Masonic System of Alchemical Degrees, the Hermetic Elements


IN THE ORIENTAL ORDER OF MEMPHIS there is no question that the Abbe Pernety and Baron Tschoudy were alchemists of their period, and more especially as regards the first, he deserves to be regarded as a most serious student of the art. If, therefore, the specific knowledge which they brought to the composition of Hermetic Rituals is so slender in result that a lover of the art might be well cautioned to avoid the paths which they open, in the ratio of probability, there is less still to be expected (a) from the fortuitous collection of detached Grades into a classified list ; (b) from their incorporation after this manner into a Rite ; or (c) from the compilation of Hermetic Rituals by persons who have exhibited otherwise no titles to recognition as proficient in the particular subject. The process of examination for the discovery of treasures in such inchoate heaps is the rummaging of Pandora’s box with a very slender chance of discovering truth, or one of its colorable substitutes, at the bottom.

THE ORDER OF MEMPHIS has a tolerably entangled history which it would serve very little purpose to disentangle in this place. It was first heard of in Paris during the course of 1838, though there is a legend that it was established at Montauban in 1814. The point does not signify. In either case it had the glory of 95 Degrees, its stars of the first magnitude being of wide knowledge and repute in other systems. They were classified into three series, reclassified in 1849, and again in or about 1862, while some four years later they were reduced to 33 under the ANTIENT AND PRIMITIVE RITE OF MASONRY. It has been said further, that they have been re-edited of recent years for the purpose of expunging the Christian elements an appeal, I suppose, to the Jew and the apostles of something called Theism. As a fact, I believe that the charge is without foundation, since the original compilers of the Rite were really those who excluded the vital Christian elements from the Grades which they borrowed, while into those which they seem to have invented the elements did not enter. The skeleton which remains of a Grade like that of Rose-Croix is, in any case, rather weird as a spectacular effect, but “much too naked to be shamed.” In the present connection, however, it is again scarcely my concern.

Through all its variations a Hermetic element has been preserved to the Order, and is represented in the ANTIENT AND PRIMITIVE RITE by a Senate of Hermetic Philosophers. Its five Grades are immediately reducible by four, which are neither Hermetic in the wider nor alchemical in the narrower sense. The Degree which remains is Knight Hermetic Philosopher and the elements of its instruction are as follows : (a) The planetary qualities so-called of exploded occultism and science ; (b) the symbolism of numbers, referred to Pythagoras ; (c) that of the Hermetic but not apparently the Fylfot Cross ; (d) alchemical notions concerning the four elements ; (e) a description of Alchemy as a branch of learning cultivated by the Egyptian priests ; (/*) the reduction by Moses of the golden calf to powder, considered as an example of their proficiency in the art, the thesis being, I infer, that he was skilled in all their science ; (g) a so-called lecture embodying certain excerpts from Baron Tschoudy’s Hermetic Catechism, which I have dealt with in the previous section.

These matters may be described as the first part of the Hidden Mysteries of Nature and Science, as understood by the genius of the Grade. The second may perhaps be held to include its grand principles as follows : (a) Fixity and regularity have always existed in the universe ; (k) matter has a limit in respect of weight and volume but not in respect of immensity ; (c) a new world is or is at least liable to be created every instant ; (d) action is necessary before a result can follow. These things being certified, the final discourse of the Grade offers a legendary account of the origin of pardon and repentance. This is a result which does not seem to follow from the points of the previous instruction.

It has taken seventeen Grades of Masonry to reach this height of illumination; it would be easy to say that comment is needless, if I were content with stereotyped phrases: it is needed badly enough, but it would not confess to the reasonable limits of space. The Rituals of the ANTIENT AND PRIMITIVE RITE are a portly collection in themselves, but as we have seen they are only a third of the treasures which the ORDER OF MEMPHIS offered to its original disciples. It gathered them from all quarters, as we have also seen ; it edited those which were good and those which made for glory more is the pity thereof ; but even after such a process something remained. Then there were the things which never in the world before had come within the Masonic horizon choses inouies indeed. Between the one and the other I know not whether to be the more sorry for a few fools who followed such masters in the high craft of ritual, or for the masters themselves patriarchs of Isis, pontiffs of the Mystic City et hoc genus omne.

