For many in the Anglophone world, the history of modern European occultism begins with the Theosophical Society, finds its speed with The Golden Dawn, and eventually climaxes in Crowley‘s fiery revolution of Thelema. Throughout this historical narrative, there is always the suggestion of a flourishing occult revival occurring in France, but often little by way of details. The book Eliphas Lévi and the French Occult Revival by Christopher McIntosh is one of the best English sources of information on this fascinating milieu.
Eliphas Lévi (born Alphonse Louis Constant) is considered by many to be the bedrock on which much of the magical revival is built. The founders of the great occult orders have all acknowledged a debt to the French draughtsman, former cleric, philosopher, and occult scholar. Lévi was a tireless researcher and author who penned many of the seminal studies on Occultism, Kabbalah, and the history of Magic. Such was his influence that Aleister Crowley claimed to be the reincarnation of Lévi.
In English language surveys of the occult revival, there is a decided focus on the Victorian manifestations of Rosicrucianism. With notable exceptions like Colin Wilson’s The Occult and more recent academic texts, the history of the French occult revival is often sketched in only the most general terms. We have caught glimmers of a decadent and intricate ceremonial magical tradition, but often only in the context of Fin de Siècle Parisian Satanism, as in H. T. F. Rhodes‘ excellent survey, The Satanic Mass. Christopher McIntosh’s Eliphas Lévi and the French Occult Revival seeks to remedy this blind spot in the narrative of occult history in Europe.
In McIntosh’s book, the occult revival is shown to be far more complex than a mere flourishing of alternative spirituality; it was the result of many complex intersections between social struggle, class, revolutionary politics, and a thirst for mystery in an increasingly rational world. France was the perfect ecosystem for such a range of mystical and political entities to come to life during the tumultuous hundred years between the revolution and the late nineteenth century. As the Martinists themselves noted in their journal, L’Initiation, in July 1910, regarding the spread of Martinism to Russia:
“In the growth of occult movements in Russia on the eve of the revolution of 1917 we see an exact parallel to the flourishing of such movements before the French Revolution and again in the periods leading up to the various crises of the Nineteenth Century.”
Throughout the book, the notion that the occult and revolution are inexorably linked becomes clear. Esoteric orders flourish when the old orders are shown to be crumbling, when established power shows its weakness, and the people glimpse something more between the cracks in the walls. It is often borne from equal measures of hope, desperation, disgust, and ennui.
Divided into three sections, the book begins by laying the foundations of its narrative in the pre-revolutionary cults of ceremonial magicians and the 18th century rise of Freemasonry. Following the French Revolution and rise of the Enlightenment, McIntosh examines how the cultural consciousness of France was torn between mystery and mimesis. In such an environment, entities such as the revolutionary “Cult of Reason” spring forth to contain the public need for religious spectacle, as well as channel it into a conduit acceptable to the new constitutional order. Even in the throes of an anti-monarchist and anti-clerical revolt, the people seemed to long for and deeply need both mystery and ceremony.
With the execution of King Louis XVII , the foundations were laid for later amalgamates of mystical and political groups to spring up in support of a return to the monarchy. Central to these groups was the claim of Karl Wilhelm Naundorff to be the Dauphin and therefore rightful King Louis XVII. This intersectionality between class, politics, and the occult seems particular to the French revival compared to its, comparatively, less political Victorian English counterpart. Many of the French orders espoused an ideology of divine kingship and spiritual theocracy. The cross pollination of these anti-egalitarian ideals, the esoteric, and philosophies such as Synarchy influenced other groups in Europe including Germanic orders who combined völkisch movements with themes of divine aristocracy and Grail mythology.
Against this historical backdrop, we meet a diverse cast of vibrant characters like Martinez de Pasqually, Etteilla, Cagliostro, and Comte de St. Germain. Particularly interesting is Anton Mesmer, the founder of Mesmerism whose theories of fluids and their influence found many adherents among the esotericists of France and abroad. Mesmer’s notion of “Animal Magnetism” is central to the interpretation of Lévi’s famed figure of the Baphomet and the manipulation of “Astral Light.”
By far, one of the most important and interesting histories is that of Martinez de Pasqually’s Order of Eulis Cohens; an early order of theurgists. Pasqually created what might be considered the first modern ceremonial magical order as well as being the father of the esoteric strain of Freemasonry known as Martinism. He died in the Caribbean on the island of Saint-Domingue (now known as Haiti). During his time there, he seems to have influenced occult orders in the region. It is by this connection Pasqually forges a link between the continental occult tradition and the “New World.” These seeds were planted in what proved to be a fertile bed for the development of powerful syncretic unions between various ancient traditions. This connection to Martinez de Pasqually and the Martinists can be felt across the diasporic practices of the Caribbean and South America, from Voudu to Umbanda. Pasqually is even cited as part of the spiritual lineage of Michael Bertiaux and the Monastery of 7 Rays.
Concurrent to the development of the various occult orders, McIntosh spends a great deal of time tracing the history and development of the tarot as we know it today. He begins with Antoine Court de Gebelin, who first drew an esoteric connection between the mysterious Italian game of cards and the ancient Book of Thoth. It was an essay in Gebelin’s book Le Monde primitif, analysé et comparé avec le monde moderne in which the Hebrew alphabet was first applied to the 22 trumps. We also meet his successor Etteilla, who published his own methods of divination called cartonomancy (not to be confused with cartomancy). Etteilla built an elaborate esoteric system around the deck incorporating the four elements and astrology.
