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Theosophical Encyclopedia

Levi Zahed, Éliphas

(1810-1875). Pseudonym of Alphonse-Louis Constant, a French mystic and writer who is frequently referred to by many theosophical writers, including Helena P. Blavatsky. He was born on February 8, 1810 in a poor family. His father was John-Joseph Constant, a shoemaker, and his mother, a devout and intelligent woman, was Jeanne-Agnès Beaucourt. In October 1825, after attending a school for boys under Abbê J.-B. Hubault Malmaison, he entered the Seminary of Saint-Nicholas du Chardonnet and there completed his classical studies and read Hebrew. In December 1835, he became an assistant deacon, received his tonsure and took strict vows which included celibacy. While teaching young girls he fell in love with one called Adèle Allenbach. As a result of this indiscretion he was never ordained and left the Seminary in June 1836. His mother, now a widow, was so devastated by her son’s behavior that she committed suicide.

His life from this time was a constant struggle between his sybaritic inclinations and his more spiritual nature. In July 1839 he joined a Benedictine monastery of Solemnes, but was disappointed with what he found there. He did, however, spend some time writing and produced his Le Rosier de Mai (The Rose Tree of May), a book of canticles and legends. He also studied some of the teachings of the early Gnostics which influenced his thinking. In 1841 his radical book La Bible de la Liberté (The Bible of Freedom) so infuriated the church authorities that he was charged with attacking public and religious morals and sentenced to eight months in prison and fined three hundred francs. While in prison he read the works of Swedenborg which had considerable influence on his thinking.

In 1846, after fathering an illegitimate son and marrying Naomi Cadiot he published La Voix de la famine (The Voice of the Famine) which was considered an incitement to class-warfare and he was sentenced to one year in prison and fined one thousand francs. Mainly due to the representations of his wife the sentence was reduced to six months. His life was one of continuous struggle against oppression and the injustice of the times.

In 1854 he went to London where he met Bulwer-Lytton and together they indulged in magical practices including an invocation of Apollonius of Tyana. It was at this time that Constant, now calling himself Éliphas Lévi, began publishing, in serial installments, his Dogme et Rituel de la haute magie (Dogma and Ritual of High Magic or Transcendental Magic), which appeared in book form in 1856. Lévi seemed unable to stay out of trouble with the establishment and the publication of one of his poems earned him yet another prison sentence, but he was pardoned by Napoleon III. In 1859 he published l’Histoire de la magic (The History of Magic) and in 1861, La Clef des grands mystères (The Key of the Great Mysteries). These works were very successful and he now entered on a period of more peaceful existence.

His wife, after some years of silence and indifference, sued him and in January 1865, a civil court annulled his marriage. Lévi was never defrocked as has been wrongly stated by a number of writers since he was never ordained.

In July 1871 he visited his friend Mary Gebhard at Elberfeld in Germany and stayed with her for two months. This was before Gebhard had met Blavatsky. He died on May 31, 1875, and the Catholic clergy circulated a story that he had recanted and received communion before his death, but this story has been refuted by his closest friends. He was buried in the cemetery at Ivry, but in 1881 was placed in a common grave the location of which is not known.

Blavatsky thought highly of Lévi although she warned against some of his teachings and did not consider him an initiate of genuine “occultism.” There is no doubt that he was by nature an idealist who constantly campaigned against the rigid and autocratic Catholic Church of the time. He was a man of great courage since he was frequently sentenced in the pursuit of his ideals. He was a master of what may be called “Esoteric Christianity.”

P.S.H.

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