But Who Was Fulcanelli?
On the Guitar album, Zappa named one of the solos "But Who Was
Fulcanelli?". Many Zappa fans have asked the same question; so have countless others.
Fulcanelli was, or wasn't, an extremely secretive early 20th-century alchemist. All that
can be said for certain is that two books were published in the name of Fulcanelli - Le Mystère des Cathédrales ("Mystery of the
Cathedrals") and Les Demeures Philosophales ("The
Dwellings of the Philosophers"). These extremely remarkable books are highly regarded
among most alchemists, and are some of the most influential and important works of alchemy
to surface in the 20th century. Who really wrote them can probably never be determined;
theories certainly abound. Fulcanelli himself has been said to have lived unnaturally
long, died in several different places, risen from the dead - you name it.
As Patrick Neve points out, from the David Ocker interview under users.cableaz.com/~lantz/,
we learn that Zappa was indeed interested in Fulcanelli:
AFFZ: Fulcanelli was the "last of the alchemists" - I believe
he was immortal a la Comte St. Germain, and possibly also discovered the
philosopher's stone. His true identity is obscure.
AFFZ: There is a little more to this story - Fulcanelli believed that
the secrets of Christian hermeticsm were to be found in bas-reliefs throughout
Europe's cathedrals - after he bestowed this knowledge upon a trusted
disciple in 1920 (whereupon Le Mystère des Cathédrales
was published) he disappeared without a trace. Thirty years later he made a
single appearance to his disciple, before disappearing again, and, according to
his disciple, actually had grown younger by at least 20 years.
DAVID OCKER: I've always wondered who Fulcanelli was since I heard Frank give
that name as the answer to the question "Which character from history would
you most like to meet?" (At the time I wrote the name down on a post-it
note so I wouldn't forget and the post it note still lives in my desk drawer). I
don't presume to understand either of the above explanations or whether they
might contradict one another or not.
Sample Article on the Fulcanelli Mystery
To give some idea about the mystique that surrounds Fulcanelli, here is an article by Patrick
J. Smith, posted on April 11 1996 to an alchemy forum on the levity.com website. [Disclaimer: This article does
not represent the last word on Fulcanelli, was certainly controversial on the alchemy
forum, and might be called heavily biassed.]
During the 1930s, an investigation into the identity of Fulcanelli was conducted by
Robert Ambelain, a student of the occult who had been inspired by Fulcanelli's books.
Having written a book of his own, Ambelain went to see Jean Schemit, the original
publisher of Fulcanelli's works. While there Schemit told him that, in 1926, he was
visited by a stranger who had not given his name, but had engaged him in conversation
about the hermetic symbols encoded in Gothic architecture. A few weeks later, Canseliet
appeared with the manuscript of Le Mystère des Cathédrales,
which, Schemit noted, was filled with the same ideas and phrases used by his vistor of a
few weeks before. Later, Canseliet returned with Jean-Julien Champagne, the illustrator,
whom Schemit immediately recognized as the visitor. In his presence, Canseliet often
referred to Champagne as his Master, and so, from these and other clues, Schemit became
convinced that Fulcanelli and Champagne were one and the same.
Ambelain's attention was again drawn to Champagne by an article in which Champagne
described one of his illustrations in clearly alchemistical terms, while Canseliet had
always passed him off as a talented illustrator with no particular knowledge of alchemy.
Hence, following his talk with Schemit, Ambelain decided to follow up his inquiries.
Champagne was born on January 23, 1877. He was interested in art from an early age, and
is said to have begun his alchemical work at the age of sixteen. In 1916 he met Eugene
Canseliet, who was then seventeen years old, and took him on as a student. In 1921,
according to Ambelain's account, Champagne became the teacher of the sons of his friend,
Ferdinand de Lesseps, who was setting up a laboratory at Bourges. Champagne had boasted
that within six months he would be able to manufacture gold, but succeeded only in losing
about 60g of the metal. In 1922, Champagne met Jules Boucher, and was persuaded to take
him and Gaston Sauvage on as students. It was Jules Boucher who later gave Ambelain much
of his information. Boucher told Ambelain that his Master (Champagne) was the one who had
corrected the proofs to both of Fulcanelli's books, and had made all the decisions
concerning their production.
