Sunday, January 31, 2016



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 metaphysical connections.

“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.

Monday, January 25, 2016


                                         “PAPUS” – 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.

The 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 vulgarity.

In 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 shadows?

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.

Apart 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).

It 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.

1. The impartial study, beyond the academic and priestly, of scientific, artistic and social evidence to be found in the symbolism of all cults and traditions.

2. The scientific study, by experiment and observation, of yet unknown forces within man and nature (spirit phenomena, hypnosis, magic and theurgy).

3. The grouping of all these scattered elements in view of the struggle against doctrines of materialism and atheism.

With 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 responsible.

Enquirers 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.

As for 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 Propagation Society.

 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!

Nor had 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.

Over the 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.

The 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.

But first we would do well to examine the remarkable efforts of Papus himself, particularly through the written word.

[to be continued]


Monday, January 18, 2016



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 national service.

 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.

11th January 1886

Monsieur l’Abbé, for more than three months I have looked for your address. If I have finally had the good fortune to have found it I beg you to reply to me. I very much want to make your acquaintance first because you have known a man whom I deeply admire and of whom I have written a biography: Louis Lucas; and then because, thanks to your works, I have been able to make great steps in the studies that I have already long pursued. If the astral light has truly not deceived me but guided me to you, please reply. I will then write to you about some experiences that it is impossible for me to mention in a letter that might not reach you. Please accept, Monsieur l’Abbé the greetings of one of your most fervent admirers wanting to become one of your disciples. Gérard Encausse, Hospital extern, 14, rue de Strasbourg, Paris.


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).

A youthful poem written at the time also reveals Gérard’s convictions and romantic state of mind, beginning:

‘Hail to thee, light of the cosmos at the centre of all spheres...’

in which we also find the Qabalistic term of Kether as evidence of his current reading.


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 Gérard Encausse.

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 them.

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 direct confrontation. 

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 Society.

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.

[to be continued]


Thursday, January 07, 2016



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!