To the Chapters, Senates and Councils of the ANTIENT AND PRIMITIVE RITE there are certain lectures attached in the form of catechisms, and in one of them there is a further and indeed exhaustive levy on the Hermetic Catechism of Baron Tschoudy, though he also has had the dubious advantage of an upside-down editing. When this comes to an end there is an in garnering from Eliphas Levi which is rather curious on the question of date, and shews the intervention of another and later hand. It is also said that when the alchemists speak of a Brazen Sea, in which the Sun and Moon must be washed, the reference is really to the cleansing waters of spiritual grace, which does not soil the hands but purifies all leprous metals. The Alchemy of physics is one thing, and the mystic side of the art is another and very different; but here the images of both are confounded inextricably. It is further said that the Spouse of the Chemical Marriage and the six virgins are the seven metals, but they are also the seven virtues. Which among the latter responds to the Bridegroom or the Christ-Spirit does not appear, but as the contribution in this case is levied on the parable of the wise virgins, it seems permissible to point out that the analogy does not subsist.

What follows next in the lecture may be a quotation from Marconis, one of the founders of the Rite. “When the Sun shall have visited his twelve houses, typified by the twelve chambers of a Hermetic philosopher, and has found you attentive to receive him, matter will no longer have power over you; you will be no longer a dweller on earth, but after a certain period will give back to earth a body, which belongs thereto, so as to take up an altogether spiritual body.” Therefore “with apologies to logic” the body must be revivified and born again from its ashes, which must be effected by the vegetation of the Tree of Life, symbolized by the Golden Branch of Eleusis and the sprig of myrtle. I may assure my readers that this is not spiritual Alchemy, either in the substance or the shadow; it is rather the blundering of a pretender who does not know the language that he is attempting to use. Let us see, however, the testimony in conclusion concerning the Hermetic quest as it is understood by these records. It is the discovery of the principle of life “shut up in the profundity of matter and known by the name of alkahest which has the generative virtue of producing the triangular cubic stone, the white stone of the Apocalypse.” I do not know who is responsible for this definition, but he has not heard the voice of Christian Rosy Cross speaking from the tomb of the universe.

The ANTIENT AND PRIMITIVE RITE is the last evolution in reduction of a consummate folly. It is not undeserving of the reprobation which it has received everywhere. It is Memphis and all that it meant by the wisdom of an Oriental Order in a comparative nutshell of thirty-three Degrees, and so numbered to parade its piracies from the ANCIENT AND ACCEPTED SCOTTISH RITE. I am far from acknowledging the titles of this Rite, considered as a collection; but whatever its antecedents, and whatever the logic of its sequence, it has been long in possession of its particular field ; it has at least the squatter’s right, and the rival claims are imposture. If this may appear in view of any possible interests though I think that these are few and mostly negligible somewhat too hardly put, then the ANTIENT AND PRIMITIVE RITE is at least like a competitive bishop allocated, under another obedience, to a see which is in occupation already by the delegate of a different Rite.

VII LES ARCHIVES MITHO-HERMTIQUES WE owe as much to our enemies occasionally as we owe to some of our friends ; and amidst their fantasies, their wrested facts, their tortuosities of construction and their determined ill-will, a few trifles are to be placed to the credit of writers like Abbe Barruel. Even when they set us upon a wrong track to do which is their particular office we may find something in the course of its measurement which proves serviceable to us unexpectedly. I know of no more interesting books on their particular thesis than the Proofs of a Conspiracy and Memoirs Illustrating the History of Jacobinism^ unless indeed it be Le Tombeau de “Jacques de Molai^ which was afterwards recanted by its author, Cadet de Gassicourt. By the first of this triad which is the work of Professor Robison I was put upon the track of a little book-collecting which I followed for several years without reaching a term. He had held that Des Erreurs et de la Verite^ by L. C. de Saint-Martin, was a kind of inspired Talmud for the High Grade Lodges and Chapters at its period in France. From his forms of expression and reiteration it might be concluded that ” water was all Bible-lore,” but that this Mishna was ” strong wine ” and prized above ” all the prophets.” The suggestion is decorative exaggeration, but I knew quite independently that it had a solid heart of truth. The text in question created a great impression, especially at Lyons, and much more especially still at the Masonic centre therein, the Loge de Eienfaisance^ of which we have heard already in connection with the Lyons Convention and that of Wilhelmsbad. There was no more important High-Grade Lodge in France, unless it was that of the Philalethes at Paris. Saint- Martin was one of its members, and about his great personal influence I have no need to speak. On its own merits and the great consideration of its author, the book was sure of success among those to whom it appealed.                                                         I was therefore prepared to take, with reasonable reserve, the intimations of Robison when he became eloquent and even alluring in his account of another text under the title of Archives Mitho- Hermetiques, and I went in quest of this work. That quest bade fair to be extended over the third part of the earth and sea if not of the stars of heaven on account of its utter rarity. When outwearied a copy was at last found in the Bibliotfoque Nationale, and I obtained a transcript in full. I think it likely that I am the sole person who at this day is acquained with the text in England.

