Published by Blavatsky Study Center. Online Edition copyright 2004.

Helena P. Blavatsky (1)

  [by Joseph Rhodes Buchanan]

[Reprinted from The Phrenological Journal and Life Illustrated
(New York) March 1878, pp. 134-137]

The head of Madame Blavatsky is one of remarkable strength in many elements of character.  With her fine physical constitution and temperamental balance her brain is capable not only of prolonged labor, but of extraordinary exertion under excitement.  She is not of that quiet, scholastic mould which is so often found in literary pursuits, but possesses an intense emotional and energetic nature, adapting her to fields of robust action.

With a large head, whose intellectual development is very marked, particularly in the perceptive region, she exhibits a strong learning to observation and the study of facts and things as they exist.  We do not find much evidence of the disposition to trust to mere impressions, or to be won over by probable or plausible showings; she is rather skeptical, more inclined to be iconoclastic in her attitude toward philosophy, religion, and literature, than to build up a system by negative reasoning, or by speculation.  The type of her intellect renders her critical, and that, assisted by her cautious skepticism and strong individualism, makes her a stubborn and fearless partisan of her own convictions.  She has a great deal of firmness, and the sense of justice, duty, and of honor is nearly equal to her firmness; hence, whatever cause she may espouse she will maintain with enthusiasm.  When she has confidence in persons, or in the sources of her information, she accepts and acts upon them to the fullest extent.

Her social nature is influential, but on account of her moderate Spirituality and Intuition, her full Secretiveness and critical intellect, she may be said to watch mankind closely, and is thoroughly distrustful where she perceives cause for distrust.  So in society she combines a vigilant observation of persons with a great deal of earnest friendship.  Her highly sanguine temperament and energetic nature lead her to adhere to friends through good and evil report.  Being as earnest to conquer opposition in social as in intellectual relations, she is highly capable of love and friendship which are real and practical, but disposed to laugh at what people generally term sentiment in literature and character, relegating it mainly to effeminacy and weakness.

She has a great love of freedom, and aversion to almost any kind of restraint which prevents her from taking an independent course, and acting out her own convictions.  In emergencies she would generally show great coolness and boldness.  She has a great deal of hope and enthusiasm for the elevation of humanity according to her own peculiar views; and her views in most cases are likely to appear peculiar and extreme to others, notwithstanding her caution and self-control.  She is patriotic, and would be brave in the defense of country, home, family, and faith.  Her attachments would tend ever to carry her back to the country and home of her love, especially if it were among a people whom she could impress by her mental force.  She would never feel at home among people of a gloomy and cynical temperament.

Her development of Self-esteem is not large, so that she does not believe so much in herself as in her knowledge, experience, duty, and purposes.  Her temperament ministers great activity to an energetic, thorough-going nature; so her force and ambition lead her into a bold career, but in such a career she does not make her accomplishments redound so much to her own honor and elevation, as a woman of greater self-esteem would.

The reader must have been struck at first sight by the unusual development of Language which renders her a natural linguist, and gives remarkable ability in the expression of her thought.  Madame Blavatsky has a masculine order of intellect, and a masculine energy with a woman’s temperamental susceptibility and social feeling.  Hence we should not expect her to follow the conventional routine of the society lady, nor yet to adopt the passive round of most society men, but we should expect her to display unusual qualities and pursue a career unique, individual, and exceptional in achievement, as she is exceptionally endowed.

It is rare for us to meet a person, man or woman, so advanced in life with so much physical freshness and youthful ardor and capability.  She would pass easily for a lady of but fifty or so, while she differs from most people of fifty, in being still an earnest student of life and literature, taking up and pursuing new subjects with vigor and success.


The subject of this sketch is in many respects a very rare one.  Whether we take into account her originality and breadth of thought, her physical and moral courage, her adventurous pursuit of knowledge, seldom sought and more seldom found, or her zeal in propagating Oriental religious ideas, Madame Blavatsky is altogether an extraordinary personage.  She was born in Asiatic Russia and reared in the tenets of the Greek Church.  She left home and friends at an early age, to travel in strange lands and sojourn among strange peoples and tribes.  She has, unaccompanied, traveled three times around the globe, and has dwelt among dark-skinned races for years together, learning and speaking their languages, studying philosophy and practicing magic with their priests; indeed, making herself for the time being one of the people with whom she dwelt.

The Russians of the upper class have always been noted for their linguistical talent, but Mme. Blavatsky seems to have excelled most of her compatriots in this respect.  Prince Emil Wittgenstein, a cousin of the present Empress, in writing to Col. Olcott, of New York, said that he knew Mme. Blavatsky well some twenty-five years ago at Tiflis, when she was famed for her ability to speak Georgian, Mongolian, Circassian, and other Caucasus dialects.  Those who have met her can certify, that besides the French and Italian, several other languages are familiar to her.  Epes Sargent, the American author, in a recently published letter, affirms that she writes English with the ability of George Eliot, and the Hartford Times, reviewing her “Isis Unveiled,”  (2) says, “that she makes use of the purest English, is matter of surprise to her readers.  She expresses herself with the utmost clearness and simplicity, even when dealing with the most abstruse subjects.”  In this view other critics concur.  Dr. R. Mackenzie, one of the better known of our literary reviewers, wrote in the Philadelphia Press: “We have to admire the thorough simplicity and natural grace of Madame Blavatsky’s language.  It is pure and expressive, which is singular, considering her Asiatic birth, and that the first languages she learned must have been Oriental, which, in their expression, certainly are very deficient in simplicity.”

