ELIPHAS LEVI – ALPHONSE LOUIS CONSTANT
Even though our concern is with the remarkable activities of the ‘Sons of Hermes’ in Paris a century or so ago, it is worth taking a look at those who inspired them in the previous generation. And one name that stands before all is that of Eliphas Levi Zahed – usually shortened to Eliphas Levi – derived from a Hebrew letter transliteration of his baptismal names and surname Alphonse Louis Constant.
Born to a poor Parisian shoemaker and his wife in 1810, the only way a brighter than average lad could better his lot was to be selected for training for the priesthood. Although little could the parish priest have foreseen that his protégé would one day become famous for writing books on magic!
Not that Eliphas Levi considered himself to be anything other than a good Catholic. He voluntarily submitted his books to the church authorities in Paris and received the somewhat backhanded assurance that “we neither approve nor disapprove; your books are neither heretical nor impious, they are simply eccentric.”
But in the end he never became a priest. Having passed through parish school and junior and senior seminaries, he recoiled from being ordained after a period teaching young girls their catechism which led him to doubt if he could live up to the vows of chastity, poverty and obedience; and chastity in particular!
It was no light matter to take such an honest and radical step at this stage. Although well schooled in theology and ecclesiastical history and with the ability to read Latin, Greek and Hebrew, these accomplishments were unlikely to earn him a living. But he had natural artistic talent and after a few months working as a travelling actor began to make money painting devotional pictures for local churches, a line of work that eventually extended into portraits of actresses, dancers and society ladies for the journal Les Belles Dames de Paris (The Beautiful Ladies of Paris).
He also tried his hand at journalism, although his high ideals and firsthand knowledge of grinding poverty led him to political pamphleteering, and his work called La Bible de la Liberté (The Bible of Freedom) earned him eleven months in prison, the harsh conditions of which were ameliorated by his comrade in arms, the feminist Flora Tristran (and future grandmother of the artist Gauguin) who sent in food for him.
He also demonstrated a high religious idealism in a work on the Virgin Mary La Mère de Dieu – about which a friend frankly observed: “My friend, your work is deplorable in its idealism; it is celibacy gone to the head; your excessive purity makes you a libertine, my friend, and if you knew women a bit better you would not adore womankind so much! “
Not that he was particularly a womaniser but after a long bachelorhood, at the age of 36, he embarked on a romantic runaway marriage with a 16 year old Marie-Néomie Cadot.
Marie-Néomie was a very bright and talented girl and it was not long before she was making her way writing articles for newspapers and journals, and posing for a celebrated sculptor. Some representations of her as Psyche and other classical figures are said to have decorated the Parisian scene and may still do so. Meanwhile her husband made a modest income by his art work and restoring antiques and other decorative ware. They had four children of whom three, including twins, died in infancy, with the eldest, Marie, expiring at the age of seven. Such were the conditions of urban life in those days in gay Paree!
However, by the time she was 21 Marie-Néomie was beginning to feel the need to spread her wings and duly left him, eventually divorcing and marrying a prominent politician. This was a devastating blow for Alphonse, Almost the death of him in a sense, only to be reborn as the celebrated teacher of magic – Eliphas Levi.
He had probably been studying occultism in some shape or form for some time and already had something of a reputation for it, attending discussion circles and even taking students in Kabalistic studies. Indeed he was sufficiently well known to be welcomed to London in the Spring of 1853, with “letters of introduction to eminent persons curious of revelations about the supernatural world.”
He was disappointed with most of his contacts however, finding English gentry well mannered but superficial, and expecting him to provide spectacular wonders. This was a likely consequence of the great influx of spirit phenomena from the United States that began to cross the Atlantic after 1848. Eliphas Levi therefore withdrew to private study of Kabalah, probably at the British Museum, aiming to return to France in a few weeks.
Before he did so, however, he was tempted into a quite bizarre magical experiment – an attempted evocation of the spirit of the 1st century thaumaturge Apollonius of Tyana. For English readers sufficiently curious, the circumstances are described in Chapter XIII of the first part of Transcendental Magic, the main lesson of which is that reciting medieval or ancient magical formula in a highly nervous state is not the best way of going about things however impressive one’s equipment in the way of gilded marble altar tops, magnetised chains, magic mirrors and tripods of burning incense. Certainly, he got some results, a numbed arm after threatening a vision with a magic sword, followed by an immediate physical and nervous collapse. It is perhaps to his credit – at any rate in courage and determination – that he had two more goes at it! But with similar results.
From now on he made it a rule with students that he was not interested in teaching techniques of ceremonial magic. A caveat, it should be said, that was not taken too seriously by his followers a generation later, who launched themselves whole heartedly into practical work of one kind or another, whilst taking on board the general theoretical structures he had laid down. In particular the concept he called the Astral Light – which had been approached from various angles since Anton Mesmer in the 18th century and developed through various theories and practical experimentation under different names, from animal magnetism to odic force, somnambulism or trance, and associated clairvoyant or healing phenomena, and eventually hypnosis, ‘positive thinking’ and the New Thought movement of the 1920’s. Its last puff as an occult theory possibly being Israel Regardie’s Art of True Healing, a 1937 amalgam of New Thought practice with elementary Kabalistic symbolism.
In some respects the Astral Light has been psychologised into theories of the Collective Unconscious – and is still with us as a force, not least in the advertising, entertainment and journalistic industries, wherever the human imagination is manipulated for whatever purpose.
