Masonic Systems of Alchemical Degrees


THE travelling seeker, the travelling neophyte and the travelling adept went out in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries like the knight-errant of earlier times, they seeking the high adventure of wisdom as those others the adventures of chivalry. Such offices, moreover, had not reached their term till the French Revolution abrogated the old order entirely in Europe ; they assumed, however, the veil of Masonry.

Some of the fantastic implicits of the High- Grade movement in the eighteenth century afford matter for very curious reflection, and few are more fruitful than those which depend from the integration of Alchemy in the general scheme of the Rites. As appears by the last section, I have looked about almost in vain for traces of the mystical work, and for evidences of the kind of adeptship which is connected with the assumption of success in the physical work of transmutation. If there is little of the one, there is assuredly nothing of the other. Yet there is abundant curious material ; there is evidence of ardent discipleship, and the Grades are sometimes the work of persons who have otherwise made contributions of importance, at least, to the archives of Alchemy. Things that are curious being set apart, I need not, however, regard it as a matter of regret that I cannot afford to the present consideration that full space to which on several considerations some might think that it is entitled.

Antoine Joseph Pernety, born in 1716, was, like Basil Valentine, a Benedictine monk, and he was first heard of in Masonry about the year 1760 if it is possible to trust my authority, who is French and doubtful, as usual. The two works by which he is known to collectors are, however, Les Fables Egyptiennes et Grecques devoilees et reduites au meme principe^ 2 vols. 1786, and Dietinnaire Mytho-Hermttique^ 1787. In these he establishes the physical side of the subject, and it seems certain on their evidence that he had no horizon beyond it, so far as Alchemy is concerned. The Great Work had for him two objects in view : one of them was an universal remedy for disease in the three Kingdoms of Nature, the inferior metals from this point of view being in the pain and travail of imperfection, suspiring after the state of gold but attaining it only by the regeneration of Hermetic art ; the other was the transmutation of metallic substances into gold more pure than that which is found in Nature. It is obvious by the definition that these two are one. The terminology of alchemical literature, which is often so suggestive on the spiritual side, even when the spiritual intent is wanting, opened no doors for Pernety. The sensible soul for him is not the psychic part, but sal ammoniac^ and the term Soul in its catholic sense is the Perfect Mastery at the Red, as the Ferment which animates the Stone for its conversion into elixir. So also the Universal Spirit is an element diffused throughout the atmosphere and impregnated with the virtue of the stars ; it is the food of natural life. It is not immaterial, but a very tenuous, subtle and penetrating substance, which enters into all composites.

This is sufficient on the point of view, and will determine a priori the department of Hermeticism which Pernety would represent in any Rite of Masonry that he established. Such an institution is said to have been the Academie des Illumines d’Avignon, on the examination of which we shall find, however, that the whole subject passes into inextricable confusion. One alleged date of its foundation is that which I have already mentioned 1760, but another witness, equally definite and dubious, substitutes 1785. Whether the Academy was Masonic at all is the next question, for it is also affirmed to have been androgynous in character, and may simply have exacted as such the Masonic qualification from its members on the male side. Again, it may have been under the banner of Adoption, or an imitation of the revolutionary changes introduced by the Sieur Cagliostro. But these problems are to some extent extrinsic; dates are essentially immaterial except on the historical side; Masonic history has to dispense with them largely when it is concerned with the Continent of Europe ; and, lastly, at the general period on that Continent, the question of initiating women, though not favorably regarded, found no voice of authority to condemn it in an absolute sense.

There is, however, a more direct difficulty. The mysterious Staroste Grabbianka is said to have had a hand with Pernety in the inauguration or direction of the Illumines^ and their dedication was divided between Hermeticism and the visionary system of Swedenborg. Of the latter there is, I think, no question, on the evidence with which I am now dealing, which is that of my precursors in Masonry. Benedictine and alchemist though he was, Pernety had come within the influence of the Swedish seer, and it is probable that the twofold interest may have combined to render his monastic position untenable in respect of his personal sincerity. That he was anxious and because of his sincerity is made evident by the fact that he applied in an orderly manner to Rome for a dispensation from his vows, which he received ultimately. This was about 1765, and it was, as I should infer, thereafter and not previously that he became more fully identified with the Masonic and occult movement. The Academle des Illumines might in this case belong as it has also been suggested to the year 1770, and could not well have been earlier. We shall reach, however, a different conclusion as this inquiry proceeds.

Pernety was, moreover, connected as a founder with the Loge Hermttique du Gontrat-Venaisin, and in 1778, or later, he may have had a hand in establishing the Academie des Vrais Maqons, a system of six Degrees, also with a Hermetic motive, shewn by such titles as Knight of the Golden Key, Knight of the Rainbow, Knight Argonautic and Knight of the Golden Fleece. In the last two his interpretation of Greek mythology may have passed into the dramatic form of ritual. The Illumines du Zodiaque is another of his fabled creations, and for some writers he is an alternative author with Baron Tschoudy of the Grade called Knight of the Sun, which still remains among us in the system of the ANCIENT AND ACCEPTED SCOTTISH RITE, as well as under other obediences.

