Let me tell you a story.
It’s about a strange, eccentric, rather magical and somewhat comical figure called Madame Helena Blavatsky, and a secret order of superhuman beings that she discovered / created, and then invited the world to join.
It’s about a great fiction, which became a religion, called Theosophy.
The Theosophical Society did a lot to introduce Eastern wisdom into western society, it popularized occult ideas like astral travel and the ‘Akashic Records’, and inspired everything from the Wizard of Oz to Twin Peaks. More negatively, Blavatsky’s occult view of history also fed into modern conspiracy theories, from David Icke to Qanon.
Blavatsky, nicknamed HPB, rose to prominence in the 1870s-1890s, during a period that’s been called a ‘mystical revival’. Darwin’s Origin of Species had been published in 1856, Christianity was declining in influence and materialism reached a high-point of influence around the mid-1870s. But it’s not accurate to say that Darwinism destroyed religion. Rather, the shock of Darwinism led to a period of intense spiritual creativity, as all sorts of new religious and spiritual movements sprung into existence to cater to people’s spiritual needs. It was an era when the ‘occulture’ — the usually underground culture of occult and alternative ideas — briefly went mainstream and mixed with all kinds of heterodox ideas, from vegetarianism to quantum physics to fascism.
The most popular new spiritual movement in the 1870s was Spiritualism, a fairly crude form of popular religion based on the idea that people can contact the spirits of the dead through seances and Ouija boards. Madame Blavatsky appeared in New York, seemingly out of nowhere, and declared that Spiritualism was not what people thought. Mediums were actually contacting the psychic shells of dead people, often controlled by mischievous spirits. Spiritualism, said Blavatsky, was a game for amateurs. The serious seeker learned magic.
Little was known about this chain-smoking, portly, Russian dame. One journalist speculated she was 500 years old and could conjure up money at will. Like many a great artist or magus, HPB successfully covered up her past, so she could mythologise herself. What is known for sure is she was born in the…