Oswald Wirth, Stanislas de Guaita and animal magnetism
When François Jollivet Castelot was initiated into the Martinist Order, one of those to whom he was introduced was Oswald Wirth, a German Swiss, who, as companion and secretary to Stanislas de Guaita, played an important role on the Parisian esoteric scene. Born and brought up in the German speaking part of Switzerland he had begun his occult studies early, back in 1873 at the age of 13.
These beginnings were modest, stimulated by reading an article, Der Wunderdoktor, in a popular journal, that described how cures had been obtained by the use of willpower and ‘animal magnetism’. Thinking there might be something in it, when he found a friend suffering from a troublesome insect bite he offered to try to cure it. Kneeling face to face on the grass, he took the boy’s hands in his own and instructed him to look into his eyes whilst strongly wishing to be healed. Then freeing one hand to stroke the sensitive spot for a couple of minutes the itching was reduced, the bite looked less inflamed, and his friend said he felt is if some force had passed into him.
Whatever the truth of the matter, all were impressed. Another boy declared himself cured of a headache, and others with minor ailments over the next few days confirmed this early success. But the situation did not last and failures began to occur as well. So fearing he might be using up reserves of his energy he gave up further experiment.
Then at the age of twenty he came across the Société magnétique de France which practised a system of animal magnetism developed by Jules-Denis, Baron du Potet de Sennevoy (1796-1881). Du Potet was one of the most successful 19th century practitioners, whose career had begun in spectacular fashion when, as a medical student in 1820, he took up a challenge issued by the head of the Hotel-Dieu hospital to effect a cure by animal magnetism.
A young woman was brought in on a stretcher, reduced to a state of exhaustion by constant vomiting, was ‘magnetised’ by du Potet, and after about twenty minutes the vomiting stopped. The doctors were still not convinced but agreed to further experiment and four weeks later, after several more treatments, she showed appreciable improvement and was able to be discharged. [Théories et procédés du Magnétisme – Hector Durville, 5th edition, pp129-180. ]
Those who believed in the existence of animal magnetism considered it to come from two different causes, one material and the other mental. Most favoured an unseen fluid transmitted under direction of the will, whilst others claimed that all was achieved through action of the mind. Du Potet, tried to reconcile these two positions, leaning towards a material explanation at the beginning of his career but later placing more importance upon the action of the mind. Which is rather how attitudes generally changed over the century from Mesmerism through to Hypnosis.
Whatever de Potet’s theories, he seems to have been a remarkably gifted practitioner, with a high degree of medical intuition and instinct for diagnosis and prognosis. As far as he was concerned, magnetism was a fact of nature, long misunderstood, which ought by now to be generally accepted and he was ready to take on any doctor or clergyman in defence of it. He wrote a major work on magnetic therapy and twenty volumes of a Journal of Magnetism, was a great advocate of the somnambulistic state and the remarkable faculties sometimes developed under it. Indeed, much the same as Papus as an extern at La Charité hospital sought with Dr Luys and Stanislas de Guaita with Dr Antoine Liebault at Nancy.
But before Oswald Wirth was able to take up with de Potet’s society, he had, for personal reasons, to spend some time in England and was recommended to seek personal tuition from Adolphe Didier, a successful practitioner in London. Didier claimed to be sensitive to animal magnetism and liked to demonstrate this by leaving a visitor in his library with instructions to select a book, hold it for half a minute and then replace it. On his return, moving his hand in front of the shelves, with eyes closed, he would pick out the chosen volume. He taught that whilst it was not possible to see the current of force, that is what it was and could be felt at the end of one’s fingers. The sensation was very faint but could be developed by practice.
On Oswald Wirth’s return to France, the army allowed him, during his national service, to practise as a magnetic healer throughout the regiment and with the local civilian community, although this led to an unfortunate but instructive experience. A volunteer claimed that he would like to experience being magnetically entranced but had so far found no one able to put him under. Wirth was challenged to try. Whilst far from claiming to be an expert he made the attempt but with no signs of success, eventually gave up.
