The Mysterious Madame Blavatsky – Psychic or Charlatan?

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Helena Petrovna Blavatsky
Helena Petrovna Blavatsky

Madame Helena Petrovna Blavatsky (HPB to her followers) was a controversial 19th century medium, psychic, author and co-founder of the Theosophical Society.  She claimed to be in contact with the ‘The Masters’, astral beings of great psychic powers who bestowed upon her the ancient secret science of Theosophy.  The society grew from a modest start in 1875 to become a multi-national organization with thousands of members and branches that still exist today.

So who was this mysterious woman, chased by controversy and scandal her entire life?  Blavatsky  was born Helena von Hahn in Ukraine 1831 and raised primarily by her grandparents.  At 17, her family married her off to Governor Blavatsky, an imperious man over 20 years her senior. After 3 months, she took one of his horses and left him;  keeping his name, however, for the rest of her life.

She fled first to Istanbul and later England. At age 20 in London, she claims to have met her first ‘Master,’ a tall, handsome Indian prince named Morya. She says he recruited her on a ‘Great Mission’ to help all of humanity. She began to study Eastern mysticism and slowly gained a reputation in England as a spirit medium, claiming both telepathy and telekinesis.

 In 1868, Blavatsky traveled to India and Tibet, where she claimed her Master Morya took her to the mythical city of Shamballah in the Himalayas.

There she met many other ‘Masters,’ astral beings with great psychic powers, including the immortal alchemist the Count of Saint-Germain.  Blavatsky said it was in the Himalayas that the Masters bestowed upon her the ‘Sacred Secret Sciences.’

As one would expect, suspicion and scandal followed such a person. By now, she claimed clairvoyance and astral projection as additions to her other psychic talents.  In Egypt, she formed the Societe Spirite with her followers.  Helena is described by various associates as having a fearsome temper and prone to swearing – but also as being highly charismatic and indefatigable.  After repeated accusations of swindling patrons and bogus phenomena, Cairo officials forced them to disband and leave Egypt, else face arrest and imprisonment.

Unperturbed, Blavatsky simply moved again and took up her craft elsewhere. About this time, it is said she fell in love with a Hungarian opera singer Agardi Metrovich.  Some sources say that through an extramarital affair for them both, she became pregnant, and bore a son, named Yuri.  He was never a healthy child and died at the age of 5.  Blavatsky would later claim to be celibate, so Yuri was in fact Metrovich’s child, but not hers.

At age 42, she said Master Morya sent her to America in 1873. Blavatsky’s reputation as a medium grew rapidly in New York City as she began writing in various spiritualist periodicals. Spiritualism was hugely popular in the US at the time.  She married again, to Michael Betanelly primarily to gain her U.S. citizenship. Similar to her first marriage, they separated after only 4 months.  She claimed, to many a raised eyebrow, that neither marriage was ever consummated and she remained a virgin her entire life.

A year later, she met retired Colonel Henry Steel Olcott, a lawyer investigating the occult, not as a skeptic, but as a fervent believer. Blavatsky so impressed Olcott with her psychic abilities and mystical knowledge they became business partners.  Together they co-founded the Theosophical Society.  Theosophy, or Divine Wisdom, is a mystic philosophy believing in ‘ancient secrets’ including cosmic evolution, spiritual planes, and universal religion.

She wrote her first book, Isis Unveiled claiming it was copied with ‘her hand in the astral light.’

It was reviewed by most newspapers of the day as’ transcendental nonsense‘ for the gullible rich. Nevertheless, the first printing was a best seller and sold out. It helped spread Theosophy far beyond US borders as well. Blavatsky and Olcott moved the Society headquarters to Madras in 1878, in order to be closer to the home of the Ancient Masters.

In India, they were less than welcomed by Hindu society, but nevertheless managed to publish a monthly magazine, The Theosophist.  At their new headquarters, in a shrine built on the roof, the Ascended Masters supposedly visited Blavatsky in their ‘higher astral non-corporeal state.’  There she could contact the Masters daily via her astral writings. British aristocracy in India flocked to her for her psychic readings and abilities as a medium.

Blavatsky was now 51 and her health began to deteriorate in the intense Indian heat.  Meanwhile in London, the Royal Academy formed the Society for Psychical Research (SPR) to scientifically investigate paranormal phenomena. Two Theosophical Society employees in India became whistleblowers. They declared Blavatsky was a fraud who used slight of hand, trap doors and other tricks to fool its members. They said the Masters were her complete invention with which she duped a gullible Olcott.

