“PAPUS” – DR GÉRARD ENCAUSSE [continued]
An Elementary Treatise on Occult Science
One of the charms of buying examples
of French occult publishing of a hundred years or so ago is that you are never
quite sure what you will be getting. It was a period when Papus and his friends
were learning the ropes of self publishing – which could lead to quite
astounding surprises in quantity and quality. Not that one was ever likely to
be short changed – their success meant that they had plenty of money and so new
printings of books could be considerably expanded in extent.
So it is with my copy of Papus’
first book-sized book, the Traité Elémentaire de Science Occulte. First
appearing in 1888, as a volume of 229 pages, it appears that my copy was in
fact turned out to be of indeterminate date by which time it had become bloated to 625 pages. Bibliographic
histories were not helped by their custom of calling reprints ‘new editions’.
Thus the copy I have is called the 16th edition but is apparently a
reprint of the 7th edition of 1903 by which time they had proudly logged up a sale
of 10,000 copies. As Papus says in his Preface ‘its success had progressively
grown with each new transformation of the volume.’
So, something of a dog’s breakfast
in fact, but none the worse for that.
“Also,” he writes, “we have once
more taken care to perfect our work, while conserving its elementary character
which is one of the causes of its success.” I have to say I am not too sure
about this ‘elementary character’. He launches off into some very erudite, not
to say obscure, and even irrelevant, number theory. But perhaps the French
esoteric mind differs somewhat from the Anglo-Saxon. We will return to this
when we take a look at his book on the Tarot.
On the evidence of the number and
extent of the quotations he uses it could be said that this is obviously a
first book by an intellectual young man in a hurry. Of the original 229 pages
about thirty percent of the text consists of extracts from other writers,
fifteen of them, ranging from Mme. Blavatsky to Eliphas Levi with the lion’s
share going to the early 19th century savant Fabre d’Olivet and the contemporary
esoteric recluse Saint-Yves d’Alveydre. The first, a great favourite of his,
was author of a book on the Golden Verses of Pythagoras and also La Langue
hébraïque restitué (The Hebraic tongue restored) speculations on the
origins of Hebrew language in light of
ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs, a fair amount of which was subsequently
invalidated when the Rosetta Stone was discovered and translated.
The main drive of the young Papus’
original book, (the first 229 pages) is to emphasise the difference between the
approach of modern with that of ancient science. In a telling and simple image
he likens modern science to the close examination of a closed book.
“Let us first examine the way that
moderns treat a natural phenomenon the better to know it, as opposed to the
ancient way. What would you say to a man who described a book to you like this:
‘The book you have given me to study is placed on the mantelpiece at 2
metres 49 centimetres from the table where I am sitting; it weighs 545 grams 8
decigrams, and is formed of 342 small paper pages on which 218,145 characters
are printed and which have used 190 grams of black ink.’
“If this example shocks you, open
modern books of science and see if they do not correspond exactly to the way of
describing the Sun or Saturn by an astronomer, who describes the position,
weight, volume and density of stars, or a physicist who describes the solar spectrum
by counting the number of lines.
“Returning to the printed book that
served as our first example, we note that there are two ways of looking at it,
because we realise that the characters, the paper, the ink, that is to say the
material signs, are only the representation of something that we cannot see
physically – the ideas of the author.
“The visible is the manifestation of
the invisible. This principle, true for this particular example, is so for all
other things in nature, as we shall see. We will then see more clearly the
fundamental difference between ancient science and modern science.
“The ancient is concerned only with
the visible in order to discover the invisible that it represents. The modern
is concerned only with the phenomenon itself without bothering about its
“The science of the ancients is the
science of the hidden, of the esoteric. The science of the moderns is the
science of the visible, the exoteric.
“The hidden science, the science of
the hidden, the science which hides what it has discovered – is the triple
definition of OCCULT SCIENCE.”
The rest of the
book, and of all the books that he and his colleagues are destined to write, is
concerned with solving this by no means easy problem.
– DR GÉRARD ENCAUSSE [continued]
References to Martinism and
Rosicrucianism had not been plucked from thin air by Papus. During 1888, the
first steps had been taken to revive the activities of both these early western
traditions. He himself the Martinist Order, founded toward the end of the 18th
century by Louis Claude de Saint Martin (1743-1803); and a Rosicrucian revival
– l’Ordre Kabbalistique de la Rose+Croix under the joint aegis of an aristocratic young poet and
intellectual Stanislas de Guaita and a
popular occult novelist and art critic Joséphin Péladan. Mysterious initials began to appear after
their names, such as S...I... (Supérieur
Inconnu) or ‘Unknown Superior’ of the Martinist Order – or in the case of
the Kabbalistic Rosicrucian Order the Hebrew letter Aleph with three dots in
triangular formation signifying, for those in the know, a
Rosicrucian Grand Master.
