Sunday, February 19, 2017


Thèophile Briant [1891-1956] and the Testament of Merlin

If any French writer could qualify for the title of a Son of Hermes then the Breton writer, magazine editor and publisher Theophile Briant would certainly be up there high at the top of the list. Born in 1891 he comes a little out of sequence in our listing but we mention him now in light of his remarkable  book The Testament of Merlin which has just been translated into English (by myself) and published by Skylight Press.

A great enthusiast of all things Breton, Celtic and Arthurian Briant spent twelve years writing this powerful account of the life and work of Merlin. Reviews were enthusiastic when it first appeared, (in  1975, 19 years after his death!) describing the author as  poet, visionary and novelist all at once. Able to create characters and give them life, he reveals a mastery of the art of evocative description and  scenes are impregnated with the Celtic and religious atmosphere of the epoch.

Steeped in the tradition of the Mysteries he structures his work on a three fold framework. The first section opens in a sixth century Summer Solstice as King Arthur’s fleet leaves Armorica en route for ‘the Last Battle’ against Mordred and the Saxons. The second is an initiatory sequence featuring faery mysteries in the Forest of Broceliande. And the third, which ends the life of Merlin (on the physical plane at any rate) is enacted against a back drop of claims between old and new religions.

Although the Round Table Fellowship is defeated at the Last Battle it nonetheless ends with the conviction that “We may have been beaten at Salisbury but King Arthur still lives”.  How can he be dead when he had Merlin for a friend and protector and had been transported, still living, off to Avalon?

As the King sleeps in Avalon the earthly action is taken up by Merlin ‘of the golden torque and star’ one of whose functions as a bard has been to rouse the blood of the warriors in battle; a druid certainly, brought up in the religion of the Ancestors, that of Nature, but who had in infancy met one of the many Christian missionaries of the time, bringing a message of love and forgiveness from a man in the the East called Christ. Son of an unknown God, who had been put to death by his fellows and of whom a certain Joseph of Arimathea has piously collected the blood. The Cup that was passed round in the meal of the Round Table Fellowship before the Last Battle was said to be the symbol of sacrifice of this god and was of some attraction to younger knights since it was said that the purest of  them might be worthy to possess this precious cup whose secret has not yet been revealed to anyone.

On the evening of the terrible battle of Salisbury unspeakable grief had been the lot of the few survivors, which include Merlin who, however, is able take charge of the bodies of the two whom he loves most, his king, and his young disciple, Adragante the Gael. Not being able to accept that the death of these two friends can be the ‘unimaginable dawn’ of the Christian god he appeals to the god of occult forces, via his former master, the Druid high priest of the forest, who has promised him help if he maintains the ancient faith. Like Roland on the evening of defeat at Roncevaux, Merlin sounds his silver horn, and in the night, from afar another horn responds.

The deal is done! No Christian any more, nor life as king’s bard, Merlin returns to the solitude of the forest, attentive to the voices of Nature to revive his soul in his own way, which involves the not unpleasant setting up in a rock crystal castle with the faery Viviane and renewing acquaintance with his old friend the ferryman Barynthus who drops by from time to time in his world encompassing ship.   

King Arthur is not dead; some time he will return. As for Adragante, ‘reborn’ by the old magic of his Master, he will be witness of what is to follow, but only by writing, for one problem of the cauldron of Keridwen is that although it can resuscitate it renders the recipient dumb – a child of silence, or son of  secrecy, product of a Truth that abandons itself to the Shadows. With the fervour of disciple, Adragante begins a journal and it is through his eyes and his pen that the story continues, which is also one of initiation.

Many tests await him: cold, hunger, storm, loneliness, on this coast of Armorica or confined  to the depths of the forest . But Merlin had warned and prepared him.

At the threshold of the route are many teachings and symbols;  a rebel boar, national emblem of Brittany, a solar bear that triumphs by Intelligence, a golden apple tree of Knowledge, a flower of the Graal, mystically flowing with blood issuing from the Crucifixion to perpetuate its memory. Here too is a sacred book of wisdom from which writing is absent (to avoid any error of interpretation) with 78 images, 22 Trumps, 9 numbers, that give the adept the Key to the Universe and Life.

Guided by his master, Adragante descends to the submarine depths and their inhabitants; lower still, to the centre of the Earth where the Fire, principle of all life, reveals to a few initiates the secret of the Great Work; finally to the hall of eternal Time, hung with its deceiving mirrors of Past and Future. It is in these that he sees the plain strewn with the corpses of Salisbury. And an even more terrible sight, a vague form, wearing the white robe of the druids, and the five pointed star of the bards, falling, face bloody, under a hail of stones. The ‘threefold death’ of Merlin at the hands of some shepherds in the Scottish border country.

 He must however vanquish his fears of menacing serpents until, winning free from the underworld caverns, aided by Merlin, he breaks through to the light of dawn by the sea, the sun flooding the bay of Cézembre, from whence the story began, now reflecting the Infinite Light of God the Creator. It had been necessary to confront the Shadows to approach the great mysteries of Life and Death, and accede to a new life, illuminated by Knowledge and Love.

That had been Merlin’s the wish for him:  the initiation of the disciple until he sees his Master disappear from his sight in a mysterious and triumphal ascension.

Merlin it seems was a man torn between two religions that he needed to reconcile, Druidism and Christianity, each necessary to his soul thirsting for the Infinite – and perhaps like Théophile Briant himself,  for in the front of one of his books is the following quotation.