I have had recourse so far to the sources of reference which are available in Masonic literature, but another light is cast upon the whole subject when the appeal is transferred to the records of the New Church and the research which has been instituted thereby into all that, directly or indirectly, is concerned with the mission of Emanuel Swedenborg, its connections and its history. They have something to tell us respecting Abbe Pernety and the school of Avignon ; it is new and direct to our purpose ; it is separable easily from accidental errors owing to unfamiliarity with the Masonic aspect of things ; and if it is not all that we could desire, I believe that from the same source there will be ultimately other materials.

It is now many years since Mr. R. F. Gould assured us that a society of Hermetists whether formally incorporated or not had existed at Avignon from ^740. I regard the date as doubtful, and I question the Hermetic interest in the exact sense of the term. It was, however, in that city, but more probably about 1760, that an unofficial and quite private association came into being, and the information regarding it comes (a) from a living contemporary witness in the person of Benedict Chastanier, and through him (b) from Count Thade Leszezye Grabbianka, Staroste de Lieve. The latter testifies that a certain Polish noble, who was a student of the Secret Tradition in Kabalism but apparently on the so-called practical side bequeathed a book of the occult art in manuscript to his nephew, together with a counsel that he should use it with great circumspection. The nephew went into consultation with a few friends, and they began to put in practice the information contained in the document. As a result they received several revelations of a serious and even terrifying kind or, in other words, the shadows in Kabalistic language of coming events, social and political upheavals, and so forth. These things were to be kept secret, and as regards the mode of operation, it pretended to elicit “answers from the Word” to such questions as were put by the circle in accordance with the laws of the oracle. It is difficult on the information given to identify the particular process, but several things of this kind are known in debased Kabalism. The persons concerned in the practice included Count Grabbianka and Abbe Pernety, the other names signifying nothing to our inquiry.

It will be seen that the association received information in advance most probably concerning that Revolution which at the period in question may be said to have been already brewing. As is the custom of such revelations, it came to people who had neither power nor concern therein, but with peculiar fatuity certain Swedenborgian writers have jumped to the conclusion that the uninstructed tyros in Kabalistic Magic formed one of the forcing-houses of the great cataclysm, and helped, like the RITE OF THE PHILALETHES as the same testimonies affirm to prepare its programme. That which concerns us, however, is apart from such unreason, and is the curious occasion which caused the society to dissolve, at least for a period. The time came when, in answer to a specific question which does not itself transpire, the oracle is said to have affirmed that these things were declared already ” to my servant, Emanuel Swedenborg,” whom the little band were counseled to follow thereafter. The oracle on its own part spoke henceforth no more ; the associates dispersed ; and Count Grabbianka, who is still our informant on the subject, went, as no doubt did Pernety, in search of the new prophet. The so-called Mago-Cabbalistic Society, being the name attributed thereto by Benedict Chastanier, a Mason and ardent disciple of Swedenborg, was expected to reassemble in the North of Europe, but here memorials are wanting ; where it did so actually was at Avignon for a second time, and it was certainly in session before and perhaps after 1795. In 1789 it was visited by two Englishmen, and records have been left concerning it. They are illiterate productions and are otherwise difficult to disentangle, but it is obvious that the Society in that year was still occupied with the world of visionary prophecy and was concerned with the revelations of Swedenborg. To this the Abbe Pernety had added beyond all question something of his own concern in Alchemy and probably a Masonic aspect. The latter would have been rather fluidic, as there is no reason to suppose that the English visitors whom I have mentioned had qualifications of that kind, and yet there was no difficulty as to their reception. They made extracts from the Society’s Journal and took part in its Eucharistic commemorations; they also witnessed its phenomena, some of which were akin to those of modern spiritualism. It is further stated definitely by my authorities that Count Grabbianka returned to Avignon in 1787, and there formed the Societe des Illumines d’Avignon in a Masonic Lodge. We have the authority of Kloss for the continued existence of this body in 1812.

It is colorable to suppose that Pernety may have had a hand in producing the Rituals. We are, in any case, now enabled to harmonise the conflicting statements of Masonic authorities as already cited. Something existed at Avignon in or about 1760. It was not Masonic, it was not an Academic des Illumines, and it knew nothing of Swedenborg : it assumed these characteristics subsequently that is to say, about 1785, the alternative date suggested. The year 1770 must be abandoned entirely, except in so far as some of the original members may have remained in their own city and watched events from afar.

The result of this summary research into one sequence of Grades connected with the Hermetic motive in Masonry brings these points into prominence:

  1. They existed under the veil of Masonry, but were not of Masonic tradition
  2. in respect of Alchemy, Pernety was an amateur only, who is interesting and zealous as such, but he was not a Master on the physical side and his eyes had never opened to its higher aspects
  3. the Staroste Grabbianka, though his name is like an occult talisman, was no itinerant adept, nor even an illuminated adventurer, like Count Cagliostro
  4. with apologies to the faithful belonging to the Church of the New Jerusalem, he would not have been a disciple of Swedenborg if he had belonged to the Secret Tradition
  5. the Academie des Illumines was confused on its own issues
  6. it followed Alchemy, against which Swedenborg uttered a warning
  7. it followed Swedenborg, all of whose teaching was opposed to the Latin Church
  8. and yet it is on record that the Academy enjoined devotion to the Blessed Virgin and the invocation of angels, which things were quite contrary to the revelations of the Swedish seer.

