The Fulcanelli Mystery, 3 Alchemical Legends and the Reality of the Cross

©1999 Jay Weidner and Vincent Bridges
Republished with permission of Jay Weidner.

However we approach the subject of Alchemy, we are rewarded with a mystery, until the entire subject becomes an infinite regression of mirrored mysteries. And so, if we are not careful, we end up finding only the face of our own bias. The secret protects itself, even when it is displayed in plain sight.
Fulcanelli serves as an example. The occult savants of Paris wanted to believe in the possibility of physical transmutation, therefore the suggestion that someone had actually done it grew into an obsession. A modern day Flamel, they thought, a renegade physical chemist who, like the Curies, had stumbled on a way to manipulate the radioactive “light” locked within matter. No matter that not a trace of such speculation could be found in Le Mystere; all alchemist wrote in code anyway. So the mystery focused on who was Fulcanelli? If his identity could be discovered, then the transmutation could be verified. Unfortunately, no one ever claimed the title and presented his proof.
But the idea persisted. There had been a “real” alchemist in the 20th century. There is even a touch of the surreal to the image: a tall aristocratic elder guiding a group of young acolytes through the transmutational process in a municipal gasworks laboratory. Canseliet of course is our source for these images, leaked through the years as a way, perhaps, to carefully perpetuate the myth.
In the same fashion, the idea that “Fulcanelli” was a committee has also handicapped our understanding of what the work itself has to say. The example of the Hendaye chapter is significant here. Because it can’t be made to fit neatly into the pattern of the “hoax” or committee hypothesis, it is simply ignored.
The circumstantial evidence suggests that there really was a person behind the Fulcanelli mask, whose intermittent visits seemed to produce change and upheaval in Canseliet’s life. Each appearance marked a major turning point, from his first encounter to his last. Fulcanelli would also seem to be virtually immortal, appearing to be roughly half his probable age the last time Canseliet saw him. As for the gender-bending androgyny of the completed Great Work, well, the jury is still out on that one. It could have been Fulcanelli’s daughter or grand-daughter. It could have a dream or an initiation, or even some fantasy of Canseliet’s long held love for his Master. But, the unavoidable fact remains, some sort of meeting occurred in the early 1950s and the Hendaye chapter’s inclusion in the second edition of Le Mystere was the result of that encounter.
The appearance of the second edition of Dwellings in 1959 marked another watershed. The catastrophe theme was openly discussed in Canseliet’s preface to that edition. Within the year, the legend would gain another twist with the publication of the first newage bestseller, The Morning Of The Magicians by Pauwels and Bergier. The Fulcanelli phenomenon began to exhibit new life, growing in unexpected directions.
Magicians cemented the image of Fulcanelli as the archetypal 20th century alchemist, warning of the dangers of atomic energy like the best contemporary “space brothers” and ascended masters. In 1960, this was undoubtedly the view of the occult establishment, whose perspectives Pauwels and Bergier were exploring. The mish-mash of ideas thrown together in Magicians does manage to ask some of the right questions. In the course of this investigation, we would find ourselves returning again and again to the synchronicities of Morning of the Magicians.
It served however to introduce the story of Fulcanelli to an English speaking audience. A decade or so later, this interest would bear fruit in the excellent translation by Mary Sworder of Le Mystere’s second edition. Soon after the translation was published, the only full scale work on alchemy and Fulcanelli in English appeared. The Fulcanelli Phenomenon by Kenneth Raynor Johnson, published in England in 1980, raised more questions than it answered.
Phenomenon is in many ways an excellent book on the history and practice of alchemy. Its information on Fulcanelli and Canseliet is solid and well presented. In some cases, it is our only source for large pieces of the puzzle. However, the careful reader is left with an after- taste of special pleading. Johnson, ultimately, is obscuring as much as he is revealing. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the epilogue, an examination of the Hendaye Cross written by someone named Paul Mevryl.
