In 1810, in a suburb of Paris, in a country that had just ended its war with Sweden, a shoemaker’s wife gave birth to the strangest man.
His name at birth was Alphonse Louis Constant, and at death, Éliphas Lévi Zahed, a Hebrew transliterative moniker he gave himself.
In 1832, he entered the school of theology at the Church of Saint-Sulpice, in the Latin Quarter of the 6th Arrondissement, in pursuit of a career in Catholicism, upon which he embarked with gusto. Soon, he became a sub-deacon, responsible for the catechism, that idol pursuit of faith and moral instruction within the confines of the Catholic church and its doctrines of exclusion and mystery, and then a complete deacon, which he excelled at.
But then, the very week before Constant was to become a priest, he grabbed his bindle and, leaving an untouched bowl of snail gruel and stale baguette on the refectory table, walked away, out of the huge gates without even a nod to the child molesters who’d got him this far up his Catholic passage.
His reasons for leaving are vague, but it is said that by the tender age of twenty-six he'd already ‘conceived strange views on doctrinal subjects’, was ‘deficient in gifts of silence’, and that he ‘relinquished the sacerdotal career in consequence of doubts and scruples,’ or, possibly, all three.
While he never again returned anywhere near this archaic cult, he did believe it had done him some good, and that he’d ‘acquired an understanding of faith and science without conflicts,’ which is ironic as he seems to have been in conflict about almost everything thereafter.
After rejecting religion as bizarre, he turned his attention to far more down-to-earth disciplines, like using mystical alchemical texts and occult ceremonies to explore the reality of the world around him, and embracing transliteration, a conversion code that swaps letters from one script to another, in this case French to Hebrew, which produced the mystical ‘Éliphas Lévi’ and banished the ordinary ‘Alphonse Louis’.
The new Éliphas Lévi then set out to be an esotericist, appearing to connect at a far greater and eternally mysterious level than any of the people in his local cafe could even begin to understand, a poet of a vast amount of drivel, and an author of more than twenty books about magic and mystery, and Kabbalah, that old standby of befuddled searchers with too much time on their hands.
One of his main influences was the equally contrary Simon Ganneau, which may explain quite a lot.
Ganneau was born in 1805, five years before Éliphas Lévi, in Lormes, in central France, and was a socialist and a mystic, a combination which has been emulated ever since.
He worked hard to be crazy, adopting the moniker of Mapah, a name which seemed to sit at the confluence of mater-pater and maman-papa, and proclaimed God to be bisexual, which, of course, no-one could really argue with.
He walked around in a huge woman’s cloak, wore a very long beard, claimed himself the prophet of the religion Evadaïsme, which itself was a mix of Eve and Adam, and which strove for gender equality and social justice, and determined he was the reincarnation of Louis XVII, and his wife the reborn Marie Antionette.