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 Eight: A Warning to the Imprudent” (Greer & Mikituk, pp. 271-274).
Magic is not foolproof. Quite the contrary, foolishness is the one thing that can mess over the novice mage most efficiently. This wouldn’t be as big of a problem as it is, except that people who are unusually well supplied with foolishness so often get in over their heads in magical practices, and proceed to make a steaming mess of their lives. That’s what our text discusses in this chapter, and it’s a subject well worth exploring before the further dimensions of magical practice come up in the chapters yet to come.
It’s impressive that Lévi, writing at the very dawn of the modern revival of magic, was able to pinpoint in advance some of the classic ways that would-be mages mess themselves over. He details three of those ways. First, those who aren’t prepared to weigh their occult experiences on the scales of reason run the risk of madness. Second, those who aren’t careful with their nervous systems can give themselves incurable diseases. Third, those who let their fears run away with them can get into emotional states so overpowering that they cause cardiovascular problems—“cerebral congestion” is an old term for a stroke—with risks that can include sudden death.
Let’s take these dangers one at a time, and look at them with most of two centuries of further experience in the modern magical revival. We can begin with madness. There are plenty of examples, but the one that comes first to mind just now is Christine Stoddart.
She enters our story in the early 1920s as a leading member of the Stella Matutina, one of the offshoots of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn that emerged after the GD blew itself to smithereens in political squabbles in 1900-1903. She leaves it about a decade later as a paranoiac conspiracy theorist writing lengthy screeds under the pen name “Inquire Within.” Light-Bearers of Darkness, her magnum opus, insisted that labor unions, the Theosophical Society, the Girl Scouts, and just about every other organization you care to name are all pawns in the grip of a vast Jewish-Bolshevik-Masonic conspiracy.
How did a Golden Dawn initiate land in so garbled a mental state? Magic can do that quite easily unless, as Lévi points out, you approach it with a mind well grounded in reason. The visionary states that occur in some occult exercises, and the encounters with disembodied beings that occur in others, communicate information that may or may not be accurate in terms of ordinary everyday reality. So long as you remember to check the information you get against the yardstick of practical reasoning and the evidence of the senses, you can sort out what’s literally true, what’s symbolically true, and what’s the equivalent of static on an old-fashioned radio. If you neglect that necessary precaution, though, you can quite easily end up in La-La Land.
There are plenty of more harmless examples of the same thing. Many years ago, for example, I read a piece in a New Age magazine by some visionary or other who was convinced, on the basis of her visions, that Jesus of Nazareth went to Celtic Britain and married a Druid princess. As history, this is drivel, and I’m sorry to say the visionary took it as history. She didn’t have to; if she’d recognized that many visions are best interpreted in a symbolic way, she might have been able to do something useful with it—for example, she might have realized that it represented the quest for common ground between the Neopagan scene and esoteric Christianity, and explored that direction in her own spiritual life. Instead, she made a fool of herself.
That’s the first serious danger that the magical practitioner faces: zooming off into delusion through blind trust in information received from metaphysical sources. That’s a common enough problem that the occult teachers of an earlier day made it a hard and fast rule that no one with any sort of significant psychological trouble should practice magic. Nowadays, when such diagnoses are handed out much more freely than they once were, the rule needn’t be quite so hard and fast, but if you have a history of psychological troubles you’ll want to monitor your condition closely, and have someone else do the same thing, to make sure your magical work doesn’t make things worse.
There are of course effective ways to prevent the flight into delusion just discussed. The most important of these is to remember that communications from the inner world are no more reliable than gossip in your workplace or posts on the internet. It takes practice to sift out the signal from the noise in each case. A willingness to suspend judgment and wait for further data is also valuable, and it’s crucial to give up the bad habit of looking for evidence that supports your beliefs—instead, look for evidence that contradicts them. If your beliefs can survive that treatment, they’re more likely to be true.
The second source of trouble Lévi discusses is strain on the nervous system leading to health problems. Here our text is on the cutting edge of today’s medical research. A specialty with the jawbreaking name of psychoneuroimmunology focuses on the way that psychological factors affect the nervous system, which modulates the immune system by way of the vagus nerve and its connections to the endocrine glands. That’s how the placebo effect works, and how its evil twin sister the nocebo effect works as well. Yes, this means that tolerably often you can think yourself sick, and you can also think yourself well.
The thing you need to watch for as a mage in training is any sign that you’re becoming too sensitive. That way lies trouble, as you can stress yourself into any number of illnesses. If you become so sensitive that you can’t walk through a crowded area without feeling overwhelmed by the emotions of the people around you, for example, you’re at risk of picking up an illness due to nervous strain. People who can handle eating animal foods generally find that a diet well supplied with meat helps considerably with this sort of condition; so does sex; so does massage; so do relaxation and breathing exercises.
