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Helena Blavatsky – Mother of New Age Thought

July 16, 2010

Thanks for all your wonderful comments on my last post. It seems whenever I raise gender, it gets interesting. I’ll come back to it at a later time. If you’re interested in sacred geometry, be sure to check out the video that Brenda from Betaphi posted in a comment towards the end, which discusses the nature of straight lines (masculine) and curved lines (feminine) in ancient geometric symbols and art (as well as the book of Genesis.)

I realized I haven’t added a profile to my Women Mystics series in quite awhile, and I do want to keep that going. I am trying to focus on mystics that might not be that well-known. I decided to write on two this week – Helena Blavatsky, eighteenth-century founder of Theosophy here at Mommy Mystic, and Machig Labdron, an eleventh-century Tibetan Buddhist master, over at BellaOnline.

Helena Blavatsky

A bit severe looking, but in her defense I've read that it was considered rude to smile in photos in the 1800s

Helena Blavatsky (Aug. 12, 1831 – May 8, 1891) really does deserve to be considered the mother of New Age thinking (although that is usually a title attributed to Alice Bailey, another fascinating woman I may write about some day.) Although highly controversial, Helena’s books, and the Theosophical Society she founded, had a profound impact on Western mysticism, and many famous personages have been linked to it, including Mahatma Ghandi, William Butler Yeats, Wassily Kandinsky, Piet Mondrian, Franz Kafka, T. S. Eliot, Wallace Stevens, and Maria Montessori. Some of these were formal members, and others simply studied Theosophy for a time.

Helena was born into a Russian noble family in 1831, and her mother died when she was young. She was raised in the Russian Orthodox church, but by all accounts her childhood was also steeped in Russian supernatural mythology, mysticism, and occult beliefs. Her sister Vera Zhelikhovsky became a writer of occult fiction.

Helena was pressured at 16 to marry a man 30 years her senior. She claimed to her later biographer that this marriage was never consummated. In fact, she claimed to have remained a virgin her entire life, which seems somewhat doubtful considering she was married twice and linked to numerous men throughout her lifetime. Whether this is the truth or she just felt some social (and/or spiritual) pressure to make this claim, we may never know.

After three months of marriage, Helena showed a wanderlust, resourcefulness and willfulness truly extraordinary for a woman of her time (something she would demonstrate over and over in her life) – she ran away from her marriage by horseback to her grandfather’s home. He arranged for her to return to her family by ship, but when her father arrived to meet her, she wasn’t there. Instead, she had finagled her way onto a steamer bound for Istanbul.

She spent the next ten years traveling, and claims to have visited Egypt, France, England, South America, Germany, India, Greece and Tibet, among other places – a truly amazing feat (remember she was just 17 when she set out, and this was the 1800s.) In India and Tibet she came in contact with various Swamis and ascetics, began to meditate, and pursued spiritual and occult studies.

It’s these studies that would eventually lead to her fame. She claims to have been initiated by and studied with two Tibetan masters she called The Brothers, whose teachings would become the foundation of Theosophy. The existence and identity of The Brothers has long been debated, and we will probably never know for sure. What can’t be disputed though, is the depth of Helena’s knowledge of both Eastern and Western spiritual and occult traditions – however she came by it.

However, her Theosophy work did not begin right away upon her return from the Far East. She first returned to Russia to visit her sister, and then lived in Italy for many years, where she was linked to opera singer Agardi Metrovich, and rumored to have a child with him that died in childhood (a claim she obviously disputed, considering her self-purported virgin status.) In the early 1870s, when Metrovich died, she returned to Cairo, and it is there that she first established herself as a medium, holding seances and psychic readings.

In 1873, she moved to New York, at the height of the spiritualism movement in the U.S. She began her mediumship work again, but was really more interested in teaching and writing some of the teachings she had encountered in the East. In well-received writings and seminars, she began to connect these esoteric teachings with themes from all the world’s religions, and ‘new science’ ideas about the power of thought and mind. It is these themes that can rightfully be considered the foundations of New Age thought, and that laid the foundations for many later Western metaphysical trends (including those eventually labeled the ‘law of attraction.’)

