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: Modern Occultism between Éliphas Lévi and Aleister Crowley
Topic:Esotericism Reading
Esotericism ReadingApparently the French term occultisme was used for the first time by Éliphas Lévi; apart from the nominal problem, though, the tradition of ‘occult sciences' has its roots at the beginning of Christianity. Previous to Lévi's neologism there wasn't a clear distinction, even terminological, with what Guénon later defined the domain of ‘esotericism' or ‘initiation'....

Modern Occultism between Éliphas Lévi and Aleister Crowley
by Antonio d'Alonzo
(C) 2007 Esonet.it - Esonet.com

Apparently the French term occultisme was used for the first time by Éliphas Lévi; apart from the nominal problem, though, the tradition of ‘occult sciences' has its roots at the beginning of Christianity. Previous to Lévi's neologism there wasn't a clear distinction, even terminological, with what Guénon later defined the domain of ‘esotericism' or ‘initiation'. After all, still today this distinction is mostly rhetorical, since some practices cross the reciprocal fields of both (for example alchemy and astrology).

An interesting distinction is proposed by Edward A. Tiryakian:

By ‘occult' I refer to all those particular practices, techniques and procedures that

are founded on mysterious and well hidden forces present in nature and cosmos without being measurable and identifiable through the instruments of modern science; and

that bring, as wished or realized consequences, empirical results, such as the knowledge of the practical course of events and the alteration of the events themselves compared to their occurrence if this particular intervention hadn't happened… with ‘esoteric' I mean all the complex of systems of philosophical-religious thought that made the fundaments to the occult techniques and practices mentioned above. This means that esotericism refers to representations that include a wider knowledge of nature and the cosmos, epistemological and ontological reflections on the ultimate reality, which all together make the whole of notions at the bases of any occult process. Using an analogy, we can say that esoteric knowledge is to occult practices as the whole of theoretical physics' notions is to the applications of engineering.

The eminent esotericism scholar Antoine Faivre (note 1) points out that Tiryakian's distinction has become acceptable only from the twentieth century, when the incautious and fanciful attitude of certain esotericists required the use of the neologism ‘occultism', created by Éliphas Lévi. However we can try and bring this pragmatic or experimental character back to occultism, which, on the other hand, like any practice needs a fund of notions as a base; this need is satisfied by esotericism. On the other hand, we can try and see in occultism a degeneration of esotericism, or even a deviation, as perennialists do. The dichotomy between ‘practical' occultism and ‘theoretical' esotericism is still very important on the semantic level.

Furthermore, it is likely that magic, one of the occult sciences par excellence, has always had this practical and operative character. According to the studies by J. H. King, Frazer, Marett and Mauss magic was the first form of religion; they think it originates from the observation of natural disasters, which men attribute to an impersonal force, called Mana by Melanesians and Orenda by Iroquois.

This anonymous power that upsets nature with its fury is controlled by the sorcerer and used for his individual goals or for the utilitarian needs of the community. As Hubert and Mauss point out, the ability of the sorcerer allows to infringe taboos and interdictions, which are rigorously respected by the religious man. Magic has in its essence a character of transgression that leads it to overcome any prohibition in order to reach its immediate goal. In other words it has a merely practical and operative character.

Since occultism is the practical and experimental drift of esoteric knowledge it is of course strongly tied to it. After studying what differentiates occultism from esotericism (it is mostly the heterogenesis of the goals, rather than different doctrinal fields) we can examine the assumptions that they share.

The network of correspondences. It is the classical idea of the macro-microcosm identity, commendably represented by the Emerald Tablet (‘That which is above is from that which is below, and that which is below is from that which is above'). There are analogies and correspondences in the whole universe, which is nothing but a return of mirrors, a redundancy of signs to be de-veiled ( ‘to have eyes to read and ears to hear') . The human body is nothing but an image of the cosmos. In India the single eye symbolizes the sun, whilst both eyes refer to sun and moon. The skull represents the moon, breath is the wind, bones are the stones, hair is the grass on the earth. And also the womb symbolizes the caves in the ground, intestines are the labyrinths, veins and arteries are the sun, the spine is the Axis Mundi, etc. In this network of correspondences finding the right way (‘eyes to read, etc...') to operate on Nature means to mimetically or empathically influence the microcosm, if not other people's bodies. Mimetic rites are founded on the assumption that simile affects the simile; therefore by symbolically imitating the desired action we can magically guarantee the concrete result (a classical example is the magic rites of ‘good omen'). Empathic rites occur when the part acts on the whole (for example: the spell on the personal fetish of the victim, such as a lock of hair or a strip of underwear).

We have seen that for both the occultist and the esotericist the Cosmos is a hieroglyphic of mysteries and signs to be de-veiled, traces and references alternated to a hierophany of the Absolute which is inside and outside the Being and the Creation. Correspondences relate to the order of physical or invisible nature, as we have seen above in the analogies between human body and physical elements. They can also be expressed by Nature itself and sacred texts (a clear example is given by the Cabbala). In this case there is a credulous trust in the possibility that the revealed texts can explain the ultimate meaning of history and of its becoming (what is normally intended as ‘millenarianism'). We must add that this kind of concordance is more common among esotericists than occultists, since the former look more for the legitimization of the traditional authority, whilst the latter have often an attitude of strong rebellion towards the religious power.

The living body of Nature. During the Renaissance Nature is still perceived as a live, pulsating organism, a game of sympathy and antipathy between forces that attract and reject each other. Later on, the advent of modern science accomplished the deconsecration of Nature. Already with Paracelsus, though, the Naturphilosphie had its peak. Not even in the Middle Ages anybody had suggested that God could be known through Nature. Therefore there are not only analogical correspondences between macro and microcosm; although they are hidden by the illusion linked to the phenomenal aspect (what Kant called the noumenon), they are within reach, since Nature itself is a live organism, ‘magical' in the operative sense of the word.

The faculty of Imagination. The word's etymology ( Imago) refers to the ars magica , the ability to read the invisible (the eye ‘that can read'). Only who consciously developes imagination can reveal things in their infinity ( ‘If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear to man as it is, infinite' – Blake. For Blake the world of Imagination is infinite and eternal, on the contrary of the world of generation). The True world is there, then, available to those who have developed the natural power of Imagination. These motifs are present in Platonism first and in Neo-Platonism later (although we must specify that according to Plato the nóesis , intellect, is more powerful than Imagination. But the doctrine of the two worlds, sensitive and super-sensitive, where the first is the imperfect copy of the second, is the same).

