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Yesterday’s Gurus

June 2024
1min read

Madame Blavatsky’s Baboon: A History of the Mystics, Mediums, and Misfits Who Brought Spiritualism to America


by Peter Washington, Schocken Books, 470 pages .

America was settled largely by religious misfits from the Old World, and its centuries of spiritual yearnings and upheavals are more than rich enough to fill this engrossing book by the English writer Peter Washington. The author is fully aware of just how entertaining his material is, but he gets beneath it to reveal the undercurrents in nineteenth-century America that produced each spiritual vogue, from astral light to chromopathy to transcendentalism. None of his characters is more interesting or elusive than the founder of Theosophy, Madame Helena Blavatsky.

“She narrated to us the most inconceivable tales about herself,” Helena’s sister recalled from their 1830s childhood in Russia, “the most unheard of adventures of which she was the heroine, every night, as she explained.” Blavatsky claimed to have spent seven years apprenticing with mystics in Tibet and said she could “precipitate” messages from “Masters” in Egypt. In 1875 an entire bible, called Isis Unveiled , was dictated to her, often while she slept. She founded a church that appealed to that segment
of the self-improving middle classes among which, Washington writes, “nudism and dietary reform linked arms with universal brotherhood and occult wisdom.” Blavatsky went on to command hundreds of franchised lodges worldwide. The book concludes with the only slightly less interesting story of the heirs to her occultist empire, right down to the recent age of Krishnamurti.

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