The Theosophical Society thus became a target of the SPR.  Olcott welcomed an investigation in order to defend Theosophy.  Blavatsky however, saying the Indian climate was causing her health to fail, left India before the investigation and would never return.

 In 1885, the Society for Psychical Research issued a stinging report.

For our part we regard Helena Blavatsky neither as a mouthpiece of hidden seers, nor a vulgar adventuress.  We think she is one of the most accomplished, ingenious, and interesting imposters in history.’ 

Society for Psychical Research

The SPR considered the ‘Masters’ a Blavatsky fabrication, aided and abetted by her confederates in the Theosophical Society. All her psychic phenomena were various forms of deception, helped by the credulity of dupes like Colonel Olcott.

 Madame Helena Blavatsky
Madame Helena Blavatsky

Never one to be slowed by scandal, Blavatsky carried on, returning to London and with the help of the British Theosophical Society, started a second magazine, Lucifer (Lightbearer).  A rift began to form however, between between Olcott, still in India, and the British branch of the Theosophical Society, led by the famous socialist Annie Besant.

In London, Blavatsky finished her second and third books, The Secret Doctrine and The Key to Theosophy. She also launched an attack against Christian churches. ‘Only Theosophy,’ she decreed, ‘offered the secret doctrine that lay hidden beneath all earthly religions, both western and eastern.’ Needless to say, both Christian and scientists rose up vocally against her.

“The Christian church was the first to make Satan a dogma of their religion. After all, what is the use in a Priest if there is no Devil?”

Helena Blavatsky

In the U.S., the New York Sun newspaper resurrected the old accusations from Egypt and reported the results of the British SPR.  This included a brand new charge of plagiarism. The article stated Helena Blavatsky stole much of the material in her three books from existing Buddhist and Hindu texts.  The US Theosophical Society promptly sued the newspaper which reported:

The ingredients of a successful charlatan are having no conscience, some brains, much courage, corrosive selfishness, vainglorious ambition, and monumental audacity. Blavatsky has all these.’

New York Sun newspaper

 In 1891, Blavatsky came down with a severe case of influenza during an epidemic.

Already suffering from a weak heart, rheumatism and Bright’s disease, she passed away in England on May 8th at only 60.  Her many detractors consider her one of the most clever and successful charlatans of the 19th century. Her Theosophy supporters believe her one of their founding saints on the level of their Masters. Colonel Scott remained President of the Society and died in 1907The Theosophical Society endured the last 100 years and today has thousands of members worldwide. It has sprouted numerous branches over the years including the I AM Activity and the Summit Lighthouse.

Regardless of your personal, scientific or religious beliefs, Madame Helena Blavatsky managed to lead an international organization in an age when very few women wielded such power. Say what you will about Blavatsky and her early followers, but if chicanery was their only sin, it pales in comparison to some of today’s modern New Age religions like for example, Scientology.

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7 thoughts on “The Mysterious Madame Blavatsky – Psychic or Charlatan?

  1. In the 1960s, Dr. Paul L. Kirk, Professor of Criminology at Berkeley University, “compared photographic specimens of the two handwritings, as shown in Hodgson’s Report – without any knowledge of the identities of the principals involved – and gave a decision against the Hodgson/Netherclift conclusions. Dr. Kirk’s verdict was that the H.P.B. and K.H. handwritings were not by the same person.(1)

    Dr. Vernon Harrison, an expert on forgery, examined the evidence of the case using Twentieth Century forensic methodology. He published an article in the April 1986 issue of the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, followed by a book, H. P. Blavatsky and the SPR. An Examination of the Hodgson Report of 1885, in which he outlined flaws in Hodgson’s work. On May 8, 1986, the Society for Psychical Research issued a press release in support of Harrison’s findings, and rejecting the Hodgson report.(2)

    Howard Murphet, Yankee Beacon of Buddhist Light: Life of Colonel Henry S. Olcott (Wheaton, Illinois: Theosophical Publishing House, 1988), 215.
    Press Release of Society for Psychical Research, May 8, 1986. Available at [ Blavatsky Net.

  2. The best insight into Blavatsky’s character comes from a study of her writings, and one realizes that anyone who can write on this level consistently can have nothing but the highest character.

  3. Years ago, in the early 1990s, I worked with an older gentleman who was a Christian Scientist. He would scoff at the name of Madame Blavatsky. Yet, the cult he followed had Mary Baker Eddy as a foundress and she was way out there.

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