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GURDJIEFF AS BLACK & WHITE MAGICIAN: How Gurdjieff’s Four Books relate to each other & his Law of Three

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Above are some of the many images of Gurdjieff. It is interesting to see how one of these is often chosen, for blogs or publications about him, so as to express an opinion or judgement of him, to define him according to the writer’s own views.


How Gurdjieff’s Four Books relate to each other

& to his Law of Three

A while ago I wrote a review of Herald of Coming Good which I have extended here. My initial impulse to write the review came after going to a conference in which someone told me they hadn’t read Herald, ‘because our teacher told us not to.’

This advice was probably in response and obedience to Gurdjieff’s own withdrawing of his text. However, I will show below that it is important to read Herald, as it is an essential text, it completes Gurdjieff’s teaching and in doing so the text itself draws attention to what the pupil should reject.

It also, according to James Webb, revealed three of Gurdjieff’s techniques of manipulation that he

‘consistently employed: for one man the carrot, for another the stick, for the third hidden persuasion.’

Webb goes on to suggest that Gurdjieff’s pupils:

‘might have found the keys to a dozen puzzling experiences. If they had chosen to look’, but most of them did not. (Webb, James, The Harmonious Circle, London: Thames & Hudson, 1980 p. 428).

In Herald of Coming GoodGurdjieff portrays himself as a black magician in contrast to his role a white magician in Life is real only then, when “I am”’.


Gurdjieff’s Law of Three

In terms of Gurdjieff’s Law of Three:


1. Beelzebub’s Tales To His Grandson represents a negative or destructive 2nd force

2. Meetings With Remarkable Menrepresents a positive or creative force 1st force

3. Herald of Coming Good represents a negative reconciling 3rd force

4. Life is real only then, when “I am” represents a positive reconciling 3rd force


So, seen in this context, although he ‘exiled’ Herald, echoing Beelzebub’s exile from the Sun Absolute, readers may ignore Gurdjieff’s instructions not to read it and like the committee who restored Beelzebub’s horns, may pardon the ill results of his teaching that Gurdjieff claims for himself in Herald. The text can now be re-embraced back into the sequence of Gurdjieff’s writings where it belongs, just as Beelzebub was himself pardoned and allowed to return to the Sun Absolute



All four of Gurdjieff’s books have themes related to time. The Tales shows a continuing devolution from past to present, while Meetings shows Gurdjieff and the Seekers ‘reversing time’ by returning to the past sources of ancient wisdom via teachings in texts and monasteries. The title of Life is Real Only Then When ‘I am‘, emphasises the eternal present while the Herald Of Coming Good suggests the unreality of the future.

If we look at Gurdjieff’s books in this way it makes sense to follow his instructions to read three of them in the order he prescribes, and also to disobey his instruction not to read Herald.





The College of Charleston

This paper given by Sophia Wellbeloved at the Association for the Study of Esotericism’s
Third International Conference
at the College of Charleston, South Carolina in June 2008, is one of five papers given relating to Gurdjieff. The others were given by Michael Pittman, Joseph Azize, Richard Smoley and Jon Woodson, to see the full program copy and paste this link: to see the full programme.

‘Gurdjieff as Magus’ looks at G. I. Gurdjieff (1866?-1949) in his role as a magus. He taught pupils the acquisition of will, use of symbolism, inter-relationship of macrocosmos to microcosmos and a manipulation of cosmic laws so as to form a set of new bodies of ever finer materiality and longevity. It shows the centrality of hypnotism to his teaching about consciousness and how hypnotic techniques function in his texts and oral teachings. Gurdjieff used the imagery of black and white magic and reflects the roles of both black and white magician, using alcohol, drugs and intense pressures to entangle pupils usually for short periods of time. Lastly we will look at how the teaching has become institutionalised, necessitating omissions and redefinitions of both Gurdjieff and the Work.

