The Theosophical Society in America

Esoteric World Chapter 1

Chapter 1 Russia, 1831–1849

Helena Petrovna von Hahn was born at Ekaterinoslav, a town on the river Dnieper, in Southern Russia, on August 12, 1831. She was the daughter of Colonel Peter von Hahn and Helena de Fadeyev, a renowned novelist. On her mother's side, she was the granddaughter of the gifted Princess Helena Dolgorukov, a noted botanist and writer. After the early death of her mother in 1842, Helena was brought up in her maternal grandparents' house at Saratov, where her grandfather was Civil Governor.

Helena was an exceptional child, who at an early age was aware of being different from those around her. Her possession of certain psychic powers puzzled her family and friends. At once impatient of all authority, yet deeply sensitive, she was gifted in many ways. A clever linguist, a talented pianist, and a fine artist, she was yet a fearless rider of half-broken horses, and always in close touch with nature. At a very early age she sensed that she was in some way dedicated to a life of service and was aware of a special guidance and protection.

When almost eighteen, in a mood of rebellious independence and possibly with a plan to become free of her surroundings, she married the middle-aged Nikifor V. Blavatsky, Vice-Governor of the Province of Yerivan. The marriage, as such, meant nothing to her and was never consummated.

1a. The Birth of Helena Petrovna Von Hahn, August 12, 1831, Ekaterinoslav, Southern Russia [Sinnett 1886, 18–20]

The baby [Helena Petrovna] was born on the night between [August 11 and 12, 1831]—weak, and apparently no denizen of this world. A hurried baptism had to be resorted to, therefore, lest the child died with the burden of original sin on her soul. The ceremony of baptism in "orthodox" Russia is attended with all the paraphernalia of lighted tapers, and "pairs" of god-mothers and god-fathers, every one of the spectators and actors being furnished with consecrated wax candles during the whole proceedings. Moreover, everyone has to stand during the baptismal rite, no one being allowed to sit in the Greek religion, as they do in Roman Catholic and Protestant churches, during the church and religious service. The room selected for the ceremony in the family mansion was large, but the crowd of devotees eager to witness it was still larger. Behind the priest officiating in the center of the room, with his assistants, in their golden robes and long hair, stood the three pairs of sponsors and the whole household of vassals and serfs. The child-aunt of the baby—only a few years older than her niece, aged twenty-four hours—placed as "proxy" for an absent relative, was in the first row. Feeling nervous and tired of standing still for nearly an hour, the child settled on the floor unperceived by the elders, and became probably drowsy in the over-crowded room on that hot day. The ceremony was nearing its close. The sponsors were just in the act of renouncing the Evil One and his deeds, a renunciation emphasized in the Greek Church by thrice spitting upon the invisible enemy, when the little lady, toying with her lighted taper at the feet of the crowd, inadvertently set fire to the long flowing robes of the priest. The result was an immediate conflagration, during which several persons—chiefly the old priest—were severely burnt. That was [a] bad omen, according to the superstitious beliefs of orthodox Russia; and the innocent cause of it—the future Mme. Blavatsky—was doomed from that day in the eyes of all the town to an eventful life, full of trouble.

1b. Vera P. de Zhelihovsky (HPB's sister), 1842–1846, Saratov, Russia (where HPB's maternal grandparents lived) [Collated from Zhelihovsky 1894–5, 203, 204, 203; and Sinnett 1886, 30–35, 37–39]

Helena was a precocious child, and from her earliest youth attracted the attention of all with whom she came in contact. Her nature was quite intractable to the routine demanded by her instructors; she rebelled against all discipline, recognized no master but her own good will and her personal tastes. She was exclusive, original, and at times bold even to roughness.

When her mother was dying, although her eldest daughter was only eleven years old, she was filled with well-founded apprehensions for her future, and said: "Ah well! perhaps it is best that I am dying, so at least I shall be spared seeing what befalls Helena! Of one thing I am certain, her life will not be as that of other women, and that she will have much to suffer!!"

