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 for free 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 Four: The Conjuration of the Four” (Greer & Mikituk, pp. 234-245).
When Lévi referred to traditional magical rituals as enigmas and mystifications in an earlier chapter, he was among other things giving due warning to his readers that the instructions in the chapters that follow would use the same devices—enigmas and mystifications—to communicate their lessons about practical magic. The current chapter is a good example. It gives a great many details about certain kinds of magical practice, as a means to instruct the attentive student in how to understand magic. Those details can also be used as a recipe book; following Lévi’s instructions, exactly as he gives them, you can learn and practice magic, and get good effects with it; but this is not our author’s primary purpose. He means his ritual texts as examples to be interpreted symbolically and understood, not just to be used.
That double purpose imposes certain responsibilities on the student, and therefore on a commentary like this one. On the one hand, though he provides a great many details of ritual, he does so in a chopped-up fashion, with only the most minimal information about context. This is deliberate. Lévi was not interested in helping his readers fumble through rituals with his book open in one hand, trying to read an unfamiliar text by candlelight. He expected students of magic who wanted to work with his ceremonies to copy out the texts, study them, understand them, and commit the important parts to memory. To make sure this would happen, he divided the rituals up, putting some pieces in one chapter and some in another, and quite often putting a ritual in one chapter and the explanation in another. This commentary will offer a certain amount of help in putting the pieces together, but you’re still going to have to do some of the work yourself.
That’s one side of the labor ahead. The other side is Lévi’s main purpose in presenting the rituals, which is to give you instructions in magic in symbolic form. Again, the rituals he gives are meant to be interpreted, not merely practiced. Just as he walked the reader through the ancient Greek cycle of legends set in Thebes in the first volume of our text, expecting those who were paying attention to understand the complex metaphors being used and grasp what he was trying to say about the nature of the universe and the philosophy of magic, in this second volume he is about to walk you through a series of ritual metaphors, hoping again that you will pay attention, grasp the symbolic nature of what he is saying, and understand the lessons in the practice of magic that he wants to pass on to you.
With these points in mind, we can proceed. Lévi’s first concern is to relate magic to the four elements of traditional philosophy and occultism. In the previous chapter he explained that the art of conjuring a spirit consisted of attuning oneself to the consciousness of that spirit, using symbolic methods; when the mage who does this has a stronger, more balanced, and more reflective will than the spirit he is summoning, the spirit carries out the will of the mage. (Of course the reverse is equally true.)
The spirits of the elements, which Lévi calls elementals and elementaries interchangeably—some later occultists were more precise—are no exception to this rule. Their minds are simpler, less reflective, and less balanced than most human minds; they are not evil, or for that matter good, but curious, playful, and innocent; in the language of Biblical metaphor, they have not tasted of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, and so they are without conscience or understanding. They can bless people without the least intention to do good and torment them without the least intention to do harm. This gives them considerable power in magic, but the mage who summons and directs them bears all the responsibility for their actions.
Lévi believed that the elementals had to be dominated with great severity. There he was mistaken, though he had the weight of medieval magical lore behind his mistake. Several occult traditions, the Rosicrucians and the Druid Revival among them, long ago established good relations with the elemental kingdoms and can work with them in a gentler, more friendly way; those who are initiated into these traditions and treat the elemental kingdoms appropriately will find that their relations with elementals need no such severity. For that matter, those who have achieved a comfortable balance among their own internal elemental forces will find the same thing to be true. Only whose who are at war with the elements within themselves have to dominate the elements around them.
I have no idea how many students of Lévi’s work back in nineteenth-century France went to the trouble of walking through burning buildings, swimming in dangerous waters, and the rest of it. As far as I know I’ve never met a modern mage who’s done this, because this is one of the places where Lévi’s use of symbolism is fairly easy to understand. Those who master the elements in their own human microcosm—the fire of ego, the water of turbulent emotions, the air of the chattering mind, and the earth of material cravings—have accomplished the same task in a way that is even more productive of magical power. This mastery must be achieved before the elemental kingdoms can be evoked or, as Lévi says, exorcised.