The condition of transmutation. This experience refers to the possibility to exteriorly and interiorly transform the operator himself as well as a material or natural object in another. It can relate to a rite of passage, the phenomenology of the ‘second birth', the alchemic dynamics of nigredo – albedo – rubedo . These three terms symbolize respectively: the work in ‘black', the profane death, the descent into hell, the death in the womb of the initiatory monster; this symbolism is very important in initiations of puberty. The work ‘in white', brightening, illumination, the journey towards the philosopher's stone. The work in ‘red' is realized perfection, the exit from the individual condition, the access to the Great Mysteries. But the condition of transmutation can also relate to the possibility to operate on Nature itself.

In brief, these are the common aspects between esotericism and occultism (note 2). There are two more, but they refer to proper esotericism, therefore we will not consider them. We can verify that there isn't a rigid boundary between the field of application of occultism and esotericism; the difference must be found in the ‘modality' of application, in the attitude towards research. In other words, it is not a matter of placing certain doctrines under a domain rather than under another, but choosing how to address them, through a practical outlet or towards a more theoretical and spiritual assimilation.

According to some scholars there is a very strong connection between modernity and occultism. Indeed, if we consider the modern age in its manias and idiosyncrasies, such as the over-sensitiveness to sensation and the rejection of contemplative thought, but also towards the whole humanistic culture in general, we can see the thread that ties it to occultism. Excessive attention to paranormal, to all that bursts in daily routine, that by manifesting itself seems to flare up all the categories of ordinariness, refers to the anxiety for the waiting of new gods, for all that is new and can give another sense to existence. Today there is a generalized ‘hunger' for symbols and sacredness that manifests itself in the form of old and new cults (you can read the study by the CESNUR on the new religions in Italy). If we buy ‘specialized' magazines we will see that different and inhomogeneous subjects are dealt with and they are put in relation with phenomena that don't have anything ‘paranormal' about them (a typical example are the notorious crop circles).

We can recognize the parallelism. The occultist pays more attention to practice, to the phenomenal world; the esotericist cultivates a strong tendency to intimism, to a spirituality silent and far from the loud noises of the profane world. At the end of the nineteenth century culture is still affected by the seventeenth-century utopia of the Enlightenment, by the Marxian revolutionary eschatology, by the general atmosphere of positivist trust in the achievements of science. We can say that the nineteenth century is the century of utopia (at least until Nietzsche, which remains in an objective continuity with the modernist scientism, if we see him like Heidegger did).

With the advent of smokestacks and the growing urbanization of the countryside, the collective imagery is waiting for something sensational and astonishing. A feverish, pre-futuristic state fills the masses, which are ready to be amazed both by the casting of steel and by a ‘dancing' table. Spirits ‘knock' and the rudimental production lines make their first industrial noises; Nature is deprived of the slow germination of its creation. There is no more need to wait for the natural rhythms of seasons; it is a world that wants to come to light there and then. Spirits don't doze away in the quiet womb of a sacred Nature, but they are evoked by the living at any time, who force them to knock and to move tables, therefore to participate to the noise of the new World. Kardecism starts developing, which finds proselytes at home and abroad (especially in Brazil), although it struggles to find notoriety outside the spiritistic environment. The fantasy genre, also called fantastic literature, originates from the heritage of the eighteenth-century gothic novel; its fathers are E. A. Poe, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1818), B. Stocker's Dracula (1897). In this trend (especially in sword and sorcery ) we find mixed elements drawn from the northern sagas and chivalry poems, with references to parapsychology and occultism; it is all integrated in a narrating fabric strongly steeped in magical and fantastic references. In conclusion, this is the climate where the nineteenth-century occultism can thrive.

After all, according to the sociologist Tiryakian, this link between modernity and the interest for occult phenomena was not exhausted in the nineteenth century but concerns our era as well. He reckons that today we are witnessing a progressive phenomenon of ‘secularization of the demoniac', after it has concerned religious customs (note 3). Therefore it is an attempt to proclaim the death of the devil as well as the death of God. In this sense modernity (post-modernity?) needs to get rid completely of faith, ancestral fears, the world of unknown that now is being unveiled with a Nietzschean perspective (we can also read in this key Freud's ‘return of the uncanny').

We have seen that the complex of doctrines, teachings and practices at the basis of the movement that in the nineteenth century was re-named ‘occultism' is not different from the ‘corpus' of esotericism. Nevertheless we must keep in mind that the doctrinal field of esoteric research is not an original jurisdiction separated from the other fields of humanistic knowledge, but it undergoes a fatal contamination by them from the start. Therefore only after the scholastic thinkers take possession of philosophy, the scholars of the eighteenth century decide to claim their competence in the study of neo-alexandrine Hermeticism, Christian cabbala, Alchemy, etc. The fact that the corpus of Western esotericism is this rather than another is the result of a historical contingency. It is obvious that, as we have mentioned above, there has never been a clear distinction with philosophia occulta ; the difference was relative (mostly retroactively applied by nineteenth-century esotericists) to the attitude towards secret teachings (in a practical way for occultists, on the contrary spiritually for esotericists).

The doctrinal field of occultism before the nineteenth century is the same as esotericism; the occultist current starts its life with Éliphas Lévi's work (1810-1875). His real name is Alfred Charles Constant, whilst Éliphas Lévi is its Hebrew translation. In his Dogme e ritual de haute magie he aims at revealing the great secrets of religions, the primitive science of sorcerers and the unity of the universal dogma. Lévi's syncretism is obvious; he relies on an astonishing but confused erudition that lacks methodological rigor. Therefore he seems to follow in the footsteps of Cornelius Agrippa's work, which can certainly be considered the precursor of the nineteenth-century occultist current. In his De occulta philosophia libri tres (1531) Agrippa mixes magic, astrology, Cabbala, theurgy, medicine, botany and metallurgy. But the tendency to encyclopedic medley was already present in the De vita coelius comparanda (1489) by Marsilio Ficino.