The best way to avoid nervous strain as a practitioner of magic, however, is one that Lévi discusses later in this chapter: don’t overdo it. Magic should be only one part of your life, and it should never occupy more than a modest share of your waking hours. Most operative mages have to work for a living, and this is a good thing. The hours you spend at work divert your attention from magic. Of course it’s important to find a way of making a living that gives you the amount of stress you like best. Whether you thrive in high-stress situations or blossom in silence and solitude, make finding a job that meets that need a central goal. Hobbies, crafts, and interests unrelated to magic are also very helpful in this context.
The third source of danger only affects those those who engage in intensive ritual work. You can meditate, practice divination, develop your psychic capacities, and perform basic rituals such as Lévi’s Conjuration of the Four for a lifetime and not run any kind of risk of cardiovascular problems, but the more demanding end of magical ritual is physically and emotionally strenuous and it can put strain on your heart and your circulatory system generally. The occult teachers of an older generation thus made a point of telling students that people with heart problems should stay away from ceremonial magic. It’s still good advice, though fortunately occult practice has expanded considerably since Lévi’s time and there are many occult teachings and schools that don’t include ceremonial magic and are perfectly safe even for people with heart trouble.
Lévi’s comment specifically focuses on sudden overwhelming fear in the midst of a magical working, and this can be a serious issue for beginners. I’ve seen a fair number of people who loudly insisted that they were interested in magic suddenly discover that it’s not all dress-up games and make-believe, and turn bone white in stark terror. That’s one thing if it happens in some ordinary occult exercise, of the kind that I’ve learned to give to beginners for precisely that reason. It’s quite another if it happens in the middle of a serious magical ceremony. There were famous cases back in the day where people were found stone cold dead in the midst of their magical paraphernalia, and that kind of sudden overwhelming panic in an already intense and stressful situation is a likely reason why.
Fear isn’t the only potential risk, though. Sheer exaltation will do it. You know the story of Sir Galahad, who beheld the Holy Grail and dropped dead on the spot? Monkish chroniclers insisted that his soul was hauled straight up to Heaven by a gaggle of angels, and maybe it was, but the phenomenon is known to medicine. If you’re already in an intense emotional state and something happens to crank up the intensity even further, any preexisting weakness in your circulatory system can get triggered and leave you in deep trouble. If you tend toward intense emotional states anyway, this can be especially problematic. The moral of the story? If you’ve got a heart condition, high blood pressure, or a family history of strokes or heart disease, I don’t recommend ceremonial magic. (Again, other kinds of occult practice don’t have this problem, and you’ll be fine doing those.)
Alongside risks internal to the mage—madness, psychogenic disease, or cardiovascular trouble brought on by the intensities of ceremonial magic—there is another class of risks that comes from the mage’s relationship with other people. The fourth magical virtue, “to be silent,” is of crucial importance here. In particular, as our text points out, never talk about your magical activities to anyone who isn’t also a practitioner, and never, ever, no matter what the temptation, try to convince others that magic is real by demonstrating it to them. At best, they will insist that nothing happened and will mock you for it; at worst, they will freak out completely, with consequences that can very easily spin out of control in disastrous ways.
People do not deal well with having their basic assumptions about the world overturned. They have even more trouble dealing with the possibility that someone else can influence them or affect their lives in ways they don’t understand. Organized persecution is not a risk in most countries of the industrial world, but unofficial persecution is another matter; people who know you’re an occultist, and can’t comfort themselves by believing that you’re simply a harmless eccentric, very often respond instead with fear and hatred, and act accordingly. Letting them think you’re deluding yourself is much less perilous, and keeping your mouth shut about your magical practices is wiser still.
Lévi offers two additional rules for the aspiring mage. The first is to make sure you have the necessary material conditions and resources for magical practice. This is much simpler just now than it was in Lévi’s time, since mages in the intervening time have had the chance to sort out which of the traditional requirements are necessary and which are not. Even so, Lévi’s basic rules apply. The aspiring mage needs to have a secure place for private practice, even if this amounts to a corner of a bedroom and a door that can be shut; enough of a budget to buy certain things, and the basic skills and tools needed to make certain others; and a life sufficiently stable that regular practice can be kept going without disruption.
The second rule is to lead a balanced, reasonable, healthy lifestyle. Moderate exercise, adequate sleep, a balanced and relatively natural diet, and the other requirements of good health are at least as important to the mage as they are to anyone else. Magic is not a solution to all life’s problems; it is a rewarding but challenging art and science that requires the same sort of regimen you would expect to take up if you were studying a martial art or pursuing some other demanding athletic practice. Your success in magic must be founded on a daily life that works. All of which is to say, ultimately, that magic exists and functions in the real world, not in some imaginary otherworld where up is down and sideways is straight ahead.
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 9, “The Ceremony of the Initiates,” on January 10, 2023. See you then!