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 now out of print), the Wirth deck, or any of the Marseilles decks are suitable.
“Chapter 2: The Columns of the Temple” (Greer & Mikituk, pp. 39-47).
The tarot card Eliphas Lévi assigns to this chapter is Trump II, La Papesse. Most English tarot decks translate that “The High Priestess” but that’s not what the traditional name means. Papesse is Popess, female pope, and the card in its original form is a reference to the old and scandalous story of Pope Joan: a woman who, according to medieval legend, disguised herself as a man and entered a monastery in order to be with her lover. She proved to have so much talent for the outward forms of religion that she ended up getting a reputation for holiness and being elected pope. The story claims that her secret was revealed when she went into labor in the middle of a papal procession.
Some French-style decks replace the Papess with the Greek goddess Juno, and Lévi includes this option in his symbolism; he mentions Juno pointing to heaven and earth, in much the same way as the figure on the previous trump does, revealing the secret doctrine of all magic, the reflection of the invisible in the visible. So Trump II is about secrets, and it’s also about polarity—the polarity between man and woman, among other things—which is symbolized by Juno’s gesture, or by the two pillars or columns of the symbolic temple.
Those pillars play a very extensive role in Lévi’s writing, in the tarot, and occult symbolism generally, so a few details will be worth summarizing here. Out in front of the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem were two big ornamental brass pillars, one on either side of the main door. Their names were Jachin, which means “strength,” and Boaz, “to establish.” Since the imagery and symbolism of the Temple have been constant themes of Western occult teaching for a very long time, those two pillars have seen a lot of use in occult writings. They have roughly the same meanings as the yang and yin of Chinese philosophy—Jachin is the active, dynamic, masculine energy, Boaz the receptive, stable, feminine energy—and they are also respectively the Pillars of Force and Form of the Cabalistic Tree of Life.
Our work in this chapter is to stand between those pillars as we prepare, in the words of a certain ritual, “to enter the immeasurable region.” Before we do that, however, we need to grapple with one of the basic concepts of occultism: the concept of gnosis.
The word “gnosis” comes from Greek. By people who don’t know Greek and aren’t wary of the booby traps of casual translation, it’s treated as a word for “knowledge,” or in a more restricted sense, a sort of special, spiritual knowledge. Bentley Layton, a leading scholar of Gnosticism, has pointed out that it’s much more accurate to translate it as “acquaintance.” Gnosis is the kind of knowledge you get by meeting someone and getting to know them. It’s not a knowledge of facts, it’s a familiarity with character.
Imagine, to help home in on the distinction, that you met and had a passionate year-long romance with someone who was in the witness protection program and had been given a false identity. Every single supposed fact you learned about that person was false; nevertheless, you would end up knowing that person very well. You would have gnosis concerning that person. What you would not have is what the Greeks called episteme and Lévi calls science.
The French word science means both science in the modern English sense, and knowledge more generally. By saying that the sages backed away from using the word “science” for what they knew, and preferred the word “gnosis” instead, Lévi is pointing out a crucial issue. If knowledge is, as he says, “the complete and absolute possession of the truth,” no human being has it, or can possibly have it. Anyone who claims to have that kind of access to absolute truth is either lying or deluded. What we can achieve is gnosis, personal acquaintance. In Lévi’s words, we know nothing, but we are called to become acquainted with everything.
As we begin to become acquainted with the world, what do we encounter? Duality. To begin with, there’s the duality between subject and object, the knower and the known. Descartes’ insight that the fact that he doubts proves that there’s someone who is doubting belongs here, in the second place rather than at the beginning where he tried to put it, and that insight is an expression of gnosis rather than science: we are all of us well acquainted with the difference between subject and object, between ourselves and the universe of our experience. But the dualities don’t stop there, of course.
All our experiences, after all, are rooted in contrasts. We know light only by contrast with shadow, warmth only by contrast with cold, love only by contrast with indifference, and so on. By the time we get to adulthood most of us have learned to distinguish between a vast number of things, but if we chase those distinctions all the way down to their origins, we find that they are rooted in dualities; this color is lighter than that one, the meaning of this word is different from the meaning of that one. We always identify the yang by its difference from yin, Jachin by its difference from Boaz—and vice versa.
But there’s a twist to all this, and Lévi draws our attention to it. Duality is itself one side of a polarity, and the other side is unity. “United” and “divided” are opposites, as are “one” and “many.” Consider the yin-yang symbol: you can look at it in two ways: as a single variegated circle or as two curving fish-shapes of different colors that happen to be touching. You can see Jachin and Boaz as a single decorative arrangement or as two pillars. When unity divides to create duality, unity reappears as one half of the duality: dubious mathematics, at least in a practical sense, but very effective symbolism. One of the many emblems Lévi uses for this pattern is Adam and Eve: the original human, androgynous according to some versions of the legend, is divided in half, and then turns into one half of the resulting pair.
Here our text brings in the Tetragrammaton, the four-lettered name of the god of Israel, which is spelled יהוה , YHVH. Ancient tradition, backed up by voluminous discussion in the Talmud, has it that the correct pronunciation of this word was known only to the high priests of Israel, and has been lost for many centuries. (Observant Jews replace it with the Hebrew word Adonai, “Lord,” when reading the scriptures aloud, and refer to it obliquely as ha-Shem, “the Name,” in other contexts.) There are accordingly at least a dozen different ways of pronouncing this name to be found in occult literature, and Lévi offers one of them: Yodheva. What’s behind this pronunciation is that the last three letters of the name, הוה or HVH, are the Hebrew spelling of the name of Eve, Havah or Hevah in Hebrew.
