Born von Hahn, she was married for 3 month to 40 year old General N. Blavatsky. In fact it were the Church records that gave his age as 40, Blavatsky would later deny that.

Boarding a steamer on the Black Sea to return home, she evaded her escort and sailed instead for Constantinople and freedom, in a caprice which foreshadows her whole career.

Quite how she supported herself is not clear, though she may have had an allowance from her father and seems to have set up as an itinerant spirit medium. She also claimed to have ridden bareback in a circus, toured Serbia as a concert pianist, opened an ink factory in Odessa and, traded as an importer of ostrich feathers in Paris.

She may or may not have had lovers, including the German Baron Meyendorf, the Polish Prince Wittgenstein and a Hungarian opera singer, Agardi Metrovitch. All these names were linked with hers, though she sometimes denied the liaisons and sometimes hinted that they were true - an equivocation which became important only when her enemies taxed her with promiscuity.

Siv Ellen Kraft in a lecture Jan. 31, 2002, mentioned that Blavatsky spoke with different voices, both in her writings and through the gender roles she assumed. Kraft in her PhD dissertation on the subject describes Blavatsky presenting herself variously as a woman, a man, an androgyne and a hermaphrodite. Kraft describes how more often than not, difficult to differentiate between Blavatsky “the interpreter of myths” and Blavatsky “the myth-maker.”

Apart from  newer students of Religion like Siv Ellen Kraft, scholarship about Theosophy and Blavatsky is characterized by confusion and discrepancies. And no doubt a definite biography of Blavatsky still waits to be written.

The first two books about Blavatsky, besides Isis Unveiled and the Secret Doctrine, that I myself read as a teenager were Alfred Sinnet’s Biography and Soloview’s Priestess of Isis, two contrasting books indeed.

However Soloview did include all kind of original letters making him a better candidate I thought. On the other hand Sinnet has all the characteristics of  a largely synthetic biography.

For example the “von Hahn family records” in quotation marks to indicate what seems the rather strong likelihood that they are the creation of Sinnett himself. Although Sinnett presents various anecdotes about Blavatsky’s early life in quotation marks, suggesting that he is quoting directly from the (Russian? French?) originals, there are a number of moments in the quoted text that call the documents’ authenticity (and, for that matter, their existence) into question.

In the anecdote about Madame Blavatsky’s baptism, for example, Sinnett cites the family record as saying, “everyone has to stand in the baptismal ceremony, no one being allowed to sit in the Greek religion, as they do in Roman Catholic and Protestant Churches, during the church and religious service.”. The comparison to Catholic and Protestant ritual as well as the anthropological tone assumed in the description of the Greek Orthodox service seems somewhat improbable in the records of an Orthodox family.

Sinnert further wites that Madame Blavatsky’s “first long flight abroad was prompted by a passionate enthusiasm for the North American Indians, contracted from the perusal of Fennimore [sic] Cooper’s novels” (p.61-2). When Madame Blavatsky at last met a group of Native Americans, Sinnett goes on, she abandoned her romantic notions about the noble savages of North America. “At Quebec,” Sinnett writes, “a party of Indians were introduced to her…

Fact is that Blavatsky came to Ellis Island New York in 1873, and took an apartment in a predominantly Jewish neighborhood on the Lower East Side. According to her own later version she was send by an occult group in Paris, immigration records show she came on a Russian grant to ‘study’.

For a year or so, she made a living sewing artificial flowers and telling fortunes, and looked in from time to time on spiritualist meetings in the greater New York area. It was at one of these spiritualist mcetings-this one at the home of the Eddy family in Chittenden. Vermont, in 1874- that Blavatsky met Olcott, a reporter and recently retired Union army colonel.

Olcott later became the first US citizen of European extraction to convert to Buddhism. Theosophy, for all of its professions to universal validity, in fact bore the stamp of distinctly European modes of thought, worldviews that were shaped to no small extent by imperialism. Further, by setting aside the question of direct causality, one tan begin to analyze larger cultural pressures that operate independently of individual textual expressions.

The TS was first convened rather as a conversation society. First called “The Miracle Club” engaging in séances that did not meet with great success.  Next in a lecture, variously titled “The Lost Canon of Proportion of the Egyptians” or simply “The Cabala,” presented before those individuals who were to become the founders of the Theosophical Society,a certain  George H. Felt disclosed his promise to manifest elementals or “creatures evolved in the four kingdoms of earth, air, fire, and water.

What this had to do with the Canon of Proportion, the main topic of the lecture, was unclear, but there could be no doubt that Felt’s claim impressed and roused his audience, so much so that Col. Henry Steel Olcott, one of the individuals present at the lecture suggested the formation of a society to investigate such phenomena.

