Posted on: March 15, 2012

Whatever your views about the alleged psychic gifts, and the religious credibility of this extraordinary woman, there is no denying that she led one heck of a fascinating life, in fact it was packed with enough adventure and excitement for several lifetimes. Helena Petrova Hahn came from Ukranian aristocracy, the daughter of a top-ranking military officer, Peter Alekseevich Hahn. She was born on 31 July 1831 at Ekaterinoslav, Ukraine. Her life was tumultuous from the very start. There was a cholera outbreak in her household, and at her christening a fire broke out when a bored toddler accidentally set fire to the priest’s robes!

In a highly superstitious time and place, these incidents were enough to mark Helena out as “special”. Servants were terrified off her, and let her do exactly what she wanted. Helena was a wilful child, prone to violent tantrums. But she could also be comical, which meant people tolerated her more than perhaps they would have done otherwise. It was also said that she preferred playing with the children of her family’s servants, such a thing would have been considered downright wild in the 19th century Russian/Ukranian upper-classes.

Her mother died when she was 11. Just before her death her mother voiced concern about Helena’s future. “Well perhaps it is for the best that I am dying”, she said ” … I am quite sure that her destiny will not be womanly, that she will suffer much”. A fear that was shared by Helena’s aunt, who said that Helena’s “direct, energetic and open character” would attract hostility and envy from others.

After her mother’s death, Helena was sent to stay with her grandparents at Saratow. Her grandparents’ home was a huge, rambling old pile. Helena would roam its many corridors and underground passageways, seemingly often in conversation with an “invisible presence”. To make matters worse, she sometimes revealed to visitors the exact date of their deaths, which must have made her a riot at family parties! The young Helena was also a voracious reader, and by the age of 15 was a skilled horsewoman, able to out-ride even the Cossacks.

By her mid-teens her family despaired that they would ever find a suitable suitor for her. One day her governess told her that if she carried on the way she was, even old General Blavatsky wouldn’t have her. Helena (being Helena) immediately took this as a challenge, and went after the old General, who was 50 years older than her. The marriage lasted 3 rather stormy months, until Helena, in a fit of fury, stole one of his horses and galloped off. Her family were not to see her again for quite some while.

Her adventures were numerous, enough to fill several swashbuckling novels. Rumour has it she became a circus bareback rider, and that she was an assistant to the legendary medium Daniel Douglas Home (the Derren Brown of his day). During her travels she became an accomplished pianist, and even gave concerts in London. She was even injured at the Battle of Menton, Italy, in November 1867, fighting on Garibaldi’s side. Her left hand was twice broken by sabre stabs, and she received several wounds in her shoulder and leg.

In July 1851 she had been aboard the steamship ‘Eumonia’, with her lover, the opera singer, Metrovitch, when an explosion in the boiler room caused it to sink. Metrovich perished, but Helena survived. The rescue-ship took her to Cairo, where she studied the Occult. Her father (who had kept faith with her) sent her money, and Helena proceeded to travel the world. She travelled in Tibet and India, but on the outbreak of the Mutiny in 1857 she decided to go home to the Ukraine, and burst in on a family wedding.

From the moment of her arrival back home, her family noticed that odd things continued to happen around Helena. Wherever she went poltergeist activity broke out. Helena would sit serenely in the midst of it, as violent bangs and knocks erupted all around her. When she went to stay with her sister and father at an old house in Rougodero, near St Petersburg, she often saw ghosts there. At around this time Helena fell ill, prey to an old wound she had received whilst on her travels in Asia. The doctor was sent for, but he left the house, shaken, saying that when he tried to examine Helena, he had seen a disembodied hand appear as though warning him away from her.

Eventually Helena returned to India, and continued her mystical studies. In 1873 she went to America, even though she was unable to secure further funding from her family. As such, she wound up living in a New York slum, and had to earn her living as a dressmaker. Her passion for the Occult was unquenched though. Helena moved in spiritualistic circles, and began to openly describe herself as a medium, saying that she could see ghosts, and that she wanted the West to learn the ancient truths of the East.

