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  • For some years, I have been investigating the occult underworld of Paris as it existed during the period in and around the First World War. My main focus of attention was on an enigmatic alchemist known as Fulcanelli, who published a book entitled "Le Mystère des Cathédrales" in 1926. Many students of the occult have heard the name Fulcanelli, but few realize his possible connection with the death of two beautiful Parisian socialites that occurred in 1919-1920.

    My story begins in 1919, when a strange, semi-autobiographical book by a wealthy socialite and film maker named Irene Hillel-Erlanger (1878-1920) was published in Paris. The title of the book was "Voyages en Kaleidoscope;" it described her relationship with the assistant to a brilliant inventor who had come up with a device called the “thermometer of Vulcan and Helios” which enabled the inventor to uncover the hidden nature of the universe and the underlying structure of solid matter; a diagram of this mysterious thermometer was included in the book. Many people believe that this fictional "inventor" existed in real life and was the man who later became known to the world as Fulcanelli! Furthermore, many believe that the "assistant" was also a real person, i.e., the female alchemist, Marguerite-Louise Barbe.

    Those who read French will find “Voyages en Kaleidoscope” a multi-layered "story" about perception itself. It tells of the adventures of Joel Joze, the bumbling but brilliant inventor of a strange device that is capable of receiving the electromagnetic brain waves of people and show, like film on a screen, the true nature of the things that animate them. Joze is torn by the struggle between his infatuation with the sensual and ruthless Countess Vera, star of the Paris ballet, and his love for the delicate and discreet Grace. The story is described in terms that reflect the esthetic principles of the then popular artistic movements of Dadaism and Surrealism. The psyche of the seeker-inventor is split between reality and truth. Joze chooses Vera which leads to disaster, loss of self, and internal conflict. In the end, Grace goes to Vera's house to deal with and recover the poor Joel, who is now plagued by Vera. Joel discovers that the two women are sisters. Vera returns to her stage career while Joel finally returns to Grace, abandoning any ambition for power, money and worldly success. The book is narrated as a voiceover by Joze’s secretary, Gilly, who plays the role of the loyal servant.

    The book was dedicated to the French chemist, Marguerite-Louise Barbe (1879-1919), who was a practicing alchemist and the former wife of the Director of the Laboratories of the College of France, Dr. Serge A. Voronoff (1866-1951). Barbe and Voronoff had been divorced three years previously, in July 1916. Louise Barbe was reputed to be the (illegitimate?) daughter of Ferdinand de Lesseps, the man who had supervised the construction of the Suez Canal.  In the early 20th century, Pierre and Bertrand de Lesseps, sons of Ferdinand, maintained a salon for the elite of the Paris occult community.  Louise was among this group, which included alchemists, artists, and even members of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. In their monograph entitled “Historical Introduction to Temple Ahathoor in Paris,” Jean-Pascal Ruggiu and Nicolas Tereshchenko refer to “Mdme. Voronoff” as the Praemonstratrix of the Golden Dawn’s Paris Temple.

    Iréne Hillel-Erlanger was a screen writer, film director, poet, literary innovator, and film script writer; however, she is almost unknown to the English speaking world. In 1902, she married Camille Erlanger, a celebrated composer and had one son, Phillippe; Camille and Iréne were divorced in 1912. She had many friends in the occult and artistic community of Paris, including composer Eric Satie (1866-1925), poet Jean Cocteau (1889-1963), composer Claude Debussy (1862-1918) and her business partner and film maker Germaine Dulac (1882-1942). Erlanger came from a prominent banking family and it was rumored that her father had secretly funded one of Voronoff’s former associates, a lecturer at the Consevatoire National des Arts and Metiers. This unnamed lecturer seemed to be a real life counterpart to the character described in her book. It was believed that he was conducting ground-breaking research that would revolutionize the physical sciences. Unfortunately, within a year of the book’s publication both Irene Hillel-Erlanger and Louise Barbe were dead!

    Louise Barbe died first, in 1919, after allegedly drinking “potable gold” in a failed alchemical experiment. Irene Hillel-Erlanger died a few months later after having eaten poisoned oysters at the party given in honor of her book’s publication. There was speculation that both women had been poisoned for divulging an important alchemical secret.

    On March 21, 1920, Irène Hillel-Erlanger died after several days of illness. Her death was said to have been caused by a fever obtained from oysters Irène had eaten while dining with a friend. Since the oysters did not make her friend ill, the hypothesis of poisoning appeared plausible. Within a week of her death, all known copies of her book had been confiscated and shredded. The contents would have been lost forever had not a few advance copies already been provided to the booksellers. For many years, the existence of the book was unknown except to a few rare book collectors. Soon after her death, her letters, notes, journals, scripts written for film and biographical accounts by contemporaries of her personal life and work similarly vanished.

    Were these two women deliberately poisoned for divulging a significant alchemical secret? This secret was thought to be the “temperature scale of the Great Work” which had been encoded in the diagram of the “thermometer of Vulcan and Helios” depicted in "Voyages en Kaleidoscope." Alchemical conspiracy theorists interpret the thermometer in accordance with the phonetic cabala as “Thermo-Maitre” - the Thermo-Master. According to this alchemical interpretation, the illustration purportedly indicates the “Secret of the Temperatures.”

    The oil painting shown in the photo is entitled "Le Vaisseau du Grand Oeuvre" (Vessel of the Great Work). It was completed in the year 1910; the artist was Julien Champagne (1877-1932) and is considered to be his most famous work.The painting was a great favorite among the Parisian alchemists during the first third of the 20th Century. The voluptuous model for the painting was none other than the young female alchemist, Marguerite-Louise Barbe. Many people believe that Champagne and Fulcanelli were one and the same person. Did Champagne, or members of his circle, have anything to do with the death of Irene Hillel-Erlanger and Marguerite-Louise Barbe?

    The mystical name of “Fulcanelli” is a composite of the names of the Roman god Vulcan and the Greek sun god Helios. In alchemical terms, the composite word “Vulcan-Helios” may be translated as “Fire of the Sun.” Irene Hillel-Erlanger's book "Voyages en Kaleidoscope" described a brilliant inventor who had come up with a device called the “thermometer of Vulcan and Helios” which provided the key to uncovering the hidden nature of the universe. Was Irene making an encoded reference to the man who published "Le Mystère des Cathédrales" in 1926?
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