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Eliphas Levi and Tarot

July 20, 2009

Eliphas_Levi

Lévi (the pen name of Abbé Louis Constant, 1810-1875) was the son of a shoemaker in Paris; he attended a seminary and began to study to enter the Roman Catholic priesthood. However, while at the seminary he fell in love, and left without being ordained. He wrote a number of minor religious works.

In 1854, Lévi visited England, where he met the novelist Edward Bulwer-Lytton, who was interested in Rosicrucianism as a literary theme and was the president of a minor Rosicrucian order. With Bulwer-Lytton, Lévi conceived the notion of writing a treatise on magic. This appeared in 1855 under the title Dogme et Rituel de la Haute Magie, and was translated into English by Arthur Edward Waite as Transcendental Magic, its Doctrine and Ritual.

Lévi’s version of magic became a great success, especially after his death. That Spiritualism was popular on both sides of the Atlantic from the 1850s contributed to this success. His magical teachings were free from obvious fanaticism’s, even if they remained rather murky; he had nothing to sell, and did not pretend to be the initiated into some ancient or fictitious secret society. He incorporated the Tarot cards into his magical system, and as a result the Tarot has been an important part of the paraphernalia of Western magicians. He had a deep impact on the magic of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn and later on the ex-Golden Dawn member Aleister Crowley.

Although Lévi published only one modern Tarot card, the Chariot, his influence on designers of decks was significant. For example, his version of the Chariot included for the first time two Egyptian-style sphinxes (one light and one dark) in lieu of the traditional horses.

Levi_Chariot

Oswald Wirth and A.E. Waite included similar sphinxes in their decks, as have many contemporary designers.  Additionally, his drawing in Dogme et rituel of Baphomet, has often served as the basis for the Devil Trump.

Levi_Baphomet

Lévi’s contribution to modern occultism or Western Esotericism was significant, impacting Tarot.  “Lévi’s most startling innovation was in connecting the Qabalah with the Tarot.

Similar statements could be made about other aspects of  Tarot which modern occultists take for granted.  Nevertheless, Lévi’s approach to the cards carries significant weight to this day.  Ultimately, he impacted Tarotists not because his vision of Tarot was historically accurate (because it wasn’t), but because he made something new and compelling of it.

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