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 Five: The Flaming Pentagram” (Greer & Mikituk, pp. 246-250).
The further Lévi proceeds in his exploration of the practice of high magic, the more traps he sets out for those who can only interpret his words in a literal sense. To give our author credit, he goes out of his way to warn the readers of this. Consider the second sentence in the current chapter: “Here the ignorant and the superstitious may shut this book; they will only see shadows or will be scandalized.”
The ignorant, in effect, are those who have not paid attention to the first half of Lévi’s text; the superstitious are those who, whether they have read the first part of the book or not, cling to the outward forms of magic and ignore the inward meaning of the things Lévi has to say. The shadows in which they will wander blindly are the symbols in which Lévi has embodied and concealed his teachings, and the scandal—why, that is the standard reaction to Lévi’s insistence on interpreting magic in terms of his own idiosyncratic but devout Christian faith, and interpreting that faith in terms of the doctrines of magic.
The pentagram, one of the core symbols of magic since very ancient times, has been a magnet for such misunderstandings almost as long. Since Lévi’s time, certainly, people in some of the more dogmatic religious groups have insisted at the top of their lungs that the pentagram is always and only a Satanic symbol. This claim displays an embarrassing degree of ignorance. I have more than once reduced fundamentalists of the magic-hating sort to incoherent rantings by pointing out to them that every one of the fifty stars on the American flag is a pentagram, and the Congressional Medal of Honor—the highest award for military valor this country has to offer—is an inverted pentagram.
A pentagram is simply a star-shape made by interweaving five lines of equal length. It’s a symbol with a very long history. Back in ancient Greek times, Pythagoras made it the symbol of his brotherhood, as a symbol of health of body and mind—it so happens that the ancient Greek word for health, ‘υγεια, has five letters, and the five equal lines and five equal points suggested to Pythagoras and his followers the balance of earth, water, fire, air, and spirit that leads to perfect health. Later on, during the Middle Ages, it was adopted into Christian symbolism; the Middle English romance Sir Gawayne and the Grene Knight thus assigns Gawain a red shield with a golden pentagram upon it, and assigns to it among other things the five wounds of Christ upon the cross and the five joys of the Virgin Mary:
[A]ll his faith in the field was in the five wounds
that Christ had on the cross, as the creed tells.
And wherever this man in mêlée was met,
his first thought was that, over all other things,
all his force in fight he found in the five joys
that Heaven’s holy Queen had of her child;
for this cause the knight fittingly had
on the inner side of his shield her image painted,
that when he beheld her his boldness never failed.
Later still, in the Renaissance, the pentagram became associated with the planet Mars, which was located in the fifth heaven of the old astrology, and since Mars corresponds to the human will, the pentagram became the emblem of the will; then it took on the meaning of the spirit’s mastery over the four material elements; from there it became the symbol of the microcosm, the human individual as a mirror of the cosmos. That was where Lévi took it up.
He, or perhaps the Cabalistic traditions he inherited from his teacher Hoëné Wronski, assigned the pentagram to the astral light, the Great Magical Agent of his theory. With one point up and two down, it represented the dual powers of the astral light mastered by the enlightened will of the individual, while with two points up and one point down, it represented the currents of the astral light overwhelming the inept sorcerer and drowning his awareness in their surging tides.
Thus the pentagram, like the human will—or for that matter the human soul—can be oriented toward good or toward evil. It can bless or blast, heal or harm, rise or fall. This is the nature of magic. Wherever you are going, “down to Gehenna or up to the Throne,” magic will take you there faster than most other things.
It is very common in magical practice to have one or more pentagrams chalked on the floor, or painted on the altar, or worn as a jewel above the heart, or otherwise physically present. It is not merely common but essential in magical practice for the pentagram in its symbolic sense—the will of the mage, the astral light he or she directs, the macrocosm of his or her own body—to be constantly present. Lévi is talking about both of these senses when he goes into the details of the pentagram’s role in magic, and he constantly and deliberately muddles them together. He says, for example, “the sign of the pentagram must be composed of the seven metals.” A pentagram made from an alloy of silver, mercury, copper, gold, iron, tin, and lead, the electrum magicum of medieval lore, is in fact a worthwhile thing to have in magical practice, but this passage also refers to the need to achieve a balance of the planetary forces in the body and soul of the mage.
Similarly, you can make a pentagram emblem for your altar top out of white marble and gold, and a very nice altar top it would be. Gold is the emblem of the Sun, white marble a symbol of the Earth raised to its highest degree of purity; as an emblem, this represents the relations of soul and body, or from a different perspective, the solar and telluric currents of magical lore. A pentagram drawn with vermilion on white lambskin is also an effective talisman, but I trust I don’t have to remind my Christian readers just who was the spotless lamb sacrificed during the Easter season. Lévi is suggesting here that the practice of Christian morality is among the ways to establish the mastery of the will over the elements that makes for effective magic.
