Drugs in the Magick and Initiations of Count Cagliostro

CANNABIS CULTURE –  Cagliostro (1743-1795), is an interesting figure, as he bridges the gap between alchemy and secret societies of the Masonic persuasion. As P.D. Newman has recently noted in Alchemically Stoned, there are indications of psychoactive elixirs in Cagliostro’s branch of Egyptian Masonry, and these may have included various preparations for different purposes and as Liber 420 shows, 19th century accounts refer also to the use of hashish by Cagliostro for both initiation and summoning spirits.

Count Cagliostro as depicted at The Gallery of Historical Figures

As the story has it, an occultist Giuseppe Balsamo, who came from a commoner background, took on the identity and alieas of Count Alessandro di Cagliostro, who was considered the greatest magician of his age, some seeing a sage and others a charlatan, history likely sits somewhere in the middle of that.

I’ll leave the backstory to others, but it is clear, that Cagliostro became a glamorous figure associated with the royal courts of Europe where he pursued various occult arts, including psychic healing, alchemy and scrying. His reputation lingered for many decades after his death, but continued to deteriorate, as he came to be regarded as a charlatan and impostor, this view fortified by the savage attack of Thomas Carlyle (1795–1881) in 1833, who pronounced him the “Quack of Quacks”. Later works—such as that of W.R.H. Trowbridge (1866-1938) in his Cagliostro: the Splendour and Misery of a Master of Magic (1910)—attempted a rehabilitation.

In regards to his connection to Freemasonry, as noted in Cagliostro – A Study in Charlatanism (1903)

It is difficult to say where Cagliostro was initiated into the degrees of free masonry. I have had some correspondence with masonic scholars in England and on the Continent, but they have been able to shed no light on the subject. Cagliostro is regarded as the greatest masonic imposter of the world. His pretensions were bitterly repudiated by the English members of the fraternity, and many of the Continental lodges. But the fact remains that he made thousands of dupes. As Grand Master of the Egyptian Rite he leaped at once into fame. His swindling operations were now conducted on a gigantic scale. He had the entree into the best society. Accord ing to him, freemasonry was founded by Enoch and Elias. It was open to both sexes. Its present form, especially with regard to the exclusion of women, is a corruption. The true form was preserved only by the Grand Kophta, or High Priest of the Egyptians. By him it was revealed to Cagliostro. The votaries of any religion are admissible, subject to these conditions, (1) that they believe in the existence of a God ; (2) that they believe in the immortality of the soul ; and (3) that they have been initiated into common M sonry. The candidate must swear an oath of secrecy, and obedience to the Secret Superiors. It is divided into the usual three grades of Apprentice, Fellowcraft, and Mastermason.

In this system he promised his followers ” to conduct them to perfection, by means of a physical and moral regeneration ; to enable them by the former (or physical) to find the prime matter, or Phi losopher’s Stone, and the acacia, which consolidates in man the forces of the most vigorous youth and renders them immortal ; and by the latter (or moral) to procure them a Pantagon, which should restore man to his primitive state of innocence, lost by original sin.”

The meetings of the Egyptian lodges were nothing more spiritualistic seances, during which communications were held with the denizens of the celestial spheres, and many mysteries unfolded of time and eternity… (Evans, 1903)

The focus of this article is to look at the various elixirs and preparations that were used for healing, initiation and acts of magick by Cagliostro.

An earlier article referred to the designation of cannabis under the planet Saturn, by Kabbalistic influenced Alchemists, and there are surviving references to an “elixir of Saturn” administered by Cagliostro, but unfortunately the recipe is lost. However, there is a list of “Planetary Correspondences used by Cagliostro and his Contemporaries” that included “hemlock… nightshade, [and]hemp” (Faulks & Cooper, 2016). In this same account, the opium poppy appears under the moon, and mandrake under mercury, acacia under the sun.

A 1922 edition of du Journal des Débats noted a firsthand account from “an apothecary who… was initiated into the Egyptian Masonic Rites of Cagliostro”, who had some experience with various drugs and described how devotees were given a “philtre” and told “after a reasonable time they will reappear transformed”. The enquiry into the matter concluded, despairingly, that “the philtre of Cagliostro was a mix of hashish and of Imagination”. Eliphas Levi, who refers to cannabis infused wines a number of times in his own writings, indicated that cannabis may have been used as a fumigant by Cagliostro:

“The Magus… must say to the material body, “Sleep!” and to the sidereal body, “Dream!” Thereupon, the aspect of visible things changes, as in hashish-visions. Cagliostro is thought to have possessed this power, and he increased its action by means of fumigations and perfumes.” (Levi, 1856: 1910).

