The Illuminated Myth of Mzona by Richard of Kédange (1802-1879). Part II

The Ichts / The Sator Arepo mechanism / Two Evas

The Ichts

When looking through these magic books, one is quickly confronted with the question of whether there was a system here that was comprehensible and decipherable, at least in parts, or whether it was an entirely idiosyncratic construct, a blooming nonsense, a crazy simulation of magical practice. Is that Richard to be imagined as some kind of outsider artist, like an Adolf Wölffli, who delved into manic ornamental worlds, or a someone like a Melvin Way, who clothed himself in diagrams of fantasised equations and formulae? After all, with these grimoires he docked onto a traditional form of functional literature. And the various techniques and systems to which he alluded, however consistently, such as gematria, astrological tabularity, sigil magic, cabalistic schemes, incantations, all presupposed a basic knowledge that he could hardly have acquired via a few abstruse folk magic books.

According to the Pétrys’ research, Richard’s life before his internment occurred within a limited radius of about 10 km. However, the astonishing development of his pictorial and symbolic language makes it seem quite conceivable that, at least in the early stages, he was engaged in a lively exchange with a variety of persons. Lorraine was notorious in the 16th and 17th centuries as a hotspot for persecutions of sorcerers and witches. Was it possible that a magical culture had survived in those rural regions, in which someone like Pierre Richard could establish himself as a kind of Christian shaman or dabtara?

His books are distinguished by a very intensive and sensual approach to scripture, and this despite the fact that illiteracy was widespread among the rural population. Thanks to the educational initiative of a patronising nobleman, he must have had an extraordinarily good school education by the standards of the time. The fact that the youth of the village of Kédang was taught by a Jewish teacher is taken by the Pétrys as an indication that he could have come into contact with Jewish mysticism at an early age. This may have also provided him with contacts to the Talmud schools of the large Jewish community in Metz, which had become a centre of Jewish scholarship in France since the beginning of the 19th century.

According to the Pétrys, the real trigger for Richard’s obsession with protective spells was the double shock caused by the death of his mother and his subsequent dispossession. In fact, terms of deception and fraud appear again and again in the endless permutations of syllables. The first name of the half-brother is also mentioned in such a context. The fact that he appeals against disaster not only to Michael the demon-fighter but also to Saint Joseph, namely Joseph the soldier (Joseph le soldat), can be interpreted as a plea to the patron saint of paternity to stand up for his legitimate inheritance. But one can also identify in this constellation a clear indication of his very special and distinctive form of Marian cult, at whose core the integrity of a mother-son relationship stood, that was outside of sin and sexuality. At the time of the creation of these magic books the mystery of the Immaculate Conception had been canonised as a dogma. Mary and her Son had thus also been cut off and elevated once and for all from their Jewish origins. And Pierre himself, by increasingly embracing the Christ-nature through his own sufferings, was part of this exclusive union, doubly shielded by Mary’s protective mantle and the paternity of the chaste Joseph.

The autobiographical component of his magic books is obvious alone from the countless variations of his own name. Richard becomes “Richardora”, “Richardia”, “Richardera”, “Richarda”, “Richardoria” and so on. It is surprising that in most cases the suffixes were feminine or neutral. Did they refer to apparitions of the deceased mother or to states of spiritual communion with her? Was it even about forms of esoteric androynity? Still stranger were the frequent variations in which the initial R was replaced by the number 8, “8ichardtendra”, “8ichardoria” and so on.  Most of the talismans consisted of eight sidereal spheres, 8 also as a number of infinity symbolising the celestial and terrestrial cycles.  But why was this 8 open at the head end in most cases? Was it simply a calligraphic pecularity?

The fact that his surname contained the first personal pronoun obviously had a very special meaning for the author. However, the “ich” (German for “I”) could also detach itself from this binding with “Richard” and freely float in the texts. That it occurred frequently and also in the plural, however, did not have to indicate a monomaniacal or solipsistic disposition of the author, on the contrary.[1]  These ICHS could include crosses (ICHtS) and were thus components of Christ as a collective identity, as well as an expression of the acronymic confession of salvation (ICHTHYS).[2]

His first name was also omnipresent, in allegorical forms, especially in the pictograms and illustrations, which often alluded to attributes of his namesake Peter. Most significant was the rooster, which recalled Peter’s denial of Christ. The rooster’s cry was considered an indicator of truth and proclaimer of the Last Judgement. For Pierre Richard, it must have served as a constant reminder to self-examination.  Three times Pierre-Petrus had betrayed the Saviour and three times the rooster strikes him in his secret threefold nature. Above all, Pierre’s cockerel was also a defensive Gallic cockerel, which as the Holy Spirit is part of the divine triad and protects it, just as it guards the French villages on the tops of the churches.

Peter/Pierre, however, was also present in images of fishing. In his net the saved souls were sheltered, the ICHS of the ICHTHYS. And last but not least, the many sigils in the form of keys also bore the signature of the author. Christ had presented them to Pierre’s namesake with the following revealing words: “Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Mt16:19). Solve et coagula, this alchemical motto out of the mouth of the Saviour not only referred to the gender symbolism of Hermetism, but also to Richard’s playful use of signs and lettering as a permutative act of loosening and binding ligatures and syllables.

