By JAMES GALLANT.
The Russian Blavatsky, in her forties at the time, had spent most of her mature life traveling the world in exploration of esoteric spiritual practices. She had supposedly studied with both an Egyptian magician and a New Orleans voodoo doctor, and when she left Paris for New York in 1873 it was at the behest of Tibetan monks in the Himalayas. The monks, alarmed by the sway of materialism both East and West, hoped to create a lay society, with chapters worldwide, for the study ancient Asian spirituality. Blavatsky was to be their agent in New York.
Not only in New York but all cross the United States, spiritualism was the rage. Emma Hartinge Britten, an English-born medium and itinerant lecturer, estimated in her 1870 Modern American Spiritualism that a quarter of the American population were in the spiritualist fold. (A correspondent to the journal, The Spiritual Telegraph, reported that three of six traditional churches in Newton Falls, Ohio, had closed, their former memberships having gravitated to spiritualist meetings that provided what was ostensibly empirical proof of the afterlife.)
The Tibetan monks had serious reservations about American spiritualism. Koot Hoomi, a monk who oversaw the development of what came to be known as the Theosophical Society, described spiritualism as an “insane and futile superstition”; and Blavatsky told Olcott that her assignment in America had been “to show the fallacy of the spiritualist theory of spirits.” However, spiritualism was a challenge to materialism that seemed to the monks promising raw material where their project was concerned. (Blavatsky once said that they regarded spiritualism “as an evolutionary agency.”)
The monks could not have been involved directly with the development and management of the society they had in mind without abandoning their retreat and discipline. They sought the collaboration of lay people like Blavatsky sympathetic to their cause. Blavatsky had studied with them. How extensive those studies had been was unclear to Olcott and others who knew her well. What was clear was that the monks had not regarded her as a candidate for adept status in their order. Koot Hoomi referred to her as a “devoted” woman in whom “a vital cyclone is raging much of the time.” Olcott in Old Diary Leaves: The True Story of the Theosophical Society described her as having “none of the superficial attributes one might have expected in a spiritual teacher; and how she could, at the same time, be philosopher enough to have given up the world for the sake of spiritual advancement, and yet be capable of going into frenzies of passion about trivial annoyances” was a mystery to him.
“Karma forbid that I should do her a feather-weight of injustice,” he wrote, “but if there ever existed a person in history who was a greater conglomeration of good and bad, light and shadow, wisdom and indiscretion, spiritual insight and lack of common sense, I cannot recall the name, the circumstances or the epoch.”
Blavatsky, a master of humorous self-irony, once confessed that, like other geniuses, she was “cracked.”
THE BASIS FOR Blavatsky’s relationship with Olcott, which began in New York and continued later in India, was their shared interest in occult spirituality. They first met at séances of the Eddy brothers in Vermont in 1874. Both were in their forties. Olcott and his wife had divorced. Blavatsky was unattached—basically un-attachable, Olcott thought. In Old Diary Leaves he said that he had never been in a relationship with a woman so utterly devoid of sexual attraction, and he thought source of rumors about her wild romantic escapades in the past had probably been her own bravado. She once described herself as “an old woman whose…features even in youth never made her appear pretty; a woman whose ungainly garb, uncouth manners, and masculine habits are enough to frighten any bustled and corseted fine lady of fashionable society out of her wits.”
As Blavatsky composed Isis Unveiled: A Master-Key to the Mysteries of Ancient and Modern Science and Theology (1877), Olcott was sitting across a table from her correcting her imperfect English. Her scanty philological background had scarcely been a preparation for writing this densely learned work, but she seemed in trance-like states to yield her pen hand to mentalities other than her own commanding a wider range of reference. Variations in Blavatsky’s handwriting accompanied these shifts in authorial mentality. “If you had given me in those days any page of the Isis manuscript,” Olcott wrote, “I could almost certainly have told you by which Somebody it had been written.” He could also tell when these other authors were not in play, because then “the untrained literary apprentice became manifest and the…copy that was turned over to me for revision was terribly faulty, and after having been converted into a great smudge of interlineations, erasures, orthographic corrections and substitutions, would end in being dictated by me to her to re-write.”
Blavatsky claimed the Somebodies were the Tibetan monks with whom she seemed to be in regular telepathic contact. In later years, when she was in India, A.P. Sinnett, a journalist who befriended her, observed that when the monks wished to communicate with her, an airy little bell audible not only to Blavatsky but to anyone in her presence would tinkle. She would then go off by herself and fall into a brown study to receive a message. She could transmit messages to the monks by the same telepathic means.
