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Le Défi magique, volume 1

François Laplantine
Jean-Baptiste Martin

Aux origines de l'ésotérisme Américain

Hargrave Jennings and the philosophy of fire1

Joscelyn Godwin


L’ouvrage le plus connu de Jennings (1817-1890) : The Rosicrucians, their rites and mysteries (Les Rosicruciens, leurs rites et leurs mystères), ne donne aucune information sur les Rosicruciens, mais expose la doctrine du symbolisme sexuel comme clé de toutes les traditions religieuses. Deux ouvrages antérieurs de Jennings, The Indian Religions (Les religions indiennes) et Curious Things of the Outside World (Choses étranges du monde extérieur) furent peut-être les premiers exposés favorables à la doctrine bouddhiste du Nirvana à paraître en Occident. Mais il ne réussit jamais à réconcilier ses intuitions concernant la quête bouddhiste du Non-Etre et le but mystique de l’union avec le Dieu créateur. Jennings rattachait ces deux aspects à une « philosophie du feu », considéré alternativement comme l'élément qui consume tout ou l’élément qui crée tout. Sa fascination pour les aspects spirituels du sexe firent de Jennings un pionnier dans ce domaine réprimé, qu’avec Phallicism, celestial and terrestrial (phallicisme, céleste et terrestre) puis d’autres ouvrages il réconcilia avec l’anglicanisme.
Bien qu’il se soit mêlé aux Rosicruciens de Londres dans les années 1860, il en vint pratiquement à mépriser tous les adeptes de l’ésotérisme.

Texte intégral

  • 1 This paper is based on a more fully-documented article in The Hermetic Journal, 1991, pp. 49-77.

1One of the hardy perennials of modern esoteric literature is a book called The Rosicrucians, their rites and mysteries, by the English author Hargrave Jennings. It is just the kind of book that makes esoterism so disreputable among educated people: unscholarly, opinionated, disorganized, and shedding not a glimmer of light on the Rosicrucians, their rites, or their mysteries. Yet this book went into four editions from its publication in 1870 to Jennings’s death in 1890, and has been reprinted frequently ever since. As we shall see, Jennings himself thought that it made him the world’s greatest expert on the subject.

2The subject in question, as any canny reader of The Rosicrucians, will have found out, is not the group of early seventeenth-century world-reformers and spiritual alchemists who were responsible for the Fama, the Confessio, and the Chemical Wedding of Christian Rosenkreutz. Hargrave Jennings’s interest is in sex and sexual symbolism, and his book treats these under the cloak of decency required by the Victorian age. One of these theories is that the symbols used in the worship of every religion represent the male and female sexual parts, and derive from a primordial religion that worshipped the Creator in these forms. While Sigmund Freud was only a schoolboy, Jennings was already seeing a phallus in every tower, steeple, cross, or vertical line, and a vagina in every moon, disk, or horizontal figure.

3Jennings may have been ahead of the psychologists, but he was not original: the same idea had been stated plainly and elegantly in 1786 by Richard Payne Knight, in his essay The Worship of Priapus; it had been repeated in the 1830s by Godfrey Higgins, and independently by Thomas O’Brien; and taken up with relish by Dr. Thomas Inman in his book of 1868, Ancient Faiths Embodied Ancient Names. But these people had all written as scholars addressing other scholars, whereas Jennings wrote as a possessor of occult knowledge, half teasing his audience with obscurity, half exciting it with glimpses of mysteries too dreadful to name.

4The most dreadful of these mysteries concerned the Order of the Garter, which keeps cropping up in The Rosicrucians. Jennings’s theory, stripped of its delicate phrasing, is that what the Countess of Salisbury dropped while dancing in 1344 was not her garter but a menstrual napkin. King Edward III picked it up and silenced the courtiers with the immortal words «Honi soit qui mal y pense.» The order of chivalry which he founded was consecrated to the mystery of the female body, without demur or shame, thereby celebrating the means by which the Savior came into the world. In so doing, Edward was reviving the order of King Arthur’s Knights, whose Round Table, with its division into thirteen red and thirteen white segments, referred to the same monthly cycle.

