Secret Societies of All Ages - Charles Heckethorn




Book VIII. Mystics

"There is great abundance of chaff and straw to the grain, bat the grain is good, and as we do not eat either the chaff or straw, if we can avoid it, nor even the raw grain, but thrash and winnow it, and grind it and bake it, we find it, after undergoing this process, not only very palatable, but a special dainty of its kind. But the husk is an unsurmountable obstacle to those learned and educated gentlemen who judge of books entirely by the style and grammar, and who eat grain as it grows, like the cattle."
— Rev. J. Smith.



I. Alchemists

"In our day men are only too much disposed to regard the views of the disciples and followers of the Arabian school, and of the late alchemists, respecting transmutation of metals, as a mere hallucination of the human mind, and, strangely enough, to lament it. But the idea of the variable and changeable corresponds with universal experience, and always precedes that of the unchangeable."
—Liebig.

The alchemist he had his gorgeous vision

Of boundless wealth and everlasting youth;

He strove untiringly, with firm decision,

To turn his fancies into glorious truth

Undaunted by the rabble's loud derision,

Condemning without reason, without ruth.

And though he never found the pearl he sought,

Yet many a secret gem to light he brought.

238. Astrology perhaps Secret Heresy.—The mystic astronomy of ancient nations produced judicial astrology, which, considered from this point of view, will appear less absurd. It was the principal study of the Middle Ages; and Rome was so violently opposed to it because, perhaps, it was not only heresy, but a wide-spread reaction against the Church of Rome. It was chiefly cultivated by the Jews, and protected by princes opposed to the papal supremacy. The Church was not satisfied with burning the books, but burned the writers; and the poor astrologers, who spent their lives in the contemplation of the heavens, mostly perished at the stake.

239. Process by which Astrology degenerated.—As it often happens that the latest disciples attach themselves to the letter, understanding literally what in the first instance was only a fiction, taking the mask for a real face, so we may suppose astrology to have degenerated and become false and puerile. Hermes, the legislator of Egypt, who was revealed in the Samothracian mysteries, and often represented with a ram by his side—a constellation initiating the new course of the equinoctial sun, the conqueror of darkness—was revived in astrological practice; and a great number of astrological works, the writings of Christian Gnostics and Neo-Platonists, were attributed to him, and he was considered the father of the art from him called hermetic, and embracing astrology and alchemy, the rudimentary efforts of two sciences, which at first overawed ignorance by imposture, but, after labouring for centuries in the dark, conquered for themselves glorious thrones in human knowledge.

240. Scientific Value of Alchemy.—Though Alchemy is no longer believed in as a true science, in spite of the prophecy of Dr. Girtanner, of Gottingen, that in the nineteenth century the transmutation of metals will be generally known and practised, it will never lose its power of awakening curiosity and seducing the imagination. The aspect of the marvellous which its doctrines assume, the strange renown attaching to the memory of the adepts, and the mixture of reality and illusion, of truths and chimeras which it presents, will always exercise a powerful fascination upon many minds. And we ought also to remember that every delusion that has had a wide and enduring influence must have been founded, not on falsehood, but on misapprehended truth. This aphorism is especially applicable to Alchemy, which, in its origin, and even in its name, is identical with chemistry, the syllable al being merely the definite article of the Arabs. The researches of the Alchemists for the discovery of the means by which transmutation might be effected were naturally suggested by the simplest experiments in metallurgy and the amalgamation of metals; it is very probable that the first man who made brass thought that he had produced imperfect gold.

241. The Tincture.—The transmutation of the base metal was to be effected by means of the transmuting tincture, which, however, was never found. But it exists for all that; it is the power that turns a green stalk into a golden ear of corn, that fills the sour unripe apple with sweetness and aroma, that has turned the lump of charcoal into a diamond. All these are natural processes, which, being allowed to go on, produce the above results. Now, all base metals may be said to be imperfect metals, whose progress towards perfection has been arrested, the active power of the tincture being shut up in them in the first property of nature (II). If a man could take hold of the tincture universally diffused in nature, and by its help assist the imprisoned tincture in the metal to stir and become active, then the transmutation into gold, or rather the manifestation (11) of the hidden life, could be effected. But this power or tincture is so subtle that it cannot possibly be apprehended; yet the Alchemists did not seek the non-existing, but only the unattainable.

