The most influential of eighteenth-century French occult secret societies, the Élus Coens or Elect Cohens were the creation of Martinez de Pasqually, a Portuguese occultist of Jewish ancestry who arrived in France sometime before 1754. In that year he established his first lodge in Montpellier, calling it a lodge of Scottish Judges (Juges Ecossais). By 1760, when he founded a lodge in Toulouse, the term Elect Cohen first appeared. In 1766 he went to Paris to try to interest the Grand Lodge of France in his system. The attempt failed, largely because the Grand Lodge itself was wracked by disastrous political quarrels at that time. While in Paris, however, Pasqually met Jean-Baptiste Willermoz, a Mason and mystic from Lyons, who became the new system’s most effective promoter, helping Pasqually establish his rite through much of France.
The Freemasonry of Knight Masons Elect Cohens of the Universe, to give the rite its full title, was in part simply another colorful system of high degree Freemasonry, like so many popular rites in late eighteenth-century France. Behind it, though, lay a complex and distinctive philosophy with roots in Gnostic traditions, and an equally distinctive system of ceremonial magic. Pasqually’s one book, Traité de la Réintégration des Etres (Treatise on the Reintegration of Beings), outlines a Gnostic cosmology in which the material world was created as a prison for the fallen angels under the guardianship of Adam. In violation of the divine will, Adam desired to create beings in his own image. He and Eve, his first creation, mated without God’s blessing and produced Cain; then, repenting, he sought divine blessing and fathered first Abel, who was killed by Cain, and then Seth. This third son received all the divine wisdom once possessed by Adam. Later, the descendants of Cain and Seth intermarried to produce today’s humanity, but a continuous line of “Friends of Wisdom” preserved fragments of Seth’s knowledge. Pasqually claimed to be the latest of the Friends of Wisdom. See Gnosticism; high degrees.
Pasqually’s system of magic was evasively called La Chose (“The Thing”). It consisted of secret rituals performed by each high-ranking member on the days of the spring and autumn equinoxes, to conjure the intelligences of the spiritual realm into visible appearance. Success in these rites, which marked the accomplishment of reintegration, was shown by “passes” – mysterious lights and sounds experienced during the ritual. See Magic.
A complex and difficult man, Pasqually refused to name a successor or allow any definite organization to be established for his rite. When he left France in 1778 for Santo Domingo, in what is now the Dominican Republic, the Elect Cohens continued under the leadership of Willermoz, but Pasqually’s death abroad in 1779 caused the rapid dissolution of the order. Pasqually’s teachings, however, were taken up by Willermoz into the latter’s rite of Beneficent Chevaliers of the Holy City, which was widely adopted in central Europe by lodges of the Rite of Strict Observance after the Congress of Wilhelmsbad in 1782, and by another of Pasqually’s students, Louis-Claude de Saint-Martin, in the Rite of Martinism. In one form or another, they spread widely through the European occult community and remain a significant factor in western occultism to this day. See Martinism; Rite of Strict Observance.
The Element Encyclopedia of Secret Societies : the ultimate a-z of ancient mysteries, lost civilizations and forgotten wisdom written by John Michael Greer – © John Michael Greer 2006