With the exception of her obeisance to the Mahatmas, Olcott wrote, Blavatsky was a person unwilling to “controlled by any power on earth or out of it.” Even as a child she had been fiercely independent and willful. Achieving submission to the will of the monks had cost her years of effort she told Olcott, and he doubted that anyone had ever attained such selflessness “against greater obstacles or with more self-suppression.”
Olcott and she were once working together on her writing in New York. She was at their work table. Olcott stood at a distance thinking his thoughts when he heard her say, “Look and learn.” He glanced her way saw rising from her head and shoulders a mist that presently “defined itself into the likeness of one of the Mahatmas….Absorbed in watching the phenomenon, I stood silent and motionless. The shadowy shape only formed for itself the upper half of the torso, and then faded away and was gone, whether re-absorbed into H. P. B.’s body or not, I do not know.” Blavatsky sat statue-like for two or three minutes, then asked if he had seen anything. He told her what he had seen, and asked for an explanation which she refused to provide “saying that it was for me to develop my intuition so as to understand the phenomena of the world I lived in.”
Once during the composition of Isis Unveiled, Olcott thought Blavatsky had misquoted an author. The author’s book was not at hand, but Blavatsky materialized the volume out of thin air, and it survived long enough for the accuracy of the quotation to be checked before melting away.
On another occasion, a cold winter night with snow on the ground in New York, they were at work on Isis Unveiled when Olcott, who had had “saltish food” for dinner, remarked that it would be pleasant to have some grapes. Blavatsky agreed. But the stores were closed at that hour, so buying grapes would have been impossible, even had they been in season. Blavatsky asked him to adjust lower the gas light over their work table. As he did so, the light went out. By the time he had succeeded in relighting it, Blavatsky was pointing to a bookshelf from which hung “two large bunches of ripe black Hamburg grapes which we proceeded to eat.” Blavatsky said that “certain elementals under her control”—nature spirits—had produced the grapes.
OVER THE YEARS Olcott was to witness a host of wonders involving Blavatsky’s “elementals.” He had once observed a lack of towels in her quarters, and purchased some for her which were not hemmed. Blavatsky was sitting at a table “plying her needle,” when suddenly she gave a kick under the table and cried, “Get out, you fool!”
Olcott asked why she had done that.
She said a “beastly little elemental” wanting something to do had tugged on her dress.
If so, why not let it hem the towels? Olcott suggested.
Blavatsky’s first response was that she didn’t want to give the elemental the pleasure of knowing it had dictated her behavior, but finally she agreed with Olcott. She told him to place the towels, needle and thread in a glass-fronted bookcase at the far end of the room. He did so, and fifteen or twenty minutes later the two of them were discussing some point of occult philosophy when Olcott heard “a little squeaky sound like a mouse” beneath the table where they sat. Blavatsky announced that the “nuisance” had finished with the towels. Olcott went to the bookcase, opened it, and removed a dozen towels hemmed “after a clumsy fashion that would disgrace the youngest child in an infant-school sewing class.”
Olcott remarks in Old Diary Leaves that he had seen such wonders produced frequently enough over the years so “they actually excited at length but a passing emotion of surprise”; but they had aroused his suspicion that the basis for “Eastern fables,” like Aladdin with his magic lamp and subservient “djinns,” had not been fantasy, but realism.
MYTH AND FOLKLORE represent “elementals” variously as devas, sylvans, dwarfs, trolls, fauns, brownies, undines, djinns, nixies, goblins, etc. The places to study them, Blavatsky wrote in Isis Unveiled, were the “neglected alcoves of libraries” where “works of despised hermeticists and theurgists” had been gathering dust for centuries. Elementals had always been understood to be capable of metamorphosis into “omnifarious forms and shapes.” At one moment they might “act the parts of daemons, another while of angels or gods, and another while of the souls of the departed.” The fifth century Neoplatonist Proclus spoke of them as having an “elastic, ethereal, semi-corporeal essence.” For the medieval Sufi mystic Ibn al’ Arabi they were shape-shifting spirits both luminous and earthy, which, depending on the will of God, presented themselves to humans in sublime or terrifying guises.