Gurdjieff as Magus: Omissions and Redefinitions of the Work

Gurdjieff is not an easy man to define, and we are not going to attempt to impose a fixed definition of him here. What we are going to look at is:

How he presented himself in his writings

How he presented himself to his pupils in his oral teachings

Present day omissions and redefinitions of the Work


Gurdjieff as Hypnotist

Gurdjieff was known as a hypnotist who cared for and cured drink and drug dependency and other conditions, a role which he regarded as separate from his role as a teacher and which he continued throughout his life, (Peters 1977: 214, 220-223. Webb: 1980, 473).

Now we will look at how Gurdjieff presented himself in his texts in relation to hypnotism. You can see below the full titles and the abbreviations I am going to use when I refer to the texts


The Herald of Coming Good, privately published Paris, 1933

First series: An Objectively Impartial Criticism of the Life of Man or Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson, London: Routledge & Keegan Paul, 1950

Second series: Meetings With Remarkable Men, trans. A. R. Orage, Londond: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1963

Third series: Life is real only then, when “I am”, New York: Duton for Triangle Editions, 1975


In all these writings Gurdjieff refers to hypnotism; in the Tales, the two central chapters are devoted to the practice of hypnotism, in these Gurdjieff’s life story merges with that of his hero Beelzebub. Mesmer is perhaps the only historical person mentioned in the Tales who is not vilified by Beelzebub (Tales: 561-2). In the other three ‘autobiographical’ works he gives examples of practicing hypnotism himself (Meetings: 197-98, Life: 25, Herald: 11-13, see also Wellbeloved 2003:100-02). Herald focuses almost exclusively on his study of hypnotism and other occult practises.

Gurdjieff’s represents hypnotism in both passive and active functions


WAKING (hypnotic) SLEEP
(our usual waking state)

HYPNOTISM(can function passively or actively)

(usually inaccessible to us but made accessible by hypnosis )


We can relate hypnotism to the central tenet of Gurdjieff’s teaching. He taught that what we usually regard as being our daily waking state is in fact a state of sleep. Not ordinary sleep but hypnotic sleep.

In brief summary: our ‘true’ consciousness resides in what he terms the ‘subconscious’ which we are usually unable to contact. As a result of this division in our consciousness, he says that, as we are, we cannot ‘do’, our actions are merely mechanical reactions.

In Chapter XXXII of the Tales Beelzebub explains that hypnotism is the means of linking these two states of being. It can be used to act on these separated consciousnesses in different ways, for example, it can put the usual waking state, where the personality functions to sleep so that the subconscious which contains the essence can function. The advantage of doing that is that according to the teaching essence can grow and develop while the personality is a prison in which we respond mechanically to what ever happens.

So we can see that a passive experience of hypnotism, being hypnotised by events or surroundings, may function to trap us in ‘waking sleep’, while an active hypnotism, may liberate us from waking sleep and give us access to our subconscious.

Hypnotism in Gurdjieff’s terminology is thus ‘a stick with two ends.’


Here I want to look at Gurdjieff’s four texts in relation to his law of three which expresses two possible outcomes for the interaction of negative and positive forces. Hypnotism is the third force that can reconcile these forces in an evolutionary/positive way, or in a devolutionary/negative way.

The diagram below show how Gurdjieff’s texts embody his law of three.


Results from reconciliation in an evolutionary/upwards direction

– TALES Hypnotism is the third force capable of reconciling positive and negative forces + MEETINGS

Results from reconciliation in devolutionary/downwards direction


We can regard each text as representing a positive or negative force according to Gurdjieff’s own intention for the books stated in the following way:

The Tales – functions as a negative force intended to destroy the reader’s beliefs and views
Meetings – functions as a positive force – because it is to provide the reader with good material for a new creation.

Life – functions as a result of an evolutionary reconciling force – because it is to help the reader realise the world existing in reality rather than in his fantasy.