The use of various psychoactive substances, as both a fumigant and elixir in quasi Masonic rituals and rites, can also be found in Cagliostro’s contemporary Johann Georg Schröpfer (1730-1774). Since Schröpfer owned a coffee house and imported coffee, it is reasonable to assume that he would also have had access to hashish, as the two delicacies were known to travel together. Both Cagliostro and Schröpfer claimed to be in possession of rituals that had been passed down by the Templar Knights. Interestingly, various authors have claimed that the Templars used a cannabis infused wine known as “The Elixir of Jerusalem”. Going back to source documents, I was unable to find reference to this. However, records do reveal that the Templars had Saracens growing cannabis along with other rare spices like saffron in Spain, and cannabis was on a list of items seized at two Templar raids. Its form was not identified, but in this same era, we see cannabis infused wine recommended with a recipe by a pope who was friendly with the Templars. What is more, in the Masonic log book of Villard de Honncourt, who also spent time in the Holy Land, there is a recipe for cannabis infused wine.

In specific reference to this comment from Levi, a 1915 edition of the Theosophical journal The Word, (Vol. 20) noted: “The gum of hemp has been employed for many centuries as a “witch-herb,” as well as aconite, belladonna, stramoniums, and opium, to produce visions and enable the spirit or noetic principle to leave the body unconscious, and have communication itself with other minds and spirits elsewhere. Trance or ecstasis is of this character. The human spirit is believed to take its original form under this condition. Many of the conceits of the ‘Thousand and One Nights’ exhibit traces of the hashish…” We can also be sure that Levi exemplified his reference to hashish, with another from the noted masonic figure Ragon, who specifically refers to experiment with cannabis in Maçonnerie occulte suivie de L’initiation hermétique: rôles des planètes dans les doctrines hermétiques et mythologiques des anciens philosophes et des poètes de l’antiquité, ‘Occult masonry followed by Hermetic initiation : roles of the planets in the hermetic and mythological doctrines of the ancient philosophers and poets of antiquity’ (1853).

Evocation of the spirits in Dresden by Cagliostro’ (1882), depicting the classic billowing incense, likely narcotic smoke as with Schröpfer and Eckhatshausen, along with what looks like the overwhelming light of a ‘magic lantern.’

In reference to “plants” in the “religious ceremonies of old”, Ragon mentions the copious “perfumes burning in the Egyptian priest’s temples”, and then goes onto describe an experiment involving the ingestion of 2 grams of powdered cannabis, by a subject who exhibited inspired speech and the ability to read in pitch black darkness, which was attributed to “a phosphorescent light…pure enough illuminate” projected from “the interior skull”. You would have to be stoned yourself to even come up with such a concept!  Ragon also includes a section involving experiments with the sorts of ‘magnetized’ discs, that were being used by Cahagnet, Paschal Beverly Randolph and others. . In this case the & discs were made to represent the 7 planets and painted with colours and infused with extracts from plants that were identified with the various planets. Ragon refers specifically to hashish, datura, henbane, belladonna, being used in these experiments.

Cagliostro performing a seance, ‘Banquet in the afterlife in Rue Saint-Claude’, illustration from The mysteries of science, by Louis Figuier, 1893.

Charles Théveneau de Morande (1741-1805) a known blackmailer, gossip writer,and French spy, who is said to have outed Cagliostro’s true identity as Balsamo, “warned… that Cagliostro would soon be using illusionist tricks to bewitch his disciples… Mind-bending techniques like these had been used by a fraudulent Mason in Leipzig, Johann Georg Schroepfer, who’d later blown his brains out when his deceptions were discovered. Hidden magic lanterns with magnifying lenses would play on moving transparencies to produce wraithlike images of the dead surrounded by tinted clouds” (McCalman, 2012). These illusionist techniques combined with drugs, were used by the Freemason such as Schroepfer and other initiatory societies, in seances and ritual initiations, in a technique known as the Phanatasmagoria.

Although, it should be noted that there are no direct references to Cagliostro using the various devices of the Phantasmagoria, and “although Cagliostro did evoke phantoms, his career is shrouded in such mystery that there is no way to know how his effects were achieved” (Ruffles, 2004). However, we can speculate! And in this regard it is worth noting that one of Caglisotro’s students in the occult was one Philip James de Loutherbourg (740 – 1812), a talented artist, set designer and inventor of the Eidophusikon a mechanical device that used mirrors and pulleys to produce moving images, and described as a “small, mechanical theatre”. We do know that de Loutherbourg was one of the most skilled illusionists of his day, so we can be sure Caglisotro was well familiar with the techniques of the phantasmagoria, and we also know that de Loutherbourg, worked with Caglisoro on producing murals and art pieces to be displayed in Masonic Lodges and used in the Egyptian Rites, an ideal situation for secretly installing such mechanisms.

The Eidophusikon a mechanical device that used mirrors and pulleys to produce moving images, invented by Cagliostro’s student and colleague Loutherbourg.