Blavatsky wrote in Isis Unveiled of elementals having “neither immortal spirits nor tangible bodies. They are a combination of sublimated matter and a rudimentary mind….The most solid of their bodies is ordinarily just immaterial enough to escape perception by our physical eyesight, but not so unsubstantial as not to be recognized by the inner, or clairvoyant vision.” (It was understood in the British Isles that people who perceived fairies possessed “second sight” or the “third eye.”) So if the Loch Ness Monster, say–or a UFO-related “alien”–were an elemental, it would be real enough for those capable of seeing it–at least at the moment they saw it– although the next moment it might have some different form, or none. In any case, sending camera-equipped divers into Loch Ness looking for the monster would be a waste of time.
Blavatsky’s experience of elementals dated from her early childhood in Ekaterinoslav, Russia, where she had claimed intimacy with green-haired nymphs known as russalkas that haunted willow trees along river banks. She claimed to have summoned them as a four year-old to tickle to death a serf-boy who annoyed her. The boy was next seen weeks later when fishermen discovered his drowned body.
A MINNEAPOLIS FRIEND of the author of the present essay, the late Jerry Downes, a poet and hospital orderly, befriended a Haitian living in the city and once accompanied this man on a return to his home island. In the back country, the Haitian introduced Jerry to a voodoo doctor. Before they parted the voodoo man asked Jerry if he would like to have a spirit to do his bidding. At the time Jerry’s superior at work was a woman making unreasonable demands on her staff, and he said he said he would like to see this woman frightened badly, but not hurt. The voodoo man retired to a back room of his hut, performed certain mumbo-jumbo, and returned with a glass bottle containing, he said, a water spirit.
Back in Minneapolis, Jerry followed the protocol specified by the Haitian for launching the spirit on its task. That day a powerful windstorm arose in the quarter of the city where the targeted woman lived. She was gazing at the storm through a floor-to-ceiling plate glass window in her apartment when a blast of wind shattered the window sending dagger-like glass shards flying into the apartment. They stabbed into the wall behind the woman, outlining her figure perfectly—but none struck her.
Terrified upon learning what had happened, Jerry wished to have nothing more to do with the spirit. On the banks of the Mississippi River that flows through Minneapolis he followed the voodoo doctors instructions for releasing the water spirit back into Nature, but had for some time an uncomfortable sense of the spirit’s lingering presence.
HENRY OLCOTT IN People from Other Worlds (1875) mirrored the views of both the monks and Blavatsky in representing the psychological state of spiritualist mediums as a form of slavery. “Their own will is set aside, and their actions, their speech, and their very consciousness, are directed to that of another.”
There were resemblances between the passive receptivity of mediums, and that of patients in mesmeric (hypnotic) healing widely practiced in nineteenth century America. Mesmerists were sometimes surprised when their subjects spoke of being in communication with spirits of departed persons. Blavatsky thought, however, that what they were experiencing might actually be something very different, though, and usually was. The passivity of mesmeric subjects, and the mediums and “sitters” at séances, left them open to potentially dangerous interactions with elementals and other “earth-walking” spirits (to be discussed below). In Isis Unveiled, Blavatsky spoke of spiritualism’s fanatical enthusiasts as having “magnified its qualities and remained blind to its imperfections.”
However, she acknowledged that the source of their fanaticism was the “genuineness and possibility of their phenomena.” Whatever else might be said of spiritualists, they were religious empiricists who “give us facts that we may investigate, not assertions that we must believe without proof.” A spiritualist had firsthand experience of beings in an invisible world that, if one knew how to manage them, were “capable of making a god of him on earth.”
Blavatsky did not take her own ability to produce marvels with the assistance of elementals all that seriously, and Olcott thought she had probably wasted a good deal of time and energy in such production; but her purpose in doing so had been to awaken consciousness of dimensions of being generally blocked by common life. Olcott admitted that “the great range of marvels of educated will-potency which [Blavatsky] showed me, made it easy for me to understand the Oriental theories of spiritual science.” (The Church Father Origen remarked that had Jesus not worked the miracles, people would never have been convinced he was the prophesied Messiah, and the Church would never have come to exist.)
Spiritualists recognized two kinds of mediums, “physical” and “mental.” They were sources of “phenomena” of different kinds. Mediums who could produce the one kind could not usually produce the other.
