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

Primal Catholicism / Marian Magic / Evadah / A throw of the dice

Primal Catholicism

As a graphic practitioner, Richard was a farmer and gardener through and through, one who furrowed lines with sigil-magical ploughs into which he spread evocative seeds, only to have them emerge in the end into a colourful talismanic sea of flowers, someone who planted letters, grafted ligatures and got a wizard´s garden of wild signs in the end that seemed to put themselves into languages and images.

In combination with the scant biographical clues, this dense agrarian symbolism inevitably arouses the suspicion that he may have been a farmer in real life as well. On the other hand, the subtlety and the stringency of this symbolism, which would always refer to biblical metaphors and parables, speak less for physical practice but more for a disassociation from the peasant environment, for a mentality to which the confinement and rusticity of the circumstances were alien, perhaps even hated. Such an assumption is underlined by certain combinations of words, for example the frequent use of the paronym pair “trison – prison”. The association of mourning (tristesse) and prison can be associated with the domestic problems researched by the Pétrys, but together with other puns such as the neologism “amourir”, composed of amour and mourir, it may also be seen as symptomatic of a melancholic-gnostic state of mind for which earthly agriculture remains nothing more than a metaphor.

The fundamental question is whether one does justice to the complexity and the graphic and poetic inventiveness of this body of work if one treats it primarily under the aspects of a rustic archaism and an autistic constitution. The art historian Baptiste Brun, for example, considers all efforts to interpret the inscriptions and figures to be a largely futile endeavour, for the coherence of these so-called grimoires would only be an expression of the peculiar mania of their author and in the end such an Art Brut would remain as secretive and mute as Palaeolithic art.[1]  He criticised comparisons with the pictorial poems of the medieval cleric Rabanus Maurus, which the Pétrys had made, as an iconographic comparatism with poor aim, only to place himself Richard’s imaginary world in the vicinity of an Opicino de Canistris, a late medieval mystic who was under psychopathological suspicion.[2] All in all, there seems to be a consensus in Richard´s case, that we are dealing with someone whose oeuvre, for whatever reasons, has fallen out of time.

It is not only the hypothesis of a dissociated, solipsistic production that seems to suggest such ahistorical analogies, but even more so the atavistic genre of grimoires itself and its combination with Catholic devotional motifs.  Paradoxically, however, it was precisely this seemingly anachronistic synthesis of Catholic belief in miracles and ritual magic that kept this Lorraine “peasant” at the cutting edge of his time. Indeed, the time of the composition of his books coincides with an exciting phase of transformation in European magic culture, which the British researcher Christopher McIntosh has characterised as a climax in the development of a French Occult Revival, later resulting in the esoteric symbolism of the Fin de Siecle.[3]

Pierre Richard was eight years older than Alphonse-Louis Constant aka Éliphas Lévi, with whom this high flight of the occult started. In his two main works Dogme et rituel de la haute magie (1854 / 56) and Histoire de la magie (1860), the outcast cleric had renounced theosophical influences, above all Swedenborg’s reformed spiritualism. He defined the newly coined term “occultism” as the primordial or Ur-Catholicism, i.e. the original and sole true practice of the Catholic faith. In his view, ritual magic was practiced in an ecclesiastical context even up to the end of the early Middle Ages. As proof, he cited Pope Leo III’s Enchiridion, this grimoire, that had served Richard as the starting point and base of his own magical Catholicism.

Lévi’s syncretic writings were founded on extensive historical studies, on Christian Kabbalah, interpretations of the Tarot and various Masonic rites. It seems unlikely that Richard had studied them. However, the vigour of his own synthesis of Neoplatonic-Kabbalistic theurgy and Catholic liturgy makes it likely that he was at least aware of the main features of this occult awakening, either through persons close to him or from his own experience. The significant blanks in his biography certainly admit of travelling activities and the possibility of longer absences. The fact that he spoke Patois in his grimoires would not necessarily mean that he was limited to dialects as means of expression.

Marian magic

Lévi’s appeal for a magical renewal of Catholicism was no mere rhetoric, but was borne out of his own faith in revelation, as was evident from his first publication, written in 1839 while he was still at the seminary. “Le Rosier De Mai Ou La Guirlande De Marie” was an expression of ecstatic Marian devotion and consisted of a series of Marian cantatas and hourly devotions. Among them was the defence of a spectacular Marian apparition of 1830, where the Mother of God had revealed herself to a nun as a conquerer and treader of serpents, first in a ring of stars, then in the apparition of the versal M.[4] At Mary’s instruction, these motifs were to be immortalised onto a miraculous medal. The event and, more importantly, the mass distribution of this medal provided an unexpected boost to Marian devotion, especially in the “other” France shortly after the bourgeois July Revolution. Pierre Richard must have been just as impressed by this as the members of the Dalstein Brotherhood.

