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 5: The Pentagram” (Greer & Mikituk, pp. 67-74).
“Prepare to enter the immeasurable region,” one of the officers in a Golden Dawn ritual says to the candidate for initiation. Lévi begins this chapter in much the same way. The principal abstract concepts he uses to explicate the traditions of high magic in the Doctrine have all been introduced in the chapters already covered. Now Lévi proceeds a step further toward practice. In the chapters that follow, he will expect more from his readers.
One mark of that expectation is visible on the first page of the chapter. You will doubtless have noticed already that the text gives two titles for this chapter, instead of three: Geburah and Ecce. Why? Because it’s your job to choose a third title. The pentagram, the theme of this chapter, is among other things the emblem of the human will, and therefore of human freedom. Just as you freely chose an alphabet to provide labels for the mental filing cabinet you’re creating and filling, you can now choose one of the things to go in Drawer #5. How? Read the chapter several times—you’re going to do that anyway, after all—and choose a word that sums up some part of what this chapter has to teach. Use that for your third title. There are no wrong answers, and so the only way to fail is not to do the work. (Get used to that. It’s standard in occult training.)
Another sign of the higher expectations Lévi places on his readers is the sly way he plays with clichés about magic in this chapter. In the second paragraph, he all but promises his readers to teach them how to command the spirits of the four elements; a little later on, he doubles down on the promise—and then, later on, he explains that when he speaks of commanding the spirits to appear he means that the mage in training learns to exalt his capacities of perception in order to perceive them, and that when he speaks of binding the spirits by the pentagram he means that spirits willingly serve those who have purified their minds and characters in the way that the pentagram symbolizes!
In the process of playing this joke on his readers, Lévi introduces a principle of crucial importance. “There is no invisible world,” he explains, “there are only degrees of perfection in the different systems.” Your visible world, in other words, is a function of how well your senses and your mind allow you to perceive what is around you. To us, radio waves are invisible; if our world were to be visited by aliens sees in the radio-frequency end of the electromagnetic spectrum, our cell phones would light up a room and our radio station transmission towers would flood the landscape with a blinding glare. Meanwhile the aliens might be unable to read our street signs because the different colors of paint don’t affect radio waves the way they affect light.
From Lévi’s perspective, the difference between mind and body, spirit and matter, is a difference of degree, not of kind. What later occult authors call “cosmic root substance” can take both these forms, and many others as well, depending on how rarefied and subtle it is, on the one hand, or how concentrated and dense it is on the other. This is true of ordinary matter—the air between you and these words, concentrated to sufficient density by gravity and temperature, would become solid and opaque as a rock. To Lévi, as to the entire tradition of modern magic that unfolds from him, this same distinction on a much greater scale is all that separates matter and spirit.
What makes this important from the point of view of magical practice is that human beings have an organ that is capable of perceiving the subtle realities we call “spiritual.” That organ is not made of physical matter, but it is as real as a rock. Lévi calls it the diaphane, and other occultists after his time called it the astral body, but it has another name: the imagination. The forms and currents perceived by the imagination, according to occult teaching, are not subjective—that is, they are not walled up inside the individual’s skull, products solely of his own brain function. They belong to what Henry Corbin usefully called the imaginal world, a realm of reflected sensory experiences and similitudes, which is as objectively real as the world of matter our ordinary senses show us.
The imaginal world is not the world of matter, and it does not follow the same laws as the world of matter. This has to be understood to make any sense of Lévi at all. Its substance is not matter but rather the astral light, the great magical agent, and it is not bound to the same rules of space and time as the material world. The imaginal world is full of forms that are native to it, but it is also full of reflections from the diaphanes of human beings—for the diaphane is an organ of action as well as of perception; the images we hold in our minds are projected outward from our diaphanes. Used deliberately and with knowledge, this becomes one of the basic principles of magic, but in ordinary life how many people use it deliberately and with knowledge?
