Great Tarotists of Yesteryear:
By James W. Revak
The Magus Turns to Tarot
Integral to Lévis synthesis was Tarot, which he dogmatically described as the ancient Egyptian Book of Hermes. He enthusiastically embraced Tarot as the universal key of magical works and, as such, the key of all ancient religious dogmas, including even the Bible. As was often the case, Lévi failed to provide even one shred of evidence for his position. Nevertheless, the magus confidently extolled Tarot as a true philosophical machine and a veritable oracle, and convinced others to do likewise.
Furthermore, he integrated Tarot with Cabala (an influential type of Jewish mysticism) and the Four Elements. In Dogme et rituel, he was the first to write that:
- The ten numerical cards of each suit corresponded to the ten Cabalistic Sephiroth (centers of divine energy);
- The four suits corresponded to the Four Elements, viz., Coins (later called Pentacles) = Earth, Cups = Water, Scepters (later called Wands) = Air, and Swords = Fire; and,
- Although he was not the first to link Tarot to the Hebrew alphabet, he was the first specifically to write that the Juggler (later called the Magician) = Aleph, the Papess (later called the High Priestess) = Beth, etc.
Once again, Lévi failed to present any convincing evidence or documentation concerning the authenticity or history of these Tarot correspondences; rather, he simply dogmatically stated them. Whether he invented them or was reporting on a pre-existing system is unknown. Certainly, no evidence exists to support the purportedly ancient origins of these correspondences. However, a significant number of Tarotists use them or similar ones to this day.
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 (see illustration, above) included for the first time two Egyptian-style sphinxes (one light and one dark) in lieu of the traditional horses. 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, an idol which the Knights Templar were wrongly accused of worshiping during the Middle Ages, has often served as the basis for the Devil Trump.
Illustration (above): Lévis drawing of the Chariot (from his Dogme et rituel [1854-55]). Click the image for a larger one.
Typically, however, Lévis verbal descriptions from Dogme et rituel are what impacted designers. For example, he wrote that:
- A lemniscate (a figure similar to a horizontal 8) appeared over the Juggler's head;
- The Papess (later called the High Priestess) wore the horns of the Moon and Isis;
- The Empress was a type of Venus;
- The Moon appeared beneath the Empress feet;
- Hermanubis (an Egyptian deity) ascended the Wheel of Fortune on the right, while Typhon (another Egyptian deity) descended on the left;
- Another lemniscate appeared over Strengths head; and
- Temperance wore a square and triangle over her breast.
Granted, some decks designed after Lévi have none of these elements; however, many have most, including Rider-Waite-Smith and closely related packs. Every time a contemporary designer or reader uses certain correspondences (e.g., Pentacles = Earth, etc.); interprets the High Priestess as the Moon or Isis; relates the Empress to Venus; or meditates on the lemniscates over the heads of the Magician and Strength, they are indebted, in part, to Lévi.
His Final Years
After publication of Dogme et rituel Lévi earned a comfortable living, writing books on magic and other aspects of occultism, providing private instruction in magic, and generally leading the life of a working magus, e.g., by making talismans or carrying out specified operations on behalf of clients. In 1860 he published his Histoire de la magie [History of Magic], which helped to consolidate his position as one the leading occultists of his day, although it contained much which was inaccurate and poorly documented.
As he aged his health declined precipitously and he was reduced to poverty; however, one of his devoted students saved him from complete ruin. In the spring of 1875, his condition worsening, he accepted the last rites of the Catholic Church and died a few hours later. The magus had sought to reconcile magic and religion to the end, and the son he never saw in life accompanied his body to its final resting place.
A N A S S E S S M E N T
Lévis contribution to modern occultism or Western Esotericism was significant, impacting Tarot and, more generally, magic. Lévis most startling innovation was in connecting the Cabala with the Tarot. Modern occultists take this connection so much for granted that it tends to be forgotten that there is absolutely no historical evidence that the two were in any way related, historian Christopher McIntosh rightly noted in his Eliphas Lévi and the French Occult Revival.
Similar statements could be made about other aspects of Tarot which modern occultists take for granted. Nevertheless, Lévis 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 wasnt), but because he made something new and compelling of it.
More generally, Lévi was important because he helped to change how some people perceive magic. Lévi, McIintosh rightly observed, presented magic as a way of drawing the will through certain channels and turning the magician into a more fully realized human being.
Although his sensationalism and penchant for literally inventing history often detracted from this central message, his ideas still served as an important foundation for the edifice of modern magic (including Tarot) to be built by the next generation of magi. Thanks to his contribution to the rehabilitation of magic and integration of Tarot into the larger domain of Western Esotericism, Lévi would serve as a guiding light for them.
R E S O U R C E S Books
Decker, Ronald; DePaulis, Thierry; Dummett, Michael. (1996). A Wicked Pack of Cards: The Origins of the Occult Tarot. New York: St. Martins. ISBN 0312162944.
Lévi, Éliphas. (1910). (A. E. Waite, Trans.). Transcendental Magic: Its Doctrine and Ritual. Chicago: The Occult Publishing House. Republished many times. Originally published in French in two volumes as: Dogme de la haute magie (1854) and Rituel de la haute magie (1855).
Lévi, Éliphas. (1913). (A.E. Waite, Trans.). The History of Magic: Including a Clear, and Precise Exposition of Its Procedures, Rites and Mysteries. London: Rider. Republished many times. Originally published as Histoire de la magie, avec une exposition claire et précise de ses procédés, de ses rites et de ses mystères (1860).
McIntosh, Christopher. (1972). Éliphas Lévi and the French Occult Revival. London: Rider. ISBN 0091122716.
Lévi, Éliphas. Transcendental Magic: Its Doctrine and Ritual. An online version of this book.
Revak, James W. The Amazing Major Arcanum Esoteric Symbol Quiz. Explore brief commentary on the Major Arcana by Lévi and other major Tarotists.
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Copyright © 2001 James W. Revak. All rights reserved. Version 1.1 (11/23/01).