Elena Petrovna Gan (Russian: Елена Петровна Ган, also Hélène, Ukrainian: Олена Петрівна Ган; 12 August [O.S. 31 July] 1831, Yekaterinoslav, Yekaterinoslav, Russian Empire (today Dnipropetrovsk, Ukraine) – May 8, 1891, London), better known as Helena Blavatsky (Russian: Елена Блаватская, Ukrainian: Олена Петрівна Блаватська) or Madame Blavatsky, born Helena von Hahn, was a founder of Theosophy and the Theosophical Society.
Her parents were Colonel Pyotr Alekseyevich Gan (Пётр Алексеевич Ган) or Peter von Hahn (1798–1873) of ancient (uradel) German nobility from Basedow (Mecklenburg)—and Elena Andreyevna Fadeyeva (Елена Андреевна Фадеева, 1814–1843), the author, under the pen-name "Zeneida R-va", of a dozen novels. Described by Belinsky as the "Russian George Sand", she died at the age of 28, when Helena was eleven. Helena's sister Vera Zhelikhovsky was a writer of occult/ fantastic fiction. Helena's first cousin was Sergei Witte, who was Russian Minister, and then Prime Minister in the reign of Tsar Nicholas II. In his memoirs, Count Witte recalls his encounters with Helena.
Helena's maternal grandparents were Andrey Mikhailovich Fadeyev, Governor of Saratov, later of Tbilisi, and his wife Princess Helene Dolgoruki prominent figures of the age of Russian enlightenment. Helena grew up amid a culture rich in spirituality and traditional Russian mythologies, which introduced her to the realm of the supernatural.
Helena's great-grand nephew Boris de Zirkoff (Борис Цирков, 1902–1981) was an active member of the Theosophical Society and editor of the Blavatsky Collected Writings; her great-grand niece, also Helena (b. 1935), lives in Moscow—her resemblance to HPB is striking.
She was married four weeks before she turned seventeen, on July 7, 1848, to the forty-year old Nikifor (also Nicephor) Vassilievich Blavatsky, vice-governor of Erivan. After three unhappy months, she stole a horse and escaped back over the mountains to her grandfather in Tbilisi. Her grandfather shipped her off immediately to her father, who was retired and living near Saint Petersburg. He travelled two thousand miles[clarification needed] to meet her at Odessa, but she wasn't there. She had missed the steamer, and sailed away with the skipper of an English bark bound for Istanbul. According to her account, they never consummated their marriage, and she remained a virgin her entire life.
According to her own story as told to a later biographer, she spent the years 1848 to 1858 traveling the world, and is said to have visited Egypt, France, Canada (Quebec), England, South America, Germany, Mexico, India, Greece and especially Tibet to study for two years with the men she called Brothers. She claimed to have become Buddhist while in Sri Lanka and to have been initiated in Tibet. She returned to Russia in 1858 and went first to see her sister Vera, a young widow living in Rugodevo, a village which she had inherited from her husband.
It was in 1873 that she emigrated to New York City. Impressing people with her professed psychic abilities, she was spurred on to continue her mediumship. Mediumship (among other psychical and spiritual sciences of the time), based upon the belief known as Spiritualism which began at Rochester, NY, was a widely popular and fast-spreading field upon which Blavatsky based her career.
Throughout her career she claimed to have demonstrated physical and mental psychic feats which included levitation, clairvoyance, out-of-body projection, telepathy, and clairaudience. Another claim of hers was materialization, that is, producing physical objects out of nothing, though in general, her interests were more in the area of 'theory' and 'laws' rather than demonstration.
In 1874 at the farm of the Eddy Brothers, Helena met Henry Steel Olcott, a lawyer, agricultural expert, and journalist who covered the Spiritualist phenomena. Soon they were working together in the "Lamasery" (alternate spelling: "Lamastery") where her book Isis Unveiled was written.Blavatsky married her second husband, Michael C. Betanelly on April 3, 1875 in New York City. She separated from Betanelly after a few months, and their divorce was legalized on May 25, 1878. On July 8, 1878, she became a naturalized citizen of the United States, but after leaving for India later that year she never returned to the country.
Living in New York City, she helped found the Theosophical Society in September 1875, with Henry Steel Olcott, William Quan Judge and others.
Blavatsky wrote that all religions were both true in their inner teachings and problematic or imperfect in their external conventional manifestations. Her writings connecting esoteric spiritual knowledge with new science may be considered to be the first instance of what is now called New Age thinking, "the hippy movement of the last quarter of the twentieth century".
She also lived in Philadelphia for part of 1875, where she resided at 3420 Sansom Street, now home of the White Dog Cafe. While living on Sansom Street, Madame Blavatsky became ill with an infected leg. She claimed to have undergone a "transformation" during her illness which inspired her to found the Theosophical Society. In a letter dated June 12, 1875, she described her recovery, explaining that she dismissed the doctors and surgeons who threatened amputation. She is quoted as saying "Fancy my leg going to the spirit land before me!", and had a white dog sleep across her leg by night.
In August, 1890 she formed the "Inner Circle" of 12 disciples: "Countess Constance Wachtmeister, Mrs Isabel Cooper-Oakley, Miss Emily Kislingbury, Miss Laura Cooper, Mrs Annie Besant, Mrs Alice Cleather, Dr Archibald Keightley, Herbert Coryn, Claude Wright, G. R. S. Mead, E. T. Sturdy, and Walter Old".
Suffering from Bright's disease and complications from influenza, Blavatsky died in her home at 19 Avenue Road, St Johns Wood, London, on May 8, 1891. Her last words in regard to her work were: "Keep the link unbroken! Do not let my last incarnation be a failure." Her body was cremated at Woking on May 11; one third of her ashes were sent to Europe, one third with William Quan Judge to the United States, and one third to India where her ashes were scattered in the Ganges River. May 8 is celebrated by Theosophists, and it is called White Lotus Day.
Following Blavatsky's death, the Theosophical Society split in two, each part claiming her as its "rightful progenitor". One branch was headed by her protégé, Annie Besant, and the other, the American Section, by her friend W. Q. Judge.
Well-known and controversial during her life, Blavatsky was influential on spiritualism and related subcultures: "the western esoteric tradition has no more important figure in modern times." She wrote prolifically, publishing thousands of pages, and debate continues about her claims.
Throughout much of Blavatsky's public life, her work drew harsh criticism from some of the learned authorities of her day, who accused her of being a charlatan, an impostor, and a fraud.
The authenticity and originality of her writings were questioned. Blavatsky was accused of having plagiarized a number of sources, copying the texts crudely enough to misspell the more difficult words. See: The Sources of Madame Blavatsky's Writings by William Emmette Coleman from Modern Priestess of Isis by Vsevolod Sergyeevich Solovyoff (Author), Walter Leaf (Translator)
In his 1885 report to the Society for Psychical Research (SPR), Richard Hodgson concluded that Blavatsky was a fraud. However, in a 1986 press release to the newspapers and leading magazines in Great Britain, Canada and the USA the same SPR retracted the Hodgson report, after a re-examination of the case by the Fortean psychic Dr. Vernon Harrison, past president of The Royal Photographic Society and formerly Research Manager to Thomas De La Rue, an expert on forgery, as follows: "Madame Blavatsky, co-founder of the Theosophical Society, was unjustly condemned, new study concludes."
Blavatsky famously favored an Aryan race and for her advocation of a superior race, based on Indian culture. Blavatsky argued that all humanity descended from seven root races, with the fifth one being the Aryan race.
Since her death, Blavatsky's work has shown its influence in the works of dictators, political leaders, new religion leaders, writers, musicians, and other public figures.