Blavatsky and the Battle of Mentana

Printed in the Summer 2015 issue of Quest magazine.
Citation: Overweg, Cynthia."Blavatsky and the Battle of Mentana" Quest 103.3 (Summer 2015): pg. 102-105.

By Cynthia Overweg

The soul ripens in tears.

'Gems from the East,
   compiled by H.P. Blavatsky

Theosophical Society - Cynthia Overweg is a writer and educator who presents programs at the Krotona School of Theosophy in Ojai, California. Her study has focused on H.P. Blavatsky, Ramana Maharshi, and Christian mystics. During the Balkan war, she traveled as a photojournalist with United Nations relief organizations. Her images of war-traumatized children won awards from the National Endowment for the Arts and the American Film Institute. Recent articles for Quest include profiles of Joy Mills, Ravi Ravindra, and MilarepaAs an early morning rainstorm pounded the ancient walls of Rome, thousands of soldiers from two opposing armies were preparing for a ferocious battle over the fate of the Eternal City and the future of Italy. On November 3, 1867, they were marching to Mentana, a small and quaint town located sixteen miles northeast of Rome. Mentana was an important battleground in a decades-long struggle by Italian revolutionaries to unify Italy and overthrow a thousand years of a papal theocracy in Rome and in much of the Italian peninsula.

On one side of Mentana's battle line stood the army of Pope Pius IX, who firmly believed in a church-state form of government. Not only was the pope the temporal ruler and bishop of Rome, he was also the ruler of a patchwork of Italian provinces known as the Papal States, and he had no intention of giving them up. On the other side of the confrontation was the all-volunteer army of General Giuseppe Garibaldi, a charismatic, world-famous advocate of universal human rights and the separation of church and state. Garibaldi's army was known as the "Redshirts" because the troops' shirts were made from inexpensive red flannel.

There to witness or participate in the battle were a few journalists, sketch artists, volunteers, and supporters of one side or the other who were brave or foolish enough to be at the front line. As both armies took positions in the hills around Mentana and along embankments on the main road into town, the deafening sound of thousands of muskets firing simultaneously filled the cold air. Clouds of black smoke rose above Mentana, and the foul smell of musket fire mingled with the fierce and anguished cries of war. As with any war, the price either for victory or defeat would be paid by the men and women who were willing to die for it.

By the time the battle was over that afternoon, the dead, the dying, and the wounded were strewn on the blood-soaked ground. Among them was a young and perhaps idealistic Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, who lay bleeding and unconscious in a ditch. She was wearing a red shirt. Left for dead, she was rescued by Italian civilians who helped the wounded and took loved ones home for burial. HPB was thirty-six years old and living in Italy at the time.

It is not known at what point in the battle Blavatsky was wounded, but it must have been a traumatic and life-changing event for her, just as it has been for millions of others down through the centuries who have seen war. Experts on war trauma have long known that the experience often provokes an existential crisis, thrusting an individual headlong into the turbulent question about the meaning of human existence. For some, the vexing contradictions inherent in war can deepen an appreciation for the sacredness of life. Veteran war correspondent Chris Hedges, who covered the Balkan war as well as conflicts in the Middle East and Central America, has written powerfully about the paradox of finding meaning in the meaninglessness of war: "Its destruction and carnage can give us what we long for in life. It can give us purpose, meaning, a reason for living. Only when we are in the midst of conflict does the shallowness and vapidness of much of our lives become apparent."

Is it possible that at Mentana, HPB saw the depths of human suffering for the first time and found a purpose that gave her life meaning? She was still a young woman, and although she had traveled much of the world searching for sacred knowledge, war has a way of challenging everything a person holds dear. We can't know for sure, but for someone who spent her life trying to fathom the unknown and come to terms with the predicament of the human species, Mentana must have contributed greatly to her inner development and worldview.

The battle of Mentana did not end well for Garibaldi's forces. Just as it looked as if his Redshirts might win, 2000 French reinforcements, sent by the emperor Napoleon III, turned the tide of battle. The French troops had been equipped with a brand-new weapon called the Chassepot rifle, named after its inventor, Antoine Chassepot. It had a longer range than muskets, fired at a higher speed, and inflicted more damage to the human body than any comparable weapon before it. It shocked and disoriented Garibaldi's troops. Whether Blavatsky was at Mentana to witness the battle or participate as a volunteer (it was not uncommon for observers and volunteers, including women, to be near the front line), she could easily have been hit several times just trying to get out of the way.

The Redshirts suffered heavy losses, while the pope's army had only a few. Garibaldi was wounded in the leg and lost the battle, one of the few losses of his career. But three years later, in 1870, the Italian army finally took control of Rome and divested the pope of his temporal power. Italy eventually became the united country we know today. In 1929, after a concordat signed with Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, Vatican City became an independent city-state governed by the papacy.

Blavatsky's biographers have found her presence at Mentana to be a source of fascination, disbelief, and awe. Most accept that she was there; others are skeptical. At her first meeting with Henry Steel Olcott in 1874, he reported that she was wearing a Garibaldi red shirt, which predictably got his attention. Later, she told Olcott about being wounded at Mentana. "In proof of her story," he wrote in Old Diary Leaves, "she showed me where her left arm had been broken in two places by a saber stroke, and made me feel in her right shoulder a musket bullet still embedded in the muscle, and another in her leg."