Nonetheless, he ought to have gone through a process of ‘demagnetising’ the subject, but convinced that he had failed to make any impression whatever upon him, did not bother to do so. Three months later he heard some disquieting news. After he had left, the subject had become passive and fallen into a deep sleep that lasted for almost twenty four hours, including bouts of delirium. Those about him lost their heads and did not dream of notifying Wirth, terrified of assumed devilry. The man never recovered his mental equilibrium and some regarded Wirth’s experiment as responsible for his death, which eventually was due to alcoholism. Whatever the truth of the matter,Wirth realised how dangerous the practice could be and determined never to perform any demonstrations simply to convince the curious.
He continued to practise however in what he felt was a responsible way, which led him to stumble upon a prophetic element in the entranced mind, forecasting his meeting with Stanislas de Guaita.
At the beginning of 1887 he was practising curative magnetism on a woman patient and, with her course of treatment almost complete, she was running through subjective impressions in a relatively routine way. When suddenly she startled them both with a vivid vision, and announced she saw a very important letter coming for him, with a red seal and coat of arms.
He asked from whom it was likely to be.
She described a young man of his age, not quite so tall, fair haired and with blue eyes; who was very knowledgeable and interested in much the same things.
He asked when the letter would arrive.
She replied, very soon, within a couple of weeks.
Wirth waited without any great expectations, having heard too many trance predictions to place much reliance upon them, and after some weeks had almost forgotten the incident. Then one day a letter sealed in red with a coat of arms duly arrived.
Good Friday, 7 p.m.
Sir, my good friend Canon Roca has spoken about you in terms that cause me to wish to meet you. If you would like to call tomorrow, Saturday, at 6 o’clock, we could dine informally, giving me the opportunity to make your acquaintance.
Stanislas de Guaita, 24, rue de Pigalle.
One must say, that whilst the timing of the predicted receipt of the letter was somewhat wide of the mark, one feels quite amazed at the speed and apparently reliability of the French postal service in those days! Another surprising effect is that the letter, with its red armorial seal of the Guaita family, had been described weeks before it physically existed!
Wirth was surprised in his turn to find Stanislas de Guaita as had been predicted, physically and mentally and close to his own age. The two got on extremely well. His host immediately put him at ease by talking about curative magnetism and revealing that he had been investigating the matter himself in conjunction with a Dr Antoine Liébault during the previous year, in which an entranced subject had been shown able to answer questions put telepathically.
This was the beginning of a close association between the two young men which lasted for the ten remaining years of de Guaita’s short life. A relationship that had a very wide remit, including helping Wirth to master the French language as well as act as companion and secretary; and utilising his interest in symbolism and talent for drawing.
Wirth had been a Freemason for some five years, fascinated with the possible esoteric significance of its symbolism. A fact that seemed lost or was even strenuously denied by many in French Masonry as Papus and Eliphas Levi pointed out.
Ironically, Wirth was quite familiar with the Tarot, having played it as a card game back home in Switzerland, but had never realised its esoteric implications!
As a skilled draughtsman, encouraged and informed by de Guaita’s formidable erudition, he produced a set of designs of the Tarot Trumps, emphasising their possible esoteric significance. These first appeared as illustrations to the first edition of Papus’ Tarot de Bohèmiens, although replaced in later editions for reasons that remain obscure by a set called Le Tarot de Papus credited to a Gabriel Goulinat. Wirth’s designs still appear however in reprints of the English translation of the book, and over the years various designs of his appeared with a Germanic kind of formality that is not to everyone’s taste, and his interests tending to concentrate upon freemasonry and astrology rather than the magic of the de Guaita years. He outlived most of his contemporaries, born in 1860 and passing on at the age of 83 in 1943 as compared with Stanislas de Guaita (1860-1897), Papus (1865-1916), Joséphin Péledan (1858-1918), Marc Haven (1868-1926), Paul Sédir (1871-1926).