The Hermetic Tradition by Julius Evola
After reading the three volumes of Introduction to Magic (reviews here and here) by Evola and the UR Group, I decided to continue on the same esoteric path by reading The Hermetic Tradition. Whereas Introduction to Magic contains more of Evola’s (and his companions’) thoughts on matters of magic and metaphysics, The Hermetic Tradition draws more heavily upon the teachings of older mystics and alchemists (who will be presented further down). The book is still Evolian in its nature, so the style will be familiar if you have read Evola before.
Evola’s View of Hermeticism and Alchemy
Evola approaches hermeticism and alchemy (he sees them as one) in a spiritual fashion – which means that he is not interested in the material aspects of alchemy (i.e. the classic ‘turn lead into gold’ type of alchemy that may be familiar to some). Evola, as a seeker of Tradition and spiritual ascent, seeks to present the teachings of hermetic mystics throughout the centuries from this perspective.
Alchemy, in this view, is placed together with other hermetic disciplines – magic and astrology, for example. Magic, as we have discussed elsewhere, can be seen as mental techniques. Astrology is a topic we will return to – suffice to say that the planets feature quite prominently in the book. It can also be noted that astrology is one of the lost sciences (like physiognomy) that the modern world has cast aside.
Evola, in this book, shows that alchemy was not just the humble beginnings of the science of chemistry but a profound mystery-science in its own right. As illustrated by the quote below, he identified the true spiritual teachings as being hidden from the unworthy (and the Inquisition). This led mystics and esoteric masters to approach the Great Work, the Royal Art, in a spiritual fashion – whereas the materialistically oriented early scientists approached it in a profane fashion (i.e. in the sense that they were out for physical transformations as opposed to spiritual ones).
‘Much better then to speak of Mercury and Sulfur, of metals and puzzling things and impossible operations, better to attract the greedy attention and curiosity of of the “puffers” and “charcoal burners”, of those who then gave birth to modern chemistry; and best of all, in order to keep others from suspecting that the rare and enigmatic allusions were actually metallurgical symbolism referring to things of the spirit.’Julius Evola – The Hermetic Tradition. Page 97.
The author of the foreword notes that Evola was influenced by an Indian alchemist – C.S. Narayana Swami Aiyar of Chingleput – who emphasised the importance of breath-work to achieve alchemical results. This is highly interesting. In my own meditations, I have found that entering a meditation by first doing a breathing exercise is greatly helpful. Wim Hof, the Dutch Iceman, has a good guided breathing-exercise. Interestingly, in a chapter titled The Path of the Breath and the Path of the Blood it is noted that focusing on the breath (the first key) and focusing on the blood (the second key) is an alchemical technique. Wim Hof encourages the practitioner to focus both on the breath and the blood in the breathing-exercise mentioned above.
Alchemical Work – the Great Work – the Royal Art
When reading the book and approaching the Royal Art from Evola’s perspective, which, in my humble opinion, is the correct way to approach it, it becomes clear that the whole art is one of ascending and transforming oneself in metaphysical matter. One could even say it is about finding God – God in this case is the One, the animating force of all life. We can also refer to this animating force by other names. This force can be described using a quote which may be familiar if you read our book review of Introduction to Magic: Volume 1:
‘The Wise spoke of it as a wonder and as a terror. They called it: Universal and Living Fire, ύλη (matter), Green Dragon, Quintessence, First Substance, Great Magical Agent. The principle of their “GREAT WORK”, since the Magistery of Creation and the Magistery with which man realizes himself according to the Royal Arts are one and the same. This Matter of ours is neither an abstraction of profane philosophy nor a myth or a fairy tale, but a living and powerful reality, the spirit and the vitality of the Earth and of Life.Abraxas – Introduction to Magic: Knowledge of the Waters
When the alchemists (in this context) talk about substances and how to transform, separate, and combine them, they are referring to the inner forces in man (body, soul, spirit). Another insightful quote regarding this great force is the following:
‘We can also say that in the One the All, the “One” and the “All” now crystalize as two distinct principles. The “One” takes on the meaning of a center that manifests in the heart of chaos (the “All”) and affirms itself there as a principle of incorruptible fixity, stability, and transcendence. From the signature, of O—“the first matter” we move on to ☉, which is the ancient hieroglyph of the Sun.’Julius Evola – The Hermetic Tradition. Page 33.