THE SPECIALTY OF “mental” mediums was, in Blavatsky’s words, “subjective, intellectual phenomena.” In trance states of varying intensities during séances, mental mediums received messages commonly thought to originate with departed spirits. The messages that might be conveyed orally, with the medium adopting the voice of the departed person in ventriloquism, or in automatic writing in which the spirit wielded the pen hand of the medium. When messages reflected faithfully the voice, intelligence, interests and style of a deceased person—even his or her handwriting—they could be very convincing. Nothing guaranteed, though, that these messages actually came from the Other Side, and Blavatsky thought they usually didn’t, because once spirits were released from the physical body after death into what her Tibetan mentors called Devachan (a state of being, not a location) had ordinarily no more interest in the affairs of the living. Communication with departed spirits was possible, if the bond of love had been strong, but it was the result of intense desire among the living for such communication, not of spirits’ ongoing concern with the life left behind. (Eighteenth century spiritualist Emanuel Swedenborg’s understanding of the situation differed somewhat from Blavatsky’s. His angels—all departed humans in one stage of posthumous development or another—were the media of divine influence flowing into the human world. However, these angels, like Blavatsky’s spirits, were oblivious to earthly existence they had left behind, and when Swedenborg, during his out-of-body visits, informed them of the worldly influence they exerted in the spirit-world, they were surprised to hear of it.)
For Victorian-era scientists and intellectuals, denying the supernatural had been virtually de rigeur. The fellows of the Society for Psychical Research, founded in England in 1882 for the scientific study of depth-psychological phenomena, were sometimes accused of rigging experiments so as to prove the reality of the supernatural. In fact, though, Brian Ingles remarks in a foreword to Alan Gauld’s Mediumship and Survival (1982), many of them were intent on proving what had been seen as supernatural phenomena in the past as were merely the products of depth psychology. However, interest in the question of “survival” was acute among Victorian-era members of the SPR. Ingles remarks on the curiosity that paranormal researchers of more recent times whose interests resemble so closely those of the Victorians seem uninterested in that question.
At the turn of the twentieth century there were some intelligent people convinced that, with the assistance of mental mediums, they communed with departed spirits. One was Frederic Myers, a founder of the Society for Psychical Research, and author of the monumental summary of SPR studies, Human Personality and its Survival of Bodily Death (1903). Myers’ study of spiritualism began in 1873, the same year he entered into a Platonic love relationship with Annie Marshall, wife of a psychologically-disturbed cousin of his. Myers and Marshall attended séances together. Soon after her suicide in 1876, Myers began receiving through various mediums intimations of her survival. However, the most compelling evidence that Annie was messaging him had apparently come during 150 sittings with medium Rosina Thompson a few years before his own death in 1901. He had included that evidence both in a document printed privately for several associates and in the manuscript for Human Survival. Historians Alan Gauld and Deborah Blum concluded, however, that Myers’ wife, photographer Eveleen Tennant, offended by the idea of her husband’s having maintained a prolonged amour with a ghost, had excised Myers’ best evidence for afterlife from the manuscript of Human Survival before it was published. The published text includes even so, Jeffrey Kripal has written, “thousands upon thousands” of hints about the source of Myers’ belief.
James Hyslop (1854-1920), a Columbia University philosophy professor had long since abandoned the fundamentalism of his Ohio farmer father without having lost interest in the question of survival when he had a dozen sittings with renowned Boston clairvoyant Leonora Piper. He came away from them convinced that he had made contact with his deceased father, brother, and uncles. The only alternative he could imagine was that Mrs. Piper might possess an “omniscient telepathy” that supplied her detailed knowledge of persons living or dead whom she had never met. In that case, to invoke a distinction of Myers’, Mrs. Piper’s talents would have been “supernormal” rather than “supernatural.” Alan Gauld in Mediumship and Survival (1982) envisions the possibility that a clairvoyant might possess a “super ESP” providing detailed knowledge of “any living or recently deceased person in the whole of the Western world.” Mrs. Piper, announcing her retirement as a professional medium in a New York Herald interview, had admitted her own uncertainty about the source her talent, but was rather inclined to a view of it like the one Gauld would later describe.
The “supernormal” alternative had been contemplated where the clairvoyance of the “Poughkeepsie Seer” Andrew Jackson Davis was concerned. Emma Hardinge Britten in Modern American Spiritualism spoke of a “vast amount of logic” spent on the idea that the learned disquisitions pouring from the virtually uneducated Davis that ostensibly originated on the Other Side “were only the reflex of minds still upon earth.” A “super ESP” might have provided mediums like Piper and Davis access to what Blavatsky and others referred to as the “shell” of a deceased person: a subtle-material composite of worldly experience that survives for a longer or shorter period after physical death before fading away. The medium William Britten spoke in Ghost Land (1897) of this remnant of physical existence as “a sort of vague, shadowy existence which at length melts away and becomes dissipated in space.” It was presumably the subtle-material stuff of ghosts.
