Unlocking the Observatory: Assigning Authorship

Where were we? We’re in the middle of discussing the obscure Telescope of Zoroaster (ZT), a manual of divination and spirituality originally published in French in 1796 (FZT) at the close of the French Revolution, which was later translated into German in 1797 (GZT) and then again in an abridged form as part of Johann Scheible’s 1846 Das Kloster (vol. 3, part II, chapter VII) (KZT), with Scheible’s work then translated into English in 2013 as released by Ouroboros Press (OZT).  Although OZT is how most people nowadays tend to encounter this system, I put out my own English translation of FZT out a bit ago as part of my research, and while that translation was just part of the work I’ve been up to, there’s so much more to review, consider, and discover when it comes to this fascinating form of divination.  Last time, we talked about the high-level overview of where the literature of or on ZT stands. If you need a refresher on what we talked about last time, go read the last post!

※ For those following along with their own copy of ZT (get yours here!), this post does not touch on any specific chapter of the text.

It’s hard to come across any discussion of ZT without the mention of André-Robert Andréa de Nerciat.  According to the preface of OZT:

Zoroaster’s Telescope is a wonderfully strange book of oracle magic. Written in 1796 by André-Robert Andréa de Nerciat, a French author of Libertine genre, the text later appeared in a collection of German folk literature compiled by Johann Scheible from which this English translation was made. The 18th century was an active time for occultism; magicians and fortune tellers of note were spread throughout Europe, often playing significant roles in historical or political events. This was the era of the Count of St. Germain, Cagliostro, Antoine Court de Gebelin, Etteilla, Louis Claude de Saint-Martin, Emanuel Swedenborg and Adam Weishaupt whom were known for their visionary and magical prowess or accuracy at divining the future. It is a curious fact that the two genres of eroticism and the occult often overlap as is the case of the author of the present text, but this did not prevent him from giving advice on bodily desires of food and love as well as moralizing on the disadvantages of non-restraint.

I mentioned in the last post that the 1933 text by Karl Kern was later reprinted under the name of “Baron André-Robert Andréa de Nerciat”, and how the 2008 Alexandre de Dánann book goes on about justifying how ZT is authored by Nerciat, although the 2021 Susan Audrey Grundy text disagrees and proposes that it lies with Tommaso di Giovanni Masini aka “Zoroastro da Peretola” with Nerciat merely being a plagiarist or someone who took an earlier text and republished it.  It needs to be understood clearly that none of the original ZT texts itself ever has any sort of explicit authorship; neither FZT, GZT, or KZT have any mention of who actually wrote the text.  The closest we get is that the Epistle at the start of FZT/GZT ends with a signature of “Baron de N……”, and it is true that that number of periods does fill in for the missing letters of “Nerciat”.  Still, although there are literary and political references scattered throughout ZT that give a terminus post quem of the reign of Louis XVI in France, there really isn’t a whole lot to go on in the text itself that establishes it as the author of any particular person, and admittedly to link “Baron de N……” to Nerciat is a stretch without further evidence.

So who was Nerciat, anyway?  André-Robert Andréa de Nerciat (who sometimes used the pseudonym “Docteur Cazzoné” or the anagram “Certani”) was born April 17, 1739 in Dijon.  Although little is known about Nerciat’s childhood, he entered military service and rose to the rank of captain, learning German and Italian in the process.  He later returned to France after being stationed in Denmark, and in the 1770s he entered French aristocratic society and became enmeshed in libertine affairs of sexuality.  This spurred him on to becoming an author and playwright, notably of erotica, which eventually led him to seek a court position under Frederick II, Landgrave of Hesse-Kassel, but he promptly left a year or two later to join the court of Karl Emmanuel, Landgrave of Hesse-Rotenburg.  A year after that, Nerciat returned to Paris and resumed his military career, working as a secret agent.  In March 1783, he was made a Baron of the Holy Roman Empire, and thence went to represent the French royal family in the Netherlands (albeit on a mission to destabilize the ruling House of Orange), before heading to Brussels and thence again to Paris in 1788.  After this point, things get murky; it is not wholly clear where Nerciat (who was known to harbor at least some republican sentiments even though he worked for the French royal government) fell along the lines of the French Revolution.  Sources differ on details, but he was officially employed in the revolutionary government by September 1792, and also worked as a librarian in the German cities of Neuweid, Hamburg, and Leipzig.  While on deployment as a secret agent in Vienna in 1796, he was exposed and was ordered to leave the city, eventually making his way back to Paris before being redeployed to Naples in 1797.  At this point, he posed as an Italian baron, and became chamberlain to the Queen of Naples and Siciliy, Maria Karolina of Austria.  Interestingly, when French troops marched on Rome (where Nerciat happened to be staying for espionage on the Vatican), they imprisoned Nerciat, and was only released when Naples reclaimed the city in 1799.  Sickened and weakened by his imprisonment, he returned to Naples, where he died in January 1800.

