Eliphas Levi (Alphonse Louis Constant) was born in France about 1810, the son of a shoemaker. His parents soon decided that he should be educated for the life of a parish priest. Constant became a deacon, took a vow of celibacy, and seemed destined for a quiet life in the clergy. But then his life suddenly assumed a different course when he upset members of the church hierarchy for espousing doctrines quite contrary to those endorsed by the papacy. For one thing, Father Constant felt that somewhere along the ages the theologians of the church had confused Lucifer, the bearer of light, with Satan, the Prince of Darkness, and had judged him unfairly. Such a liberal attitude to the angel who led the revolt in heaven did not sit at all well with his superiors, and Father Constant was expelled from the church.
For many years after his expulsion from the Roman Catholic Church, Father Constant appears to have traveled throughout France and other European nations rather anonymously, and little is known of those years in which he lived in obscurity, collecting his thoughts, forming his political and spiritual philosophies. In 1839, he published a pamphlet entitled The Gospel of Liberty, which, because of its socialistic leanings, earned him six months in prison in Paris.
Once he served his term in prison, he put aside his vow of celibacy and married a 16-year-old girl, whose parents soon had the union annulled. It was after his painful separation from his wife that Alphonse Louis Constant assumed the identity of Eliphas Levi and began to devote his time to an intensive study of alchemy and the occult. Often his focus was on the Kabbalah and the tarot, believing firmly that the ancient cards depicted a concise summary of all the revelations that had come down to humankind through the ages.
Levi saw in the symbolism of the tarot cards the key to the Egyptian hieroglyphs, the mysteries of Solomon, and the truths hidden in the apocryphal text of the Book of Enoch and the scrolls of Hermes Trismesgistus. To do a spread of the tarot cards, in Levi's opinion, was to establish communication with the spirit world. To seek within the tarot might bring the serious magician a clue to the manipulation of the natural and divine energy that permeated all of nature. The existence of such a force, Eliphas Levi believed, was to discover the Great Arcanum of Practical Magick.
His Doctrine of Transcendental Magic was published in 1855, followed by Rituals of Transcendental Magic in 1856. Other works of Eliphas Levi include The Key of the Grand Mysteries (1861) and The Science of the Spirits (1865). Eliphas Levi died in 1875, esteemed by many and hailed as the last of the alchemists. Others have criticized certain of his writings by suggesting that his imagination may have in some instances surpassed his actual knowledge of the arcane.