As a veteran of the American Civil War, Olcott could recognize authentic battle wounds, and he not only believed her, he wondered what impact the experience might have had on her: "I suspect that none of us ever knew the normal HPB . . . we just dealt with . . . a perpetual psychic mystery, from which the proper jiva was killed out at the battle of Mentana," he wrote after HPB had died. Olcott seemed to suggest that a radical shift in Blavatsky's spiritual psyche took place as a result of the war experience, a shift in consciousness so powerful that it may have been the turning point in her life.

But why was HPB interested in a battle that appeared to have nothing to do with her? The answer may be in what was happening in nineteenth-century Italy. It was a time when ideas about individual liberty and freedom from oppression, whether religious, economic, or cultural were gaining momentum. Garibaldi, along with Giuseppe Mazzini and other Italian reformers, were leaders in what was known as the Risorgimento, or the rebirth and unification of Italy. The Risorgimento demanded an end to foreign occupation, a government that empowered ordinary people, and the overthrow of papal rule, or the "pope as king."

Given Blavatsky's antipathy to religious dogma and any form of theocracy, it's not surprising that she was interested in, perhaps passionate about, what Garibaldi stood for. He also advocated free public education, equal rights for women, and the emancipation of slaves, and had been doing it well before the American Civil War. Like many others, HPB was aligned with Garibaldi's ideals. But there is another reason they shared common ground: Garibaldi was a Freemason. Since HPB had a lifelong interest in the spiritual principles of Freemasonry, it would have made them kindred spirits, if not good friends.

The French esotericist René Guénon, one of HPB's most vociferous critics, admits that a high-ranking Mason named John Yarker was "the friend of Mazzini and Garibaldi and, in their entourage, had known Mme Blavatsky." While it seems most likely that Blavatsky met Garibaldi and Mazzini as a result of their mutual interest in Freemasonry, she also could have met Garibaldi simply by attending a speech he gave.

Although a link between Garibaldi and Blavatsky can be made, and her biographers agree that she was living in Italy in 1867, none of them has been able to independently verify that she was at Mentana the day of the battle. For some, this is what puts her presence there in question.

The supposition is that someone would have noticed her and there would be a record of it. But it is important to consider that when the battle took place, Blavatsky was unknown outside of Russia. There were no journalists eager to write about her and her adventures. She was not a published writer, and very few people even knew where she was.

It may be difficult to imagine, but at that stage of her life Blavatsky was an obscure spiritual seeker, still ripening in maturity and searching for her purpose in life. There was no reason she would have been singled out as a casualty, or written about by a journalist or other witnesses to a chaotic battle that involved thousands of soldiers and volunteers from both sides. Thus there will probably never be independent confirmation that HPB was at Mentana, but that certainly doesn't mean she wasn't there.

When she was pestered by an unfriendly inquirer who demanded to know more, she wrote: "Whether I was sent there or found myself there by accident are questions that pertain to my private life." In one brusque sentence, she offered two different possibilities: If she was "sent" there, we are left to guess by whom; or if there by "accident," she may have been traveling near Mentana, and was in the wrong place at the wrong time. It seems like a deliberate effort to keep us in the dark. On the other hand, for those who have been in war, it is a raw and highly personal experience that cannot be fully understood by someone who has not been there. It's conceivable that Blavatsky preferred to sow confusion rather than answer questions from people who did not have the capacity to understand.

In 1886, when A.P. Sinnett was writing a biography about her and asked her about Mentana, she refused to elaborate, writing in a letter: "The Garibaldi's (the sons) are alone to know the whole truth and a few more Garibaldians with them. What I did you know partially, but you do not know all." With that statement, she deepens the mystery and raises more questions: What is the "whole truth" she referred to? She indicates that she knew Garibaldi's sons. How did she come to know them?

Garibaldi's two oldest sons, Menotti and Ricciotti, actively promoted the philosophy espoused by their father. In fact, Ricciotti fought at the battle of Mentana himself. It is reasonable to suggest that HPB met Garibaldi's sons in the same way she met him'at public or private meetings where like-minded people gathered to discuss philosophical ideas and current affairs.

But the question remains: why would she put her life in jeopardy at Mentana? One answer is that like many others, she expected Garibaldi to win and wanted to be part of a historic event that championed the right to self-determination, religious freedom, and human dignity. Another possibility is that she went to Mentana to help care for the wounded. Garibaldi did not have a traditional medical corps, and volunteers were very important in saving lives. HPB may have felt an inner calling to do what she could to mitigate suffering on the battlefield. But she did not want to talk about Mentana, at least not publicly. And that would not be unusual for a war survivor; most do not want to revisit such powerful memories.