Drugs aided in making such effects even more believable, and as noted, the Mason and Rosicrucian “Schropfer, who joined Cagliostro as one of the most renowned sorcerers of his day, served up magic punch made from his own secret recipe, along with lessons in summoning the dead, for anyone brave enough to take them” (Masello, 2014).  Accounts of Cagliostro, even those from critics, acknowledge that what ever his origins, he did have a deep knowledge of the use of the herbs and potions of his time. Cagliostro certainly had a reputation for philtres, elixirs and the various infusions of alchemy, and as we shall see, references to these in his form of the initiations of Egyptian rites masonry, and elsewhere, abound.

Schröpfer and Caglisotro were often grouped together by their critics, and the famed Russian poet and historian Nikolay Karamzin, refers to Cagliostro as “a second Schröpfer”. There are certainly parallels in the way the two set out to redefine Freemasonry with their own independent visions, and similar tales of  mysteriously acquiring their directions for their new rites. In this regard, its worth noting that there are numbers of claims that Cagliostro knew Schröpfer, and had cursed him for not accepting Cagliostro’s Masonic revelation of the Egyptian rite! This claim can be traced back into the 18th century. In a 1792 letter, although Schröpfer is identified as “Schieffort”, there is a story about how Cagliostro had confronted the circle of Masons that had gathered around Schröpfer, and condemned “the godlessness of their rite, as sorcery, and prophesied to them, that their chief, name Schieffort, who they will not give up, before a month has passed, will meet the hand of the Lord” (Marcell, 1792). This account was rehashed in reference to Cagliostro’s ability to prophecize, by Charles Heckethorn, who wrote, in his influential mid 19th century The Secret Societies of All Ages and Countries, about Caglisotro’s use of a child as a diviner, who often stared into a glass of water, or magic mirror, which the count was also known to use, and  “the case of Schropfer one of the leaders of the Illuminati, who refused to join the Egyptian rite; the little girl declared that in less than a month Schropfer would be punished. Now it so happened that within that period Schropfer committed suicide, which of course gave an immense lift to Cagliostro” (Heckethorn, 1845).

As far as I can tell, Schröpfer was never a member of the illuminati, let alone a leader of it. Claims that Cagliostro had foretold his death, have since been disputed, with statements that the dates of the alleged prophecy was a  few years prior to Schröpfer’s death in 1774. However, claims of this go surprisingly far back, and a 1782 letter from a very enthusiastic aristocratic member of one of the Masonic lodges that Cagliostro presided over, records that “Schropfer… communicated only with the angels. God was not yet manifest… Schropfer doubted the grace of God; The great architect of the universe abandoned him. Despair took hold of him, and he blew his brains out, as Judas hanged himself for having betrayed the divine master. His death was foretold by the Count of Cagliostro long before he was arrested. It is this Count of Cagliostro who has shown me…  marvels”*

*Translated from Lettres historiques, politiques et critiques sur les evénéments, qui se sont passés depuis 1778 jusqu’à présent, Volume 12 (1791).

This same source began his letter with the following paragraph, and I think we can see some of the tell tale signs of the methods of the phantasmagoria being worked into Cagliostro’s brand of Masonic ritual:

My dear friend. I have hitherto regarded masonry as a mere amusement. I had not formed an idea of ​​all the sublime which this order contains. I want to see the light; God has enlightened me. Yes, my friend, you and I knew nothing of the fame of this divine art. I worked with God, with the angels. It is the master of this great universe who presides in the Lodge where I have been a received. I was not yet perfect enough to see him. But I heard his fortuitous voice from a cloud. I am prostrate, I tremble with fear. Angels were in the holy tabernacle…. Do not think this is a vision. The lodge where I was admitted is not like those we know. The Great Master (god) is always present there, but he is made visible only to those who have acquired the necessary perfection in order to have but one spiritual existence. I am preparing to perfect my being in order to obtain this moral regeneration and to put myself in a position to appear before the Great Master of the universe in this primitive state, where I was born…*

*Translated from Lettres historiques, politiques et critiques sur les evénéments, qui se sont passés depuis 1778 jusqu’à présent, Volume 12 (1791).

Knowing what we know about the phantasmagoria, its hard not to see the “voice from a cloud” and “angels in the tabernacle” as the product of the machinations this art of illusion at work, and replace it with an actual divine spectacle invoked into a masonic Lodge. The enthusiasm of the witness here, is also not the only indication that certain initiatory drinks and fumigations may have been used as well. A draught or “elixir of immortality” is clearly referred to in Cagliostro’s Masonic initiations. Curiously, what this preparation consisted of has long been a matter of discussion. A 1922 edition of du Journal des Débats – (Vol. 29) referred to a firsthand account from an “an apothecary who …was initiated into the practices of Cagliostro”, who had some experience with various drugs along with other evidence from tales of Caglisotro’s initiations. They describe how devotees were given a “philtre”, and told “after a reasonable time they will reappear transformed”. The enquiry into the matter concluded, despairingly, that “the philtre of Cagliostro was a mix of hashish and of Imagination”.