5Parallel to the worship of the female was that of the Creator, who brought the universe into being and is celebrated under the symbol of the phallus. Jennings discerned the worship of this primordial energy in all the ancient cults of Fire, Light, and the Sun, and its symbol in all their monuments. In more modern times, he detected its survival in the «Fire-philosophers» of the sixteenth century, in the Rosicrucians, and in modern «Illuminati» whom he did not specify.

6We can class Jennings, then, as one of those nineteenth-century theorists of comparative religion, who sought the one primordial root, the one unifying feature, of all religions East and West, esoteric and folkloric. It was for this that he was cited approvingly in the early works of H. P. Blavatsky; for this that Peter Davidson issued a digest of Jennings’s symbology to neophytes of the «Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor» in the 1880s and 1890s.

7But Jennings was more than this. Let us go back to the skimpy evidence of his early years. He was born in 1817 and brought up in the West End of London in a family which he says was not poor, though not overwhelmingly rich. He was a moody child who read much and soon discovered the supernatural, the world of romance becoming more real to him than life. His first publication, at the age of fifteen, was a series of sea-sketches; other early works included novels, tales, and sketches of London life. Although he seems to have had to earn his own living through writing and acting as secretary to an opera company, he was well-connected, lived in Regent's Park, and died in 1890 in his brother’s apartments at Ambassadors’ Court, St. James’s Palace.

8Already in 1853 Jennings was interested in the Order of the Garter, and managed to get permission to dedicate to the Garter Knights his «miniature romance» St. George. But he had long had other interests. Many years of research, he says, went into his first philosophical book, published in 1858 and called The Indian Religions, or Results of the Mysterious Buddhism, «by an Indian Missionary.»

9This is a much more extraordinary work than The Rosicrucians. It was prompted by two things: first, a pair of anonymous articles in The Times on the Buddhist religion and its idea of Nirvana; second, the Indian Mutiny of 1857, which caused a wave of revulsion against the natives and their religious beliefs. Much of the book is about current events, discussed from a very pro-Indian point of view. Jennings blames the Mutiny on a century of British misrule, and especially on the Christian missionaries and the «proselytizing colonels» who bully the natives into conversion. He asks how they would like their own, Christian religion to be treated with the contempt and insults they pour on Hinduism.

10Oddly enough, the philosophical part of the book is not about Hinduism, but Buddhism. Jennings writes especially about the Buddhist doctrine of Nirvana, which the Times’s writer had interpreted as utter annihilation, saying that a religion that took this as its goal was little short of insane. This writer was none other than the famous Orientalist Max Mueller, who was here making his first foray into Buddhist studies. Mueller allowed that individual Buddhists had triumphed over the «madness of its metaphysics» through not understanding properly this crazy doctrine. Jennings very properly takes him to task, and explains as best he can that Nirvana is not nothingness, but the one true reality. It is life, space, time, and all the rest of the universe that are unreal and a great illusion. Since God is identical to «nothingness,» any ideas we can have of God, and any reasoning about God on our part, are absolutely opposed to God’s reality. Hence our idea of God must be the Evil Principle, and our human rationality that which leads us into evil.

11Jennings does not put it as clearly or briefly as I have done: whenever he is being philosophical, his prose becomes all but incoherent. But there is no doubt that in The Indian Religions he is trying to put over the basic ideas of Buddhism, which are that everything is illusory except the one reality which, for want of attributes, is called Nirvana; and that the human being can attain this reality through a liberation from itself that appears, from the point of view of the illusory world, to be annihilation.

