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H P Blavatsky


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From Apprenticeship to Duty

1870 – 72


The Spiritist Society in Cairo

The first meeting with Mme Coulomb


An extract from

Incidents in the Life of Madame Blavatsky - compiled from information supplied by her relatives and friends and edited by A.P.Sinnett


First Published 1913



PROBABLY the years 1867 to 1870, if the story of these could be properly told, would be found by far the most interesting of Mme. Blavatsky's eventful life, but it is impossible for me to do more at present than indicate that they were

associated with great progress in the expansion of her occult knowledge, and

passed in the East. The two or three years intervening between her residence at

Tiflis and the period I have named were spent indeed in European travel, and

there would be no necessity for holding back any information concerning these —

the latest of her relatively aimless wanderings — of which I might have gained

possession, but no watchful relatives were with her to record what passed, and

her own recollections give us none but bare outlines of her adventures.

In 1870 she came back from the East by a steamer via the then newly-opened Suez

Canal, and after spending a short time in Piraeus took passage for Spezzia on

board a Greek vessel, which met with a terrible catastrophe, and was blown up by

an explosion of gunpowder and fireworks forming part of the cargo. Mme.

Blavatsky was one of a very small number of passengers whose lives were saved.

The castaways were rescued with no more than the clothes they wore when picked

out of the water, and were momentarily provided for by the Greek

Government, who forwarded them to various destinations. Mme. Blavatsky went to

Alexandria and to Cairo, where, amid much temporary inconvenience, she waited

till supplies of money reached her from Russia. I have headed this chapter “From

Apprenticeship to Duty”, because that is the great transition marked by the date

of Mme. Blavatsky's return to Europe in 1870. Till that period her life had

altogether been spent in the passionate search for occult knowledge, on which

her inborn instincts impelled her from her earliest youth. This had now come

upon her in ample measure. The natural-born faculties of mediumship which had

surrounded her earlier years with a coruscation of wonders had given place now

to attributes for which Western students of psychic mysteries at that date had

no name. The time had not come for even the partial revelations concerning the

great system of occult initiation as practised in the East, which has been

embodied in books published within the last few years. Mme. Blavatsky already

knew that she had a task before her — the task of introducing some knowledge

concerning these mysteries to the world, — but she was sorely puzzled to decide

how she should begin it. She had to do the best she could in making the world

acquainted with the idea that the latent potentialities in human nature — in

connection with which psychic phenomena of various kinds were already attracting

the attention of large classes in both hemispheres — were of a kind which,

properly directed, would lead to the infinite spiritual exaltation of their

possessors, while wrongly directed they were capable of leading downward towards

disastrous results of almost commensurate extent. She alone, at the period I

refer to, appreciated the magnitude of her mission, and if she did not adequately appreciate the difficulties in her way, she had at all events no companion to share her sense of the fact that these difficulties were very great.


Probably she would be among those most willing to recognise, looking back now

upon the steps she took in the beginning, that she went to work the wrong way,

but very few people who have had a long and arduous battle in life to fight —

especially when that fight has been chiefly waged against such moral antagonists

as bigotry and ignorance — would be in a position at the close of their efforts

to regard their earliest measures with satisfied complacency.


The only lever which, as the matter presented itself in the beginning to Mme.

Blavatsky's mind, seemed available for her to work with, was the widespread and

growing belief of large numbers of civilized people in the phenomena and

somewhat too hastily formed theories of spiritualism. She set to work in Egypt

finding herself there for the moment — to found a society which should have the

investigation of spiritualistic phenomena for its purpose, and which she

designed to lead through paths of higher knowledge in the end. Some, among the

many misrepresentations which have made her life one long struggle with calumny

from this time onward, arose from this innocently intended measure. Because she

set on foot her quasi-spiritualistic society, she has been regarded as having

been committed at that date to an acceptance of the theory of psychic phenomena

which spiritualists hold. It will have been seen, however, from the quotations I

have given from her sister's narrative that, even on her first return from the

East in 1858, she was emphatic in repudiating this view.


