Helena Petrovna Blavatsky 1831-1891

Thelemic Holy Season “Saint of the Day” April 20, 2021

Helena Petrovna Blavatsky was without a doubt one of the most remarkable people of the 19th century.  In a world which offered women few paths to advancement she rose to an international prominence that endures to this day.  Along the way she contributed dramatically to bringing the underlying concepts of Mahayana Buddhism to the west.  Through her writing, which was widely disseminated, and more importantly influenced the occult writers of the late Victorian era, many Buddhist concepts passed into the commonweal such that in the west today they are referred to in media, and accepted even by many Christians. 

Blavatsky enjoyed a privileged upbringing as the daughter of minor aristocracy in what is now the Ukraine but was at the time the Russian Empire.  She traveled widely but it is impossible to distinguish actual historical events from her own hagiographic narrative of her life.  We know that she became involved in the Spiritualist movement in the 1870s, practicing as a spiritualist in the US from 1873 in partnership with Henry Steel Olcott.  With Olcott she founded the Theosophical Society in 1875.

She published Isis Unveiled in 1877, a work which forms a large portion of the basis for the modern Western Esoteric tradition to this day.  She brings together the western Neo-Platonist, esoteric, and adept traditions, and compares and interprets them syncretically to Buddhism, Hinduism, and Zoroastrianism. 

Politically and historically she and Olcott contributed to the movement for Sri Lankan independence, and to Hindu Reform, and are held in great respect in Sri Lanka to the present day. 

Blavatsky is controversial.  She almost certainly fabricated “miracles” in her spiritualist business.  A series of vicious attacks through the Madras Christian College magazine by former Theosophical society Emma Coloumb, supported by her partner Alex, were published in 1884.  There is no ability at this remove to prove or disprove tha accusations, however they are likely to have been a mishmash of intentional calumny and truthful allegations regarding the garden variety fabrication of spiritualist “miracles.”  Blavatsky has been accused of such fraud in New York, and such practices were common to spiritualists of the day.

She is accused of plagiarism, however “Joscelyn Godwin and K. Paul Johnson note that early scholarship seemed obsessed with the agenda of exposing Helena Blavatsky as a plagiarist and imposter, but such labels do not properly assess the Theosophical Society’s place in the cultural, political, religious, and intellectual history of modern times. The work belongs to a broader movement that seeks to integrate the history of the occult sciences and of esoteric movements with more established subdisciplines”

Blavatsky’s influence on Thelema was immense.  If Theosophy was not the only force which drove the occult revival that led to the Golden Dawn, and to Reuss’  O.T.O., it was certainly one of the larges, most prominent and most enduring factors.  Crowley’s easy access to a ready made mystical worldview can be laid largely at Blavatsky’s doorstep. 

While the idea of “secret masters” can be traced to some historical traditions, and Bulwer-Lytton’s novel Zanoni in 1842, it is Blavatasky with her Mahatmas who formalized the tradition of “Secret Masters” which would so heavily influence the Golden Dawn, and to a lesser extent Reuss and Crowley’s O.T.O. 

Crowley was openly contemptuous of the 20th century Theosophical Society, but held Blavatsky in great esteem, giving her “degree” as  8°=3° in his reprint of Blavatsky’s “The Voice of the Silence” as Liber LXXI in Equinox Volume 3, No. 1.  That publication is of particular historical interest as it contains Crowley’s plate of “Lam,” which served as the basis for an entire axis of Thelemic belief and practice in which it has been syncretized with the system of western traditional and folk beliefs concerning extaterrestrials.

Blavatasky’s Theosophical society was widely credited as the first widely publicized and received attempt at syncretizing Western and Eastern practice in a broad, practicable, form.  The syncretist bedrock on which Thelema was built is the formula largely laid down by Theosophy, and its influence on the history of Western esotericism was sweeping and undeniable. 

The Gnostic Saints are not paragons of conventional virtue.  It is clear they are role models not only in our struggle against adversity, but our struggle against our own failings.   Unlike other “faiths” which tell us to avoid all temptation and indulgence substituting asceticism for judgment, Thelema encourages us to make complex and situational value judgments about how to satisfy our own needs and appetites and complete our work, while not interfering with the other stars in their courses.   Of necessity then, those who we look to as examples are often going to be controversial figures. 

Blavatsky likely fabricated spiritualist events, certainly abstracted portions of other thinkers writing without specific credit, and, mythologized a great deal of her own history.  In her defense, the accusations against her all lie along axis well established for persons in her career field.  Viewed as much as an entertainer as a philosopher or scientist, her fictionalized personal history stands as no more than the kayfabe of professional wrestlers.  Such legend was often a necessity for anyone who wished to thrive in the somewhat rough hewn world of Victorian Spiritualism.  The abstraction of other text outside the academic community, in a day when publications were seldom reprinted, did not carry the same stigma it does today.   We also cannot ignore the fact that women are often called to account more harshly for practices seen as mere “eccentricity” or “braggadocio,” in male performers.  In retrospect her personal mythology, and her ability to sustain her practice over the years, and with aplomb, places her more in the realm of Edward Kelly or Cagliostro, than some garden variety spiritualist.

By the time she was described as being 8°=3° in print in 1919, the accusations of fraud against Blavatsky were more than thirty years stale.  Her writing and reputation had withstood the test of time, and her skill and significance as a syncretist had been weighed in the balance against her prosaic charlatanism. 

Blavatsky herself was “a character,” someone who made her own luck and fate.   She lived large and unapologetic, and her ideas endured and shaped much of our modern world in a way that has been acknowledged by successive generations of esoteric scholars. She was a profound and direct influence not only on Crowley, but on the entire world of western alternative religion and magic, defining much of the universe in which Crowley and Reuss would thrive in the early 20th century.   Syncretizing the widespread spiritualist faith of the 19th century with Western Hermetic tradition and Buddhism, she stands as a giant, the primordial progenitor of modern alternative spirituality and magic practice