Although familiar to Yeats scholars for the impression made on the young poet by her peculiar brand of occultism, Helena Petrovna "Madame" Blavatsky (1831-1891) remains for most critics and historians an obscure, if vaguely absurd, figure. The Ukrainian-born aristocrat, accounts of whose life prior to her 1873 arrival in the US are notoriously unreliable, founded the Theosophical Society in New York on September 18, 1875. The charter of the Theosophical Society, the brainchild of Blavatsky and an American traveling companion, Henry Steel Olcott, established the group to teach westerners the value of Asian religions, promote worldwide brotherhood, and "collect and diffuse knowledge of the laws which govern the universe." Whether Blavatsky and her followers succeeded in fostering global fraternity or discovering the universal laws of nature is arguable; that they did much to introduce the West to Eastern religion generally, and Hinduism and Buddhism in particular, is certain: Olcott became the first American of European extraction to convert to Buddhism, and loosely defined Eastern religious elements continue even today to inform much of New Age spiritual thought in Europe and America alike.

Blavatsky allegedly worked as a circus performer, a medium, and a concert pianist in both Europe and the New World before settling into a career as the favorite metaphysician and occultist of New York society. The adventures Blavatsky is said to have had before passing through Ellis Island include a brief hitch with Garibaldi's troops in Sicily during Italy's war of unification, an adulterous affair with the great Russian tenor Mitrovich, and an apprenticeship with a shadowy band of Egyptian mystics known as the Brotherhood of Luxor.

Blavatsky returned from her globetrotting with a philosophy cobbled together from, among other places, pharonic wisdom texts, Sanskrit poetry, and renaissance neoplatonist tracts, and attempted to launch a movement of intellectuals and religious thinkers devoted to truth-seeking through supernaturalism. Her exotic, Orientalized approach to spiritualist teachings went over exceptionally well, for a while, in both the US and, later, England, where by the 1870s table-rapping, materializations, and planchette-manipulation were rapidly falling out of fashion with the darkened-parlor set. Her massive 1877 treatise on occult knowledge, Isis Unveiled, most of which Blavatsky claimed to have channeled while in a trancelike state, went through three press runs of a thousand copies apiece the year it was published, and it has since sold half a million copies to date. Well substantiated charges that Blavatsky plagiarized much of the work has done little over the course of the last century to slow its sales.

In Isis Unveiled, as in other writings, Blavatsky elaborates on and attempts to systematize many of the fundamental assumptions of Anglo-American spiritualism. In particular, Blavatsky inherited from spiritualism a belief in the persistence after death of individual human souls with discernible personalities, the conviction that spirits are caught up in a progressive cycle of development, and the idea that spiritualism is a higher, more rigorous route to knowledge than that provided by the empirical sciences. The Madame's formalized and systematic approach to the study of theosophy -- "divine wisdom," a word dating from the seventeenth century, chosen through dictionary bibliomancy by the Society's founders -- further resembled spiritualism in that it began in the US, then made its way across the Atlantic.


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Last modified 1999