Warning: Some adult content ahead.
“Learn ye the mystery of all nature, and the beginning of all things, what it was.”
Composed in Greek in the 2nd Century CE, the apocryphal Acts of Peter are too strange for the New Testament. Awash with miracles and ending in the unorthodox crucifixion of its namesake, one of Christ’s Twelve Apostles and father of the church, face-down toward the earth, the Acts are primarily concerned with a pitched battle for the very soul of Christianity, not between armies or mere men, but between a Saint and a sorcerer.
Holding an enraptured crowd in the palm of his hand, Simon Magus levitates above the Forum before St Peter calls upon God to bring this charlatan crashing back toward the polished flagstones of Rome, his legs broken in three places. The crowd turn on him, hurling rocks and stones at his battered body before he’s whisked away to die, carved in twain by surgeons. A humiliating end for such a formidable mage.
This parable, pondered the scholars of the early Christian church, represented the heretics, twisting the word of God and deceiving the people with their illusions and honeyed words, and how God punishes their arrogance.
Heresy didn’t die with Simon Magus, but with the slow decline of the once-absolute Catholic Church esoteric philosophies, secret societies and mystical creeds began to emerge into the light – especially in France.
Post-revolutionary principles of intellectualism, enlightenment and secularisation – laïcité, which sought to remove the word of God from public life – encouraged a flowering of alternative expressions of faith, while the dark currents of the century’s dying breath – the ennui, cynicism and decadence of the ‘Fin de siècle’ – turned these emerging creeds in unexpected directions.
This rush of history would take the set-piece battle seen in the Acts of Peter and amplify it. There were breathtaking miracles and false prophets, demons and demagoguery, and a duel between saints and sorcerers that would ripple backward through history and forward through art, literature, culture and spirituality. The inverted cross of St Peter’s martyrdom would be redefined radically from sign of Christian humility to a symbol of blasphemous black magic.
Perhaps they should have heeded the church’s warnings about the sorcerous Simon Magus, after all.
British poet, mystic, ritual magician and co-creator of the Tarot deck which bears his name, AE Waite (1857-1942), described the period in his gloriously titled 1896 volume, Devil Worship in France:
Martinists, Gnostics, Kabbalists, and a score of orders or fraternities of which we vaguely hear about the period of the French Revolution, began to manifest great activity; periodicals of a mystical tendency—not spiritualistic, not neo-theosophical, but Hermetic, Kabbalistic, and theurgic—were established, and met with success; books which had grievously weighted the shelves of their publishers for something like a quarter of a century were suddenly in demand, and students of distinction on this side of the channel were attracted towards the new centre.
Into this strange new world, with one foot in the old faith and one foot in the new, came Eugene Vintras (1807-1875), a one-time foreman in a cardboard box factory transformed into a full-blown messiah.
Surrounded by reports of miracles, claims to be a reincarnation of the Prophet Elijah, and receiving messages from the Virgin Mary and Archangel Michael, he founded two sects, first the Work of Mercy and then the Eliate Church of Carmel, donning the inverted cross of St Peter as a symbol of his new faith. The traditional crucifix represented the “Reign of Suffering”, while inverting it symbolised the beginning of the “Reign of Love.”
Waite, writing this time in The Mysteries of Magic: A Digest of the Writings of Eliphas Levi (1886), recounts Levi’s conversation with one ardent convert who describes Vintras’s miraculous deeds:
“Thousands of Hosts appear on altars where there were none; wine rises in empty chalices, and there is no delusion, it is wine, a delicious wine; celestial music is heard; the fragrance of another world diffuses itself, and, finally, blood – truly human blood which doctors have examined – oozes and sometimes flows copiously from the Hosts.”
Rumours of demonic rituals and sexual excess swirled around him. Vintras was condemned by the Pope and accused by two followers in a 1846 pamphlet, The Saints of Tilly-sur-Seulle, of homosexuality, conducting Black Masses in the nude, and masturbating at the altar. Despite all of this scurrilous gossip both the law courts and the religious authorities found him not guilty, the only thing that stood up in court was a fraud charge and in 1841 Vintras was sentenced to five years imprisonment.
From 1852 onward his sect was openly persecuted and Vintras fled to London to re-establish his church there.
