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.
He was also a phrenologist, and studied the shape and size of his friends’ craniums in order to determine their character and mental acuity, which must have been fun for them, as well as being a sculptor who disseminated his ‘bisexual plasters’ to support his enthusiastic proselytising.
It was in his studio apartment where big ideas were created, dissolved, and reanimated, and where he influenced such luminaries as Alexandre Dumas, Alphonse Esquiros, and Flore Tristan. As well as our friend Éliphas Lévi, who, true to his desire to confuse us even more, decided to leave Paris and enter a monastery in 1839.
He did this, it appears, because his only way to make ends get anywhere near meeting was to tutor, which he absolutely hated, and partly due to the fact that he just couldn’t shake the Jesus calling. Until, one year later, when he promptly left, the discipline of monastic life seemingly far too difficult for him to adhere to, and far outweighing the gravitas of the words of his former saviour.
Back in Paris, amid his friends, and feeling refreshed and thoughtful, he wrote La Bible de la Liberté, and was duly imprisoned for it. On being released he found love.
Because it seems that Éliphas Lévi married the wrong woman, which really shouldn’t surprise us at all. He fell for two ladies, or, should we say girls, as at least one was just sixteen years of age, Eugénie and Noémie, and was forced to marry Noémie even though he was more taken with Eugenie, and, as Noémie absconded with the Marquis of Montferriet a few years later, he was no doubt vindicated in his initial preference, though it didn’t matter by then. He had, in the course of this or tangential relationships, several children, although the details are, once again, somewhat vague, and it seems most of his offspring died before he had a chance to not baptize them.
Within a few years he was, by all accounts, a ceremonial magician, though that too soon began to lose its sheen when acquaintances asked him ‘to work wonders, as if [he] were a charlatan,’ and he was thus not ‘inclined to initiate others into the mysteries of Ceremonial Magic’.
While the hopes of these poor souls were dashed upon the rocks of Éliphas Lévi’s changeability, he began to draw the attention of other romantic artists and esotericists in both London and Paris, while cementing his separateness from his social circle by rejecting his freemasonry, claiming that they 'did not believe in tolerating Catholicism', not I feel that they should be blamed for that when there are so many other elements of their craziness to pick on.
By 1850, Éliphas Lévi was poverty-stricken again, but found solace in Napoleon's Second Empire, which he saw as restoring order to the formerly unordered Second Republic. But by 1852 he had changed his mind on that too, and wrote a pamphlet highlighting the Emperor’s ineptitude, for which he was again imprisoned.
During that time he suddenly determined that the uneducated masses were not able to free themselves from servitude and needed a higher order, specifically of elite priests, to see them safely home.
This ignited his contribution to and production of a whole slew of publications, including the Revue Philosophique et Religieuse, as well the Histoire de la Magie in 1860, which contained his theory of magic and it’s three chief components, Astral Light, the Will, and the Imagination, none of which he actually thought up himself, rather, he borrowed from others.
He also wrote the Dogme et Rituel, La Clef des Grands Mystères and Le Sorcier de Meudon in 1861; the Fables et Symboles in 1862; the La Science des Esprits in 1865; and, Le Grand Arcane, ou L'Occultisme Dévoilé in 1868.
Surprisingly enough, his works gained traction, mainly because Éliphas Lévi determined to reject much of the spiritualist hokum he observed, while offering pseudo-scientific support of the overall concept.
For example, he was a magician, but didn’t claim to belong to any ancient made-up society, like those awful Freemasons, and disdained ‘rites .. circle-making and the scattering of incense’ as ‘mere humbug and jugglery’.
He believed that while dishonest practitioners of the spirit art could manipulate séance sitters, ‘mental images and astral forces’ could indeed live on after death. He believed that ‘table-turning and fluidic manifestations’ were of course all affectations of the trade and not the spirit interactions they were claimed to be, but were conversely the early psychic ‘magnetic currents’ linked to the beginning of beyond-life connection.
Strangely, this all added up to a veil of honesty which organizations like the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, and devilish lunatics like Aleister Crowley quickly bought into, incorporating many of Éliphas Lévi Zahed’s ideas and proclamations.
He passed from this world to the next in 1875 at the age of sixty-five, and left several additions to the magical realm.
It was his use of Tarot that led the cards to be integrated into spiritualism as they still are today, and it was he who decided that a pentagram with two points up connoted evil, while if it had two down, it signified good.
There’s no doubt the Éliphas Lévi believed strongly. What he believed wasn’t always clear, as he seemed to change frequently. He once said that ‘if I believe in Saint Peter’s statue as I should have believed in Saint Peter himself, I shall obtain the same effects that I should have obtained from Saint Peter. But that is superstition. Faith, however, produces miracles; and whether it is a true or a false faith, it will always produce the same wonders.’
I think a true miracle would probably be to actually understand what a man who’s real name was Constant meant from one moment to the next.
photo by Mikhail Nilov