In a way, we should be grateful that anyone had the courage to comment on Hendaye in print. Up to this point, it was conspicuous by its absence from the literature. Mevryl tackles it head-on in a wild explosion of science fiction and creative cryptography. The skeptical reader may be forgiven for throwing up his hands in disgust and declaring the whole thing a hoax or an hallucination. And, perhaps, that is exactly what the article was intended to accomplish.
Fulcanelli, and alchemy in general, is a subject that inspires obscurantist literature. Most books on alchemy, particularly those written by adepts, are designed to confuse the unwary or naive reader. Only those that possess the key to the language can read their real message. But the books written about Fulcanelli, starting with Morning of the Magicians fall into a new category of obscurantism. They seem specifically designed to obscure Fulcanelli, as if he had somehow given too much away.
The next major work to mention Fulcanelli in any depth certainly is obscure. Refuge of the Apocalypse, by Elizabeth Van Buren, begins with a description of Hendaye and Fulcanelli’s comments on it. She quotes Fulcanelli’s warning to Canseliet, then jumps to a statement that Fulcanelli told others that the place of refuge was Rennes, in the Aude of southern France. From this slender reed, Van Buren builds a complex thesis that involves the bloodline of Jesus, tunnel openings and landscape zodiacs all pointing to Rennes-le-Chateau as Fulcanelli’s “single place of refuge.”
This digression into the world of Holy Blood/Holy Grail, by Baigent, Lincoln and Leigh, was strange enough. The next book to dwell on Fulcanelli was even more bizarre. Al-Kemi: A Memoir – Hermetic, Occult, Political and Private Aspects of R. A. Schwaller de Lubicz, by Andre VandenBroeck, revealed that the esoteric Egyptologist had close connections with the Fulcanelli group. At this point, all a researcher can do is to echo poor Alice: “curiouser and curiouser.”
And, like Alice, somewhere along the line we stepped through the looking glass.
From the mouth of the Nive at Bayonne to the straits of Bidassoa, the southwest coast of France is known as the Cote D’Argent, to contrast it with the Cote D’Azur of the French Riviera on the Mediterranean. While never as famous as the Riviera, the Cote D’Argent has always been something of a royal playground. The Sun King, Louis XIV, spent his honeymoon on the beach at St. Jean-de-Luz while Biarritz, just a little farther up the coast, was the Victorian royal resort par excellence. Everyone, from the Empress Eugenie and Napoleon III to Queen Victoria, Prince Albert and the Prince of Wales, seemed to show up for the season.
H. G. Wells made the small tuna fishing town of St Jean-de-Luz famous as an intellectual resort. It’s not hard to imagine the impeccable Wells and his walrus mustache ensconced on the long white beach, tuna nets strung from poles to dry in the sun while the boats trawl in the far distance, dictating the History of Mankind to a small army of assistants. Wells, Aldous Huxley and the smart young London set discovered St. Jean-de-Luz in 1920 and by 1926 or so the luxury villas had spread as far down as Hendaye.
Located at the point where the Pyrenees meet the Gulf of Gascogne, Hendaye has always been a frontier town. Much later, when one side of the mountains had become French and the other Spanish, a young Sun King, Louis XIV at the height of his good looks and power, met his bride, Princess Marie-Therese of Spain, on an island in the bay below Hendaye, gracefully escorting her along the boundary between their two countries. They were married at the small church in St. Jean-de-Luz, dedicated to St. John the Baptist, and, in that glorious summer of 1660, it must have seemed as if a new European dynasty of almost Pharaonic brilliance was in the making.
A few years later – around 1680, give or take a decade -someone built an enigmatic mortuary monument in the parish cemetery of St. Vincent’s church at Hendaye. The date of its construction, who or what it was meant to memorialize, even its original location have all been lost. All that is known about the Cyclic Cross, as Fulcanelli labeled it, is that it was moved from the cemetery to the southwest corner of the churchyard in 1842 when the church underwent a restoration. There it remains today, a battered and fading monument to the end of time.