Accounts by the aforementioned Eliphas Levi (1810-1875), a seminary student turned ritual magician, not only brought occultism into the absinth-sipping salons of Paris with a prestigious volume of books on the subject published right across the 1860s, but brought the antics of Vintras along with them.
Levi’s influence spread far beyond France, making the Tarot deck and the pentagram part of Western magic (point up for the five elements, point down for the Satanic Goat of Baphomet) and directly inspiring the foundation of Britain’s Hermetic Society of the Golden Dawn in 1887.
Through the Golden Dawn, he entered the rich imaginations of its prestigious membership – a rogues gallery of dabblers in the otherworldly that included Sherlock Holmes creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930), Irish poet WB Yeats (1865–1939), Dracula author Bram Stoker (1847–1912), and most notoriously, ‘Wickest Man in the World’ and towering figure of 20th Century occultism, Aleister Crowley (1875-1947).
Crowley, however, we shall return to later.
As outlandish as Vintras was, history is filled with wild-eyed holy men preaching new gospels and would-be prophets whose cults flare up and then fade away. The accusations of sexual deviancy remain murky, but his demonic predilections are far more clear cut, as Levi, through Waite, recalls:
Certain ridiculous processes and a swindling law-suit caused this thamaturge to fall speedily into oblivion and contempt; he was attacked besides with virulence in pamphlets whose authors were formerly admirers of his doctrines, for the medium Vintras meddles with dogmatism.
One thing is nevertheless noteworthy in the invectives to which he is subject, that his adversaries, while seeking to defame him acknowledge the truth of his miracles, and content themselves with ascribing them to the devil.
The prophet’s correspondent-turned-rival Abbé Joseph-Antoine Boullan (1824–1893) was an altogether different story. A defrocked Catholic priest who performed lurid exorcisms alongside a former nun, Boullan had positioned himself as Vintras’ opposite. Boullan claimed to be the reincarnation of John the Baptist where Vintras claimed Elijah, and drawing a pentagram over his eye in reaction to the dove drawn on Vintras’s forehead.
Despite this curious competition, Boullan met with Vintras following his exile and joined the Carmelites soon after. Announcing himself successor upon the old prophet’s death in 1875, Boullan’s powergrab prompted an immediate schism and the majority of the faithful refused to follow his lead.
The rump of the old church was all that the notorious Boullan needed and he gathered his loyalists about him in Lyons, where he blended Catholicism with sex magic and occultism, convincing his followers that intercourse with angels was the quickest path to redemption, but sex with anything else (himself included, presumably) would help speed things along.
Like the denunciations of disgruntled followers that dogged Vintras three decades earlier, two members of Boullan’s new sect turned against their master. Swiss occultist and Tarot illustrator Oswald Wirth (1860-1943) set himself out as a spy from the outset, but the original motives of poet, morphine addict and Kabbalist Stanislas de Guaita (1861-1897) are more nebulous.
Nevertheless the two traitors compared notes on the “adultery, incest and bestiality” they had witnessed and released a stinging missive in Boullan’s direction.
Believing he was also under attack from a barrage of curses, he responded by escalating the war of words into a full-bore ‘Magic War’ and bedecked himself in wards and charms to keep his aggressors at bay. Whatever mystical retaliation de Guaita and Wirth attempted is alas lost to history, but de Guaita promptly went public, releasing The Temple of Satan in 1891.
This scandalous volume, largely concerned with essays on the nature of supernatural evil, establishes a Devil unable to work openly for fear of ridicule, instead forced to rely on manipulating perverts, egotists and the gullible.
Boullan, it goes without saying, is chief among these lost souls, and this character assassination painted him a:
Pontiff of infamy, a base idol of the mystical Sodom, a magician of the worst type, a wretched criminal, an evil sorcerer, and the founder of an infamous sect.
Boullan had allies though. Disgruntled by the weakness of the Catholic church and despite being warned off by Wirth, author Joris-Karl Huysmans (1848–1907) fell into his orbit.
The writer, a profoundly troubled individual who soon came to believe that Wirth and de Guaita has dispatched demons to assault him, crafted an account of Boullan and his sexually-charged Black Mass in his sensationally popular 1891 novel Là-bas (Down There), in which he depicted de Guaita as a nefarious Satanist and Boullan as a benevolent mystic wearing the inverted cross of Vintras.
