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 out of print at the moment), the Wirth deck (available in several versions), or any of the Marseilles decks are suitable.
“Chapter 7: The Flaming Sword” (Greer & Mikituk, pp. 83-87).
Lévi’s steady advance toward the practical dimensions of magic continues in this chapter, with an analysis of the core symbolism that was put to work by operative mages in the Renaissance. This symbolism unfolds from the seven planets of ancient astrology: Saturn, Jupiter, Mars, the Sun, Venus, Mercury, and the Moon. The true believers who are fond of calling themselves “skeptics” these days like to make fun of astrology for calling the Sun and Moon “planets,” but the joke’s on them. The Greek word planetes, “wanderers,” originally referred to every heavenly body that changes position visibly against the background of the fixed stars; scientists changed the definition and then engaged in a flurry of fingerpointing against older meanings of the word. (They did the same thing with the word “elements,” which meant fire, air, water, and earth more than two thousand years before the modern concept of chemical elements was invented.)
By the time Lévi wrote, two more planets—Uranus and Neptune—had been discovered, and a third recently discovered body—the dwarf planet Ceres—was in the process of being downgraded from planetary status, just as Pluto was in 2006. Astrology was in flux as astrologers put in overtime figuring out what influence the newly discovered worlds had on human lives. Lévi was not an astrologer, however, and the seven planets had been a core element of magical practice since Babylonian times, so he used it exactly as he received it; he says partway through the chapter, in fact, that his version of astrology is more invariable than astronomy. He’s not quite correct in claiming that the septenary is sacred in all theogonies (accounts of the creation of the gods) and all systems of symbolism, but given the limited knowledge the West in his time had about the rest of the world, he wasn’t too far off.
Typically, he was sensible enough to interpret the septenary in terms of numbers already discussed. That’s one of the great advantages of number symbolism: you can make sense of it by the basic operations of arithmetic. 3 + 4 = 7 in the language of symbolism isn’t simply a mathematical truism, it’s a statement of considerable importance. 3 is spiritual, 4 material; 3 is the soul, 4 the body; 3 is the Great Arcanum, 4 the elements that it transforms—and 7, the sum of these two numbers, is matter united with spirit, the soul infusing the body, the Great Arcanum transmuting the four elements. It is represented in Lévi’s vision by the seventh trump of the tarot. The charioteer and the two sphinxes provide the 3, the cubical chariot with its four pillars provides the 4, and the result is the sanctum regnum, the holy kingdom or spiritual mastery over the world.
In the symbolism of the Renaissance, everything imaginable was sorted out into seven categories. The seven virtues and vices, which Lévi tabulates in this chapter, are among the classic examples. One of the exercises given to students in occult schools was to write up all this symbolism in the form of a table, giving one column to each of the seven planets and then listing virtues, vices, angels, and the rest of it. It’s a valuable habit, because it helps impress the symbolism on the mind, and makes practical use of the symbols in magical work easier and more effective. If you plan on putting Lévi’s magic into practice, dear reader, I recommend that you make such a table, and add to it as you go.
The septenary also governs time. Lévi is his usual evasive self here, and doesn’t mention the standard sevenfold time pattern used in Renaissance magic—the seven days of the week and the planetary hours, which mesh together neatly. (You can find a good explanation of the system here.) This is what he’s talking about, or part of what he’s talking about, when he distinguishes between Cabalistic astrology and judicial astrology. “Judicial astrology” is the kind that is based on the actual positions of the planets in the heavens; Cabalistic astrology uses the symbolism of astrology but assigns the planetary influences to cycles of time on a different basis.
While he is careful not to mention the planetary hours, Lévi mentions two other sets of sevenfold time symbolism: the assignment of the seven ages of human life to the planets, which he outlines, and the seven planetary ages of Johannes Trithemius, which he does not. Trithemius’ system, given in detail in his book De Septem Secundies (On the Seven Secondaries), assigns the planetary angels to periods of 354 years 4 months each. The order is that of the days in the week, but in reverse: Saturn–> Venus–> Jupiter–> Mercury–> Mars–> Moon–> Sun. Lévi was only one of many occultists in his time who paid close attention to the scheme of Trithemius, because in that calculation the age of the Moon, under the rulership of Gabriel, was winding down around him, and was due to be replaced in the last months of 1879 by an age of the Sun under the rulership of Michael. That age is scheduled to last until 2234, in case you’re keeping track.