One of the persons who sought Mme. Blavatsky's acquaintance in connection with this abortive society was the subsequently notorious Mme. Coulomb,

attached at that time to the personnel of a small hotel at Cairo, who afterwards

finding her way with her husband, in a state of painful destitution, to India,

fastened herself but too securely on Mme. Blavatsky's hospitality at Bombay

only to repay this in the end by rendering herself the tool of an infamous

attack made upon the Theosophical Society in the person of its Founder by a

missionary magazine at Madras. Of this I shall have occasion to speak again

later on.The narrative of the period beginning in 1871, on which I am now

entering, has been prepared, with a good deal of assistance from Mme. Blavatsky

herself, from writings by relatives and intimate friends of her later years. It

would be tedious to the reader if this were divided into separate fragments of

testimony, and I shall therefore prefer — except in some special cases later on

to weld these narratives into one, and the use of the plural pronoun “we” will

hereafter sufficiently identify passages which have a composite authorship.


In 1871 Mme. Blavatsky wrote from Cairo to tell her friends that she had just

returned from India, and had been wrecked somewhere en passant (near Spezzia).

She had to wait in Egypt for some time before she returned home, meanwhile she

determined to establish a Société Spirite for the investigation of mediums and

phenomena according to Allen Kardec's theories and philosophy, since there was

no other way to give people a chance to see for themselves how mistaken they

were. She would first give free play to an already established and accepted

teaching and then, when the public would see that nothing was coming out of it,

she would offer her own explanations. To accomplish this object, she said, she

was ready to go to any amount of trouble —even to allowing herself

to be regarded for a time as a helpless medium. “They know no better, and it

does me no harm — for I will very soon show them the difference between a

passive medium and an active doer”. she explains.

A few weeks later a new letter was received. In this one she showed herself full

of disgust for the enterprise, which had proved a perfect failure. She had

written, it seems, to England and France for a medium, but without success. En

désespoir de cause, she had surrounded herself with amateur mediums — French

female spiritists, mostly beggarly tramps, when not adventuresses in the rear of

M. de Lesseps' army of engineers and workmen on the canal of Suez.

“They steal the Society's money”, she wrote, “ they drink like sponges, and I

now caught them cheating most shamefully our members, who come to investigate

the phenomena, by bogus manifestations. I had very disagreeable scenes with

several persons who held me alone responsible for all this. So I ordered them

out. . . . The Société Spirite has not lasted a fortnight — it is a heap of

ruins, majestic, but as suggestive as those of the Pharaoh's tombs. ... To wind

up the comedy with a drama, I got nearly shot by a madman — a Greek, who had

been present at the only two public séances we held, and got possessed I suppose

by some vile spook.” [This literal translation of a letter written by Mme

Blavatsky to her aunt fourteen years back shows that she never changed her way

of viewing communication with “spirits” for physical phenomena, as she was

accused of doing when in America.]

She broke off all connection with the “mediums”, shut up her Société, and went

to live in Boulak near the Museum. Then it seems, she came again in contact with

her old friend the Copt of mysterious fame, of whom [Page 126] mention has been

made in connection with her earliest visit to Egypt, at the outset of her

travels. For several weeks he was her only visitor. He had a strange reputation

in Egypt, and the masses regarded him as a magician. One gentleman, who knew him

at this time, declared that he had outlined and predicted for him for

twenty-five years to come nearly all his (the narrator's) daily life, even to

the day of his death. The Egyptian high officials pretending to laugh at him

behind his back, dreaded and visited him secretly. Ismail Pasha, the Khedive,

had consulted him more than once, and later on would not consent to follow his

advice to resign. These visits of an old man, who was reputed hardly ever to

stir from his house (situated at about ten miles from town), to a foreigner were

much commented upon. New slanders and scandals were set on foot. The sceptics

who had, moved by idle curiosity, visited the Société and witnessed the whole

failure, made capital of the thing. Ridiculing the idea of phenomena, they had

as a natural result declared such claims to be fraud and charlatanry all round.

