The Doctrine and Ritual of High Magic

Éliphas  Lévi, translated by John Michael Greer and Mark Anthony Mikituk
New York: TarcherPerigee, 2017. 512 pp., paper, $22.

Éliphas Lévi (the pseudonym of Alphonse Louis Constant, 1810–75) was one of the most influential occultists of the nineteenth century. Born in Paris, he began by studying for the priesthood but stopped when he realized that he was not likely to overcome his love for women. In the 1830s and ’40s, he worked with revolutionary movements in monarchist France, but later became disillusioned with them and turned to occultism.

In 1855–56 Lévi published his masterwork, Dogme et rituel de la haute magie (“Dogma and Ritual of High Magic”), which would, along with his other great work, Histoire de la magie (“History of Magic,” 1860), become the key text of the French occult revival of the late nineteenth century. His impact continues to this day.

Lévi’s reputation extended to Britain in his lifetime; for example, he met and corresponded with Sir Edward Bulwer-Lytton, a best-selling author of works including the classic occult novel Zanoni. (It was said that Bulwer-Lytton initiated Lévi into Rosicrucianism.) But it was really the translations of these two works by the occultist A.E. Waite—Dogme et rituel as Transcendental Magic, published in 1896, and Histoire de la magie as History of Magic, published in 1913—that established Lévi’s name in the English-speaking world.

Lévi was equivocally admired, even by those who learned from him. In The Secret Doctrine, H.P. Blavatsky called him “the most learned, if not the greatest of the modern Kabalists” and relied on his work, particularly in her first book, Isis Unveiled (1877). But she also wrote that “no other Kabalist has ever had the talent of heaping one contradiction on the other, of making one paradox chase another in the same sentence and in the same flowing language.” Waite often spoke scornfully of Lévi. In one note to his translation he describes him as “a person who believed in prophecy as much and as little as he believed in Latin [Catholic] dogma”—alluding to Lévi’s cagey but rather slippery claims that Roman Catholic doctrine was completely true, except that it was not really true at all.

Waite’s jabs can be irritating, and his prose style was the opposite of graceful. If only for these reasons, this new translation of Lévi’s Dogme et rituel is welcome. Although I have not compared it exhaustively with the original, the few passages I have compared are both accurate and more fluid than Waite’s. Occasionally I sense that a word could have been better rendered. On page 383, this version has “the author of Smarra has remarked in a spiritual manner,” whereas the original says, “comme le remarque spirituellement l’auteur de Smarra.” “Spirituellement” is probably better translated as “wittily”—“witty” is a common meaning for the French spirituel—rather than “spiritually.” (Waite does a little better by rendering it “ingeniously.”) But these glitches are minor and rare. The annotations are helpful in clarifying arcane terms as well as topical references to events in Lévi’s time.

Lévi’s influence was manifold, but here it would be useful to focus on two of his most important contributions. One was the idea of the astral light. This was not new—Blavatsky harrumphed that it was “simply the older ‘sidereal light’”of the sixteenth-century magus Paracelsus—but Lévi gave it new prominence.

Astral light must not be confused with physical starlight. It is a subtle matter, imperceptible to the five senses and to the implements of science. “It is the common mirror of all thoughts and forms,” says Lévi, “the images of all that has been are preserved therein and sketches of things to come, for which reason it is the instrument of thaumaturgy and divination.” In short, the astral light is to thoughts and images what matter is to physical substance—and, like physical matter, is never found in a pure form. But the astral light underlies physical manifestation. Nothing can come into existence unless it first exists as an image in the astral light.

This is the key to magic. If you wish to work magic, you form a mental image as clearly and precisely as you can (that is, you shape a form in the astral light) and then charge it with life force, or prana. The image will then (at least theoretically) be materialized in palpable reality. Similarly, if you wish to know the future, you can use divination to take impressions of the forms in the astral light that are about to manifest. Hence, as Lévi stresses, the astral light, “the great magical agent,” is the key to divination and thaumaturgy. Furthermore, the astral light, like a photographic film, records and retains the images of all that has gone before. These Akashic Records, as they are called, can serve the adept as an archive for exploring past events.
So it is in theory, but of course in practice it is not quite so simple, for reasons that are impossible to explain in this space.

Another of Lévi’s most influential contributions had to do with the Tarot. In his time the Tarot deck was already believed to embody the Ancient Wisdom, particularly of the Egyptians. This had been stated by the French polymath Antoine Court de Gébelin in the eighteenth century. But it was Lévi’s contribution to connect the twenty-two cards of the Tarot’s Major Arcana, which he said served as the key to all wisdom, to the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet, which the Kabbalists had long said embodied universal knowledge as well. Again, there are certain problems with this claim, but it would change the course of occult history in the West—in the English-speaking world, chiefly through the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, a short-lived Victorian order of which Waite was a member.

In short, Lévi’s contribution was a powerful one, and his ideas deserve to be grasped by those who are exploring the Ancient Wisdom as it has manifested in the modern West. To this end, this new translation is admirably suited.

Richard Smoley

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