One of Cagliostro’s renovations of Freemasonry, was to bring women into the fold of initiation. He had a beautiful wife, whom he tread with the upmost respect, and who accompanied and aided him in his work. Descriptions from The Masonic Eclectic (1865), of Cagliostro’s Egyptian rite, make it clear substances of some sort were ingested by both sexes.

The ceremony of purification was then performed, myrrh, incense, and laurel being cast into the flames. The presiding mistress then, taking a vase containing some portions of gold leaf, and blowing them into the air, said: “Wealth is the first gift I can bestow on thee.” The mistress of ceremonies responded, “So passes away the glory of the world.” The candidate then drank of the “elixir of immortality,” which was to insure to her never fading youth and beauty, and was placed kneeling in the centre of the Lodge, her face turned toward the tabernacle. The Dove was commanded to summon all the seven angels, together with Moses, that they might consecrate the apron, sash, gloves, ribbon, and other ornaments destined for the new sister. The investiture then took place, a crown of roses was placed upon her head, she received a garter of blue silk, embroidered with the device, “Silence, Union, Virtue,” and the ceremonies closed.

The trials necessary to attain moral regeneration consisted in long-continued mystical studies and exercises, by which the requisite qualifications were acquired ‘to enable the candidate to hold communion with the seven angels’. To sustain him in his trials, he was promised the possession of divine fire, boundless knowledge, immeasurable power, and the final attainment of immortality. In order to obtain physical regeneration, which was to restore their bodies to a child-like purity, they were directed, once in every fifty years, commencing on the night of the full moon in May, to spend forty days in strict diet and seclusion, repeated bloodletting, and the taking of certain drugs. On the last nine days they were to take daily one grain of the “materia prime,” which was to render them immortal, and the knowledge of which was lost by the fall of man.

The “materia prime” or “prime matter” was equated with the Philosopher’s Stone. We can be sure that no one was rendered immortal, and it seems more likely that an “experience of immortality” was what was sought after. This is the classic state of mystic trance, where time, space, duality are all transcended, and from the 1783 account referred to earlier, this seems to be what was at the goal of Cagliostro’s initiations. “I am preparing to perfect my being in order to obtain this moral regeneration and to put myself in a position to appear before the Great Master of the universe in this primitive state, where I was born…”

Women taking part in Cagliostro’s Masonic Egyptian Rite. Unlike mainstream Freemasonry, Cagliostro’s rites and membership included both sexes.

Documents relating to Cagliostro’s Egyptian rites, reprinted in The Masonic Magician: The Life and Death of Count Cagliostro and His Egyptian Rite, makes a reference that “acacia is the primal matter” and that when “purified, it becomes cubical” and this is used in “the consummation of the  marriage of the sun and the moon” (Faulks & Cooper, 2016). This is an obvious reference to the Philosopher’s Stone. Masonic descriptions describe a sprig of acacia growing on the grave of the mythical figure at the centre of their rituals, Hiram Abiff, and when it is pulled from the grounds, it appears without its root.  “The acacia… is a particularly important symbol in the Masonic initiation ritual. When the neophyte says, ‘Acacia is known to me,’ this indicates his knowledge of the superior or higher realms.

The roots of acacia are rich in DMT, and the modern Master Mason P.D. Newman, believes the missing roots, may be a veiled hint to this potent psychedelic in this reference, as well as elsewhere in the works of Cagliostro and others. As Newman has noted, in earlier accounts “cassia”, was the plant on Hiram’s Grave, and it was only later, during the life of Caglisotro, that the change to acacia took place. This seems to be affirmed in other documents as well. As noted in Nouvelle encyclopédie théologique* Vol. 24 (1852)

* ‘New Theological Encyclopedia’.

Cagliostro undertook to make a new form and a new sect under the name of Egyptian masonry. He composed the book, which served in the evidence of his trial, and of which he had left copies to the mothers-boxes [Lodges] which he had founded. In this book he promises his followers to lead them to perfection by means of physical and moral regeneration. For physical regeneration, he makes them hope for the raw material or the philosopher’s stone, and the acacia, which consolidates in man the structure of the ancient mysteries of Egypt.

As also noted in an 1859 edition of The Freemasons’ quarterly (magazine and) review “In his [Caglisotro’s] system he promised his followers to conduct them to perfection by means of moral and physical regeneration; by the first to make them find the primal matter or philosopher’s stone, and the acacia which consolidates in man the powers of the most vigorous youth and renders him immortal.”