At the death of our mother, we went to live with her parents. The great country mansion occupied by us at Saratov, was an old and vast building, full of subterranean galleries, long abandoned passages, turrets, and most weird nooks and corners. It looked more like a medieval ruined castle than a building of the past century. The man who took care of the estate for the proprietors had been known for his cruelty and tyranny. The legends told of his ferocious and despotic temper, of unfortunate serfs beaten by him to death, and imprisoned for months in dark subterranean dungeons, were many and thrilling. Our heads were full of stories about the ghosts of the martyred serfs, seen promenading in chains during nocturnal hours and other stories that left us children and girls in an agony of fear whenever we had to cross a dark room or passage. We had been permitted to explore, under the protection of half a dozen male servants and a quantity of torches and lanterns, those awe-inspiring "catacombs." Still Helena would not remain satisfied with one solitary visit, nor with a second either. She had selected the uncanny region as a safe refuge where she could avoid her lessons. A long time passed before her secret was found out, and whenever she was found missing, a deputation of strong-bodied servant men was despatched in search of her. She had erected for herself a tower out of old broken chairs and tables in a corner under an iron-barred window, high up in the ceiling of the vault, and there she would hide for hours, reading a book known as "Solomon's Wisdom," in which every kind of popular legend was taught. Once or twice she could hardly be found in those damp subterranean corridors, having—in her endeavors to escape detection—lost her way in the labyrinth. For all this she was not in the least daunted or repentant, for, as she assured us, she was never there alone, but in the company of "beings" she used to call her little "hunch-backs!" and playmates.

Intensely nervous and sensitive, speaking loud, and often walking in her sleep, she used to be found at nights in the most out-of-way places, and to be carried back to her bed profoundly asleep. Thus she was missed from her room one night when she was hardly twelve, and the alarm having been given, she was searched for and found pacing one of the long subterranean corridors, evidently in deep conversation with someone invisible for all but herself. She was the strangest girl one has ever seen, one with a distinct dual nature in her, that made one think there were two beings in one and the same body; one mischievous, combative, and obstinate—every way graceless; the other mystical and metaphysically inclined. No schoolboy was ever more uncontrollable or full of the most unimaginable and daring pranks as she was. At the same time, when the paroxysm of mischief-making had run its course, no old scholar could be more assiduous in his study, and she could not be prevailed to give up her books, which she would devour night and day as long as the impulse lasted. The enormous library of her grandparents seemed then hardly large enough to satisfy her cravings.

Fancy, or that which we all regarded in these days as fancy, was developed in the most extraordinary way, and from her earliest childhood, in my sister Helena. For hours at times she used to narrate to us younger children, and even to her seniors in years, the most incredible stories with the cool assurance and conviction of an eyewitness and one who knew what she was talking about. When a child, daring and fearless in everything else, she got often scared into fits through her own hallucinations. She felt certain of being persecuted by what she called "the terrible glaring eyes" invisible to everyone else and often attributed by her to the most inoffensive inanimate objects; an idea that appeared quite ridiculous to the bystanders. As to herself, she would shut her eyes tight during such visions, and run away to hide from the ghostly glances thrown on her by pieces of furniture or articles of dress, screaming desperately, and frightening the whole household. At other times she would be seized with fits of laughter, explaining them by the amusing pranks of her invisible companions. Every locked door notwithstanding, Helena was found several times during the night hours in those dark apartments in a half-conscious state, sometimes fast asleep, and unable to say how she got there from our common bedroom on the top story. She disappeared in the same mysterious manner in daytime also. Searched for, called and hunted after, she would be often discovered, with great pains, in the most unfrequented localities; once it was in the dark loft, under the very roof, to which she was traced, amid pigeons' nests, and surrounded by hundreds of those birds. She was "putting them to sleep" (according to the rules taught in "Solomon's Wisdom"), as she explained. And, indeed, pigeons were found, if not asleep, still unable to move, and as though stunned, in her lap at such times.

