Published by The Blavatsky Archives Online. Online Edition copyright 2000.
Helena Paulovna Blavatsky
[Reprinted from the Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1902 edition. ]
Blavatsky, Helena Paulovna (1831-1891), Russian theosophist, was born at Ekaterinoslav, Russia, 31st July (O.S.) 1831. She is stated to have been the daughter of Peter Hahn, a Russian officer. An unruly girl, she sought emancipation from family ties by marrying in her 17th year (7th July 1848) Nicephore Blavatsky, a Russian official in Caucasia, from whom she was separated after a few months of stormy conjugal life. In later days, when seeking to invest herself with a halo of virginity, she described the marriage as a nominal one, and her bridegroom as a plumeless raven nearer seventy than sixty. If this statement were true, M. Blavatsky, who was reported as still living in 1895, would then have been considerably over 110 years of age. During the twenty years that followed the separation from her husband, Mme. Blavatsky travelled and probably gained experience as a spiritualistic medium in large cities, among which it is believed that she visited Paris, Cairo, New Orleans, Tokio, and Calcutta. The period 1848-58 was alluded to subsequently as the veiled period of her life, and she spoke vaguely of a seven years sojourn in Little and Great Tibet or preferably of a Himalayan retreat. In 1858 she revisited Russia, where she created a considerable sensation as a spiritualistic medium. Early in the 'seventies she acquired prominence among the spiritualists of the United States, and was mixed up in the Eddy Brothers and Katie King frauds. Her leisure was occupied with the study of occult and cabalistic literature, to which was soon to be added that of the sacred writings of India, though these had to be approached through the medium of translations. In 1875 she conceived the plan of combining the spiritualistic control with the Buddhistic legends about Tibetan sages or wonder-working adepts. Henceforth she determined to exclude all control save that of two Tibetan adepts or mahatmas, called respectively Koot Hoomi and Morya. The mahatmas exhibited their astral bodies to her, precipitated messages which reached her from the confines of Tibet in an instant of time, supplied her with sound doctrine, and incited her to perform tricks for the conversion of sceptics. At New York, in October 1875, with the aid of Colonel Olcott, she definitely launched the Theosophical Society, which was formed out of a group of disillusioned spiritualists, and had for its avowed objects to put down spiritualism, to convert the materialists, and to prove the existence of the Tibetan brothers. The Brahmanic and Buddhistic literatures supplied the society with a technical vocabulary, and its doctrines were a curious amalgam of Egyptian, cabalistic, occultist, Indian, and modern spiritualistic ideas and formulas. The two leading text-books, Isis Unveiled (1877) and The Secret Doctrine (1888), both compiled by Madame Blavatsky, are a mosaic of unacknowledged quotations from well-known works, as Mackenzies Masonic Cyclopaedia, Kings Gnostics, Zellers Plato, the works on magic by Dunlop, Salverte, Ennemoser, and Des Mousseaux, but above all from the mystical writings of Eliphas Levi. She took great pains with A Glossary of Theosophical Terms (1890-92), compiled for the benefit of the flap-doodles, as in moments of candour she called her disciples. But the appearance of Homes Lights and Shadows of Spiritualism (1877) had a prejudicial effect upon the propaganda, and Heliona P. Blavatsky (as she began to style herself) sought temporary obscurity in India. Thence she contributed some clever papers, From the Cave and Jungles of Hindostan, to the Russky Vyestnik. Defeated in her object of obtaining employment in the Russian secret service, she resumed her efforts to gain converts to theosophy. For this purpose the exhibition of physical phenomena was found necessary. The jugglery which she practised was cleverly conceived, but carelessly executed, and on three distinct occasions the elaborate system of trickery to which she resorted was exposed in the most conclusive manner. Nevertheless, Madame Blavatskys extraordinary cleverness, volubility, energy, and will power enabled her to maintain her ground, and when she died on 8th May 1891 (White Lotus Day), at the Theosophical headquarters in Avenue Road, Regents Park, London, she was the acknowledged head of a community numbering not far short of 100,000, with journals in London, Paris, New York, and Madras. Much information respecting her will be found in Solovyoffs Modern Priestess of Isis, translated b Walter Leaf (1895), in Arthur Lillies Madame Blavatsky and her Theosophy (1895), and in the report made to the Society for Psychical Research by the Cambridge graduate despatched to investigate her doings in India. In personal appearance the old one, as Madame was familiarly called by her following, has been described as globular in shape, with a dull gray complexion, a far from attractive physiognomy, and eyes like discolored turquoises. Yet she certainly fascinated those who came in contact with her, even those of her colleagues whom her fibs and indiscretions kept in a continual state of uneasiness.