In 1875 an organization burst onto the scene in then, Victorian-era New York. As mentioned before in previous installments, the air was ripe for new thought and new philosophies at this point in history. Perhaps nothing was more en vogue than the study of bringing religion together with spirituality and science. Who was the driving force behind this organization? Helena P. Blavatsky, the Russian born, aristocratic occultist, philosopher and (the main) founder, of the Theosophical Society.
Helena was born on the 12th of August in 1831 in what is now Ukraine. Not much is known about her early life. What’s been written of her early life, was written by her and there is considerable doubt by historians and biographers as to its accuracy. Why? Because what she has written, contradicts itself many times over in various writings and verbal accounts given by Blavatsky. Most will agree that the experiences and travels Helena had written about, were proven to be lies or exaggerations. We do know a few things i.e. her mother contracted Cholera and both her mother and Helena beat the odds and survived. We also learn she later would gain a brother and a sister, though the brother would die when she was two.
Helena’s mother was just 17 years old when she gave birth. An interesting note, Helena wasn’t able to meet her father for her first 6 months of life. Her father was in the military and was on assignment, "keeping down Polish uprisings against the Russian ruling parties" in Poland. Being of an aristocratic family, as Helena grew she was whisked around Europe. This likely led to the embellished stories she told and also perhaps why she moved around so much as an adult.
At 6 years old due to family employment obligations, she and her mother found themselves in Astrakhan, a southern area of Russia. While there, they met the leader of the people and were introduced to Tibetan Buddhism. This was the true beginning of Helena’s occult interests. In 1840, her brother Leonid was born. After a time, her mother had gotten ill and eventually died of consumption. After this, Helena was raised by her maternal grandfather, who was also a governor. She was given an extensive education in all the liberal arts, taught English and during her summer camp experiences she learned horseback riding and the Tibetan language.
In her time living with the governor (her grandfather), she gained much knowledge of the occult. In some of her memoirs, she claimed that she discovered evidence of her great grandfather’s involvement in Freemasonry. He was apparently a member of a "Strict Observance" lodge. Strict Observance Lodges have largely disappeared. They were more “Templar” than anything and also perpetuated the idea of Freemasonry as an offshoot of the original Knights Templar, something that’s been largely debunked. She had also claimed that at this time, she discovered that her Great Grandfather had met Count Cagliostro and St. Germain, the latter being one of the Ascended Masters. To add even more interest to this period of her life, this was also the point in time that she began having visions of someone, which was later to be revealed to her as perhaps one of the Ascended Masters trying to communicate.
At 17 years old she was betrothed to Nikifor Blavatsky, a 43-year-old vice-governor of a nearby province. On July 9th, 1849, they were married and she moved into his mansion. On numerous occasions, Helena attempted to escape. Finally, her husband let her go and she was supposed to return to her family. Helena had other plans. Instead, she made some bribes and ended up in what was then Constantinople and subsequently traveled the world for nine years.
For these nine years, there would be many stories told, many adventures had, mystics met, and none of which could be corroborated. One needed to take her at her word. Problems naturally arose here due to the conflicting accounts she gave--keeping her stories straight was an issue.
One of the stories she told was of being given a mission to go to Tibet, something she tried and failed to do. The British Army had not allowed her to gain entry. After some hard times and traveling the United States, stopping in the Far East, and eventually making her way back to Tibet, she claimed that she was finally able to make her way in. Here, she was put into contact with Master Koot Hoomi (later CW Leadbeater’s Master). Helena gives us even more stories about this mystical time. None of which are verified by any other testimony, other than her own.
After leaving Tibet, Helena decided it was her mission to validate the views and claims of the new religion of Spiritualism. Her lone departure on Spiritualism beliefs was that the claim of spiritualists were wrong in relation to who they were in contact with. During the seance, they were not speaking to the dead, they were speaking to the shells of deceased people who were somewhat disconnected and mischievous. She established herself different from many other Spiritualists who had claimed mediumship etc. when she openly declared some of them as frauds.
Fast forward to 1873 and Helena is in New York, earning a living by sewing and designing cards. She was holed up in a woman's home, but not for long. Her father had died and left her a wonderful fortune. This allowed her to "move on up", and she began living in a hotel. Helena then in 1874 was hounded by a man, Mikheil Betaneli to get married. She agreed, even though her first husband was still alive. Helena refuses to consummate the marriage and Mikheil decided to file for divorce and move back to Georgia in Europe.
Eventually, her interests in the occult led her to Vermont in order to meet a couple of brothers who claimed they could cause levitation and perform other tricks of spiritual mediumship. Enter Henry Steel Olcott. Olcott was at this time, a reporter. Blavatsky and Olcott became the best of friends after she had proven to him that she had "exquisite" powers of her own. She eventually took Olcott under her wing and taught him her "occult knowledge". Olcott became a celibate and a vegetarian. Strange that Blavatsky herself never was able to follow her own advice.
