10 August 2011


Christopher McIntosh. Eliphas Lévi and the French Occult Revival, State University of New York Press, Albany, New York, 2011 (1st 1972).

William Walker Atkinson. Swami Panchadasi’s Clairvoyance and Occult Powers, ed. Clint Marsh, Weiser, San Francisco, California, 2011 (1st 1916).

Eliphas Lévi was the principal figure in the French occult revival, and moreover, in England, the Golden Dawn was partly based upon his teachings, and Aleister Crowley (who believed himself to be Lévi’s reincarnation) modelled his Magick in Theory and Practice upon Lévi’s Dogme et rituel de la haute magie. Crowley and the Golden Dawn, in turn, provided the foundation for later esoteric movements such as modern witchcraft and Druidry. Yet McIntosh’s book is the only serious study in English, so its reappearance is welcome.
McIntosh traces the start of the occult revival to the eighteenth century, when there was a proliferation of Masonic orders, such as the Egyptian rite of Cagliostro. Then there was Eteilla, who originated the practice of fortune-telling with Tarot cards, Mesmer with his Animal Magnetism, and Eugène Vintras, the foreman of a cardboard box factory who began to have visions, and took to doing battle with the forces of evil. In 1855, whilst living in exile in London, he travelled in the spirit to the basement of a house backing on to a cemetery in a little town near Paris, where a group of black magicians renounced their baptisms, and were preparing to sacrifice a naked twenty-year-old girl, when they were thwarted by the invisible stranger in their midst.

As a young man Alphonse-Louis Constant (to give his original name) studied for the priesthood. According to McIntosh: “It was at the seminary of Saint-Nicolas that Constant first began to grasp the elements of the Hebrew language, which was to stand him in such good stead as an occultist. At the age of eighteen he was already able to read the scriptures in the original.” One wonders if this is strictly true, since, whilst he would display some knowledge of Hebrew in his books, the works on the Kabbalah that he cited were all in Latin. He reached the rank of deacon, but declined ordination when he realised that he could not commit himself to a life of celibacy. Instead he worked as a teacher, an actor, and a journalist. He also became involved in radical politics, receiving an eight month prison sentence for writing a polemic entitled La Bible de la liberté. He did eventually marry, though his wife suddenly left him after seven years.

His life changed again in 1852 when he met Hoene Wronski, an elderly Polish occultist who used to build perpetual motion machines that never worked. This man inspired him to pen his most important work, Dogme et ritual de la haute magie, under the name Eliphas Lévi, which was the Hebrew equivalent to his Christian names. In the notes to his novel A Strange Story, Edward Bulwer-Lytton remarked of the Dogme et ritual that it was “a book less remarkable for its learning than for the earnest belief of a scholar of our own day in the reality of the art of which he records the history”. In other words, what impressed readers was his confidence in the reality of magic, which was unusual in that age.

His most surprising claim was to have evoked the spirit of the Greek philosopher Apollonius of Tyana to visible appearance. This made his works influential, even though they were (and are) rambling and rather difficult to understand. He followed this up with other works that can still be obtained in English translation: The History of Magic, The Key of the Mysteries, and so on.

McIntosh’s third part concerns Lévi’s heirs and successors, including what he terms ‘The Wars of the Roses’, i.e. between rival Rosicrucian Orders. Generally speaking they were men of inferior ability, for example The Qabalah by Papus is a scissors-and-paste work, based upon Lévi and various other writers, but it is evident that the nominal author knew little about the subject.

One example of Lévi’s lasting influence is worth mentioning: he claimed that the Tarot cards corresponded to the letters of the Hebrew alphabet: the first letter, aleph, matched with the first card, the Magician, the second letter, beth, to the second card the Popess, and so on. This has become generally accepted on the continent, and was incorporated into Salvador Dali’s Tarot. The Golden Dawn, however, shifted the correspondences one along, putting aleph with the unnumbered Fool, beth with the Magician, and this system is now standard in the English-speaking world.

There is another detail of Lévi’s doctrine which still has repercussions: in 1855 he was approached by Abbé Charvoz, a disciple of Eugène Vintras, whose regularly found his hosts to be ‘bleeding’ with ‘sacred stigmata’. He showed copies of these to Lévi, who was shocked to observe that one was marked (in blood) with ‘the qabalistic monogram of Jehovah’, Jah-He, but upside-down, which “is the most frightful of all blasphemies”. Similarly, another had the pentagram, which when drawn with one point upwards “is the five-pointed star of occult masonry,” but when with two points up, as here, “is the hieroglyphic sign of the goat of Black Magic, whose head may then be drawn in the star, the two horns at the top, the ears to the right and left, the beard at the bottom. It is the sign of antagonism and fatality. It is the goat of lust attacking the Heavens with its horns.”

McIntosh comments: “The appearance of the diabolical inverted pentagram on a holy object would certainly be a sacrilege, but, as Aleister Crowley points out in a footnote to this translation of the Clé des grandes mystères, if the sign were on a circular host, how could it be upside down?” The obvious explanation is that hosts often have some form of crucifix stamped on them, and this is conformed by the illustration of these stigmatic hosts published later by Jules Bois in Le Satanisme et la magie (1895). The real problem is that there is no evidence that the ‘inverted’ pentagram was ever previously thought to be diabolical, indeed, I have seen one on a commemorative plaque behind the altar of a ruined church in Scotland, and there are other examples of it in church architecture.

Bois’ book also contained an engraving of a pentagram with a devil’s head in it, as described above by Lévi. This might have been forgotten, but it was reproduced in Bessy’s Pictorial History of Magic, 1964, whence it was taken by Anton La Vey as the official symbol of his Church of Satan – later, he even tried to copyright the design. This stands alongside Lévi’s other legacy to the imagery of Satanism, his ‘Baphomet’, a hermaphrodite devil-goat, which like the devil-pentagram is now often believed to be a genuine legacy from the Middle Ages.

Though Clairvoyance and Occult Powers has been circulating for nearly a century, probably most followers of its metaphysical advice do not realise that Swami Panchadasi was actually a Chicago lawyer, who, it seems, never even visited India. Though William Walker Atkinson produced thirty-nine titles under his own name; he also issued thirteen titles as Yogi Ramacharaka, all by the Yogi Publication Society of Chicago; thirty-three titles as Swami Bhakta Vishita, all by the Advanced Thought Publishing of Chicago; three volumes, including the present one, as Swami Panchadasi. Other pen-names used by him included Theron Q. Dumont, Theodore Sheldon, Magus Incognito, and Three Initiates; he also issued ten works anonymously.

The contents of the present work are, like those of all the others I have seen, what we now call New Age thought and practice, and of no especial interest. But it is worth noting that, like many other similar writers of the time, he often discussed the possibility of life on other planets: “If our vision were improved by the addition of a telescopic adjustment, we could see what is going on in Mars, and could send and receive communications with those living there.” -- Gareth J. Medway.

1 comment:

David Halperin said...

Fascinating review, of what sounds like a fascinating book!

One minor point of disagreement: I see no reason to doubt that Constant/Levi’s Hebrew knowledge indeed enabled him “to read the scriptures in the original,” as McIntosh says. The prose texts in the Hebrew Bible tend to be written in simple language with fairly limited vocabulary, accessible even to beginning students. (When I taught Hebrew at university, my students started reading Genesis about six months after they learned the alphabet.) Kabbalistic writings, by contrast, are among the most difficult Hebrew texts: gnarled and allusive, filled with recondite technical terms and abbreviations. No wonder Constant/Levi chose, wisely, to consult them in Latin translation.