P.D. Newman in his Masonic regalia and with some of his sacred plant allies.

In his intriguing new book, Alchemically Stoned: The Psychedelic Secrets of Freemasonry, P.D. Newman, who acted as a consultant on this project as well, has noted the friendship of Cagliostro with fellow Freemason Pyotr Ivanovich Melissino, whose similar reference to extracting a “salt” from acacia were discussed in Chapter 12. In alchemical terms, crystallized DMT would be seen as a salt, and further indications from Melissino that it was burned and inhaled in a fumigation ritual as an entheogen, has given considerable credibility to Newman’s theories about its use in Cagliostro’s Egyptian rites. “….[I]n Melissino’s Rite…. the end of the degree states how ‘All human insight and wisdom, the deepest knowledge read from all chemical and philosophical texts, the most solid knowledge of ancient and modern chemistry’ can be achieved ‘through the sacred door of our Order’” (Harrison, 2017). That door could quite possibly be the same one later popularized by Aldous Huxley…. As Dr. Harrison notes in The Lost Rites and Rituals of Freemasonry the rites of Cagliostro and Melissino are a form of “Freemasonry were the candidate is introduced to an alchemical concoction of magic and possible hallucinogenic experiences” (Harrison, 2017).

As Newman puts forth, the DMT “salts” obtained from the acacia, in Cagliostros rite, were “dissolved into a ‘red liqueur,’ which is afterward imbibed by the candidate for initiation. Cagliostro’s rituastates:…. The candidate… shall drink [the red liqueur placed upon the Master’s altar, thereby]raising his spirit which the Worshipful Master shall address to him…” (Newman, 2017). The candidate is then told that he is “receiving the primal Matter” which gave an experience of Immortality, “from a single grain of this precious matter becomes a projection into infinity”. It is revelled that men of former generations once possessed this secret but through abuse lost it. “The acacia… is nothing but that precious matter. And [Hiram’s] assassination is the loss of the liquid which you have just received…”*

*From a quote in (Newman, 2017).

Images from The Most Holy Trinosophia, said to have been in the possession of Cagliostro.

Images from The Most Holy Trinosophia, said to have been in the  possession of Cagliostro.

Images from The Most Holy Trinosophia, said to have been in the  possession of Cagliostro.

Cagliostro was reputed to have been in possession of the alchemical manuscript, allegedly authored by the mysterious St. Germain, The Most Holy Trinosophia. Images from the book certainly gives some visual indications of the sort of fumigation rituals we have been discussing in this volume. The last image seems to show a bird with a sprig of acacia, over a burning incense altar. I find the designs of these images very similar to the alleged Templar “artifacts” depicted in von Hammer-Purgstall’s Mysterium Baphometis Revelatum (1818). In this regard it should be noted that Cagliostro, like Schröpfer, claimed to be in possession of Templar secrets and rites. After the publication of Mysterium Baphometis Revelatum , a number of scholars quickly concluded that these were works of forgery created by “Rosicrucian or alchemical quacks”(King, 1887). A description that fits in with the time period of Cagliostro, Schröpfer and others, who claimed to have valuable secrets regarding the origins and rites of Freemasonry and Rosicrucians, and who were holding rituals where such items might have made very useful props.

A Masonic anecdote‘ , by James Gillray (1786). Satirical depiction of Cagliostro (Giuseppe Balsamo) administering his red “elixir of immortality”, reminiscent of Schröpfer’s drug infused “punch”, also note the various vials littering the table as well. “Cagliostro became such an important figure in Freemasonry… that he was invited to the Convention of Paris in 1784 to explain his system… His claims included that he could renew youth, he could conjure the apparitions of the dead, he could bestow beauty on those who submitted to his system of Hermetic medicine, and that he could make gold. In short, his rite would reveal the true hidden mysteries of nature and science…” (Harrison, 2017). Cagliostro’s word bubble reads, “Shot through the heart? Take a shot of my Balsamo!” (Balsam is a solution of plant-specific resins in plant-specific solvents (essential oils). Such resins can include resin acids, esters, or alcohols. The exudate is a mobile to highly viscous liquid and often contains crystallized resin particles.)

Cagliostro, certainly had a deep knowledge of plants and medicine for his time, and besides suggestions of their use in magic and initiation, he was well known as healer, and many people came to him from all walks of life for his various preparations and cures. In this respect, although remembered as a con man in our own age, the impoverished of his time held his with deep honour and prestige, and many referred to his kindness and generosity in this respect. “…French Gentlemen of credit (MM. de Segur, de Vergennes, and de la Borde) write…:— ‘We have seen the Count Alessandro di Cagliostro, whose countenance bespeaks genius, and whose eloquence convinces and captivates the hearer. We have beheld him going round a vast hall, from one afflicted being to another, dressing their wounds, softening their miseries, imparting hope to all’.”* A Professor Meiners  from Gottingen, who saw Cagliostro as a “cheat”, wrote of the dichotomy he presented in this respect, as, although  Cagliostro “ pretends to evoke spirits, and to bear rule over them. He takes nothing from his patients, and even lodges many of them at his house without recompense”.*

*Sharpe’s London Journal (1849).

