With this post we continue a monthly chapter-by-chapter discussion of The Doctrine and Ritual of High Magic by Eliphas Lévi, the book that launched the modern magical revival. Here and in the months ahead we’re plunging into the white-hot fires of creation where modern magic was born. If you’re just joining us now, I recommend reading the earlier posts in this sequence first; you can find them here. Either way, grab your tarot cards and hang on tight.
If you can read French, I strongly encourage you to get a copy of Lévi’s book in the original and follow along with that; it’s readily available for sale in Francophone countries, and can also be downloaded from Archive.org. If not, the English translation by me and Mark Mikituk is recommended; A.E. Waite’s translation, unhelpfully retitled Transcendental Magic, is second-rate at best—riddled with errors and burdened with Waite’s seething intellectual jealousy of Lévi—though you can use it after a fashion if it’s what you can get. Also recommended is a tarot deck using the French pattern: the Knapp-Hall deck (unfortunately out of print at the moment), the Wirth deck (available in several versions), or any of the Marseilles decks are suitable.
“Chapter 10: The Cabala” (Greer & Mikituk, pp. 100-109).
Chapter 9 of our text was short but contained a great deal of material in compact form; the present chapter is considerably longer, but it expresses a single idea from various angles and in different degrees of detail. That idea, one of the essential principles of Lévi’s work, is the use of a sequence of numbers, letters and images as an alphabet of ideas expressed in symbolic form. The numbers he uses are the natural numbers one through ten. The letters Lévi uses are Hebrew primarily, though his book is set up so that readers can use the standard Latin alphabet in the same way. The images he uses, of course, are the twenty-two trumps of the tarot deck. From these, he constructs a universe.
When Lévi repeats the old claim that ancient sages originally wrote in pictures, as it happens, he’s not wrong. In most of the world, the oldest writing systems were picture-writing, and the scripts descended from these first systems—Egyptian hieroglyphics. Sumerian cuneiform, the hieroglyphic scripts of the archaic eastern Mediterranean, the Mayan and other Mesoamerican scripts, and the last one still standing, the Chinese script—show their ancestry among pictures very clearly. Later scribes rounded off the hieroglyphic images into simpler patterns and used them to represent individual syllables or phonemes, but even in the latest and most abstract alphabets, it takes only a little effort of imagination to see the picture behind the letter.
Our letter A, for example, was originally the Phoenician letter ‘Alep, which looks like an A on its side; go back further to Egyptian, and it’s a little drawing of the head of an ox. Write a capital A upside down, and with a little imagination, you can see that archaic Egyptian ox still staring at you! To call the standardized images of hieroglyphics a book is to beg any number of questions, and Lévi goes out of his way not to answer them yet. (We’ll get to what he means by that turn of phrase in a later post.) What matters for the moment is the concept that an alphabet can serve as something more than a handy way to jot down spoken language in an enduring form. Each letter can have its own unique meaning, and the letters of a word—at least in theory—can be examined one at a time to make sense of the word. This is the basis for one of the core elements of classic Western occultism—a habit to which Lévi gives the Hebrew name Cabala.
Cabala (in Hebrew, קבלה) literally means “tradition.” In the first post in this series, we talked about its origins in Greek Neopythagorean circles, its complex history since that time, and its role as a lingua franca of Western esoteric spirituality. Lévi’s system of high magic, like most Western systems of ceremonial magic and practical occultism, is based entirely on the Cabala, and the scheme he introduces in this chapter will need to be understood clearly in order to make sense of a great deal of the material later on.
True to form, Lévi makes that more difficult than it has to be by leaving out the diagram that makes sense of his comments. That diagram, the Tree of Life, is shown on the left. The ten numbered circles are called sephiroth in Hebrew—that’s the plural form; the singular is sephirah—and the twenty-two lines that connect them are the twenty-two paths. (The dotted circle toward the upper end, labeled Daath, is not a sephirah—it’s the point of intersection between the three upper and seven lower sephiroth, and isn’t discussed in this chapter.)
What are the sephiroth? In one sense, they’re ten places in the first chapters book of Genesis where God is described as saying something: “And God said, Let there be light” is the first sephirah, Kether, and and so on down the Tree. In another sense, they’re the first ten natural numbers. In still another sense, they’re ten states of human consciousness, of which the lowest is ordinary awareness of the material plane and the highest is union with God. In yet another sense, they are the planes of being of which humans can be conscious. For the time being, think of them as ten cubbyholes in an odd and ornate piece of furniture, which you can fill up with various things as we go. The paths that connect them also have plenty of room to be loaded with curios, as we’ll discuss in a bit.
