Count Cagliostro

Bro. Arthur Edward Waite

We shall see that in Germany and France of the eighteenth century there were several claims put forward on behalf of several systems to exercise universal jurisdiction over Freemasonry. Among these was that of Cagliostro, who was invited to the Convention of Paris for the purpose of explaining his pretensions. It is doubtful whether he responded, but the records of his attendance exist at least in two forms, one of which is unquestionably spurious, being extracted from mythical memoirs of the archaeologist Court de Gebelin, and published without any credentials in France. There is otherwise no question as to the claims of the Sicilian magus, either in respect of himself or his Masonic system. He passed as the disciple of an alchemist named Althotas, whom some have identified with the theosophist Schröder of Germany—against all evidence as indeed against all likelihood—and he pretended to have received at the Pyramids of Egypt a full initiation into the “Mysteries of the veritable Grand Orient.” He could make gold and silver; he could renew youth; he could confer physical beauty on those who submitted to his processes of Hermetic Medicine; he could evoke the apparitions of the dead; he had lived for two thousand years; he knew all secrets, natural and divine; and he spoke with the inspiration of wisdom handed down from past ages.

The Egyptian Rite

Such at least are the stories concerning him. His success was unlimited for a moment. He enchanted the most enlightened and philosophical society in the most philosophical and enlightened country of the world, just past its zenith of cultured unbelief. But it was precisely the scepticism of France which was necessary for the success of Cagliostro. He is said to have been made a Mason in London at an apparently mythical Lodge under completely mythical circumstances, and he appears to have been a visitor at various English Lodges, where he and his claims were outed. The Egyptian Rite, which he had invented or acquired—if indeed it was already begotten—was unsuited to the frigid imaginations and meagre wit of the laidly Georgian epoch. In the principality of Courland, at Strasbourg, Bordeaux and Lyons he attained, however, an immense if transient triumph. But his crowning ambition was “to inaugurate a Mother-Lodge at Paris, to which Masonry should be subordinated entirely,” and for this purpose he proclaimed himself the bearer of the Mysteries of Isis and Anubis from the Far East. He spared no pains: all his devices and inventions were shaped with some reference ultimately to this end. His career has been represented as one of untinctured imposture, but it is precisely one of those cases in which an unbiassed judgment was at all times difficult to give, and new considerations have arisen which deserve a serious hearing, as we shall see.

Science of the Pyramids

Much of the testimony against him was made public by the Roman Inquisition, a source from which the sense of historical justice might demand an appeal with reason. In any case, he intoxicated Paris and Strasbourg; he had an illustrious cardinal of the period for his humble admirer; and—to serve only as an instance of things said and reported—there is the fabulous affirmation that Louis XVI once notified that any one who molested Cagliostro should be held guilty of treason. There were other rumours, and none of them can be taken seriously; but over his Egyptian Freemasonry even Cagliostro was serious, while as regards the mendacity of his claims they were not more glaring and were assuredly far more attractive than those which had been made previously in respect of every system and every bunch of Degrees, from the time when Anderson first forged credentials for the Craft itself in his Book of Constitutions. Cagliostro’s hostile biographers admit that from a small rogue it transformed him into a magnicent charlatan. At Paris, and in the Rue de la Soudiére, he is said to have established a private Temple of Isis and constituted himself the High Priest. In 1785 he declared—on the precedent of the initiated priestesses of Egyptian Temples, after which he had modelled his own—that women might be admitted to the Mysteries of the Masonic Science of the Pyramids; and the reception of Madame de Lamballe, with many ladies of exalted rank, took place amidst Oriental luxury at the Vernal Equinox.


The Lodges of Paris looked on in wonder, and his invitation to their general assembly, to testify concerning himself and his system, is no matter for surprise. Whether he attended or not, whether it is true or not that he made his presence contingent on the great Rite of the Philalethes passing under the obedience of his system, so far as Cagliostro was concerned the Conference came to nothing; and with all its pretensions to the possession of lost secrets, to the Stone of the Philosophers and the Great Elixir, Egyptian Masonry came also to nothing: it perished or was entombed with its founder in a prison of the Inquisition.