Images from The Most Holy Trinosophia, said to have been in the  possession of Cagliostro.

As even those critical have noted based on the historical record “he lived in magnificent state, but at the same time prosecuting assiduous labour in hospitals and the hovels of the poor, with open purse and drug-box containing “extract of Saturn’. Miraculous cures attested his skill, and wonder grew on wonder” (Trowbridge, 1910). The reference to “extract of Saturn” is interesting in relation to what we saw about the Saturn’s alchemical relationship to cannabis and other psychoactive plants. In The Masonic Magician: The Life and Death of Count Cagliostro and His Egyptian Rite, hemp appears with nightshade and other plants designated under saturn on a list of “Planetary Correspondences used by Cagliostro and his Contemporaries” (Faulks & Cooper, 2016).  However the metal of lead was also governed by this same planet, and a 1910 edition of the British Medical Journal (Vol. 2) state that he “gave it in such large doses that many of his patients got lead colic in consequence”. Although, many unnamed herbal preparations are indicated in the preparation as well.

Cagliostro is known to have made a serious study of alchemy, and it is very probable that his magic balsams and powders were prepared after receipts he discovered in old books of alchemy. Perhaps too, like all quacks—it is impossible to accord a more dignified title to one who had not the diploma of a properly qualified practitioner—he made the most of old wives’ remedies picked up haphazard in the course of his travels  (Trowbridge, 1910).

Whether we are to accept Cagliostro’s claims of his illustrious heritage, or join in the accepted view that he was in reality, Giuseppe Balsamo, a talented con man with a mix of Sage, he certainly had some deep esoteric knowledge, and had spent times in the Islamic world. It has been said that his impoverished parents at age 15, sent him off to be raised  and educated at a “neighbouring monastery… where his services were allotted chiefly to the convent apothecary, within whose laboratory he gained his first insight into the principles of chemistry and medicine. It is probable that here also were sown the early seeds of his future destiny, for in those days alchemy still formed a very favourite part of conventual study”*  According to Photiades, the young and future Cagliostro was given an apprenticeship by the Brother in charge of the Apothecary, who was well known for his knowledge.

Cagliostro pursuing the study of Alchemy.

*Sharpe’s London Journal (1849).

“Every day, mortar in hand, the apprentice had to grind and powder and crush drugs.  under his preceptor’s eyes, he mixed unguents and ointments. He watched over the elixirs and simmered the crucibles. After having used the the pill-machine and the spatula, he would compose the electuaries which by dint of effort, the monks had brought to a high state of perfection.” (Photiades, 1932)

This knowledge would come to serve Cagliostro well, and his elixirs, ointments and pills were sought after by Europe’s elite who paid dearly for them, as well as he poor, who, if we are to accept to contemporary accounts, were given them freely.  However, Cagliostro’s own version  of events differs somewhat. “According to his own account, he went to Alexandria, and there, by changing hemp into silk, made much money; thence to Malta, where he studied chemistry” (Chamber, 1888). “Through secret chemical operations, using  hemp for raw material, fabrics imitating gold [silk]were made. The results… obtained were so wonderful, that industrial country presented themselves in crowds to buy their processes” (Figuier, 1880).

His chemical knowledge here clearly went beyond the textile industry, as we know that throughout Europe he was “selling love-philtres, elixirs of youth, mixtures for making ugly women beautiful, alchemical powders, etc.” (The Encyclopedia Britannica, Volume 4, 1929). “In Paris his immense success was due above all to the drugs by means of which he prolonged not only life but the capacity for pleasure” (Photiades, 1932). Others have noted that “in Egypt and Turkey… he sold drugs and amulets” and refer to him specifically as a “dealer in drug” (Bidwell & Agnew, 1849). Descriptions of him describe how he travelled around wearing “a showy gold-laced cap, rings in his ears, red pantaloons, a sabre, and cartouche box containing drugs… and sold all manner of… love potions and sovereign cures.”* “It is notorious that Cagliostro employed elixirs, red powder and kindred preparations. Perhaps they were extracts and compounds of powerful drugs” (Wilder, 1878).

