Helena Blavatsky – Mother of New Age Thought
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 (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.