Éliphas Lévi, then, magnifies the faults of the first proto-occultists (although according to what we said earlier, they have a different relevance as esotericists if we place them in an objective continuity with Eugène Canseliet rather than with Lévi. The problem is all in where we want to find the thread. The history of culture lends itself to many interpretations). Lévi's erudition aims at amalgamating everything. He believes in an occult philosophy, mother and nurse of all religions, which we can safely identify with the philosophia perennis that perennialists will later claim as eminently metaphysical and stolen from history (F. Schuon mentions a ‘transcendent unity of religions').

Éliphas Lévi defines occult philosophy as follows:

Occult philosophy seems to have been the nurse or godmother of all religions, the secret mainspring for all intellectual forces, the key to all divine obscurities and the absolute queen of society, at the time when it was exclusively reserved to the education of priests and kings.

This occult philosophy ‘nurse and god-mother of all religions', ‘secret mainspring', ‘key', etc… can be, with a certain margin of distinction, associated to the ‘Tradition' loved by perennialists in its different versions (‘Primordial Tradition', ‘transcendent unity of religions', ‘primordial doctrine', etc…). After all, the idea of the existence of a philosophia perennis (as Coomaraswamy called ‘Tradition') which irrigates and germinates all philosophies and religions, certainly doesn't appear in the West with Guénon and the perennialists, but it is present since the Renaissance with Marsilio Ficino and Pico della Mirandola. Already in the Byzantine Middle Ages Psellos and Pletho talked about a prisca philosophia that joined Zoroaster, Hermes Trismegistus, Orpheus, Aglaophemos, Pythagoras, Plato and the Sybils. Ficino adds magic to this sapiential chain; the result is the philosophia perennis or, if we prefer, literally the philosophia occulta as Éliphas Lévi intends it.

Nevertheless there is an essential difference between the philosophia perennis as it was seen by Ficino and the Renaissance scholars, Éliphas Lévi and later the perennialists. Ficino tries to find perennial philosophy exclusively among the doctrines of the Mediterranean basin, whilst the others attribute to this philosophy a universal dimension, viz. open to all Eastern and Western cultures (note 4).

In his books Éliphas Lévi believes in the existence of a ‘ formidable secret, whose revelation has already turned the world upside down' , as well as in the existence of a ‘true and a false science, a divine and an infernal magic'. He opts for a high profile occult philosophy, able to refer to the teachings of alexandrine hermeticism, astrology, Christian cabbala, etc…But his syncretism prevents him from sliding towards forms of low magic that involve the use of exorcisms, spells, invocations, miracles, etc.; in other words, towards witchcraft practices.

When we talk about ‘witchcraft practices' we don't mean to use disparaging expressions towards the author or towards forms of popular belief and pseudo-religious superstitions. We are not judging the alleged ‘truth' of a whole of popular uses and practices by comparing them with the higher metaphysical profile of doctrines, whose claimed ‘orthodoxy' doesn't need introductions. In other words we don't want to dismiss the whole popular religiosity, which finds an important place in the studies of cultural anthropology or history of folklore. Undoubtedly the sorcerers' spells and witchcraft deserve some attention. The point is another. The curious syncretism of Éliphas Lévi, whose only worry seems to gather data and notions, leads him to a confused and superficial erudition that reflects on the whole of his works.

Let's explain what we mean. Together with treaties about High magic ( The ritual of the Highest Magic, The key of the mysteries, The dogma of the Highest Magic, etc.), Éliphas Lévi also wrote a short essay called The Magic of the countryside and the sorcery of shepherds (note 5). The editor of the volume himself (which includes writings by other authors, besides Lévi) explains in his foreword that Lévi draws a ‘short magic view' where he syncretically inserts pagan-Christian motifs reduced to a superstitious key by the use that low or degraded rural social classes made of them. Lévi himself warns the readers on the reliability of the defective and distorted formulas <…> Nevertheless he thinks that the real effect of such practices stands in the sincere faith that accompanies their execution <…>' (note 6)

We think that the prefacer is absolutely right. But then we must choose: either we write a historiographical essay on magic and we abandon the idea of talking about Truth and faith or we move on the field of ontology and ignore the encyclopedic character. This is Éliphas Lévi's limit. He has an enormous erudition but then he feels belittled and trapped in the stereotype of the bookworm, so he brings himself on a higher plane where he is not a simple scholar but an initiate authorized to talk about transcendent truths. From this point of view René Guénon was more rigorous, because he drastically excised the field of orthodoxy from the suggestions of modernity, although he then incurred into a series of rushed generalizations. But Éliphas Lévi, on the contrary of Guénon, didn't manage to solve the dilemma between being a ‘simple' erudite and an initiate.

The essay ‘ The magic of the countryside and the sorcery of shepherds' opens with a generic description of the psycho-sensorial illnesses that afflict countrymen.

In the solitude, among the work of vegetation, the instinctive and magnetic forces of man are improved and exalted, the strong exaltation of the trees' humors, the smell of hay, the scent of certain flowers fill the air with elation and giddiness; therefore suggestible people easily fall in a kind of ecstasy that causes them to daydream.

At this point, according to Lévi, ‘nocturnal birds', ‘werewolves' and ‘elves' repeatedly torment farmers. Nevertheless, Éliphas Lévi warns us that these visions ‘ are real and terrible, and we must not laugh at our old Breton farmers when they tell us what they've seen' (The magic of the countryside and the sorcery of shepherds ). Already in this first part we find a logic difficulty. Éliphas Lévi doesn't realize that the above mentioned statement is falling into an obvious oxymoron. If we establish, as he suggests, that the appearances of werewolves and elves are ‘real and terrible', it is then difficult to classify such appearances as simple visions, due to the manifestation of states of ecstasy that cause people to ‘daydream'. Éliphas Lévi, unfortunately, doesn't even try to reassure us that he's using a ‘relativistic' perspective, as we would say today, according to which there aren't any propositions of truth independent from the subject. In other words, trivializing the concept, if the subject ‘Z' thinks he is ‘X' or ‘Y', even if for the outside world he is ‘Z', for the ‘Z' subjectivity the belief of being ‘X' or ‘Y' is real.

Skipping this point, let's get to the individuation of the causes for the illnesses described by Éliphas Lévi. They are phenomena of natural magnetism, due to magnetic whirls that ‘ do miracles similar to electricity, such as attraction and repulsion of inert objects, atmospheric currents and marked sympathetic or unsympathetic influences (sic)' (note 7).