24. Aims of Alchemy.—The three great ends pursued by Alcbymy were the transmutation of base metals into gold by means of the philosopher's stone; the discovery of the: panacea, or universal medicine, the elixir of life; and the universal solvent, which, being applied to any seed, should, increase its fecundity. All these three objects are attainable by means of the tincture—a vital force, whose body is electricity, by which the two latter aims have to some extent been reached, for electricity will both cure disease and promote the growth of plants. Alchemy was then in the beginning the search after means to raise matter up to its first state, whence it was supposed to have fallen. Gold was considered, as to matter, what the ether of the eighth heaven was as to souls; and the seven metals, each called by the name of one of the seven planets, the knowledge of the seven properties really implied being lost—the Sun, gold; Moon, silver; Saturn, lead; Venus, tin; Mercury, iron; Mars, mixed metal; Jupiter, copper; formed the ascending scale of purification, corresponding with the trials of the seven caverns or steps. Alchemy was thus either a bodily initiation, or an initiation into the mysteries, a spiritual Alchemy; the one formed a veil of the other, wherefore it often happened that in workshops where the vulgar thought the adepts occupied with handicraft operations, and nothing sought but the metals of the golden age, in reality, no other philosopher's stone was searched for than the cubical stone of the temple of philosophy; in fine, nothing was purified but the passions, men, and not metals, being passed through the crucible. Bohme, the greatest of mystics, has written largely on the perfect analogy between the philosophical work and spiritual regeneration.

243. History of Alchemy.—Alchemy flourished in Egypt at a very early age, and Solomon was said to have practised it. Its golden age began with the conquest of the Arabs in Asia and Africa, about the time of the destruction of the Alexandrian Library. The Saracens, credulous, and intimate with the fables of talismans and celestial influences, eagerly admitted the wonders of Alchemy. In the splendid courts of Almansor and Haroun al Raschid, the professors of the hermetic art found patronage, disciples, and emolument. Nevertheless, from the above period until the eleventh century the only alchemist of note is the Arabian Geber, whose proper name was Abu Mussah Djafar al Sofi. His attempts to transmute the base metals into gold led him to severed discoveries in chemistry and medicine. He was also a famous astronomer, but—sic transit gloria mundi!—he has descended to our times as the founder of that jargon known by the name of gibberish! The Crusaders brought the art to Europe; and about the thirteenth century Albertus Magnus, Roger Bacon, and Raymond Lully appeared as its revivers. Edward III. engaged John le Rouse and Master William de Dalby, alchemists, to make experiments before him; and Henry VI. of England encouraged lords, nobles, doctors, professors, and priests to pursue the search after the philosopher's stone; especially the priests, who, says the king—(ironically?)—having the power to convert bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ, may well convert an impure into a perfect metal. The next man of note that pretended to the possession of the lapis philosophorum was Paracelsus, whose proper name was Philip Aureolus Theophrastus Paracelsus Bombastus, of Hohenheim, and whom his followers called "Prince of Physicians, Philosopher of Fire, the Trismegistus of Switzerland, Reformer of Alchemistical Philosophy, Nature's faithful Secretary, Master of the Elixir of Life and Philosopher's Stone, Great Monarch of Chymical Secrets." He introduced the term alcahest (probably a corruption of the German words "all geist," "all spirit"), to express the universal solvent. The Rosicrucians, of whom Dr. Dee was the herald, next laid claim to alchemistical secrets, and were, in fact, the descendants of the Alchemists; and it is for this reason chiefly that these latter have been introduced into this work, though they cannot strictly be said to have formed a secret society.

