The French occultist known as "Eliphas Levi" was one of the most significant figures in the modern occult revival, in terms of his influence on later generations of occultists. Levi's writing had a major impact on both Theosophy's Madame Helena Blavatsky and the Order of the Golden Dawn. He also appeared to be particularly influential on Aleister Crowley, who imagined himself to be Levi's direct reincarnation and attempted to copy his writing style in his own writings.
Levi was actually a Gentile French European whose real name was Alphonse Louis Constant. He had formerly been enrolled to enter the Catholic priesthood, but he left after falling in love with a girl and deciding not to take vows of celibacy, although he remained a Christian throughout his life and was extremely devout by the time of his death. After abandoning his plans to become a priest, he changed his name to Eliphas Levi, an approximation of Alphonse Louis translated to Hebrew (which he had learned while enrolled in the Catholic academy).
Levi began writing successful popular works on magick, in which he synthesized a huge amount of occult material from different traditions from all over the world into an elaborate Romantic eclecticism, often with very little historical accuracy. The lack of historical and factual accuracy made little difference in the effectiveness of Levi's systems, however, since he understood two of the key fundamental principles that enable magick to work: self-hypnosis and the basic nature of the astral dimensions, which Levi referred to as "the astral light."
The Astral Light
Levi, like Paracelsus and their ancient pagan and Hermetic predecessors, taught that the material universe visible to the ordinary sensory faculties is only a small part of reality, which coexists with and is influenced by other dimensions. This was particularly so with that which Levi termed "the astral light" which he conceptualized as a cosmic medium which could be moulded into forms by the power of the magician's will.
Levi said that the astral light was "...an agent which is natural and divine, material and spiritual, a universal plastic mediator, a common receptacle of the vibrations of motion and the images of form, a fluid and a force, which may be called in some way the Imagination of Nature. . . . The existence of this force is the great Arcanum of practical Magic."
As with Paracelsus and his Hermetic predecessors, Levi taught that the human being is a microcosm of the universe, and that within this context human willpower is a potent force capable of achieving miracles, as "the will of a just man is the Will of God Himself and the Law of Nature."
Self-Hypnosis as the Operative Technique in Magick
Many other occultists had read and taken an interest in the theories of the astral dimensions, but Levi was one of the first to overtly identify autohypnosis as the operative technique by which a magician imprints his will on the astral light. In Levi's time, hypnosis was most commonly known as "magnetism" due to being closely associated with Mesmerism and the lifeforce energies (Odic force) that Franz Anton Mesmer called "animal magnetism." Referring to hypnosis, Levi wrote that: "Magnetism between two persons is certainly a wonderful discovery, but the magnetizing of a person by himself, awakening his own lucidity and directing it himself at will, is the perfection of magical art." Since Levi understood that autohypnosis was the operative technique behind magick, he was able to combine this with his insight into the nature of the astral light to successfully use his own Romanticized systems of magick.
Conjuration of a Spirit to Visible Appearance Through Autohypnosis
Because of his understanding of self-hypnosis, Levi successfully conjured a spirit to visible appearance in a dark mirror flanked by candles. This feat has eluded countless magicians, who have often been misled by Grimoires recommending incense smoke or other unsuitable conjuration devices that do not facilitate the intense one-pointed state of concentration needed to maintain the autohypnotic state. Describing the necessity of the lucid-dreamlike self-hypnotic state necessary to summon the spirits, Levi wrote: "...to see these strange forms one must put himself in an exceptional condition, partaking at once of sleep and death; that is to say, one must magnetize himself and reach a kind of lucid and wakeful somnambulism."
The spirit that Levi intended to conjure to visible appearance was the shade of Apollonius of Tyana, who Levi credited with having perfected autohypnosis ("magnetism") for the use of magick. Unlike most spiritualists, Levi did not believe that the actual distinct soul of the person being conjured got pulled out of the netherworlds to converse with the magus in response to his summons. Instead, the magician's mind was capable of entering a hypnotic trance in which all the impressions that Appollonius had left on the astral light manifest in the form of an animate spirit which is the "shadow" of the departed soul.
Such a shade may exist independently as a distinct and self-aware spirit, or it may be more in the nature of a non-conscious but animated "moving picture" which can transmit information from the astral light. Also, spirits often take on whatever forms they can use due to a desire to interact with humans, and a spirit may temporarily take on the form of who or whatever a magician is attempting to summon. In some cases a spirit may even come to believe itself to be the historic person whose form it assumes.
Whether or not the spirit that appeared to Levi was related in any way to Apollonius is far from clear. Levi described the appearance of the conjured shade as follows: "...behind the altar became illuminated by degrees, and a whitish form there developed itself, enlarging and seeming to approach little by little. I called three times upon Apollonius, at the same time closing my eyes; and, when I re-opened them, a man was before me, completely enveloped in a shroud, which seemed to me rather gray than white; his face was thin, sad and beardless, which did not seem to convey to me the idea, which I had previously formed of Apollonius." Despite his difficulty in maintaining contact with the apparition, Levi was evidently satisfied with the nature of the answers he received, commenting that: "The apparition had not spoken to me, but it seemed that the questions which I wished to ask it answered themselves in my mind."
A short time later the explosion of spiritualism and seances conducted by "trance mediums" would demonstrate how easy it actually was to establish contact with spirits once one was capable of inducing and maintaining a strong state of hypnotic trance. Summoning spirits using self-hypnosis and a dark mirror as an evocation device was developed and popularized in more recent times by Caroll "Poke" Runyon, who figured out how to evoke Goetic spirits to visible appearance and actively converse with them.
Levi, The Tarot and the Hebrew Alphabet
One of Levi's most influential cultural contributions to Western occultism was the linking of the Tarot trumps with letters of the Hebrew alphabet, resulting in their eventual assignment to the spheres and pathways of the Kabbalistic Tree of Life. Lévi famously wrote that "the extant Tarot is certainly that of the gypsies and has come to us by way of Judea. As a fact, its keys are in correspondence with the letters of the Hebrew alphabet, and some of its figures reproduce even their forms."
Historically and factually speaking, every one of these points is incorrect: The Tarot has absolutely nothing to do with Gypsies, Jews, or the alleged "Holy Lands." The Tarot originated in Europe and developed largely in response to themes featured in medieval morality plays sponsored by the Catholic Church. The particular version of the Tarot in use in France in Levi's time did have the same number of letters as the Hebrew alphabet, however its keys have no correpondence with the Hebrew alphabet. Also influentially, Levi declared that the pentagram or pentacle with its points inverted represented evil, which was not the case— until Levi made it up and the association became widespread in modern times.
Fortunately for Levi, successful and effective magick depends primarily on self-hypnotic processes that access the astral dimensions, and it rarely makes a substantial difference whether a ceremonial or symbolic system has any objective historical validity. Levi's legacy highlights the fact that an occultist can literally make up any system they want and it will still work— provided they condition their minds to enter and maintain a sound state of hypnotic trance, so that the intention and substance of the rite accesses and imprints itself on the ocean of quantum energies known as the "astral light."