Toward the end of this chapter, our text makes this very point in words evocative enough that they have been used, verbatim or nearly so, in the teaching documents and initiation rituals of more than one magical order: “But one must be prompt and active like the sylphs, flexible and attentive to images like the undines, energetic and strong like the salamanders, laborious and patient like the gnomes; in one word, one must vanquish with their strengths and never allow oneself to be subdued by their weaknesses. When one is well reinforced in this disposition, the entire world shall be in service to the wise operator.”
As this indicates, there are four classes of elementals corresponding to the four traditional elements, and Lévi gives these the names assigned to them by Paracelsus in the sixteenth century. The elementals of air are called sylphs; those of water are called undines; those of earth are called gnomes; and those of fire are called salamanders. (This last word got assigned to certain species of lizardlike amphibians, also called newts, because these animals routinely live in half-rotted logs and, when those are burnt, will come scampering out, seemingly from the midst of the fire.) Each has to be evoked using a different ritual.
The ritual forms Lévi gives for these evocations are a lively mix of medieval forms and old Pagan Neoplatonist prayers. A good example of the medieval forms is the Latin spell for commanding the spirits of air, the first spell this chapter gives. A good example of the Neoplatonist prayers is the Prayer of the Sylphs that follows it. Notice the abrupt change of tone between the two of these. The spell uses Biblical phrasing and is spoken by the mage in the first person. The prayer uses its own very different language and is spoken by the mage as though speaking for the sylphs themselves. Here you have the structure of magic discussed in the previous chapter, crisply embodied in ritual form: first the mage masters the element, and then the mage becomes attuned to the consciousness of the element.
Can you use these ritual forms to achieve this? Of course—but there’s a catch. The ritual all by itself will not do the job. Along with the ritual, you need the transformation of consciousness that gives the ritual its meaning, which is the shift we’ve already talked about: the mastery of the chattering mind and of all the airy qualities within your own personality. This doesn’t mean that you have to suppress these things. It means that you have to have them under the direction of your will, so your mind can chatter away when you choose to let it, and will stop chattering when you need it to be silent. That capacity is what gives you the power to command the sylphs. Then you attune with them through sympathy—the prayer is intended to help with that—and the souls of the air become your helpers.
Let’s proceed to the other elements. The first thing you’ll notice as you read the following pages is that the Latin spell for air has an equivalent for water, but not for the other two elements. The second thing you’ll notice is that water also has an elaborate set of rituals assigned to it, which are used to prepare and consecrate holy water; no equivalent ritual process exists for any of the other elements. The third thing you’ll notice is that you use a specific ritual gesture to command the spirits of air, water, and fire, but you use all three of these gestures together to command earth. None of these things is accidental, or an oversight on Lévi’s part.
The explanation of the first two points has already been given; Lévi wasn’t interested in making things easy for the kind of student who wants to read rituals out of a book. Thus he left things out, so that readers who want to use the specific approach to magic he presents have to fill in the gaps themselves. This is not as difficult as it sounds; other ritual texts of the same general type can be found elsewhere in the present book, and the magical books available to readers of Lévi’s own time—all of which are still readily available today—will provide an abundance of examples for the interested student. Equally, of course, those who are exploring the fundamental ideas Lévi presents can create their own ritual texts.
The third point has another reason behind it. Cabalistic symbolism makes much use of the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet, and assigns letters to the seven visible planets and the twelve signs of the zodiac. (There are various ways of doing this, and epic quarrels between partisans of different systems.) 7 + 12 = 19; subtract this from 22 and you’ve got three letters left to assign to the elements, and fire, water, and air typically get those letters. So earth, to many Cabalistic occultists, is the red-haired stepchild of the elements, without a letter of its own, and very often fire, water, and air are used jointly to do things involving earth.