In 1875, she co-founded the Theosophical Society with Henry Steel Olcott. The original three goals of the Theosophical Society,  were:

First — To form a nucleus of the Universal Brotherhood of Humanity, without distinction of race, creed, sex, caste, or color.
Second — To encourage the study of Comparative Religion, Philosophy, and Science.
Third — To investigate the unexplained laws of Nature and the powers latent in man.

The Theosophical Society eventually established centers throughout the U.S., Europe, and India. The Society has a fascinating and at times turbulent history itself, but that’s too much to go into here. As for Helena, she published several books, including Isis Unveiled, The Secret Doctrine, and The Key to Theosophy. She died in 1891, and reportedly her last words were “Keep the link unbroken! Do not let my last incarnation be a failure.”

The following quotes illustrate some of the main themes of her work:

“There is no religion higher than truth.” (motto of the the Theosophical Society)

“I am an old Buddhist pilgrim, wandering about the world to teach the only true religion, which is truth.” (Unsourced, but awesome.)

“Becoming is the mode of activity of the uncreated deity.” (The Secret Doctrine)

“The discoveries of modern science do not disagree with the oldest traditions which claim an incredible antiquity for our [human] race.” (Isis Unveiled)
(I inserted the word ‘human’ here, because in other passages Helena unfortunately used the word ‘Aryan’, which caused her to later be linked to the Nazi movement. A careful read of her work shows that she used ‘Aryan’ to mean the entire human race as it now exists, distinguishing it from prior races she believes to have been on Earth, including the Atlanteans.)

“Everything lives and perishes through magnetism; one thing affects another one, even at great distances, and its ‘congenitals’ [genetics] may be influenced to health and disease by the power of this sympathy, at any time, and notwithstanding the intervening space.” (Isis Unveiled)

“The mind can be made to work with electric swiftness in a high excitement; but the Buddha-mind never. To its clear region calm must ever reign.” (Letters from the Masters of Wisdom series)

“So long as one has not developed a perfect sense of justice, he should prefer to err rather on the side of mercy than commit the slightest act of injustice.” (Letters from the Masters of Wisdom series)

If you want to learn more about her, check out this biography of her, by Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke, which is quite dense (and so probably only for the hardcore fan.)

For a more general history of occult and spiritual teachings throughout American history, which includes the role of Theosophy, try Occult America: The Secret History of How America Shaped Our Nature, by Mitch Horowitz, a favorite recent read of mine.

Feel free to add your own thoughts, or to suggest other women for this series, in the comments. And  do check out the profile I did for BellaOnline on Machig Labdron also – she is a truly fascinating woman as well, and Lama Tsultrim Allione, a favorite contemporary teacher of mine who combines Tibetan Buddhist and Jungian teachings, is considered a present-day ‘emanation’ of her.


26 Comments leave one →
  1. July 16, 2010 11:43 am

    This is really interesting! Thanks for another great introduction to a potential area of study for me. I have come across Theosophy a time or two before, but never really studied it. Now that I have learned a little bit about the founder, I might give it another look-over. She seems really fascinating, with a well-developed spirituality, and I would love to know more about her and her ideas.

  2. July 16, 2010 1:07 pm

    From everything I have been reading about her, she was such a bundle of contradictions, wasn’t she? From really exquisite and evolved ideas of world religions and mysticism to small and big scams that wouldn’t be worthy of a true spiritual seeker. I am still to understand this big duality of so many of our spiritual figures. But Madame Blavatsky and her era are absolutely fascinating subjects of study.

    I never knew before that you have such a series of portraits on women mystics, but it’s such a great idea! Please keep it on.

  3. July 16, 2010 9:26 pm

    Jay – yea Theosophy is interesting, although at this point a lot of the writings feel a bit dated. I think it’s because the main themes – common themes of the world’s religions, the power of mind, science of energy etc. – are all so commonplace now. Which is why it’s historical importance can’t be overstated I think…

    Lori – yes, it is interesting the contradictions. I do tend to give revolutionary type figures, especially when women, and especially when they are involved in esoteric subjects, the benefit of the doubt when I read about critics, because there is always a great deal of effort to discredit them for socio-politico-religious reasons. But Helena definitely was involved in some seemingly shady stuff. The content of her writings though, especially considering the times, was really unique.