Okay, a French spy-diplomat-librarian, working across Europe (especially in France, Germany, and Italy), and also an author of erotica that centered on French aristocratic voluptuosity (with just as many and the expected kinds of NSFW prints associated with his works).  As the French Wikipedia article on Nerciat says (which both it and the German version have much more information than the English version):

Soldier, writer, diplomat, spy, double agent—the knight Nerciat had an even more incredible life than the licentious whirlwinds of his characters. His life was in the image of his time, upset by uncontrollable events and political regimes in crisis and in struggle against each other. Admittedly, towards the end of his life, his penchant for adventures forced him to an opportunism of survival, due to the adversity of circumstances, but this destiny, far from any greatness, preserved him from the martyrdom experienced by Condorcet or Danton.

If Nerciat, who played both the sides of the royalty and the republic, was often not as political or lucky as one of his illustrious patrons, Talleyrand, all out of financial necessity or simple security for his person, he left to posterity a much less perishable literary work. His novels, so reasonable and appropriate in political philosophy, teem with joie de vivre and happy health, quite the opposite of the cynicism and harshness of the political life of his time, which was particularly corrupt and bloody. If his work reflects his life, this knight and a subtle libertine, had to know very happy moments through so many professional vicissitudes.  On the contrary, if his work in no way reflects his life, then his chaotic life must have been particularly painful for him to extract such imaginary compensation from him. To offer a judgment on this matter, it may be decided that his work is largely autobiographical and offers a very faithful mirror of the very free morals (but without their corruption and their violence) of the French aristocracy that the reaction, during the post-Napoleonic Restoration, had not yet darkened with its implacable repression of morals. In short, his life was as dangerous as his work is joyful.

Indeed, Nerciat is a super colorful character—but nothing about this says much of occult interest, and therein lies the weirdness of attributing ZT to Nerciat.  Judging from the biblographical history of Nerciat’s works as discussed in the 1800s, ZT is clearly not a recent attribution of his; in one such bibliography from 1876, the Bibliographie anecdotique et raisonnée de tous les ouvrages d’Andréa de Nerciat, ZT is indeed listed (under a variant title) on pages 52—53:

The Urn of Zoroaster, or the key of the science of the magi.  This work is quoted by Beuchot in Michaud’s Biographie universelle, and in Didot’s Nouvelle Biographie générale. Is it a play? is it a novel? No bibliography indicates it. This almost unknown book must be very rare. Perhaps it is a satire on Mesmer or Cagliostro, very famous at the time of Nerciat, for their charlatanism and their supposedly scientific discoveries.

We remember, however, having seen this work appear in a catalog published in March 1875, by the bookseller Th. Sluys, in Brussels. This very curious bulletin has the title: “Catalogue of a very fine collection of old books devoted to women, love, marriage, facetious, satirical, jolly, scatological, burlesque works, rarities, curiosities, etc.”

We encounter under no. 879, The Urn of Zoroaster, quoted at the price of 30 francs, with the qualification of “extremely rare”. Unfortunately, despite this publisher’s habit of most often following his books at marked prices with an excellent descriptive and bibliographic note, no explanatory note was attached to Nerciat’s work. Today, we are compelled to remain in this respect, in our perplexity, leaving others the chance to be happier than us.

Even older “historical dictionaries” or biographic compilations also list associations between Nerciat and ZT, like this one from 1828 or this one from 1822.  Perhaps giving an origin to these, there is a letter sent by one of Nerciat’s children, George-Augustus de Nerciat to his friend and bibliographer Adrien-Jean-Quentin Beuchot (the same one mentioned in the bibliography mentioned above).  According to this paper hosted by a small website dedicated to the work of Nerciat (my translation):

A family tradition has it that the writer [Nerciat] composed a treatise on “the cabalistic art”, however this work seems to have been lost.  George-Auguste, son of Nerciat, wrote on this subject: “I went to see Monsieur Beuchot to pay him my respects and give him a piece of notice on the author of Félicia etc.  As for the book The Urn of Zoroaster, the only copy he had sent to his family was entrusted by Mr. Ducaurroy, my friend, to a person whose trace had been lost for 16 years.  My mother thinks it was printed in Neuwien. […]”

Although I can’t seem to find the letter as mentioned in that paper for more context, though (the reference is to “Ms. fr. nouv. acq. 5203 pièce 281” in the Bibliothèque nationale de France), this is a tantalizing clue, indeed.  The title isn’t quite right, but it’s still something that gives a little more weight to such an attribution of ZT to Nerciat, along with the historical fact that Nerciat was made a baron of the Holy Roman Empire and posed as an Italian baron in his missions.  It’s still super weird, though, to ground something on this without at least without knowing more of Nerciat’s background and history, and what involvement or interest (if any) in the occult he had.