There are various stories, legends, and justifications for the Tree of Life and the other dimensions of the Cabala, but Lévi chooses instead to explain the usefulness of the Tree in a fascinating and useful way. The unique doctrine of magic, he says, is that “the visible is for us the proportional measure of the invisible.” Take some time to think about that phrase. What he is saying is that the things that we as human beings cannot know about directly can be understood, to some extent, by using metaphors taken from the things we can know about directly. The genesis of the Tree is a fine example. Equilibrium, the balance established and maintained by opposing forces united by some common factor, is one of the most common patterns of the existence we can know; the Tree of Life takes this and applies it to the Unseen.
Thus the divine unity manifests itself in two complementary expressions—call them stability and motion, necessity and freedom, mercy and justice, or what have you—and the balance between these polarized expressions brings the world into being. It’s a little more complex than that simple fourfold pattern, for reasons Lévi will hint at as we proceed, but the end result of that process of equilibrium working itself out is the establishment of another equilibrium, the one between the divine unity at the top of the Tree and the world of multiplicity down at the bottom. Those two and the eight intermediate levels between them make up the Tree, and Lévi provides a helpful summary of the ten sephiroth to get you started.
Of course he doesn’t stay in that helpful mood for long. No sooner does he finish up the listing of the ten sephiroth but he presents a distinctly odd image of the Tetragrammaton, the divine name YHVH, festooned with 24 crowned circles, each crown having three points. This diagram, he says, indicates the number, source, and relationships of the divine names. He’s right, as it happens, but he carefully doesn’t mention which divine names. He’s talking about the Shem ha-Mephoresh or, as it’s called in older sources, the Shemhamphorash, the “divided name” which contains 72 divine names, one for each point on those crowns. He mentions that a little later in the chapter for the benefit of those readers who are paying attention. The mysteries of the Shem ha-Mephoresh belong to the more advanced end of Cabalistic study and practice, however, and needn’t be set out in detail here.
That bit of misdirection, however, is there for the very serious purpose of distracting attention from the paragraph that follows. Here Lévi continues building on a theme he’s developed at length in previous chapters, and talks about the difference between divinity and its images in the human imagination. The Devil, he suggests, is the image of God reflected at the lowest level of existence or consciousness. There’s an old bit of poetry by Alexander Pope that claims “an honest man’s the noblest work of God;” the famous nineteeth-century skeptic Robert Ingersoll liked to turn that around and suggest that an honest god is the noblest work of man. Grant for a moment that all our notions of gods reflect our own exceedingly limited capacity to understand the divine, and it’s a valid point. Quite a few dubiously honest gods have received worship down through the ages, some of them in Pagan nations and some of them in Christian societies. Lévi suggests a few examples, and more could easily be added.
The different ways of experiencing and thinking of the divine, in turn, are mapped onto the Tree of Life in a straightforward way. Each of the sephiroth has a divine name assigned to it; these names represent the way divinity is perceived from the standpoint of that sephirah. The set of names that Lévi gives isn’t the one most commonly used in the English-speaking world these days, but it derives (as the more popular one does) from Cabalistic tradition and can be used in magical practice by those who wish to do so.
Lévi then proceeds to make the equation that would turn out to be the most influential of his many contributions to Western occultism—the equation of the Hebrew alphabet with the trumps of the tarot deck. As mentioned earlier in this series of posts, the tarot wasn’t created in the deeps of time in Egyptian temples, as Lévi thought it was; it wasn’t the teraphim of the Hebrews, nor was it the primordial book of wisdom or the source of all myths and cults. The earliest version of the tarot, which was concocted by Marziano da Tortona in Milan around 1415, had sixteen trumps, not twenty-two, and since it was used solely for playing card games until late in the eighteenth century, when cartomancers in Paris and Bologna discovered its exceeding usefulness for divinatory purposes, it’s quite possible that whoever first started using twenty-two trumps never thought of linking it to the Hebrew alphabet.
None of that matters in the least, of course, to the practicing mage. It so happens that the trumps and the Hebrew letters can be equated with one another; in point of fact, they can be equated in several different ways, each of which works quite tolerably well in occult practice. It works on the same principle as the one that governs the assignment of Hebrew and Latin letters to the chapters of this book: if you choose any two symbols and put some work into it, you can find a connection between them, and that connection, arbitrary as it might be, is just as effective as the equally arbitrary connection between the letter A and the sound that this letter indicates.
To assist the industrious student in making sense of all this, Lévi provides some doggerel verses to explicate the symbolic meanings of the trumps and, a little later on, the ten sephiroth. These can be memorized, either in French or in my English translation, which is admittedly somewhat labored but at least is better than A.E. Waite’s. (The temptation to make the second line assigned to 13 מ “And with strange eons even death may die” was pretty intense, but I resisted it. No, neither Lévi’s version nor Waite’s have anything approaching that phrasing; I checked, as I wondered whether Lovecraft, who read this book closely, might have been inspired to write his famous couplet by that line.)