As a side issue hereto, supposing that the Benedictine Pernety, having been dispensed from his vows, consecrated the elements of bread and wine in the Lodge at Avignon, what would be the validity of that Eucharistic ceremony (a) in the opinion of the usual communicants ; (b) in that of the protestant visitors from England ; (c) in his own view ; and (d] from the standpoint of Rome?

As regards the protestant brethren, the memorials concerning them shew that they were

led by the spirit, but to some extent also under the advice of Benedict Chastanier, to undertake their strange journey to Avignon, and they performed most of it on foot. On their arrival they were well cared for, so that they wanted for nothing in the material sense ; they seem also to have received the communication of such knowledge as the Society was in a position to impart and they possibly to understand. I make this reserve because the visitors were little better than mechanics, to whom the Alchemy of Pernety would have been assuredly a dead letter. One of them, on his return to England, reduced his experience to writing, and it is from this source that we can obtain a tolerable notion of the matters which at times occupied the French brethren. Their chief concern was still with coming events and spiritual considerations arising therefrom. These are summarised by one witness in a schedule of prophecies relative to ” the present times and approaching latter days ” as recorded in the Journals of the Society. I will mention the salient features.

  1. Rome will be presently the theatre of great events and calamities.
  2. The time is at hand when the living will envy the state of the dead.
  3. There will be a purgation as if by fire.
  4. The Mohammedan power will be destroyed.
  5. The Pontiff will lose his temporal power.
  6. After the terrors, the Incarnate Word will be acknowledged.
  7. Palestine will become once more the most fortunate country on the earth and the centre of that faith of which it was the cradle.
  8. A great Temple will be erected to the true God apparently therein.
  9. The face of religion will be changed.
  10. The serpent of the abyss will have power no longer over the race of man.
  11. The world will be restored to its first estate.
  12. The Eternal Himself will manifest; He will assemble the elect of His new religion under the immovable ark of His love, establishing righteousness and peace.

It will be observed that these are the ordinary forecasts and reveries concerning the Second Advent in their crude and concrete form. From the spiritual instructions which follow the prophecies, it is impossible to extract anything in the nature of specific teaching ; much of it is vapid and commonplace, but a few maxims are lifted above the rest by the beauty of their spirit and, although outside my object, they are worth citing in a shortened form for this reason.

  1. Confidence is the precept; love is the soul of life.
  2. He who has only the eyes of flesh and blood takes the road to perdition; but he who sees with the eyes of confidence and love follows the road of righteousness and walks straight to the light wherein the truth is attained.
  3. With love and simplicity man has no snares to fear.
  4. Nothing is useless to him who knows how to love.
  5. The life of the soul is wisdom and the heart is love.
  6. Docility is the road which leads to knowledge.
  7. The Word is one only to him who can comprehend.
  8. The ark of God is death to those who use false keys.
  9. The Mysteries of God are the torches of His children.
  10. He who knows how to preserve the Mysteries shall be blessed.
  11. We cannot walk alone in the way of wisdom.
  12. He who puts trust in God will no more be stopped in his course than the Son of Righteousness.

The brethren of Avignon had therefore a measure of illumination, though not after the manner of official illuminati; most of their prophecies have been made void but a tongue did not fail them entirely, and though its utterances did not ring always so true as in these chosen maxims, I should be satisfied on their consideration, if I was not satisfied otherwise abundantly, that the visions and the oracles of Avignon, through the long watches, neither came out of revolutionary aspirations nor entered therein. That which I seek would not have been found among them, but I should not have counted it wasted time to have journeyed with the English visitors, or even at this day to proceed as far and hardly if I could obtain other records of Avignon.

I should add that Pernety was the first to translate some part of the revelation of Swedenborg into the French language, performing in this manner for the Swedish seer what was being done about the same time or later by L. C. de Saint-Martin for the theosophy of Jacob Bohme. It is on record, for what it is worth, that Swedenborgian believers did not take kindly to his intervention, preferring, I suppose, a revelation without antecedents to the suggestion that Swedenborg was a Hermetic philosopher. The late Mr. E. A. Hitchcock had doubtless a similar experience when he revived or devised the thesis within the last forty years. It is just, however, to add that those who are entitled to speak on the text of Swedenborgian scriptures complain that the renderings of Pernety were (a) imperfect as translations and (b) contaminated by interpolations which represented the reveries of the French alchemist. Chastanier himself protested and assuredly spoke with knowledge. It is he who is credited with establishing the ILLUMINATED THEOSOPHISTS, as we shall see at a later stage. Antoine Joseph Pernety died in the Dauphiny about 1800 or 1801.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.