For her all nature seemed animated with a mysterious life of its own. She heard the voice of every object and form, whether organic or inorganic; and claimed consciousness and being, not only for some mysterious powers visible and audible for herself alone in what was to every one else empty space, but even for visible but inanimate things such as pebbles, mounds, and pieces of decaying phosphorescent timber.

At about [6.6 miles] from the Governor's villa there was a field, an extensive sandy tract of land, evidently once upon a time the bottom of a sea or a great lake, as its soil yielded petrified relics of fishes, shells, and teeth of some (to us) unknown monsters. Most of these relics were broken and mangled by time, but one could often find whole stones of various sizes on which were imprinted figures of fishes and plants and animals of kinds now wholly extinct, but which proved their undeniable antediluvian origin. The marvelous and sensational stories that we, children and schoolgirls, heard from Helena were countless. I well remember when stretched at full length on the ground, her chin reclining on her two palms, and her two elbows buried deep in the soft sand, she used to dream aloud, and tell us of her visions, evidently clear, vivid, and palpable as life to her! How vividly she described their past fights and battles on the spot where she lay, assuring us she saw it all; and how minutely she drew on the sand with her finger the fantastic forms of the long dead sea monsters, and made us almost see the very colors of the fauna and flora of those dead regions. While listening eagerly to her descriptions of the lovely azure waves reflecting the sunbeams playing in the rainbow lights on the golden sands of the sea bottom, of the coral reefs and stalactite caves, of the sea-green grass mixed with the delicate shining anemones, our imagination galloped off with her fancy to a full oblivion of the present reality. She never spoke in later years as she used to speak in her childhood and early girlhood. The stream of her eloquence has dried up, and the very source of her inspiration is now seeming lost! She had a strong power of carrying away her audiences with her, of making them see actually, if even vaguely, that which she herself saw. Once she frightened all of us youngsters very nearly into fits. We had just been transported into a fairy world, when suddenly she changed her narrative from the past to the present tense, and began to ask us to imagine that all that which she had told us of the cool blue waves with their dense populations, was around us, only invisible and intangible, so far. "Just fancy! A miracle!" she said; "the earth suddenly opening, the air condensing around us and rebecoming sea waves. Look, look . . . there, they begin already appearing and moving. We are surrounded with water amid the mysteries and the wonders of a submarine world!"

She had started from the sand, and was speaking with such conviction, her voice had such a ring of real amazement, horror, and her childish face wore such a look of a wild joy and terror at the same time, that when, suddenly covering her eyes with both hands, as she used to do in her excited moments, she fell down on the sand, screaming at the top of her voice, "There's the wave . . . it has come! . . . The sea, the sea, we are drowning!" Everyone of us fell down on our faces, as desperately screaming and as fully convinced that the sea had engulfed us, and that we were no more!

1c. Nadyezhda A. de Fadeyev (HPB's aunt), 1831–1849, Russia [Sinnett 1886, 26–28]

From her earliest childhood she was unlike any other person. Very lively and highly gifted, full of humor and of most remarkable daring, she struck everyone with astonishment by her self-willed and determined actions. Thus in her earliest youth and hardly married, she disposed of herself in an angry mood, abandoning her country, without the knowledge of her relatives or husband, who, unfortunately was a man in every way unsuited to her and more than thrice her age. Her restless and very nervous temperament, one that led her into the most unheard of, ungirlish mischief; her unaccountable—especially in those days—attraction to, and at the same time fear of, the dead; her passionate love and curiosity for everything unknown and mysterious, weird, and fantastical; and, foremost of all, her craving for independence and freedom of action—a craving that nothing and nobody could control—all this, combined with an exuberance of imagination and wonderful sensitiveness, ought to have warned her friends that she was an exceptional creature, to be dealt with and controlled by means as exceptional. The slightest contradiction brought on an outburst of passion, often a fit of convulsion. Left alone with no one near her to impede her liberty of action, no hand to chain her down or stop her natural impulses, and thus arouse to fury her inherent combativeness, she would spend hours and days quietly whispering, as people thought, to herself, and narrating, with no one near her, in some dark corner, marvelous tales of travels in bright stars and other worlds, which her governess described as "profane gibberish"; but no sooner would the governess give her a distinct order to do this or the other thing than her first impulse was to disobey. It was enough to forbid her doing a thing to make her do it, come what would. Her nurse, as indeed other members of the family, sincerely believed the child possessed "the seven spirits of rebellion." Her governesses were martyrs to their task, and never succeeded in bending her resolute will, or influencing by anything but kindness her indomitable, obstinate, and fearless nature.