Guiseppe Balsamo

Until a few years since it was accepted implicitly that Count Cagliostro was Guiseppe Balsamo, a Sicilian rogue born at Palermo, who perambulated Europe, and even visited London in the course of his career. However, in the year 1910 Mr. J. M. Trowbridge succeeded in casting a certain doubt on the identication by an elaborate and interesting study of the evidence at large. This is no place in which to attempt a criticism of his findings, and I register only at its value the personal conclusion that his argument against the identity is not altogether satisfactory, so that the question remains open, with nothing whatever attaching to it for the purpose of the present work. It will be sufficient to say that in place of antecedents that are known on the Balsamo hypothesis, Mr. Trowbridge produces Cagliostro in London, accompanied by his wife, in the summer of 1776, having liberal means for the moment, but with a cloud of darkness behind them in respect of their past, especially that of the Count. On the whole I consider that Mr. Trowbridge in the part of an intelligent and engaging apologist does much better service to his subject by the independent light which he casts upon his later history. It is not that he has discovered any new and unlooked-for facts, but he encourages us to regard the Magus under a fresh and more favourable aspect.

An Apologist’s Mistakes

While the work mentioned is a real contribution to our knowledge, it is open in accessory matters to serious correction. The author is not a Freemason and—among many other points—he does not seem to realise the absurdity of a periodical called Courier de l’Europe, when it spoke—as stated—of the Count's Initiation in London by an alleged Espérance Lodge together with his wife. Whether such a Lodge existed at the period I do not know; that, if so, it was affiliated with the Rite of the Strict Observance I do not believe; but there neither was then nor is now any warranted Lodge in England which would have received a woman, and the Strict Observance was about the last Masonic Obedience against which the accusation could be brought.

Saint-Martin and others

From other sources Mr. Trowbridge derived errors of fact in respect of Louis Claude de Saint-Martin, and I question whether he consulted any authority posterior to Matter. He can have never seen Des Erreurs et de la Vérité, the first work of the French mystic, two volumes octavo—respectively pp. 230 and 236—or he could scarcely describe it as “a strange little book.” He can neither have read nor seen Saint-Martin's later writings, or he could not have affirmed that Liberty, Equality and Fraternity were the sacred triad of the mystic. He could know nothing of his life and his attitude towards extrernal secret societies, or he would not have reproduced the old fable that Saint-Martin established a Masonic Rite, above all a Rite Of Swedenborg, about whom he has left a very definite statement of opinion. He would not in fine have called him the founder of the Martinists: this is another fiction, which has been exploded long ago. Similar exception must be taken to every Rosicrucian reference which occurs in the memoir. The members of this Fraternity did not revolutionise belief in the supernatural; their first manifesto did not claim to have been found in the tomb of Christian Rosenkreutz; the so-called doctrine of Elementary Spirits was the least part of their concern, the Abbé de Villars being responsible in the Comte De Gabalis for its great popularity, he writing a century and a half later and deriving from Paracelsus; they did not regard the Philosopher's Stone as signifying contentment; and their impostures—real or alleged—in no sense led up to the Masonic Convention at Wilhelmsbad, which was called by the Grand Master of the Strict Observance. At that period they were working under a Masonic aegis and their Secret Rituals are in my possession. Lastly, in respect of Alchemy, if Mr. Trowbridge in his brief review and in his casual references had made a starting-point in the collections of Byzantine, Syrian and Arabian alchemists published by Berthelot, he would have given us a more informed account, and his allusion to Geber would have appeared in another form. The fact that there was a mystical as well as a physical school in Alchemy might still have escaped him, but this is an involved subject.

Balsamo and Cagliostro

To go back, I do not regard it as determined once and for all that Cagliostro was not Joseph Balsamo, and even accepting the distinction he does not appear now in a better light than that of an impostor with a cast of seriousness, some elementary psychic powers and several good qualities with which he has not been accredited previously; but while I hold no brief except for the unconditional condemnation of all things included under the conventional name of Magic, it is satisfactory to learn that one of its celebrated masters was by no means so black as he has been painted.

George Cofton

Egyptian Masonry has been vilified by people like Woodford, who have neither seen its Rituals nor sought information concerning them. It was neither worse nor better than some hundreds of contemporary systems which have perished out of memory with it; it was neither worse nor better than numbers which are still extant and even in activity among us. We know nothing concerning its origin, for the story that he found the Rite ready-made—so to speak—among the papers of a certain George Cofton, of whom no one has heard, is evidence only of a feeling that he is unlikely to have invented it himself. He may have met with materials somewhere, but it is certain that they were developed or emblazoned either under his instructions or on his own part. The available sources of information on the actual content of the Rituals are (1) a manuscript in the collection of the Grand Lodge of Scotland, and (2) a printed version which was published some years ago in France under occult auspices. Both are unknown in England, and as one of them is very curious I shall speak of it at some length and more shortly conceming the other.