Herald – functions as the result of a devolutionary reconciling force, this is the book that Gurdjieff withdrew or ‘exiled’.

In the two books which show how the positive and negative are resolved Gurdjieff presents himself as a predominantly wise white magician in Life, and the personification of a psychotic, black magician in Herald.

Gurdjieff instructed his pupils not to read Herald, but writes in Life, that we ought not to read it. This is not a convincing strategy for someone who wants his book to be ignored. Herald shows the chaotic state of a devolutionary descent in to madness, and it is necessary to include it in order to show the full expression of his law of three.

Gurdjieff employed hypnotic techniques in all these texts. Some of these are defined by Dr Joseph A. Sandford a psychologist and clinical hypnotheapist with Gurdjieffian interests and professionally trained in the hypnosis methodology of Milton H. Erickson. Sandford gives some examples of the hypnotic techniques that are used by both men: ‘story telling, metaphor, indirect suggestion, confusion techniques and implied directives, and shocks (Gnosis through Hypnosis: the Role of Trance in Personal Transformation, Proceedings of the All & Everything Humantities Conference,2005, privately published. See also (Runyon, Carroll, Magick and Hypnosis). ‘<em>Ceremonial magic is ritual hypnosis’).

Gurdjieff himself said that breaking the connection between the emotional and mental centres will cause a person to become hallucinated (Gurdjieff, 1976: 263, 192), ‘Centres are without critical faculty … when a person looks with one centre only, he is under hallucination’). All his texts are intentionally confusing: misleading, contradictory, and paradoxical, he defined himself as:

‘unique in respect of the so to say “muddling and befuddling” of all the notions and convictions supposedly firmly fixed in the entirety of people with whom I come into contact.” (Tales, 26).

Now we will look at how Gurdjieff presented himself to his pupils.
Gurdjieff’s teaching emphasised specific methodologies according to where he was and what was happening, but the content of the teaching remained the same in all periods. Here, because of time constraints, we will look at two periods indicated in the chronology below.


G. I. GURDJIEFF 1866? – 1949

1866? Born Alexandropol, Armenia, (now Gyumri)

1885?- 1910? Undocumented travels to Middle and Far East

1910? – 1917 In Russia teaching: P. D. Ouspensky meets Gurdjieff
records teaching from 1915 – 1922
In Search of the Miraculous (Search) Ouspensky 1949

1917 – 1922 From Russia to Europe with pupils

1922 France: Gurdjieff founds The Institute for the Harmonious
Development of Man outside Paris,
fully functional until 1924

1924 -1930 Visits USA begins writing. Closes the Institute but
continues to live there. Will visit the USA a further
nine or ten times.

1932 lives in Paris

1935 – 1940 Paris teaching the Rope group [and others].

1940-1945 Teaching groups in his flat in Paris

1945 Gurdjieff continued teaching pupils until his death in


P. D. Ouspensky

During this time Ouspensky records Gurdjieff’s teaching pupils: the acquisition of will, the use of symbolism, the inter-relationship of macrocosmos to microcosmos and a manipulation of cosmic laws so as to form a set of new bodies of ever finer materiality and longevity. Gurdjieff expressed his teachings with reference to alchemical processes, (Search,176, 180), transmutation and transformation (Search,193), and in relation to the symbologies of astrology, magic and tarot, among others (Search, 278-295) and Webb, (The Harmonious Circle 1980, 499-525) gives a good account of some of the likely western esoteric origins of Gurdjieff’s teaching (Webb, 1980, 499-525).

Many if not most of Gurdjieff’s pupils had some knowledge of Theosophical ideas, so his cosmology, ideas about the formation of different bodies would have been familiar to them. What Gurdjieff offered pupils that differed from Blavatksy’s Theosophical teaching was an occult practice that would enable them to transform themselves, not just a theory about different bodies but methods for creating them. This brings Gurdjieff’s teaching into the realm of magic (Versluis, Arthur, 2007: 1. ‘Magicians seek direct spiritual insight and use it to affect the course of events’, and 4. ‘the Magus seeks to have effects in the world’.)

