Message Board
Magazine Info
Breaking News
It Happened To Me!
Article Archive
Notes & Queries

Polish aristocrat turned Oriental wanderer, Count Jan Potocki was a child of the Enlightenment drawn to the mysticism of the Illuminati and Rosicrucians. GARY LACHMAN examines the strange life and even stranger death of the author of The Saragossa Manuscript.

Most English readers know the eccentric Count Jan Potocki as the author of one of the strangest works of 19th-century European literature, The Manuscript Found In Saragossa. The Saragossa Manuscript – as it is often called – is a weird farrago of stories within stories, with an overall supernatural bent, modelled in many ways on The Arabian Nights. Over a period of 66 days, the young Walloon officer Alphonse van Worden recounts his adventures with gypsies, cabbalists, demons, corpses, astrologers, the Wandering Jew and secret societies. The work has rightly earned Potocki a place in the ranks of the great writers of supernatural fiction. But for every child in Potocki’s native Poland, he is something more.

Born in 1761 to one of Poland’s wealthiest aristocratic families, by the end of his life the famed traveller, ethnologist, linguist and fantasist had become something of a superman. In an insatiable quest for knowledge, Potocki combined Enlightenment rationalism with a Romantic appetite for the strange and uncanny. Fantastic journeys, political intrigue and arcane scholarship filled a career that can be best described as ‘Baron Munchausen meets Marco Polo’.

Educated at Geneva and Lausanne, the young Count received a solid grounding in classical knowledge and soon revealed an astonishing capacity for languages, of which he spoke eight fluently, including Arabic. Then came training at the Vienna Academy of Military Engineering, followed by a stint of service to the Knights of Malta, which included a sea battle against the Barbary corsairs.Potocki travelled widely at this time, making his way across western Europe as well as journeying to Tunisia, Constantinople, Egypt and Morocco. In Morocco he tried unsuccessfully to locate a manuscript of the original Arabian Nights, which enjoyed something of a craze in 18th-century Europe. While in Constantinople, he observed the traditional storytellers plying their trade. Their exotic accounts of adventure and mystery inspired him to turn his hand to a tale or two, which he included in his lively writings about his journeys. In Constantinople he also met Osman, his Turkish valet who, from then on, accompanied the Count everywhere for the rest of his life. Potocki also took to wearing Oriental dress at this time and was often seen in fez or burnous. Along with his travel writings, Potocki pursued historical, cultural and linguistic research wherever he found himself, thereby helping to found the discipline of ethnology.

In the mid-1780s, Potocki found himself in Paris, where he hobnobbed with Enlightenment figures in the salons and cafés of pre-Revolutionary France. It was here that he became involved in strange mystical intrigues, which some conspiracy theorists, like the splenetic Abbé Barruel, believed were responsible for the Revolution itself. This was the Paris of Cagliostro, Swedenborg and Mesmer, of Adam Weishaupt (left) and the Bavarian Illuminati, of cabbalism, séances, and Freemasonry, where followers of Martinez de Pasqually and the Order of the Elect Cohens mixed with the weird novelist Jacques Cazotte and the hermetic philosopher Louis Claude Saint-Martin.

In this atmosphere of magic, mysticism and secret societies, the young Potocki was intoxicated by the heady brew of esotericism and progress in a way that would later inform his single masterpiece. But it may have been more than the seeds of literature that captivated him at this time. In 1780, the infamous ‘black magician’ Cagliostro opened a lodge of his Egyptian Rite Freemasonry in Warsaw. Although throughout his life he advocated an inconsistent array of political beliefs, there’s strong reason to suspect that the young Potocki became a Mason in Warsaw then, and that his period in Paris was filled with secret plots to overthrow the monarchy and establish a ‘universal society’ of brotherhood and tolerance. Indeed, scenes and motifs of initiation and secret knowledge run through The Manuscript Found In Saragossa and one of its central figures – the Great Sheikh of the Gomelez family – is the head of a gigantic scheme that resembles the machinations of the Bavarian Illuminati. Potocki’s decision to set his bizarre novel against the wild beauty of the Spanish Sierra Morena may have been influenced by more than the fact that he passed through the area on his way back from Morocco.