We can see here another characteristic of nineteenth-century occultism; the curious attempt to conciliate supernatural and modern science. In the passage quoted above we can clearly see the influence that mesmerism and Kardecism had on Lévi's thought. It is peculiar the way how Éliphas Lévi tries and expresses these influences by adapting them to the scientific jargon of the time. From these simple nuances inside the narrative text we can see the candid syncretism in Lévi's thought.

We have seen that among the main characteristics of the nineteenth-century occultism there is the abnormal use of syncretism, both among doctrines that can be considered as belonging to the same panorama and among heterogeneous fields of knowledge that should be kept separate. The mixture that Éliphas Lévi creates using modern science, Kardecism, mesmerism and magic in general, belongs to the latter.

This unfortunate amalgam of magic and science stands out since the first pages of his The magic of the countryside and the sorcery of shepherds , where we can see how the syncretism of the author doesn't stop on a purely literary plane, but extends to the ontological dimension. In Italy nowadays, literary syncretism is typical of Elèmire Zolla which for example, in his Exits from the World compares Collodi to Lévi-Strauss, Dumèzil, Eliade. Let's be clear, literary or philosophical syncretism has been typical of the current called ‘postmodernism', which was very successful and fashionable around the eighties. But the contamination of the traditional types of knowledge, which was typical of postmodernism, only concerned the cultural plane (also because metaphysics was declared offside after Heidegger and Wittgnestein). In other words, it was on a ‘nominal' ground.

On the contrary, nineteenth-century occultists don't have any hesitation in extending their syncretism to the ontological plane. Considering the example mentioned above, we can say that they fall in a rather candid ‘realism' (to explain to my readers who are not familiar with the philosophical jargon, I'll say that ‘ nominalism' is the doctrine where the general concepts don't exist as independent ‘things' outside the language or the human mind. On the contrary, ‘realism' accepts the existence of the same general concepts as real beings, independent from the thought).

Let's go back for a minute to the above mentioned passage where Éliphas Lévi seems to embrace the scientific thought and its procedures ( ‘Around these confused magnets magnetic twirls originate and miracles similar to electricity occur, such as attraction or rejection of inert objects, and to atmospheric currents <…>' ) and let's compare it with the following:

We have explained why shepherds are more liable than others to magnetic disorders; they lead flocks by magnetizing them with their good or bad will; they undergo the influence of the animal souls gathered under their power, and they become an extension of their soul. Shepherds, with their moral infirmities, produce physical illnesses in muttons and in return they suffer the reaction of the billy goats' insistence and the goats' tantrums. If the shepherd has an absorbing nature the flock becomes as such as well and sometimes it attracts on itself the vigor and the health of a flock nearby (note 8).

It is obvious that Éliphas Lévi can't escape the suggestions of modern science when he talks about ‘magnetic whirls' and electricity, but then he incredibly falls back inside the horizon of supernatural, typical of the culture at the time. It is not surprising that Éliphas Lévi uses a pseudo-scientific jargon but he can't decide which horn of the dilemma to choose. This happens also because Lévi wants to use his erudition to ‘grind' everything in a syncretism that supports superficially the nineteenth-century scientific discoveries, the taste for gothic and paranormal.

Saint-Yves d'Alveydre (1842-1909) is known for the famous theory of ‘synarchism' which allegedly had its center in a mysterious place called Agartha. Ferdinand Ossendowski (Beasts, men and gods) , René Guénon ( The king of the world) and recently Umberto Eco in the Foucault's pendulum have all discussed this hypothesis based on Saint-Yves d'Alveydre's book.

Guénon's book ‘ The king of the world' opens with a reference to d'Alveydre's book. Furthermore Guénon informs us that the idea of Agartha already appeared in the books of a ‘non-reliable' writer like Louis Jacolliet, Le Fils the Dieu, Le spiritisme dans the Monde ( from The king of the world). Guenon prefers to put in an objective continuity Saint-Yves d'Alveydre's work with Ossendowski's and to read the former at the light of confirmations and similarities drawn from the latter.

Let's take a step backward. The young Saint-Yves d'Alveydre spent his childhood in a very rigid summer camp. At the end of this experience he studied medicine and read Fabre d'Olivet and Joseph de Maistre. In 1877 he married the countess Keller and obtained the title of marquis, becoming a d'Alveydre.

Saint-Yves d'Alveydre wrote many books ( Mission actuelle des ouvriers, Mission des jufs, La France vraie , etc.) but the most famous remain Mission de l'Indie and l'Archèometrie.

In Mission de l'Indie Saint-Yves d'Alveydre deals with the subject of Agartha and synarchism. The two ideas are intrinsically related, because Agartha is the tópos , the geographical place that makes synarchism possible. According to Saint-Yves d'Alveydre Agartha is a ‘center of the World' hidden in the heart of Asia, in a kind of gigantic cobweb that extends its filaments under oceans and all continents. The purpose of Agartha is the total control extended to the whole planet. In particular Saint-Yves d'Alveydre talks about a solar dynasty settled in Ayadhaya , whose origin goes back to the Manu of our cycle, viz. Vaivaswata. Synarchism is therefore a form of Trinitarian government able to ensure the accomplishment of the three essential social functions, viz. teaching, justice and economy.

Saint-Yves d'Alveydre describes synarchism with an essential metaphor; he talks about three chambers contained in a bigger one called ‘metaphysics'. The social system is rigorously deterministic according to metaphysical assumptions.

Millions of dwija (born twice), yoghin (joined in God) form the great Circle, or rather the emisphere <…> Above them and walking towards This Center we find five thousand pundit (pandavas) some of which carry out the service of teaching; others the service on the field, like soldiers of the internal police or that of the hundred doors. <…> their number (5,000) corresponds to the roots of the Vedic language <…> The highest circle closer to the mysterious center is made of twelve members that represent the supreme initiation ( from Mission de l'Indie).

Later on, Ossendowski talks about the King of the World; he says that the latter is in relation with the men that rule the Earth's destiny. If the thoughts of the leaders are agreeable to the King of the World, he will give them his invisible support, otherwise they will be destined to sure failure. Basically we can imagine synarchism as the top, the most inner point of a spiral made of concentric circles. According to Saint-Yves d'Alveydre this ultimate center, the Aristotelian Unmoved Mover, which moves everything without being moved itself, is in Agartha itself.

