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 Seven: The Septenary of Talismans” (Greer & Mikituk, pp. 257-270).
With this chapter we return again to the technical details of magic, and all the cautions and caveats Lévi offered in previous chapters about magical practice need to be kept in mind here as well. In this chapter he presents magical rituals that are meant to invoke the spirits of the seven traditional planets in order to consecrate talismans.
It will be useful first of all to define what he means by each of the important terms in this last sentence. A ritual is the dramatic enactment of a symbol or a pattern of symbols. Along with the robes, incense, and other hardware of the operative mage, it is used (in the words of our text) “to employ the imagination for the education of the will.” In the broader philosophy Lévi has introduced, a ritual is a way of using will and imagination to impress patterns in the astral light so that those patterns will have magical effects. The odd words and equally strange actions that are included in magical rituals are never arbitrary; each of them helps shape the imagination so that it can direct the will.
A spirit, as we discussed in an earlier chapter, is an individual being whose body is made up of thoughts or feelings rather than material substances. To invoke a spirit is to attune yourself, using will and imagination, to the state of consciousness that is the spirit’s body, so that you can enter into that state and act from within it. Most of the things that human beings need or want can be attained tolerably easily once you achieve the necessary state of consciousness; financial success, for example, is rarely hard to attain if you put yourself into a state of mind in which you approach everything that comes your way as an opportunity to make money.
The seven traditional planets are the symbolic anchors for seven basic categories of human emotion and experience: the septem secundeis or seven secondary powers to which Johannes Trithemius, among many other mages in ancient and medieval times, assigned the rulership of the world. Each of them has a period of rulership, according to Trithemius, for 354 years and 4 months; in case you were wondering, in November 1879 the world passed into the rulership of Michael, archangel of the Sun. (It will remain under his rule until February 2234, when it will be handed over to Orifiel, archangel of Saturn.)
The seven days of the week are also allotted to the same seven powers: Sunday to the Sun, Monday to the Moon, Tuesday to Mars, Wednesday to Mercury, Thursday to Jupiter, Friday to Venus. and Saturday to Saturn. As our text explains at length, plenty of other things correspond to these seven categories.
A talisman, finally, is a material object that is used as an anchor for a pattern set in motion in the astral light. It is one form of the fourth element of the Great Arcanum, the ultimate secret of Lévi’s magic: the material anchor to which the twofold vortex of the astral light is connected, and through which the vortex brings about change in the world of matter. Talismans take many different forms in magical practice. The kind that Lévi has in mind here is the most common form used in traditional Western magic, a disk of metal, wax, or properly prepared paper with appropriate symbols and words written on both sides.
With these definitions in mind, we can proceed to the rituals. Lévi is up to his usual wry pranks in describing these, and not just because it tickled his sense of humor. As previous chapters have discussed at length, high magic cannot be practiced in a mindless fashion, by rote; it is crucial for the aspiring mage to understand exactly what he or she is doing, and why. Thus our text sets out requirements for the seven planetary workings that are lavish in the extreme, and cost much more than most readers in his time or ours would be able to afford. Having thus portrayed “the ancient magnificence of the secret cult of the mages” in grandiose and deliberately forbidding terms, Lévi then notes blandly: “It is with similar instruments” (emphasis added) “that the great magicians of the Middle Ages proceeded with the daily consecration of the pentacles and talismans relative to the seven spirits.”
“Similar” indeed! Most medieval wizards were not much more able to afford carpets made of lionskins, solid gold tiaras, assorted precious stones, and the like than you or I. The gear they used in their magical workings were “similar” to the ones Lévi sets out in that they corresponded to the same planet. In place of lionskins and a golden tiara, a floorcloth and headband of golden yellow cloth will do just as well, and if garlands and wreaths are out of season or impossible to come by for some other reason, symbols of the appropriate planet can be drawn or painted on the equipment of the ritual, embroidered or painted on the floorcloth and the headband, and so on. You can do any of the rituals in this chapter, and get good results from them, using materials that can be acquired for quite modest sums at any decently stocked craft store.
Next come the talismans themselves. Lévi was enough of a traditionalist to expect these to be made from the seven traditional metals: gold for the Sun, silver for the Moon, iron for Mars, brass for Mercury, tin for Jupiter, copper for Venus, and lead for Saturn. The first two are prohibitively expensive for most people these days, but Lévi has an alternative in mind: precious (or, though he does not mention this, semiprecious) stones can be engraved with the relevant symbols and used as talismans in place of metal. Since solar stones such as amber and heliotrope are a whale of a lot cheaper per ounce than gold, this is an option that traditionalists who don’t happen to be very rich should keep in mind.
Talismans of wax and paper also have a very long history behind them. Neither material has the natural resonance with planetary forces that the metals and stones just mentioned have, but operative mages down through the centuries have made use of a simple trick to remedy that. If you want to make a talisman from wax, take a small amount of herbs or incense resins that correspond to the planet you intend to invoke, and grind them to a very fine powder. Melt the wax you will be using for your talisman, and once it is completely liquid, stir in the powdered herbs or resins. Pour the mixture into a disk-shaped mold and cool, and then engrave the symbols on the wax disk with a sharp tool such as a stylus. This will be found very effective.