In 1788, Potocki returned to Poland, setting up a printing press and publishing company and, a few years later, establishing the first free reading room in Warsaw. In 1790 he made an even greater impression on the Polish capital by being one of the first men to ascend in a balloon, floating over the ancient city in the company of the French æronaut Blanchard, the ubiquitous Osman and his dog, Lulu.

Unable to stay in one place for long, in the late 1790s Potocki found himself on a trek through the Caucasus. Here he learned the secret language of Circassian noblemen and threw himself into the study of the ancient cultures and beliefs of the Slavic people. During this time the Count wrote massive volumes on the history, archæology and languages of the area with imposing titles like Principles of Chronology for the Ages Anterior to the Olympiads. Then, in 1805, in the service of the Russian Tsar Alexander, he was the scientific adviser on an expedition to Peking. At that time China was still resistant to foreign influence and the emperor Yung-Yen turned Potocki back at Ulan Bator in Mongolia.
Unfazed, Potocki absorbed all he could about the customs and culture of the Mongolian people. Given his interest in esoteric matters, one wonders if he came across mention of the fabled underground city of Agartha, in later years the focus of the eccentric French occultist and Orientalist St-Yves d’Alveydre – see FT97:29 – as well as that of Potocki’s fellow Islamic enthusiast, René Guenon. Little is known of Potocki’s doings in Mongolia, but it would be surprising if he didn’t seek out its more exotic tales and fables. Themes of subterranean mysteries permeate The Manuscript Found In Saragossa, with hidden strongholds, buried treasure and initiatory caves, although these indeed are common tropes in accounts of esotericism.

In between ballooning over Warsaw or crossing the Gobi Desert, Potocki found time to turn his hand to literature. One effort, a series of vignettes entitled Parade, is a classic of Polish theatre. His other classic is, of course, The Manuscript Found In Saragossa. The book has a history as unusual and varied as that of its author. It’s believed Potocki began it in 1797, as a series of stories designed to entertain his first wife. It was completed in 1815, just before Potocki took his own life, blowing his brains out with a silver bullet. Legend has it that in his last years Potocki secluded himself in his castle at Uladowka on his Podolia estate. Here, he turned melancholy and bored, his health diminished and his disillusionment grew. The French Revolution had degenerated into a charnel house and the great dreams of the Illuminati dissolved with the rise of the dictator Napoleon. A scandal surrounding his divorce from his second wife – in which there were rumours of incest – also took its toll.

Alone, he gave way to morbid fantasies. The thought that he had become a werewolf obsessed him. Potocki is said to have taken the silver knob of a sugar bowl, formed in the shape of a strawberry, and filed this into a bullet, which he had blessed by the castle chaplain. Then on 20 November 1815 (or, depending on your source, 2 or 11 December), he put the bullet in his pistol, stuck the barrel in his mouth, and pulled the trigger, thus earning himself the sobriquet of being “the man who shot himself with a strawberry.”

In any event, Potocki published the first part of The Saragossa Manuscript – comprising the first 13 days of van Worden’s strange adventures – on his own printing press in 1804-05 and distributed it to friends. These, and the following ‘fifty-three days’, were written originally in French. Potocki is said to have earned some bad press from the literary establishment of his time for writing and speaking better French than Polish, and to this day there is some controversy over whether The Saragossa Manuscript is a work of Polish or French literature. The second section of the book was published in Paris in 1813, under the title Avadoro: Histoire Espagnole, being made up of tales of a gypsy chief who features in the novel.

In 1814, these two separate books were combined into a three volume edition that appeared in St Petersburg. After Potocki’s death, a Polish translation of the original French appeared in 1847. The original French edition was then lost, and the edition that appeared in Paris in 1989 is basically a translation of the Polish version back into French. A recent English edition is based on this French-Polish version.