From the beginning of 1925, Champagne and Canseliet lived at the same address in Paris
(#59 rue Rochechouart) in sixth floor attic rooms. During this period Champagne
established a secret society known as the Freres d'Heliopolis to whom both of Fulcanelli's
works were dedicated. This group, however, was limited to Champagne, Canseliet, Sauvage,
Boucher, and a couple of others. It was through this group that the first mention of
Fulcanelli was made.
Over the years, Champagne had told many people, both in writing and in person, that he
was Fulcanelli, and even thus signed Boucher's copy of Le
Mystère des Cathédrales. Evidently, he also left clues in Fulcanelli's books.
Ambelain observed that on the last page of the original edition of Le Mystère des Cathédrales was a shield with the motto:
UBER CAMPA AGNA, which is a phonetic approximation of Hubert Champagne (according to
Boucher, his full name was Jean-Julien Hubert Champagne).
When Ambelain called at Canseliet and Champagne's old address in 1936, he found their
ex-concierge, Mme. Labille, still there. She told him that in all the time Champagne had
lived there he had only ever received three visitors: Canseliet, Boucher and Sauvage.
||"Zappa invented the nature of music, he is music. His repeated
references to the Devil is no joke, he IS the devil. He's been around to put rhythm in man's first footsteps. He
casted a spell into the once silent bird's lungs to spread the word, the plauge, of music
to everyone and everything. He knew the future of music and all its powers. It is no
mistake where music is going, oh no, he has it all under control and always will.
He set forth the sword of melody into the Chinaman to enrich
emotions of war."
||OnionPalac, alt.fan.frank-zappa, September 1999
Throughout his life, Canseliet steadfastly denied and dismissed the evidence pointing
to Champagne. Jacques Sadoul also dismissed it for an interesting reason: that Champagne
is certainly dead, and therefore couldn't be Fulcanelli. To understand this arguement, we
turn to the year 1937, when Jacques Bergier was working as an assistant to the scientist
M. Hellbronner, who was later killed by the Nazis. They were engaged in experiments
relating to low-level nuclear transmutations in an apparatus which employed high power
electrical discharges in an evacuated tube. One afternoon in June of that year Bergier was
visited by a stranger who said that he was an alchemist and proceeded to warn him of the
perils facing humanity from nuclear energy, and read a passage from Soddy's Interpretation of Radium to make the point.
He also stated that:
Geometrical arrangements of extremely pure substances suffice to loose atomic forces
without the use of electricity or the vacuum technique ...
Throughout his life, Bergier believed that the stranger was, in fact, Fulcanelli, and
the story, which has been repeated in a number of publications, has become part of the
legend. Years later, Bergier learned that the atomic pile could be
described as a "geometrical arrangement of extremely pure substances" and indeed
required neither electricty nor the use of a vacuum to loose nuclear forces. Bergier
concluded that the stranger must have been decades ahead of official science. The problem
with this is that there is a much simpler explanation.
The alchemical opus was generally described as a series of purifications which aim to
produce a substance which is purer than anything found on earth. The Aristotelian elements
which we perceive in the mundane world were thought to be corrupted to a greater or lesser
extent, and thus were only poor approximations to the ideal elements of
earth, water, air, and fire, much as in the allegory of Plato's cave, the shadows on the
cave wall are mistaken for reality they only represent. The object of the alchemical work
was to purify the elements, and the Philosopher's Stone was often described as a species
of gold, purer than the purest. It was also described as a solid, heavy, crystalline
substance, and was believed to possess the power of nuclear transmutation. Now, if a
self-admitted alchemist explains that a geometrical arrangement of extremely pure
substances suffice to loose atomic forces, the obvious conclusion is that he is describing
the Philosopher's Stone! However, faced with this circumstance, Bergier
thought that he must have meant an atomic pile, even though such had not yet been
invented. For this, Bergier, who had little knowledge of alchemical philosophy, might be
forgiven. But the story is repeated uncritically by Jacques Sadoul, Kenneth Johnson, and
others, all of whom spent years studying alchemy!