244. Still, Alchemists formed Secret Societies.—Still, in the dedication to the Emperor Rudolph II., prefixed to the work entitled Thesaurinella Chymica-aurea tripartita, we read: "Given in the Imperial City of Hagenau, in the year 1607 of our salvation, and in the reign of the true governor of Olympus, Angelus Hagith, anno cxcvii." The author calls himself Benedictus Figulus. The dedication further mentions a Count Bernhard, evidently one of the heads of the order, as having been introduced to a society of Alchemists, numbering fourteen or fifteen members, in Italy. Further, Paracelsus is named as the monarcha of this order; that is, the monarch, a local head, subject to the governor of Olympus, the chief of the Italian society. The author also, beside the usual chronology, gives a separate sectarian date; if we deduct cxcvii. (197) from 1607, we obtain the date 1410 as that of the foundation of the society. Fignlus says it was merged in the Rosicrucian order about the year 1607. Whether it was the same as that mentioned by Raymond Lully in his "Theatrum Chymicum," whose chief was called Rex Physicorum, and which existed before 1400, is uncertain.

245. Decay of Alchemy.—Alchemy lost all credit in this country by the failure, and consequent suicide, of Dr. James Price, a member of the Royal Society, to produce gold, according to promise, the experiments to be performed in the presence of the Society. This occurred in 1783. But in 1796 rumours spread throughout Germany of the existence of a great union of adepts, under the name of the Hermetic Society, which, however, consisted really of two members only, the well-known Karl Arnold Kortum, the author of the Johsiade, and one Bahrens, though there were many "honorary" members. The public, seeing no results, though the "Society" promised much, at last took no further notice of the Hermetics, and the wars, which soon after devastated Europe, caused Alchemy to be forgotten; though up to the year 1812 the higher society of Carlsruhe amused itself, in secret cliques, with playing at the transmutation of metals. The last of the English Alchemists seems to have been a gentleman of the name of Kellerman, who as lately as 1828 was living at Lilley, a village between Luton and Hitchin. There are, no doubt, at the present moment men engaged in the search after the philosopher's stone; we patiently wait for their discoveries.

246. Specimen of Alchemistic Language.—After Paracelsus, the Alchemists divided into two classes: those that pursued useful studies, and those that took up the visionary fantastical side of Alchemy, writing books of mystical trash, which they fathered on Hermes, Aristotle, Albertus Magnus, and others. Their language is now unintelligible. One brief specimen may suffice. The power of transmutation, ealled the Green Lion, was to be obtained in the following manner:—

"In the Green Lion's bed the sun and moon are born; they are married and beget a king; the king feeds on the lion's blood, which is the king's father and mother, who are at the same time his brother and sister. I fear I betray the secret, which I promised my master to conceal in dark speech from every one who does not know how to rule the philosopher's fire."

Our ancestors must have had a great talent for finding out enigmas if they were able to elicit a meaning from these mysterious directions; still, the language was understood by the adepts, and was only intended for them. Many statements of mathematical formulae must always appear pure gibberish to the uninitiated into the higher science of numbers; still, these statements enunciate truths well understood by the mathematician. Thus, to give but one instance, when Hermes Trismegistus, in one of the treatises attributed to him, directs the adept to catch the flying bird and to drown it, so that it fly no more, the fixation of quicksilver by a combination with gold is meant.

247. Personal Fate of the Alchemists.—The Alchemists, though chemistry is greatly indebted to them, and in their researches they stumbled on many a valuable discovery, as a rule led but sad and chequered lives, and most of them died in the utmost poverty, if no worse fate befell them. Thus one of the most famous Alchemists, Bragadino, who lived in the last quarter of the sixteenth century, who obtained large sums of money for his pretended secret from the Emperor of Germany, the Doge of Venice, and other potentates, who boasted that Satan was his slave—two ferocious black dogs that always accompanied him being demons—was at last hanged at Munich, the cheat with which he performed the pretended transmutation having been discovered. The two dogs were shot under the gallows. But even the honest Alchemists were doomed—

"To lose good days that might be better spent,

To waste long nights in pensive discontent;

To speed to-day, to be put back to-morrow,

To feed on hope, to pine with fear and sorrow;

To fret their souls with crosses and with cares,

To eat their hearts through comfortless despairs.

Unhappy wights, born to disastrous end,

That do their lives in tedious tendance spend!"