“PAPUS” – DR GÉRARD ENCAUSSE
Dr. Gérard Encausse, (1865-1916) who wrote and taught under the name of “Papus” has been called “the Balzac of Occultism”. That is to say, comparable to the great 19th century writer Honoré de Balzac who set out to write a series of books describing the whole of French society. Gérard Encausse, in his fashion, did much the same for the occultism of his day. Not in fiction but in a great process of esoteric education of his fellows.
In the course of his life he was responsible for over a hundred brochures and books, was a prodigious public speaker, and also a great founder of organisations and of successful occult journals such as the monthly L’Initiation and weekly La Voile d’Isis. All this while studying to become a Doctor of Medicine with a particular interest in hypnosis and clairvoyance, and complying with three years military national service.
He was born on 13th July 1865 the eldest child of a French father and a Spanish mother, at La Coruña in Galicia, northern Spain, where his father Louis was trying to interest the authorities in his ‘Encausse Generator’ – a device he had invented for the absorption of medicaments through the skin. Until, having failed to make much progress, he moved on to Paris when Gérard was three years old, where the imaginative child grew up in the bohemian district of Montmartre with a tendency to fantasize about his family origins. That his father’s name was really Don Luis who had spent his life wandering through Spain in a caravan with a gypsy wife, living on his wits by selling things he had made. A story more or less based upon fact if considerably romanticised!
The struggle his father had had to be taken seriously by an extremely conservative and prestigious medical profession may have inclined Gérard to study medicine himself, although as an adolescent he was more interested in general philosophical ideas and at the age of 19 produced a 51 page book called Hypothéses – a diversion that may have caused him to fail his baccalauréat and put his education back a year, and even when accepted as a medical student he was hardly a model scholar. Instead of studying his textbooks he was more likely to be found at the Bibliothèque Nationale reading works on magic, such as Dogme et Rituel de la Haute Magie, L’Histoire de la Magie and Le Clef des Grands Mystères by Eliphas Levi. Indeed, so impressed was he by these works that he wrote a letter to the old mage, suggesting they meet to exchange experiences and ideas.
11th January 1886
Monsieur l’Abbé, for more than three months I have looked for your address. If I have finally had the good fortune to have found it I beg you to reply to me. I very much want to make your acquaintance first because you have known a man whom I deeply admire and of whom I have written a biography: Louis Lucas; and then because, thanks to your works, I have been able to make great steps in the studies that I have already long pursued. If the astral light has truly not deceived me but guided me to you, please reply. I will then write to you about some experiences that it is impossible for me to mention in a letter that might not reach you. Please accept, Monsieur l’Abbé the greetings of one of your most fervent admirers wanting to become one of your disciples. Gérard Encausse, Hospital extern, 14, rue de Strasbourg, Paris.
Unfortunately Eliphas Levi had died eleven years before. It is not recorded if the tyro magician tried to contact his hero by any other, psychic, means. (Louis Lucas, by the way was a scientist contemporary with Levi, author of La Chimie Nouvelle, with alchemical leanings).
A youthful poem written at the time also reveals Gérard’s convictions and romantic state of mind, beginning:
‘Hail to thee, light of the cosmos at the centre of all spheres...’
in which we also find the Qabalistic term of Kether as evidence of his current reading.
Notwithstanding his educational and national service commitments he sought further esoteric contacts by joining the Isis Lodge of the Theosophical Society, that had been founded in Paris in 1879 but had never really got going until 1887, when an idealistic young Breton, Felix-Krishna Gaboriau, sank his small personal fortune into launching a magazine for it, called Le Lotus. To establish the magazine and draw attention to the Isis Lodge a series of promotional meetings was laid on at the fashionable Grand Vefour café.
At an early one of these meetings an esoterically inclined poet, journalist and man about town, Victor-Émile Michelet, drifted in, and half a century later, in 1938, recorded the occasion in his memoirs Les Companions de la Hiérophanie.
His first impression was that the young man lecturing on ‘Contemporary Occultism’, striving to speak without a script and groping for words with such difficulty, had absolutely no future as a public speaker! But then he had no idea of the prodigious will and drive of this young man, who was the remarkable 22 year old Gérard Encausse.
A few weeks later Michelet heard him speak again – this time with such charisma, clarity and skill that he decided he must get to know him. Calling at Gérard’s student lodgings one Sunday morning in a scruffy commercial area near the Gare de l’Est, he found an atmosphere that he described as like a ‘boiling cauldron’, brewed up by half a dozen young men intent on changing the world by restoring the wisdom of the ancients. Indeed it seemed to Michelet that Pythagoras himself would not have felt out of place in their company!