*The St. James’s magazine (1842)

Preparations like Cagliostro’s “Balm of Egypt”, “Egyptian Pills”, “Count cagliostro’s Drops”, “Elixir de Caglisotro”, became so popular, that soon, forgers tried to cash in, causing Cagliostro to placard Paris with the following Notice:

Notice – M. the Count de Cagliostro, having learnt that there are being sold for money in public, drops called Count Cagliostro’s Drops, is obliged to declare that the persons who sell them cannot have the true composition of his drops, and that he cannot be responsible for the evil effects which such a falsified medicine may produce. He therefore denounces them as spurious as well as all those which may be administered by any other than himself.*

*As quoted in (Malpas, 1932).

In another account Cagliostro lamented his interactions with a less than scrupulous apothecarist, at the same time giving an indication of the hard to get ingredients for his preparations, and his secretiveness around them. :

I had need of a confidential apothecary for the preparation of the various remedies I administer to my patients. Mr. Swinton suggested Mr. Jackson. I went to him. As he spoke only English, I asked him through an interpreter for the drugs I needed. Mr. Jackson had only a very few of them. I took those he had and paid him at once for them. I then had some of the drugs which were not to be bought of Mr. Jackson bought elsewhere, and I compounded with those drugs and some other medicaments which are known to me alone, a certain quantity of paste for the Egyptian Pills. I sent this paste to Mr. Jackson, with three books of leaf gold for him to make the pills. He sent me one small box of them but forgot to send the remainder of the gold and of the paste.

….”Moreover, it is wholly false that I have proposed to Mr. Jackson, or to any other apothecary, to sell remedies for me. It is wholly false that I have ever made my patients pay for my remedies or my care. After my arrival in London a great number of them passed through my hands. The greater number are cured; all are living. I defy any one of them, rich or poor, cured or not cured, to dare to say that I have made them pay for my attendance or my remedies, either directly or indirectly.*

*As quoted in (Malpas, 1932).

Other accounts refer to Caglisotro’s “Wine of Egypt, and other potions, washes, and charms innumerable. … precious drugs.”*  The Wine of Egypt, does bring to mind the cannabis infused wines that were known in the Islamic world at this time. Although Cannabis or opium are not mentioned specifically in any of Cagliostro’s accounts, others refer to Cagliostro’s “love-philtres, [and]his cantharidic Wine of Egypt”**, indicating the use of the notorious quack aphrodisiac “spanish fly”. Eliphas Levi wrote that what made Cagliostro “even more famous was a certain elixir of life which instantly gave vigor and the sap of youth to old men. This mixture had for its base Malvasian wine, and was obtained by the distillation of the sperm of certain animals with the juice of several plants. We have the recipe, and I am sure you understand why I must keep it a secret” (Levi, 1850/2017). A Treatise on the Manufacture and Distillation of Alcoholic Liquors (1871), has the following recipe for an Elixir de Cagliostro, that would likely have had, if not medicinal, a psychoactive effect.   

* ‘Count Cagliostro’, The Medical World, Volumes 1-2 (1857).

** ‘Count Cagliosro’, Fraser’s Magazine Vol. VIII, (1833)

Elixir de Cagliostro

Cloves …. 800 grammes

Cinnamon..800 gr.


Saffron… 200 gr

Tormentilla. 200gr

Socotrine aloes 2 kilograms, 400 gr.

Myrrh…1 kilo., 200 gr.

Fine treacle…2 kilo., 400 gr.

Alcohol, 85% 36 litres

Macerate for 48 hours, and distill gently to obtain 36 litres of spirit; do not rectify; add 50 kilogrammes of white sugar, dissolved by heat, in the usual quantity of water; mix, and add 15 centilitres of tincture of musk and three litres of orangeflower water, and then make up the quantity to 100 litres. Mellow, and color a golden yellow with saffron and caramel; size, and after rest, filter. This elixir is said to be useful in cases of debility, feeble digestion, &c. (Duplais, 1871)

Nutmeg contains the “psychoactive chemicals …myristicin and elemicin. These two are similar in their chemical structure to the drug mescaline” (Spinella, 2013). In Living with Drugs, Professor Michael Gossop describes MDA and MMDA  as “semi-synthetic drugs… produced by the psychoactive ingredients in nutmeg and mace… Both have been known as psychoactive drugs for thousands of years, though nowadays they are seldom used as a drug of choice. MDA and MMDA resemble the hallucinogens in many respect… (Gossop, 2013). Interestingly, Gossop suggests a role for prophetic purposes. “Nostradamus used various forms of meditation to induce his ecstatic trances and visions. These methods included the mildly hallucinatory powers of nutmeg, and his less well-known medical treatise of 1555 on cosmetics and conserves included a recipe ‘to make perfect nutmeg oil’” (Gossop, 2013).

Saffron, fennel, and cinnamon,  also contain psychoactive substances that are chemically similar to myristicin. Saffron oil, or safrol, can be processed like nutmeg to make the narcotic MDA (methylenedioxyamphetamine), which it should be noted is a precursor of the popular drug, MDMA. Clove, myrrh, may also have some mild psychoactive effects. The author goes on to how its restorative effects of this elixir were used by Caglisotro to heal “daughter of Salmon, who had been condemned to be burned alive, and who had just been pardoned by the parliament at Paris” (Duplais, 1871). A similar judgement would follow Caglisotro himself, with a much less happy outcome.

