Eliphas Levi is the pseudonym of Alphonse Louis Constant, a French occultist and author whose works greatly influenced the growing numbers of esoteric and magical Orders of the 19th century, most particularly groups such as the S.R.I.A. (Societas Rosicruciana in Anglia), the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn and Madame Blavatsky’s Theosophical Society. Interestingly the infamous Aleister Crowley was born the same year Levi died and later claimed to be his reincarnation.
Constant was born in Paris on the 08th February 1810 and was the only son of a shoemaker. He was an intelligent young man and quick to learn but his father did not have the funds to privately educate him. Determined his son should have a decent education, he sent Constant to the seminary of Saint Nichols du Chardonnet and later to Saint Sulpice to be educated and trained as a priest. While he was there he became intrigued by a lesson received from his headmaster, who during the course of the lesson explained his belief that animal magnetism was a vital energy of the human body controlled by the “Devil”. This sparked his curiosity and surreptitiously he began to study all that he could find out about magic and the occult.
Early in the 1830’s Constant became acquainted with an old couple called 'Ganneau' who practiced witchcraft. Ganneau believed himself a prophet and a reincarnation of Louis XVII, while he also believed his wife was the reincarnation of Marie Antoinette. Constant joined Ganneau and became one of his followers delving deeper into the mysteries of magic and the occult. Continuing to pursue his career in the church, he was ordained a deacon in December 1835, but did not become a priest.
Constant wrote a number of minor religious works: Des Moeurs et des Doctrines du Rationalisme en France (Of the Moral Customs and Doctrines of Rationalism in France, in 1839), L'Evangile du Peuple (The Gospel of the People in 1840), La Mère de Dieu (The Mother of God in 1844) and Le Testament de la Liberté (The Testament of Liberty published in 1848), the same year Napoleon III in a revolutionary coup overthrew King Louis Philippe and became president of the Second Republic. Thrown out of the church and excommunicated due to his left-wing political views, Constant’s writings led on to him serving three short jail sentences.
In 1846 when he was 36 years old, Constant met and married Noemie Cadiot who was 18 years his junior. Together they had one child but sadly it died in early childhood. After the loss of the child the marriage deteriorated, they separated in 1853 and their marriage was annulled in 1865. In the meantime, Constant was earning a meagre living writing as a journalist and by giving lessons in occult studies. He took on the pen name 'Magus Eliphas Levi', which he arrived at by translating his given names ‘Alphonse Louis’ into Hebrew.
After his wife had left him, Levi made his first trip to England in May 1854, hoping to increase his fortunes by giving private lessons on occult subjects. So far Levi had not written anything on the subject, but his reputation as a leading French Magus had preceded him, he also came furnished with letters of introduction to some of London’s high society and England’s more prominent personages. One such was the novelist Edward Bulwer-Lytton (Edward George Earle Bulwer-Lytton 1803-1873 - the 1st Baron Lytton of Knebworth) and they formed a firm and lasting friendship.
Bulwer-Lytton was regarded as a leading authority on magic and occultism in England, his interests extended to the study of clairvoyance, magic, astrology and mesmerism, he was also the president of a local Rosicrucian group seeking esoteric wisdom from psychic and spiritual enlightenment. It was Bulwer-Lytton who encouraged Levi to write a treatise on magic. As a result he later wrote: Dogme et Rituel de la Haute Magie in 1855. This was later translated into English by Arthur Edward Waite of the Golden Dawn as Transcendental Magic, its Doctrine and Ritual. The opening lines of the introduction to the book leaves the reader with little doubt as to its theme of Occult Mysticism:
Behind the veil of all the hieratic and mystical allegories of ancient doctrines, behind the darkness and strange ordeals of all initiations, under the seal of all sacred writings, in the ruins of Nineveh or Thebes, on the crumbling stones of old temples and on the blackened visage of the Assyrian or Egyptian sphinx, in the monstrous or marvellous paintings which interpret to the faithful of India the inspired pages of the Vedas, in the cryptic emblems of our old books on alchemy, in the ceremonies practised at reception by all secret societies, there are found indications of a doctrine which is everywhere the same and everywhere carefully concealed”.