12I would like to know whether there was anyone else in the West who understood this in 1858, twenty years before Buddhism was presented in a romantic and attractive light by Sir Edwin Arnold’s The Light of Asia. Certainly there were admirers of Hindu doctrines, especially among the American Transcendentalists. But neither they, much less the Orientalists Mueller, Burnouf, and Barthélemy Saint-Hilaire, could see any value in Buddhism. Somehow Jennings had not only gone to the heart of Buddhist doctrine, but had decided that this was the original wisdom-religion of the world, long predating Gautama and being in fact the parent of Hinduism.

13Among the books Jennings lists in The Indian Religions as having led him to his «philosophical results» are the works of Cornelius Agrippa, Paracelsus, J. B. von Helmont, and Swedenborg, all in English translations; Thomas Taylor’s Plato; recent books on magnetism and spiritualism; Catherine Crowe’s The Night Side of Nature, Ennemoser’s History of Magic; the Asiatic Journal and Asiatic Researches, and Ward's The Religion of the Hindoos. In his next book, Curious Things of the Outside World, published in two volumes in 1861, Jennings mentions a special group of books which he would surely have cited in The Indian Religions if he had known about them: Godfrey Higgins’s The Celtic Druids and Anacalypsis, and Sir William Drummond’s Oedipus Judaicus. Near the end of Curious Things, which took him two years to write, Jennings quotes as his keynote a statement from Higgins: that the Buddhists of Upper India built the Pyramids, Stonehenge, and Carnac, and founded all the ancient mythologies of the world, which were thus originally one, founded on principles sublime, beautiful, and true.

14Another kind of literature had come Jennings’s way between The Indian Religions and Curious Things of the Outside World. In the earlier book, there was no word on the Rosicrucians. In the second, he mentions Robert Fludd’s Mosaicall Philosophy, the Rosicrucian manifestos and the importance of Johann Valentin Andreae; and the Rosicrucian manuscripts of Dr. Rudd in the British Museum. Jennings gives much disorganized information on these and on other so-called «Fire-Philosophers,» whom he calls a fanatical late sixteenth-century sect. He had obviously not studied them at first hand, but his imagination was kindled, and he decided that the primordial Buddhists and the Rosicrucians were both «Philosophers of Fire.»

15It is never quite clear what Jennings means by Fire. In The Indian religions it is the Non-Being or Nirvana in which all things are consumed and annihilated. In Curious Things it is the first creative impulse that brings a universe out of nothingness. Likewise with God: in the early work, God is Nirvana and the universe is unreal; in the later one, God is the creative Fire or Light that makes the cosmos.

16Jennings could never make up his mind between the two points of view, and maybe there is no reason to. One might say that his Philosophy of Fire concerns the mysteries of the borderline between Non-Being and Being. Sometimes he is drawn to one, sometimes to the other. For example, Curious Things contains a Buddhist interpretation of the Gnostic doctrine, according to which souls on earth live in bondage to the Demiurgus or Devil, the «King of Bright Shadows»; they continue to transmigrate or reincarnate until they are sufficiently pure to awake into the Pleroma, which (he says) is the same as Nirvana. Yet according to Jennnings’s phallic theory, it is that very Demiurgus, the creator of all things, who has been worshipped by the true religion of every epoch under sexual symbols.

17In the same work, Curious Things, Jennings styles himself «F.R.C.», presumably meaning «Frater Rosae Crucis» or Brother of the Rosy Cross. I cannot go into the possible meanings of this title here, but I will say briefly that the Societas Rosicruciana in Anglia was not yet founded; Jennings joined it in 1870. Various clues, especially the list of Rosicrucian sources and a reference to magic mirrors, suggest that Jennings had got in touch, between 1858 and 1860, with a group of occultists that included the fringe-mason Kenneth Mackenzie, the crystal-gazer William Hockley, and the astrologer Zadkiel. Jennings certainly wanted the reader of Curious Things, to believe that the guardians of the secret wisdom existed to his day, and that he had privileged knowledge of them. Mackenzie made quite a career of persuading people that they were in touch with such an order through him. The Rosicrucians, their rites and mysteries, written in the 1860s, then begins to resemble those treatises of the seventeenth century which were aimed at attracting the attention of the Rosicrucian Brotherhood, in the hope that they would invite the author to join them.

