On the Powers of the Sphinx, Part 1: Eliphas Lévi

On the Powers of the Sphinx
Part 1: Eliphas Lévi
By Michael Osiris Snuffin (2002)

    The Four Powers of the Sphinx–to Know, to Will, to Dare and to Keep Silent–are an important element of Thelemic symbolism and instruction. The origin of the Four Powers of the Sphinx is unclear. Practically nothing is written on the subject outside of the works of Aleister Crowley. The only other author to mention the subject with any degree of depth or seriousness is the French occultist Eliphas Lévi

    That Lévi had a profound influence on Crowley there is no doubt. Crowley translated Lévi’s The Key of the Mysteries as his own Adeptus Minor thesis, and Crowley went as far to claim in Magick in Theory and Practice that he was the reincarnation of Lévi! Therefore, it is not unreasonable to suggest that Lévi influenced Crowley in the matter of the Four Powers of the Sphinx. By surveying the work of Eliphas Lévi, so shall we come to a better understanding of the Four Powers of the Sphinx.

    Our first introduction to the Four Powers of the Sphinx comes from Lévi’s most popular work, Transcendental Magic:

“To attain the SANCTUM REGNUM, in other words, the knowledge and power of the Magi, there are four indispensable conditions–an intelligence illuminated by study, an intrepidity which nothing can check, a will which cannot be broken, and a prudence which nothing can corrupt and nothing intoxicate. TO KNOW, TO DARE, TO WILL, TO KEEP SILENCE–such are the four words of the Magus, inscribed upon the four symbolical forms of the sphinx.”

    Levi here offers the Four Powers as the words of the Magus and casually links them with the Sphinx. He goes on in the same chapter to link the Four Powers of the Sphinx with the four Elements and the four Kerubic Signs of the zodiac:

“You are called to be king of air, water, earth and fire; but to reign over these four living creatures of symbolism, it is necessary to conquer and enchain them. He who aspires to be a sage and to know the Great Enigma of Nature must be the heir and despoiler of the sphinx: his the human head, in order to possess speech; his the eagle’s wings, in order to scale the heights; his the bull’s flanks, in order to furrow the depths; his the lion’s talons, to make a way on the right and the left, before and behind.”

    The Sphinx is a composite creature, having the head of a Man, the torso and front paws of a Lion, the backside of a Bull and the wings of the Eagle. It symbolizes the synthesis and synergy of the Four Powers, represented by the “fourliving creatures of symbolism” (the Kerubs) who have been “conquered and enchained” into one figure, the Sphinx. (See Table 1 for correspondences.) The aspirant is instructed to be the “heir and despoiler of the sphinx,” to both receive and to partake of the four Elements.

    The nature of the Sphinx is further explained in The Magical Ritual of the Sanctum Regnum:

“You must thoroughly understand that elemental beings are souls of an imperfect type, not yet raised in the scale up to human existence, and that they can only manifest power when called into action by the adept as auxiliaries to his will, by means of that universal astral fluid in which they live. The kingdom of the Gnomes is assigned to the North, the Salamanders to the South, the Sylphs to the East, and the Undines to the West….

“Their symbols are those of Taurus the Bull for Gnomes; Leo the Lion for Salamanders; the Eagle for Sylphs; and the sign of Aquarius for Undines….

“The combination of these four types of face and being represents the Created Universe, a complete and eternal entity, Man in fact, the Microcosm; and this is the first formula of the mystical explanation of the enigma of the Sphynx.”

    The implication is that Man is the Sphinx, as both are composed of the four Elements. Lévi clarifies this idea later in the text:

“Do you now understand the Enigma of the Sphynx?

…Yes, you know that the Sphynx refers to Man.

But do you know that the Sphynx is one and alone, and remains unchanged, while as to man–is not each one a Sphynx of a different synthesis?”

    Man is like the Sphinx. Both are composed of the four Elements, but in Man they exists in different proportions and are unbalanced, while in the Sphinx the Elements are balanced and synergistic. The Sphinx represents the perfected Man, the Magus. The Four Powers of the Sphinx are “the four words of the Magus,” the “four indispensable conditions” which bring Man to the state of perfection and balance symbolized by the Sphinx.

    Lévi instructs us how to practically apply the Four Powers of the Sphinx in his final work, The Great Secret:

“The great secret of magic, the unique and incommunicable Arcana, has for its purpose the placing of supernatural power at the service of the human will in some way.

To attain such an achievement it is necessary to KNOW what has to be done, to WILL what is required, to DARE what must be attempted and to KEEP SILENT with discernment.

    Levi goes on to give us a mythical example:

“Homer’s Odysseus had to contend with the gods, the elements, the cyclops, the sirens, Circe, etc. … that is to say with all the difficulties and dangers of life.

His palace is invaded, his wife is pestered, his goods are plundered, his death is resolved on, he loses his comrades, his ships are sunk; at last, he alone is left to fight it out against the night and the sea. And single-handed he sways the gods, he escapes from the sea, he blinds the cyclops, he cheats the sirens, he masters Circe, he re-takes his palace, he rescues his wife, he slays those plotting his death; because he willed to see Ithaca and Penelope again, because he always knew how to extricate himself from danger, because he dared what had to be done and because he always kept silent when it was not expedient to speak.”

    Finally, Levi indicates where to start in our endeavor to become the Sphinx:

“When one does not know, one should will to learn. To the extent that one does not know it is foolhardy to dare, but it is always well to keep silent.”

    Thus the Four Powers are employed much like steps in a process; we must know before we can will, and so on. This idea is reinforced in Transcendental Magick:

“To learn how to will is to learn how to exercise dominion. But to be able to exert will power you must first know; for will power applied to folly is madness, death, and hell.”


“In order to DARE we must KNOW; in order to WILL, we must DARE; we must WILL to possess empire and to reign we must BE SILENT.”

    So ends our survey of the Four Powers of the Sphinx as defined and developed by Eliphas Levi. In our next essay, we will examine Crowley’s writings on the Powers of the Sphinx, including the addition of a Fifth Power–to Go.


Table 1.

Power KerubSign Element
Know Man AquariusAir
Will Bull Taurus Earth
Dare Lion Leo Fire
Keep SilentEagleScorpio Water


Copyright © 2010 Michael Osiris Snuffin

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