A manifesto for each organisation
appeared in l’Initiation, a new
monthly journal founded in October 1888, the financing of which Papus was
inclined to regard as an act of Providence. For one day a young man had unexpectedly
called on him, and thrusting a bundle of banknotes into his hands announced
that observers on the astral plane were aware that he lacked the resources to
start an important new work.
source of the cash turned out to be a philanthropic industrialist with esoteric
sympathies by the name of Jean Jacques Bourcart, who may have been stimulated
by the prospect of a great Exposition
Universelle, or World Fair, to be
held in Paris from May to October 1889. A glorification of the 3rd
Republic, founded in 1870, celebrating the hundredth anniversary of the
storming of the Bastille, and that saw the erection of the Eiffel Tower,
considered by some a mark of technological progress, by others a supreme
conjunction with this general celebration some spiritually minded enthusiasts
seized the chance to launch a week long esoteric convention, Le Congrès spirite et spiritualiste
international from 9th
to 15th September 1889. Thirty four esoteric organisations took
part, with the theme of ‘the survival of the conscious self and the possibility
of communication between the living and the dead’.
In the mean time a confrontation had developed between Papus and Mme Blavatsky on the
meaning of the word ‘initiate’. She insisted that the term applied only to a
‘hierophant’ or very high adept (no doubt with her own ‘mahatmas’ in mind). And
as something of a put down said that for Papus to think it was anything else was
an error ‘typical of Freemasons’. She wanted to know, with heavy sarcasm, if
this brilliant young man, until now one of the most promising French recruits
to Theosophy, had turned away from the light and was wandering toward the
‘recruit’ retorted by refusing to
change his definitions, and referred to inconsistencies in her great work, the Secret Doctrine, recently published, in which, he said, the terms ‘initiate’ and ‘adept’ were often
referred to with the meaning that he himself had attributed to them. And if she was unaware of the fact (implying
blind plagiarism, muddle headedness, or ignorance of her own work) he would be
happy to provide details of the relevant passages.
from this, the relative success of the esoteric convention in 1889 led him to
think the time was ripe for a permanent centre devoted to the various aspects
of occultism. Not having the resources to found one himself he put the idea to
a friend, the mature law student Lucien Chamuel, who promptly hired a shop at 29,
rue de Trévise and named it the ‘Librairie
du Merveilleux’ (Bookshop of the Marvellous).
included the facility of a circulating library and space for a meeting hall at
the back and soon became a great success. And its appearance coincided with the
foundation and growth of a remarkable organisation inspired and headed by Papus.
Its work and aims were summarised in a small but significant publication, La science des mages et ses applications
théoriques et pratiques (The Science of the Magi and its Theoretical and
Practical Applications), and were as follows.
impartial study, beyond the academic and priestly, of scientific, artistic and
social evidence to be found in the symbolism of all cults and traditions.
scientific study, by experiment and observation, of yet unknown forces within
man and nature (spirit phenomena, hypnosis, magic and theurgy).
grouping of all these scattered elements in view of the struggle against
doctrines of materialism and atheism.
regard to spiritualism (or spiritism) occultists did not deny the possibility
of communicating with the departed but
doubted the number of genuine instances, as for much of the time it
seemed more likely to be a matter of auto-suggestion or transcendent hypnosis,
for which only the forces of the medium and those physically present were
were advised, if unfamiliar with these matters, to study the theory and
practice of spirit communication and if spiritualism with its essentially
consoling doctrine seemed to provide them with a total expression of truth, and
satisfied their hopes, then not to seek any further. However, the
philosophically inclined would seek in vain for a cosmogony, or even an
original metaphysic, in spiritualism and might do better to move on to
occultism, which was more abstract and complex in its explanations of psychic
phenomena. True occultists did not claim exclusive possession of the truth but
were independent seekers, and, although some may have wanted to make occultists
adversaries of spiritualism, those who ran the G.I.E.E. were persuaded that
time would serve to bring everyone into agreement.
the Theosophical Society, if anyone desired to occupy themselves with Oriental
occultism they would do better to consult the Guimet Museum in Paris which had
more accurate information on Buddhism and the religions and philosophies of
India. Or alternatively the Paris branch of the English language Buddhist
With this announcement, Papus had plainly
shaken the dust of the Theosophical Society from his feet! Not only that, it
has been estimated by some scholars that his activities set back the growth of
the Theosophical Society in France by some twenty years!