18After the publication of his most famous book, Jennings became more Christian. He collaborated with an anonymous High-Church author in a book on altar candles, Live Lights or Dead Lights, which argues the symbolic value of having Fire, or Light, on the altar. This was an emotional issue at the time, as the Low Church discarded the candles in accordance with its view of the altar as the Lord’s Table rather than a place of sacrifice and miracle. In veiled language, Jennings explains the sexual symbolism of church architecture and furnishings, and writes a torrent of prose about Fire, Light, and the extinction of all things terrestrial. But the book limps to the conclusion that the authors have «demonstrated the necessity of the Personal God»: which one would think the very contrary of the Fire-Philosophy, whether God is taken to be Nirvana, or the first creative Light.

19After The Indian Religions, Curious Things of the Outside World, and The Rosicrucians, the fourth and last of Jennings's doctrinal works is called Phallicism Celestial and Terrestrail. I should mention that each work gathers many pages of material from its predecessors, so that for example all the philosophical parts of Curious Things, which is virtually unfindable, are included in the later editions of The Rosicrucians and The Indian Religions. In Phallicism, Jennings comes nearer to a reconciliation of the contrary points of view which I have been mentioning. He does this in a discussion of the Archangel Michael and his opponent Lucifer. Michael is the type of the Gnostic angel who «refuses to create,» and who is thus the patron of Christian virginity and world-rejecting asceticism, as favored by Buddhists and apparently by the celibate Rosicrucians; their goal is Nirvana. Lucifer, on the other hand, is the Demiurge, the first creative Fire, who is the patron of all creative activity including the sexual, and is favored by the devotees of Nature. Michael and Lucifer stand respectively for Non-Being and for Being.

20One has to wrest these meanings from the wasteland of jumbled erudition and incoherent stammerings that make up Phallicism. If only Jennings could have put them plainly and simply, he would deserve recognition as a pioneer of esoteric metaphysics. He does deserve great credit for breaking the Victorian taboo against the discussion of sex, and for raising its discussion to a philosophical and spiritual level, not merely a clinical, anthropological, or psychological one. He stoutly maintained that his phallic studies, unlike those of his predecessors O’Brien and Higgins, were «constructive of Christian belief»!

21I have not mentioned all of Jennings’s works here. Those of his last years are disappointing, and one can see why when one reads the series of letters he wrote to the publisher Robert Fryar of Bath, between 1879 and 1887. Jennings does not have a kind word to say for anybody. Among those he mentions with disapproval are American mediums, modern Theosophists and Spiritualists, the British Israelites, and women in general, who have no business studying philosophy. Those he mentions by name with contempt or mistrust include P. B. Randolph, Gerald Massey, Anna Kingsford, A. E. Waite, A. P. Sinnett, Colonel Olcott, H. P. Blavatsky, Eliphas Levi, and Emma Hardinge Britten.

22If all these were worthless, who was left? Only Hargrave Jennings, apparently. He calls his own Rosicrucians «the only book of real authority in English, upon this surpassing sect,» and claims that «I am entitled to be considered by every one as the first authority in England on the Cabala, &c.» This was in 1886, a year before A. E. Waite published The Real History of the Rosicrucians, in which he savaged Jennings for his charlatanry and «ill-digested erudition.» But I doubt whether it troubled the self-satisfied author, whose Rosicrucians had just appeared in a de luxe edition of two volumes, filled out with many irrelevant plates and borrowings from his own early works: a tribute to the Brotherhood whom he insisted, to the end, that he had never met.


1 This paper is based on a more fully-documented article in The Hermetic Journal, 1991, pp. 49-77.


Colgate University, Hamilton, New York.

© Presses universitaires de Lyon, 1994

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