Egyptian Craft Grades

The Ritual preserved in the Scottish Grand Lodge is of course in the French language and is entitled Egyptian Masonry. It contains, in the first place, certain Statutes and Regulations of the Venerable Lodge Wisdom Triumphant, being the Mother Lodge of Exalted Egyptian Masonry, for East and West; constituted as such and founded at the Orient of Lyons by the Grand Copht, Founder and Grand Master of the said Egyptian Masonry in all parts of the Globe, East and West. Secondly, it contains three Rituals corresponding hypothetically to those of the Craft and bearing the same titles; but it should be understood that the qualification of a Master Mason was required of every Candidate.

(I) Grade of Apprentice. The Lodge was draped in blue. The Throne of the Master was raised on a dais approached by three steps. The Sun and Moon were emblazoned right and left of the Throne and above the head of the Master was a triangle—apex upward—inscribed with the sacred Name Jehovah. A brazier and sponge soaked in spirit were placed on the altar immediately before the Throne. The Lodge was opened in the Name of God, and according to the Constitutions of the Rite, all present upstanding. The order was given for admission and a Grand Inspector of Apprentices—accompanied by his Brethren of the First Degree—retired to prepare the Candidate, who had been placed in a Chamber of Reflection, contemplating a picture of a great pyramid, having a cave at the base—guarded by an old man representing Time. The Grand Inspector removed some of the Candidate's clothing, his money, metals and valuables. A discourse on the pyramid followed; he was told of the difficulties and dangers which encompass the philosophical path and was asked whether he would choose it before the ease and wealth of the world. His answer being affirmative, he was led to the door of the Lodge, which opened at a Battery of seven knocks, and he was announced as a Brother who had passed the Degrees of ordinary Masonry and now applied for admission into that of Egypt. He was placed on his knees in front of the Throne; an oath of secrecy, fidelity and obedience was imposed; the Master assuming a symbolical white robe; and the Grade was conferred in full, with the Sign belonging thereto and the sacred word Elohim. A long allocution followed concerning (a) Natural Philosophy as the Marriage of the Sun and Moon; (b) Supernatural Philosophy as knowledge of the attributes of Deity; (c) The Pillars J ∴ and B ∴ as signifying respectively two seekers after Natural and Supernatural Philosophy; (d) The Foundation of Masonry by Solomon; (e) The Implements of Masonry; (f) The Knowledge of the Seven Metals; (g) The Knowledge of Spiritual Natures; (h) The Invocation of the Deity; (i) The Knowledge of Seven Angels, corresponding to the Seven Planets and the Influence of these; (k) Man as the Image of God; (l) Health and Disease in Man; (m) The Use of Occult Forces; (n) The Increase of Natural Heat and Radical Humidity; (o) The Fixation of that which is Volatile and the Volatilisation of that which is Fixed; and finally (p) The Way to do Good with the Utmost Secrecy.

(II) Grade of Companion. The time of probation between the First and Second Grades was three years, but these were probably symbolical. The Throne of the Master was raised on a dais approached by five steps. A seven-pointed star was emblazoned above the Throne, having the Name of God in the centre and the names or titles of Seven Angels in the seven radii of the symbol. A circle was drawn immediately beneath the dais, having a heart within it and in the heart a temple depicted, to indicate that the true Temple of God is built up within the Mason. Around the heart were exhibited a Trowel, Rough Ashlar, Cubical and Triangular Stones, a Dagger, the Sun and Moon. Beneath the heart a Mason was represented striving with Mercury, by allusion to the difficulties which beset the search after the First Matter of Alchemical Philosophy. There were twelve candles about the circle and twelve Masters were present. The Battery was five knocks. The Lodge was opened with prayer and the Veni, Creator Spiritus. The Candidate was admitted, clothed in white—a similar vestment being assumed—as previously—by the Master. He was purified with incense and another obligation was imposed. The Grade of Companion was conferred upon him but expressed in general terms—one of the keynotes being; Sic transit gloria mundi! The sign was to open the mouth—a reminiscence of Egyptian Ritual—and inspire strongly, looking up to heaven. The Master breathed upon the Candidate and created him a new man.