Another “supernormal” possibility was that a telepathic medium might be tapping into the memories of “sitters” for what he or she knew of deceased persons. One sitter, as an experiment, was meditating earnestly on a fictional character he had imagined when a medium informed him that the character was communicating from the Great Beyond.
Mediumship at times might not be very different from ordinary dreaming. Figures out of popular culture like Abraham Lincoln and Ben Franklin had a way of showing up at séances and spouting bromides which suggested intelligence on the Other Side might be subtracted rather than augmented. (Emma Hardinge Britten noted that long residence in the spirit-world seemed to entail a “deterioration in grammar and orthography.”)
Conceivably the reach of a mental medium might be “supernormal” at some moments, “supernatural” at others. In either case the psychological source would be what Myers called the “Subliminal Self,” which bore a general resemblance to the Jungian Unconscious. Hardinge Britten thought that while some of Andrew Jackson Davis’s revelations might well have been supernormal, there remained “a large amount of original matter which can only be accounted for by admitting the hypothesis of spiritual perception in realms of super-sensuous existence and inspiration from a world of supra-mundane knowledge.”
THE FRUITS OF mental mediumship, whether “supernatural” or “supernormal,” were at any rate intra- or inter-subjective, and as such they did not offend the conventional modern dichotomies of mind and matter, subjective and objective.
The same could not be said of phenomena at the séances of physical mediums which combined the resources of the “Subliminal Self” with astonishing physical manifestations: mysterious “spirit-rappings,” levitating furniture, guitars or people that flew about the séance rooms, accordions that appeared to play themselves, and materializations not only of grapes or books but of complete human figures.
Benjamin Coleman in Spiritualism in America (1861) described a Boston séance conducted by a consumptive “Miss Lord of Portland, Maine” at which a guitar “was whisked about with great celerity over and around our heads, whilst a quick Negro air was capitally played upon it.” Miss Coleman’s “control,” the Indian Black Hawk, ordered the sitters to sing, “Hail, Columbia.” As they were doing so, he jingled a tambourine “in the wildest manner, striking us with it alternately on our heads—then on the table—the back of our chairs—and on the floor with inconceivable rapidity. He then gave us an Indian dance, and the dull heavy bumping and thumping sounds as of feet in moccasins…kept excellent time.”
For an encore, Black Hawk lifted Miss Lord seated on her chair onto the center of the séance table.
MOST SPECTACULAR OF all the physical phenomena were the temporary materializations of body parts—or complete human figures with mobile eyes, legs that moved, personalities, and conversational powers. Investigators, including Charles Richet (about whom I have written elsewhere in The Fortnightly Review) with unimpeachable scientific credentials attested to the reality of these materializations. Before materializations occurred, a semi-transparent, white stuff spiritualists called “ectoplasm” (i.e. externalized life-productive material) could be seen flowing from one portion or another of mediums’ bodies. Blavatsky, in an 1877 letter to N. de Fadeyev described a medium named Francis Ward Monck having been in a trance state when a “light, white cloud-like vapor” pressed out through his coat from the region of the heart. It began to rotate, grew in size, and then turned into “the white shape of a woman which moved away from the medium and walked about the room, still remaining tied to him by a thread which was also vapory.” This figure withdrew to Monck, and others emerged: a double of the medium in one case, in another a male figure of a race other than Monk’s.
How were materializations and the other “phenomena” at the seances of physical mediums, to be understood?
Olcott’s views had obviously not yet undergone Blavatskian influence when he wrote in People from the Other World (copyrighted in 1874, the same year he met Blavatsky) that materializations proved “the resurrected spirit can reclothe itself with an evanescent material form by the power of its will over the sublimated earth-essences….” Blavatsky during her first meeting with him in Vermont had tried unsuccessfully to convince him that materializations they witnessed were not the embodiments of spirits, but merely “doubles” of the medium William Eddy spun out of his psychosomatic person. Even other persons present at a séance might be responsible for materializations. Among the materializations Olcott and Blavatsky had witnessed in Vermont was one of an African magician in native getup. The African was a person Blavatsky had once met in her travels, and she told Olcott that her memory of the magician had been the source of the manifestation. Olcott found this impossible to believe at the time, but later confessed, “I had not gone deep enough into the question of the plastic nature of the human double to see the force of her hints, while of the Eastern theory of Maya I did not know the least iota.”
