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 for free 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 12: The Great Work” (Greer & Mikituk, pp. 119-123).
The Great Work, magnum opus in Latin, was the alchemists’ term for the creation of the Stone of the Philosophers, the mysterious substance that could turn base metals into gold. There’s a long and by no means pointless tradition of redefining alchemy to mean something distinct from mere goldmaking, however. When Carl Jung set out to explain alchemy as a veiled system of depth psychology, he was following a well-blazed trail; half a century before his time, E.A. Hitchcock interpreted the writings of the alchemists as an allegorical way of talking about proto-Protestant religious teachings in the days when the Catholic Church was busy burning heretics, and in Jung’s youth Hermann Silberer’s Problems of Mysticism and its Symbolism had introduced the idea that alchemical writings needed to be interpreted from a psychological perspective.
Go a little further back in history, however, and you’ll find a very different way of thinking about the varied dimensions of alchemy. Alchemists in the Renaissance and early modern periods very often claimed that the symbols and enigmatic texts of alchemy were about the spiritual side of human experience rather than the material work of the laboratory—but they then turned around and noted that mastering the spiritual dimensions of alchemy opens the door to its practical side, and to the literal creation of the philosophers’ stone and the transmutation of metals. “From the supernatural theory flows the natural practice,” says a classic Rosicrucian text, Physica Metaphysica et Hyperphysica D.O.M.A.—and this is the tradition on which Eliphas Lévi based his interpretation of alchemy.
The opening sentence of this month’s chapter sets out the core of what Lévi has to say about that tradition with typical clarity and conciseness. “The Great Work is, above all else, the creation of man by himself, that is to say the full and entire conquest of his faculties; it is above all the perfect emancipation of his will, which assures him the universal empire of Azoth and the domain of Magnesia, which means full control over the universal magical agent.” Azoth and magnesia, readers will recall, are both names for the astral light. Lévi holds that the astral light is the power that “determines the forms of the modifiable substance,” and that changes in the astral light can therefore change matter from one form to another.
That was the basic concept behind classical alchemy: the idea that material things are all made out of a single infinitely changeable substance. If this is true, then anything can transform into anything else. All you have to do is find the key to the transformation, the thing that allows you to take away some qualities from the substance and put in other qualities in their places. If you can do that, it seems simple enough to take away the gray color and chemical reactivity from lead and replace those with the yellow color and chemical stability of gold. That’s what the alchemists set out to do.
Current scientific thought insists that they couldn’t have succeeded, because changing one element to another can only be done using fantastically high energies: the kind of thing you get in a particle accelerator, for example. I’m by no means sure that they’re right about that, given how often current scientific thought has turned out to be dead wrong. Lévi had even better reason to doubt the scientists of his time, who were flailing about half-blindly in their attempts to make nature conform to the demands of a simplistic rationalism. The reality or unreality of metallic transmutation doesn’t actually matter that much for our present purposes, however, because the Great Work in the primary sense Lévi gives it—the free self-creation of the unique individual, the mastery of all the faculties of the self by the self through the will—is a perennial possibility that stands open before every one of us.
Levi’s approach to alchemy is allegorical through and through. To separate the subtle from the coarse, as the Emerald Tablet instructs the alchemist to do, is for Lévi to free oneself from mental biases and self-defeating habits. Salt, sulfur, and mercury, the three principles of the laboratory alchemist, for Lévi are wisdom learned from texts, vital energy directed by the will, and skillful efforts guided by relentless practice. He subjects more complex alchemical narratives to the same process: interpret the emblems and the stories in terms of the thoughts, emotions, and habits of the individual, and then—and here is the crucial step—apply the patterns revealed by this process to other forms of practice. As above, so below: from the allegorical theory flows the magical practice.
The allegorical interpretations in question can be quite arbitrary. Lévi goes out of his way to demonstrate this by taking the word ART, reading it backwards, and turning it into an allegory for the process of alchemical transformation. Arbitrary or not, this provides a fine summary of the alchemical process in ots broadest sense. First comes theory and travail, that is, studying the work in a theoretical sense and then putting in the necessary time and labor to develop the needed skills, always guided by the logic of the ternary to keep balance between the contending opposites. Second comes realization, that is, making the theory a reality through the practice, on whatever plane of human experience you have chosen for the work. Third comes adaptation, that is, taking the same principles and applying them to other situations on other planes.
In the paragraph that follows this bit of allegory, Lévi indulges in one of his few ventures into the field of recommended reading lists. The Kore Kosmou, Minerva Mundi, or Virgin of the World—these are the names of this treatise in Greek, Latin, and English respectively—is an ancient text attributed to Hermes Trismegistus, the legendary founder of alchemy. Most of the Hermetic texts got to the modern world by way of a single ragged volume, the Corpus Hermeticum, that came from Greece to Florence in 1453 and basically kickstarted Renaissance occultism, but this is one of the exceptions. It was included in an anthology compiled by Joannes Stobaeus in the fifth century, which survived in multiple copies. (You can download a copy of the English translation of The Virgin of the World for free here, in a collection with several other works assigned to Hermes. Lévi is quite correct, by the way, that it’s well worth reading and studying.)
