Madame Blavatsky’s Seances: Theosophy’s Connection to Popular Occultism

October 2, 2009 § Leave a comment

seance 

The seance–Victorian ladies and gentlemen gathered around a table to speak to spirits through a medium–is a cliche of countless movies and old photographs. But it was also a huge fad throughout the western world during the second half of the nineteenth century. Modern seances are generally attributed to the Fox sisters of upstate New York, whose recounting of their communications with a household spirit led them to popular stardom.

Seances fascinated not just social outsiders and the bereaved but people of all socio-economic backgrounds and educations. The Society of Psychical Research, founded in England to investigate “allegedly paranormal phenomena using scientific principles,” counted among its members William Gladstone, John Ruskin and William James.

Helena Petrovna Blavatsky (1831-1891), a founder of the Theosophical Society, not only found seances appealing but practiced them to great effect before audiences in New York and Adyar, India, where she moved the T.S. headquarters in 1979. The conjuring of spirits drew potential converts to Theosophy; Blavatsky in turn gave seances an intellectual sheen by investing them with Theosophy’s mix of Western philosophy and Hindu and Jewish mysticism. According to Matthew Mulligan Goldstein, Blavatsky’s injection of intellectualism “turned spiritualism away from what had seemed in the 1850s its anti-authoritarian, anti-institutional direction, and set [it] on a path toward hermetic elitism.” (www.victorianweb.org)

Madame Blavatsky

Madame Blavatsky

So sensational were Blavatsky’s Adyar seances that the Society for Psychical Research sent Richard Hodgson to investigate in 1883. When he reported back that her spirits were conjured from bedsheets, mirrors and the like, Blavatsky was discredited. In 1885 she moved back to London, where she spent her remaining six years writing The Secret Doctrine, her spiritual masterpiece. She also found time to convert the woman who would succeed her as the leader of the Theosophical Society, the feminist and political radical Annie Besant. 

In the Krotona Colony, seances seem to have had a divisive effect, since some Theosophists practiced them while others did not. They also seem to have alienated some potential converts–people who were drawn to the intellectual power of Theosophy but not its occult aspects.

Beachwood Canyon has a number of buildings that are said to be haunted; some of those were part of the Krotona Colony. Whatever one thinks of seances, it’s hard not to wonder about the relationship between occult rituals and paranormal phenomena. 

In a future post, I’ll return to the subject of Beachwood’s haunted houses.

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