    Off for a weekend vacation, will check in at both your blogs when I return!

  4. July 17, 2010 11:22 pm

    This was fascinating, Lisa! I’m going to check out the second book you recommended to learn more! Isn’t Theosophy the same belief system that underlies the Waldorf educational philosophy? I was really drawn in by your description of Helena and her life. Wow!

  5. July 18, 2010 6:56 am

    I have never heard of Helen Blavatsky. She sure sounds like a woman ahead of her times. I admire her guts. Her last words were very interesting to me. What do you understand by them?

  6. July 18, 2010 7:58 pm

    Hi Lisa

    That Horowitz book sounds interesting. I like the way he describes occultism as a combination of religious, literary, and intellectual traditions.

    As for the Madame, I first ran across her in a Yeats course and got totally sidetracked by her mysticism. She kind of creeped me out though with her insistence that her turbaned sidekick could literally walk through walls. The spiritualism movement must have been quite a quirky and heady affair. As you mentioned, some of our greatest minds were enthralled with it. It’s easy to see why those traditions can and should continue.

    Thanks for the mention. 🙂

  7. July 19, 2010 12:27 am

    Alexis – from what I understand, Waldorf is based on the philosophy of Rudolf Steiner, who I don’t know that much about, but I have read that he was linked to Theosophy at one point. Interestingly, so was Maria Montessori – although she considered herself Catholic, she studied Theosophy for a time, and was invited by the Theosophical Society of India to form Montessori schools there (and it is still a very popular form of education there, including in the Tibetan-in-exile community.) So it’s very interesting that both these educational philosophies that today are considered appropriate for Indigo/Crystal children had links to Theosophy over 100 years old…that’s why I say Helena’s influence really can’t be overstated…

    Evelyn – I don’t know, but I found them very interesting too. I know that part of what she believed she was doing was migrating sacred occult teachings from the East to the West, and that she felt this was very important because the power of the world (overt power anyway, in the form of economics and politics) was shifting there, and without the spiritual side, it would be unchecked. Or something along those lines. So I take her words to mean the completion of that migration. Which in a way has never stopped – you and I and everyone working in this realm are really a part of that in a way.

    Brenda – yes that Mitch Horowitz book is well done. And spiritualism was such a kick. After reading about it, just how ‘out there’ it was, and how popular, it almost seems absurd how some people insist the U.S. was always a ‘Christian’ country – in fact, we’ve had a very diverse history all the way through on the religious/spiritual front…

  8. July 19, 2010 12:32 am

    HPB impresses me most because of the respect she commanded among those who came into contact with her. It took a strong personality, such as the English occultist and mystic Anna Kingsford, to oppose her, and even then, Kingsford seems to have appreciated Blavatsky was the heaviest hitter to have come along in the West in many years.

    She was an original, unafraid to try new things. If her work has faded in importance in recent decades it’s because so many other people were able to use what she produced as a foundation.

  9. July 19, 2010 3:32 am

    Whatever she did or was, she must have had courage and that I respect. And I love that you are careful with judging, a lot of facts can get ‘disfigured’ over time.
    I would love to know more about this; To investigate the unexplained laws of Nature and the powers latent in man.
    I am currently very interested in the laws of nature, there is so much more about nature we do not know anymore. I have read somewhere that in nature we can find the thoughts of God. Interesting.
    Thank you for revealing Helen Blavatsky to us.

  10. July 19, 2010 9:26 pm

    Very interesting. I think Helen Blavatsky died before J. Krishnamurti was born, but it was her legacy organization which identified J. Krishnamurti.

  11. July 19, 2010 11:22 pm

    Edward, yes that is my sense too, and I keep coming across modern movements that were influenced by Theosophy (see my comment to Alexis above, on Montessori and Walford education systems, both of which are gaining new popularity these days it seems.) i don’t know much about Anna Kingsford, I will have to research her more at some point.