(III) Grade of Master. The alternative title was Master of the Interior, referring to the Sanctuary of the Temple. The time of probation between the Second and Third Grades was five years, and was again presumably symbolical. The Throne of the East was raised on a dais approached by three steps and was of sufficient capacity to hold two Celebrants or Officers-in-Chief, representing Solomon and the King of Tyre, qualified as the Beloved of God. One of them was clothed in white and the other in blue embroidered with gold. The names of Seven Angels were inscribed on the vestments. Twelve other Masters of the Interior—qualied as Elect of God—were supposed to be present at Receptions. The Battery was one knock. The Lodge was opened with the Te Deum, followed by prayer to Jehovah and invocation of the Seven Angels. After the Opening the Grand Inspector led forward the Dove of the Rite, who was a young boy or maiden, clothed in white and wearing white slippers. After reciting a prayer for absolution and taking a pledge of fidelity, the Dove was breathed upon three times by the Master—representing King Solomon—and was then placed in a Tabernacle and locked in. A state of lucidity in the Dove was supposed to be induced by these ceremonies, so that he or she could receive messages from the Seven Angels, whether as regards the fitness of the Candidate or on any matters which might be proposed at the will of the Masters.

One of these proceeded to circumambulate the Lodge, making four circles with his sword in the air at the four cardinal points. He traced also with chalk a large circle in the centre, scattering incense at the North, myrrh at the South, ash of laurel at the East and ash of myrtle at the West. The Lodge was now prepared for the Reception of the Candidate, who was brought in by two Elect Brethren and placed within the circle. He was put on his knees and sworn; a prayer for absolution was recited over him, and he was sprinkled with hyssop and water. The representative of King Solomon breathed on him three times, a red cord was placed about his neck, and an oracle was obtained from the Dove to shew that he had been blessed by the Seven Angels, who had laid their hands upon him. The Candidate was then led to his place on the right side of the Sanctuary—that is to say, in the Southern quarter. All present were seated and a Discourse followed, together with Prayers for Sanctication, a general circumambulation of the Temple and solemn Benediction, some of the prayers and procedure following rather closely those of the Latin Rite. The Discourse had reference to the First Matter of the Alchemists and the symbolical meanings of the Rose and Phoenix.

An Alternative Codex

I have so far summarised the MS. Rituals in the Library of the Grand Lodge of Scotland. The alternative version appeared at long intervals between November, 1906, and June, 1909, in L’Initiation, being the official organ of French Martinism, issued under the editorship of the President of its Supreme Council. In addition to the fact that the two codices are substantially identical in so far as they cover the same ground, there are internal reasons which satisfy me that the extensions and additamenta in the printed copy may be accepted as genuine. It was preceded in March, 1906, by certain bibliographical particulars respecting the manuscript on which it was based. They appeared anonymously, or rather over the initial X, and I give the following heads of the notice under all necessary reserves, though I have no personal doubt that they are approximately correct; (1) The archives of the Egyptian Lodge called Wisdom Triumphant at Lyons passed into the possession of members belonging to its successor called Memphis, which met in the same building, from the year 1805 onward. The suggestion appears to be that it worked Egyptian Masonry, but this I regard as doubtful. In any case it was closed by the police in 1822, for political reasons, and in the year 1906 it was still in a state of suspension. (2) The archives included Cagliostro’s autograph manuscript of Egyptian Masonry—a large volume in quarto, unbound, and containing many diagrams. (3) In some unexplained manner, this autograph had come into the possession of a certain Dubreuil, of the Lodge Wisdom Triumphant, who bequeathed it to an unnamed person, by whom it was left to the Lodge Perfect Silence. The Secretary of this Lodge was its custodian in 1906. The fate of the other archives is not mentioned in the memorial.

Egyptian Tracing-Boards

So far as there are variations in ceremonial procedure and liturgy of the three Grades, they are of no special importance, but it may be mentioned that there are full particulars of the Tracing-Boards belonging to each; (1) Entered Apprentice.—The diagram exhibited the door of a Temple approached by seven steps and covered by a curtain, on the right and left of which were the words Arcanum Magnum and Gemma Secretorum. (2) Companion.—As we have seen already, a Temple placed in a heart, with the Sun and Moon shining thereon. (3) Master.—A Phoenix on a flaming pyre, beneath which are a sword en sautoir and Caduceus. In the Apprentice Diagram a Master-Mason threatens a sleeping Mercury, who stands for the First Matter; in that of Companion, Saturn is added to these; while the Third Tracing-Board shews Time deprived of his scythe, which lies broken at the feet of the Mason.