The Book of Revelations, the last and weirdest book of the Bible, is likewise full of sevenfold symbolism. Lévi isn’t the first, or even the hundred and first, to connect this with the planetary septenary, or to note the presence of the ternary, quaternary, and duodenary (that is, the numbers 3, 4, and 12) in equal profusion through John of Patmos’ extraordinary vision. Lévi also drops a hint which, as far as I know, hasn’t often been picked up. “the scenes which succeed one another are so many pentacles.” There are of course 22 chapters in the Book of Revelations, corresponding to the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet and the 22 trumps of the tarot deck; what Lévi is suggesting here is that each chapter presents a vivid magical image which can be used, and which he thought were meant to be used, as themes for study, meditation, and spiritual and magical practice.
The cherub Lévi discusses a little further on requires a bit of commentary. The habit of portraying cherubim as chubby little naked boys with pigeons’ wings could only have arisen in a culture that had completely lost track of the reality of spiritual beings. The name “cherub” comes from Babylonian, where it’s pronounced karibu, and what it means in that language is one of those mighty winged human-headed bulls who guarded the gates of Babylon. To Lévi, this is the form of the cherubim who, with a flaming sword, guarded the gates of Eden as well. That same form is also a hint concerning the Great Arcanum: the karibu has four legs, two wings, and three pairs of horns on its crown.
Another hint is given in the divine name אראריתא, Ararita. That’s an acronym—yes, Cabalists were using those long before corporations got to them. It’s the initial letters of the words of a Hebrew sentence that means “One is His beginning, one is His individuality, His permutations are one.” It’s used as a word of power in many magical rituals relating to the planetary septenary.
Lévi says cryptically that Ararita is a translation of the Tetragrammaton, and he’s right, in a typically subtle sense. The name Ararita has four letters, but A appears three times and R twice to make a total of seven. The four letters are of course RITA, and if you notice the similarity to ROTA = TARO, you’re getting good at picking up Lévi’s hints. (There may also be a reference here to the Sanskrit word ṛta, pronounced more or less “rita,” which appears in the Vedas and means the order of the cosmos; the English word “rite,” as in ritual, comes from the same archaic Indo-European root.)
What our text is suggesting here is that tthe sevenfold planetary order—the Seven Secondaries, as Trithemius called them—expresses and manifests the threefold and fourfold primary order of being expressed in the Tetragrammaton. As Lévi also says, however, the septenary contains all the elements of the Great Arcanum but carefully avoids giving the final word that would allow the Arcanum to be understood and mastered. Since mastery of the Great Arcanum gives the closest human approximation to omnipotence, and our species is not exactly known for its capacity to handle power gracefully, this is doubtless just as well.
There follows a flurry of other septenary symbols to add to your table of planetary correspondences; Lévi is merciful to his readers and gives each of these lists in the same odd planetary order he gives elsewhere in this chapter: Sun, Moon, Mars, Venus, Mercury, Jupiter, and Saturn. He includes a collection of animals associated with the planets, and explains that the body parts of these animals are common ingredients in spells. He’s correct that this was done routinely in Renaissance magic, but I don’t know of any magical school that teaches this now. It’s as unnecessary as it is inhumane: you can get equally good results using the herbs, woods, and resins of the planets, and the process is a good deal more sanitary and less cruel.
He rounds out the chapter by giving a set of images that are used in talismans of the seven planets. What is a talisman? In modern magical jargon, it’s an object that has been charged with a particular magical influence in order to accomplish some specific magical intention. In magic as in anything else, a single effort can sometimes do what needs to be done, but fairly often you need to apply sustained pressure over days, weeks, or months to achieve your goal. Talismans are among the standard occult tools for applying that pressure. A talisman is charged up like a battery, and then just keeps on going like the bunny in the advertisement, providing a steady gentle pressure in the direction of your goal.
The planetary septenary is especially useful in this context because, as Lévi points out, “the seven planets, in fact, are none other than hieroglyphic symbols of the keyboard of our emotions.” To make and consecrate a talisman, he goes on to say, is “to magnetically attach one’s will to signs which correspond to the principal powers of the soul.” If you want to push your consciousness in a particular direction—to play, in Lévi’s metaphor, one of the keys of your inner keyboard—using the slow steady pressure that yields lasting results, talismans are a classic way to do it.