    Wilma – ‘in nature we can find the thoughts of God’ – yes this is very much how nature mystics from every religion think about it, from what i have found. From St. Francis of Assisi to the Hopis (a Native American tribe here in the states), there is this belief that the symmetry and order of nature is a reflection of God in some form, i.e. ‘as above so below’

    Kaushik – the Krishnamurti story is interesting. Yes, he was identified by two of Helena’s successors, Annie Besant and Charles Leadbeater (who wrote some of the first material on chakras in the west) as an avatar of sorts for the ‘new teachings’. He later disavowed all that, but he was basically ‘raised’ in Theosophy, and it played a big part in his development…

  12. July 20, 2010 2:40 pm

    Hi Lisa

    This is a fantastic read to learn more about this woman, as I have never heard of Helena. I am so fascinated by people like this who were embracing the worlds of the metaphysical boldly even when it seemed like the most taboo thing.

    I love Helena’s free spirit and strength. It appears she had a strong calling within her to make her own path and not simply follow what was carved out by society for her. I strongly resonate with that.

    Thank you thus, for sharing this profile and being!

  13. July 22, 2010 9:14 pm

    Yes, she sounds like quite the free spirit, and so bold for her time! I’d be so intrigued to see a film capturing her as she traveled during the 1800s. I can’t help but wonder if she disguised herself often so no one would trouble her.

    I need to read up more on women mystics …

    Great and informative post. You seem to be so knowledgeable in many areas.

  14. July 22, 2010 9:34 pm

    I read this a while ago and thought about it. This is so cool! I would never had known of her if you hadn’t researched and posted, so thanks. She sounds like a very strong woman for her time especially.
    Because I love bio’s and life stories of great people, it has given me the idea to research charismatic people in our world – present and gone – with my children – having one person a week. Well, they might be a bit little now to be interested, but def. something for the future.

  15. July 23, 2010 9:14 am

    Great post, Lisa. This article reminds me of the days I spent about two years ago studying the works of individuals who were once associated with either the Theosophical Society or the New Thought movement. It was fun… for a while.

    The only thing I find unappealing about Theosophy is how institutionalized it had become. I dunno, I just don’t like it when people try to force their mission down other people’s throats.

    I’d like to suggest authors, but most of the mystics I know belong to the other group. =(

    “What can’t be disputed though, is the depth of Helena’s knowledge of both Eastern and Western spiritual and occult traditions – however she came by it.

    I agree. I actually have a copy of “The Secret Doctrine” (almost 1500 pages long) and I’m wondering to myself how on Earth will I be able to find the time to finish it. lol

  16. August 3, 2010 7:32 pm

    Sorry it took so long to respond to these last comments, I read and appreciated them mucho, but have been mostly offline recently…

    Evita – yes, that’s why I admire her too – she was courageous and followed her own way. So even though it seems she did do some not so admirable things, I prefer to give her the benefit of the doubt based on what she did contribute (and we all have our squirelly moments!)

    Juliana – yea I wish someone would do a film on her. Seems like great material. I wondered too about her travels, there’s lot of different stories on how she handled it.

    Ruth – that sounds like a great idea (featuring interesting bios with your kids.) The right life story can really capture kid’s attention I think. I’d like to try it too, when my kids are ready. I have always loved bios also, and they have inspired me.

    Ryhen – I have never made it through any of Blavatsky’s books in entirety either. She’s more interesting to read about than to read!! I agree with you about Theosophy, and lots of other organizations actually. Once the original founders are gone, most organizations can’t maintain the integrity and power. The problem with religion, you might say…

  17. lalalaland08 permalink
    May 3, 2013 5:06 pm

    None of you should be praising Helena Blavatsky unless you done your research on her yourself. What research i have done, i found some very disturbing facts. She influenced Adolf Hitler who is personally responsible for the holocaust. She also influenced Aleister Crowley and other infamous Satanist’s. She is for a One World Government. She has an organization inside of the United Nations. She is a woman of darkness. When our Lord returns. the christians won’t be here any longer to prevent this darkness from spreading. False illusions of what is real. She believes the you can find God within yourself. This is all satanic teachings. I used to very caught up in the new age movement until, I started researching it’s origins. Honestly, i was frightened because, even though some of you may think i’m crazy. Jesus is the only way. he is not of the masters. He alone is the master. one day your eyes will be opened.