The first letter, י or Y, symbolizes the phallus or masculine energy in general. Note that the name HVH consists of two letters, one of which is repeated; the letters Y is unity, yang, Jachin, and the letters הו or HV form duality, yin, Boaz. Yod is the spirit; Havah, which literally means “life” in Hebrew, is the embodied form—and of course these are also the male and female energies and, among many other things, the penis and the vagina. (As Jung pointed out, sometimes the penis is just another phallic symbol.)
All this leads us back to the riddle of the Sphinx, which occupied our attention earlier in this sequence of posts. What walks on four legs at morning, two legs at noon, and three legs at evening? What is fourfold on one level, twofold on the next, and threefold on the highest level? What is fourfold on the material plane, twofold on the astral plane, and threefold on the mental plane? In this chapter Lévi is talking about the middle term, the twofold pattern, and hints in various ways at its relation to the fourfold and threefold patterns—but we will be getting to each of those other patterns in the chapters immediately ahead.
Keep the riddle in mind, because our text will drop hints about it as we go. This chapter has several of them, but the most important is tucked away unobtrusively in the midst of the discussion: “This is why the material elements which are analogous to the divine elements are thought of as four, are explained by two, and only exist in the end as three.” The material elements are fire, air, water, and earth; the divine elements are the letters of the Tetragrammaton. Remember the unique doctrine of magic—“the visible is the manifestation of the invisible”—and apply this to the play of the four elements in the world of our experience: it’s a hint worth following up on.
For the time being, however, Lévi’s focus in this chapter is on duality and polarity. He discusses this in a giddy assortment of ways, and the sexual polarity between man and woman is of course one of these. Because he was a man of his own time and place, writing for an audience of his own time and place, he uses the standard structuring of sexual relationships between men and women as it existed in his time and culture as a framework for this part of his symbolism. Doubtless that will offend some readers today, just as his use of sexual symbolism in a religious and magical context offended some readers in his own time. It is pleasant to think that he may have anticipated the change, for like most occult writers, he lays traps for the clueless. Giving readers something to get irate about so they don’t pay attention to the teachings is one of the most common and effective of those traps.
The point of setting out all these dualities, however, is to point to the possibility of a balance between them: the teaching of the yin-yang symbol and also of those two mystical pillars. Later on we will explore other ways of reconciling the opposites, but the one Lévi wants to discuss in this chapter—the one relevant to the symbolism of the second trump of the tarot, of the number 2, and of all other emblems of duality—is a balance between equal and opposite forces. Go to one or the other extreme and the teeter-totter of creation flips over on you and down you go. Find equilibrium, with equal weight on the two sides of the balance, and you avoid that awkward outcome. Stand between the pillars and the immeasurable region lies open to you.
This has practical applications, which our text communicates in hints. Take any opposition, in nature, in society, or in the spiritual realm—Lévi sets out these three categories more than once, and never unthinkingly—and consider the two opposed forces. The opposition is always founded on a series of covert agreements. To begin with, opposites agree in belonging to the same category of things: “orange” is not the opposite of “boom,” nor is magic the opposite of architecture. Second, opposites in conflict agree to enter into conflict: the t’ai chi master who simply isn’t where the punch lands refuses that agreement. Finally, opposites in conflict always adapt to the conflict by coming to resemble each other: as George Orwell pointed out in Animal Farm, sooner or later it’s very hard to tell the farmers from the pigs. Understand these three hidden unities and you can choose to enter into opposition when it’s to your advantage, refuse it when it’s not, and work with existing oppositions as your will and imagination direct.
There is also, however, a more specific magical meaning in this concept of the unity of dualities, and Lévi is as explicit about it as he dares to be. The middle term in the Great Arcanum is the astral light, the secret power behind magic, and it is always dual: when it flows, it moves in both directions and it manifests itself in a twofold fashion. The astral light is the belt of Isis that loops around both pillars of the temple and unites at the center in a symmetrical knot. This is what a certain high degree of Freemasonry calls the Royal Secret, and its name is equilibrium. Those who meditate on it and understand it have earned the right and the power to use it. Those who do not are better off not knowing it because, as Lévi says, it can only be misunderstood by them.
Intelligence is the power that surmounts the currents of blind force. There are always two such currents and they flow in opposite directions. They are the pillars between which the Papess sits, guarding her secret, and intelligence is the scroll and the two keys (another duality) that give her mastery over the pillars. What else lies between and beyond the pillars is veiled in this card. In the cards to come, that veil will be pulled aside
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 will be 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 II, La Papesse, “The Female Pope” or, if you happen to be Discordian, “The Mome.” 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 ב (Beth) or the Latin letter B. Choose one alphabet and stick with it. The sound values aren’t of any importance here, nor is there a “right” choice. You’re choosing labels for 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: Chokmah, Domus, Gnosis. Sit down, get out the card, and study it. How does Chokmah, wisdom, relate to the imagery on the card and the letter you’ve chosen? That’s one session. How about the concept of a house? Or gnosis, the kind of knowledge that comes from personal acquaintance? Those are the next two.
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 2 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.
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 3: The Triangle of Solomon” on August 11, 2021. See you then!