Lectures of the Grades

Catechisms or Lectures attached to the Grades are purely and simply those of Hermetic Masonry; but in place of claiming to draw from the great masters of old it casts them summarily aside, not excepting Hermes himself, Basil Valentine, Arnold de Villanova, Raymond Lully, and Bernard Trévisan, electing to rest solely on the authority and inspiration of the sublime Copht and founder of Egyptian Masonry. In the Grade of Entered Apprentice it is said that the First Matter was created before man, whose immortality would have been ensured thereby, but man abused the Divine Goodness: the great gift was removed and placed in the custody of a few elect beings, among whom were Enoch, Elias, Moses, David, Solomon and the King of Tyre. It is said that a grain of this Matter “becomes a projection to infinity.” It is symbolised especially by the Acacia, but the Rough Ashlar signifies its mercurial part, which is said to become cubical after complete purification. It must then be slain with a poniard—thus introducing a new form of imagery which stultifies the first kind. There follows a further purification in respect of the dead body, according to a regimen of seven stages, corresponding to and exhibiting seven colours, the last of which is like that of fresh blood. This brings about a marriage between the Sun and Moon. It is affirmed that the philosophical process is exhibited in the traditional history of the Craft, understood here as the murder of Adoniram. It is not worth while reciting the variants of the legend as presented by Egyptian Masonry, for it is in grave contradiction with itself and makes nonsense of Scripture history.

Second Grade Lecture

The Catechism attached to the Second Degree represents the Rose as a symbol of the First Matter and then mentions a retreat of forty days, during which the hypothetical subject is administered as an elixir or medicine. This constitutes the physical regeneration of Cagliostro, which is well known in the story of his life. There is also a spiritual regeneration, which takes place during the course of another retreat: it renews the moral part of man. When man is regenerated physically and morally he recovers that great power which he forfeited when he lost his innocence at the Fall. This was Cagliostro’s second and greater magisterium; but it was the first which Cardinal de Rohan is reputed to have undergone, though history does not say that he profited in the result. Outside its alchemical aspects, the following points may be collected from this document: (1) The symbolical age of a Companion is thirty-three years, with the hope of regaining childhood and attaining in fine the spiritual status of 5557. (2) Perfection is not attained by bodily austerities or other external penances, but by casting forth vices from the soul and by fervid love of virtue. (3) The word of a Companion is HELOYM; it was formulated by the Creator when He gave life and immortality to the First Matter; it signies “I will, and do ordain that my will be done.”

Master Grade

The procedure of this Grade is in part after the manner of Ceremonial Magic, for the Presiding Officer moves—as we have seen—around the Temple, describing circles with his sword and reciting occult formulae. The Catechism dwells further upon the Rose as representing the First Matter and upon the Pentagon as the fruit of the Great Work of moral regeneration by the retreat of forty days. The Phoenix on the Tracing-Board signifies that the True Mason rises from his ashes and death has no further power upon him, as shewn by the Scythe of Time lying broken at his feet. The labours of the Degree are said to be purely spiritual.

Women of the Rite

The printed codex is by no means confined to the three super-Craft Rituals. The Laws and Constitutions of the Order are given at full length, with formulas of Patents and other official documents. There is further a mode of invoking the Seven Angels attributed by occult lore to the Seven Planets and also the Twelve Ancients, who are presumably those of the Apocalypse. Finally there are the Adoptive Grades of Egyptian Masonry, presumably as worked on that historical occasion when Princesse de Lamballe was initiated, passed and raised. Madame Cagliostro was Grand Mistress of this branch of the Rite.

General Conclusion

There is no question that Egyptian Masonry is much ado about little or that it existed for the glorification of the sublime Copht and the furtherance of his particular schemes in occult medicine. So far as it is concerned with Magic it is a reflection of well-known ceremonial procedure in past centuries; on the alchemical side its thesis concerning the First Matter does not differ from that which obtains in the general course of the literature, with which in other respects it exhibits no acquaintance, nor does it offer anything to replace the authorities whom it rejects. I should think that the inventive mind of Cagliostro had dwelt upon things to follow his scheme of the Craft Grades, but the Revolution intervened in respect of France at large, while the Holy Office took charge of the pupil of Althotas. I have only to add that the work of Mr. J. M. Trowbridge, to which I have referred, is entitled Cagliostro: The Splendour and Misery of a Master of Magic.

The New Encyclopaedia of Freemasonry. Vol. I pp. 89–99. 1970