Spirits of deceased persons that communicated through mental mediums could demonstrate intelligence of the kind they had commanded in life. But materialized figures were dullards, Blavatsky pointed out. “There are mediums whose organisms have called out sometimes hundreds of these would-be ‘human’ forms,” she wrote, “and yet we do not recall…one expressing anything but the most commonplace ideas.” If materialized figures were, in fact, deceased persons making curtain calls in the physical world, why shouldn’t they communicate as “persons of their…respective education, intelligence, and social rank would in life,” rather than “falling invariably into “one monotonous tone of commonplace and, but too often, platitude?” It seemed necessary to conclude that intelligent spirits did not materialize, and “the spirits that do materialize have not intelligence.”
Blavatsky allowed several exceptions, though. In order “to accomplish some great object in view, and so benefit humanity,” a deceased person might be re-embodied. However, the exigency would have to be very great “to draw a pure, disembodied spirit from its radiant home into the foul atmosphere from which it escaped upon leaving its physical body.” Her examples were the avatars of Vishnu, the angels that appeared before Abraham, apparitions of Elias and Moses, and Jesus’ appearances before Mary Magdalene and the Apostles.
THE SECOND EXCEPTION to the rule that spirits of deceased persons did not resume material form were persons so depraved in their lifetime as to be entirely “unfitted for the lofty career of the pure, disembodied being.” After death, they could be “irresistibly attracted to the earth where they lived a temporary and finite life amid elements congenial to their gross natures, prowling around and sucking vitality from living persons susceptible to their influence.” In world cultures these spirits had been known variously as earth-walkers, ghouls, demons, incubi or succubi. They had possessed medieval nuns, monks and witches who came to bad ends on the rack or on the stake amid purifying fires. Asian Indians feared these “brothers of the shadow,” and employed “all kinds of music, incense, and perfumes” to keep them at bay. Asians regarded with horror phenomena produced by physical mediums “as misfortunes, the work of evil spirits, often of earth-bound souls of near-relatives and intimate friends, and their greatest desire is to abate them as unqualified nuisances.” Families in the West were commonly delighted to discover one of their members had mediumistic powers, but in the East where it was assumed only “pariahs and other degraded castes” patronized mediums and sorcerers, such a discovery was a calamity. Educated Asians, Olcott wrote, “discourage these necromantic dabblings as soul-debaucheries, and affirm that they work incalculable evil both upon the dead and the living.”
Blavatsky regarded the passivity of the mediums and sitters at séances as an invitation to these dark spirits to “clothe themselves in the effluvia of the medium and those present, [appropriating] their magnetic sweat [?] and other fluids.” English Catholic priest Montague Summers in his The History of Witchcraft and Demonology (1926) argued that attentive study of the records of the early modern witchcraft trials, coupled with knowledge of materializations at séances, cast doubt on cavalier modern dismissal of witches’ claims to have had sexual intercourse with demons. The Compendium Maleficarum, Milan, 1608, had spoken of novice witches being assigned a Magistellus, or familiar, capable of manifesting for sexual purposes as male or female, satyr or buck-goat.
Summers had been acquainted personally with a circle of people in an English provincial town who, bored with the usual round of dances, concerts, and dinner parties, began experimenting with table-turning, Ouija boards, and crystal gazing. Conceived originally as entertainments, these practices became obsessive. Meetings that had been monthly or weekly became nightly. Mixed with spirits’ expressions of undying love, and reassurances concerning the afterlife were urgings to murder, suicide, and debauchery. The faces of enthusiasts became pasty and drawn, eyes dull and glazed. Friendships and normal social intercourse lapsed. Some in the circle sensed danger in the situation, and “outside circumstances” finally forced the interruption of these practices, but the persons most seriously engaged found ridding themselves of the “[spirit] controls to which they had so blindly and so utterly submitted” extremely difficult.
In Blavatsky’s view, if “brothers of the shadow” were not the parties responsible for the grotesqueries at the physical séances, elementals were.
