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 Nine: The Ceremony of the Initiates” (Greer & Mikituk, pp. 275-279).
No truly pioneering work is without its flaws and limitations, and our text is no exception to that rule. Eliphas Lévi understood a great deal about practical occultism—more than any other author in a Western language in his generation, certainly—but there were dimensions of occult study and practice he never had the opportunity to learn about. This chapter is a case in point. Lévi’s understanding of initiation is not so much flawed as hopelessly incomplete; he discusses with great enthusiasm some of the preparations for initiation, and repeats some of the rhetoric that has been used down through the centuries by initiates who have claimed privileged access to political power, but he never quite gets around to initiation itself.
That oddity was far from unique to Lévi, or to his generation and culture. Consider Mozart’s fine opera The Magic Flute, one of the great creative works to come out of the late eighteenth century flowering of occultism and initiatory orders. Late in Act 2, having made their way through any number of perils, the protagonists Tamino and Pamina pass through the rites of initiation into the mysteries of Isis. Their initiation consists of passing through fire and water without panicking, protected by the magic of Tamino’s flute, after which they are immediately acclaimed as initiates. Mozart was an enthusiastic Freemason and knew perfectly well that there was more to it than that, but as a Freemason in a Catholic country he also knew how to keep his mouth shut.
Mozart wasn’t the only Mason who gave the fourth of the magical virtues a thorough workout when it came to initiation. Lévi, by contrast, did not become a Mason until long after he wrote our text, and even then the initiation ceremony seems to have made little impression on him. His understanding of initiation, especially in the chapter we are studying, was therefore part and parcel of the process of magical preparation and education he presents to his readers. It consists of the education of the emotions to achieve self-mastery in the face of fears and passions, and the education of the mind to assess all things in the light of truth and reason. A worthwhile course of study? Of course—but it’s not initiation in the traditional sense of the word.
Let’s go back a couple of millennia to the oldest well-documented initiatory traditions in the Western world, the mystery initiations of the ancient Greeks. None of those rituals reached the modern world intact—the handful of ancient books that gave away their secrets were suppressed in ancient times—but people who went through the rituals quite often described the experience in general terms. Here’s what Plutarch, an initiate of several mysteries, had to say:
“At first there is wandering, and wearisome roaming, and fearful traveling through darkness with no end to be found. Then, just before the consummation, there is every sort of terror, shuddering and trembling and perspiring and being alarmed. But after this a marvelous light appears, and open places and meadows await, with voices and dances and the solemities of sacred utterances and holy visions. In that place one walks about at will, now perfect and initiated and free, and wearing a crown, one celebrates religious rites, and joins with pure and pious people.”
If you’ve been through a modern lodge initiation this is all going to sound very familiar. What happens in the standard lodge ritual is that the candidates are blindfolded and brought into a dark place, where they are moved around in the darkness until they are confused and dazed. Then the blindfolds come off briefly and something frightening accosts them. Shortly thereafter—sometimes after another interval of blindfolded movement, sometimes not—darkness gives way to light, certain words and emblems and other signs are passed on to the candidates, everyone applauds, and the candidates receive the symbol of membership—a wreath (“crown”) on the head in the ancient mysteries, a white apron in Freemasonry, and so on. The candidates are then led to seats, receive an explanation of what they have just witnessed, and join in a final ceremony. Ta-da! They’re initiates.
Yes, there’s a reason why modern lodge rituals have a lot in common with ancient Greek mystery initiations. There were direct historical connections between lodges such as Freemasonry and the medieval craft guilds, between the guilds and the collegia or craft guilds of the Roman world, and between Roman collegia and Greek mystery cults, which (like fraternal lodges in our own culture) provided the basic template for voluntary organizations throughout the ancient world. Fifteen hundred years is not that long when it comes to the survival of ritual forms; witness the history of the Christian Mass, or for that matter the esoteric Buddhist traditions of Japan, which still practice rituals out of sutras such as the Mahavairocanasambodhi Sutra, which was written in India sometime during the sixth century AD.
All this ritualistic activity may nonetheless sound like empty mummery. It can certainly become empty mummery if it’s done by people who are just bumbling through it by rote, but then the same is true of any ritual. What a great many people these days don’t realize is that ritual doesn’t have to be bumbled through by rote. If it’s done with focused intention and a certain amount of dramatic flair, it can have a significant psychological effect on the candidate. That effect is reinforced if the new initiate witnesses the same rite being performed for other people thereafter.
Is the effect foolproof? Of course not. Everybody who’s participated in a lodge knows that for a certain number of candidates, the ritual will never be more than an empty form, and most of those will drift away from the lodge promptly thereafter, having gained little or nothing from their experience. (To judge by his comments, that’s what happened to Lévi when he was made a Mason.) When it works, however, it works well; the disorientation of the movements through darkness, the sudden shock of fear, and then the revelation of the words, emblems, and signs in a blaze of light imprints certain states of consciousness on the new initiates and gives them tools for accessing those states of consciousness in the future.
What states of consciousness? Why, that depends entirely on the details of the ritual. In old-fashioned fraternal lodges such as the Freemasons and the Odd Fellows, the focus is on ethical conduct, and the ritual is intended (as Masons like to say) to make good men better. In occult lodges, the states of consciousness achieved through the ritual are rather more exotic, though they also have an ethical dimension. One of the basic theses of occultism is that human beings have the capacity to transform themselves and their world in ways that materialist thought never grasps, but that capacity can only be made actual in states of consciousness most people never achieve. Ceremonial initiation is one way to learn how to achieve them.
