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 17: Astrology” (Greer & Mikituk, pp. 151-158).
Of all the chapters in our text, none show the gap between Lévi’s time and ours more clearly than this one. In 1854, as Lévi comments, astrology was the most misunderstood of the Hermetic arts and sciences; today, after a century and a half of hard work by astrologers, it is among the best known. Though misinformation abounds concerning it in pop culture and the astrologers who cater to the cultural mainstream, there is also plenty of solid and accurate information to be had from capable practitioners and writers on the subject. Times have definitely changed, and Lévi himself was responsible for much of that change, by encouraging occultists to revive astrology from the dismal condition into which it had fallen.
That said, Lévi’s comments about the profanation of astrology in the decline of the classical age are still relevant. The pop-culture astrologers just mentioned are by and large just as materialistic and just as superstitious as the medieval astrologers our text criticizes. A good many of them approach astrology on a rule-of-thumb basis, without any understanding of the deeper issues that Lévi discusses. The fact that the more competent among them routinely produce accurate natal horoscope interpretations and offer good advice to their clients shows that even when approached in this simplistic fashion, astrology works. The problem with pop-culture astrology isn’t that it’s wrong—it’s that it’s incomplete, and could accomplish so much more than it does if it grasped the wider world in which astrological forces have their place.
From the magical point of view, astrology needs to be understood using the same theoretical structure our text has introduced in previous chapters. The universe as understood by mages is awash in tides of that subtle substance that Lévi calls the astral light, which affects mind as well as matter and thus bridges the gap between them. The symbolic systems used by mages, such as the Cabala, are manuals explaining the workings of the astral light; the Tree of Life, the core symbolic diagram of the Cabala, is a circuit diagram that explains how influences flow through the astral light from their source in the divine to their manifestations here in the world of matter. All such systems and diagrams are attempts to reduce the immensity of the cosmos into a form that the human mind can comprehend; though none of these attempts is without its flaws, all of them reflect important truths that can be used in practice.
One of those truths is the realization that everything is connected to everything else, and so nothing in the cosmos is random or meaningless. As our text points out, one stone more or less on a given road at a given moment can determine the destiny of rulers and empires; stones, rulers, and empires are all part of a single immense pattern of interrelated forces, along with everything else that ever existed, exists now, or ever will exist. It is this network of influences that the astrologer seeks to interpret. Since the movements of planets and stars are no more random or meaningless than anything else in the cosmos, the astrologer can use these movements to gauge what will happen here on earth—and tolerably often, if the astrologer does a competent job, the prediction is correct.
Astrology is also a symbolic system as extensive as the Cabala, and the heavens at every moment set out a diagram of astral influences just as rich and complex as the Tree of Life. The natal horoscope of a newborn child is just such a diagram. It shows how the centers of astral influence affect one another and the child, and how they and the child relate to the universe as a whole. Understand the “networks of light” that dance from planet to planet and star to star, embracing the earth and everything else in their weaving patterns, and you understand the probabilities that will influence the child all through its life. Many other charts can be cast for many other purposes, for astrology is not limited to birth charts; there are many branches of the art, each with its own way of measuring the probabilities of the future. The focus on natal charts in this chapter reflects the state of the art in Lévi’s time, and to some extent in ours. It does not limit the magical and divinatory possibilities of the heavens.
The word “probabilities,” which Lévi is careful to use in this chapter when talking of astrology, is important. Astrology does not reveal destiny. The predictions it makes are always tentative and subject to change. It shows the influences that the cosmos brings to bear on the individual, and thus the way the individual will go unless he or she has the will and imagination to rise above those influences and shape the future in a different way. That latter is always a possibility, and for the mage, it is a possibility that can and should be cultivated. “The wise rule their stars, fools are ruled by them” is a common adage found in old astrological books, and it’s often paired with another: “The stars incline, they do not compel.”
The probabilities shown in a natal chart can be changed by sheer power of will, but there are also other, subtler means. Our text mentions one of those in passing in this chapter, and will have much more to say about in the second volume on practice: the art of creating and consecrating astrological talismans. Paracelsus, whom Lévi cites, was a notable master of this art, but there were plenty of others who drew on that same tradition. The method in all its details could be found in volumes written all through the Middle Ages and Renaissance, and most of these drew on a source of which Lévi probably never heard: the Picatrix, the Arab volume of astrological magic that communicated the magical science of the stars to European mages. Lévi’s understanding of talismanic magic is relatively simple compared to the version presented in many of the older writers, but as we will see, it has plenty to teach.