With paper, a similar method can be used. Get the kind of sturdy paper that is used for watercolor painting. Cut out a disk of paper as large as you want your talisman to be. Make a small amount of a strong tea from herbs corresponding to the planet you intend to invoke. Using a clean brush, paint the disk on both sides with the tea. Let it dry thoroughly, and then draw the symbols on the paper disk using pens or colored pencils. This is also quite effective.
The symbols are set out by Lévi. Each talisman has a pentagram on one side and a hexagram on the other side. In the middle of the pentagram and the hexagram are emblems corresponding to the planetary force to be invoked. The name of the planetary angel—Michael for the Sun, Gabriel for the Moon, Samael for Mars, Raphael for Mercury, Zadkiel for Jupiter, Anael for Venus, and Orifiel for Saturn—is written on the talisman in Hebrew, Arabic, or one of the several magical alphabets. A piece of silk of an appropriate color is perfumed with the smoke of the proper incense, and kept available to wrap the talisman in once the ritual is over.
Then the ritual begins. It must be performed, as Lévi suggests, on the day corresponding to the planet. An altar draped with a cloth of an appropriate color is topped with an incense burner, which is used to burn an incense appropriate to the planet. The Conjuration of the Four given in an earlier chapter is performed to invoke the powers of the four elements. Then the mage picks up the talisman and, with the words Lévi gives, blesses it by water, by fire, by air, and by earth. Thereafter the conjuration of the Seven is recited to banish the seven planetary demons in the name of the seven angels and the power of seven names of God. This completes the ritual; the talisman is then wrapped in its silk and put someplace safe where it can remain undisturbed and do its work in its own time.
Is this the only way to consecrate a talisman, and are these seven talismans the only ones that can be made and put to work? Of course not. As our text has pointed out more than once, the rituals it gives are examples and nothing more; the aspiring mage can use them as given, provided he or she understands them, or can make use of other rituals along the same lines, whether found in traditional writings or made up for the occasion—again, provided he or she understands how these rituals are structured and what they are supposed to do.
To make this point even more forcefully, our text presents two other sets of talismans with entirely different symbolism but equal effect. The first of these consists of military and civil medals and decorations. These are less potent than they once were, but to this day someone who is awarded a medal for heroism has received a talisman with significant power. The public acclaim and respect that goes with the medal, expressed and focused through the ceremony in which it is conferred, gives the medal-talisman its power, affecting the mind of the recipient as well as the minds of the population more generally.
Another equally potent form of talisman comprises those medals, relics, rosaries, and other sacred items used in popular religious practice. The examples Lévi discusses here are from the Catholic tradition he knew best, but the same thing is true of the sacred items of every religious tradition that still remembers enough magic to be effective. (For that matter, even among evangelical Protestant churches that have forgotten all their ancestors once knew about magic, the Bible as a physical object is now and then credited with marvelous powers along talismanic lines.) In the older, sacramental traditions, many of these objects are formally blessed with religious ceremonies, making them talismans in every sense of the word.
Another class of talismanic objects discussed in this chapter are the three working tools Lévi assigns to the operative mage; the wand, the sword, and the lamp. The instructions for making the wand are even more florid and overblown than the lists of equipment given earlier for the planetary rituals, and like most of Lévi’s more complicated recipes, it need not be interpreted in any literal fashion.
Mind you, according to the principles already discussed, anyone who goes to the trouble to make a wand exactly to the specifications of our text will benefit from that action prodigiously, as it takes a considerable and sustained exertion of the will to do this—but this is far from the only sense in which these instructions can be taken. There is also a symbolic sense. Any reader of these pages who takes the time to think through the ornate instructions Lévi gives, reflecting on what each detail means, will end up knowing much more about the magical will and how to develop it than he or she does now.
Finally, there is the issue of a transmission of power from person to person, or as it is usually called these days, an initiation or empowerment. These exist in occult traditions. They are not essential—you can go far and accomplish much without them—but such a transmission is worth having if it can be had. Some of them are passed on in occult lodges, and some of them are passed on from one person to another in private. (In case anyone is wondering; no, I have not received the one Lévi is talking about in this chapter.)
The sword is a less complicated matter, since the training of the intellect is less difficult than the training of the will. Here again, the aspiring mage can follow Lévi’s instructions to the letter, or he or she can interpret those instructions as a symbolic guide for the development of the magical intellect—or, of course, he or she can do both. These days most operative mages use a dagger in place of a sword, and some traditions (for example, that of the Fellowship of the Hermetic Rose) have replaced edged steel weapons with other items for good symbolic reasons. Each student of magic may make his or her own choice in the matter.
Finally, there is the lamp. This has dropped almost entirely out of use in modern magic, and this strikes me as a very unfortunate thing. The lamp, like the sword, may be interpreted in symbolic terms, as an emblem of the magical imagination, but it also has a remarkable practical role in ritual. If you follow the instructions given here—or even if you take the basic principles and use modern technologies in place of those Lévi had to hand—you will end up with a simple slide projector that will project an image of an angel into the smoke above the incense burner during the ritual. In the last paragraph of this chapter, our text hints at a ritual Lévi does not describe in detail; the participants are a mage and a mesmerized visionary or scryer, the projected image from the lamp becomes the focus of concentration, and strange things happen. Most people who do this kind of work nowadays use a crystal ball or magic mirror in place of the billowing cloud of smoke and the projected image, but Lévi’s approach may yet be worth exploring.
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 8, “A Warning to the Imprudent,” on December 13, 2023. See you then!