The attentive reader who has gotten this far will doubtless be wondering what exactly Lévi intended his students to do with these rituals. This is another detail that our text does not spell out, but the application of these workings will become clear as we proceed through the chapters to come. For example, the seventh chapter of the Ritual gives ceremonies for consecrating talismans of the seven visible planets. It is also possible to consecrate talismans of the four elements, and the rituals just given can be used for this purpose. Equally, in the work of initiation—a process that is central to Lévi’s entire book—invocations of the elements using these or similar ritual forms can be put to work in place of the more material confrontations with the elements that our text discusses. (This was central, for instance, to some of the initiation rituals of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn.)
After the four elemental rituals, Lévi goes on to another ritual practice, the Conjuration of the Four itself. This ritual, for a change, he describes completely, and also explains its purpose. The Conjuration of the Four is a banishing ritual; its purpose is to restore balance in the elemental kingdoms and chase off elemental beings who are harassing human beings. Here, too, Lévi is careful to make things difficult for the careless reader; he gives the entire ritual in order except for the sign of the Cross—the ancestor of the Golden Dawn’s Cabalistic Cross—which is done at the beginning and end of the ritual, but which he gives a little later in the text.
All this may seem annoying to the modern reader, who is used to being spoonfed by books on topics such as this one. We live in a time where whole shelves are filled with books whose titles proclaim that they were written for dummies or complete idiots, and it seems to occur to very few people that reading such things encourages them to become dummies and complete idiots. Lévi was writing for a different audience or perhaps simply with a different purpose. He did not expect his readers to be geniuses, or even mages—but he wrote his book to help them become the latter, if not the former. Treat his text as a workbook, and embrace the process of reading and understanding it as a set of exercises in magical thinking: that approach will turn your study of The Doctrine and Ritual of High Magic into a process of initiation.
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.
Along with the first half of our text, I introduced the standard method of meditation used in Western occultism: discursive meditation, to give it its proper name, which involves training and directing the thinking mind rather than silencing it (as is the practice in so many other forms of meditation). Readers who are just joining us can find detailed instructions in the earlier posts in this series. For those who have been following along, however, I suggest working with a somewhat more complex method, which Lévi himself mention in passing: the combinatorial method introduced by Catalan mystic Ramon Lull in the Middle Ages, and adapted by Lévi and his successors for use with the tarot.
Take the first card of the deck, Trump 1, Le Bateleur (The Juggler or The Magician). While looking at it, review the three titles assigned to it: Disciplina, Ain Soph, Kether, and look over your earlier meditations on this card to be sure you remember what each of these means. Now you are going to add each title of this card to Trump II, La Papesse (The High Priestess): Chokmah, Domus, Gnosis. Place Trump II next to Trump I and consider them. How does Disciplina, discipline, relate to Chokmah, wisdom? How does Disciplina relate to Domus, house? How does it relate to Gnosis? These three relationships are fodder for one day’s meditation. For a second day, relate Ain Soph to the three titles of La Papesse. For a third day, relate Kether to each of these titles. Note down what you find in your journal.
Next, combine Le Bateleur with Trump III, L’Imperatrice (The Empress), in exactly the same way, setting the cards side by side. Meditate on the relationship of each of the Juggler’s titles to the three titles of the Empress, three meditations in all. Then combine the Juggler and the Emperor in exactly the same way. Then go on to the Juggler and the Pope, giving three days to each, and proceed from there. You’ll still be working through combinations of Le Bateleur when the next Lévi post goes up, but that’s fine; when you finish with Le Bateleur, you’ll be taking La Papesse and combining her with L’Imperatrice, L’Empereur, and so on, and thus moving through all 231 combinations the trumps make with one another.
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 relationships between the cards take 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. Meditate on a combination every day anyway. Do the practice and see where it takes you.
We’ll be going on to Chapter 5, “The Flaming Pentagram,” on September 13, 2023. See you then!