The larger question is: how might the experience of war have shaped Blavatsky's life from that point forward? She told Sinnett that after she recovered from her wounds, she left Italy and traveled to northern India and eventually crossed into Tibet, where she spent time with her spiritual teacher. While her physical wounds were not life-threatening, what about emotional and spiritual wounds? The deep distress of having witnessed the brutality of a battlefield must have placed a great strain on her highly sensitive nature. Did she need time in the peaceful atmosphere of a retreat to heal the shock and sorrow that accompanies the experience of war? Did she get help from her teacher in integrating the inner turmoil that she must have felt? Did Mentana, as Olcott suggested, transform her in some way?

It is worth noting that the haunting and transformative effects of war are well-documented. There is a tremendous body of literature written over the centuries by war veterans, war correspondents, and poets like Walt Whitman and Lord Byron or nurses like Clara Barton (founder of the American Red Cross and a medic during the Civil War), which illustrate the inner turbulence experienced in war. For example, on an evening before a battle, when she knew that hundreds of soldiers would die, Barton wrote that she thought she could hear "the slow flap of the grim messenger's wings, as one by one, he sought and selected his victims for the morning." The Pulitzer Prize–winning World War II journalist Ernie Pyle put it this way: "My spirit is wobbly and my mind is confused . . . You feel small in the presence of dead men."

Unfortunately, HPB never wrote a memoir about her war experience, so we are left to hypothesize, surmise, and wonder about how it may have shaped her understanding of what is at stake for a world in perpetual combat. Yet it would not be exaggerating to suggest that the battle of Mentana may have greatly influenced her determination to bring a form of spiritual education to the West that could nurture an expansion of consciousness.

One very interesting glimpse into what HPB may have experienced at Mentana (and then later used as a basis for a philosophical point she wanted to make), is a little-known but provocative short story that she published in her journal Lucifer in 1888. In "Karmic Visions," she describes the insanity of war in the compelling imagery of someone who has been there: "Thousands of mangled corpses covered the ground, torn and cut to shreds by the murderous weapons devised by science and civilization, blessed to success by the servants of his God. Not a wife or mother, but is haunted in her dreams by the black and ominous storm-cloud that over-hangs the whole of Europe. The cloud is approaching . . . It comes nearer and nearer . . . I foresee once more for earth the suffering I have already witnessed."

"Karmic Visions" is set during the Franco-Prussian War, which broke out three years after Mentana, and in which the Chassepot rifle was used as well. The story chronicles the various incarnations of a soldier and emperor-king who cannot turn away from the destructive impulse of war. But that is only one component of a story which portrays the utter uselessness of war and the blindness of those who glorify it or who use it as a means to achieve power over others. Her story also seems to foretell the repetition of warfare in the twentieth century. Just twenty-three years after HPB's death, World War I began, followed of course by World War II, and the many regional wars since then, which now cast a shadow over the twenty-first century.

To sign "Karmic Visions," Blavatsky used the pen name "Sanjna" for the first and only time. According to Boris de Zirkoff, the compiler of Blavatsky's Collected Writings, Sanjna can mean "perception" or "consciousness" in Sanskrit. It also means "creator" or "unity." Exactly how HPB intended the word to be understood is unknown. But the underlying theme, perhaps informed by her experience at Mentana, is that war will be humanity's ongoing nightmare until we wake up from the dream of separation and transform how we understand ourselves and our relationship with each other and with the rest of creation.

While we may never know the whole truth of her experience at the battle of Mentana, there are enough enticing indicators to provide food for thought and reflection. Perhaps it can be said that at Mentana, Blavatsky saw the horrible waste of war and then looked for an antidote. Near the end of her life, she wrote what is arguably her most beloved work, The Voice of the Silence, in which she offers a vision for a world without war. In it, she depicts a very different kind of battle'the battle that takes place within the heart and mind of every sincere spiritual seeker who yearns to become a fully realized human being.

Echoing the teaching of Mahayana Buddhism, HPB describes the one battle that is worth fighting: the arduous inner struggle to transcend an egoic mind which is possessed by an endless stream of thoughts, unbridled desire, greed, anger, and fear. These are the human weaknesses that kill millions of people in war century after century. Without confronting the root cause of war from within, HPB suggests, there can be no escape from the repetition of the outer war. It could be said that "Karmic Visions" portrays the outer war which manifests from ignorance and hate, while The Voice of the Silence reveals what is necessary to end war entirely. In a way, they are two sides of the same coin, though written in a very different style and tone.

The inner battle described in The Voice of the Silence is of course a spiritual journey filled with the land mines of self-interest that, once transformed, can become the path of wisdom and compassion. It culminates in a state of being where the end of war can be realized one person at a time. HPB wrote that once that path is fully embraced, "the last great fight, the final war between the Higher and the Lower Self, hath taken place. Behold, the very battlefield is now engulfed in the great war, and is no more."


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Cynthia Overweg is a writer and educator who presents programs at the Krotona School of Theosophy in Ojai, California. Her study has focused on H.P. Blavatsky, Ramana Maharshi, and Christian mystics. During the Balkan war, she traveled as a photojournalist with United Nations relief organizations. Her images of war-traumatized children won awards from the National Endowment for the Arts and the American Film Institute. Recent articles for Quest include profiles of Joy Mills, Ravi Ravindra, and Milarepa.


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