Conveniently inverting the facts of the case, they even went the length of

maintaining that instead of paying the mediums and the expenses of the Society,

it was Mme. Blavatsky who had herself been paid, and had attempted to palm off

juggler tricks as genuine phenomena. The groundless inventions and rumors thus

set on foot by her enemies, mostly the discharged “French-women mediums”, did

not prevent Mme. Blavatsky from pursuing her studies, and proving to every

honest investigator that her extraordinary powers of clairvoyance and

clairaudience were facts, and independent of mere physical manifestations, over

which she possessed an undeniable control. Also that her power, by simply

looking at them, of setting objects in motion and vibration without

any direct contact with them, and sometimes at a great distance, instead of

deserting her or even diminishing, had increased with years. A Russian

gentleman, an acquaintance of Mme. B., who happened to visit Egypt at that time,

sent his friends the most enthusiastic letters about Mme. Blavatsky. Thus he

wrote to a brother-officer in the same regiment a letter now in the possession

of her relatives, and from which we translate: “She is a marvel, an unfathomable

mystery. That which she produces is simply phenomenal; and without believing any

more in spirits than I ever did, I am ready to believe in witchcraft. If it is

after all but jugglery, then we have in Mme. Blavatsky a woman who beats all the

Boscos and Robert Houdin's of the century by her address. . . . Once I showed

her a closed medallion containing the portrait of one person and the hair of

another, an object which I had had in my possession but a few months, which was

made at Moscow, and of which very few know, and she told me without touching it,

' Oh ! it is your godmother's portrait and your cousin's hair. Both are dead,'

and she proceeded forthwith to describe them, as though she had both before her

eyes. Now, godmother, as you know, who left my eldest daughter her fortune, is

dead fifteen years ago. How could she know ! ” etc..


In an illustrated paper of the time there is a story told of Mme. Blavatsky by

another gentleman. He met her at a table d'hôte with some friends in a hotel of

Alexandria. Refusing to go with these to the theatre after dinner, they remained

alone, sitting on a sofa and talking. Before the sofa there stood a little

tea-tray, on which the waiter had placed for Mr N----- a bottle of liqueur, some

wine, a wine-glass, and a tumbler. As he was carrying the glass with its

contents to his mouth, without any visible cause, it broke in his hand into many

pieces. She laughed, appearing overjoyed, and made the remark that

she hated liqueurs and wine and could hardly tolerate those who used them too

freely. The story goes on ...


“ ' You do not mean to infer that it is you who broke my wine-glass . . . ? It

is simply an accident. . . . The glass is very thin ; it was perhaps cracked,

and I squeezed it too strongly . . .!' I lied purposely, for I had just made the

mental remark that it seemed very strange and incomprehensible, the glass being

very thick and strong, just as a verre à liqueur would be.”


But I wanted to draw her out.“


She looked at me very seriously, and her eyes flashed. ' What will you bet,' she

asked, ' that I do not do it again ?'


”' Well, we will try on the spot. If you do, I will be the first to proclaim you

a true magician. If not, we will have a good laugh at you or your spirits

to-morrow at the Consulate. . . .' And saying so, I half-filled the tumbler with

wine and prepared to drink it. But no sooner had the glass touched my lips than

I felt it shattered between my fingers, and my hand bled, wounded by a broken

piece in my instinctive act at grasping the tumbler together when I felt myself

losing hold of it.“


"Entre les lèvres et la coupe, il y a quelquefois une grande distance,'' she

observed sententiously, and left the room, laughing in my face most



“ During the latter years”, Mme. de Jelihowsky states, “many were the changes

that had taken place in our family: our grandfather and our aunt's husband, who

had both occupied very high official positions in Tiflis, had died, and the

whole family had left the Caucasus to settle permanently in Odessa. H. P.

Blavatsky had not visited the country for years, and there remained in Tiflis

but myself with my family and a number of old servants, formerly serfs of the

family, who, once liberated, could not be kept without wages in the house they

had been born in, and were gradually being sent away. These people, some of whom

owing to old age were unable to work for their living, came constantly to me

for help. Unable to pension so many, I did what I could for them ;

among other things I had obtained a permanent home at the City Refuge House for

two old men, late servants of the family: a cook called Maxim and his brother

Piotre — once upon a time a very decent footman, but at the time of the event I

refer to an incorrigible drunkard, who had lost his arm in consequence.”


That summer we had gone to reside during the hot months of the year at Manglis

the headquarters of the regiment of Erivan — some thirty miles from town, and

Mme. Blavatsky was in Egypt. I had just received the news that my sister had

returned from India, and was going to remain for some time at Cairo. We

corresponded very rarely, at long intervals, and our letters were generally

short. But after a prolonged silence I received from H. P. B. a very long and

interesting letter.“


A portion of it consisted of fly-sheets torn out from a note-book, and these

were all covered with pencil-writing. The strange events they recorded had been

all put down on the spot — some under the shadow of the great Pyramid of Cheops,

and some of them inside Pharaoh's Chamber. It appears that Mme. B. had gone

there several times, once with a large company, some of whom were

spiritualists.[Some most wonderful phenomena were described by some of her

companions as having taken place in broad daylight in the desert when they were

sitting under a rock; whilst other notes in Mme Blavatsky’s writing recorded the

strange sight she saw in the Cimmerian darkness of the King’s Chamber, when she

has passed a night alone comfortable settled inside a sarcophagus.]”


