The 19thcentury boasted many notable, influential individuals: Charles Darwin, Queen Victoria, Charles Dickens and Alexander Graham Bell but to name a few. Yet, for some baffling reason, Hélène Smith has been lost to the annals of time. Scientists and social reformers may be all well and good, but what about a young woman who spoke to aliens?
‘Hélène Smith’ was born Catherine-Elise Müllerin Martigny, Switzerland in 1861 into a Protestant family. Despite this, she was baptised into the Catholic Church and her family, her mother in particular, remained devout practising Christians. Her mother claimed to experience religious visions for many years, which undoubtedly introduced the idea of spirit contact and mediumship to the young Hélène.
She was a solitary, introverted child, prone to daydreams and reveries. She also reported visions, mainly consisting of colourful, hypnotic landscapes that she later attributed to Martian visitation.
From the age of 13, Hélène worked in a silk shop until she discovered spiritualism in 1892 (an American admirer would later pay her a salary to work as a full time medium). She quickly joined a “development” circle, whereby attendees attempt to develop their psychic and spiritual powers through group tutoring and activities. According to others in her circle, she quickly began to show mediumistic talents, predominantly ‘moral admonitions, treatment prescriptions for the consultants, messages from deceased relatives and friends, and revelations of past lives of the participants of the séance.’
As her development as a medium progressed, she (supposedly) began communication with Italian adventurer and magician Alessandro Cagliostro and French novelist Victor Hugo. When you begin your career with the great and good, it’s understandable that the only way to go is up. Literally. To Mars.
As Hélène’s séances began to bring her fame, she was soon introduced to Théodore Flournoy, a professor of psychology and author on Spiritism and parapsychology. It was Flournoy who proposed the pseudonym ‘Hélène Smith’ after his young daughter. After meeting the child, the young medium was satisfied with her new name and took it forwards into her career.
Flournoy, a contemporary of Freud, conducted long-term investigations into Hélène’s abilities which he published under the title ‘From India To The Planet Mars’ (1899). Throughout this study, Smith entered a trance state and channelled a number of past lives…. Flournoy attributed these supposed experiences to ‘cryptamnesia’, a type of subconscious plagiarism and memory bias. Flournoy later suggested that Smith should be diagnosed with multiple personality disorder, and that such mediumistic trances and false memories were the result of the subconscious mind. Not spirits.
Upon entering a trance, her ‘guide’ of sorts (Leopold, a reincarnation of Cagliostro), would explain Helen’s acts to Flournoy and talk to the investigator, seemingly independent of Helen. She would often awake from these deep trances with no recollection as to the events.
Hélène’s vast array of narratives was termed by Flournoy as ‘Subliminal Romances’, which he used to denote everything from trances involving past lives, through to spirit painting and glossolalia.
Cryptamnesia aside, Hélène’s past lives are staggeringly…wild. Flournoy classed these lives into three cycles; the Hindu cycle, the Royal cycle and the Martian cycle.
These past lives, conducted through trance and séance, began with such historical icons as Marie Antoinette. Hélène’s depictions of life at court were detailed, elaborate and mimicked Antoinette’s refined behaviours with high accuracy.
Another regular in the Hindu cycle was Princess Simandini, a fifteenth-century Arab princess, married to Sivrouka,a Hindu potentate. In many of her trance sessions, she channelled the Princess’ memories, including her horrific death at her husband’s funeral pyre (committing ‘sati/suttee’). She recounted landscapes, architecture and historical customs of the time. She would also sing “exotic melodies, played with an imaginary monkey”.
As her trances progressed, she named Flournoy as the reincarnation of her husband and together, they recreated scenes from their life together. In these scenes, Smith supposedly spoke Sanskrit and wrote in rudimentary Arabic script. While these narratives were often described as ‘fragmented’ compared to her Martian efforts, her ability to describe romantic scenes and landscapes was astounding.
But most impressively, Hélène claimed to make regular journeys to Mars. She painted elaborate Martian landscapes and claimed to speak (and write) the language perfectly. Hélène’s Martian cycle included verbal descriptions, writing and paintings, describing landscapes, inhabitants and experiences. She would describe her ‘flight into space’, arriving at a landscape of disembodied, long-dead inhabitants, “carriages gliding by, with no horses or wheels but emitting sparks”; “of houses with fountains on the roof”; and men and women dressed almost similarly.’To accompany these Martian inhabitants were ‘dog-like creatures with heads that looked like cabbages that not only fetched objects for their masters, but also took dictation.’
However, it is Hélène’s Martian writing which is most interesting.
This language would come to Hélène in a variety of hallucinations, both auditory and visual, and through visions, showing her how to write the alien symbols.
Her Martian language has long been studied in the field of linguistics as a form of a ‘hereditary tendency to glossolalia.’ While Helen’s native language was French, she was well versed in Hungarian, Spanish, Italian and German, with a rudimentary knowledge of Latin, English and Greek. Her Martian language, while looking truly extra-terrestrial, was dissected by Flournoy and Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussureand described as being a language derived from French idiom. In short, Hélène’s Martian was like a French code, with each symbol relating to a French letter, with similar French grammatical rules.
After these French roots were discovered, Hélène then created a second, more complex Martian language, which Flournoy called part of the ‘Ultra-Martian Cycle’, relating to a language from a planet further away than mars. The Society for Psychical Research PSI encyclopaedia explains ‘The Ultra-Martian language was more complex; ultra-Martian inhabitants were more grotesque than those of Mars, which Flournoy interpreted as an unconscious response on the part of Hélène to his scepticism towards her naïve descriptions of the beauty of life on Mars.’
In Flournoy’s final work, he attributes Smith’s past lives and supernatural narratives to being ‘products of a subliminal imagination, their content based on her previous memories and experiences, incubated and creatively combined in the subliminal regions of her mind.’ Smith’s lives were very real and legitimate to her, but little more than her mind’s own creation. Nonetheless, her Martian narratives play a fascinating and important role in the wild history of 19thcentury mediumship and spirit contact.
But Hélène and Flournoy’s relationship did not end with the publication of his study. Rather, it negatively escalated. Upon publication, Hélène was incensed by the depictions of her mediumship and the suggestion of their illegitimacy. This led to a strained battle over royalties, which resulted in Flournoy conceding 50% to Hélène. While she stated that the study caused her great embarrassment and had lasting negative effects, she continued her mediumship and alien tales long afterwards, expanding her extra-terrestrial ‘romances’ to Uranus and the Moon.
As Hélène’s career progressed, she left her alien narratives behind, seeking refuge in her paintings and Christian visions. While she renounced her beliefs in her Martian and Hindu cycles, Marie Antoinette remained. Following the death of her mother, her devotion increased tenfold and she spent much of her time painting Christ and the Virgin Mary. While these were never cited to be past lives, they appeared to provide some therapeutic effort in processing her loss.
Over time, Hélène gave fewer séances and continued her religious devotion. Through the financial support of her American sponsor, she could pursue her spiritual, religious painting and garner a reputation for her skills, particularly within the surrealist movement. Shortly after her death in 1929, a large retrospective of her work was exhibited at the Geneva Art museum, where her strange art was celebrated by art lovers and spiritualists alike. And, despite estrangement from Flournoy, she continued to use the pseudonym he gave her until she died.
where is helens art?
Hi Nick, I read recently that from all her art, only two pieces are currently accounted for. I’ve had little luck in tracking those pieces down but would imagine they might be in the same place as much of Flournoy’s original research?