The other famous book by Saint-Yves d'Alveydre is the Archéomètre. The French author uses this term to express the alleged measure of the Archè (literally in Greek ‘principle'), viz. the ‘universal cosmic force'. According to Saint-Yves d'Alveydre the Archè allows to apply the arcana of the divine Word to all the secondary sciences, arts and all human productions. In other words, the field of the prime Principles is extended into the domain of derived applications. The Archè, after all, is not a science but an instrument that allows the achievement of supreme knowledge. Saint-Yves d'Alveydre's paradox is that his wonderful instrument, the ‘key' able to reveal the arcana of the world is nothing but a kind of diagram made of cardboard circles containing drawings of the Zodiac and able to answer the questions of the interlocutors, according to the French author.

Philippe Vachot ( ‘Maitre Philippe' ) must be remembered as a healer rather than as an occultist. Indeed, he was mainly a thaumaturge.

We are now at the ‘Balzac of occultism', doctor Gérard Encausse, known with the pseudonym of Papus. The syncretism of this author managed to successfully harmonize certain heterogeneous elements of Christianity, esotericism and occultism more than Éliphas Lévi ever did. Papus left two hundred sixty works, a huge corpus. Initially Gérard Encausse (1865-1916) was interested in medicine but it left it soon to devote his studies to occult disciplines. From the reading of Médecine Nouvelle by Louis Lucas, Papus draws the conviction that the ‘principle of life' (let's remember that the cultural atmosphere of the time is affected by the suggestions of Darwinian evolutionary theory; the second Nietzsche of the illuministic stage with Aurora, Human, all too human 1 and 2, The gay science , Marx, Henri Bergson with his ‘vital impetus') is ruled by the enormone , which is a condensation of the physical motion. For Papus this is an epiphany that leads him to leave the profane way. From the meeting with Henri Delaage he obtains the initiation to Martinism; from this moment on he takes the pseudonym of Papus (the god of medicine in Apollonius' Nuctemeron ). It is important to highlight that the Martinist society was founded by Papus with the purpose to divulge Saint-Martin's work. Papus was not only a great scholar and a tireless divulger, but also an excellent organizer. Let's have a look at some biographical information.

After the initiation to Martinism, he meets Stanislas de Gua Ï ta and Péladan and with them he founds the Supreme Rosicrucian cabalistic Council. He founds the independent Group for esoteric studies and later he opens Martinist lodges in Paris. He contributes to the birth of famous magazines such as L'Initiation, L'un.ion occulte, Le Voile d'Isis (where many articles by René Guénon were published). In 1894 he gains a degree in medicine and three years later, together with Jollivet-Castelet and Sédir he opens the Free superior School of hermetic science (which will have Guénon among its students). In 1905 he is summoned by the tsar Nicholas II for a séance. The legend tells that Papus evokes the ghost of Alexander III. He works as a doctor during the First World War. During service he contracts tuberculosis which will kill him.

As we can guess from his biography, Papus was a very dynamic spirit. The frenzy that he applied to his active life was reflected in his inner and intellectual dimension. Papus as well fell in the fault of syncretism, but his exposition was slightly lighter than Éliphas Lévi's.

Papus also showed more closeness to the traditional sources than any other occultist of the time. His efforts are addressed to the attempt to conciliate magic, spiritism, occultism and theosophy. Papus also belonged for a while to the Theosophical Society, but the ‘oriental' direction given to it by Blavatsky turned him away. In conclusion Papus shares with Éliphas Lévi and many occultists of his time the abuse of erudition and of totalizing syncretism. Nevertheless their works have contributed to divulge and bring to light this field of studies, drawing the attention of the academic world to it.

Continuing in our historical journey through modern occultism, we can remember the names of Joséphin Pédalan and Paul Sédir.

Joséphin Pédalan (1890-1915) was an exponent of the so-called ‘esoteric Christianity'. According to him in the Gospel of John is hidden the key to access a secret doctrine, of which the Roman Church doesn't have any memory despite it keeps it in its symbols and rites. Although Pédalan underwent the influence of his father, an initiate himself, he was a disciple of Papus and attended a Rosicrucian group. As a consequence of contrasts with the Church he kept aloof from the ecclesiastic authorities and formed a Rosicrucian catholic organization.

The most important works by Joséphin Pédalan are Comment on devient mage and L'Occultisme catholique . In them he seems to anticipate Guénon when he underlines the separation between the religious exoteric and the esoteric philosophical forms (Guénon would never accept the idea of esoteric ‘philosophy', he would rather talk about ‘metaphysics'; nevertheless we can't forget that Coomaraswamy confidently uses the expression ‘ philosophia perennis' instead of ‘Tradition').

Pédalan compares occult to the abstract mystery. For him religion is an epochal adaptation contingent to the Truth for a historical cycle. Curiously, on the contrary of the subsequent perennialism, the symbol for him is not universal, but an adaptation of the Word to the contingent order. According to Pédalan the symbol is an intellectual language that allows to penetrate the Truth of the Word; but the symbol doesn't have an atemporal, archetypical and hierophantic (to quote Eliade) structure.

Another difference with posthumous perennialism arises when he states that Tradition must be translated to adapt to the present age. For Guénon it was the exact contrary; hic et nunc had to be transcended to reach the domain of inexpressible, non-human. From this point of view Pédalan is less traditional and orthodox; once again we can notice that occultism originates from the same terrain of the modern world, as I mentioned above.

Like Joséphin Pédalan, also Paul Sédir (1871-1926; pseudonym of Yvon Le Loup) can be considered an exponent of the so-called ‘esoteric Christiantiy'. Nevertheless we must point out that in this context the term ‘esoteric' must be considered in a broad sense, since we are in a field related to occultism rather than esotericism. After all if we think that the strong attitude to practical application is peculiar to occultism, we can verify that Sédir's research as well are affected by this ‘experimental' prejudicial matter.