Obviously the above topics where  supporting the belief in a work of fiction. In 1680 an English translation of “The Count of Cabalis” appeared in London, claiming to be published by “the Cabalistical Society of the Sages, at the Sign of the Rosycrucian.” In the novella, the narrator recounts how through use of magical crystals, mirrors, and magnets, the initiate can learn to communicate both spiritually and physically—with his celestial partner.  The universe is filled with intermediary spirits-Gnomes, Sylphs, Salamanders, and Undines who become immortalized through sacramental  intercourse with human sages. More relevant, perhaps, was Gabalis’s claim that Cabala provided a scientific key to the secrets of natural philosophy. “The Cabalist acts solely according to the principles of Nature.” (Schuchard ”Restoring The Temple of Vision” 2002 p.714)

H.P. Blavatsky in “Isis Unveiled” but much more so in “The Secret Doctrine” shifted the “Invented Egypt” Myth gradually to India underpinned mythologically by the assumption that the Egyptians were actually descendants of the Aryans (that according to Blavatsky invaded India), whose spiritual traditions should thus represent a purer form of the ancient wisdom religion.

William Q Judge co-founder of the Theosophical Society claimed India and Egypt supposed to have had regular contacts, and therefore the perennial philosophy was equally well preserved by both nations.

Due to a series of historical accidents, these contacts were severed and Egyptian civilization foundered. The ancient wisdom was retained in India, whereas judge claims that most of Egyptian philosophy was lost in the process of transmission to the “Jews”.

Next in “Old Diary Leaves”, 1:46-69, Olcott President of the Theosophical Society then wrote that the idea of the founding of the   TS then was  to be a repetition of Cagliostro’s Egyptian Lodge in the eighteenth century. (See The Phoenix Conspirachy)

Olcott also wrote: Mr. Felt told us in his lecture that, while making his Egyptological studies, he had discovered that the old Egyptian priests were adepts in magical science, had the power to evoke and employ the spirits of the elements, and had left the formularies on record; he had deciphered and put them to the test, and had succeeded in evoking the elementals. (G.H.Felt in Theosopical History July 1997, p.245.)

It is just in this area of “Spiritology” and “spiritintercourse,” as part of the hidden laws of nature, that moved Olcott to propose a society for this sort of study.

Esoteric texts from the late nineteenth and early twentieth century may refer to all three: hermetica, rosicrucian lore and Atlantean wisdom. Modern Theosophical and pseudo-scientific texts have adapted this to our times and present adjusted legends.  Fifteen years  later, the ‘magnum opus’ of the TS, The Secret Doctrine would  freely combine imaginary others such as the Atlanteans with the merely semi fictitious, e.g. concepts of a generalized Orient, with references to existing Neoplatonic and Gnostic sources that actually seem to have been used to construct theosophical doctrines.

In the esoteric field as Lawton amply shows with “Genesis Unveiled,” released July 15, 2003, on the one hand, doctrinal and ritual elements are taken from the most diverse sources. On the other, considerable effort is spent on showing that these seemingly disparate elements in fact point to the same underlying reality. The same can be said of The Phoenix Conspirachy by Hancock/Bauval, to come out next.

There is the process that transformed Plato’s literary device Atlantis into a place that Blavatsky, Bailey, Steiner, Cayce and others treated as literal fact. And a new attempted synthesis among these lines will be the  The Phoenix Conspiracy, Talisman.

At the time of Blavatsky’s writings a rapid advance of a rational, scientific world-view was taking place, and this presented itself as a challenge with which the esoteric views had difficulty to compete.

Esotericism was not seen anymore as an integrative framework that explained the “hidden” (“true”) meaning of the world, as it was in the time when for example alchemy and astrology were accepted sciences, but more and more as a viewpoint outside the accepted norms.  When the hopes of constructing an alternative esoteric world view lost itself during the early part of the 20th century, anti-scientific attitudes became predominant within esoteric thought.

In Isis Unveiled Blavatsky erroneously claimed that Aristotle had been initiated into Egyptian wisdom, Pythagoras and Plato had learned all their philosophy from the books of Hermes Trismegistus (Isis Unveiled: 1, 144)

The Renaissance hermeticists however worked within a view of history in which their tradition was represented as an ancient philosophy, contemporary with Moses, only to have this legend gradually undermined by scholarly studies such as the philological work of Isaac Casaubon  long before Blavatsky  constructed  her first major work “Isis Unveiled.”

In “Genesis Unveiled” Lawton writes in his chapter “The Divine Atlanteans”: Whatever we may think of the Atlantis myth itself, how can we ask for a clearer elucidation of our theme of a highly spiritual former race that became debased? It has often been suggested that Plato himself spent a number of years in the company of Egyptian priests becoming an initiate into their sacred mysteries, and that his writings were a coded “story” version of what he learned—coded because, like other initiates, he was not allowed to reveal the full extent of his knowledge to the common people. (Genesis Unveiled: The Secret Legacy of a Forgotten Race.)
 


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Institute for Sociology and the History of Ideas, July 25, 2003