Before the appearance of her notable work, the panegyrics pronounced upon Mme. Blavatsky by her intimate friends were attributed to over-partiality.  But now that “Isis Unveiled” has run the gauntlet of criticism on both sides of the Atlantic, it is easy to see that in its author we have one of those characters who usually become historical.  Such individualities, by the very intensity of their magnetism, invariably arouse the enthusiasm of friends and the rancor and hostility of enemies.  It is not surprising, therefore, that while one class of critics finds in our Russian visitor the evidences of profound erudition, marked intellectual depth, and elevation of sentiment, another should toss her volumes aside with a sneer and expression of derision.

It is a strange news that Madame Blavatsky brings from the Orient to us Western people.  She relates that not only have the mystical brotherhoods over there all those literary treasures that we have long supposed were burnt in the Alexandrian libraries by the Moslem General Amru and others, but that the secrets of the ancient magi, those “wise men of the East,” are preserved and put to practical use.  European travelers have seen and testified to some of the magical feats performed by these adepts, but attributed them to legerdemain.  None, however, have reported a tithe of what Mme. Blavatsky has witnessed.

In the course of Mme. Blavatsky’s long life - for she is upward of eighty years old, yet wonderfully young in body and fresh in mind - she has had her life in peril by sword, fire, shipwreck, poison, wild beasts, pestilence, not once, but scores of times.  Were the space and time afforded to record her travels and experiences, a story of the most romantic interest could be unrolled.

Madame Blavatsky, judged by her writings, is from one view an iconoclast, but does not tear down without offering to rebuild.  She assails the old routine of Christian theology, and proposes to replace it with Buddhistic and Brahmanic ethics.  She rejects our exact science, and holds that in Oriental psychology and physiology there is far more to be learned of nature and its forces, of man and his tremendous powers.  This being the case, we need not wonder that the Russian Government, as if apprehensive of the injury her “Isis Unveiled” may do to the State religion, has prohibited its admission across the frontiers.

For the admirable photograph from which our portrait was engraved we are indebted to M. Sarony, of Broadway, while our acknowledgments are due to Prof. J. R. Buchanan, M.D., for contributions to our phrenological notes.


(1)  Vera Johnston (H.P.B.'s niece) quotes from a letter H.P.B. wrote to her sister about this article by Professor Buchanan:

"H.P.B. did not spare herself when portraying the humorous side of her surroundings. The American Phrenological Society wrote and asked for her portrait and for a cast of her head, and Professor Buchanan, the phrenologist and psychometer, called on her for an interview. She describes the incident in writing to Madame Jelihovsky:

'And so this poor victim (victim in view of his awful task) was sent to me -- a phrenological occultist, who came in the company of a huge bouquet (as if I were a prima donna!) and with three trunk-loads of compliments. He fingered my head and fingered it again; he turned it on one side and then on the other. He snorted over me -- snorted like a steam-engine, until we both began to sweat. And at last he spat in disgust. ‘Do you call this a head?’, he says; ‘It’s no head at all, but a ball of contradictions.’ ‘On this head’, he says, ‘there is an endless war of most conflicting bumps; all Turks and Montenegrins.  I can’t make anything of this chaos of impossibilities and confusion of Babel. Here, for instance’, he says, poking my skull with his finger, ‘ is a bump of the most ardent faith and power of belief, and here, side by side with it, the bump of scepticism, pessimism, and incredulity, proudly swelling itself. And now, if you please, here is the bump of sincerity for you, walking hand in hand with the bump of hypocrisy and cunning. The bump of domesticity and love for your country boxes the ears of the bump of wandering and love of change. And do you mean to say you take this to be a respectable head?’ he asked. He seized himself by the hair, and in his despair pulled a considerable lock from his own respectable head, answering to the highest standards of phrenology... But all the same he described, drew, and published my poor head for the amusement of the hundred thousand subscribers to the Phrenological Journal. Alas, alas, ‘heavy is the crown of Monomach!’  The aureola of my own greatness, acquired so undeservedly, is simply crushing me. Here, I send you a copy of my poor head, which you are requested to swallow without any sauce. A hundred thousand Yankees are going to feast upon it, and so I am certainly going to save a bit for my own blood!'
Quoted from

(2)  Isis Unveiled:  A Master Key to the Mysteries of Ancient and Modern Science and Theology.  New York:  J.W. Bouton.