Levi, Eliphas Zahed

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Illustration from the 1891 edition of Transcendental Magic, by Eliphas Levi. Courtesy Fortean Picture Library.

Levi, Eliphas Zahed (1810-1875)

(religion, spiritualism, and occult)

One of the best-known French occultists, whose real name was Alphonse Louis Constant, Eliphas Levi was born in Paris, France, in 1810. His father was a poor shoemaker. Levi was educated at Roman Catholic schools and at the seminary of St. Sulpice, eventually being ordained a deacon in 1835 at the age of twenty-five. Nearly ten years later he began taking an interest in the occult, reading the works of Cornelius Agrippa, Raymond Lull, and Guillaume Postel.

He was expelled from St. Sulpice for teaching doctrines contrary to those of the Church, and thus did not become a priest. He wrote a pamphlet called The Gospel of Liberty and for it was thrown in prison for six months. Shortly after his release he married Noémi Cadiot, a young woman half his age, but the marriage only lasted seven years. It was annulled in 1865.

Levi studied with Hoëne-Wronski, Alphonse Esquiros, and an old occultist named Ganneau, and himself began teaching students the magical arts. He made a trip to England in May, 1854, which did not turn out as well as he hoped due to his inability to speak the language. However, he did establish a relationship with Sir Edward Bulwer Lytton, an occultist of some note. While there he agreed—somewhat reluctantly—to perform a magical ritual for the benefit of a female acquaintance of Sir Edward's. It was a rite of Ceremonial Magic entailing much preparation both of himself and the temple in which he performed the rite. He claimed success afterward, writing of the experience some years later in his Transcendental Magic (1891). This was his only actual practice of the art, all else being theoretical. He returned to France, virtually penniless and homeless. Adolphe Desbarolles, a noted palmist, came to his aid and established him in a room at No. 19 avenue de Maine, Paris, an impressive three-story building with a gatehouse. Levi began to attract pupils for his teaching of the Kaballah. For the rest of his life he made a comfortable living teaching various occult arts until his death in 1875. He did visit England again in May 1861 to study with Bulwer Lytton. His most important book was Dogme et Rituel de la Haute Magie (The Dogma and Ritual of High Magic; Dogma and Ritual were originally published separately in 1854 and 1856, then together in 1861). Other notable titles were Histoire de la Magie (A History of Magic, 1892) and La Clef des Grands Mystères (The Key of Great Mysteries, n.d.). Levi is credited with having reawakened interest in the occult arts in France in the nineteenth century.