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ALL the occultism, alchemy, or hermetism of the middle ages proceeds from the cabala and the Alexandrian version of the Bible, with the addition, perhaps, of certain traditions of magical practice which were very widespread in ancient Egypt and Chaldea.
From the theosophical and philosophical portion of this occultism we have nothing to learn. It is merely a distorted reflection, an extremely corrupt and often unrecognizable repetition of what we have already seen and heard. The mysterious paraphernalia with which it surrounds itself, which fascinates and deludes the beholder at the very outset, is merely an indispensable precaution to conceal from the eyes of the church the forbidden statements, perilous and heretical, of which it is full. The occult iconography, the signs, stars, triangles, pentagrams, and pentacles, were at bottom mnemonics, passwords, puns, or conundrums, which allowed confederates to recognize one another and to exchange or publish truths which meant the constant threat of the stake, but which to judge by the explanations which have been offered us, do not and could not conceal anything that does not today seem perfectly admissible and inoffensive.
Alchemy even, which is still the most interesting department of medieval occultism, is after all no more than a camouflage, a sort of screen, behind which the true initiates used to search for the secret of life. "The great task," says Eliphas Levi, "was not, properly speaking, the secret of the transmutation of metals, which was an accessory result, but the universal arcanum of life, the search for the central point of tranformation where light becomes matter and is condensed into a world which contains in itself the principle of movement and of life. . . . It is the fixation of astral light by a sovereign magic of the will." And this leads us to the odic or odylic phenomena of which we shall speak in a later chapter, and puts us on the track of this fixation.
What is more, in the eyes of the higher initiates, the search for gold was only a symbol, concealing the search for the divine and the divine faculties in man; and it was only the inferior alchemists who took literally the cabalistic instructions of their conjuring-books, wore themselves out in the hope of solving problems, and ruined themselves in order to make experiments which nevertheless resulted in the progress of chemistry and in discoveries which in some respects that science has never yet surpassed.
On the other hand, people are too ready to suppose that the occultism of the middle ages was preeminently diabolic. The truth is that the initiates did not and could not believe in the devil, since they did not accept the Christian revelation as the church presented it to them. "No demons outside of humanity," was one of the fundamental axioms of the higher occultism. "To attribute what we do not understand to the devil," said Van Helmont, "is the result of unlimited idleness." "One must not give the devil the whole credit," protested Paracelsus.
Devils and evil spirits, fallen angels or the souls of the damned, surrounded by eternal flames, will be found crawling only in the dark corners of black magic or witchcraft. The phantasmagoria of nocturnal revels have too often concealed from us the true occultism, which was, above all, though surrounded by the incessant peril of death and encompassed by hostile shadows, a tentative yet passionate search for truth, or at least for a seeming truth, for there is nothing else in this world; a truth which had once shone as a beacon through the darkness, which was possibly still shining elsewhere, but which was apparently lost, so that only its precious but shapeless relics were to be found, mingled with the dense dust of irritating and disheartening falsehoods, while the highest talents were wasted in a thankless process of sifting and selection.
To dismiss the question of infernal spirits: the faithful none the less believed in the existence and intervention of other invisible beings. They were convinced that the world which escapes our senses is far more densely peopled than that which we perceive, and that we are living in the midst of a host of diaphanous yet attentive and active presences, which as a rule affect us without our knowledge, but which we can influence in our turn by a special training of the will. These invisible beings were not inhabitants of hell, since for the initiates of the middle ages, almost as certainly as for the believers in the great religions in the days when initiation was not yet necessary, hell was not a place of torture and malediction but a state of the soul after death. They were either wandering, disembodied spirits, worth very much what they had been worth during their life on earth, or they were the spirits of beings who had not as yet been incarnated. These were known as elementals; they were neutral spirits, indifferent, morally amorphous, devoid of will, doing good or evil according to the will of him who had learned to rule them.
It is incontestable that certain experiments carried out by our spiritualists, notably those in connection with cross-correspondence and posthumous appearances (of which we have almost scientific proof), and certain phenomena of materialization and levitation, compel us to reconsider the plausibility of these theories.