Papus neglected his medical career, which he contrived to link with his
esoteric interests. Although still a student, he produced an essay, as Gérard
Encausse, on physiology relating to the theory and practice of animal
magnetism, and was evidently doing well enough in his medical studies to be
entrusted to write, together with Dr Luys, a professor at La Charité hospital,
a report for the Annales de psychiatrie
et d’hypnologie, describing
experiments with a form of clairvoyance at a distance by a hypnotised subject,
aided by magnetic devices applied to the head.
next few years the G.I.E.E. developed branches not only throughout France but also
Europe, Egypt, and the Americas, issuing diplomas to successful students and
eventually degrees and doctorates in Kabbalistic studies.
organisation also encouraged and grew through the development of bright young
newcomers who became its writers and lecturers, developing their writing,
speaking, esoteric and organisational skills. Some of whom we shall later follow.
first we would do well to examine the remarkable efforts of Papus himself,
particularly through the written word.
“PAPUS” – DR GÉRARD ENCAUSSE
Dr. Gérard Encausse, (1865-1916) who
wrote and taught under the name of “Papus” has been called “the Balzac of
Occultism”. That is to say, comparable to the great 19th century
writer Honoré de Balzac who set out to write a series of books describing the whole of French
society. Gérard Encausse, in his
fashion, did much the same for the occultism of his day. Not in fiction but in a great process of
esoteric education of his fellows.
In the course of his life he was
responsible for over a hundred brochures and books, was a prodigious public
speaker, and also a great founder of organisations and of successful occult
journals such as the monthly L’Initiation and weekly La Voile d’Isis.
All this while studying to become a Doctor of Medicine with a particular
interest in hypnosis and clairvoyance, and complying with three years military
He was born on 13th July 1865 the
eldest child of a French father and a Spanish mother, at La Coruña in Galicia,
northern Spain, where his father Louis was trying to interest the authorities
in his ‘Encausse Generator’ – a device he had invented for the absorption of
medicaments through the skin. Until, having failed to make much progress, he
moved on to Paris when Gérard was three years old, where the imaginative child
grew up in the bohemian district of Montmartre with a tendency to fantasize
about his family origins. That his father’s name was really Don Luis who had
spent his life wandering through Spain in a caravan with a gypsy wife, living
on his wits by selling things he had made. A story more or less based upon fact
if considerably romanticised!
The struggle his father had had to
be taken seriously by an extremely conservative and prestigious medical
profession may have inclined Gérard to study medicine himself, although as an
adolescent he was more interested in general philosophical ideas and at the age
of 19 produced a 51 page book called Hypothéses – a diversion that may have
caused him to fail his baccalauréat and put his education back a year, and even when accepted as a
medical student he was hardly a model scholar. Instead of studying his textbooks he was more likely to
be found at the Bibliothèque Nationale reading works on magic, such as Dogme et Rituel de la Haute Magie, L’Histoire de la Magie and Le Clef des Grands Mystères by Eliphas
Levi. Indeed, so impressed was he by
these works that he wrote a letter to the old mage, suggesting they meet to
exchange experiences and ideas.
Unfortunately Eliphas Levi had died
eleven years before. It is not recorded
if the tyro magician tried to contact his hero by any other, psychic, means.
(Louis Lucas, by the way was a scientist contemporary with Levi, author of La
Chimie Nouvelle, with alchemical leanings).
Notwithstanding his educational and
national service commitments he sought further esoteric contacts by joining the
Isis Lodge of the Theosophical Society, that had been founded in Paris in 1879
but had never really got going until 1887, when an idealistic young Breton,
Felix-Krishna Gaboriau, sank his small personal fortune into launching a
magazine for it, called Le Lotus. To
establish the magazine and draw attention to the Isis Lodge a series of
promotional meetings was laid on at the fashionable Grand Vefour café.
At an early one of these meetings an
esoterically inclined poet, journalist and man about town, Victor-Émile
Michelet, drifted in, and half a century
later, in 1938, recorded the occasion in
his memoirs Les Companions de la Hiérophanie.
His first impression was that the
young man lecturing on ‘Contemporary
Occultism’, striving to speak without a script and groping for words with such difficulty, had
absolutely no future as a public speaker! But then he had no idea of the
prodigious will and drive of this young man, who was the remarkable 22 year old
A few weeks later Michelet heard him
speak again – this time with such charisma, clarity and skill that he decided
he must get to know him. Calling at Gérard’s student lodgings one Sunday
morning in a scruffy commercial area near the Gare de l’Est, he found an
atmosphere that he described as like a ‘boiling cauldron’, brewed up by half a
dozen young men intent on changing the world by restoring the wisdom of the
ancients. Indeed it seemed to Michelet that Pythagoras himself would not have
felt out of place in their company!
The May 1887 issue of Le Lotus contained a couple of articles
by Gérard Encausse under the pen name of
‘Papus’, a name he had chosen from the Nuctameron
of Apollonius of Tyana, an ancient manuscript published as an appendix to
Eliphas Levi’s Dogme et Rituel de la
Haute Magie, containing a list of spirits of the hours along with their
attributes, the first of which was ‘Papus, the spirit of medicine’.
