With this post we begin 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 going to be plunging into the white-hot fires of creation where modern magic was born. Grab your tarot decks 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 here. 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 flaws 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.
“Introduction to the Doctrine of High Magic” (Greer & Mikituk, pp. 5-25).
As we begin our journey through Lévi’s work, four points need to be mentioned right away and kept in mind through the discussions to come. The first three of them may seem obvious, but they have implications that are not necessarily obvious at all, especially for those of my readers who have had an ordinary American public school education and therefore know nothing worth mentioning about what used to be called, charmingly enough, the history of letters.
The first of these points is that Eliphas Lévi was French. Obvious? Sure, but it has implications many of my American readers won’t catch. Every language in the world has its own literary tradition, and what counts as good writing is not the same from one to another. All the way back to its origins in Anglo-Saxon verse, English literature tends toward the direct, the crisp, the spare. “We’ve heard of the great kings of the Spear-Danes in days gone by, and how their princes did mighty deeds.” Those are the opening words of Beowulf, the first great English story. French isn’t like that. To most English readers, French-influenced writers like Edgar Allen Poe and H.P. Lovecraft seem overblown; to French readers, they’re not—and both these authors, by the way, still have big followings in the Francophone world.
When you read Lévi, in other words, you can’t expect Hemingway’s kind of prose. What you can expect is this: “Beyond the veil of all the hieratic and mystic allegories of ancient doctrines, beyond the shadows and strange trials of all initiations, under the seal of all sacred scriptures, in the ruins of Nineveh or Thebes, on the weathered stones of ancient temples and the blackened face of the sphinx of Assyria or Egypt, in the monstrous or marvelous images which express for the Hindu believer the sacred pages of the Vedas, in the strange emblems of our old books of alchemy, in the ceremonies of initiation practiced by all secret societies, one discovers the traces of a doctrine that is always the same and always carefully hidden.” Can you imagine H.P. Lovecraft starting out a story that way? I can. There’s a point to all this ornate language and elaborate sentence structure, but it takes some getting used to if what you’re familiar with is the far less fancy prose of English writing.
The second point is that Lévi published this book in 1853. The world was a very different place in those days; plenty of things people thought they knew then have turned out not to be true, just as many of the things we think we know now will suffer the same fate in due time. Many of the attitudes that were acceptable then are rejected today, just as many of today’s popular notions—and not just the ones you’re thinking of—will be rejected by our descendants. It’s fashionable these days to judge and condemn the past for the crime of not being aware of today’s moral prejudices. If you want to make sure you don’t learn anything from the past, that’s a great way to go about it, and of course that’s the point of today’s chronocentric obsessions. Since we’re trying to learn from Lévi rather than to erase him, by contrast, the differences in attitude between his time and ours should be opportunities for insight, not for denunciation.
The third point is that Lévi was at the very beginning of the modern magical revival. He wasn’t drawing on a rich contemporary tradition of magical practice, the way occultists can do today if they know enough to do it and care enough to try. There were people practicing magic in his time, of course; most of them were country folk who kept doing the rites they had received from their grandparents, who had learned it from theirs and so on back to antiquity; a few of them were eccentric intellectuals who studied and practiced the occultism of the Renaissance as though the sixteenth century had never ended. What made Lévi’s work revolutionary is that he didn’t try to turn back the clock. He wanted to make magic make sense in terms of the philosophy and science of his own time.
Because he was the first to attempt that, in turn, his efforts didn’t always succeed, and his way of thinking about magic had to be modified by later occultists to fit their own experiences. The Doctrine and Ritual of High Magic is like the description written by the first traveler to reach a distant country; its author did his best to describe the landscape of the country and the customs of its people, but his trip there was not long enough to give him a chance to get all the details right. Mind you, he got a great deal correct, and some of the things he learned are things that have been forgotten, if they were ever known at all, by occultists in the Anglophone world since his time. We’ll be discussing those as our exploration proceeds.
Then there’s the fourth point, the one that doesn’t even pretend to be obvious. As you read the book before you, you’ll find Lévi talking repeatedly about the way that the doctrine of high magic is hidden in fantastic tales and mythic narratives. Among other things—among many other things—he’s talking about his own book. If you take Lévi’s narratives in a purely literal sense, as too many people have done, you’ll miss much more than half of what it has to teach. Furthermore, the more literally Lévi seems to be presenting what he has to say, the more suspicious you should be that that he means what he says in a purely symbolic sense.