The astral light is therefore full of “lost reflections and misplaced images,” to use Lévi’s terminology. It takes a special kind of lucidity, a purification of the individual diaphane and a process of making it resonate with the direct rays of the astral light, to get past this astral static and clutter and see things there as they are. “Untangling the direct ray and separating it from reflection,” our text says, “this is the work of the initiate.”
It is by means of this process that many of the works of magic function. As our text also points out, there are no fixed barriers or unbridged gaps between one human soul and another. In the astral light, “all is transition and nuance,” and what keeps us from experiencing this is the crude and cluttered nature of the individual diaphane. Practices that cleanse and refine the diaphane—and a great many of the practices of occultism are designed specifically to do this—make it possible to experience that realm of transition and nuance, at first in faint fragmentary ways, but more and more clearly and effectively over time.
Dreams are among the few contexts in which most of us can perceive our own diaphanes without special training. Lévi points out correctly that dreaming sleep is a state equivalent to hypnotic trance (which he calls “magnetic somnambulism,” the standard term for trance in his time and place). In occult terms, both these are states in which the ordinary thinking mind is silenced and the individual becomes conscious of the diaphane. If the diaphane is clear enough, images from the astral light become visible through it, and the dream includes true glimpses of the astral light. If the diaphane is still murky and cluttered with reflections from one’s own mind or those of others, then the clutter and murk are what surfaces in dream life.
The same issue arises in what is still the standard form of hypnotism in modern practice, in which one person goes into trance while another provides guidance into and out of trance, and asks questions once the trance state is achieved. This approach dates from long before Franz Anton Mesmer discovered animal magnetism and started the process by which modern hypnotism came into being. Mages of the Middle Ages and Renaissance used it constantly—the spirit visions of Dr. John Dee and his scryer Edward Kelly, who went into trance while staring into a crystal and answered the questions Dee put to him, are still famous in occult circles, and they were only the most famous of a galaxy of occultists who used the same technique.
Lévi discusses this approach in some detail, but it’s not the method he favors. To him, the summit of the magical art is reached by those individuals who learn how to enter into conscious communion with the astral light all by themselves. That is the goal of his ritual work. I’ll be returning to this point when we finish the Doctrine and proceed to the Ritual, but it’s worth keeping it in mind in the meantime, since many of his theoretical discussions in the chapters ahead will be clearer if it’s remembered.
Some theory covered in this chapter is relevant here, and it takes some unpacking, because it’s written in terms that every educated person knew in 1854 but not too many people recall today. The astral light, Lévi tells us, contains forms—“images” might be a clearer term for modern readers, though they include equivalents of all the senses. These forms are themselves reflections of ideas—Lévi means this latter term in the full Platonic sense of the word, the basic patterns of reality, the thoughts of God. The forms projected into the astral light from the primal ideas are then reflected further in the diaphanes of individual souls, and those that receive attention and emotion are reflected back into the astral light, where they become part of the clutter of astral noise that deceives the inexperienced seer.
The forms in the astral light aren’t in some distant dimension, by the way. Lévi points out that they are always present to our souls and can be perceived whenever our attention is not fixed on either the world of the senses, on the one hand, or on our own thoughts, on the other. Learn the trick of letting images rise freely in the mind, and the forms of the astral light present themselves to us, as they do in dreaming sleep and in hypnotic trance. Learn to do this while retaining full conscious awareness, unlike the diminished awareness of sleep and trance, and the doors to high magic open before you. The training Lévi discussed in the first chapter of the Doctrine? That’s the preparation that makes it possible to open those doors.
This is the point at which Lévi’s sly sense of humor comes into play. As he did earlier in this chapter, he again presents the old notion of magic as dominion and domination, the empire of the will over the four elements and their inhabitants. That empire, he states, is found in the pentagram, and this symbol can be used to command the elemental spirits—or can it? “Those which are not weighed down with the chains of matter recognize with their first intuition if a sign is the expression of a real power or of an imprudent will. The intelligence of the sage thus gives validity to his pentacle.”
