17, 1875, was later used as the organization's official founding date.

The teachings of the Society, termed theosophy, were a blend of Buddhism, Hinduism, and the occult. Opened to those of any nationality, race, or religious faith, the Society's aims were no less than the discovery and teaching of the truths that govern the Universe. Theosophists believe that all religions have the same goal, the pursuit of truth, and the Society's motto is "there is no religion higher than truth."

At the time of the Society's founding, Blavatsky was working on her first major literary work, Isis Unveiled, which was published in September 1877. In keeping with the tenets of theosophy, the book was an attempt to uncover the eternal truth in the workings of science and theology, themes she would more fully explore in her later work, The Secret Doctrine.

In the spring of 1878, Blavatsky became the first Russian woman to be naturalized in the United States, only to move to India with Olcott in December of that year. Shortly after their arrival, they began publishing a journal, the Theosophist, on oriental arts and philosophy as well as theosophical matters. Together they traveled around India and Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) for several years, conducting seances, meeting with spiritual leaders and establishing branches of the Society across the region. Blavatsky and Olcott strove to work among both the Indian population and the British citizenry who were there as part of the Raj. The fact that they worked and socialized with the Indian people was highly unusual and controversial, and Blavatsky made well-known her dislike of the English tendency to remain isolated from the native population.

Blavatsky's fame was based not only on her inclusive theosophist ideology, however, but also on the miraculous events that she often seemed to precipitate. Letters from her spiritual guides, the India-based Brotherhood of the Mahatmas who had displaced the Egyptian Luxor Brotherhood, fell into recipients' laps from the ceiling; invisible bells chimed in her presence; and everyday objects appeared in unusual places as symbolic messages from the Brotherhood to their followers. On December 19, 1882, Olcott and Blavatsky established the headquarters of the Theosophical Society in Adyar, just outside of Bombay, where it remains to this day. This international Society quickly spawned independent branches in countries around the world, including the U.S., England, India, and Australia.

Blavatsky's time in India was not an unblemished success, however. She was diagnosed with Bright's Disease, a painful kidney ailment that was to plague her for years, and she was professionally denounced by Swami Dayananda Saravasti, an Indian reform advocate whom she and Olcott had wanted very much as an associate. There were also charges that one of the letters written by the most prolific corresponding Brother, Koot Hoomi, was in fact plagiarized from a lecture published in the British journal Banner of Light. Nevertheless, in the early 1880s, Blavatsky and the Society developed an international following numbering in the thousands.

Blavatsky returned to Europe in February 1884, staying first in France, then in Germany. Around this time, one of her former disciples, Emma Coulomb , began claiming publicly that Blavatsky and the Society were a fraud and that the events Blavatsky claimed were the work of the Mahatmas were in fact staged by Blavatsky herself, with Coulomb's help. Coulomb was promptly dismissed from the Society for her accusations. However, her claims came to the attention of the newly established Society for Psychical Research (SPR), formed specifically for the study of alleged psychic phenomena, and, in May 1884, the SPR launched an investigation into the Society's activities.

While somewhat contemptuous of the Society in general and Olcott in particular, the SPR's preliminary report dismissed the fraud charges. However, subsequent findings, released in December 1885 as the so-called "Hodgson Report" determined that the Society had in fact been engaged in fraudulent practices. Furthermore, the report's author, Richard Hodgson, hypothesized that Blavatsky was a Russian spy, an allegation that had haunted her throughout her time in India. The claim was a specious one and only undermined the report's credibility on the fraud charges. (In 1986, the SPR partially retracted Hodgson's findings.)

Despite its spotty conclusions, the Hodgson Report served to erode the Theosophical Society's waning credibility, and Society membership, already declining, continued to fall. Furthermore, Blavatsky's personal history was beginning to emerge. During her years as a spiritual leader, she had either ignored much of her past, including her marriage and the birth of her son, or blatantly falsified it. The disclosures caused Blavatsky's personal credibility to dissolve along with that of the Society. After a brief, and ultimately final, visit to India in late 1884, Blavatsky traveled about Europe from 1885 to 1887, staying eventually in Würzburg, Germany, and Ostend, Belgium. She was in the initial phases of writing what was to become The Secret Doctrine, and she remained comparatively out of the public eye for several years.

It was during the mid-1880s that her relationship with Olcott, always somewhat rocky, began to seriously unravel. She officially severed connections between the Indian-based Society, which was led by Olcott, and the branch in London, which she could better control from her new base in Europe. In May 1887, Blavatsky moved to London and became a permanent resident of England. Despite ongoing accusations of wrongdoing and occasional falls from public favor, both the Society and Blavatsky retained a substantial following. She accepted in her London home a steady stream of visitors who were seeking spiritual guidance, among them the poet William Butler Yeats, the future Mahatma and Indian leader Mohandas Gandhi, and the socialist and reformer Annie Besant . That year, Blavatsky again sought to ensure that the power in the Society would remain focused on her. She personally established a new London branch, called the Blavatsky Lodge of the Theosophical Society, in direct competition to the already existing branch run by former disciple Alfred Sinnett. She also began publishing a new journal, Lucifer, to compete with The Theosophist.