This book is not High Magic for Dummies, and Lévi would have laughed raucously at the notion that it was, or that such a book is even possible. One of the central points made by the chapters to come, in fact, is that mastery of magic depends on a secret that cannot be revealed except to those who are already prepared to learn it. Lévi calls that secret the Great Arcanum; he talks about it in various ways, most of them far from obvious. In its simplest form, as we will see, it is expressed by the riddle the Sphinx asked Oedipus—“What is it that goes on four legs in the morning, two at noon, and three in the evening?”—but if you give the sphinx the partial answer Oedipus did, you risk suffering a fate like his. To know the Great Arcanum is to grasp the secret behind all myths and symbols; to be able to apply it is to come as close to omnipotence as human beings can get; but to reveal it is death.
(Does all this seem improbably spooky, melodramatic, and overblown? Good. Now think about why your reaction might be exactly what Lévi wanted.)
With all this in mind—and it has to be kept in mind all through the chapters ahead—let’s turn to the introduction to the first half of the book.
We begin with an impressionistic tour of the history of magic, divided into three rough periods: antiquity, when magic was a pervasive presence in everyday life for good or evil; the Middle Ages, when it was still pervasive, but was condemned as evil by the Christian church; and the modern period, when it has fallen into general neglect. Of course this is a European vision of history, but then Lévi was European; it is also pervaded by the three-stage logic of history that popular culture has relied on for five centuries now, the sequence that Hegel made even more absurd than it already was and Spengler critiqued in mordant tones, but then Lévi wrote when that scheme was still unquestioned, when Hegel was just one more unreadable German philosopher among others and Spengler would not be born for decades yet.
In terms of the history of magic in the Western world, furthermore, the old scheme has some merit. It was in fact the case that what we now call magic was pervasive in ancient times, and was practiced by many of the ancient priesthoods as a matter of course. People in ancient Egypt, Babylon, and Greece who felt the need of supernatural help could get it from the religious professionals of their societies, or from many other practitioners, without contradicting the teachings of their faiths or falling afoul of the civil laws. Furthermore, at least some ancient priesthoods—the Magi of Persia, the Druids of the Celtic countries, the priests of Egypt—had the robust magical reputations Lévi suggests.
The turn away from magic in the last centuries of the ancient world was also a reality. The Roman government’s terror of secret associations fused with Christianity’s theological demands to render a vast array of once-common practices anathema. The Christian churches adopted some of those practices in reworked form; ask a well-informed priest sometime why, in Catholic and Orthodox churches, the Mass can only properly be celebrated atop an altar that contains part of a human corpse, and the answer you’ll get can be traced back through an inheritance of ideas to customs very far back in antiquity. Yet a great many people in the western world ended up bereft of magical practices that had been an ordinary part of life for their ancestors, and a significant number of them turned to unsanctioned magical practices to fill the gap.
The complex relationship between Christianity and magic is a central theme of Lévi’s work, and he deals with it forthrightly from the opening pages of this introduction. He points out that the Bible contains symbolic narratives—the vision of Ezekiel (the first chapter of the book of that name) and the entire Book of Revelations—that the Catholic church in his time did not even attempt to interpret. Both those narratives, on the other hand, have been interpreted at length and with great clarity by occult writers for many centuries.
Lévi argued on this basis among others that there was no necessary opposition between magic and Christianity as such. He liked to use the image of the three mages (“wise men” in English Bibles, but the word in the original text is μαγοι, magoi, that is, mages) kneeling before the Christ Child to represent the original and potential harmony between magic and Christian faith—but he noted that there was an inevitable opposition between magic and the official church, on account of “the social and hierarchical constitution of the Christian priesthood.” The recognition that Christian faith and Christian institutions might have conflicting interests was a tolerably common one in Lévi’s time, though he seems to have been the first person to apply that insight to the history of magic.
All this history is by way of introduction to the basic theme of his work, which is a robust affirmation of the reality of magic. Yet that affirmation needs to be understood in context. Here again, it’s crucial to remember that to Lévi, magic always speaks in parables. The lurid claims of superhuman powers, he points out, “are neither mystifications of science nor dreams of madness; they are terms which it is necessary to comprehend in their true sense, and which express all the different uses of the same secret, the different characteristics of the same operation, which can be defined in a more general manner by calling it simply the Great Work.”