Back in New York City, Blavatsky and Olcott were purportedly advised by the "Masters" that they should start a club, which we know now as the Miracle Club. This club was mainly a way for people to gather and listen to occult lectures. During this period the two meet William Quan Judge. The three of them later formed the Theosophical Society. This Society later branched into several organizations, spawned many occultists that influenced the world, and is still in existence today.
In 1875 Helena finishes her first pass at her Magnum Opus, Isis Unveiled. This book was largely her doctrine on the universe and all things contained within--a sacred and secret knowledge of the mystics passed down from generation to generation etc. In 1879, the Theosophical magazine made its debut. This provided an eternal outlet for her and anyone else associated with the society, which would soon find it’s headquarters in Adyar, India.
In 1881, Helena was diagnosed with a form of kidney disease and she moved to the headquarters in Adyar, India. She traveled extensively for the Theosophical Society, which was popular among the local people but not so much with Christians and the British Government.
When Helena’s health began to decline, she went back to Britain with Olcott. Her job while in England, was to quell some disagreements between a few members of the Theosophical Society there. She had partial success, one member leaving to go on and form another organization, the Hermetic Society.
Back at the Adyar, the Society had some drama. A woman who was leading the organization in some respects was accused of stealing money from the Society. When told she had to step down and leave, she and her husband refused and instead blackmailed the Society, claiming they had written proof from Blavatsky herself that her abilities were all fraudulent.
In 1885 there were 121 Theosophical Lodges known to exist, and so popular was it in the surrounding region [Adyar India], that 106 of these were in operation. Helena begins working on her next book and living off of a pension of sorts from the Society. The book? That’s right, The Secret Doctrine. By 1886, Helena was mostly in a wheelchair. In 1887 she moved in with Bertram and Archibald Keightley, two Theosophists. The two assisted her in writing and finishing her book, The Secret Doctrine.
By 1888, Helena assisted in the opening of her own Theosophical Lodge, “Blavatsky Lodge”. Mahatma Gandhi was an associate member of this lodge and often studied the Bhagavad Gita with the Keightlys. In 1890, she turned over Blavatsky Lodge to Annie Besant, who would go on to lead the Theosophical Society with CW Leadbeater.
That same year, she moved in to Besant’s home and made it the European headquarters for the Theosophical Society. While there, she completed several works related to Theosophy and other lore, of which scholars generally agree was not true or correct by any stretch of the truth. On May 8th, 1891, Helena died from the flu. That day was deemed, “White Lotus Day” by Theosophists. She was cremated three days later.
Blavatsky was another one of those eccentric types living through an era of philosophical and spiritual awakening. She was a chain smoker, a user of hash, she never adhered to her prescribed vegetarianism, she was crude, foul-mouthed and really...just a human. Our great philosophers of the ages were all human. They all had faults, they all told lies, they all faltered in some way. Knowing this we’re often left asking why we should still revere someone or celebrate what they left the world. Helena Blavatsky, likely never traveled the world in the way she claimed, she probably never met some of the people she said she met, she likely never met an Ascended Master (if there is such a thing).
As I pointed out with Samuel Mathers, the value is in what she wrote down and what she left behind. Her ideas that blend Buddhism, Spiritualism, common core elements of world religions--she had a vision of world peace, one where humankind was elevated to the status that embodied altruism. As our parents often said to us, do as I say, not as I do. Perhaps this was Helena’s greatest gift, her books and a legacy she has left behind provide an alternate path of study that's left a not merely a mark, but a smoldering crater.
RWB, Robert Johnson is the Managing Editor of the Midnight Freemasons blog. He is a Freemason out of the 2nd N.E. District of Illinois. He currently serves as the Secretary of Spes Novum Lodge No. 1183. He is a Past Master of Waukegan Lodge 78 and a Past District Deputy Grand Master for the 1st N.E. District of Illinois. Brother Johnson currently produces and hosts weekly Podcasts (internet radio programs) Whence Came You? & Masonic Radio Theatre which focuses on topics relating to Freemasonry. He is also a co-host of The Masonic Roundtable, a Masonic talk show. He is a husband and father of four, works full time in the executive medical industry. He is the co-author of "It's Business Time - Adapting a Corporate Path for Freemasonry" and is currently working on a book of Masonic essays and one on Occult Anatomy to be released soon.
-Godwin, Joscelyn (1994). The Theosophical Enlightenment. Albany: State University of New York Press. ISBN 978-0791421512.
-Meade, Marion (1980). Madame Blavatsky: The Woman Behind the Myth. New York: Putnam. ISBN 978-0-399-12376-4.