Lévi also realized that astrology was the result of empirical observations in ancient times. This is intriguing, because he lived before this was conclusively proved by archeologists. He surmised that the observations were done by Cabalists, using the Hebrew alphabet as a template for their star lore, and of course he was quite correct that old books interpreting the heavens in Cabalistic terms can be found in European libraries. That wasn’t the source of astrology, however. We now have some of the vast literature of astrological observations compiled over three thousand years by astrologer-priests in Sumeria, Babylonia, and Assyria—the raw material from which astrology was born. Clay tablets covered with cuneiform writing and baked hard as brick were the standard information technology of the time. Unlike our methods of storing data, those tablets endure: whole warehouses of them exist today, having been found intact in ruined cities scattered across the Middle East. They were already old long before the first Jewish scribe adapted the Phoenician alphabet to fit his own language.
Lévi was correct, however, that palmistry and metoscopy both derive much of their symbolism and meaning, as well as their theory, from astrology. (Metoscopy? That’s the art of divination from the face, and especially from the lines and wrinkles of the forehead. It’s all but forgotten in the Western world today, though plenty of books on the subject from the Middle Ages and the Renaissance survive, and some of those are online; somebody could do a big favor for the future of occultism by finding a few of those books and reviving the art.) Our text could just as well have noted that geomancy, numerology, and most other forms of divination are just as dependent on astrology for their symbolism, meaning, and theory. The old science of the stars pervades divination and occultism in general.
In the days before computers, on the other hand, the practice of astrology was tolerably difficult, requiring a decent mastery of mathematics and a good collection of tables allowing the positions of the planets and house cusps to be worked out. Back in Lévi’s time, things were more difficult still, because the books of tables and the ephemerides that astrologers had at their disposal by the end of the 19th century had not yet been compiled; it’s one thing to calculate a horoscope when you’ve got tables of logarithms and house tables designed for that purpose, and quite another to do it when what you’ve got is pen, paper, and your own mathematical chops. When our text notes that it’s necessary for the birth chart to be worked out by “a true adept in astrology,” this latter kind of skill is what it’s talking about.
Until quite recently, as a result, plenty of people who were interested in divination but weren’t up to spherical trigonometry made use of other divinatory systems derived from astrology, such as palmistry and geomancy, or simplified methods of deriving astrological predictions, of the kind that folklorists today call “folk astrology.” The method that Lévi borrowed from Girolamo Cardano and presented in this chapter is a good example. Cardano’s method relies on some of the more reliable astrological cycles—for example, the 12-year orbit of Jupiter and the 30-year orbit of Saturn—to generate a rough and ready yearly prediction. Give it a try; you’ll find that it’s tolerably effective, though a properly progressed horoscope will give you much more detail and more useful guidance.
In the last pages of this chapter Lévi moves into deeper and stranger territory. Without much of a transition, he begins talking about life after death in terms that will be very familiar to anyone who knows their way around classical Graeco-Egyptian Hermeticism and quite the opposite to those who don’t. The spiritual movement in Roman times that took Hermes Trismegistus for its spiritual guide shared many ideas in common with the Gnostics, that strange and polymorphous phenomenon of late classical times. The Hermeticists, like the Gnostics, believed that human souls were trapped in the material world by the forces of the planets, and had to rise above the planetary realm in order to return to its home among the stars, or be reborn in a new material body in order to try again. You can read the details in the Poimandres, the first treatise of the Corpus Hermeticum, the surviving collection of Hermetic documents from ancient times.
Lévi here embraces that ancient vision of human destiny, and updates it in terms of his own cosmology of the astral light, will, and imagination. What holds human souls trapped in material incarnations, in this version, is the denser and more corrupt aspect of the astral light. As our text has explained in detail already, the astral light is both good and evil, the vehicle of divine light and the vehicle of diabolic confusion and folly; when we interact with the astral light, we do so on whatever subplane of the astral realm corresponds to our own spiritual state. This is true in life, but as our text points out here, it is even more true in death; the souls of the dead naturally gravitate to their own proper place in the astral realm, which is therefore heaven, purgatory, and hell, depending on the condition of the soul and the subplane to which it goes.
Is Lévi presenting this vision as the unalloyed truth about the soul and its destiny? Not at all. He is too subtle and too nimble to hand down dogma. “Such is the great and sublime revelation of the mages,” he says, and leaves it at that. In the language of a later occultist, such mythic narratives are meant to train the mind, not to inform it.
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 XVII, “L’Etoile.” 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 פ (Peh) or the Latin letter R. 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 through fifth sessions are devoted to the titles Lévi gives for the card: Stella, Os, and Inflexus. Sit down, get out the card, and study it. How does Stella, “star,” relate to the imagery on the card and the letter you’ve chosen? That’s one session. How about Os, “mouth”? How about Inflexus, “bent”? 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 17 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 18: Potions and Spells,” on November 9, 2022. See you then!