The great monotheistic religions’ prohibitions of idolatry expressed an awareness of both the existence and potency of elementals. Canon Mahe, an early nineteenth century French scholar of antiquities whom American anthropologist W.Y. Evans-Wentz quotes in The Fairy-Faith of Celtic Countries (1911) observed that the critically important element in the “idol-worship” of primitive societies was not the idol per se. More important were the will and emotion invested in it by ritual practices which attracted and empowered spirits that were powerful and not necessarily benevolent. Religiosity of this kind, whatever its appeal and its effects, was an improper locus of human attention and effort, a distraction from the ethical concerns at the core of monotheism.
There were Platonizing philosophers during the Renaissance, nominally Christian, who obviously did not agree with orthodox position on the elementals. Florentine priest-scholar Marsilio Ficino was enthusiastic about magical works attributed to Hermes Trismegistus when they reached Italy in the fifteenth century. At the time Trismegistus was supposed to have been an Egyptian priest of immemorial antiquity, although it was later determined that writings attributed to him were the works of various Neo-Platonists in the early centuries AD. Frances Yates in Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition quotes Ficino’s admiration of “Egyptian” formulae for the animation of statues:
They [Egyptian priests] mingled a virtue drawn from material nature to the substance of the statues…and after having evoked the souls of demons or angels, they introduced these into their idols by holy and divine rites, so that the idols had the power of doing good and evil. These terrestrial or man-made gods result from a composition of herbs, stones, aromatics which contain in themselves [italics mine] an occult virtue of divine efficacy. And if one tries to please them with numerous sacrifices, hymns, songs of praise and sweet concerts which recall the harmony of heaven, this is in order that the celestial element which has been introduced into the idol by the repeated practice of the celestial rites may joyously support its long dwelling amongst men.
In the next century the heretical monk Giordano Bruno was equally interested in the magical treatises. He wrote in Heroic Enthusiasts that Egyptian statues had been “full of life, full of intelligence and spirit, capable of many important functions. These statues foresee the future, cause infirmities, and produce remedies, joy, or sorrow.”
MANY PEOPLE WITNESSED Blavatsky’s ability to produce wonders with the assistance of elementals. When she and Olcott went to India after leaving New York, she was for extended periods a house guest of A.P. Sinnett and his wife at their summer house in Simla, a village in the Himalayan foothills of northern India. Sinnett was managing editor of an English newspaper, a sensible Brit who enjoyed his roast beef and cigars. Spiritualism was in the news, but he had only been mildly curious about it before meeting Blavatsky. At Simla, Blavatsky also made the acquaintance of A.O. Hume, a British government official stationed there. Neither Sinnett nor Hume was the kind of fellow likely to be easily conned by a charlatan, but like Olcott, both were convinced the wonders they saw Blavatsky produce were authentic.
English administrators and their families in India gravitated to Simla in the summer to escape the searing heat of major cities to the South. A group of them that included Blavatsky were on their way to a picnic destination one day when they met a district judge, Syed Mahmood, whom they invited to join their party. He did. His presence left them one teacup and saucer short, but Blavatsky put an elemental to work at the picnic site, and announced that the needed cup and saucer would be found amid the roots of a nearby tree. Access to the roots required a fair amount of digging in hard soil, but not only were the cup and saucer found where Blavatsky had said they would be, but their design matched the others brought to the picnic.
Once at a dinner party in Simla, Blavatsky asked Mrs. Hume if there were something she would like to have that would be difficult to find, but “not wanted for any mere worldly motive.” Mrs. Hume recalled a brooch her mother had given her that she had lost. She would like to have it back, she said. Blavatsky asked her to imagine the lost brooch vividly in detail, and to draw a rough sketch of it. Mrs. Hume did these things. Blavatsky then wrapped a coin in her own possession in two cigarette papers and pocketed it in her dress. Later in the evening she announced that the papers had disappeared, and that the brooch would be found in the garden in a “star-shaped bed of flowers.” The guests went into the garden. Hunting among the leaves of the flower bed Blavatsky had mentioned they found the brooch Mrs. Hume wanted wrapped in two cigarette papers. Olcott remarked that the incident illustrated “an important law” where materializations were concerned: The first step in creating “anything objective out of the diffused matter of space” was “to think of the desired object— its form, pattern, colour, material, weight, and other characteristics. The picture of it must be sharp and distinct as to every detail; the next step is to put the trained will in action, employ one’s knowledge of the laws of matter and the process of its conglomeration, and compel the elemental spirits to form and fashion what one wishes made.”