Nevertheless, the relation of filiation and contamination between occultism and esotericism can't be hidden behind a generic, although efficient, classification. All classifications are after all arbitrary, as Michel Foucault said. The differences exist but they are certainly nominal rather than real, viz. they are created by the language that ordinates and excludes. In other words, when we talk about ‘true' esotericism, it would be interesting to study in deep the requirements of the field of definition that we want to apply to the current or doctrine to be examined. We will find out that often the reflection of our predispositions and idiosyncrasies gives the ‘quality mark' to what we consider the orthodoxy of the esoteric ‘doctrine'. In even simpler terms, there aren't objective and universal criteria that can help us establish that, for example, Papus can be labeled as an occultist rather than as an esotericist. It depends on what we mean by ‘occultism' and ‘esotericism'. Even Edward A. Tiryakian's definition, which I have embraced at the beginning, has a nominal and indicative value.

On the contrary, if we rely on the historical analysis we are less likely to make mistakes. In this sense it is agreed that at the beginning of the nineteenth century there is the development of a current of researchers of secret sciences, which is different from the exponents of other Western esoteric currents because of a particular taste and a preference for practical application. Historically this group of people with heterogeneous and different ideas can't be considered as belonging to the same school; but they have in common this ‘practical mentality', which also makes them different from ‘esotericists' in the strict sense. This analysis, though, can be only done historically, not doctrinally, since the boundaries of ‘ inside/outside' a category are broad and relative.

Going back to Sédir, we can see that he is influenced by Papus as well, before detaching from him (it is obvious the pedagogic role of Papus towards all the youngsters that at the time were attracted to arcane, even if many of them would later keep aloof from the master). Sédir detaches from Papus suddenly, mysteriously, saying that an enigmatic grand master contacted him to transmit his teachings. He is so impressed by this meeting that he decides to devote himself to Christ, founding a group called Spiritual Friendships.

The teaching of the ‘master' that Sédir wants to divulge is focused on the attempt to rediscover the original Christological message and it is based on elements of mesmerism and operating magic.

The doctrines of Sédir's group have been presented in many conferences and in some books which can't be found today.

The peculiarity of Sédir's ‘method' is in a divinatory practice guaranteed by the use of magic mirrors, where the operator should find particular visions. Of course these ‘appearances' must be considered as unconscious projections rather than premonitory signs.

We are not able to know what Sédir thought about these visions, if he considered them anticipations of events which were going to happen or if, less candidly, he was influenced by an idea of the Es like Groddeck's kind, in its ‘magic' extension. It seems that this technique has been used for the first time by Cagliostro; we also know for sure that it was studied by psychoanalysts such as Gèza Roheim (from The masters of occult by Andrè Nataf).

Finally we have Aleister Crowley (1875-1947), which we will study extensively. We will also briefly remember his biography, since unlike many other esotericists and occultists, his life merges with his work.

Edward Alexander Cowley was born in Leamington from a very devoted family of brewers (of course Crowley boasted an illustrious descent from a noble stock). He soon ended up in a religious college; we can comment on the curious fact that the youngsters that grow up in a morbidly observant family environment become the worst enemies of Christianity in their adulthood (another typical example of this phenomenon of radical and unconventional opposition to the family milieu is Nietzsche, son of a Protestant priest). The young Crowley soon becomes very keen on alpinism, but his climbing style is considered rather bizarre by the experts. The attraction towards the tops obviously recalls the spiritual conquers; we can't ignore that the symbol of the Cosmic Mountain is the archetype of any top. The Cosmic Mountain is nothing but the Axis Mundi that links Earth and Sky. To conquer the top means to be close to the Center of the World, viz. to live-with-the-gods. The climbing represents spiritual ascent; we might wonder how it is possible that a strongly satanic occultist like Crowley had this love for the tops. The point is that there isn't an absolute doctrinal normativeness where the Satanist must escape the tops of the mountains and prefer the depth and the abyss of the Earth. Indeed, the same abyss can symbolize the mystic fusion, proving the fact that unconsciousness works in mysterious ways and that the primordial preference for a symbol rather than another doesn't mean anything.

Crowley was also interested in poetry (which was quite common in England at the end of the nineteenth century); he wrote a short poem in 1898, called Aceldama , which must be considered as a satanic hymn (influenced by Baudelaire) rather than a philosophical writing. As John Symonds reveals in his ‘Crowleyan autobiography' (note 9), the short poem is quite dull. But there is a meaningful verse where the young Crowley reveals a precocious taste for what we can call ascetism pushed to the extreme limits of penitence and self-mortification, or on the contrary of the fancies revealing strong sado-masochistic impulses ( ‘All degradation, all sheer infamy,/Thou shalt endure./Thy head beneath the mire/and dung of worthless women shall desire/As in some hateful dream,/at last to lie; Woman must trample thee/till thou respire that deadliest fume' ). In this passage from Aceldama we can really find a reference to Lovecraftian suggestions and nightmares but also a lot of didactic material for future rock stars, alleged Satanists, who are on stage nowadays.

From this moment on the young Crowley finds his Path: he decides to become a sorcerer. Drawing inspiration from the famous passage of the Apocalypse he called himself the Beast.

In 1898 Crowley joins the Golden Dawn , introduced by an English chemist called Julian Baker. It is worth to talk about the Golden Dawn. The founder of Golden Dawn was Samuel Liddel Mathers, a keen bibliophile. There are two versions on the origin of this secret society, both reported in Symonds' biography. I will describe them below for all those who don't know the story of the Golden Dawn.

The first hypothesis has been formulated by W.B. Yeats, one of the leading figures of the Golden Dawn. According to Yeats, the secret society is the ramification of another, even more enigmatic initiatory organization, called the Scholars of Hermeticism . Allegedly Unknown Masters went to Mathers and transmitted to him their knowledge.

The second version is more elaborate, but unanimously more accredited. At the end of the nineteenth century the reverend Alphonsus Woodford asked doctor Westcott to help him decipher a coded manuscript, probably bought in an antique bookshop. Apparently Doctor Westcott was member of a self-styled para-Masonic society, the Societas Rosicruciana in Anglia. At the end of his work of exegesis, doctor Westcott found in the manuscript some formulas typical of the sixteenth century alchemy. The curious (and also quite incredible) thing is that at the bottom of the manuscript there was the address of a German woman called Anna Sprengel, member of a Rosicrucian society in Nuremberg, the Lichte Liebe Leben Tempel. Apparently Westcott went to meet her and was initiated by her; she also commissioned him to found a branch of the order of the Tempel in the United Kingdom. In 1887 the Isis-Urania Temple of the Scholars of Hermeticism of the Golden Dawn (Golden Dawn) was created.