Gurdjieff defines magicians as men who understand the laws of nature and know how to use them to transform substances and also to oppose mechanical influences, and this is not a bad summary of what Gurdjieff himself taught. He gives Christ as an example of a magician who had this knowledge (Search: 226-7, see also (Views 1976/ 1st pub 1973 in a talk in Essentuki in 1918). Gurdjieff’s definitions of both black and white magicians are inconsistent and confusing (Search: 227). He does say that ‘Black magic does not in any way mean magic of evil’ and this is representative of a theme he returns to throughout his teaching. The pupils who took part in his revue ‘Struggle of the Magicians’, had to dance the roles of both black and white magicians.
Gurdjieff agrees with Ouspensky that narcotics are used for the creation of states that make magic possible, but says that they are not merely narcotics although substances used may be prepared form opium or hashish (Search: 8-9 see also 162, 195).

There is a short paper on Narcotics and Hormones by G. I. Gurdjieff, ‘evidently taken down by Ouspensky’. Here Gurdjieff relates some of the uses of narcotics including as a help in ‘the work of Self-Observation and self study,’ he stresses that the use of narcotics is dangerous and needs to be carried out by an expert.

In 1959 the Stourton Press in Cape Town published a short paper Narcotics and Hormones by G. I. Gurdjieff, ‘evidently taken down by Ouspensky’, some of the material is in his In Search of the Miraculous. Republished in Unforgotten Fragments, Pogson, Beryl Chassereau, and Lewis Creed, 1994. Gurdjieff states that narcotics can be used to change the state of consciousness. He refers to medieval literature as a rich source on the subject. He defines hormones as ‘clouds of fine matter, finer than the gaseous matter known to us which is given off by various organs of our body. The 1920s and 1930s were a time of great interest and medical research into hormones. In 1922 insulin was first used to treat diabetes, (see also There are references to opium in the Tales including an complex passage pages 826-40 detailing research into the properties of opium).


Solita Solano

1935 -1939/40
Gurdjieff was teaching’ the Rope’ a group of women pupils in Paris, seeing them once or twice every day. According to Gurdjieff’s pupil J. G Bennett this group progressed at a much faster rate than earlier pupils, Bennett attributed this to the use of drugs (Bennett 1976: 232), Bennett writes that Gurdjieff carried out ‘a very extraordinary experiment, making use of methods that brought them into remarkable psychic states, and developed their powers far more rapidly’ than those of earlier pupils. He saw memoirs but is not allowed to quote from them, he hopes they will be published as they throw light on Gurdjieff’s methods as a teacher and upon ‘his use of drugs as a method of developing not only psychic experiences, but also opening hidden channels of the human psyche’. Although he was castigated for making this suggestion, there are diary entries concerning courses of injections, which Gurdjieff himself gave to the pupils, recorded in:

Notes taken by Solita Solano from October 1935 – April 1939 in Paris, with additional notes about Gurdjieff’s visit to New York in 1948
(Janet Flanner and Solita Solano Papers, Library of Congress, folder 6 box 6).

There are twenty-three direct references to piqures (injections) and courses of injections that Gurdjieff gave Solano and other members of the Rope group. He gave inner exercises for them to do related to the injections.

Solano quotes Gurdjieff saying:

‘After a certain age this effort [his teaching] is very difficult and often impossible. There is an artificial aid by means of physico-chemical substance… for example a substance can be injected which will furnish artificial help for prayer … If the effort and the amount of the chemical are not balanced, it becomes a dangerous poison for the organism.’ (In January, 1936, p. 18).

He had already given her ‘My first piqure and my first exercise’ (16th November 1935).