In section two, McIntosh focuses on the life of Eliphas Lévi himself. By tracing his youth as a pious religious student, the call to the priesthood he eventually abandoned, and his devotion to his friends, we get a very clear picture of Lévi as a gentle, loving man and dedicated scholar. We meet many of his confidants, friends, and even enemies in the guise of renegade Satanists and the occasional charlatan. Later, when Lévi had established himself as a respected author on the esoteric, he was invited to visit England by two luminaries of the English occult subculture, Bulwer-Lytton and Kenneth Mackenzie. These men were members of the Societas Rosicruciana in Anglia, the precursor group to the more widely known Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. In addition to these formative contacts, we get to learn of Lévi’s interactions with Eugene Vintras, the infamous anti-pope and supporter of the Naundorff claim, whose disciples would figure later into the infamous nineteenth-century war of the Rosicrucians which would pit Joséphin Péladan, Stanislas de Guaita, and Abbé Boullan in a magical war. Even the novelist Joris Karl Huysmans would find himself enmeshed in the drama.
Lévi was both a tireless researcher and an innovator. He was first to focus on the Sephiroth “Daath” in the Kabbalistic Tree of Life. Lévi may have been the first occultist to break from cabalistic tradition and place such importance on the “false” sephiroth which had previously been largely disregarded. This focus would be further developed by subsequent occultists such as Kenneth Grant, whose groundbreaking work on Crowley’s magical system Thelema would push into bold new territories during the later half of the twentieth century.
Part three deals with the occult circles of France in the years following the death of Lévi at the turn of the century. It’s a wild and vibrant chapter full of decadents, symbolists, and Rosicrucians. One truly gets a sense of this wild time in La Ville-Lumière. These closing chapters dive into the most noted of Parisian occultists at the fin de siecle; Joséphin Péladan, Stanislas de Guaita, and the Abbé Boullan.
Guaita and Péladan were self-styled Rosicrucians who formed the Cabalistic Order of the Rose Cross. Péladan eventually broke from the group and founded the Salon Rose+Cross which brought together artists, musicians, and occultists in a mixed media event which helped to champion the burgeoning Symbolist movement in the arts. Stanislas de Guaita was a French poet based in Paris, an expert on esotericism and European mysticism, and an active member of the Rosicrucian Order. He designed the original goat pentagram, which first appeared in the book La Clef de la Magie Noire, in 1897. This symbol would later become synonymous with Baphomet, and is commonly referred to as the Sabbatic Goat.
The Abbé Boullan’s notoriety comes from his reputation as a Satanist and blasphemer. In reality, his work is far more nuanced than mere satanic posturing. Boullan forged a friendship with novelist J.K. Huysmans while the latter was writing his classic roman à clef of decadent Satanism, La Bas. Boullan provided Huysmans with many resources for his book and even came to be a spiritual and magical protector for the author when Huysmans came to fear he might be under spiritual attack. The two remained friends until the end of Boullan’s life.
Huysmans’s attitude toward Boullan stands in stark contrast to the dim view he took of the popular Parisian occultists of the day. Many tried to warn him against associating with the “evil Abbé.” Huysmans was unimpressed, and in a letter of introduction to Boullan, Huysmans wrote, “several times I have heard your name pronounced in tones of horror—and that in itself has predisposed me in your favour.” A clearer picture of the high regard the sardonic civil servant held for this unconventional man of god could not be made.
Overall, the book is less an in-depth biography and more of a general overview of Parisian occultism from the late eighteenth to late nineteenth centuries with Lévi serving as the connective tissue to the narrative. Despite the concentration of fascinating information in the book, McIntosh’s writing can, at times, be frustrating. He tends to reference people by name several times before introducing them in the text, and some narrative strains are simply dropped. For example, Lévi’s meeting with Vintras’ advocate Charvoz is presented with no context, and no clarification is offered for the negative impressions of the man that Lévi expressed in his book, Clef des grande mysteres.
The book also suffers from various typographical errors. Perhaps the most striking is on page 127 where the famous eighteenth-century French conjurer Robert Houdin is misnamed Robert Houdini! The mistake is all the more bothersome in that the American magician Houdini not only took his name as a tribute to Robert Houdin, he was Houdin’s biographer, and was not even born until well after the man’s death. These errors seem to be carried over from the previous Rider edition of the book.
In addition to the intricate and deeply informative network of facts and connections within the text, we also find a few interesting synchronicities. For example, we learn that Flora Tristan, a woman who was a great influence over Lévi, was the grandmother of future Thelemic Gnostic Saint Paul Gauguin. The book also makes reference to many illustrations and painting commissions taken on by Lévi which are presumably still in existence. It would be an interesting project to assemble a collection of the art of Eliphas Lévi as he was, indeed, a gifted illustrator.
In the years since its publication, there have been other authors to examine the Francophone occult and Rosicrucian movements. One notable entry from the academic press is Beyond Enlightenment by David Allen Harvey. There has also been another biography of Eliphas Lévi from Robert Uzzell. McIntosh’s book remains a classic and central text on the subject of both Eliphas Lévi and the evolution of the French occult revival. It is invaluable to have it back in circulation and easily available in print and e-reader formats from the SUNY Press. To anyone who is seeking a highly readable survey of this formative era in occultism can do no better than to look here.
Written by: Madeleine Ledespencer
Author: Christopher McIntosh
Publisher: State University of New York (SUNY) Press
Publication Date: 2011
ISBN: 1438435568 / 978-1438435565
File Under: Metaphysics / Occult
Format: Hardcover, Paperback