Just remember that the planetary influences, like every other magical force, have their downsides as well as their upsides; the listing of virtues and vices are a good basic guide to these. Invoke Mars for strength and you’re going to have to make a sustained effort not to give way to anger; invoke Venus for the unconditional love the old books call “charity” and you’re going to have to rein in your sexual cravings, and so on. As with all things, power lies in equilibrium; invoke the magical forces of the planets and you may have to work harder to achieve that.
Talismans in older times were generally made from precious stones or pure metals, both of which were much easier to come by in the days when the human population was smaller, fewer mineral deposits had been mined out, and the wear and tear of history hadn’t entombed so much of them in burials, ruined cities, sunken ships, and the like. Since each precious stone and each metal corresponds to one of the seven planets, making your talisman of such a substance makes the work easier, since the influence o fthe material substance (symbolically, the number 4) can be added to the influence of the spiritual force you invoke (symbolically, the number 3) to give you the omnipotent number 7.
More generally, talismans should resonate with the influence that will be called into them. That’s why a planetary talisman is traditionally made of a substance that corresponds to the planet whose influence will be invoked into them, and that’s also why certain specific images, symbols, shapes, and names are written, painted, or carved on them.The closer the match and the more extensive the symbolism, the more effectively the talisman can receive the influence that empowers it, and the more effective the talisman will be in carrying out the intention placed in it. That’s why gemstones and pure metals were used back in the day, and why some ancient talismans are works of art.
Nowadays, though the cheaper metals are still very much an option—you can get copper and tin in some hardware stores for your talismans of Venus and Jupiter—there are other ways to go about making a talisman. One that’s become quite popular is to get the kind of paper that’s made for watercolor painting, cut out a circular talisman, paint it with a strong herb tea made from herbs of the planet you’re going to invoke, let it dry, and then draw the design on the paper with colored pencils. Another is to borrow a trick from old-fashioned southern conjure and make a mojo bag: get or make a small flat cloth bag of the traditional color of the planet, paint the image of the talisman on the cloth with fabric paints or embroider it with colored thread, and put in herbs, stones, and other material substances corresponding to the planetary energy. Either of these approaches will be found effective and affordable.
The specific designs for talismans of the seven planets Lévi gives are traditional and powerful, but they’re far from the only game in town. If you go looking in Renaissance magical literature, you’ll find many other suitable designs for talismans, and Lévi is generous enough to point you to another good source of these: the tarot deck. He notes that the image of Trump V, Le Pape, is a suitable talismanic image for Jupiter. Exactly which cards to use for the planets was a matter of some debate in the later French occult scene, as Lévi never did explain the rest; for that matter, not everyone agreed with him about Trump V. I’m partial to the Sâr Peladan’s scheme: Magician = Sun, Priestess = Moon, Empress = Venus, Emperor = Mars, Hierophant = Mercury, Lover = Jupiter, and Chariot = Saturn. Of course your mileage may vary.
Inevitably Lévi winds up this important and revealing chapter with an enigma. To understand this chapter, he notes in the final paragraph, it’s useful to review what is written in Chapters 1, 3, and 4. He’s quite correct. Doing so may not enable you to understand the Great Arcanum, but that’s not the only game in town. The septenary of the planets is a lesser arcanum, with its own power. It contains, as our text says, all the elements of the Great Arcanum; even without the final word of that tremendous secret, it has considerable effect. The method of consecrating talismans, uniting the spiritual 3 with the material 4, is given in the second half of the book. What you’ve received here is however a crucial body of information: the knowledge that will enable you to choose an appropriate material anchor for the vortex in the Astral Light your magical working will create.
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 VII, Le Chariot, “The Chariot.” 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 ז (Zayin) or the Latin letter G. 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: Netzach and Gladius. Sit down, get out the card, and study it. How does Netzach, Victory, relate to the imagery on the card and the letter you’ve chosen? That’s one session. How about Gladius, “sword”? That’s the next one. Once again, you’ll have to choose a third word for this chapter, and that word is 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 7 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 8: Realization” on January 12, 2022. See you then!