We circle back again, in other words, to one of the central themes of Lévi’s work, the training of character. If you have the character of a mage, if you are wise and strong and kind, the spirits will present themselves before your diaphane and assist you in your work. If you do not have that character, if you are not these things, you can brandish around all the pentagrams you want, and the spirits will either ignore you or mess with you, because the symbol is only a symbol and means nothing unless it reflects the quality of the person who uses it.
When our text insists that the pentagram has power over spirits, in other words, it’s dangling a baited hook for the clueless. The pentagram is a symbol of the qualities that give the only kind of power that matters to spirits, the power of character and individuality, which attracts their willing assistance just as it attracts the equal enthusiasm and assistance of human beings. To make use of the powers of the pentagram, you have to become the pentagram: that is, you have to understand the things that the pentagram symbolizes, and remake yourself in their image.
Sly Lévi unquestionably was, but he went out of his way to make that task of self-refashioning easier for the student by giving a detailed template. That template is the pentagram he presents at the start of this chapter, which I have included here as well. For all its apparent complexity, this is one of the less obscure diagrams Lévi offers, and I encourage readers to take the time to unpack it in meditation.
The pentagram is the symbol of the human individual. Lévi’s has its eyes open; it is surrounded by the Tetragrammaton, divided up into groups of two, three, and four letters—where have we seen those numbers before? 😉 —and by the cup, sword, wand, and coin, the four suit markers of the Tarot, emblems of the four elements. The pentagram has Jupiter on its head, representing justice; Mars on its hands, representing strength; and Saturn on its feet, representing stability; Mercury and Venus, intellect and emotion, are combined at its heart, and the Sun and Moon are at its breasts. Alpha is at its throat and Omega at its genitals, two important energy centers, and the Hebrew words written on the pentagram are Adam, Eve, Chesed (Mercy), and Pachad (Fear). If you can’t get at least a few meditations out of all that, you really aren’t trying hard enough.
The pentagram is one of the two primary geometrical symbols Lévi presents here. The other is the hexagram, or star of David. The pentagram represents the microcosm, the human individual; the hexagram represents the macrocosm, the universe as a whole. The version of the hexagram our text gives us is an image of the balance of opposites. Alpha on its top point balances Omega on its bottom point, and the horizontal lines poise Aleph against Tau (the first and last letters of the Hebrew alphabet) and Yod against Heh (the symbolically masculine and feminine Hebrew letters). The Tau cross of the Gnostics, representing Generation on the lower planes, Geometry on the middle planes, and Gnosis on the higher planes, is in the middle. (Here again, you ought to be able to find something to meditate on in this pattern of images and ideas.)
The hexagram is a relatively simple diagram, and relates especially to the two principles of the astral light that were discussed in Chapter Two of the Doctrine and will be revisited in the chapters to come. The pentagram is more complex, and conceals a secret of quite some importance. Lévi offers much more than a hint in the last paragraph of this chapter. The pentagram, he says, gives the proportions of “the great and only athanor” (alchemical furnace) needed for the completion of the Great Work of alchemy. What are the proportions of the pentagram? They unfold from the golden proportion, one of the famous ratios of sacred geometry.
The golden proportion is also the ratio that governs many of the measures of the human body. (For example, the bones of your arms are in approximate golden proportion ratio to one another all the way from your shoulder to your fingertips.) There’s your clue. The great and only athanor of alchemy, the most perfect alembic (alchemical vessel), is the human body. If that suggests to you that alchemy may be something more subtle and strange than mucking around with chemicals in a lab, good—you’re paying attention. What that subtle and strange reality is will concern us more than once in the chapters ahead.
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 V, Le Pape, “The Pope” (in some decks, “The Hierophant”). 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 ה (Heh) or the Latin letter E. 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 two titles Lévi gives for the card: Geburah and Ecce. Sit down, get out the card, and study it. How does Geburah, Severity, relate to the imagery on the card and the letter you’ve chosen? That’s one session. How about Ecce, “Behold”? That’s the next one. And the word you chose as the third title for this chapter? That’s the theme of the fifth session. Approach it in the same way.
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 5 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 6: Magical Equilibrium” on November 10, 2021. See you then!