  18. May 3, 2013 5:54 pm

    lalalalan08, I appreciate your viewpoint although I do not agree. I also researched Helena Blavatsky extensively and yes there were controversies surrounding her. However, she was not a contemporary of Adolf Hitler or Aleister Crowley and never met them – they read and were influenced by her books, as were a lot of people including Ghandi. My purpose here is to profile women who defined their own spiritual lives at a time in history when few women could, and who influenced later spiritual movements. Blavatsky’s legacy is mixed, but either way she was influential. She was certainly influential in the spread of Eastern spiritual teachings here in the West, including meditation and yoga, which are now benefiting people of many different faiths all over the world. So for that I thank her.

  19. Natasha permalink
    November 29, 2013 5:43 pm

    Helena Blavatskys theories were deeply racist – in this way she really was a child of her time. Her work was one of the ideological roots of Nazism and inspired people like Heinrich Himmler. The SS considered themselves as the people of the light. In the new age movement this way of thinking survives until today though I dare say that most people are unaware of it.

  20. December 1, 2013 1:12 am

    Hi Natasha, yes I have read about this before. Although from what I have read of Blavatsky’s work, she would have been appalled by the way some of her ideas, and others like hers, were used to justify Nazism. Since she died in 1891, I don’t personally think it’s fair to link her to this, as I feel much of her work was misinterpreted, and she also was the ‘mother’ of many other spiritual trends. The main point of me including her here is to show the influence she had on Western occultism, as many people have never heard of her. The value of what has developed from her work is debatable, but it’s influence isn’t.

  21. March 13, 2014 12:07 pm

    Blavatsky was a satanist! Her philosophy was not ahead of her time…. Occultism is just as old and primitive as any other religion you all oppose. It essentially is paganism which has been around for thousands of years. This whole new age movement has nothing to do with New Age, and more to do with being blatantly in opposition to Christianity. If praying in church was in vogue as your yoga is, you’d all be in church….. I wish you guys would admit that you are all satanists, but you hide behind the New Age movement / white witch / mystic sham titles. This profound verse changed my life …’what good is it for a man to gain the whole world if he loses his soul’. Jesus will fill your mind with nothing but strength, goodness and peace…. Forget Blavatsky / Crowley et al and their negative agendas, Which aims to only destroy your lives. Fill yourself with happiness and the Holy Spirit…I’m sure you all know deep down where the truth lies, but somewhere in our stubbornness we reject goodness for the sake to be current with what’s hip, and to appear more interesting in the next conversation we have at a party… Forget all that crap and return to The Lord who will never reject you…
    Peace & love to you all.

  22. Brenda permalink
    March 13, 2014 6:07 pm

    Go away, little darko, and don’t come back. You have no business here among the enlightened.

  23. March 13, 2014 8:45 pm

    Hi Darko, actually I completely agree with one line of your comment, ” Jesus will fill your mind with nothing but strength, goodness and peace.” I have had that experience when praying to Jesus, and contemplating his teachings. It’s just that I, and others, have also had that experience when praying or meditating in other traditions as well. So I think all religions and spiritual traditions are reaching for this same sense of oneness and light. I am not saying they are all the same because they are not, but there is a commonality there, that leads to love and light. I am sorry you felt so much anger at this post. I’ll leave it up for the sake of differing opinions, although usually my policy is to remove ‘hate’ comments. – Lisa

  24. March 13, 2014 11:23 pm

    Hi Lisa,
    Thank you for leaving my comment up. I am sorry if it came across as a hateful comment, as I never intended my post to be hateful or come across as angry. It is done with peace and love, but passion nonetheless and I’m sure that a differing opinion evokes some passion in your readers and yourself. I’m just offering my opinion like everybody else in this world and feel Blavatsky should not be championed as her philosophy has been used to fuel some of the wickedest movements of modern times. Your goodness can be seen from the works of the seeds that you sow. And to Brenda, sorry…. But I know that I’m enlightened by the Holy Spirit, and would like to ask if this enlightenment you talk about is for the Glory of God, or for your own personal glory? I reject enlightenment from the dark one.
    Peace & Love

  25. Brenda permalink
    March 14, 2014 12:41 am

    Go away, little darko, and don’t come back. You have no business here,

  26. jose permalink
    June 19, 2014 3:44 pm

    try to investigate this from the other point of view…. blavatsky was luciferian, and the new age spirituality is a lie…. Jesus Christ is the only way to God.

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