It sits in a very small courtyard just to the south of the church. There is a small garden with a park bench nearby. Standing about 12 feet tall, The Cyclic Cross at Hendaye looms over the courtyard, an ambiguous apparition in the clear Basque sunlight. The monument is brown and discolored from its 300 plus years. The facade is starting to crumble and it’s obvious that the air pollution the Cross sits a few yards from a busy street on the main square is speeding its dissolution. The Cross will be completely eroded in a few more years. The images and the Latin inscription on the Cross have no more than a generation left before pollution wipes the images clean and the message disappears forever.
The base of local sandstone sits on a broad but irregular three step platform, and is roughly cubic. Close examination reveals that it is a little taller than it is wide. On each face are curious symbols, a sunface glaring like some ancient American sungod, a strange shield-like arrangement of A’s in the arms of a cross, an eight-sided starburst, and most curious of all, an old-fashioned man-in-the-moon face.
Rising from this is a fluted column, with a suggestion of Greek classicism, on top of which stands a very rudely done Greek cross with Latin inscriptions. Above the sunface on the western side can be seen a double X figure on the top portion of the cross. Below that, on the transverse arm, is the common inscription “Hail, O Cross, The Only Hope.” On the reverse side of the upper cross, above the starburst, is the Christian symbol INRI.
Fulcanelli tells us that “whatever its age, the Hendaye cross shows by the decoration of its pedestal that it is the strangest monument of primitive millenarism, the rarest symbolic translation of Chilaism, which I have ever met.” Coming from Canseliet’s Master, this is striking enough to command attention.
But what he does mean by “primitive millenarism?” And how are the decorations on the pedestal “the rarest symbolic translation of Chilaism?” What, exactly, is Chilaism?
Fulcanelli provides some guidance by referring to the Fathers of the Church, Origen, St. Denis of Alexandria and St. Jerome, who first accepted and then refuted the chilaist doctrine. Then he tells us that Chilaism “was part of the esoteric tradition of the ancient hermetic philosophy.”
Chilaism was a second century CE Gnostic belief in a literal renewal of the earth after its destruction on the Day of Judgment. This transformed world would be free of sin, a virtual paradise of sensual delights, feasts and weddings, the gnostic chilaists preached. Naturally the more orthodox branches of the church found this threatening, although, as Fulcanelli points out, it was never officially condemned. It was refuted, by Origen – a 2nd century CE Church patriarch who is now our main source of information on the chilaists – and slowly faded into the heretical underground.
“Primitive millenarism” is an even more curious phrase. The use of the word “primitive” in this context suggests “prime” or “primeval,” definitely pre-Christian, or even pre-historic. The monument then is not only an example of heretical Christian belief, but also somehow describes a primitive, or ancient, view of the end of the world. Fulcanelli makes the point even more pointed when he comments “that the unknown workman, who made these images, possessed real and profound knowledge of the universe.”
So, we are presented with a strange monument, which describes both a heretical Christian view of the apocalypse, and a very ancient primitive view of the same apparently cosmological event. And most amazing of all, Fulcanelli is implying that this concept is a part of the “esoteric tradition of the ancient hermetic philosophy” known as alchemy. In the entire literature of alchemy and its history, no one else has ever openly connected it with eschatology. On first glance, it seems ridiculous. How can the end of the world, the apocalypse and so on, be connected in any way with turning lead into gold?
As we dug deeper, we discovered that Fulcanelli had left us a clue, a major clue, to the big secret at the core of alchemy. We would find that alchemy had always been associated with the idea of time and timing, and that, as Fulcanelli informed us, Chilaism lay at the center of the idea of transforming time itself. We would even discover the simple and literal truth of Fulcanelli’s statement that the unknown designer of the Cross had real and true knowledge of the universe. From that knowledge, displayed by the Hendaye Cross, we would eventually unravel a whole new perspective on alchemy, one that touched on the deepest mysteries of magic, mysticism and religion. And one that posed the question of extinction or enlightenment for the entire planet.