These notes are greatly abridged and there is no mention of the actual substances he was injecting, but he did take blood and urine samples from the group to check what adjustments to make to their medications. The exercises are not give in the Notes, and the results of the injections are not referred to in detail, Solano reports feeling better after the first course. Later the group are strongly affected by the injections, two of them cry and feel suicidal, Solano fears loosing her memory. Another time she asks about an increase in menstruation which Gurdjieff attributes to the injections this last suggests injections of hormones (Notes 39-40).

The group also take other medicines given them by Gurdjieff (Notes July 18, 1936, 42-43).

There are references to magic, in the first (June 18th 1936) Gurdjieff refers to ‘the mag’, Solano writes in brackets after mag ( magus, adept, master) and says that

The mag (magus, adept, master) is cunning.

… The mag is the highest that man can approach to God because only he can be impartial and fulfil obligation to God. In old times the mag was always made the chief because he had cunning. Other mags could do either white or black magic but the mag who had cunning and canning could do both white and black and was the chief of the Initiates. Man with real cunning is man without quotation marks. Angel can do only one thing. Devil can do all.’ (July 18th 1936, Notes, 42-43).

A month later he says: “Both cunning and canning are necessary to all things. This is why there are two magics. Black magic is cunning – often also is cunning and canness – you understand the difference? Black magic is ideal for being. Cunning and can-ness is like conscious and unconscious, or like two words used in Bible for meaning two kinds of evil voluntary and involuntary sin”. (Notes 49).

Gurdjieff continued to teach pupils his mix of esoteric ideas and occult practices. He was at pains to present himself in his writings and in his oral teachings in the roles of both Black and White Magician. He never sought to present himself as solely good, or other than he was which was capable of both constructive and destructive relations with his pupils. I suggest that this duality is fundamental to his teaching because he is an embodiment of his Law of Three, showing the good and bad possibilities open to a human beings and how these may be reconciled.

Some of the methods that Gurdjieff used to hypnotised and entangled his pupils were:
intense pressures
conflicting demands
contradictory teachings
exhausting physical efforts
lack of sleep
use of alcohol and drugs
and fasts

The demands of both Gurdjieff’s writings and oral teachings entangle the reader or listener in hypnotic paradox and contradiction . The demand for students to observe themselves was contradicted by the teaching that they were mechanical and unable to ‘do’. The statement that pupils must have a critical mind was subverted by belonging to a regime in which they had agreed to be incapable of ‘doing’ and therefore of being critical. The constant demand for ‘making effort’ was reinforced by Gurdjieff’s instruction that leaving the teaching before having reached a certain stage would be injurious. It would be better for pupils to die making ‘super-efforts’ than to continue living their mechanical lives. He stressed that the teaching was dangerous. Pupils could not avoid danger, they had to face either the danger of the teaching, or of leaving it. Gurdjieff’s teaching always took place in the last chance saloon.

But he did repeatedly warn pupils against taking his cosmological ideas literally (Wellbeloved, 2003: 216-17). He also gave clues. The astute reader or listener will find the contradictions and begin to question the texts and maybe also the teaching. The process of freeing themselves from this hypnotised state might also free pupils from much of their usual mechanically hypnotised state and allow them to connect with their subconscious (Webb 1980: 560-573). Entanglement and liberation are two ends of the same stick. One of the properties that Gurdjieff defined as belonging to the subconscious is ‘confrontative criticism’ (Tales 568). Or to express it differently, they might be able to define themselves and the world around them in terms other than those used by Gurdjieff.

Ignoring the contradictions, both those created by him and those arising in his life, the pupil may defeat the point of the teaching. Gurdjieff himself usually made sure the pupil ‘got it’ that is could not ignore the contradictions inherent in his teaching by ‘orphaning’ pupils, sending them away, behaving to them in such a way that they chose to go, or by simply disbanding the whole group. This forced pupils to reassess him the teaching and themselves (The Fourth Way, i.e. Gurdjieff’s teaching is never permanent, Search: 312).