Although printed editions were for the most part lost throughout the 19th Century, Potocki’s masterpiece was nevertheless easy plunder for writers like Washington Irving and another eccentric litterateur, the mad poet Gerard de Nerval, who was known to stroll the streets of Paris with a lobster on a leash. Irving and de Nerval were not alone in stealing copiously from Potocki’s fantastic treasure trove in order to meet the 19th-century demand for ‘oriental’ fictions. This appetite for ‘eastern’ tales of mystery and magic was sparked in many ways by the work of yet another eccentric writer, William Beckford, builder of the bizarre Gothic folly, Fonthill Abbey, and author of the decadently exotic novel Vathek, which Potocki would certainly have known.

Beckford was himself no stranger to the occult world of the Enlightenment, and Vathek shares with The Saragossa Manuscript a strikingly similar motif: a stairway of 1,500 steps. In Beckford’s Arabian nightmare the steps lead upwards, to the top of the Tower of the Caliph Vathek; in Potocki’s they lead down to a cave and the underworld. Beckford’s tale of oriental excess and demonic luxury is no more than a rich genius’s fantasy of forbidden lust and its wilful satisfaction. But for Potocki, the subterranean journey has the resonance of the initiatory rites and magical practices linked to the secret societies he penetrated in pre-
Revolutionary France.

For adventurous Europeans of the 19th century, the ‘East’ represented all that went beyond the staid morality of Christianity. Yet, if all Potocki wanted to do was add another ‘oriental’ fiction to the proliferation of ‘eastern’ tales that sprang up after Antoine Galland produced his French translation of The Arabian Nights in 1717, why would he set his phantasmagoric novel in Spain, an exceedingly Catholic country? The answer, I think, lies in Potocki’s possible involvement with the Bavarian Illuminati and the mystico-political intrigues of pre-Revolutionary France.

The secret society known as the Bavarian Illuminati began on 1 May 1776, the brainchild of one Adam Weishaupt, a professor of canonical law at Ingoldstat University in Bavaria. Weishaupt, drunk with the elixir of rationalism, had a vision of a free, egalitarian Europe, rid of the tyranny of the monarchies. To achieve this end, he became a Freemason in order to use the lodges’ vast network of contacts and hierarchies. Quickly his disciples infiltrated most other lodges – even Cagliostro, it is said, was an early convert.

Cagliostro, we know, opened a lodge of his Egyptian Rite Freemasonry in Warsaw in 1780. The Illuminati’s aim was to gain members among the rich and powerful of society, targeting aristocrats and noblemen of reformist views. I have suggested that Potocki may have been initiated into Masonry in Cagliostro’s Warsaw lodge. If so, and if Cagliostro was indeed a member of the Illuminati, then Potocki would be exactly the kind of individual they would seek to bring over to their side. The fact that Weishaupt claimed that Mohammed himself was an initiate of the society would certainly have piqued the young Count’s interest.

The themes of esoteric and political intrigue running through The Saragossa Manuscript have clear parallels with the aims of the Illuminati; but there are other links that strengthen the case for it being an Illuminist work. One is Potocki’s love of things Islamic.

In the 1500s, in the mountains of Afghanistan, an earlier ‘Illuminati’ rose up: the Roshaniya, or ‘Illuminated Ones’. With his passion for orientalism and arcane knowledge, it’s possible Potocki may have known of this cult. Led by ‘the sage of Illumination’, Bayezid Ansari, they claimed to be descendants of the ‘helpers of Mohammed’ after his flight from Mecca. According to some authorities, there are references that link this cult to a ‘House of Wisdom’ in Cairo, which existed in the 11th century. Mention of a ‘House of Wisdom’ links the Roshaniya to another Islamic secret society, the Assassins, who also spoke of a ‘House of Science’ located in Cairo. The Assassins’ reign of terror too began in the last years of the 11th century.