Spoilt in her childhood by the adulation of dependents and the devoted affection of relatives, who forgave all to "the poor, motherless child"—later on, in her girlhood, her self-willed temper made her rebel openly against the exigencies of society. She would submit to no sham respect for or fear of the public opinion. She would ride at fifteen, as she had at ten, any Cossack horse on a man's saddle! She would bow to no one, as she would recede before no prejudice or established conventionality. She defied all and everyone. As in her childhood, all her sympathies and attractions went out towards people of the lower class. She had always preferred to play with her servants' children rather than with her equals, and as a child had to be constantly watched for fear she should escape from the house to make friends with ragged street boys. So, later on in life, she continued to be drawn in sympathy towards those who were in a humbler station of life than herself, and showed as pronounced indifference to the "nobility" to which by birth she belonged.

1d. Nadyezhda A. de Fadeyev, Spring & Summer, 1849, Russia [Sinnett 1886, 54–55]

[Helena] cared not whether she should get married or not. She had been simply defied one day by her governess to find any man who would be her husband, in view of her temper and disposition. The governess, to emphasize the taunt, said that even the old man [Nikifor V. Blavatsky] she had found so ugly, and had laughed at so much, calling him "a plumeless raven"—that even he would decline her for a wife! That was enough: three days after she made him propose, and then, frightened at what she had done, sought to escape from her joking acceptance of his offer. But it was too late. Hence the fatal step. All she knew and understood was—when too late—that she had been accepting, and was now forced to accept—a master she cared nothing for, nay, that she hated, that she was tied to him by the law of the country, hand and foot. A "great horror" crept upon her, as she explained it later; one desire, ardent, unceasing, irresistible, got hold of her entire being, led her on, so to say, by the hand, forcing her to act instinctively, as she would have done if, in the act of saving her life, she had been running away from a mortal danger. There had been a distinct attempt to impress her with the solemnity of marriage, with her future obligations and her duties to her husband, and married life. A few hours later, at the altar, she heard the priest saying to her, "Thou shalt honor and obey thy husband," and at this hated word, "shalt," her young face was seen to flush angrily, then to become deadly pale. She was overheard to mutter in response, through her set teeth, "Surely, I shall not."

And surely she has not. Forthwith she determined to take the law and her future life into her own hands, and she left her "husband" for ever, without giving him any opportunity to ever even think of her as his wife.

Thus Mme. Blavatsky abandoned her country at seventeen, and passed ten long years in strange and out-of-the-way places, in Central Asia, India, South America, Africa, and Eastern Europe.

  • Sinnett, A. P., ed. 1886. Incidents in the Life Of Madame Blavatsky, Compiled from Information supplied by her Relatives and Friends. London, George Redway; reprint New York: Ayer Co., 1976. Pp. xii + 324. Selections 1a, 1b, 1c, 1d.
  • Zhelihovsky, Vera P. de. 1894–5. "Helena Petrovna Blavatsky." Lucifer 15–16 (November–April): 202–8, 273–9, 361–4, 469–77, 44–50, 99–108. Selection 1b.
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