The apparition of a salvific insignia had a prominent precursor in the famous Christogram of Emperor Constantin, but in this case it had been the Blessed Virgin herself who had attributed the magical effect to her initial. The example of the miraculous letter of Mary must have provided a new, exclusive access to Sign Magic for occultly interested Catholics. And last but not least, the background of this letter miracle also justified a comparison between Richard’s hierogyphics and the avant-garde Lettrism of the 20th century, as drawn by Francois and Mireille Pétry in their contribution, although in Richard’s case it was a Marian Lettrism, in contrast to the Jewish-cabbalistic connotated Lettrism of an Isidore Isous.[5]  However, the magic of letters seemed to work across epochs. Richard’s animist ABC consisted largely of alterations of the newly revealed Marian M including its references to the Evean V, the Adamic A, the Serpens S and their combinations with the Christogram comprising the letters T (t), X (Chi), R / P (rho) and IHS (in hoc signo).

Boehmist ideas were known in France above all through the translations of the Catholic theosophist and mesmerist Louis-Claude de Saint-Martin (1743-1803), a critic of Masonic theurgy and re-founder of Martinism as a contemplative spiritual path. As demonstrated by the case of the Austrian prophet Jakob Lorber (1800-1864), Boehme’s model also exerted a considerable influence on Catholic mystics at the time Richard’s Magic Books were composed. (Plate XI)



The magical interest in the Marian miracle that Richard and Levi apparently had in common, does not yet have to indicate a concrete connection. Far more telling was the common narrowing of the Marian cult with the hermetic ideal of the androyn. But with Levi this association was much less pronounced than with his esoteric role model and teacher, the sculptor, graphic artist and phrenologist Simon Ganneau, who was almost the same age as the “peasant” from Kédange. So if there was any link between Richard and the esotericism of the urban France, it must have consisted more in references to Ganneau, who, in contrast to Constant, also addressed the lower classes.

On the Feast of the Assumption 1838, in the overheated climate of an early socialist millenarianism that had gripped many intellectuals and bohemians in the aftermath of the July Revolution, Ganneau had proclaimed in Paris the dawn of the age of the Great Evadah. Evadaism strove for the cosmic and societal overcoming of all dualities, more precisely: for the uniting of “the Genesis unit Mary-Eve” with the “Genesis unit Christ-Adam”.  As an evidence that he himself lived this nonbinarity, Ganneau wore a skirt alongside his Quaker hat and his prophetic beard and hairstyle, and called himself Mapah, ma and pa combined. Grandville caricatured him in this outfit.

One can imagine this Ganneau as a charismatic artist who, like a Joseph Beuys, spread his holistic teachings with a tremendous sense of mission. He not only attracted many of the tone-setting intellectuals, including the poet Alexandre Dumas and the feminist Flora Tristan, who gathered around his divan in his studio, but also addressed a broad public. He was present on the streets with evadaist leaflets and charts, and sent original artworks to the royal family and to the members of the Chamber of Deputies, where, according to Dumas, they probably ended up unnoticed in the attics. The fact that only one crude woodcut graphic has survived, which appeared on one of his pamphlets, seems indeed to be a testimony to the extremely low esteem in which his art was held. It shows a female-male Janus head complemented in the middle by a Hindu lingam-yoni emblem to form a mythical trinity, an inspiration perhaps for Richard´s frequent motif of the tricephalos.

It is safe to assume that Ganneau’s interventionist art was generally characterised by an explicit rawness, i.e. that it was an early form of primitivism, an Art Brut whose manner was inspired by ethnographic models and whose motifs were based primarily on hermetic emblematics. The latter is suggested by some details in the background of a portrait of the Mapah delivered by his friend the illustrator Charles-Joseph Traviès.

In the background of a quite different, parodic portrait by Grandville, one can obtain an impression, albeit a caricaturesque one, of a world of signs that obsessively revolved around the subject of gender duality. (Fig) The famous Baphomet graphic by his former disciple Constant aka Lévi seems to be a kind of compression of this Evadaist symbolism of suspended opposites, albeit under slightly sinister auspices. The Caduceus rod that rose from the genital region of this goat-headed androgyne is echoed in the open 8 of Richard’s name initial, and the rainbow-like circle in the background, Ganneau’s myth of the accomplished Evadah, could be Mzona; – could.


A throw of the dice

If there was anything that characterised Richard’s grimoires apart from their Catholic consistency, it was their hieroglyphic consistency, the transposition of the heterogeneous image-text genre to a level where lettering and pictorial representation became indistinguishable. Richard may have seen reproductions of ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs, which were widely distributed in the numerous publications that followed Napoleon’s Egyptian campaign. Popular grimoires such as “La poule noire” (The Black Hen) recalled the ancient Egyptian provenance of the magic in their legends, and Champollion’s decipherments gradually revealed basic features of the ancient Egyptian cult of the dead.[6]  Richard’s work showed surprising parallels to this Egyptian Book of the Dead in the depictions of vehicles for the dead, the invocations of spiritual guides and other magical preparations for the Last Judgement. However, such influences could only have affected the basic pictorial and ritual conception. Formally, there are no Egyptian echoes whatsoever.