Waite, ever the sober chronicler, wrote of Huysmans and his magnum opus:
Under the thinnest disguise of fiction, he gives in his romance of Là-bas, an incredible and untranslatable picture of sorcery, sacrilege, black magic, and nameless abominations, secretly practicing in Paris.
These colourful figures (literally in de Guaita’s case as he is described as wearing only red at all times) in turn informed the depiction of the blasphemous rites in writing and art, even retro-fitting this new language of the supernatural – Levi’s Goat of Baphomet and use of the Tarot deck, Vintras’s Cross of St Peter, and Boullan’s titillating subterranean rites – onto older tales.
Scurrilous journalist Léo Taxil (1854 – 1907) released a series of dubious histories that laid bare the Satanic origins of Freemasonry, capturing the imagination with outlandish tails of winged crocodiles and alchemical rites in dusty catacombs, and Huysmans himself anachronistically inserted an inverted cross into an anachronistic Black Mass performed by 15th Century French child-killer and sadist Gilles de Rais in the pages of Là-bas.
History was being literally rewritten, with 19th Century visions of evil pasted over the folk terrors of earlier centuries.
It all got a little too much for Huysmans, who in 1892 converted to Catholicism and retired to a Trappist monastery (for a cold shower and a lie down, perhaps). He didn’t stop writing, but from there on he concentrated on exploring more conventional expressions of his Christian faith. “The devil,” he explained, “drew me toward God.”
The ‘Magic War’ wasn’t over, though and in 1893, Boullan died suddenly. An enraged Huysmans pointed the finger squarely at de Guaita, publicly claiming in a novel and an article that the rake had killed his old friend through sorcery. De Guaita in turn called the diminutive writer’s bluff and challenged him to a duel. Huysmans wisely backed down and retracted his claims.
Magic was one thing, getting shot or stabbed… no, thanks.
Soon after, in 1897, de Guaita’s opium-addled bohemian lifestyle caught up with him and he died of a drug overdose. Wirth, always the steadier of the two, took a civil service job in a government library after his friend’s death, identifying openly with the Hermit card of the Tarot he quietly contented himself with the study of symbology and the design of Tarot decks.
Dramatic, sensationalist and endlessly fascinating, this half-century of religious zeal and ritual magic that formed the backdrop of the ‘War of the Magicians’ changed the way the occult was depicted, from the art of Manuel Orazi and Aubrey Beardsley, to the fantastical fiction of HP Lovecraft and Dennis Wheatley.
The imagery of Vintras, Levi and Boullan – and the writings of Huysmans and de Guaita – directly inspired and influenced a whole new crop of mystics too, among them Aleister Crowley, who spent time in Paris in 1902. The figurehead of English ritual magic described the knowledge-hungry acolyte hero of Là-bas (modelled on Huysmans himself) as a prophetic portrait of Crowley himself.
British writer W Somerset Maugham picked up on the influence that Huysmans had had on the young Crowley, recalling somewhat dismissively in 1908:
At the time I knew him he was dabbling in Satanism, magic and the occult. There was just then something of a vogue in Paris for that sort of thing, occasioned, I surmise, by the interest that was still taken in a book of Huysmans’, Là-bas.
Unlike the generation to succeed them, the mystics of the 19th Century all considered themselves Christians. To them accusations and counter-accusations of Satanism were the harshest words in their arsenal, but the occultists who built on their work could scarcely care less about the faith of Rome.
Aleister Crowley rejected Christianity at a very young age to craft Thelema, a magical creed all his own, and those who followed in his footsteps did likewise, most famously Gerald Gardner (1884–1964), who popularised Wicca and Neo-Paganism, and Anton LaVey (1930-1997), who made good on the scandalous gossip and pulp potboilers of 19th Century France when he gave birth to the Church of Satan.
- Eliphas Lévi and the French Occult Revival by Christopher McIntosh
- Satanism, Magic and Mysticism in Fin-de-siècle France by Robert Ziegler
- Blood in the City: Violence and Revelation in Paris, 1789-1945 by Richard D. E. Burton
- Reality and Illusion in the Novels of J.-K. Huysmans by Ruth B. Antosh
- The Mysteries of Magic: A Digest of the Writings of Eliphas Levi by Arthur Edward Waite