Present day omissions and redefinitions of the Work
Once the Magus dies, his presence as embodiment is not longer there and his teaching ends. Thus, he has to be reinvented and his teaching restructured and this has happened. Gurdjieff and his teaching have inevitably been institutionalised and redefined.

Today, in foundations (organisations set up after Gurdjieff’s death by his successor Jeanne de Salzmann) and other groups, as far as I have discovered, there is no focus on Gurdjieff’s use of:
Narcotics and other drugs.
While the teaching was defined by Gurdjieff as a dangerous but quick way to acquire knowledge, membership is now for long periods, or for life. The effort required is not ‘dangerous’. The pupil is focused on ‘searching’ rather than ‘finding’, ‘receiving’ rather than ‘stealing’ or ‘making efforts’ (See “Doing” and Not Doing” on the Joseph Azize page where he gives examples of the passive form of language used in the 1980s by a Foundation work teacher.). Gurdjieff is generally presented in a version ‘cleansed’ of occult practices. For example, the website of the New York Foundation does not include Herald in its list of Gurdjieff’s writings ( ).

The foundations have remained secretive and closed to general scrutiny. There are ‘not for public release books and videos’, one of the videos I have seen presents Gurdjieff in a romanticised sepia vision of his life as related in Meetings, where none of the contradictions of his life or teaching are mentioned. The Work has now spread out and become more widely known in versions that are entwined with other teachings (see Wellbeloved ‘Changes in G. I. Gurdjieff’s Teaching ‘The Work’ A paper presented at The 2001 Conference (CESNUR-INFORM) in London).

What we might ask now is: why is there a reluctance to mention occult practices, magic, hypnotism and the use of drugs in this teaching, not only by the teacher/practitioners but also by scholars? This is a question that is important for the establishment of the discipline of western esotericism as a whole.

Traces of Gurdjieff as Magus, can be found in pupil memoirs and in Chaos Magic.
He remains fully alive in his roles as both black and white magician in his texts.


Azize, Joseph,

Bennett, John G. Gurdjieff: Making A New World, London: Turnstone Books, 1976

G. I. Gurdjieff, The Herald of Coming Good, privately published Paris, 1933

All and Everything, Ten Books in Three Series:
First series: An Objectively Impartial Criticism of the Life of Man or Beelzebub’s
Tales to His Grandson, London: Routledge & Keegan Paul, 1950.

Second series: Meetings With Remarkable Men, trans. A. R. Orage, Londond:
Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1963.

Third series: Life is real only then, when “I am”, New York: Duton for Triangle
Editions, 19

Views from the Real World: Early Talks of Gurdjieff: London, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1976, 1sr pub. 1973.

Ouspensky, P. D. In Search of the Miraculous: Fragments of an Unknown Teaching, London:
Arkana, 1987, 1st pub Harcourt Brace and World, 1949.

Peters, Fritz, Gurdjieff: containing Boyhood with Gurdjieff and Gurdjieff Remembered, London:
Wildwood House, 1977 (1st pub. 1965).

Pogson, Beryl Chassereau and Lewis Creed, Unforgotten Fragments, York: Quacks Books, 1994

Solano, Solita, unpublished Notes taken by Solita Solano from 1935 – 1940 in Paris, Beinecke Library, Kathryn Hulme Papers YCAL MSS 22 Box 19, folders 484-93 Solano, Solita 1951-75, n.d.

Versluis, Arthur, Magic and Mysticism,: an Introduction to Western Esotericism, Lantham,
Boulder, New York, Toronto, Plymouth UK: Roman & Littlefield, 2007.

Webb. James, The Harmonious Circle, London: Thames & Hudson, 1980.

Wellbeloved, Sophia, ‘Changes in G. I. Gurdjieff’s Teaching ‘The Work’ 2001 CESNUR-Inform
Conference in London.
Gurdjieff: the Key Concepts, London & New York: Routledge, 2003.