The May 1887 issue of Le Lotus contained a couple of articles by Gérard Encausse under the pen name of ‘Papus’, a name he had chosen from the Nuctameron of Apollonius of Tyana, an ancient manuscript published as an appendix to Eliphas Levi’s Dogme et Rituel de la Haute Magie, containing a list of spirits of the hours along with their attributes, the first of which was ‘Papus, the spirit of medicine’.
One of Gérard’s articles was a commentary on the symbolism of the sigil of the Theosophical Society, and the other on alchemy – a subject that latter day occultists in France took very seriously. And a number still do.
In the next issue the young ‘Papus’ launched a strong attack against Freemasonry, on the grounds that, having forgotten the meaning of its traditional symbols it had become more of a social than an esoteric organisation. A criticism that had been raised by Eliphas Levi in his latter days, when he resigned from the organisation. Gérard Encausse took much the same line which was to cause him some difficulty when later he sought to become a mason himself.
In the meantime he launched into print with a 36 page version of his initial lecture – L’occultisme contemporain, attacking the intellectual and scientific establishment for failing to take occultism seriously. And, quite astonishingly, even foolhardy for a medical student, lambasting his chosen profession for concentrating on physical symptoms rather than inner causes for them.
As examples he chose two long standing nineteenth century controversies. That of “animal magnetism”, originating from Anton Mesmer and developed by a series of investigators over the years, and currently by Professor Luys at the La Charité hospital in Paris under whom Gérard was studying. The other was “spiritism” that under the more upbeat name of “spiritualism” had begun in the United States with the Fox sisters in 1848, and rapidly crossed the Atlantic.
He ended his book with praise for early 19th century writers such as Fabre d’Olivet for his work on ancient languages, and two colleagues of Eliphas Levi, the Polish esoteric mathematician Hoene Wronski, who died of starvation, and also the neglected Louis Lucas, concluding with an honourable mention for various contemporaries.
From the start however, he seemed determined to cast his net wider than that of the Theosophical Society by emphasising occult lore that was indigenous to the West; and a quotation on the front cover of the booklet hinted at this: ‘The West is the fount of practice and the East the fount of theory’
Papus soon became a regular speaker at Isis lodge meetings and a contributor to Le Lotus and the following year, 1888, he published a full length book, Traité élémentaire de science occulte (Elementary Treatise on Occult Science), that claimed “to explain to all the theories and symbols employed by the ancients, alchemists, astrologers, the E... de la V..., and Kabalists.” The mysterious initials revealing a long standing interest in secret societies dispensing grades of occult initiation and the first indication of his impending involvement with the Martinist Order and other initiatory bodies.
Originally 219pp in extent, by its 7th impression ten years later the Elementary Treatise had swollen to 625 pages. True to form for a young man in a hurry, both original and later editions incorporated long quotations from other writers, including pages from Madame Blavatsky’s Isis Unveiled and paragraphs from A.P.Sinnet’s The Occult World quoting, with approval, the Theosophical Mahatma Koot Hoomi, all of which were retained despite his falling out with Mme Blavatsky and the Theosophical Society a couple of years later.
His exit from the Theosophical Society was sparked in March 1888 when the president of the Isis Lodge died unexpectedly. The post should have passed to the vice-president who, perhaps wisely, declined the honour by pleading youth and inexperience, although no such modesty afflicted either Gérard Encausse or Felix-Krishna Gaboriau. The succession seemed to hang in the balance between them, and soon developed into direct confrontation.
Members of the Isis lodge soon split into opposing camps. Urgent action was needed and the situation became serious enough for Colonel Olcott to travel from India to try to sort things out.
He promptly dissolved the Isis lodge and replaced it with a new one called the Hermes. He showed little sympathy for Gaboriau, who struck him as a ‘hypersensitive young man’ suspected of having recourse to hashish, (actually not uncommon in France in those days). A reliable middle aged gentleman, Arthur Arnolde, was appointed president, and a couple of similar mature members as vice presidents, whilst Gérard Encausse was appointed to the new post of ‘corresponding secretary’.
Gaboriau felt himself downgraded and expressed his bitterness by deploring the ‘typically American way’ in which Olcott had ‘thrown members to the fire’. In this state of mind he crossed the English Channel to complain personally to Mme Blavatsky, who was then living in London. He discovered that she too was very angry about Olcott, accusing him of having sacrificed Theosophy in the interests of ‘that wretched little **** Papus!’
An attempt was made to patch things up by offering Gaboriau a charter to start his own branch, but it appears he was unable to find the statutory seven initial members; all remained faithful to the new Hermes lodge. Gaboriau submitted his resignation, predicting that it would not be long before Papus tried to take over the whole Theosophical Society.
In the final issue of Le Lotus in March 1889 he bade farewell to his readers and, his small fortune spent, fell into poverty and obscurity, although he did later render valuable service by translating some Theosophical works into French.
Papus, however, had not been set on the acquisition of the Theosophical Society. He had wider ambitions.
[to be continued]