As for the instances of evocation, which often fluctuate between "high" magic and sorcery or black magic, and which in the eyes of the public, occupy, with alchemy and astrology, the three culminating pinnacles of occultism: their solemn paraphernalia, their cabalistic formula; and their impressive ritual excepted, they precisely correspond with the more familiar evocations which are practised daily about our turning-tables, or the humble "ouija" or magic mirrors. They correspond also with the manifestations which were obtained, for example, by the celebrated Eusapia Paladino, and which are at the present time being produced, under the strictest "controls," by Madame Bisson's medium; with this difference, that instead of the human phantom expected by those present at a modern seance, the believers of the middle ages thought to see the devil in person; and the devil who haunted their minds appeared to them as they imagined him.
Is autosuggestion responsible for these manifestations, or collective suggestion, or exudation, or the transference or crystallization of spiritualized matter borrowed from the spectators, with which is intermingled some extraterrestrial and unknown element? If it is impossible to distinguish such an element when we are dealing with facts which occur before our eyes, it would be all the more audacious to form a decision in the case of phenomena which occurred some hundreds of years ago and are known to us only through a more or less partial narrative.
Lastly, alchemy and astrology, the two remaining pinnacles of occultism, were, in the occultism of the middle ages, second-rate sciences which, from the point of view of the Great Secret, do not offer any novel element, their Greek, Hebrew, and Arab origin being connected with Egypt and Chaldea only by means of apocryphal and comparatively recent writings. Pierre Berthelot, in his work on Les Origines de l'Allchimie, has given us a masterly survey of the alchemist's science. He has exhausted the subject, or at least the chemical aspect of it; but his work might perhaps be more complete from the point of view of hyperchemistry or metachemistry — or of psychochemistry, which would seem to be no less important. It is likewise greatly to be desired that some great astronomer-philosopher should give us, in a work upon astrology, the pendant of this admirable volume; but hitherto the data have been so scanty that the undertaking would hardly seem to be possible. As much might be done for hermetic medicine, which, for that matter, is connected with alchemy and astrology.
But it is possible that alchemy and astrology, which after all are merely transcendental chemistry and astronomy (professing to transcend matter and the stars in order to arrive at those spiritual and eternal principles which are the essence of the one and control the others), would have no surprises or revelations in store for us if we could go back directly to their Hindu, Egyptian, and Chaldean origins; which has not as yet been practicable, for we have nothing to serve as comparison but the famous Leyden Papyrus, which is merely the memorandum-book of an Egyptian goldsmith, containing formulæ for making alloys, gilding metals, dyeing stuffs purple, and imitating or adulterating gold and silver.
Among the medieval occultists, almost all of whom were alchemists, we shall confine ourselves to recalling the names of Raymond Lully (thirteenth century), doctor illuminatus and author of the Ars Magna, to-day almost unreadable; Nicolas Flamel (fifteenth century), who according to Berthelot is merely a charlatan pure and simple; Reuchlin; Weigel, Boehme's teacher; Bernardo of Treviso; Basil Valentin, whose special subject of investigation was antimony; the two Isaacs, father and son; Trithemius, whom Eliphas Levi calls "the greatest dogmatic magician of the middle ages," although his famous cryptographical works — his Polygraphia or his Steganographia — consist of a rather puerile playing upon words and letters; and his pupil Cornelius Agrippa, author of De Occulta Philosophia, who simply recapitulates the theories of the Alexandrian school and, in Eliphas Levi's words, is no more than "an audacious profaner, fortunately extremely superficial in his writings." We have still to mention Guillaume Postel, a sixteenth century occultist, who was acquainted with Greek, Hebrew, and Arabic, was a great traveler, and brought back to Europe some important Oriental manuscripts; among others the works of Aboul-Feda, the Arab historian of the thirteenth century. "The beloved and upright Guillaume Postel," writes Eliphas Levi, in a letter to Baron Spedalieri, "our father in the Sacred Science, since we owe to him our knowledge of the 'Sepher Yerizah' and the 'Zohar,' would have been the greatest initiate of his century had not ascetic mysticism and enforced celibacy filled his brain with the heady fumes of enthusiasm which sometimes caused his lofty intellect to wander"; a remark, be it said in passing, which might be applied to other hermetists of other times and nations.