Of course, this doesn't prove that the stranger wasn't Fulcanelli, although it does
suggest that Bergier's visitor did not anticipate twentieth-century nuclear physics, but
had a conventional understanding of alchemy. The identity of the stranger remains unknown.
But his ideas, as related by Bergier, bear little resemblance to those of Fulcanelli, and
there is really no evidence linking the two. Thus Jacques Sadoul's objection, based on the
premise that Fulcanelli remained alive, begins to appear unsupportable.
But Canseliet also claimed to have seen Fulcanelli in 1954, twenty-two years after the
death of Champagne. In that year, according to friends of Canseliet (who related the story
to Kenneth Johnson), he was compelled to pack his bags and travel overland to Seville,
Spain, where he was taken by a long, circuitous route to a large castle, somewhere in the
mountains. On arrival, he was greeted by his old Master, Fulcanelli, who had not
physically aged over the intervening years. Canseliet was conducted to the upper floor of
a turret overlooking a broad courtyard where, later, he saw a number of children dressed
in the style of the sixteenth-century. He was allotted a laboratory for his experiments,
in which he became engrossed. Occasionally, Fulcanelli would appear and speak with him
briefly. One morning, Canseliet descended the staircase to the bottom of the turret and,
while standing in an archway that opened onto the courtyard, was approached by three women
wearing long, flowing, sixteenth-century styled dresses. As the women walked by, one of
them turned, looked at him, smiled, turned away, and walked on. Canseliet was
stunned - the face of the woman was that of Fulcanelli! Canseliet eventually returned
to France with only a vague, dream-like recollection of the events. He never again saw
The incredible nature of this story aside, the embedded alchemical symbolism is
unmistakeable. In fact, without entering into a discussion of its exact symbolic meaning,
it's interesting that similar alchemical analogies appear in Le
Mystère des Cathédrales. For instance, on page 44 of the Neville-Spearman or
Brotherhood of Life edition of the Sworder translation, footnote #8, Fulcanelli wrote:
It is said that Tireseas was deprived of his sight for revealing to mortals the secrets
of Olympus. However he lived "for seven, eight or nine ages of man" and is
supposed to have been successively man and woman.
Alchemists often symbolized alchemical operations or sequences under the guise of a
journey, and Fulcanelli was well aware of this, as he had analyzed Flamel's symbolic
journey in his first book. There, he described the Traveller or Pilgrim as emblems of the
principle of Mercury. Though there is evidence that Canseliet did actually travel to
Spain, his account of the events while there was almost certainly symbolic, and hence
there is no reason to believe that Fulcanelli, whoever he was, survives.
Champagne died in 1932 of absinthe. Although a third Fulcanelli book was later
rumoured, nothing more was ever printed. Jean Schemit died in 1945. Jules Boucher died in
1957. Jacques Bergier in 1978. Eugene Canseliet pursued the alchemical quest throughout
his long life, but, in the end, admitted failure. He died in the mid 1980s. And thus came
to a close a strange chapter in the strange history of alchemy. If Fulcanelli really was
someone other than Champagne and yet survives, as some care to believe, it's difficult to
understand how he could have let all his old friends and colleagues die when he had the
power to save them. It is much easier to believe that Canseliet faithfully kept a promise
to conceal the true identity of Fulcanelli, and over the years managed to keep his old
friend and mentor alive in the minds of other men.
(If you care to read more about Fulcanelli (and one could hardly blame you), and you
read French, you might want to seek out Geneviève Dubois's book Fulcanelli Dévoilé, which argues an identification of
Fulcanelli with Champagne, Canseliet and a P. Dujols, working in collaboration.)