One of Gérard’s articles was a
commentary on the symbolism of the sigil of the Theosophical Society, and the
other on alchemy – a subject that latter day occultists in France took very
seriously. And a number still do.
In the next issue the young ‘Papus’ launched a
strong attack against Freemasonry, on the grounds that, having forgotten the
meaning of its traditional symbols it had become more of a social than an
esoteric organisation. A criticism that had been raised by Eliphas Levi in his
latter days, when he resigned from the organisation. Gérard Encausse took much
the same line which was to cause him some difficulty when later he sought to
become a mason himself.
In the meantime he launched into
print with a 36 page version of his initial lecture – L’occultisme contemporain, attacking the intellectual and
scientific establishment for failing to take occultism seriously. And, quite
astonishingly, even foolhardy for a medical student, lambasting his chosen
profession for concentrating on physical symptoms rather than inner causes for
As examples he chose two long
standing nineteenth century controversies. That of “animal magnetism”,
originating from Anton Mesmer and developed by a series of investigators over
the years, and currently by Professor Luys at the La Charité hospital in Paris
under whom Gérard was studying. The other was “spiritism” that under the more
upbeat name of “spiritualism” had begun in the United States with the Fox
sisters in 1848, and rapidly crossed the Atlantic.
He ended his book with praise for early
19th century writers such as Fabre d’Olivet for his work on ancient
languages, and two colleagues of Eliphas Levi, the Polish esoteric
mathematician Hoene Wronski, who died of starvation, and also the neglected
Louis Lucas, concluding with an honourable mention for various contemporaries.
From the start however, he seemed
determined to cast his net wider than that of the Theosophical Society by
emphasising occult lore that was indigenous to the West; and a quotation on the front cover of the booklet
hinted at this: ‘The West is the fount of
practice and the East the fount of theory’
Papus soon became a regular speaker at Isis lodge
meetings and a contributor to Le Lotus and the following year, 1888, he published a full length book, Traité élémentaire de science occulte (Elementary Treatise on Occult Science), that claimed “to explain to all the theories and symbols employed by the ancients,
alchemists, astrologers, the E... de la V..., and Kabalists.” The mysterious initials revealing a long
standing interest in secret societies dispensing grades of occult initiation
and the first indication of his impending involvement with the Martinist Order
and other initiatory bodies.
Originally 219pp in extent, by its 7th
impression ten years later the Elementary Treatise had swollen to 625
pages. True to form for a young man in a hurry, both original and later
editions incorporated long quotations from other writers, including pages from
Madame Blavatsky’s Isis Unveiled and
paragraphs from A.P.Sinnet’s The Occult
World quoting, with approval, the Theosophical Mahatma Koot Hoomi, all of which
were retained despite his falling out with Mme Blavatsky and the Theosophical
Society a couple of years later.
His exit from the Theosophical
Society was sparked in March 1888 when the president of the Isis Lodge died
unexpectedly. The post should have passed to the vice-president who, perhaps
wisely, declined the honour by pleading youth and inexperience, although no
such modesty afflicted either Gérard Encausse or Felix-Krishna Gaboriau. The
succession seemed to hang in the balance between them, and soon developed into
Members of the Isis lodge soon split
into opposing camps. Urgent action was needed and the situation became serious enough for Colonel Olcott to
travel from India to try to sort things out.
He promptly dissolved the Isis lodge
and replaced it with a new one called the Hermes. He showed little sympathy for
Gaboriau, who struck him as a ‘hypersensitive young man’ suspected of having
recourse to hashish, (actually not uncommon in France in those days). A
reliable middle aged gentleman, Arthur Arnolde, was appointed president, and a
couple of similar mature members as vice presidents, whilst Gérard Encausse was
appointed to the new post of ‘corresponding secretary’.
Gaboriau felt himself downgraded and
expressed his bitterness by deploring the ‘typically American way’ in which
Olcott had ‘thrown members to the fire’. In this state of mind he crossed the
English Channel to complain personally to Mme Blavatsky, who was then living in
London. He discovered that she too was very angry about Olcott, accusing him of
having sacrificed Theosophy in the interests of ‘that wretched little **** Papus!’
An attempt was made to patch things
up by offering Gaboriau a charter to start his own branch, but it appears he
was unable to find the statutory seven initial members; all remained faithful
to the new Hermes lodge. Gaboriau submitted his resignation, predicting that it
would not be long before Papus tried to take over the whole Theosophical
In the final issue of Le Lotus in March 1889 he bade farewell
to his readers and, his small fortune spent, fell into poverty and obscurity,
although he did later render valuable service by translating some Theosophical
works into French.
Papus, however, had not been set on
the acquisition of the Theosophical Society. He had wider ambitions.
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
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 –
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
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
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
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
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
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