It was during this trip to London in 1854 that Levi first tried necromancy. Unable to speak but a smattering of English, his ability to give lessons proved to be disappointing and he failed to make any money teaching. Instead and much to his dismay, he was expected to perform ‘miracles’ and give practical demonstrations of ceremonial magic. One titled lady, a friend of Bulwer-Lytton who claimed to be an adept, asked him to conjure the spirit of ‘Apollonius of Tyana’ a famous magician of ancient times. Levi confessed that he had never before attempted such a conjuration and until then had purposely avoided any such activity. However after much persuasion and due preparation he consented to make the attempt.
During three week of preparation including dieting and fasting, Levi meditated on Apollonius and imagined conversations with him. The Ritual of Conjuration was performed in a specially prepared ‘Temple’ in which only he took part and consisted of 12 hours of incantations, after which the floor began to shake and a ghostly apparition appeared. Levi admitted to feeling extremely cold and frightened and when the apparition touched his ritual sword, his arm went suddenly numb. He dropped the sword and fainted. He claimed later that his sword arm was sore and numb for days after the incident. Levi was inclined to treat his experience as a subjective experiment, but observed that it had been sufficient to demonstrate the effectiveness of magical ceremonies. He also condemned their use as dangerous on moral and health grounds outside the hands of an experienced adept. An account of the ceremony he performed can be found in Arthur Edward Waite’s translation of his work: Transcendental Magic, its Doctrine and Ritual.
Levi returned to Paris in August 1854, penniless and without a home. He was help and provided room and board by an old friend Adolphe Desbarolles. Desbarolles later achieved some prominence as the author of Les Mysteres de la Main, an important 19th century work on palmistry. While Levi’s trip to England had been less than financially rewarding, it did much to enhance his reputation. Back in France his exploits again preceded him, and soon he was attracting students to study the Cabala under his private tuition.
In May 1861, Levi made another trip to England and so as not to repeat the conditions of his last trip, he brought with him one of his pupils Count Alexander Branicki with whom he was welcomed to stay with Baron Bulwer-Lytton at his estate in Knebworth. During this visit Levi met with Kenneth Mackenzie, a leading member of the S.R.I.A. (Societas Rosicruciana in Anglia) and the author of the influential “Royal Masonic Encyclopedia”. Mackenzie had also been popularly theorized as the author and originator of the controversial “Cipher Manuscripts” upon which the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn was founded. Later Mackenzie published an account of their meeting, in which Levi stated that he had studied the symbolism of Tarot cards for over 26 years. Levi never produced a complete treatise on Tarot cards, but his references to the cards throughout his writings, continued to fascinate, influence and inspire many generations of occultists after his death.
After his trip to England in 1861, Levi published: La Clef des Grands Mystères (The Key to the Great Mysteries), a sequel to his earlier work. Other magical works followed and include: Fables et Symboles (Stories and Images) in 1862 and La Science des Esprits (The Science of Spirits) in 1865. He also wrote Le Grand Arcane, ou l'Occultisme Dévoilé (The Great Secret, or Occultism Unveiled) in 1868, but published posthumously in 1898. Initially Levi’s writings and beliefs were thought to be highly imaginative for he believed in the existence of a universal “secret doctrine of magic” that had prevailed throughout history and was evident everywhere in the world. He also expanded on the theory of “Astral Light” based on his belief in animal magnetism.
Until his death on the 31st May 1875, Levi continued to earn a comfortable living from his writings and giving occult lessons. Through a growing interest in Spiritualism and the popular rise of esoteric groups such as the S.R.I.A. (Societas Rosicruciana in Anglia), the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn and Madame Blavatsky’s Theosophical Society, Levi’s writings soon gained a respectable following. Levi’s magic had a deep impact on the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn and greatly influenced such people as S.L. MacGregor Mathers who wrote most of the orders rituals, Arthur Edward Waite who adopted the Baphomet sigil as the devil card in his Rider Waite Tarot Deck, and of course Aleister Crowley with his associations with ‘The Beast’.
Eliphas Levi today is remembered as one of the key founders of the twentieth century revival of magic and contemporary witchcraft.
The Encyclopedia of Witches &Witchcraft - by Rosemary Ellen Guiley.
Man Myth & Magic - Edited by Richard Cavendish
Just a few website sources heehee: