One of the most baffling if not well-liked occult charmers of the eighteenth century is a man known later in life as Count Alessandro di Cagliostro. A man of great energy and even greater aspirations, his name remains tinted with associations dark and sinister.
Even his original identity has been disputed over the years, but the general consensus holds that the man recognized as the founder of the freemasonry Egyptian Rite was born Giuseppe Balsamo, son of a poor peasant in Palermo, Italy in 1743.
Possessing a natural degree of occult powers, including second sight, Cagliostro got involved early in alchemy and astrology. Accounts of his bewitcheries and misdeeds are well-documented by a unfavorable Inquisition biographer. Two European literary giants, Goethe and Carlyle, each took a shot at understanding this strange magician, but with opposing sympathies. The great German poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, while working on his version of the celebrated Faustus myth was so enraptured by the notoriety of this reputed sorcerer that he once paid a visit to Balsamo's family while in Palermo. Carlyle considered him one of the greatest cheats ever born.
One of the first descriptions of Cagliostro's hypnotic powers of persuasion and prophecy is recounted by the Baroness Dooberkirch, who upon first meeting him, was informed in bold and brash language by this daring provocateur, "You lost your mother a long time ago. You hardly remember her. You were an only child. You have one daughter, and she will be an only child. You will have no more children."
Her attendant that day was a Cardinal Rohan. The Baroness was naturally miffed at the impertinence of this indelicate ruffian's remarks, but was persuaded to respond to Caglisotro by the cardinal. She admitted the truth about herself, and ultimately, his prediction about the number of children was realized.
The Baroness wrote that Cagliostro "was possessed of a demonic power. He enthralled the mind, paralyzed the will."
Still a teenager, Cagliostro, in one story, gained the confidence of a miserly goldsmith by promising him that he could conjure gold. Full of vigor and ease of tongue, the young rogue arranged for an incantation ritual in a remote pasture at midnight. At the crucial moment, a group of rowdies dressed up as devils invaded the grounds, knocking the miser unconscious. This provided Cagliostro an out. Whether or not he had hired the demonic assailants for this particular heist is not the point, but the young would-be sorcerer, incredibly, convinced the groggy goldsmith that the devils had made off with the large amount of precious ore he had brought with him to help prime the conjuration process.
Many stories of forgeries, swindles, lottery predictions, and calamitous tribulations due to his wife's extraordinary charm and beauty betrayed by her inclination for both accepting and rejecting outside seduction, paper the walls of Caglisotro's early years. But on April 12, 1777, he and his wife entered into a relationship that would add far greater weight to his reputation as a mystic and magician than the petty maneuvers generated in his previous adventures.
They became freemasons. The freemasons are a "secret society" which traces its roots all the way back to the first man, Adam. Important are the Solomonic teachings handed down by sacred rite generation to generation, initiate to initiate, bound to a code of secrecy. Originally a society of stone workers, or masons, the society would travel around Europe wherever great buildings were being erected. Charged to secrecy, the society became a nesting ground for occultists of every persuasion, complete with a system of secret signs for recognizing fellow members.
The fundamental purpose of the society is to hand down the sacred mystery; the mystery on which supposedly the fate of mankind rests. A secondary aim is to purify the hearts and enlighten the minds of its members by means handed down by tradition. The third purpose of the cult is to regenerate mankind.
Cagliostro was thirty-four when he entered the society. He had grown weary and bored after twenty years of life on the road. His induction into the freemasonry effected an amazing permutation upon the man who was considered a born magician.
He was no ordinary novitiate. He believed himself a grand master by right, and the masons accepted this powerful personality without restraints. His sharp mind had been needing just such a system of thought to help give meaning to his life beyond the stale excitement of the perpetual wanderer. He surmised that as Rome was the original home of Catholicism, so was England the present home of freemasonry. But where was the original home?
Cagliostro did not hesitate in providing the answer to his own question. Egypt and the pyramids were most certainly the first grand architectural and cultural achievements, said the self-assured wizard. He claimed that on a recent visit to London that he had stumbled across a manuscript on the subject of Egyptian magic and masonry, and from that point on, he devoted the rest of his life to establishing the Egyptian rite.
Old dogs, old tricks. As he became absorbed with this new rite, Caligliostro still managed to serve in his old capacity as con artist, but his intentions now were not personal. He was quickly becoming the great proselytizer. By suggesting that the founders of the Egyptian rite were the prophets Elijah and Enoch, the two men who the Bible say never died, Cagliostro had arranged his system to allow for his own immortality. He bragged ever so sublimely that he was thousands of years old.
But what should be noted is that with his newly found interest in freemasonry, profound effects on his occult skills were immediate. Amazing clairvoyance and healing powers increased his reputation around Europe. More often than not, he used children as his medium, and practiced clairvoyance by gazing into a bowl of water. Yet he was not above fixing the results on some occasions. While he was by this time a rich man, he had always been somewhat of a sidewalk philanthropist, and now set out to practice his good deeds on a large scale, shunning luxury quarters, distributing alms, and curing the poor sick.
Aristocrats he had begun to despise, rejecting their requests for his services. When the philosopher Lavater, a friend of Goethe, asked to meet him, he replied in characteristic bombast, "If your science is greater than mine, you have no need of my acquaintance. If mine is greater, I have no need of yours." The philosopher persisted, and soon became the most affectionate of the magician's allies.
After a nasty complicated affair involving the confidence of Cardinal Rohan, a young girl forgerer named Nicole Doolivia, a dazzling jeweled necklace, a countess, and Queen Antoinette, Caglisotro, the innocent bystander was hauled off to the Bastille along with his wife, after the Queen discovered the plot the Cardinal and the girl had conspired to lure her into their web of deceit. Although an interesting story, Cagliostro's part in the absurd plot to help the cardinal regain the Queen's admiration is secondary to a few remarks concerning his presumed highly acute occult gifts.
As the lives of all involved were thrown into shambles, some forever, others barely less so, it appears that Cagliostro's powers deserted him during this time. Why would a sorcerer of his caliber not suspect the tragedy that awaited not only himself but all these others with whom he intimately communicated? Surely an unsolved mystery.
But after his release from prison in 1786 and subsequent flight to London, he wrote a letter he addressed to the French people, which sold many copies in Paris, and is eerily chock full of prophetic references. He declares that he would not return to the French city until the Bastille is pulled down and made into a public promenade, and predicts that the French will have a prince who will abolish arbitrary orders of imprisonment, and will convene a general parliament. He further stated that this prince will not be satisfied with being the first of his ministers, but will aim at being the first of Frenchmen.
Whether Napoleon actually stole his classic lines from this letter or had never been exposed to them, we shall never know, but Cagliostro obviously had become poetically if not prophetically involved in the near future of a country at war with itself and the old order of the unreliable oligarchy.
He died in 1797 in San Leo prison after returning to Rome to proclaim his Egyptian rites too close to the papal torque. His trial was considered a holy war on freemasonry, but neither church nor the secret society have lost any ground in the two hundred years since this remarkable man passed away at the age of fifty-two.