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 (available in several versions), or any of the Marseilles decks are suitable.
“Chapter 4: The Tetragrammaton” (Greer & Mikituk, pp. 56-66).
The ternary, the theme of last month’s chapter, is of crucial importance in magical philosophy but it is not complete. Left to itself, it cycles around endlessly without getting anywhere, just as the twofold division or binary left to itself remains stuck in a stalemate of contending powers and the unary, the One Thing, left to itself simply is what it is. It is when the ternary transforms itself to a quaternary, a fourfold pattern, that creation takes place. Since Lévi’s understanding of magic was profoundly shaped by the particular version of the Cabala he learned from his teacher Wronski, he uses the Hebrew Tetragrammaton as the template for understanding the fourfold structure.
The Tetragrammaton! Delve into the literature of medieval and Renaissance magic and you’ll find it over and over again. So influential was it that the word “Tetragrammaton” itself, which is Greek for “having four letters,” shows up quite often as a word of power in its own right. It occasionally takes on weird permutations: one of the odder magical tomes in my collection, a reprint of the once-famous triangular book of the Comte de St.-Germain, includes the word of power Notammargatet, which is Tetragrammaton written backwards and slightly misspelled.
All this attention is not without reason. The divine name of four letters called Tetragrammaton in magical writings is יהוה , YHVH, which is interpreted as “Yahweh” by modern scholars and as “Jehovah” by Christian writers from ancient times on. It’s a divine name of the classic Mediterranean style—compare the Roman name Jove, IOVE in classical Latin, which was pronounced “Yoh-weh” back in the day. Like many such names, though not Jove’s, the Tetragrammaton was (and in Judaism still is) not to be spoken aloud except under certain very specific circumstances; the old prohibition against taking the name of the Lord in vain once referred to something considerably more significant than ordinary profanity. One consequence is that Jewish Cabalists, and thus the Frankist Christian Cabalists from whom Wronski’s teachings derived, put a lot of work into the symbolism of the four letters from which the Tetragrammaton is formed.
Let’s walk through it a step at a time. The first three letters, YHV, form a ternary of the kind we explored in the previous chapter. The first letter, Yod, is the active, outflowing, symbolically masculine force; the second letter, Heh, is the receptive, indrawing, symbolically feminine force. The two form a binary, which is resolved by the third letter, Vau, which is the union of the two forces. If Yod is the father and Heh the mother, Vau is the child; if Yod is one pan of the scale and Heh is the other pan, Vau is the bar that unites them.
So far, we haven’t gone beyond the last chapter. Understanding the ternary is essential for grasping what Lévi is saying, and not that alone; thus he goes back to the ternary later in the chapter, introducing two more ternary patterns—in alchemy, the absolute, the fixed, and the volatile; in the Cabala, the absolute reason, absolute necessity, and absolute liberty which are the fundamental characteristics of the divine—and laying part of the groundwork for the grand pattern that will unite all these symbolic structures, the Tree of Life. Yet the ternary left to itself simply circles through endless permutations without ever coming to a resolution.
This is where the final Heh comes in. The pattern established by YHV is not just three things, it is also a single pattern of forces in balance. That single pattern is Heh final. Because it is a Heh, you know that the single pattern created by the first three letters is itself receptive, indrawing, and symbolically feminine—as of course it has to be, because it is what it is because of the three previous letters that bring it into being. The first example Lévi uses is a convenient one: affirmation, negation, and discussion lead to solution, and the nature of the solution depends on what is affirmed, what is denied, and how the discussion proceeds from there.
The occult traditions on which Lévi builds his understanding of magic have other Tetragrammatons, other names of four letters that express the same process, and each of them has its own lesson to teach. One that our text discusses repeatedly is INRI, the Christian Tetragrammaton, which is formed from the initials of the words above the Cross: IESVS NAZARENVS REX IVDAEORVM, “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.” Here I is the positive letter, N the receptive letter, R the union of the two, and the final I the result: not a receptive pattern but a new dynamic influence that goes outward. Another that Lévi discusses is Azoth, which doesn’t look like a four-lettered name unless you know that it’s formed from the first and last letters of three different alphabets: A and Z in the Latin alphabet, Alpha and Omega in the Greek alphabet, and Aleph and Tau in the Hebrew alphabet. This Tetragrammaton focuses on the initial active element, A/Alpha/Aleph, which sets in motion three events in sequence: the reception of the active force by its environment, the mutual transformation of force and environment, and the results of that transformation.