Soul, Spirit, and Body
In a chapter titled thus, Evola discusses these three concepts from an alchemical perspective. He notes that ‘man carries hermetically in his soul, the presence of a solar and golden force ☉; in his spirit he carries that of a lunar and mercurial force ☿; and finally, in the body, the force of Salt 🜔 is expressed.‘
Jakob Böhme writes the following:
‘Everything that grows, lives, and moved in this world is in Sulfur, and Mercury is its life. And Salt is the corporeal essence of Mercury’s hunger.’Jakob Böhme – De Signatura Rerum
When reading passages like this, it becomes clear that they are talking about the animating life-force. Many alchemical teachings are unclear at a first glance; this is to hide the teachings from the unworthy. The quest to find or create gold within oneself, to master the Quintessence and make the most out of the divine energy, is what we can take with us from alchemical studies. As we noted in Dauntless and in previous book-reviews, it is about taming the inner dragon and using its energy to fuel your own ascent.
Mithras and the Bull
As you, my dear reader, are probably aware of by now, I always enjoy the appearance of the Cult of Mithras in esoteric literature. Thus, I thought to share the following quote – which follows up nicely with what is mentioned above. Subdue and harness the primordial power within you:
‘We must awaken the force but not let it unseat us. The characteristic depiction of this ability is dramatized by the myth of Mithras who seizes the bull by the horns and does not let go despite the animal’s mad stampede until the bull, exhausted, gives up and allows himself to be led back to the “cavern” (the alchemical texts speak specifically and frequently of Mercury’s cavern), where Mithras gives it death. After its death there follows the symbolic emerging of vegetation from the earth, sprouting from the blood of the sacrificed animal.’Julius Evola – The Hermetic Tradition. Page 113.
Evola notes that the true alchemical immortality does not entail an immortality of the body. He also notes the following in regard to the immortality of the soul:
‘It was the vulgarization and abusive generalization of a truth valid exclusively for initiates — a vulgarization that began in some degenerate forms of Orphism and was soon fully developed by Christianity — that was to give birth to the strange idea of an “immortality of the soul,” and then extended unconditionally to the same for all souls.’Julius Evola – The Hermetic Tradition. Page 96.
I am not yet wise enough to comment upon the immortality of the soul, but something that always struck me as unreasonable was the immortality of everyone’s soul. Thus, I thought to share this insightful quote. We will return to this discussion in coming works.
Guénon’s View of Alchemy – White Work and Red Work
The disagreement between Julius Evola and Réne Guénon (that we mentioned in the review of Introduction to Magic: Volume II & III) appears in this context as well. Guénon rejected the idea of alchemy as a complete metaphysical doctrine. Moreover, according to him, a true tradition could not have come from an Egypto-Hellenic origin. This is stated in the foreword of the book and no further explanation is given. Thus, I consulted Thomas Rowsell, who notes that Guénon was quite anti-Greek in the sense that he considered their polytheism to be a divergence from the primordial and monotheistic Tradition he imagined.
As we have already noted, Evola and Guénon disagreed upon who the highest spiritual authority was: the Warrior or Priest. Note, Evola and Guénon respected each other, and this is a minor disagreement that does not take up any space in this book itself. I just thought to mention it since we have encountered the disagreement before, and because it is interesting.
In alchemy, the Red Work is above the White Work. The Red (or Purple) embodies an active state (of the Kshatriya – Warrior), whereas the White embodies a contemplative state (of the Brahmin – Priest). The White Work (White Elixir) is not the final stage, because it lacks the Fire – the Fires of Saturn, the Gods of the Golden Age. Evola notes that to the Red stage is attributed the purple, the sceptre, the crown, and other symbolic elements of royalty and empire. An interesting comparison is the Catholic Church, where the Pope (the highest) wears White and the members of the lower levels of the church hierarchy wear Red.
‘There is a measure of legitimacy in connecting the White Work and the Red Work, respectively, to initiation into the Lesser and Greater classical Mysteries. The promise of both was immortality, which is, let us reiterate, something positive and very different from the vague “spiritualist” conception of simple survival. But the first immortality was only such in terms of “life,” even Cosmic Life, and therefore, ultimately, a conditional immortality linked to manifestation. The second, that of the Greater Mysteries, was a “supercosmic” immortality in the sense just indicated, and it was in the Greater Mysteries that use of the royal symbolism predominated.’Julius Evola – The Hermetic Tradition. Page 186.
