From India to the Planet Mars: The Life and Times of Helene Smith

A drawing by Helene Smith

Many strange books have been published on the topic of the supernatural, but one of the most remarkable is "From India to the Planet Mars", published in 1899 by Theodore Flournoy, a psychology professor at the University of Geneva. The book examined the claims made by Hélène Smith (born Catherine-Elise Müller), a 19th-century French medium and spiritualist who claimed to be the reincarnation of a Hindu princess and Marie Antoinette, and who also claimed the ability to communicate with Martians.

Throughout her seances, Smith was often visited by a spirit named Leopold. Smith believed this to be a pseudonym for Cagliostro, the alchemist who was madly in love with Marie Antoinette. Through Leopold, Smith came to the realization that she was Antoinette in a former life; the discarnate spirit of Cagliostro, lost in time and space, attached itself to Smith to serve as a sort of "guardian angel" to the object of his unhappy passion.

Hélène Smith was a saleswoman in a store in Geneva when she first began to experience a trance-like state, during which she was able to communicate with the dead. She became a well-known medium in Geneva, and soon attracted the attention of Professor Flournoy, who was interested in researching the phenomenon known as automatic writing-- the alleged psychic ability in which a person produces words on paper while in an altered state of consciousness. Automatic writing was first described by French writer Hippolyte Adolphe Taine in 1878, and was soon a standard act in the repertoire of psychics and clairvoyants all over the world.
What made Hélène Smith remarkable was that, while in a trance, she was able to write in Sanskit, a language of which she claimed to be ignorant. While channeling Marie Antoinette, Smith produced handwriting that was said by many experts to be identical to that of the famed French queen. But her most interesting feat was her ability to communicate with Martians; she often drew pictures of their houses and produced writings of their language.

Flournay was introduced to Hélène Smith by Prof. August Lemaitre of the College of Geneva. This was his first impression:

"Having gladly accepted the invitation of my worthy colleague I found the medium in question, Mlle. Helene Smith, to be a beautiful woman, about 30 years of age, tall, vigorous, of a fresh, healthy complexion, with hair and eyes almost black, of an open and intelligent countenance, which at once invoked sympathy."

Flournay began to attend Smith's seances, where he collected information that was later put into book form and published by Harper Brothers, under the title "From India to the Planet Mars".

Prof. Flournay and his wife

Voyages to Mars

At a seance at the home of Prof. August Lemaitre, Hélène Smith met a widow named Mme. Mirbel, who was mourning the loss of a teenage son, Alexis. The medium believed that Alexis was a spirit she communicated with who called himself Esenale, who was Smith's interpreter of the Martian language. About a month later, another seance was held at the professor's home, at which the widow Mirbel was also present. At this event, Smith perceived in her trance state a great tower of bright light. She felt a tremor which almost caused her heart to stop beating. She sees three enormous globes, one of them very beautiful. "On what am I walking?" she asks. "Mars" is the reply.

She then describes all that she sees-- carriages without wheels emitting sparks as they glide by, houses with foundations on the roof, and inhabitants resembling the people of Earth. They dressed themselves, men and women alike, in large trousers and long blouses drawn tight around the waist. Then she saw a vast assembly hall where a lecture was taking place. The speaker was a professor called Raspail, and there in the first row of the audience was young Alexis Mirbel, who disclosed his manner of death to Smith. Mirbel said he had died because his mother had not properly followed a doctor's prescription while he was ill.

At the next seance, Smith revealed the Martian language for the first time. This is Prof. Flournay's description of the event:

"Presently Helene begins to recite with increasing volubility an incomprehensible jargon the beginning of which is as follows (according to notes taken by M. Lemaitre at the time as accurately as possible)... Mitchma mitchmon mimini tchoualnem mimatchineg masichinof mezavi patelki abresinad navette naven navette mitchichenid naken chinoutoufiche."

After a few moments Hélène snaps at the spirits: "Oh, I have had enough of it! You say such words to me and I will never be able to repeat them." The spirit then invites her into a spacecraft. Destination-- Mars.
While in her trance she performs a series of gestures, expressing the greetings of the Martian people. She slaps her hands and taps her fingers on her nose and lips. Flournay asks Hélène to speak in French. He asks for her name. "Vasimini Meteche," is the reply. In later seances, Esensale/Alexis Mirbel helps translate Martian to French, and Hélène draws sketches of Martian houses, flowers and animals.

Prof. Flournoy subjects the Martian language to a careful analysis. He writes:

"It is necessary at the start to render this justice to the Martian (I continue to designate it by that name for the sake of convenience), namely, that it is indeed a language and not a simple jargon or gibberish of vocal noises produced at the hazard of the moment without any stability... I will add that in speaking fluently and somewhat quickly, as Helene sometimes does in somnalbulism, it has an acoustic quality altogether its own, due to the predominance of certain sounds, and has a peculiar intonation difficult to describe."

The Martian alphabet, by Helene Smith

But Flournoy concludes that the language isn't of another world; he believes it is merely a product, albeit a remarkable product, of Hélène's latent consciousness. He points out many similarities to French, the only language the medium knows. Ultimately, Flournay concludes that the Martian Esensale, as well as her past lives as a Hindu princess and Marie Antoinette, were examples of multiple personalities.

As for the automatic writing, Flournoy also has a logical explanation. He concluded that her trance writings were "romances of the subliminal imagination, derived largely from forgotten sources, for example, books read as a child". He coins this phenomenon "cryptomnesia".

The Legacy of Hélène Smith

While Smith may not have spoke in Martian, her experiences as chronicled by Flournoy inspired pioneering psychologists Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud. In fact, in 1905, Jung published a scientific paper n the topic of cryptomnesia.