Archetypal mystical-political intriguers, the Assassins set the tone for the conspiracy theories that gathered around the Freemasons in the 19th century. As Joseph von Hammer-Purgstall wrote in his Geschichte der Assassinen: “As in the West, revolutionary societies arose from the bosom of the Freemasons, so in the East did the Assassins spring from the Ismaili sect.” Bayezid Ansari was said to have been inspired to create the Roshaniya – who, like the Assassins and Illuminati, aimed at gaining political control by subverting the status quo – by a meeting with an Ismaili missionary. The Roshaniya also practiced a form of meditation, known as khilwat or ‘silence’, an exercise said to stimulate supernatural abilities.

Bayezid exercised absolute control over his followers, as did the Old Man of the Mountain and Potocki’s Great Sheikh of the Gomelez. Preaching a doctrine similar to that famously atributed to the leader of the Assassins, Hassan ibn Saba – “Nothing is true, everything is permitted” – Bayezid was able to achieve considerable political power, with disciples and followers willing to commit all manner of crimes, including murder. As in Weishaupt’s Illuminati, women were employed by Bayezid as agents, their powers of seduction deemed to be more powerful means of persuasion than rational argument; in The Saragossa Manuscript this is echoed in Alphonse’s initiation by the Moorish sisters.
Eventually, Bayezid Ansari and his Roshaniya were eventually suppressed by the Moguls.

Yet another pre-Weishaupt ‘Illuminati’ flourished in Spain. In 1512 the sect of the Alumbrados, or ‘Illuminated Ones’, began in Guadalajara. It rose among the circles of Franciscan friars responsible for some of the first great works of mysticism to be published in Spain. The cult’s basic belief was in an ‘illumination by the Holy Spirit,’ a kind of gnosis that did away with the need for priest or church. Soon detected by the Spanish Inquisition, the cult existed in different forms until it was finally suppressed in 1623. Oddly enough, this same year saw strange notices announcing the arrival of yet another secret society, the Rosicrucians, in Paris. This may be more than a coincidence given the similarities between the practices of the Rosicrucians, the Alumbrados and certain Sufi sects; for example, the Alumbrados practiced a kind of intense mental concentration similar to the khilwat of the Roshaniya which they called “mental prayer.”

Rosicrucian symbolism abounds in Potocki’s masterpiece, most clearly in the scene in which Alphonse finds himself in a cave, illuminated by many lamps. There he discovers a massive vein of gold and the tools necessary to extract the precious metal. In the Fama Fraternitas of 1614 – one of the earliest Rosicrucian tracts – the authors promise anyone coming forth to join the society “more gold than both the Indies bring to the king of Spain.” Each day in the cave, Alphonse extracts a quantity of the metal equal to his weight. In Rosicrucian legend, Christian Rosenkruz, the mythical founder of the society, was buried in 1484, in a hidden tomb, after dying at the age of 106. In 1604, this tomb was said to have been discovered and, inside, his uncorrupted body lay in a seven-sided vault, lit by a powerful lamp. The Rosicrucians were
hermeticists, cabbalists and alchemists, but they shunned the vulgar idea of alchemy as a means of making material gold. The gold they sought was spiritual; clearly the gold that Alphonse mines is of a similar nature.

Although a Christian cult, the Alumbrados shared some of the erotic practices of the Illuminati and Roshaniya, as well as the Moorish sisters. When the Church finally crushed them, the Alumbrados were, like the Templars (also linked to the Illuminati), accused of sexual perversions. The cult was made up of priests and priestesses and combined a form of free-love with dramatic displays of mystical intoxication. Members were encouraged to induce ecstasies and trances and, like the Great Sheikh of the Gomelez, leaders of the Alumbrados demanded absolute obedience. In return they absolved their followers of all responsibility to secular and spiritual authorities. During the Inquisition’s trials, it turned out that many of the sects’ members were conversos, or New Christians, descendants of Jews converted to Christianity after the pogroms of 1391. Judaism, like Islam, attracted Potocki as an exotic alternative to the Christianity of his time; and the Spanish Jews were of course responsible for the great system of mystical and magical thought – the Cabbala – notions of which run throughout The Manuscript Found In Saragossa.