The Sator Arepo mechanism

If there was one thing that this key-symbolism opened up quite undoubtedly, it was the prospect that one could not be sure of any decoding, for no earthly mind was capable of unlocking a language of heaven conclusively. Pierre’s magic books were thus entirely within the enigmatic line of the classical grimoires, though there the reader could always find footing in descriptive, technical passages. In Richard’s exercises books, by contrast, there is no such level of instruction. In the maelstrom of his aleatorics and combinatorics, nevertheless, chains of associations and clusters of related motifs appear repeatedly, allowing at least some effort to identify, if not a consistent system, but a kind of underlying script or, rather, a game manual.

Thus, in the first of the two illuminated albums, one repeatedly thinks to recognise elements that are modelled on the Jewish Merkana mysticism of the throne chariot of God (gottrona) , while the second album seems to be rather under the impression of schemes of the Seforith tree. Common to both was the notion of a gradual ascent through a spiritual architecture.

It is remarkable that despite these recourses to topoi of Jewish mysticism, Richard did not adopt any kabbalistic terms. Even the use of Hebrew characters, one of the main features of classical grimoires, was apparently not an option for him. One can only speculate about the reasons. Jewishness was apparently high on the shooting list of the protective eschatological rooster. In the first illuminated album, he fired into a diagram marked “Juifs”, which has the martyred Christ in the centre.

In the course of the Revolution of ’48, anti-Semitic attacks had occurred, especially in Alsace but also sporadically in Lorraine. Had Richard intended to replace the Kabbalistic tradition of ritual magic with a more indigenous system in which the Patois, Roman letters and rune-like glyphs played the leading roles?  Marianism in particular was apt to ideologically promote such a separation from the Judaic heritage. But can one ascribe such far-reaching ambitions to a “mad” hick?

In the same direction, one could also interpret his prominent focus on the Roman Sator-Arepo square. He quoted and adapted it many times in both illuminated albums, also in diagrammatic forms.

The enigmatic slogan of the sower Arepo and his laborious holding and preserving of the wheels (SATOR AREPO TENET OPERA ROTAS) was to be found on plaques and in carvings not only in Italian antiquities, but also in French churches and castles, especially in the south of the country. The reference to this scheme was not special in itself. Palindromic letter squares, in conjunction with astrology and gematria, belonged to the base elements of ancient and modern ritual magic. The fourth volume of the pseudepigraphic occult instruction book “Des Abraham von Worms Buch der wahren Praxis von der alten Magie” (Abraham of Worms Book of True Practice of Ancient Magic) from the early 17th century alone contains 257 magic squares with incantations, which mostly functioned according to the Sator-Arepo template.[3]  Special, even unique, however, was that Richard not only appropriated this ancient primordial diagram, but also fully exploited its allegorical dimensions by deriving from it, as from a matrix, a metaphoric and hieroglyphic language that was analogous to his environment.

In Richard’s graphic Sator-Arepo world, the back was as the front, the above as the below, all subject to the interplay of the seasons and the astrological constellations, the fields of the decanates analogous to the agricultural plots, the trades of the upper sower like the work of the lower peasant. This machinery was kept in motion by a mystery in the central field N of the Sator square, where the two axes of the TENET intersect, those spiritual cross of care and preservation. Here as a pivot and crossing point the Marian rose opened up, in which all opposites were miraculously suspended.

Crosses surrounded by flowers and divided into plots on the endpapers at the front and back of the Enchridion indicated that the agrarian Sator square may have already served as inspiration at that early stage of practice. The coincidence of rosarium and TENET, of wheel and cross, of motor and stasis, was often a subject of exploration in the glyphs and texts: Kreis becomes Kreist becomes Craiz and so on. It is very likely that he also meditated constantly on this fundamental association, appropriately enough to revolutions of a rosary. Correspondences between that prayer chain, which was usually divided into the seven days of the week, and the zodiac, which was divided into decanates, may also have played a role.

Two Evas

An illustration of the Enchiridion, in which the magical work was depicted as a sequence of four discs, suggests that rotations may have also played a role in the fabrication of the magic language. The second stage represented an alphabetical rotary disc in the manner of the combinatory aids of Raymundus Lullus. The fact that Pierre’s grandfather as a professional cartwright and wheelmaker had also been a master of rotations may have contributed to such a conception. The final fifth stage of this operation consisted of a horizontal coil whose 7 turns produced the word SERPENS, Latin for snake. Pierre commented on this puzzling result on the righthand margin of the picture with the word EVE, a term associated in biblical-Gnostic contexts with the Fall, with sexualised femininity and sexual reproduction.

The fact that EVE was mirrored axially symmetrically in V suggests, however, that there might have been two complementary Evas at work here, and the subject could hence have been an annulment or overwriting of this negativity. How this was to be achieved could possibly be answered by the four-letter chain with which he commented the four sections of the work. The four elements “RI-CH-AR-dO”, which produced a masculine form of his surname, were each connected by an “M” for Mary and below by four times an “o” for each of the prayed pearls or buds of the rosary.

[1] Cf. Nicolas Will-Parot, „Pierre Richard, magie solipsiste“, in: Pierre Richard (1802-1879): grimoires illuminés. Éditions Artulis, 2019, p. 79

[2] ICHTHYS: I = Jesus, CH = Christ, TH = God’s, Y = Son, S= Saviour: Jesus Christ, the Son of God and Saviour.

[3] German and French manuscripts of the book circulated since the middle of the 18th century. A first printed version was published in Stuttgart in 1853.


All photos of the Pierre Richard images: Klaus Stoeber, Strasbourg

Translated with the support of DeepL

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