That Work is the mastery of the force that Lévi calls the great magical agent and the astral light. All the effects of magic are the results of control over this force; all the complicated allegories of myth and legend, not excluding the soaring symbolic narratives of the Bible, can be read as detailed technical discussions of the nature, powers, and uses of the same force. Much of the first half of his book is dedicated to the labor of showing how this is done without showing too much. He has already noted that the first chapter of Ezekiel and the Book of Revelations can be read in this way, and he has hinted already that the book of 22 images that comprises the trumps of the tarot present an even more exact account of the same process.
In the second half of our current section of the text he applies the same art to some of the classic tales of Greek mythology. The most important of these is the tremendous legend of the ancient dynasty of Thebes that centers on Oedipus. Those of my readers who want to figure out what Lévi is saying here could do much worse than to read Sophocles’ plays Oedipus the King and Antigone and Aeschylus’s The Seven Against Thebes, the best ancient sources for this legend. Since Lévi grew up in a more literate time than ours, he assumes that you know the details of this legend, along with the stories of the Golden Fleece and of Eros and Psyche, and Homer’s description of the shield of Achilles from the Iliad. You don’t have to know all about these to follow what he has to say, granted, but it helps.
It was quite common during the generations immediately before Lévi’s time to draw the same conclusion he did, and see all the world’s mythologies and religions as reflections of a single secret doctrine. Most of the people who developed that theme did so in an attempt to prove that all the world’s mythologies and religions were false. Lévi cites two famous writers on this theme, Charles-François Dupuis and Constantin de Chasseboeuf, comte de Volney, both of whom argued that all the world’s mythologies—including that of Christianity—were nothing more than astronomical metaphors.
What sets Lévi apart from these and most others is that he took the same data and drew the opposite conclusion. If all the world’s myths and religions are telling the same story, he inquires, is it wholly impossible that the story might be true? If that story is reflected in the stars, is it wholly impossible that the story is the original source, and the stars turn in obedience to it? He wasn’t the only writer of his time to make this proposal—there were certain writers in the British Druid scene who ventured the same claim—but the whole momentum of nineteenth-century thought was against it.
It was a gutsy thing to do what Lévi did in 1854, and it’s still a gutsy thing to do today, when the habit of kneejerk cynicism is just as deeply entrenched as it was in Lévi’s time. Lévi was sure, however, that he had uncovered a key that made sense of countless ancient puzzles, a way to bridge the gap between Christianity and philosophy, and the first principles of a science that might revolutionize the world if only he could find people interested in giving it the sustained attention and effort it deserved. He was willing to take risks. Whether or not you agree that he found what he claimed to find—and understanding a thinker is far, far more important than agreeing or disagreeing with him—the adventure he launched with The Doctrine and Ritual of High Magic is worth following.
Notes for Study and Practice:
Next month we’ll begin work on a specific system of Western meditation using the trumps of the tarot deck—a system for which, as it happens, the chapters to come were designed and crafted. This introduction, however, is simply an overview of the territory ahead and has not been shaped to fit that practice. During the month ahead, read the introduction at least three times—once quickly, to get an overview; the second times slowly, paying attention to each sentence; and the third time just as slowly, watching carefully for possible double meanings, metaphors, and hints. Get familiar with it. You’re going to be spending four years thinking through Lévi’s ideas, so the sooner you get some sense of how he thinks and how he frames his ideas, the better.
At least once each week during the month you spend on this section of the book, take out the 22 trumps of your tarot deck and go over them, looking at each one. Pay attention to all the symbols on the cards—not just the figures, but what they are holding and what is around them. Remember that in decks that use the French pattern, Le Bateleur (the Juggler or Magician) is the first card, and Le Fou (the Madman or Fool) is the next to last card; also, La Justice (Justice) is card 8 and La Force (Strength) is card 11. (They’re the other way around in decks based on the Golden Dawn tradition, such as the Rider-Waite.) Here again, get familiar with the cards. For Lévi, these 22 images are the key that opens the Portal of the Mysteries—and a dozen generations of occultists since his time have found that the key works.
We’ll be going on to “Chapter 1: The Initiate” on June 9, 2021. See you then!