What our text has done here is as simple as it is remarkable. Each card of the tarot deck, using Lévi’s scheme, has its own definite meaning assigned by the Cabala—the trumps from the Hebrew alphabet, the number cards of each suit from the sephiroth, and the court cards, though Lévi doesn’t make this explicit, from the Tetragrammaton—and this meaning can be used as a framework in meditation, divination, and magic. It’s crucial to keep in mind that this is a framework, not the complete meaning of any of the cards; that develops gradually with study, meditation, and other forms of practice. The framework of symbolism, however, is as necessary as the skeleton is for your body.
If you take the time to read books on magical symbolism from the Renaissance—Cornelius Agrippa’s Three Books of Occult Philosophy is as good an example as any—you’ll find a more looser and more inchoate mass of symbolism assigned to each element, planet, and Cabalistic sephirah. One of Lévi’s great innovations was precisely the recognition that those symbols could be correlated, so that symbols line up in one-to-one linkages, creating a language of image and meaning with immense potentials for work in magic and other occult arts. Where he went, other occultists promptly followed.
With that in mind, it’s ironic that his last paragraph hearkens back toward older traditions of Cabala that would largely drop out of use in Western occult circles after his time. Berashith is the Hebrew title of the book of Genesis, and Merkabah is the Hebrew word for “chariot,” referring to the divine vehicle described in the first chapter of the book of Ezekiel; intricate interpretations of both these played a huge role in Cabalistic writings from the Middle Ages through the early modern period, and still have a central place in the specifically Jewish branch of the tradition. The practices of gematria and temurah—calculating the numerical value of Hebrew words and sentences, and replacing one set of Hebrew letters with others according to traditional systems—saw a great deal of use in those interpretations, and still do.
In the tradition of high magic Lévi’s book set in motion, by contrast, such concerns played little if any role. The mathematics of meaning that Lévi borrowed from the writings of Rámon Lull took center stage in their place. We’ll be covering that in detail in later posts.
Notes for Study and Practice:
It’s quite possible to get a great deal out of The Doctrine and Ritual of High Magic by the simple expedient of reading each chapter several times and thinking at length about the ideas and imagery that Lévi presents. For those who want to push things a little further, however, meditation is a classic tool for doing so.
The method of meditation I am teaching as we read Lévi is one that is implicit in his text, and was developed in various ways by later occultists following in his footsteps. It is a simple and very safe method, suitable for complete beginners but not without benefits for more experienced practitioners. It will take you five minutes a day. Its requirements are a comfortable chair, your copy of Lévi’s book, and a tarot deck of one of the varieties discussed earlier.
For your work on this chapter, take Trump X, La Roue de Fortune, “The Wheel of Fortune.” Your first task is to study it and get familiar with the imagery. Sit down, get out the card, and study it. Spend five minutes doing this on the first day you devote to this practice.
Your second task is to associate a letter with it. Lévi gives you two options, the Hebrew letter י (Yod) or the Latin letter K. As noted earlier, you should choose one alphabet and stick to it. The sound values aren’t of any importance here, nor is there a “right” choice. You’re assigning labels to a mental filing cabinet. Most people can make the necessary association quite promptly, but spend a session exploring it. Sit down, get out the card, and study it. Relate it to the letter in any way that comes to mind.
The third, fourth, and fifth sessions are devoted to the three titles Lévi gives for the card: Malkuth, Principium, and Phallus. Sit down, get out the card, and study it. How does Malkuth, Kingdom, relate to the imagery on the card and the letter you’ve chosen? That’s one session. How about Principium, “beginning”? That’s the next one. How about “phallus”? That’s the third. Approach these in the same way as the concepts you explored in earlier meditations.
Don’t worry about getting the wrong answer. There are no wrong answers in meditation. Your goal is to learn how to work with certain capacities of will and imagination most people never develop. Stray thoughts, strange fancies, and whimsical notions do this as well as anything.
Sessions six through the end of the month are done exactly the same way, except that you take the concepts from the chapter. Sit down, get out the card, and study it. Then open the book to Chapter10 of the Doctrine and find something in it that interests you. Spend five minutes figuring out how it relates to the imagery on the card, the letter, and the three titles. Do the same thing with a different passage the next day, and the day after, and so on. If you run out of material for meditation in this chapter, you can certainly go back to the previous chapters and review what they have to say.
Don’t worry about where this is going. Unless you’ve already done this kind of practice, the goal won’t make any kind of sense to you. Just do the practice. You’ll find, if you stick with it, that over time the card you’re working on takes on a curious quality I can only call conceptual three-dimensionality: a depth is present that was not there before, a depth of meaning and ideation. It can be very subtle or very loud, or anything in between. Don’t sense it? Don’t worry. Sit down, get out the card, and study it. Do the practice and see where it takes you.
We’ll be going on to “Chapter 11: The Magical Chain” on April 13, 2022. See you then!