It is not the only way. This is one detail Lévi got right, though he did it on the basis of very few clues; it’s something you also find in Eastern traditions, where the path of the pratyekabuddha—the solitary buddha, who achieves enlightenment by his own efforts—is a known option. You can initiate yourself by following Lévi’s own template of training—that is to say, by learning to be fearless, dispassionate, and governed by reason, and then maintaining that state of mind while practicing magical ceremonies of the kind he describes. There are other ways of self-initiation besides Lévi’s; read traditional occult literature from the medieval and early modern periods and you’ll get a selection of methods, and there’s also the way that’s come to be standard in most modern occult systems, which consists of daily practice of certain basic occult practices combined with more intensive rituals meant to trigger certain specific shifts in consciousness.
What comes after initiation is an even more complex matter. One interesting factor here is that the Latin word initiatio, the root of our word, literally means “beginning.” Becoming an initiate isn’t the be-all and end-all of occult practice, it’s the beginning of serious work. You see this in Christianity, where baptism is the standard initiatory practice; you see it in the esoteric Buddhist traditions mentioned earlier, where receiving an initiation is the beginning of a sustained practice of whatever specific meditative discipline the initiation is meant to confer; and of course you see it in Western occultism, where the first thing that happens to you when you receive an initiation is that you get handed a bunch of papers explaining the things you have to learn and the practices you are expected to take up.
That doesn’t leave a lot of room for Lévi’s conviction that the world is in deep trouble because it isn’t run by initiates. His point of view is of course a very ancient one, going back well before the time of Plato, who enshrined it in his brilliant and problematic dialogue The Republic. There have been any number of attempts to put that point of view into practice. The one thing that can be said about those attempts is that none of them lived up to their billing.
We can talk, if you like, about the oldest documented example of all, the Pythagorean Brotherhood, the first known initiatory order in Europe. It was founded by Pythagoras, who’d studied occultism in Egypt and Babylon before returning to the Greek world—imagine some American equivalent who spent twenty years meditating at the feet of masters in India and Japan and you’ve got the picture. It so happened that his school attracted influential members of the ruling elite in Crotona, the city where he settled, and half a dozen other cities among the Greek colonies in southern Italy.
The Brotherhood soon ended up as the de facto government of those cities, and systematically excluded nonmembers from the ruling circles. The result? Let’s just say it wasn’t utopia. After a few decades, violent rebellions against Pythagorean rule all across southern Italy swept the Brotherhood out of power. Most of the initiates died in the tumult, and so did Pythagoras himself; the survivors fled to Greece, where they became stock figures of fun in the plays of the Middle Comedy of Athens.
Rule by a self-selecting elite that believes it’s morally superior to the rest of humanity is never a success. It doesn’t always end as badly as the Pythagorean Brotherhood did, but it never lives up to its supposed promise, and there’s a simple reason for that: initiation may make you a better person but it doesn’t make you a better politician. Human societies are messy because human beings are messy, and the management of a human society is better left to those who understand and sympathize with that messiness because they share it, rather than trying to restrict it to those who claim to transcend that messiness—even for the best possible reasons.
That’s why theocracies always turn into authoritarian nightmares, and why giving people as much freedom as possible to make their own choices and live their own lives works best, even though those choices and lives may not live up to any particularly high standard. As the internet saying goes, “humans gonna human,” and though it’s helpful to try to teach and persuade them to do better, and necessary to have and enforce those basic laws necessary for people to live together in relative peace, it’s a fatal mistake to try to force them to conform to an ideal they can neither understand nor appreciate.
This is among the many places where legend is a better guide than the reasoned arguments of philosophers. The great occult initiates of Western legend are very rarely in positions of political power, and when they are—King Solomon of Israel is of course the classic example—the results tend to be disastrous sooner or later. Far more often, the roles assigned to initiates in legend range from advisers to government (e.g., Merlin as King Arthur’s chief adviser) to staying as far away from the political process as possible (e.g., Elias Artista, the legendary alchemist of early modern Europe, who appeared to pass on the secret of the Philosopher’s Stone to those alchemists who were ready for it, but vanished without a trace before greedy kings could get their hands on him and his secrets.)
It’s a good example to follow. It’s also the example that Lévi himself ended up following, of course. Like most intellectuals, he would have made a lousy politician; one of the blessings Providence sent his way was that he never had the opportunity to display that. He met and corresponded with influential people now and then during his life, but the work that gave his ideas an immense impact on the future of the Western world was done quietly, in the privacy of an inexpensive Paris apartment, and his influence guided a modest circle of intellectuals on the fringe rather than having any more dramatic effect.
“Yes, the sages must speak, not to say, but to lead others to find.” Our text is among other things a very good example of that maxim in action. Eliphas Lévi had some important things to say, but his greater impact was in the things he led others to find. The art of initiation, which had already risen to a considerable level of competence in fraternal and occult lodges before his time, but achieved far more once he put the tools of operative occultism in the hands of initiators, was among the important things that his heirs found.
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 10, “The Key of Occultism,” on February 14, 2024. See you then!