…[O]n the 23rd of August of that fatal year, 1785, at seven o’clock in the morning… a commissaire of the Chatelet, with his constables broke into the apartment where Cagliostro was. One of the constables… had been sent to Strasbourg to spy upon Cagliostro, but had come away with a mighty respect for him. No matter! Cupboards were overturned, drawers ransacked, the desk rifled. There was much cash therein, and it was transferred to the pockets of the ‘agents of justice’ without more ado. Other things there were of unknown value, some of them priceless and irreplaceable documents and drugs such as were not to be found in all Europe, save in that room. (Malpas, 1932)

An account that reminds this 21st century author of the many of the sad stories he has been told by modern enthusiasts of “rare drugs”.

….[I]n 1789 he was… arrested by the emissaries of the holy inquisition, on the charges of being a sorcerer, a heretic and a freemason. His wife was also incarcerated in a convent, where she soon after died. For eighteen months this famous man was kept in close confinement in the castle of St. Angelo. He was then brought before the secret tribunal. His chief accusers appear to have belonged to the Jesuitical fraternity. The documents produced against him at Rome in 1790 and at Zurich in 1791, accuse him of having practiced all kinds of imposture, of making gold by magical means and of possessing the alchemical secret of prolonging life; also of having taught the kabala and kabalistic arts; likewise, that he pretended to call up and exercise spirits, and actually did frequently foretell future events, doing this in small and secret companies, by means of a little boy employed by him, after the manner of eastern conjurers. He was also attainted of being a Freemason and it was charged that he acted in the character of agent and representative of Egyptian Freemasonry, and had heretically attached himself to all sorts of religions. But we do not find any allegation of complicity in the various revolutionary movements of Europe for which he had become notorious and universally feared. It was evidently the purpose of his murderers to disguise from the world as effectually as possible, the terror which had overspread Europe…

The sequel to this story is short. He was condemned, as a matter of course, and sentenced to death. This penalty was commuted to imprisonment in the castle of St. Leon. Here he was subjected to the tender mercies of the Holy Office. The torture was repeatedly inflicted, in order to extort from him the masonic and other secrets of revolutionary Europe; his limbs disjointed on the rack till they had been rendered useless. Finally, having learned, or failed to learn, whatever was desired to extort from him by confession, and reaction having set in over Europe, there was no further use for the unfortunate prisoner, and accordingly, in 1795, he was starved to death….

….If Cagliostro had been merely a charlatan, the Roman Inquisition would never have found it necessary to arrest him, to torture him for years in, its dungeon-hells, and persecute him to the death…. It was safer in the period of revolutionary excitement in the latter quarter of the eighteenth century, to render Cagliostro contemptible as an impostor and charlatan, than to let him be enrolled as a martyr. The burning of Bruno and imprisoning of Galileo had not checked the motion of the earth nor abolished the plurality of worlds… So the tribunal calculated shrewdly in this weakness of men. Cagliostro was convicted of magical practices, such as modern scientists deride and affect to disbelieve, and so, of all whom he sought to serve and benefit, he is without an apologist. Whoever intimates that he was a savant, is placed in peril of ridicule. Yet he doubtless possessed medical and other knowledge which entitled him to respect, if not to veneration. (Wilder, 1878)

Through the Church’s sentence all Caglisotros’ works on Egyptian masonry, magic, and other forbidden subjects were to be burnt and his life forfeited as a heretic and sorcerer, but the sentence was later to be commuted into one of perpetual imprisonment, where he died not long after his wife, who suffered a similar fate. However, what Wilder is also indicating above, is that there were other motivations for Cagliostro’s arrest. One can not downplay the role of these various secret societies in the social and political revolutions that were taking place both in Europe and the New World in this time period. Both the Illuminati and Freemasonry, along with other “secret societies” were outlawed by an edict issued by the the Bavarian ruler, Charles Theodore, accompanied by with the encouragement of the Roman Catholic Church, in 1784, 1785, 1787 and 1790*. In the several years following the dismantling of the Illuminati, the group continued to be vilified by various authorities who believed the illuminati had gone even deeper underground and were responsible for the French Revolution, and Cagliostro was at times grouped in with this conspiracy theory.

Interestingly, as I discuss at length in Liber 420 there are indications and records of cannabis use by certain esoteric societies continuing on into the 19th century,  so it is not without question that the Church’s attempt to stifle such use with their persecution of Cagliostro, was unsuccessful.

Excerpted from Liber 420: Cannabis, Magickal Herbs and the Occult

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