There are others. It’s quite possible to take any four-lettered divine name or sacred word and use it as a template for the same fourfold process. (Students of my writings on Druidry might find it interesting to take the divine name Esus and interpret it in this same way using either of the two sacred Druid alphabets, the Ogham and the Coelbren.) The implications of the pattern Lévi has traced out here will be appearing throughout the text ahead of us, and in a great many other books on occult philosophy and practice: understand what Lévi is saying here and you have a head start making sense of the writings of Stanislaus de Guaita, Papus, Mouni Sadhu, or very nearly any other figure in 19th or 20th century European occultism.
In this chapter, however, Lévi sensibly enough concentrates on just a few of the countless applications of the pattern. He drops some hints here about the Great Arcanum, assigning the Yod and Heh of the Name to the first, threefold stage of the Arcanum, the Vau to the second, twofold stage, and the final Heh to the final, fourfold stage. He also brings up his distinctive pronunciation of the Tetragrammaton, Yodheva, and uses this as a symbol of the relation between humanity and divinity. Finally, he goes on to assign the four letters to the four quarters of the compass, and thus sets the stage for a vast amount of practical magic, in which the four directions are essential structural elements of magical space. We will be returning to this in great detail in The Ritual of High Magic.
The Great Magical Agent or Astral Light also has a fourfold significance, and Lévi is not slow to talk about it. Interestingly, he sees it expressed in terms of four physical forces—heat, light, electricity, and magnetism. Physics in his day had not yet sorted out the four fundamental forces of electromagnetism, gravity, the weak nuclear force, and the strong nuclear force, but students of Lévi these days are well within their rights to see his comments as an intuitive perception of the fourfold nature of force in the material cosmos. It is also the fourth emanation of the life principle, of which the Sun is the third; if you know your classical Neoplatonism you know that the first is the One, the ground of being, and the second is Mind, the intellectual principle or unity of the Platonic Ideas.
More hints about the Great Arcanum follow from this. Lévi quotes from the Emerald Tablet, one of the foundational documents of alchemy, citing three factors that create the Great Magical Agent: the Sun, the Moon, and the atmosphere. From these, the Agent is born; it takes on a twofold nature of attraction and repulsion; it then descends into the Earth to fill it with life and form. The diagram to the left, which also appears in Lévi’s book, sets out this way of approaching the Great Arcanum in graphic form. The seemingly portentous warnings about the dreadful consequences of revealing the Great Arcanum even to a disciple need to be read and understood in the same light, as a symbolic or mythic way of talking about the central secret of Lévi’s work, the key to the practical application of the Tetragrammaton.
Another metaphor is the image of the watch with two springs geared to push in opposite directions. Here Lévi is revealing a central principle of magic, le progrès en raison direct de la résistance, forward movement in exact proportion to, and as a direct result of, resistance. The two currents of the Great Magical Agent, which are symbolized by the two serpents twining around the caduceus of Mercury and the two pillars of the temple of Solomon, gain their power by the resistance offered by the other. That which yields stores up energy in its spring, that which presses onward exhausts its own store of energy, and so yin succeeds yang and yang succeeds yin in endless sequence.
That same alternation of force, setting up a fourfold rhythm—movement one way, pause, movement the other way, pause—appears in the cycle of ordinary human life and in the great cycle of traditional Christian prophecy. In both cases, as Lévi hints, it’s a mistake to see these sequences as something that runs through once and then finishes. “Everything changes, but nothing perishes”—this is offensive to the conventional wisdom of his time and ours alike: secular and religious thinkers think and speak as though whatever they dislike can be expected to go away forever, as though the sun can rise and keep on rising without ever setting again.