When the Tibetan monks decided Sinnett and Hume might be assets in the development of the Theosophical Society in India, both men began receiving communications from the monastery that were composed and conveyed to them by mysterious means. (Letters from the monks Koot Hoomi and Morya to Sinnett were collected in 1923 as The Mahatma Letters.)
Blavatsky remarked in a letter to Dr. de Puruker that the Brothers scarcely ever wrote letters personally, but “precipitated” them telepathically sentence by sentence “along the etheric currents” to a chela (novice) in their order who did the actual writing. Once written, the messages would not come through the post, but simply materialize out of thin air. They might be found lying on a desk. Olcott wrote that he had “phenomenally received” letters from the monks that had simply dropped out of space “into a steamer on the high seas and in railway carriages.”
Communication with the monks did little to improve either Sinnett’s or Hume’s understanding of the production and delivery of the letters, or of any of the other marvels they witnessed in Blavatsky’s presence. Both were admonished by Koot Hoomi that to comprehend what they had experienced in terms of their own rationalistic Weltanschauung, and without subjecting themselves to years of the self-abnegating discipline of body and mind required of monks in their order, was impossible. Sinnett wrote in The Occult World, published in 1883 shortly after he met Blavatsky, “that one can never have any exact knowledge as to how far her own powers may have been employed, or how far she may have been ‘helped’ [by the “Brothers”] or whether she has not been quite uninfluential in the production of the result.”
Walter Carrithers, in a 1947 defense of Blavatsky, remarked that for a half a century the popular press had “almost unanimously boycotted all facts in favor of” Blavatsky. H.L. Mencken’s comment in “Hooey from the Orient” was typical: Her reputation rested, he said, on the “illimitable credulity of her followers.”
That is not the impression one gets reading what was written of her by Olcott and Sinnett who lived with her in close quarters for extended periods and whose credulity was scarcely “illimitable.” Carrithers’ pamphlet, “The Truth about Madame Blavatsky,” had been occasioned by the 1946 publication of a Blavatsky biography, Priestess of the Occult, by Gertrude M. Williams. Carrithers criticized Williams for having embraced uncritically what had long been the standard view of Blavatsky that associated her not only with the “fraud and trickery deluxe” of charlatan mediums, but “scandals, shadows of lovers dead and gone, bigamous marriages.”
Richard Hodgson’s apparently authoritative report on Blavatsky on behalf of the Society for Psychic Research, published in 1885 in the Proceedings of the Society had probably contributed significantly to the common view of Blavatsky. He represented her as an imposter, forger, Russian spy and instigator of frauds. By the time the report came out, Hume had lost interest in Blavatsky and the Theosophical Society project. Even so, he was outraged by Hodgson’s allegations that the Tibetan “Brothers” existed only in Blavatsky’s imagination, and that it was she who was the author of communications supposedly sent by them: “The proofs I have had [of the Brothers’ existence and influence] have been purely subjective and therefore useless to anyone but myself—unless you indeed consider it proof of their existence that I here at Simla received letters from one of them, my immediate teacher [the monk Koot Hoomi] dropped upon my table, I living alone in my house and Madame Blavatsky, Col. Olcott, and all their chelas [novices] being thousands of miles distant.”
Hodgson’s careless use of evidence became obvious enough in time to embarrass the Society for Psychical Research. Sir William Barrett, a onetime president of the Society, declared Hodgson’s report a “blot on the Proceedings”; and Theodore Besterman, the Society’s “Research Officer” wrote off Hodgson in 1931 as a “plain and uninspired individual” and declared that the Society disclaimed responsibility for Hodgson’s “facts, reports, or reasonings.”
Nonetheless, the view of Blavatsky as a charlatan and wooly-minded esotericist has survived. Joseph Howard Tyson in the preface to his Madame Blavatsky Revisited (2006) admits to having been under the influence of that view when he first turned his attention to her while writing a book on famous nineteenth century visitors to Philadelphia. He had intended to give her a “flippant three page treatment” before his studies made him realize her “humor, intelligence, and good faith.” The three flippant pages he had intended morphed into a sympathetic book-length study.
James Gallant is an independent scholar, the Fortnightly‘s “Verisimilitudes” columnist, and the author of The Big Bust at Tyrone’s Rooming House: A Novel of Atlanta and Whatever Happened to Debbie and Phil? (forthcoming from Vagabondage). He has also written a collection of stories about historical classical guitarists, including Francesco Roberto, published in The Fortnightly Review.