“Modulating in turn, on the Lyre of Orpheus 

The sighs of the Saint and the Faery’s cry.”  [Gérard de Nerval]

Thursday, February 09, 2017


A View from the Lab

The alchemist François Jolivet Castelot felt that neglect of a laboratory approach to the occult  to be detrimental to the truth because too ‘mystical’ (by which he really meant psychological – the truly mystical power play of the likes of Maïtre Philippe or certain saints of the church is something yet again!).

So in support of the laboratory context, his book La Science Alchimique  (1904) contained a photograph of himself and three associates at work in ‘the laboratory of the Alchemical Society of France’. Or rather, not so much ‘at work’ as posed in smart suits, gentlemen amateurs in theatrical attitudes of scientific discovery.

The ‘laboratory’ is decorated with the kind of tasteful wall paper one might expect to find in a well furnished provincial villa in his hometown of Douai, garnished with an array of presumably scientific hardwear, including a lit Bunsen burner, to which, ironically and possibly dangerously, no one is paying any attention.

One of the four consults a book as bulky as a church bible, whilst the other three are gazing in awe, at the mysterious contents of a small bottle.

This genteel display is obviously a far cry from the lab work of the Curies, shovelling tons of uranium ore in their back yard in search of radium, but at least it demonstrates an awareness of public relations remarkable for 1904. It is a pity that they backed the wrong horse, so to speak. And it was the Curies who picked up the Nobel prizes - although at a heavy cost to their health.  

But the epoch was fertile for the exchange of ideas, and the most successful teachers and practitioners were also the most skilled communicators – such as Castelot, Papus or Paul Sédir in the esoteric field.

In part this meant involvement in group projects such as the recently revived Martinist Order but it included the willingness and ability to cross boundaries and talk to those of other schools of thought, including individuals of international reputation in other spheres.

One such was the Swedish playwright, August Strindberg, who for some years was preoccupied with alchemy and wrote a review of one of Castelot’s books in the daily paper Le Figaro. During a wandering life he came to live in Paris for a time and uncharacteristically invited the young man to call on him. So one cold foggy winter’s evening François duly turned up at the shabby hotel – mostly occupied by students – in which Strindberg chose to stay. The concierge had a standing order to admit no one, for Strindberg hated visitors, but on persisting and sending in his card François was eventually admitted to a small chilly room that even lacked  a fire.

The great  alchemist playwright was seated at a bare wooden table on which some manuscripts were scattered, the remains of supper, and some miscellaneous items of glassware upon which a candle cast a guttering light. The only other furniture was an iron bedstead, a bedside table, a couple of wicker chairs, a small trunk and a portable wash stand.

Strindberg rose, very tall and straight, and offered his hand, putting Castelot in mind of an old Viking, with grey hair cut short over an immense forehead. He described him as giving the impression of a shy colossus, with pale blue eyes, cold as the fiords, as limpid as a child’s, with icy reflections of nickel and steel, and a bushy moustache that bristled like an angry cat.

He spoke execrable French with a guttural accent of which Castelot could understand not a word, but knew enough German for some conversation to be possible, though not without difficulty.

August Strindberg was a member of the Swedenborgian church and his ideas appeared close to occultism as a result. In alchemy the two shared much the same views, both believing in hylozoism, the presence of life in all matter.

Strindberg showed his visitor the result of some experiments he had performed involving iron sulphide, ammonia and oxalic acid and in time their relationship became closer. They exchanged formulae in regular correspondence, with the Scandinavian becoming an adviser to the French Alchemical Association and a regular contributor its journal, the Rosa Alchemica.

Castelot tried to convert Strindberg entirely to hermeticism, and introduced him to Papus and Sédir, only to be met with misunderstandings as Strindberg’s distrust, brusqueness, and sensitivity clashed with Parisian self-regard and deference to leaders of the Martinist Order. The project was eventually abandoned and the Swede continued his solitary way.

Castelot still cast his net wide however, remarkably including one of the most important figures in the scientific world, Marcellin Berthelot (1827-1907) – considered by some one of the greatest chemists of all time, and called ‘the father of organic chemistry’ in that he synthesised a number of organic compounds from inorganic substances – a transition regarded as impossible by conventional chemists but which was not entirely at odds with alchemical theories and assumptions. And in later life Bertholet researched and wrote books on the early history of chemistry and the origins of alchemy, and translated a number of medieval texts and manuscripts.

He even admitted the theoretical possibility of transmuting metals and the synthesis of elements, despite rejecting the burgeoning atomic theory, and was sympathetic to Castelot’s aims and ideas if not a follower of them – discussing amicably and questioning sympathetically Castelot’s beliefs and procedures.

Another important contact, of immense personality, social contacts and administrative power,  was the colourful minor aristocrat Lieutenant-Colonel Count Rochas d’Aiglun, who was administrator of the archaic yet highly prestigious École Polytechnic, and played an important role in supporting and authorising research into subjects such as the theory and practice of hypnotic states, the exteriorisation of sensibility, the whole domain of magic, contact with the Other World , the appearance of phantoms, powers of the interior senses and the possiblities of enchantment and magnetic influence. Certainly no mage or sorcerer went further than Rochas into the realms of the after life. He was described by Castelot as a tough feverish little man with a sardonic expression on a face part faunlike and part Mephistophelean, fearless necromancer and pioneer magnetiser and magician without reproach who successfully thwarted occasional attempts to deprive him of his commanding academic position.

These early researchers  had the courage of their convictions and could be thoroughly unreasonable as well as successful men!