'Let me know, Vera', she wrote, 'whether it is true that the old Pietro is dead

? He must have died last night or at some time yesterday' (the date on the stamp

of the envelope showed that it had left Egypt ten days previous to the day on

which it was received). 'Just fancy what happened ! A friend of mine, a young

English lady, and a medium, stood writing mechanically on bits of

paper, leaning upon an old Egyptian tomb. The pencil had begun tracing perfect

gibberish — in characters that had never existed here, as a philologist told us

when suddenly, and as I was looking from behind her back, they changed into

what I thought were Russian letters. My attention having been called elsewhere,

I had just left her, when I heard people saying that what she had written was

now evidently in some existing characters, but that neither she nor anyone else

could read them. I came back just in time to prevent her from destroying that

slip of paper as she had done with the rest, and was rewarded. Possessing myself

of the rejected slip, fancy my astonishment on finding it contained in Russian

an evident apostrophe to myself!”


' “Barishnya (little or' young miss '), dear baryshnya! ” said the writer,

help, oh help me, miserable sinner! ... I suffer: drink, drink, give me a

drink! . . . I suffer, I suffer!” From this term baryshnya — a title our old

servants will, I see, use with us two even after our hair will have grown white

with age — I understood immediately that the appeal came from one of our old

servants, and took therefore the matter in hand by arming myself with a pencil

to record what I could myself see. I found the name Piotre Koutcherof echoed in

my mind quite distinctly, and I saw before me an indistinguishable mass of grey

smoke — a formless pillar — and thought I heard it repeat the same words.

Furthermore, I saw that he had died in Dr Gorolevitch's hospital attached to the

City Refuge, the Tiflis workhouse where you had placed them both. Moreover, as I

made out, it is you who placed him there in company with his brother, our old

Maxim, who had died a few days before him. You had never written about poor

Maxim's death. Do tell me whether it is so or not. . . .'


Further on followed her description of the whole vision as she had it, later on,

in the evening when alone, and the authentic words pronounced by ' Piotre's

spook' as she called it. The ' spirit' (?) was bitterly complaining of thirst

and was becoming quite desperate. It was punishment, it said — and the spook

seemed to know it well, — for his drunkenness during the lifetime of

that personality ! . . . 'An agony of thirst that nothing could quench — an ever

living fire,' as she explained it.”


Mme. Blavatsky's letter ended with a postscript, in which she notified her

sister that her doubts had been all settled. She saw the astral spooks of both

the brothers — one harmless and passive, the other active and dangerous. [How

dangerous is the latter kind was proved on the spot. Miss O - , the medium, a

young lady of hardly twenty, governess in a rich family of bankers, an extremely

modest and gentle girl, had hardly written the Russian words addressed to Mme

Blavatsky, when she was seized with a trembling, and asked to drink. When water

was brought she threw it away, and went on asking for a drink. Wine was offered

her - she greedily drank it, and began drinking one glass after another until,

to the horror of all, she fell into convulsions, and cried for “wine-a drink!”

till she fainted away, and was carried home in a carriage. She had an illness

after this that lasted several weeks. - [H.P.B.]Upon the receipt of this letter,

her sister was struck with surprise. Ignorant herself of the death of the

parties mentioned, she telegraphed immediately to town, and the answer received

from Dr Gorolevitch corroborated the news announced by Mme. Blavatsky in every

particular. Piotre had died on the very same day and date as given in H. P.

Blavatsky's letter, and his brother two days earlier.

Disgusted with the failure of her spiritist society and the gossip it provoked,

Mme. Blavatsky soon went home via Palestine, and lingered for some months

longer, making a voyage to Palmyra and other ruins, whither she went with

Russian friends. Accounts of some of the incidents of her journey found their

way into the French and even American papers. At the end of 1872 she returned in her usual way without warning, and surprised her family at Odessa.





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