Having thus recited my own story concerning it, in contrariety to all my precedents, I will speak of Professor Robison’s testimony in respect of its content and position. He affirms (a) that it is considered an historical and dogmatical account of the procedure and system of the Lodge which I have named at Lyons : he misquotes the title of the book, and he is in error as to that of the Lodge at the date in question, but these things are details ; (b) that the work is a strange admixture of mysticism, theosophy, real science and freethinking in religious and political matters ; (c) that it is the annals of the proceedings of the Lodge, but at the same time is the work of one hand. It is obvious that on none of these considerations, if taken literally, would it call for any notice in my pages, but long before it came into my hands I was prepared to find that most of the statements were not to be taken literally an inference fully confirmed at length by the event of its discovery.

Leaving now my dubious authority, with gratitude for an introduction to the text, it is obvious that if, in conformity with the title, it is really an Hermetic work, and certainly or possibly Masonic, then it has full title to our concern. There is nothing to bear out the by my personal adventures and researches, connection established with the Lodge of Lyons, but I can see how this error arose. Robison, being acquainted with the writings of Saint- Martin, could not fail to see that Des Erreurs et de la Verite had influenced deeply the anonymous author of Archives Mitho-Hermetiques^ who quotes the alleged Talmud with marked approbation. Robison must also have known the connection of Saint-Martin with Lyons, and he effected an imaginary marriage. There are no Masonic references in the text whatever, but it is dedicated to Savalette de Langes, founder of the Lodge or RITE OF PHILALETHES at Paris, and the rest was inference. That Lodge was tinctured deeply with Hermeticism ; de Langes was not especially noted outside Masonic circles though he was a well-placed man and from the terms of the dedication I think it highly probable that the author belonged not only to the fraternity itself but to the particular centre. It is needless to say that it is not the annals of the proceedings of any Lodge, but it is a presentation of exactly the kind of doctrine and hypothesis with which the Philalethes were permeated. That Lodge is said to have been based on the principles of Martinism, which was not, however, Hermetic, while the statement is otherwise untrue ; it counted among its members Court de Gebelin, Cazotte and the occult literati of Paris as we have seen indeed already. It was disposed to theosophy and what Robison would have called mysticism; I am quite certain that the Archives must have appealed widely to its members. There is no printed book more likely to have emanated unofficially from that quarter. It may thus be taken as, in high probability, representing a phase of Hermetic Masonry at its period. It was the direction, in other words, in which such dreams were turning.

In approaching the text itself we shall do well to put aside the fraudulent charge brought against it by Robison in respect of freethinking on questions of religion and politics. It is a treatise on the Universal Medicine, and though, as such, it is completely unfinished for it was published in parts, and the parts came to an end abruptly there is no mistake possible as to the principles from which it depends. It separates Hermetic philosophy from all chemical manipulation, as from that which was never its intention ; and in the light of such philosophy it proceeds to consider (a) the first estate of man, (b) the circumstances of his Fall, and (c) the means of his rehabilitation by the mediation of that Medicine, ” the mystery of which has been put on record by many hundreds of Masters who are in perfect agreement with one another.” The Divine Pymander of Hermes is the root-matter of the instruction concerning the nobility of our original nature, the concupiscence by which it was brought down and the means of its rehabilitation. I do not think that I am warranted in laying out the scheme of the subject, and will therefore say only that the primordial envelope of the soul was a most pure quintessence of the elements ; that its sustenance in this state is symbolized by the fruits of the Tree of Life ; that man sought another food, symbolized by the Tree of Knowledge ; that he thus forfeited his birthright, entered into degradation and exchanged Incorruptibility for death. It is obvious that this is the old story, and I summarize it only because the hypothesis of the Archives is that a Medicine exists and it is also the quintessence of the elements by which man can be restored to his primitive integrity and the work of the Fall undone.

The question that arises is whether this Medicine, in the mind of the writer, is to be understood physically or mystically. Is the quintessence the result of a laboratory process, and therefore contained in a vial, or is it the operation of the Christ-spirit within? If it be the former, it departs altogether from the Divine Pymander^ which it claims to illustrate and expound ; if it be the latter, it offers the same answer to the recurring problems of our lapsed estate that High-Grade Masonry offers to those of the Craft. The answer is I. N.R.I., and if this be interpreted as Igne Natura renovatur integra^ we know that the fire referred to is a Divine Fire, and the correlative is Jesus Nazareus [est] Rex Judteorum, Jewry being the four parts of the human personality, corresponding to the four elements, and the archetypal Jesus being the eternal quintessence. There is a school of symbolism which allocates the four elements to the four letters of the Sacred Name of Jehovah mm and here again the quintessence is that letter Shin, of which we have heard previously, which intervenes in the centre of the Tetrad, as the quintessence works upon the natural elements, and the result is mttfiT or Jesus. If it be said that by the Hermetic hypothesis the quintessence is, strictly speaking, the four elements in a state of occult correlation, the analogy remains on the understanding that Jesus Nazareus is verbum caro factum ” the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.”