After mention of Heinrich Khunrath, Oswald Crollins, etc., we come to the seventeenth century, the earlier years of which were the great period of alchemy, which began to approximate to science properly so called. Gastric juice was discovered by Van Helmont, sulphate of soda and the heavy oils of tar by Glauber, who also had a notion of chlorine, while Kunckel discovered phosphorus.
Were I writing a general history of occultism, instead of merely inquiring what new things we may learn from the last of the adepts, whether they were conscious or not of the occult wisdom whose trial we have followed through the ages, I should have been obliged to linger for a moment over the mysterious Templars, who adopted in part the Jewish traditions and the narratives of the "Talmud," and were followed by the Rosicrucians. I ought also to single out and consider at rather greater length two fantastic and enigmatical figures who dominate and summarize all the occultism of the middle ages; namely, Paracelsus and Jacob Boehme. But when we consider them closely we discover that whatever their pretensions, they did not deduce from an unknown source the revelations which, they published and which so perturbed their contemporaries.
Philippus Aureolus Theophrastus Bombastes Von Hohenheim, known as Paracelsus (an approximate translation of Hohenheim), was born in Switzerland in 1493 and died in Salzburg in 1541. He bears the burden of an unjust legend which represents him as a drunkard, a debauchee, a charlatan, and a lunatic. He certainly had many faults, and he seems at times to have been somewhat unbalanced; none the less he remains one of the most extraordinary persons mentioned in history. He was a Neoplatonist and consequently was not ignorant of the Alexandrian writings accessible to the hermetics of his time; but it is probable that during his travels in Turkey and Egypt he was able to obtain a more direct knowledge of certain Asiatic traditions relating to the etheric or astral body upon which he based the whole of his medical theories. He taught, in fact, in accordance with the ancient Hindu treatises which have since then been brought to light by the theosophists, that our maladies are caused not by the physical body but by the etheric or astral body, which corresponds pretty closely with what to-day is termed the subconsciousness, and, consequently that it was before all necessary to act upon this subconsciousness.
Certain it is that many facts in many circircumstances tend to confirm this theory, and it may be that the therapeutics of to-morrow will lead us in this direction. According to Paracelsus, even plants have an etheric body, and medicaments act not in virtue of their chemical properties, but in virtue of their astral properties; an hypothesis which would seem to be corroborated by the comparatively recent discovery of the "od," which we shall consider in a later chapter.
His conceptions relating to the existence of a universal vital fluid, the Akahsa of the Hindus, which he called the Alkahest, and of the astral light of the cabalists, are also among those to which our modern ideas of the preponderant functions of the ether are calling our attention. It is obvious, on the other hand, that he often exceeds all bounds, as when he carries to altogether excessive lengths a childish systematization of purely apparent or verbal concordances between certain portions of the human body and those of medicinal plants; while his assertions on the subject of the Archai, a species of special or individual jinnee placed in charge of the functions of the various organs, and the fantastic chalatanry of his homunculus are equally indefensible. But these errors were inherent in the science of his day and are possibly not much more ridiculous than our own. When all is said, there remains the memory of a truly amazing pioneer and a prodigious visionary.
As for Jacob Boehme, the famous cobbler of Goerlitz, his case would be miraculous and absolutely inexplicable if he had really been the illiterate that some have called him. But this legend must decidedly be abandoned. Boehme had studied the German theosophists, notably Paracelsus, and was perfectly familiar with the Neoplatonists, whose doctrines, indeed, he reproduced, recasting them to some extent and wrapping them up in a more obscure phraseology, which none the less was often unexpected and extremely impressive; and mingling them with the elements of the cabala and a certain amount of mystical mathematics and of alchemy. I refer those who may be interested in this strange and assuredly brilliant though very unequal spirit — for his work is full of unreadable rubbish — to an essay which Emile Boutroux has devoted to him: Le Philosophe Alllemand Jacob Boehme. They could have no better guide.