1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Blavatsky, Helena Petrovna
BLAVATSKY, HELENA PETROVNA (1831–1891), Russian theosophist, was born at Ekaterinoslav, on the 31st of July (O.S.) 1831, the daughter of Colonel Peter Hahn, a member of a Mecklenburg family, settled in Russia. She married in her seventeenth year a man very much her senior, Nicephore Blavatsky, a Russian official in Caucasia, from whom she was separated after a few months; in later days, when seeking to invest herself with a halo of virginity, she described the marriage as a nominal one. During the next twenty years Mme Blavatsky appears to have travelled widely in Canada, Texas, Mexico and India, with two attempts on Tibet. In one of these she seems to have crossed the frontier alone in disguise, been lost in the desert, and, after many adventures, been conducted back by a party of horsemen. The years from 1848 to 1858 were 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 sensation as a spiritualistic medium. About 1870 she acquired prominence among the spiritualists of the United States, where she lived for six years, becoming a naturalized citizen. Her leisure was occupied with the study of occult and kabbalistic literature, to which she soon added that of the sacred writings of India, through the medium of translations. In 1875 she conceived the plan of combining the spiritualistic “control” with the Buddhistic legends about Tibetan sages. Henceforth she determined to exclude all control save that of two Tibetan adepts or “mahatmas.” 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, on the 17th of November 1875, with the aid of Colonel Henry S. Olcott, she founded the “Theosophical Society” with the object of (1) forming a universal brotherhood of man, (2) studying and making known the ancient religions, philosophies and sciences, (3) investigating the laws of nature and developing the divine powers latent in man. The Brahmanic and Buddhistic literature supplied the society with its terminology, and its doctrines were a curious amalgam of Egyptian, kabbalistic, occultist, Indian and modern spiritualistic ideas and formulas. Mme Blavatsky’s principal books were Isis Unveiled (New York, 1877), The Secret Doctrine, the Synthesis of Science, Religion and Philosophy (1888), The Key to Theosophy (1891). The two first of these are a mosaic of unacknowledged quotations from such books as K. R. H. Mackenzie’s Royal Masonic Encyclopaedia, C. W. King’s Gnostics, Zeller’s Plato, the works on magic by Dunlop, E. Salverte, Joseph Ennemoser, and Des Mousseaux, and the mystical writings of Eliphas Levi (L. A. Constant). A Glossary of Theosophical Terms (1890–1892) was compiled for the benefit of her disciples. But the appearance of Home’s Lights and Shadows of Spiritualism (1877) had a prejudicial effect upon the propaganda, and Heliona P. Blavatsky (as she began to style herself) retired to India. Thence she contributed some clever papers, “From the Caves and Jungles of Hindostan” (published separately in English, London, 1892) 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. Her jugglery was cleverly conceived, but on three occasions was exposed in the most conclusive manner. Nevertheless, her cleverness, volubility, energy and will-power enabled her to maintain her ground, and when she died on the 8th of May 1891 (White Lotus Day), at the theosophical headquarters in the Avenue Road, London, she was the acknowledged head of a community numbering not far short of 100,000, with journalistic organs in London, Paris, New York and Madras.
Much information respecting her will be found in V. S. Solovyov’s Modern Priestess of Isis, translated by Walter Leaf (1895), in Arthur Lillie’s 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. See also the article Theosophy.