She met a Colonel Henry S Olcott, who became fascinated by this eccentric lady, and devoted himself to helping her bring her spiritual truths to the world. Together they set up the Theosophy Society. Their relationship appears to have been platonic, and Helena often treated him badly, but between them the Society flourished. Helena moved to more comfortable apartments, which were filled night and day with visitors seeking truths. Some reported odd happenings there, such as strange noises, and seeing orbs of light. Helena was a colourful character. She swore like a trooper, and reacted violently when anyone treated her claims with skepticism. An admirer described her as a “learned, but deluded enthusiast”. She was described as having the enviable ability to be able to grasp any new skill very quickly.

In spite of her success in America, Helena felt that India was where her true destiny lay, and she returned there (accompanied by a small group of disciples) in 1879. At first Helena and her group were treated with suspicion by the British authorities, who didn’t understand why she wanted to “go native” (to coin an old expression), and suspected her of being anti-European. She was put under scrutiny, but it was concluded that she was nothing more than a harmless eccentric.

When money became a problem once more, Helena realised she had to do some “sucking up” to the European ex-pats community, and would oblige by sipping sherry with them. People were attracted by her lively humour, and her eccentric disregard for formality. The HQ for the Theosophist Society was set up in a bungalow at Mumbai, and Helena would supplement her income by pouring out articles. She claimed to her many visitors that she was receiving messages from her astral masters, the Mahatmas Koot Hoomi and Morya. She published these letters, which attracted a storm of controversy, as many suspected she had written them herself.

In February 1884 further controversy hit, when the Coulombs, a married couple who had been working for her as housekeeper and gardener, claimed that they had helped Helena fake some of her “phenomena”. Helena retorted that she had been producing phenomena without the Coulombs help for many years (which can be read two ways!). The Society for Psychical Research sent Richard Hodgson to try and gauge the truth. He concluded that the Coulombs were right. Helena retaliated that he had only interviewed her enemies.

It was inevitable that Helena would attract controversy. Some of her beliefs and teachings were unorthodox in the extreme. For instance, she asserted that Satan was the true ruler of the Earth, that Lucifer was the “light-bringer” (the literal translation of the name), and that he had been demonised by the Christian Church to misrepresent pre-Christian beliefs.

Some of her beliefs have since been proven to be true. She believed that the atom was divisible, something that caused scorn in her lifetime, but which has since turned out of course to be true.

She believed that there were 7 Root Races to the Earth, and that we are now in the 5th one. Eventually this too will come to an end:

“climates will, and have already begun, to change, each tropical year after the other dropping one sub-race, but only to beget another higher race on the ascending cycle; while a series of other less favoured groups – the failures of nature – will, like some individual men, vanish from the human family without even leaving a trace behind”.

Helena knew that Theosophy would attract its critics. It “threatens the very life and mnost of the time-honoured humbugs, prejudices and social evils of the day”, she said “Those evils which fatten and make happy the upper ten and their immitators and sycophants, the wealthy dozens of the middle classes, while they positively crush and starve out of existence the millions of the poor”.

I can’t help feeling Helena would be right at home in the here and now, fighting on the side of the 99% against the 1%!

Disillusioned with India, and now physically ill, Helena decided to return to Europe. She wound up in Wurzburg, Germany, and set to work on her great masterpiece, ‘The Secret Doctrine’. Countess Watchmeister, a Theosophy student, who had been skeptical of Helena’s claims, took on the job of her nurse, and said that her skepticism had been unfounded. She concluded that Helena was a genuine woman, and that she had sacrificed her “position, fortune, health” to her Cause.

Helena was staying in England in the spring of 1891, when she succombed to influenza. She died in the company fo 3 of her most devoted Theosphist followers, who held her in their arms as she passed away. She was cremated at Woking, (a curiously mundane ending for one of the 19th century’s most flamboyant women), and her ashes were scattered between the three centres of the Theosophist Movement: London, New York, and Adjou, near Madras. The day of her death (8 May) is still observed by her followers as “the day of the white lotus”.

Reading about her now I’m struck by how ahead of her time she was, and how much compassion there is in her work. She described the human race (as it is now) as “all of one and the same stock … and springing from one single progenitor”. She promoted the “Universal Brotherhood of Humanity, without distinction of race, creed, sex, caste or colour”.

An amazing woman.



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