To offer a contrasting theory, in her 2021 work Zoroastro: Wizard of the Renaissance, Susan Audrey Grundy has this to say:

There doesn’t seem to be any strong reason for De Nerciat, who was a popular French writer of illustrated erotica, to be the originator of this text.  It is unclear if it was even ever published in French.  Indeed, the text appeared in a German publication of folk literature, seemingly anonymous, shortly after the date given to the De Nerciat Italian publication (1796), as if a manuscript was circulating that was not originating with De Nerciat.  De Nerciat, when not producing pornography, was a soldier and spy.  He ended his life in Naples.  It is uncertain for how long he had been in Italy, perhaps from around 1796, the time of the publication of Zoroaster’s Telescope.  He worked for, it is said, MARIA CAROLINA OF AUSTRIA, QUEEN OF NAPLES (Vienna, Austria 1752—1814).  He was reportedly also something of a linguist.  It would seem certain that his source was Italian, given he was in Italy when the work was published, not in France.  It could be De Nerciat only intended to be associated with the introduction.

This book is also sometimes called L’Urna di Zoroastro (Zoroastro’s Urn) or alternatively La chiave della scienza di Magi (The key of the Magi’s science).  Of course, Zoroastro of the title is automatically considered to refer to the prophet of ancient Persia, Zoroaster.  Realistically, however, this makes no particular sense, other than making a link to the prophet’s position in astronomy.  Zoroastrianism is not, however, a religion of vulgar divination.  Nevertheless, parts of the text of Zoroaster’s Telescope are said to condemn Tarot Cards and palm reading, while holding the Jewish kabbala and spiritual astrology in high regard.  This was also a Neoplatonist fixation.  It does appear that the Zoroastro of the text was a recently historic person.  Tarot were only introduced into Europe, likely from Mamluk Egypt, in the fourteenth century, so this is not an activity one would associate with an ancient prophet anyway.

But if this tract was something to do with the historic Zoroastro of Ammirato’s biography, seemingly still a legend in Florentine folklore, and if indeed Zoroaster’s Telescope was something De Nerciat found rather than wrote, then what if any were Zoroastro Masino’s connections to either the Kabbala or to Judaism? …

… Based on the evidence of Zoroastro’s powerful memory, and the fact of lost manuscripts long talked about but never recovered, the Zoroaster in Zoroaster’s Telescope is surely the historical Zoroastro Masino and not the ancient Zoroaster of Persian religion. […]

Given the lack of any real evidence linking this text to Zoroastro Masino, aside from the name and tantalizing links in the geometric design and some of the philosophical direction, for the moment it cannot be added to the lost papers.  However, it may certainly belong to the body of folkloric literature that recorded the impact of Zoroastro Masino’s life and personality on the popular environment.  This lingered, despite obvious scholarly attempts to suppress Zoroastro’s dual role, both in his own life and in Leonardo’s, as well as the impact of his life on the lives of those around him.  Zoroastro’s Telescope was only first published in 1796, so it is difficult to ascertain extensive influence, not least considering the arcane nature of it.

Admittedly, Grundy’s work is not exactly in the realm of certifiable history; she presents her own theory that the notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci were not authored by him in any way, but rather it was Tommaso di Giovanni Massino (“Zoroastro Masino” or “Zoroastro da Peretola”), who was a lifelong companion (and life partner) of da Vinci.  She notes in her own preface that she has been often called a conspiracy theorist, and ardently claims that she has a better approach to understanding the authorship of his attributed notebooks than established history and conventional understanding.  I’ll leave the rest of the topic up to debate for others, but I note that her own account of ZT seems confused: I’m unable to find any record of an Italian version of ZT, especially one published the same year as the French one (which she says doesn’t exist, even though it does), so either she has access to some earlier or contemporary Italian text that there is no other record of (admittedly a possibility, which she seems to take much advantage of generally) or she’s confusing Italian with French.  The only record I can find of the explicitly Italian name she gives (L’Urna di Zoroastro) are in similar “historical dictionaries” and bibliographies as I found the other Nerciat references in, like this Italian one from 1827 that seems to be a word-for-word translation from the earlier French examples—as even the title of such a book says that it is compilata in Francia da una società di dotti ed ora per la prima volta recata in italiano (“compiled in France by a society of the learned and now for the first time in Italian”).  Still, Grundy does raise some points worthy of consideration, even if only circumstantial ones—it may well be that Nerciat did, during his time in Italy, take up a pre-existing copy or manuscript of ZT and published it as an editor rather than as its author.