In setting his 19th-century ‘illuminated’ tale in Spain – the European land that for a time fell to the followers of the Prophet – Potocki, whose incredible erudition may well have uncovered Weishaupt’s predecessors, forged his own bonds with these earlier illuminists. In any event, The Manuscript Found In Saragossa displays the best virtues of the mystical Enlightenment: tolerance, curiosity, and a lively interest in the beliefs and practices of cultures outside the Christo-centric Europe of the time. If, in his last days, “the man who shot himself with a strawberry” succumbed to melancholy and despair, he nevertheless left us a manuscript full of wonder and magic.

Potocki’s masterpiece is a compendium of arcane symbolism and esoteric themes derived from Rosicrucionism, Illuminism and alchemy.

The Manuscript Found In Saragossa purports to be a document discovered in 1809 by a French soldier out looting after the fall of the Spanish city of Saragossa to the French and Polish armies. The manuscript recounts the strange adventures of another military officer, one Alphonse van Worden, who, some 40 years earlier, comes upon a weird crew of ghosts, magicians, dervishes, seductresses and sheikhs as he passes through the mountains of the Sierra Morena, on his way to rejoin his regiment in Madrid.

Ignoring warnings of the danger of crossing the mountains alone, van Worden’s troubles begin when he spends the night in a haunted inn. There he encounters two Moorish sisters, Emina and Zubeida, who easily seduce the young Alphonse. Enthralled by their charms, he nevertheless hesitates to accept their offer of marriage, since it would mean casting off his Christian beliefs and adopting the word of Islam (he also wonders if they are demons sent to turn him from the true path).

Nevertheless he is sufficiently taken with them to drink a potion from a magic cup that produces in him powerful and vivid dreams, in which he and the sisters enjoy the delights of the flesh. Alphonse is rudely awakened the next morning to find himself, not in the capacious bed of the inn, but in broad daylight, beneath a gallows he had seen the day before. The bodies of two bandits he had glimpsed on his journey are no longer hanging from the gibbet. They are lying beside him. With disgust, Alphonse realizes he has spent the night in the embrace of corpses. Thus begins his 66 day sojourn amidst weird and fantastic adventures.

I can only mention some of the many esoteric motifs that appear throughout the tales, as well as the encyclopædic philosophical discourses that accompany them. The gallows suggest the Tarot trump of the Hanged Man, a symbol of spiritual death and initiation – initiation rites and challenges appear in many forms throughout the novel. The weird adventures and tales within tales – in which Alphonse is often unsure whether he is awake, dreaming or under the influence of hashish – is a reminder of the ambiguous nature of ‘reality’. They also occupy the liminal space between sleep and consciousness, the hypnogogic realm of magic and the paranormal.

Several well known historical occult figures appear throughout the novel, like Apollonius of Tyana, Knorr von Rosenroth, and Simon Magus. Several
‘doublings’ also appear, such as the Celestial Twins, invoked by a student cabbalist, suggesting alchemical themes of integration as well as the esoteric notion of the doppelgänger or astral body. Many of the doublings are of a sexual character, suggesting strange erotic practices. The first of these – Alphonse’s encounter with Emina and Zubeida, whom he first meets in a cellar– is an indication of the uncertain terrain we are about to enter. These delightful but possibly dangerous twins are ‘subterraneans’, creatures of the underworld. They are also devotees of a strange, foreign faith.

As Joscelyn Godwin writes in The Theosophical Enlightement: “The initiatic journey to Islamic soil has been a repeated theme of European esotericism, ever since the Templars settled in Jerusalem and Christian Rosenkruz learnt his trade in Damascus.” What troubles the young Alphonse about his new found girlfriends – aside from the fact that they may really be the ghosts of the two bandits – is their enticements to abandon his Christian beliefs and adopt Islam, a horror that Potocki, with his obsession with all things Arabic, obviously didn’t share.

From FT 140
November 2000

Main illustration by DYLAN WYN OWEN.

Mary Evans Picture Library


The Manuscript Found in Saragossa; Jan Potocki, trans. Ian Maclean (Penguin, 1995)

The Saragossa Manuscript (film, 1969)



© Copyright Fortean Times. All rights reserved.