In the summer of 1888, Blavatsky consolidated her control of the Society still further by creating a so-called Esoteric Section within the Lodge. The Section was to have 12 hand-picked members who would receive personal instruction from Blavatsky. Olcott's power in European theosophical circles was by now virtually nonexistent, and he chose to focus his proselytizing efforts in India, where he remained for close to 20 years until his death in 1907.

It was in London that Blavatsky finished The Secret Doctrine, her most wide-ranging and influential book. The two-volume work was published in October 1888. The Secret Doctrine continued Blavatsky's efforts to explore and explain the universal truth, and stated as part of that truth that all existing spirit and matter form an omnipresent reality, that there exists a universal evolutionary cycle of change, and that all human souls form part of a great oversoul. Blavatsky also published two minor works in 1889: The Voice of Silence, a prose poem that was meant to serve as a daily spiritual guide, and The Key to Theosophy, a short accessible collection of the teachings found in Isis Unveiled and The Secret Doctrine.

Much of the last few years of Blavatsky's life were spent grooming the newly converted Annie Besant to replace Blavatsky as the Society's leader after her death. During these years, Besant gradually became Blavatsky's only confidante, particularly after Blavatsky's relations with Olcott had turned to virtual enmity. In September 1889, Besant was made the editor of Lucifer, and, in January 1890, she became the head of the Blavatsky Lodge. Besant had become so integral to the Society that in the summer of 1890 her home was made not only the Society's headquarters but also Blavatsky's residence.

One of Blavatsky's last efforts was the establishment in August 1890 of a Home for Working Women with funds donated anonymously to the Society. However, she was growing weaker, losing ground to the numerous ailments that had plagued her throughout her life, including edema, Bright's Disease, and rheumatism, which were compounded by years of over-work. In early May 1891, she caught influenza, which she was unable to shake. She died a few days later, on May 8, 1891, at age 59. To this day, members of the Theosophical Society commemorate Blavatsky and her life's work on White Lotus Day, the anniversary of her death.


Blavatsky, H.P. H.P. Blavatsky Collected Writings. 14 vols. Compiled by Boris de Zirkoff. Wheaton, IL: The Theosophical Publishing House, 1950–91.

Carlson, Maria. No Religion Higher than Truth. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1993.

Cranston, Sylvia. HPB: The Extraordinary Life and Influence of Helena Blavatsky, Founder of the Modern Theosophical Movement. NY: Putnam, 1993.

Harris, Ian, et al. Contemporary Religions: A World Guide. The High, Harlow, Essex: Longman Group UK, 1992.

Meade, Marion. Madame Blavatsky: The Woman Behind the Myth. NY: Putnam, 1980.

Murphet, Charles. When Daylight Comes: A Biography of Helena Petrovna Blavatsky. Wheaton, IL: The Theosophical Publishing House, 1975.

Nicholson, Shirley. "Theosophical Society," in Encyclopedia of Religion. NY: Macmillan, 1987, pp. 464–65.

suggested reading:

It is important to note that works on Blavatsky tend to be either obsequious or unrelentingly harsh. The following were written by Blavatsky's contemporaries:

Coulomb, Emma. Some Account of My Intercourse with Madame Blavatsky. London: Elliot Stock, 1885.

Olcott, Henry Steel. Old Diary Leaves. NY: Putnam, 1895.

Sinnett, Alfred. Incidents in the Life of H.P. Blavatsky. NY: Ayer, 1976 (originally published 1886).

other secondary works:

Endersby, Victor A. The Hall of Magic Mirrors. NY: Carlton Press, 1969.

Kingsland, William. The Real H.P. Blavatsky: A Study in Theosophy and a Memoir of a Great Soul. London: John M. Watkins, 1928.

Symonds, John. Madame Blavatsky: Medium and Magician. London: Odhams Press, 1959.

the hodgson report controversy was played out in the following:

Society for Psychical Research, "Report of the Committee Appointed to Investigate Phenomena Connected with the Theosophical Society," in Proceedings of the Society for Phychical Research. No. 3. December 1885.

Harrison, Vernon. "J'Accuse: An Examination of the Hodgson Report of 1885," in Journal of the Society for Phychical Research. Vol. 53. April 1986.

Susan Brazier , freelance writer, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada