26 May 2013


Robert Ziegler. Satanism, Magic and Mysticism in Fin-de-Siècle France. Palgrave Macmillan, 2012.

On the first page of the first chapter the author informs us that “In Britain, renowned occultist Alfred Waite characterized France as fertile ground for the spread of black magic . . .” Arthur Waite was indeed one of the leading occult authors of the time, but this does not encourage us. Later, he refers to “the Hindu goddess Shiva”.
In the late nineteenth century, France was obsessed with decadence. Though this might be nothing worse than can-can dancing, there were unpleasant rumours about Jews, Freemasons, and Devil-worshipers. There were certainly occult societies, notably those based upon the teachings of Eliphas Lévi, which were highly influential, such as their notion that the Tarot pack was based upon the Kabbalah (which had never previously been supposed). In Britain, some of these ideas were copied by the Golden Dawn, and are still held by many.

Manifestations of the occult included mystical novels which, to judge from Ziegler’s summaries of them, were mostly rather boring. But Joris-Karl Huysmans’ Là-Bas is certainly readable, and famous for its account of a Black Mass which, many subsequent authors assert, must have really happened, though there is no evidence for this. (Since, supposedly, a large number of people attended, there would surely have been other testimonies.)

When it comes to Devil-worship, however, this seems to have been something talked about rather than practised. The most notable writer in this field, Léo Taxil, was a joker who had begun his career by deluging the newspapers of Marseilles with letters about sharks that were terrifying local bathers and fishermen. A General Espivent assembled a 100-strong vigilante group to deal with the sharks, but in fact there were none. He also wrote various salacious works, such as Contemporary Prostitution.
Eventually, he combined these two interests with a series of works dealing with Satanic cults that were supposedly worldwide, and of course these included lurid accounts of Black Masses. He claimed that a woman named Diana Vaughan was a High Priestess of Luciferianism, and produced photographs of her in evidence. In fact, she was a sales rep for Remington typewriters (though I suppose it is possible that a woman could be both). In 1897 he gave a talk in which he

boasted that the whole affair had been a hoax, designed to show how easily the Catholic Church could be fooled. One lucky member of the audience got a free typewriter.

Otherwise, what is mainly found is rival occultists accusing each other of Devil worship. Ziegler does not mention one of the most fascinating incidents, when the Vintrasians – an unorthodox Christian sect whose founder claimed to be Elijah - accused the Kabbalistic Order of the Rose-Croix of practising Black Magic, and the Kabbalistic Order of the Rose-Croix made the same accusation against the Vintrasians. This resulted in the fighting of two duels with pistols, Jules Bois of the Vintrasians against both Stanislas de Guaita and Gérard Encausse of the Kabbalistic Order of the Rose-Croix. In the first, both missed, and in the second, both were only grazed. Apparently they Made up afterwards. -- Gareth J. Medway

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