The initiatory degrees of the Golden Dawn followed progressively this sequence, which referred to the members of the First Order: Neophyte, Zelator, Theoricus, Practicus, Philosophus. At this level, the First Order or External Order, the initiates participated to esoteric rites but they didn't practice ceremonial magic.

In the Second Order, also called of the Rose and Cross, the degrees were as follows: Adeptus Minorus, Adeptus Maiorus, Adeptus Extemptus. Once reached these initiatory degrees magical practices were allowed. The only necessary requirement for the use of magical rites was that the contacts with the Secret Chiefs were established.

Mathers, with the help of his wife, who was a sensitive, boasted to have had contacts with the Secret Masters and invested himself of the title of Visible Chief of the Order.

Inside the Golden Dawn there was a schism led by William Butler Yeats and directed towards Crowley's faction (who claimed a poetic acknowledgement from the Irish bard. The internal laceration was never mended and Crowley was removed from the Golden Dawn before his definitive fall; he started traveling and gathering initiatory experiences.

He went to Mexico, where he carried out rites of evocation of the Feathered Snake. Then he traveled to the Asiatic continent, from Indonesia to Japan. In Madras he was initiated to Tantrism, or even better, to one of its degenerated ramifications of the Path of the Left Hand. In Paris he met Rilke and married Rose Kelly, the sister of one of his disciples. Crowley described his marriage with Rose as an ‘uninterrupted sexual orgy', until she went insane after abandoning a daughter whose name referred to the goddess Lilith. Of course Crowley, being an egotist, refused almost all interpersonal relationships and his paroxysmal taste for paradoxical exhibitionism drove him to choose nicknames such as the ‘vagrant of Desolation'.

Apparently during one of his stays in Cairo a medium ordered him to found a new order, the Astrum Argentinum , founded on the magia sexualis, which Crowley already knew well from the times when he was in India and was in contact with the followers of the Path of the Left Hand.

In 1920 Crowley examined the Yi King and he was positive that the most suitable place to realize the Great Work was Cefalú. Here the holy abbey of Thelema was erected ( ‘Hell of the Courtesan, secret place of the unstoppable fire of Luxury and of the eternal torment of Love') . The Thelemite Temple was on one floor and had only one main stair ( Sancta Sanctorum ). On the floor there was a pentagram inscribed in a circle. In the middle of the pentagram there was a hexagonal altar. On the altar was placed the Liber Legis . On the East side there was a throne destined to the Beast and a burning brazier. On the West side there was the throne of the Scarlet Woman. Inside the circumference were written Yahweh's names.

On the walls of the temple there were some portraits of Crowley together with orgiastic representations (of course we haven't seen the temple personally, but from the information reported on all the biographies abut this decorative representations, we think that they can be referred to satanic-Dionysian themes or in particular of the Path of the Left Hand, rather than related to Kundalini).

We then have a strange and enigmatic intrigue with Hitler. It has never been clear which the relationships between them were. Apparently at first the fuehrer was upset and stricken by the Great Beast. We must not forget the occult roots of Nazism (together with others that can be connected to the absolutistic degeneration of the theories of the Enlightenment): the SS were an initiatory elite body which referred to Hindu, Germanic-Nordic and Romanic (more than Hellenic) elements. It is believed that they were looking for the Thule and the invisible Superiors (Rai Tre [An Italian TV Channel, Note of the Translator] has recently dealt with the subject, but we must not forget that a very good essay has been written on the subject) (Note 10)

It is natural, then, that Hitler wanted a contact with Crowley, which the SS believed to be a super-man. From his point of view, the English sorcerer as well must have felt the influence of mysteriosophic and mystic elements of the Reich. Perhaps for a certain period of time Crowley fantasized on the possibility of having some influence over Hitler. But we know what English people are like: sorcerers or not, eventually the nationalism of Albion's children triumphs on everything else. Presumably Crowley started spying on behalf of his country; apparently even Churchill turned on him for his victory, but refused to listen to his suggestions completely.

But let's take a step backwards. In 1923 Crowley had been expelled from the Italian land by order of Mussolini, which started persecuting all the Italian secret and initiatory associations. Thelema was shut and Crowley started wandering again and surrounding himself with women. After being interned for short period of time Crowley, now addicted to heroin and mad, (perhaps as a delayed consequence of a journey he made years earlier in the Algerian desert to evoke an evil spirit; Crowley and his companion were found half dead) believes he is a vampire. Despite all this, he managed to die of natural causes at the respectable age of 73. Here ends the biography of one of the most controversial men of all times.

For Crowley as for other authors of occultism, we don't find a doctrine, a well defined corpus of teachings, but rather a mixture of heterogeneous elements, beliefs belonging to various schools and marginally comparable. We can homogenize the disciplinary kaleidoscope of the Thelemite School under the name of magia sexualis , but if we look carefully, beyond the orgiastic medium as an ecstatic instrument to realize the overcoming of the ordinary conscience, the final result doesn't make sense. Let's see why.

• Crowley synthesizes in his doctrine elements drawn from Indian disciplines (such as Tantra, and its deformation of the Path of the Left Hand), from the mysterial cults of the ancient Greece (such as Dionysian and orphic rites) and from medieval Satanism (Sabbath). As we have already said, there are very little similarities among these practices apart from orgiastic sexuality. For example in Tantra and in the Path of the Left Hand there aren't any evocation rituals, on the contrary of Satanism, where the ultimate goal is to materialize demons. In Dionysian rites another powerful ecstatic medium is whirling and frantic dance, which can't be found in the tantric asana. Furthermore in Tantra the energy of the kundalini is controlled, channeled, directed, whilst in other Dionysian and sabbatical practices there is the search for a furious ecstasy to dissolve the conscience in the sensorial flows. Dionysian rites are also different from diabolical Sabbaths. The latter are a blaspheme and Manichean parody of Christian rites, whilst in the former the issue is to state, to say yes to the vital excess , not to stage a Manichean dichotomy (Christ-Antichrist; God-Satan). Satanism needs a good and provident God to exist; it would not be possible if the latter was at the same time the principle of good and evil, happiness and suffering.