An athanor, in case the following paragraph leaves you baffled, is an alchemical furnace. (The word “athanor,” if I may interject a useless but interesting point, is one of the few English words that comes from Sumerian: udun was the Sumerian word for “kiln,” and gave rise to Babylonian utunu, Arabic al-tannur, and Latin athanor, as the centuries unfolded.) The great and unique athanor that anyone can use, everyone has, and is symbolized by the pentagram, is of course the human body, the alchemical furnace and vessel used in moral and philosophical alchemy and in several other branches of the alchemical science as well.
(Two points probably need to be made here before we proceed. The first is that Lévi’s alchemy is a valid form of the Great Work; the second is that Lévi’s alchemy is not the only game in town. To make sense of the wild diversity of alchemical literature, it’s crucial to recognize that alchemy is not a single branch of study, like chemistry; it’s a general method, like modern science. The parallels are exact: just as there is a scientific method, there is an alchemical method, and just as applying the scientific method to any category of phenomena results in an individual science, applying the alchemical method to any category of phenomena results in an individual alchemy. That’s what Lévi has done here. He’s correct, too, that for many people in his time and in ours, moral and philosophical alchemy is a convenient place to start exploring alchemy, with an eye toward learning lessons that can be applied to other alchemies later on.)
At this point, having gotten much closer to the secrets of magic than Lévi likes to go, our text veers suddenly to a discussion of the card that corresponds to this chapter, the twelfth trump of the tarot deck, The Hanged Man. Lévi is quite correct that two of the early theorists on the tarot, Court de Gebelin and Etteilla, both thought that the card had accidentally been turned upside down by some clueless card maker in the Middle Ages, and proceeded to issue “corrected” images with the Hamged Man standing right side up. Lévi had more faith in the traditional image than that, and placed his own interpretation on the card. To him the Hanged Man is the adept with his feet solidly planted in heaven and his thought turned toward the earth; he is also, in a crude sense, anyone who imprudently reveals the Great Arcanum, the supreme secret of magic, to those who are not yet able to understand it or make use of it.
There follows a scurrilous and funny Jewish story that Lévi found in one of the commentaries to the Sefer Todelot Yeshu, a collection of Jewish anti-Christian polemics written in the tenth century. (I don’t know of a source for the commentary, but the Sefer Toledot Yeshu itself can be downloaded for free in Rev. Sabine Baring-Gould’s courtly Victorian translation here). There may be a better example of Lévi’s extreme ambivalence toward the Christian faith in which he was raised, but I can’t think of one off hand. Those of my readers who are Christian, and minded to take offense at the story, might reflect for a moment on how Christians have by and large treated Jews for the last two thousand years, and tolerate a little edged humor in response.
The story isn’t simply here as a joke, however, or a reflection of Lévi’s own deeply mixed feelings about the grand claims of the Christian faith. It’s also a reminder that the powers and high hopes of the adept need to be balanced with a clear sense of the realities of life. Dreaming that you’re God Almighty may be comforting for your ego, but it’s no substitute for a good dinner when you’re hungry.
More generally, while material competence is no substitute for spiritual attainment, the reverse is also true. The occult community has had no shortage of would-be adepts whose supposedly great powers don’t keep them from being impoverished, unhealthy, unable to maintain any sort of relationship, and generally inept at coping with the ordinary details of daily life. Those of my readers who’ve had reasonably extensive contact with the Neopagan and New Age communities can probably call to mind any number of examples of the sort. Of course it’s unreasonable to fly to the opposite extreme and insist that mages should have to prove themselves by being rich, buff, immune from sickness and ols age,well supplied with babes or beefcake depending on personal preference, and so on; the ternary’s a useful touchstone here as well.
That said, the successful student of magic should be able to lead a life that more or less conforms to his or her will, and those whose lives evidently don’t conform to their will—as judged, for example, by a habit of endlessly complaining about circumstances rather than doing something about them—should not be considered successful students of magic. Glorious dreams won’t do that; it requires systematic effort. You will very, very rarely catch me quoting Aleister Crowley about anything, but one comment of his from The Book of Lies seems apropos here: “Learn first what is work, and the Great Work is not so far beyond!”
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 XII, Le Pendu, “The Hanged Man.” 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 ל (Lamed) or the Latin letter M. 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 and fourth sessions are devoted to the titles Lévi gives for the card: Discite and Crux. Sit down, get out the card, and study it. How does Discite, “learn,” relate to the imagery on the card and the letter you’ve chosen? That’s one session. How about Crux, “cross”? That’s the next one. Then choose a third word that sums up, for you, the lessons of this chapter, and use it for the next meditation. 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 Chapter 12 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 13: Necromancy” on June 8, 2022. See you then!