Eliphas Levi was also responsible for providing an imaginative symbolic structure that could be regarded as compatible with the Kabalah. That is to say the set of symbolic diagrams preserved in the Tarot. Whether one regards Tarot as a popular game, an oracular device or remains of an ancient system of transcendental wisdom, it can provide the structure for a coherent magical system – or map of the inner realms of the universe.
One can approach such a system in various ways, from the trivial and superstitious to the learned and academic. The latter approach has been fulsomely provided in recent years by A Wicked Pack of Cards – the Origins of the Occult Tarot by Decker, Depaulis & Dummett and A History of the Occult Tarot by Ronald Decker and Michael Dummett. First class academics all, with all the wisdom and all the blind spots of the disciplined academic mind. Their blind spots a consequence of the fact that they do not realise that the system works – whatever the illogicalities or irrational assumptions of the card reader, magical operator or transcendental philosopher.
It is a matter of embracing the wisdom of the Bellman in Lewis Carroll’s The Hunting of the Snark – “If I say something three times it’s true!” And is no more difficult or irrational than quantum mechanics if taken on its own terms. A more hifaluting way of expressing it would be the evocation of Faith, Hope and Charity.
Another stumbling block to rationally minded students is the fact that Eliphas Levi’s method of structuring and interpreting the cards differs from that of the savants behind the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, as indeed from umpteen other ways of approaching the oracle.
Levi placed Trump 0 between Trumps XX and XXI, and as we shall see, the leading lights of the Sons of Hermes opted to follow him. Whilst in England the Golden Dawners placed Trump 0 at the beginning of the sequence – adding their own nips and tucks, such as swapping the places of VIII and XI Justice and Strength, with Aleister Crowley suggesting likewise for IV and XVII the Emperor and the Star. Latterly British occultists of the calibre of W.G.Gray (The Talking Tree), R.J.Stewart (The Dream Power Tarot) and others have come up with their own evocative versions, whilst I have had my own tilts at windmills in Tarot & Magic and The Magical World of the Tarot.
Confused? It is simply a matter of letting the symbols talk to you. And having the confidence that your conversation is likely to be as good as anyone else’s. One of the first true realisations in magic is avoiding the sticky bogs of intellect – particularly someone else’s intellect. Of course you can also go wrong as well! Second true realisation of magic.
By their very nature, the Tarot cards are capable of varieties of interpretation. Which is why they are so useful in divination. That depicting Death, for example, can be regarded not merely as an end but as a new beginning. A curse or as a blessed release. And operative at any level of human experience.
When Eliphas Levi was asked the source of his wisdom by Kenneth Mackenzie, a delegate from the Societas Rosicruciana in Anglia, he said that after twenty years meditation any truths he had brought through resulted not from his own wisdom but from the diverse combinations of the cards themselves.
He did at one point write that a prisoner in solitary confinement with simply a deck of Tarot cards could have access to all knowledge. A claim thought patently ridiculous by Michael Dummett – who should have known better. In fairness to Michael Dummett and the academic approach, one should quote his view on p.252 of A Wicked Pack of Cards.
“But although occultists would prefer grounds for their theories in order to convince others, they can convince themselves without grounds. An elaborate theory known only to those who take the trouble to study the occult is satisfying enough in itself, and, being satisfying, is to be believed; grounds for thinking it to be true are welcome, but dispensable. The theory can be claimed to be a key to unlock further doors, but then tacitly ignored when those doors are to be opened.”
But it is the opening of the doors that is important – whether or not the lock has been picked.
Nothing should be too readily taken for granted in Levi’s work, one example being the figure of the 15th Trump, popularly called the Devil, which on close examination is revealed to be not an evil card but one that contains balanced and equilibrated powers that can be used for good or ill, and could more accurately be regarded as a symbol for the Astral Light in its various manifestations. (Although it could be said that Levi’s heavy mid 19th century style of drawing does not make the figure a particularly attractive one.) Aleister Crowley was not so far out when he attributed the card to the force of Pan! A force that is also quite palpable in another mode of action in Dion Fortune’s Rite of Pan.
We shall return to these matters when we come to examine The Tarot of the Bohemians, by Papus, the great populariser of occultism in France, and one of the few French occult books translated into English. It has its faults, although it is little realised that at the time of writing the author was only a 24 year old medical student. They developed talent young in those days – with all the advantages and disadvantages that this implies.
One or two other points should be cleared up before leaving the life and times of Eliphas Levi, for he was not an advocate of some aspects of esoteric theory that nowadays tend to be taken for granted.
One was that he did not take spiritualism – or spiritism as it is more usually called in France – at face value. Like his contemporary English occultist friend Edward Bulwer Lytton he considered most assumed contacts were not with discarnate spirits but were a species of natural clairvoyance between the living. From my own experience I would tend to agree – although there may well be exceptions – if somewhat rarer than wished for or supposed.
The same applies to reincarnation. Despite a few scattered references to metempsychosis in Pythagorean times, (not quite the same thing), it was not much considered before the Theosophical Society popularised elements of Eastern philosophy in the West after its foundation in 1875. As a good Catholic Eliphas Levi gave it no credence. Nor does it feature in the classics of western esotericism prior to the 19th century, nor very largely in spiritualism apart from the version promulgated by Allan Kardac in The Spirit Book of 1857. Whilst apart from a few scattered references, it is not until 1912 that we find Papus responsible for a book devoted to the doctrine of Reincarnation.
There are fashions, even in the secret wisdom!