• The famous Thelemic law ‘ Do what you Want is the Law' can't be applied unilaterally to the practices of magia sexualis , because in a literal sense it must let the conscience free to follow its daimon , its particular vocation and not force the self to rituals allegedly labeled as ‘liberating'. In actual fact this voluntary subjectivism ( ‘Do what you Want' ) was not new in the West at the time of Crowley; we find traces of it in Sade, Fichte, Nietzsche. The latter, though, is less coarsely materialistic than the Beast: ‘Nothing is prohibited. Everything is allowed' . In other words, according to Nietzsche there aren't negations outside one's own will ‘ To want frees' . Whilst on the contrary the Crowleyan School takes for granted that one must coercively want the negative: the orgiastic regression to the sublimation of passion, crime and insult to ethics and order, the ecstatic dissolution to ascetism, etc.

Indeed, the rest of the Crowleyan law talks about Love, ‘ Love is the Law, love under the domain of will' . Even if we ignore the Freudian forced reduction of love to libido , we might wonder how is it possible to conciliate the first part of the statement ‘Do what you Want is the Law ' with the second ‘ love under the domain of will' . In fact, if my will becomes law, I must be free to put under the domain of the will penitence and monastic renunciation, for example, rather than orgiastic love. In actual fact Crowley takes for granted that the liberation of the libidinal drives is the true purpose of the being in the World; as I said above it falls inside an outdated cultural horizon, like Freudism (Jung will give an altogether different connotation to libido ).

Crowley is heavily affected by the syncretistic temptation characteristic of modern Occultism, more than the other followers of the philosophia occulta, such as Lévi and Papus. Indeed, his syncretism is not so much speculative or cultural, but pragmatic. He is taken by the frenzy that puts-into-practice any ritual he has available or which he hears about. Crowley is at the same time a descendent of the classical homo faber and the forerunner of the modern technocrat. In him the will-to-do overwhelms the spiritual withdrawal in contemplation. With him more than anyone else we can verify how occultism is a typical product of modernity. Indeed, the Crowleyan teaching hasn't disappeared, but it is cultivated and continued by several contemporary occultist schools (a couple of them are still operating in Italy, as far as I know).

I will now try to draw the final conclusion on the period of modern occultism that we have studied so far.

The neologism ‘occultism' appeared only in the nineteenth century; it was created by Éliphas Lévi to describe a field of studies focused on the medieval and Renaissance philosophia occulta. The distinctive feature and the novelty of occultism stand in the experimental vocation and in its practical method, opposite to the main theoretical elaborations that characterize the properly said esotericism. This practical inclination of occultism leads to recognize its relation and derivation with modernity (especially in the morbid curiosity of the time towards ‘dancing' tables, in the general amazement towards the first industrial noises and chimneys, in the boom of fantastic literature). According to some sociologists, such as Tiryakian, at the basis of the phenomenon there is the attempt to secularize the demoniac, after the modern man had already proclaimed ‘the death of God'.

Of course occultism has also points of contact with esotericism; they are in the beliefs that the Cosmos is a network of correspondences, that Nature is a living body, in the conviction of the superior and magic power of Imagination, in the tension towards the possibility of transmutation. Nevertheless we can hardly distinguish a proper corpus of doctrines related to modern occultism. Some of its first exponents, such as Éliphas Lévi and Papus, distinguish themselves for the abuse of erudition and the consequent excessive use of syncretism, which unfortunately transform their books into a Babylon of references and re-adaptations.

Others, like Saint-Yves d'Alveydre, devoted themselves to the description of hidden kingdoms in far away regions. Others like Joséphin Pédalan and Paul Sédir had a strong interest for ‘esoteric Christianity', although they were still occultists.

On the contrary, Aleister Crowley will refer to a form of Satanism characterized by oriental elements drawn from extreme Tantrism, which will originate a magia sexualis full of evoking rites.

The frantic activism of Crowley in going from a ritual to another, from a form to another, in a redundant and ravenous syncretism, marks the passage from a markedly ‘intellectual' occultism, like Lévi's and Papus', to a more ‘experimental' one. In any case, the distinctive character of occultism is its contamination with modernity.



(Note 1) Cf. The Encyclopedia of Religions, edited by Mircea Eliade, entry ‘Occultism'.

(Note 2) Cf. A. Faivre , Accèss de l'èsotérisme occidental , 2 volumes, Ed. Gallimard.

(Note 3) Cf. The Encyclopedia of Religions, edited by Mircea Eliade, entry ‘Occultism'.

(Note 4) Cf. A. Faivre , Histoire de la notion moderne de tradition dans ses rapports avec les courants èsotèriques (XV° - XX siècles) by A. Faivre, taken from ARIES La table d'emeraude 1999 ‘Symboles et Mythes dans le Mouvements initiatiques et èsotèriques (XV° - XX siècles) : Filitiations et emprunts.

(Note 5) Cf. Éliphas Lévi , Magia delle campagne e stregoneria dei pastori (The Magic of the countryside and the sorcery of shepherds, Note of the Translator)

(Note 6) Cf. Id.

(Note 7) Cf. Id.

(Note 8) Cf. Id.

(Note 9) Cf. John Symonds , Great Beast.

(Note 10) Cf. R. Alleu, Le Origini Occulte del Nazismo, (The Occult origins of Nazism, Note of the Translator).

Essential Bibliography

  • The Encyclopedia of Religions, edited by Mircea Eliade.
  • A. Faivre , Accèss de l'èsotérisme occidental , 2 volumes, Ed. Gallimard.
  • Faivre , Histoire de la notion moderne de tradition dans ses rapports avec les courants èsotèriques (XV° - XX siècles) by A. Faivre, taken from ARIES La table d'emeraude 1999 ‘Symboles et Mythes dans le Mouvements initiatiques et èsotèriques (XV° - XX siècles) : Filitiations et emprunts.
  • Éliphas Lévi , Magia delle campagne e stregoneria dei pastori (The Magic of the countryside and the sorcery of shepherds, Note of the Translator)
  • John Symonds , Great Beast.
  • R. Alleu, Le Origini Occulte del Nazismo, (The Occult origins of Nazism, Note of the Translator).

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