The relations to the pictographic symbolism of the Evadaism, on the other hand, could have been quite different. The chroniclers unanimously refer to Ganneau’s images as hieroglyphics, which would be disseminated via lithographed leaflets and signs that he would call plâtras, chunks of plaster. Little is known about the stylistic range. His imagery, in any case, seems to have been cryptographic in nature as well, for the esoterically versed poet Gerard de Nerval reported that the Mapah also lent them from Cabalistic grimoires.[7]  Probably they also contained neologisms, which were produced by the simplest combinatorics, according to the pattern of Evadah and Mapah. Was Ganneau, then, possibly a model for Richard’s childish sorcery-language?

What seems to speak against such a hypothesis of an Evadaist influence, however, is the absence of any social or social-reform impulse in Richard´s books. Ganneau’s hieroglyphics aspired to an upheaval of social conditions. With the February Revolution, for whose outbreak his disciple Constant even held Evadaist agitators on the streets of Paris responsible, he associated the realisation of his harmonious ideal of freedom.  Mary meant an icon of emancipation for him, as well as for Constant. In Richard’s books, reflections of this idea of a Marian Miss Liberty are found at most in a few talismanic depictions in which the Holy Virgin defies her enemies with a determined gaze and huge scimitar at the ready.

Comparable depictions of the Virgin Mary had never been seen before. Overall, the characters of his grimoires left a less than saintly or even devout impression. They looked slightly cunning and rebellious, suspicious like Levi’s Baphomet, a somnambulistic gang up to something, even if it was the Last Judgement. Nevertheless, these magic books could hardly pass for documents of rebellion, revolt or resistance, the characteristics that the publishing house Artulis had taken up, at best they could be regarded as testimonies of survival, of introspection, of fear, in other words, of the preconditions on which the practice of protective magic is based. To the libertarian impulses of the Evadah cult, those resigned features seemed diametrically opposed.

In fact, with the suppression of the Europe-wide uprisings in 1849, Ganneau’s movement had come to a depressing end. It was the time when Richard presumably moved from Dalstein to Chemery, only to immerse himself even more intensely in his world of magic. From the example of Constant, one can trace how under the impression of this devastating defeat, the spirit of revolt imploded in an esotericism that cultivated seclusion and retreat as the main spiritual path. Constant’s occult Catholicism of the 1850s bore the resigned signature of the failed androgynous Universal Revolution. But was it also the signature of Richard’s sgrimoires?

How far away was the shift from a socialist Evadah to a hermetic Baphomet from pious Lorraine folk magic? In these albums, had there even existed a nonbinary mzona and an andogynous caduceus-8? Every turn of the Arepo mechanism could result in the next moment in a new constellation of the same signs and thus in a revised reading.  Admittedly, the biblical and theurgic connotations were such that basically every combination could touch on the numinous and produce an essential meaning, a circumstance that shortly afterwards some exponents of a symbolist poetry would also take advantage of. So, in the end there would remain not a palaeontological silence, but a mythopoetic and graphic compression that bordered on madness – and the certainty of a throw of the dice.


With sincere thanks to Francois and Mireille Pétry, and Pierrette Turlais of Editions Artulis.

Photo credits: Pierre Richard images: Klaus Stoeber, Strasbourg


[1] Cf. Baptiste Brun, « Pierre Richard (1802-1879), Grimoires illuminés », in: Gradhiva [En ligne], 32 | 2021, mis en ligne le 02 avril 2021, URL : https://journals.openedition.org/gradhiva/5838 ; DOI: https://doi.org/10.4000/gradhiva.5838

[2] In both cases, these were works that would reflect forces “that pervade and inform people at a particular time, sometimes at the risk of psychic collapse.”


[3] Cf. Christopher McIntosh, Éliphas Lévi and the French Occult Revival, Albany 1972

[4] Cf. Julian Strube, Sozialismus, Katholizismus und Okkultismus im Frankreich des 19. Jahrhunderts. Die Genealogie der Schriften von Eliphas Lévi, Inauguraldissertation, Heidelberg 2015, p. 34 ff.

[5] Cf. Francois et Mireille Pétry, in: Pierre Richard (1802-1879): grimoires illuminés. Paris 2019, p. 157 / Cf. Sami Sjöberg, The Vanguard Messiah: Lettrism between Jewish mysticism and the avant-garde, Oldenbourg 2015; Sami Sjöberg,  Mysticism of immanence: lettrism, Sprachkritik and the immediate message, Partial Answers: journal of literature and the history of ideas, volume 11, number 1, January 2013, pp. 53-69.

Published by The Johns Hopkins University Press, DOI: 10.1353/pan.2013.0002.


[6] With Karl Richard Lepsius’ “Todtenbuch der alten Ägypter” (“Book of the Deaths of the Ancient Egyptians”), a comprehensive annotated edition had appeared in 1842.

[7] Cf. Julian Strube, Sozialismus, Katholizismus und Okkultismus im Frankreich des 19. Jahrhunderts. Die Genealogie der Schriften von Eliphas Lévi, Inauguraldissertation, Heidelberg 2015, p. 257


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