In the same way, as Lévi hints at the end of the chapter, there are four ages of the world, but those endlessly repeat themselves. The golden age toward which the nostalgic look back will come around again, while those who think we are in the golden age right now will make the unwelcome discovery that it’s all downhill from here. The logic of the Great Arcanum applies here as well: the two opposing springs push human society one way and then the other, and when one spring has pushed things all the way over to one side, it’s a safe bet that after a certain interval a movement in the other direction will begin, and proceed to run its course.
The great challenge in making use of this teaching is figuring out where the center is, for it’s all but universal among people who champion one side against the other to assume as a matter of course that the natural resting place of the cycle is all the way over to the side they prefer. The beginning of the reverse movement always takes them by surprise, and produces endless squalling about how unnatural and unbalanced the new movement is. This is true, by the way, of every pattern in human life from the grand sweep of empires and generations to the rise and fall of fads and fashions. The rhythm is not always even, and sometimes the pace of change veers in unexpected directions for good or ill, but the movement continues and nobody’s side gets everything they want for long.
Having set out his noticeably heretical view of things, Lévi then does his usual evasive move and shifts at once to the four magical elements and their spirits, the elementals. Here Lévi starts out by stressing the crucial point that the elements are a set of symbolic categories, not a collection of substances. Earth, water, fire, and air are the labels on the drawers of a four-drawer filing cabinet in which the entire universe can be filed. The substances that go by those names are convenient poetic images that allow the phenomena of human experience to be assigned to their proper drawers.
To air Lévi, and magical tradition generally, assign the hieroglyph of the Man and its corresponding figures, the apostle Matthew and the sign of Aquarius; azoth, the universal solvent in alchemy; in Cabala, the Microprosopus or Lesser Countenance, the manifestation of God in the created world; movement among philosophical principles, subtlety among material properties, east among the directions, spring among the seasons, and dawn among times of day. To fire belong the Lion, and thus the apostle Mark and the sign of Leo; sulphur, the principle of volatility; the Macroprosopus or Greater Countenance, God beyond all created being; spirit among principles, heat among material properties, south, summer, and noon. To water belong the Eagle, the apostle John, and the sign Scorpio; mercury, the principle of fluidity; the Supernal Mother; matter among principles, cold among properties, west, autumn, and dusk. To earth belong the Ox, the apostle Luke, and the sign Taurus; salt, the principle of solidity; the Shekinah or Lesser Mother; rest among principles, density among properties, north, winter, and midnight.
To these four elements also belong four categories of elemental spirits—the sylphs of air, the salamanders of fire, the undines of water, and the gnomes of earth. Lévi presents a traditional occult story to help the reader make sense of them, suggesting that at the beginning of time created souls were placed in the midst of the elements and told to take their pick. Those who were wise enough to move to the center, the point of balance at which freedom becomes possible, became human; those who strayed toward one or another element became elementals, and remained unfree until such time as they could find their way back to the point of balance. There’s a great deal to learn from this story, though much of it has to do with the next chapter—the four elements plus the center equal five, the number of the pentagram, the symbol of freedom. For now, it may be useful to reflect on the fact that few if any human beings manage to stay anywhere near the central point of balance and freedom. Moving toward that point remains an option for each of us, and it is one of the secrets of the mage.
Is it possible to allot the symbols assigned to the four elements in other ways and still make some kind of sense out of them? Of course. Do that, however, and you throw away your chance of figuring out what Lévi and a great many other magical writers are trying to teach you. It’s a little as though you decided that English ought to be read right to left, read a stop sign as POTS, and went buzzing on through the intersection expecting to find a pottery store on the far side. Magical literature is trying to communicate things of importance to you, and it’s using symbols and emblems to accomplish that task. Learn what the writers meant by those symbols and emblems and you have some hope of figuring out what they were trying to pass on to you.
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 IV, L’Empereur, “The Emperor.” 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 ד (Daleth) or the Latin letter D. 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: Hesed, Porta Librorum, Elementa. Sit down, get out the card, and study it. How does Hesed or Chesed, Mercy, relate to the imagery on the card and the letter you’ve chosen? That’s one session. How about Porta Librorum (or Librarum)? Or the four elements? 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 4 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 5: The Pentagram” on October 13, 2021. See you then!