At this point, we also need to bring up the 2008 book Télescope de Zoroastre, ou Clef de la grande Cabale divinatoire des Mages: ouvrage présenté définitivement restitué à son auteur légitime et annoté, written by a group of authors working under the name “Alexandre de Dánann” (which I’ll abbreviate as AdD).  This is one of the precious few books written about ZT, and while the bulk of this book is just a modern reprint of FZT, it also includes a lengthy introduction about the transmission of the text and its authorship assigned to Nerciat.  (In fact, this book was why this series took so long to get published, because I had ordered it from a small bookseller in France and it took so long to arrive, and I didn’t want to publish this series without checking on this book first.)  This book is honestly a godssend, and really does cover everything there is to know about the history, reception, and presence of this text, including pointing out references made to ZT that even I couldn’t find (like to Arthur Edward Waite’s The Holy Kabbalah, which offers a footnote or two as an oblique reference to ZT).  It is, unfortunately, out of scope to offer a full translation of what AdD says about Nerciat and ZT (it’s about 60 pages long), but it offers much to consider regarding the royalist/aristocratic/anti-revolutionary leanings of the author of ZT, ZT’s understanding of “cabala” versus what we generally understand kabbalah to be, commonalities between some kabbalistic perspectives and those offered in ZT on the nature of spirituality, and much more.  However, all of this is ancillary to the main point of this introduction (at least for my reading): offering evidence that suggests Nerciat to be tied to the production of ZT in some way or another.  To those ends, AdD offers the following evidence that I find compelling:

  • The fact that the name of the Venereal intelligence in ZT, “Erosia”, appears as a character in one of Nerciat’s 1788 Le Doctorat impromptu
  • Nerciat was a librarian in several German estates that had access to mystical/occult texts
  • Nerciat did have membership in a Freemason organization, which also would grant him further access to mystical/occult texts
  • A reference to a particular divination done indicating something grave happening to a member of the royal family (Louis XVI, incarcerated in 1792 and died in January the following year), tying to a letter Nerciat sent around the same time on the same topic
  • A number of similar names and entities were worked with in various rites in France and Italy in the second half of the 18th century in circles Nerciat was likely familiar with

I admit, though, that while this is all good evidence, so much of this still seems circumstantial to one degree or another.  Like, AdD states that Nerciat was absolutely pro-aristocracy and anti-revolution, but AdD also frames this based on what the Epistle says, as opposed to what Nerciat himself said (or was said to have said).  I suppose, to an extent, that unless we were to ever find some lost journal or diary of Nerciat that says unequivocally that “today I wrote Telescope de Zoroastre“, then I’d probably say that all we have is circumstantial evidence, but…I dunno.  Parts of the case that AdD builds up just seems really weak to me, and while it’s an extraordinarily well-researched text offering plenty of extra pointers, resources, and citations, I feel like AdD’s claim that ZT was actually, really, and definitively written by Nerciat still rings a little hollow to my ears.

All in all, I am personally convinced that Nerciat was certainly involved in the production of ZT as a book published in 1796, although perhaps not as its author, or at least its sole author. I think there’s enough evidence to ground some sort of association, although the specifics of it may be lost to time.  AdD does reveal quite a bit more about Nerciat’s life and connections, both in various European nobilities as well as in French governmental and other social groups, and that does give one reason to think that, although his writing focused on the erotic and sensual, he certainly would have been familiar with various other currents of society and likely took at least some interest in them.  For my part, I don’t think that Nerciat himself wrote the entirety of ZT, just the Epistle and Epilogue and filled in a few gaps here or there in the course of his own “editing”.  To credit Nerciat with the complete invention of ZT is a step too far, I think, and in this, I’d be inclined towards a softer notion of what Grundy suggests: Nerciat compiled some notions from earlier authors (maybe even a living teacher) and then published the text itself anonymously (because he wasn’t the originator of the content) but with his own epistle, and thus took credit for its publication even if not its composition.

That’d be my most-preferred version of the story, at least, but in the end, I suppose it doesn’t quite matter.  There’s definitely much that we can say about ZT—and rest assured, dear reader, we will—but little of it hinges on the identity of the author that we can’t generally surmise from the state of 18th century French occultism and occulture.  We’ll pick up on that next week.

3 responses

  1. Pingback: Unlocking the Observatory: Dramatis Personae and the Great Cabala « The Digital Ambler

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