Thus, Evola connects the White Work to the Lesser Mysteries and the Red Work to the Greater Mysteries. We will return to these insights in coming works – when discussing the Mithraic and Eleusinian Mysteries.
Cast of Characters
When talking about alchemy as it is presented in the book, it can be good to be familiar with a few historical individuals that appear frequently in it. As mentioned above, Evola presents the teachings of various spiritual masters. Below are some of them – you may recognise some, and you will probably encounter them again if you are interested in esoteric matters. I present these men in brief to emphasise the fact that alchemy was not merely a historical curiosity without merit but a study that interested high-capacity men.
Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa (1486–1535) was a German polymath, physician, legal scholar, soldier, theologian, and occultist. Evola refers to his De occulta philosophia.
Theophrastus von Hohenheim, also known as Paracelsus, (1493–1541) was a Swiss physician, theologian and philosopher; he has been given the honourific “the Father of Toxicology”. His contributions to science in particular highlight the fact that alchemy was not an art for charlatans, but often went hand in hand with science and metaphysis.
Jakob Böhme (1575–1624). In the book his name appears as Jacob Boehme (which is often the case in English literature). Böhme was a German philosopher, Christian mystic, and Protestant theologian. Many unenlightened Christians react negatively to terms such as magic and mysticism. They fail to recognise that many esoteric mystics have been Christians.
Cesare della Riviera, author of The Magical World of the Heroes (in Italian: Il mondo magico delgi heroi) (1605), which, according to the foreword of The Hermetic Tradition, was a decisive influence on Evola’s views on alchemy. Not much more is known about the author, but I mention him here since his work feature prominently in The Hermetic Tradition.
Hermes Trismegistus is a legendary Hellenistic (Hellenistic = the cultures that sprung up in the areas conquered by Alexander the Great, in this case Egypto-Hellenic) figure that originated as a combination of the Greek god Hermes and the Egyptian god of wisdom Thoth. In The Hermetic Tradition, Evola refers to the Corpus Hermeticum on numerous occasions. The term hermetic stems from Hermes Trismegistus. Both this mythological character and the Corpus Hermeticum are important to alchemy and the hermetic art on the whole. Evola notes that Hermes (Trismegistus) ‘should not be considered an actual historical personage, but the special spiritual influence that defined the initiatic chain and the organisation‘ (the organisation he refers to is the Sons of Hermes). Hermes Trismegistus also appears in Islamic teachings (which was pointed out to me by a Muslim follower of mine on Instagram).
The Centres of Life – Chakras
In one chapter, a hermetic teaching named the Seven is presented. Evola refers to Plotinus (a Hellenistic Neoplatonist), who said that there are forces within us that are analogous to the powers of the different planets. Interestingly, Evola notes that the teaching of the Seven is seen in explicit terms in Hindu tradition in the form of chakras. We will return to the chakras in coming works – as they are an important component of meditation and yoga. Evola’s The Yoga of Power will be the subject of a coming book-review.
Related to the teaching of the Seven is a mystical Syrian text which talks about the Mirror. I found this passage powerful and useful:
‘The Mirror represents the Divine Spirit. When the soul sees itself in it, it observes the shameful things in itself and rejects them.’The Hermetic Tradition. Page 62.
In alchemical terms, one could say this would be a purifying process – purifying one’s inner being (soul and spirit) from impurities (shameful aspects).
The Hermetic Tradition is a rather dense read, although not particularly thick (the book is 216 pages), it requires a certain level of concentration to digest. I re-read it upon finishing it to ensure I got the most out of it (I will most likely re-read certain chapters later on as well). Many of the alchemical teachings were purposefully hard to access (to keep the esoteric wisdom available only for the worthy) and since many of the teachings are from the Middle Ages, it is possible that some nuances were lost in translation.
I can recommend this book to true Evola-appreciators and aspiring mystics. If you are interested in magic and spirituality but are not used to reading Evola, I would recommend starting with Introduction to Magic instead.
Lastly, if you have not already done so, I recommend listening to Podcast Episode 18. The Divine Blessing for further discussions on the divine.