Finally, though he mentions this later on, the pentagram in ritual can also be drawn in luminous lines on glass using an electrical machine. Nowadays, largely as a result of fantasy fiction, a great many people think of magic as something necessarily allied with medieval technology, but that wasn’t the case in Lévi’s time. The electrical machine he had in mind was an elegant little bit of Victorian technology that generated blue-white glowing lines on glass. (Fans of occult detective fiction will recall that William Hope Hodgson’s detective Carnacki was equipped with an “electric pentacle” to repel evil spirits; it’s very likely that Hodgson read Lévi.)
The modern equivalent would be a pentagram that was laser-etched into a pane of glass, which is set upright in a base containing blue-white LEDs. That would be a fascinating piece of magical hardware and might work very well. At the same time, there’s a symbolic message here, which is that magic isn’t a medieval hangover, in any sense of that latter word you prefer; it’s entirely compatible with modern technology and the modern world.
Each of his instructions can thus be taken in at least two senses, as a literal recipe for magical practice or as a philosophical statement expressed in symbolic form. Which of these are readers meant to follow? Both, in a certain sense. The philosophical statement is mandatory; the literal recipe is optional, but it is certainly one of the available possibilities.
It’s entirely possible to follow Lévi’s instructions exactly as given, and to get good results in magic, provided that the mage also understands the symbolism and pursues the work of self-mastery and self-knowledge that the symbols teach. It’s equally possible to understand the symbolism and pursue that work, while following a different set of magical disciplines, and get equally good results. It’s the student who follows the recipe literally, but never understands what else the instructions are meant to communicate, who is doomed to become the plaything of the forces he invokes.
Equally, though, sloppy magic is ineffective magic. Notes our text, “One must thus absolutely abstain from magical ceremonies or accomplish them all scrupulously and exactly!” This is excellent advice. If you are following an existing set of magical procedures—and this is always the best option for beginners—follow them precisely to the letter; you will gain strength of will by overcoming the temptation to tinker with things you don’t yet understand. Once you have a solid grasp of magical theory and practice, Lévi’s maxim still applies; what it means for the adept is that every single detail of the working must be carefully designed and executed precisely so as to further the intention that guides the work.
Approach the magical instructions in this chapter while keeping in mind the points just made, and you should have no trouble making sense of them. A few words may be useful, however, regarding three sets of symbolism that Lévi evokes in the last part of this chapter.
The first is the G that Freemasons put in the center of the flaming star. This is a European habit; in the United States, the G is usually found in the middle of the square and compasses. (The difference is important, though you won’t find one Mason in a hundred who can explain it. It has to do with different systems of geometry used by the old operative stonemasons: the pentagram, the flaming star of Masonic symbolism, expresses the ratio called the Golden Section, the core relationship of one school of sacred geometry, which flourished in the Renaissance; the square and the compasses set to an angle of 60° express two more, the ad quadratum and ad triangulum schools, which were central to medieval craft masonry.)
The meaning of the letter G in either Masonic emblem is a matter of some dispute. In standard American Masonic writings it is said to stand for God, and it is of course true that belief in a Supreme Being is an absolute requirement for regular Masonic membership. Other authors say that it stands for Geometry. Certain European Masonic writings claim that it stands for Gnosis, that is, personal acquaintance with spiritual realities; others, of a more scandalous sort, insist that it stands for Generation, and drop various hints about the sexual dimensions of occultism; while many of those writers who claim that Masonry is primarily a political conspiracy interpret it as Government. (Then there are the brethren of a certain jurisdiction where I was active for some years, who insisted that it stands for “green beans,” because of the relentless presence of that vegetable in their lodge banquets!)
Which of these is correct? The old teachings of the Masonic Craft do not say. Masonry in the modern world is an astonishing spectacle, a set of traditional initiations and symbols passed on by rote for centuries by men who by and large have no idea what they mean. If Masonic rituals included magical practices, Lévi’s warning of the dangers of ignorant repetition would be highly appropriate, but there’s no magical ritual in the Craft, just a set of strange and moving medieval initiations and a body of symbolism that once meant much more than it does now.
The second is the set of Christian symbols Lévi discusses just after the reference to Masonry. We have already discussed Lévi’s complex relationship with mainstream Christianity in earlier chapters, and it will appear again as we proceed, because Lévi was a devout Christian but had a highly critical take on the standard Christian beliefs of his time and ours. The imagery he presents here introduces nothing we haven’t seen before, though it provides a good summary of Lévi’s side of the quarrel.
The third, finally, is the ornate pentagram Lévi himself created, and placed at the end of this chapter — yes, that’s it on the right. It includes, beside the pentagram itself, the seven traditional planets, the four elemental working tools, the letters Alpha and Omega, the word “Tetragrammaton” divided in a peculiar way, and the Hebrew for Adam, Eve, Chesed (Mercy), and Pachad (Fear), as well as two eyes. This is meant, of course, as a theme for meditation, and its interpretation is therefore left to the reader’s own efforts.
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 6, “The Medium and the Mediator,” on October 11, 2023. See you then!