Previously, here at Global Bizarre, we covered the life of Dion Fortune, arguably the most prominent woman in mysticism during the 20th century. Today we will explore the life and accomplishments of the leading woman of the 19th century: Helena Blavatsky. As you’ll see, she was no stranger to controversy, receiving harsh criticism from figures like Carl Jung, and big praise from others like Leo Tolstoy.
A Privileged Upbringing
One of the parallels between Dion Fortune and Helena Blavatsky is that they both had fairly privileged upbringings, however, it seems fair to say that Blavatsky’s upbringing was more so.
Blavatsky was born August 12, 1831, in what was then the Russian Empire (today Ukraine) into a highly aristocratic family. She was literally the granddaughter of a princess, specifically Princess Elena Pavlovna Dolgorukaya (Dole-Gore-oo-Kay-Ya). Her father was Pyotr Alexeyevich von Hahn, who would go on to achieve the rank of colonel in the Imperial Army.
Oh, and her cousin was appointed the first Prime Minister in the history of the country. So there’s that.
Blavatsky’s family, due to her father’s military career, were often moving about the Russian Empire. The Russian Empire was BIG. Like, really big. I’m pretty sure it’s the 3rd largest empire that ever existed. However, most of her father’s postings were relatively close to Ukraine, with some in Russia itself.
When Helena was about 11 or 12 (details of her early childhood are particularly fuzzy), she and her family moved to the city of Astrakhan, located in southern Russia near the border of Kazakhstan. It is said that here she experienced her first true exposure to religion, despite the fact she was baptized into the Eastern Orthodox church. In Astrakhan, she met members of the Kalmyk people, who were practitioners of Tibetan Buddhism.
Helena Blavatsky: World Traveler
The middle years of Blavatsky’s life are a bit of a mystery. Many of her writings from this period, roughly 1849-1873, are lost, and later writings by her regarding this period are considered by many to be too fantastical, and rife with contradictions.
What we know is that she married at age 17, but quickly reneged and ran away back to her family, and that she started traveling the world with most accounts believing that her aristocratic parents financed these travels.
Her short marriage to Nikifor Vladimirovich Blavatsky is the reason for her name change, and despite his efforts to nullify the marriage (due to Helena leaving nearly immediately), Russian law rejected his attempts.
Over the next 24 years, she allegedly visited Cairo, Paris, Greece, London, Quebec, Texas, New Orleans, Mexico, New York City, West Indies, Bombay, Chicago, Salt Lake City, Kashmir, and Burma. Phew! That’s a lot of traveling. Oh, and she also survived a shipwreck off the coast of Africa.
The details of these travels, as uncorroborated as they are, are quite interesting, I encourage you to read further about them. She bribed ship captains, met Indian religious leaders, was robbed by Native Americans, and fell off a horse which pushed her into a coma for a short while.
Suffice it to say, she was a radical lady.
While technically taking place during her “lost travels”, details of her trip to Tibet lend it some credibility. Blavatsky, by her own account, had met someone who she considered to be an “Ascended Master”—a spiritual guru with whom she felt a psychic connection—named Morya. He encouraged her to go to Tibet to find what she was seeking.
So, she traveled to Constantinople and traversed across Eurasia, trekking across Turkey, Persia, Afghanistan, and India, finally crossing into Tibet via Kashmir. She stayed in the home of Morya’s friend, apparently very close to Tashi Lhunpo Monastery, founded by the 1st Dalai Lama in 1447.
During the 19th century, it was extremely hard for Europeans to get into Tibet at all. Occult writer Gary Lachman has said that if Blavatsky did spend time there that she would be “one of the greatest travelers of the nineteenth century”.
Her account of Tibet is seen as a strikingly accurate representation for the time, and Blavatsky also had a fairly extensive knowledge of Tibetan Buddhism that would not be easy to obtain outside of Tibet itself.
Helena Blavatsky: Founder of Theosophy
Helena Blavatsky would eventually return to New York City and after many years met reporter Henry Steel Olcott and Irish-American occultist William Quan Judge (How come everybody from the 19th century ALWAYS used their middle name?).
She revealed to them her amalgamation of beliefs and the variety of psychic interactions she had throughout her life. The three of them together founded the Theosophical Society in September 1875, an organization that still exists today.
Theosophy (literally “Divine Wisdom”) was, at least to Blavatsky, not itself a religion, but rather a set of beliefs. Membership in the Theosophical Society did not even require one to adhere or believe in everything that was in Blavatsky’s writings, but simply that each member commit to “form a nucleus of the Universal Brotherhood of Humanity without distinction of race, creed, sex, caste or color”—in other words, love thy neighbor.
After Blavatsky published “Isis Unveiled” (that title wouldn’t work today), which is basically her outline of Theosophy, interest in Theosophy exploded. The organization established chapters across the country, with chapters even popping up in England.
To demonstrate both how fast and how influential Theosophy grew, consider that the first-ever official Theosophy meeting was September 1875 and in August 1878, less than three years later, Thomas Edison (Yes, that Thomas Edison) had his application to the society approved and was admitted to the New Jersey chapter.
Other prominent individuals who were either members or had strong inclinations towards theosophy include Lewis Carrol, Arthur Conan Doyle, Jack London, and Oscar Wilde.
India and Later Life
Blavatsky became disillusioned in America and moved to British India with Henry Olcott. It’s understood that the two were not romantically involved, but they had a deep spiritual bond.
While in India, Blavatsky spread her understanding of Theosophy and was widely accepted by the Indian population, largely due to the obvious influence Eastern religion had in Theosophy. The British elite, along with the Chrisitan missionaries, were adverse to her spreading her teachings, but, due to the popularity of Theosophy, could do little to quash it.
Her years in India, roughly from 1879-1885, allowed Theosophy to spread deep roots into the Eastern Hemisphere. By the time Blavatsky left India in 1885, there were 121 Theosophical Lodges around the world, with 106 of them being in India, Burma, and Ceylon (modern-day Sri Lanka).
In the present, the majority of those who consider themselves members of a Theosophical Lodge are still in this region of the world. Blavatsky retreated from her Theosophical obligations in 1885 and returned to Europe due to having kidney disease. She published a couple more books on Theosophy, and then, in 1891, contracted influenza and passed away. She was 81.