The text, however, is unfinished, as we have seen, and the intention of the writer does not issue clearly. Some of his extensive citations are intelligible only on the simple material side, but when he speaks on his own warrants the intimations are of a different kind. For him the Hermetic Philosophy seems to be concerned with an inward process; the work is a work of self-knowledge, in the interior and essential nature, and its term is to restore a Divine Nature within us. This restoration is rebirth in the perfect similitude of the Eternal Word. At the same time, the memorial of these things is not in the proper sense of the expression a mystic text, for in his purest and most primitive state it does not contemplate the spirit of man in Divine Union but rather in the condition of the Earthly Paradise. Had he remained among the incorruptible and virginal elements of that prototypical Garden, he would have been animated through eternity that is to say, in unending separation, in Eden truly but not in the Beatific Vision, and not in the hypostatic oneness.

I do not therefore find in this curious text the presence of those seals and marks by which we recognize the Secret Tradition, but there are things on its skirts and fringes if the real elements are wanting. Some allowance must also be made for the conventional cryptic style which is inseparable from alchemical writings, as well as for a text that is unfinished. The part that is most to our purpose occurs towards the end, and may be described as a fuller statement concerning the origin of the soul, its emanation from the Divine Principle and the infinite capacities which it possesses by virtue of that origin. The thesis of course is that its powers have been arrested by the traditional fall of man as a consequence of which its environment is matter in corruption, but there is a way of escape open described as a reactionary movement on and within itself, by which it can be restored to primitive integrity. Though not after an adequate manner, because it is somewhat hindered by the crude language of its place and period, there is no question that here there is some attempt to give expression to traditional mystic doctrine, and the terms of the intimation suggest that, had the experiment of the Archives been carried to its proper term, the process of reaction would have been set forth more fully under the veils of the Universal Medicine, if not indeed more clearly. As it is, and confessedly vague as they are, indications are not wanting regarding the way of the research as a path in the untrodden ground of consciousness, the possibility of entering which distinguished in the mind of the writer the state of man from that of the animal world. The searcher after wisdom is recommended to strip from himself those vestures by which he has been clothed in his corruption, and to recall within him that internal light apart from which he is far from the self-knowing state. It is therefore difficult to interpret his allusions to a Universal Medicine except as an intimation of that renewed life which follows from consciousness in the spirit, while as to his understanding of the spirit there is still less question. That which he regards as the Divine in the universe and the Divine behind the universe is that which is all in all and abides at the centre of all. Man has come forth therefrom but after such a manner that he remains essentially therein, not simply as some part or emanation of that which was once the all, because in manifestation itself it still remains the all, the end as well as the beginning. The analogy is drawn from that mysticism concerning numbers which regards the unity as their principle and all numeration as its content.

This doctrine is elaborated on the basis of the Trinity in man and its correspondence with the Divine Trinity. It assumes in such manner the more especial phases of Christian mysticism, though the implied ideas have suffered a certain change and indicate a line of development which approximates at one side towards Neoplatonic philosophy and on the other towards the peculiar theology by which the Zohar is characterised in respect of this same teaching. The eternal and Divine unity is the principle of all things ; in the wisdom thereof lie all the treasures of the Father ; eternal understanding is engendered within its own essence as the Son, by a first operation of Divinity, without departure from unity. The Third Person is the Love relative to the Father and the Son, still in the bosom of Divinity, and understood as the term reached by the action of Divine Will. Thus the Father engenders the Son eternally; the Son is the essential image of the Father ; and the Holy Spirit is the eternal agent which operates between them. In respect of manifestation, the Father is essence of all things, the Son is their essential form ; and the Spirit is the activity of all, which operates all in all. These are the three which give testimony in heaven, but there are three also that bear their witness on earth, in the likeness of that which is above, and these three are one in the nature of man. The likeness is resident, however, in his higher principles and not in the corrupted and sensual form by which we are here and now manifested. It is a likeness which has to be recovered and the path of such recovery is that which the writer understands by the mystery of resurrection.

This is the substance of the thesis in that part with which we are chiefly concerned.

It has served, I think, a purpose to make known for the first time to English readers a Hermetic commentary which is not without interest after its own kind. It signifies, as I have said, the preoccupations of Hermetic Masons at that period in France; it is one of a family, and has the marks of likeness to its kinsfolk.

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