The Hermetic Tree of Life: Elemental Magic and Spiritual Initiation, by William R. Mistele
Destiny Books, 1644117444, 288 pages, January 2024
As a diagram of the macrocosmic body of the Universe, the Kabbalistic Tree of Life is a blueprint for divine embodiment. Each of the ten sephiroth, or divine emanations, depicted as spherical fruits dangling from the branches of the Tree of Life, correspond to the luminaries and planets of our solar system. Through self-initiation into the mysteries of each of the ten spheres, we can activate and harmonize the microcosmic powers within.
The Hermetic Tree of Life: Elemental Magic and Spiritual Initiation is a guide to embodying the Tree of Life and awakening our divine powers so we can transform the world around us. Author William R. Mistele is a spiritual anthropologist and a bardic magician, which means that “he uses the medium of poetry, short stories, novels, and screenplays to present modern fairy tales and mythology.”1 He has studied and meditated with over fifty masters from a variety of traditions, and this book is intended to be a user-friendly manual, condensing the universal wisdom of all the systems he has integrated, using the Kabbalistic Tree of Life as a framework. Each chapter is named after one of the ten sephiroth on the Tree of Life, and includes an initiation section, which “is about embodying the sephirah in yourself.”2
Mistele’s work is influenced by the elemental magic of Czech hermeticist Franz Bardon (1909-1958). The first book he read by Bardon was Initiation into Hermetics (1956), which emphasized mastering the elemental energies within. By integrating the pragmatism and productivity of Earth, the empathy and kindness of Water, the playful curiosity and open-minded nature of Air, and the willpower and personal drive of Fire, the initiate becomes a more well-rounded individual and strengthens their weaknesses. They can also learn how to access elemental realms on the astral plane and commune with nature spirits.
I love how Mistele incorporates the four elements of earth, air, fire, and water with the Tree of Life and gives suggestions for integrating elemental energies one recognizes in nature and in other people. Mistele recounts personal anecdotes about meeting people who reminded him of elemental beings reincarnated as humans, such as embodied gnomes, slyphs, salamanders, and mermaids. In a section called “Recapturing Projection,” he discusses how we can reproduce the elemental energy of other people within ourselves. Recapturing the good things they made us feel and reclaiming their essence as a part of ourselves that was awakened through meeting them can reduce the sense of loss we feel if our relationship with that person ends.3
Mistele works from the ground up, beginning at the base of the Tree of Life with “Rule 10: Malkuth/Earth,” the “Kingdom” of the physical realm. I appreciate this approach because there can be an airy fairy tendency in spirituality to detach from mundane reality and focus on celestial energy, when it is the earth beneath us that sustains and supports us. Just as a tree soaks up nourishment through its roots, we connect with Malkuth through our feet. Malkuth grounds us and aligns us with nature
“If we are wise, we will first undertake the initiation of Malkuth in which we gain a solid and enduring connection to nature with its sense of inner silence,” Mistele writes. “And we will undergo the initiation of Yesod where we integrate our conscious and subconscious.”4
As a witch, observing lunar cycles and honoring the moon is a significant part of my practice, so the chapter on the sephirah of “Yesod/the Moon” resonated with me the most. Yesod, meaning “Foundation,” is a portal between the astral and physical realms.5 According to Mistele, “the initiation of Yesod is to draw together the powers of the inner self—a sense of happiness, of contentment, self-acceptance; the purity, healing, and innocence of the Water element; the ability to create feelings at will; and the bliss of the dream.”6 Mistele encourages using Yesod for shadow work, connecting with your instinctual nature, and sitting with all of your emotions, giving them your undivided attention.
I enjoyed the exercises for Yesod that engage the senses and emphasize remembering to be present in the physical body. For example, in the “zoning” exercise, the reader is instructed to “focus on physical sensations”7, by meditating on the feet or any other body part. “The body and consciousness transform each other,” Mistele says.8 I was reading this chapter during the Full Moon in Cancer and I thought it would be fitting to focus on the sensations in my uterus, the lunar temple within my body and the seat of my feminine creative power. I also used aromatherapy to help me connect with lunar energy by wearing a lunar perfume oil called The Moon, created by an Etsy seller named Andromeda’s Curse. The fragrance is a heady floral bouquet, blooming with voluptuous notes of white gardenia, honeysuckle, and water lily.
While meditating on my uterus, I observed the strange bloated sense of fullness in my abdomen, juxtaposed with the occasional pain of cramping. I relaxed into these uncomfortable sensations instead of trying to ignore them. I noticed that focusing on my womb gave me a sense of safety and security. I had a vision of white moonlight pouring over me and it felt like rippling threads of spider’s silk, forming an ethereal cocoon around me. I became aware of the night sky as a huge, furry black spider, spinning silk from the orb of the moon. Even though I envisioned this cosmic arachnid trapping me like a fly, her cocoon felt strangely protective, not frightening, like the linen wrappings of a mummy. It reminded me that sleep is a form of death. Our bodies become paralyzed and mummified in moonlight, and the trance and enchanted dream visions of sleep are like a spell cast upon us by the dark, mysterious forces of night.
I’ve been fascinated by spiders ever since I read Charlotte’s Web as a child, and I consider the spider to be my shadow totem. I used to be more afraid of them, but over the past decade or so I have made a conscious effort to overcome that fear and embrace them as spirit guides and emissaries of the dark goddess. I even developed feelings of tenderness towards them because I recognize that they are often more afraid of us than we are of them. This vision inspired me to do some research on ways spiders use their silk, because I wondered why I didn’t feel any fear of the spider, or being caught in her web. I learned that, while spiders may use their silk to trap prey, they also use it to create nests or cocoons to protect their children. I certainly felt a maternal energy radiating from the spider in my vision.9
There are times when I feel restricted by circumstances beyond my control. Instead of feeling trapped in her web of fate, I have to accept that Grandmother Spider knows what’s best for me. She is either keeping me safe or counseling patience as she prepares me for something better.
By connecting with spider consciousness, I was certainly tapping into both the shadow side of myself and the shadow nature of Yesod. “The mystery of Yesod is that, while supporting our individual ability to feel, the astral plane contains a vast range of emotional life that is as yet unknown to the human race,”10 Mistele says. Just as I was able to connect with spider consciousness, Yesod can help us imagine and feel alien realms of experience not accessible to us in our human bodies.
After spending some time with Yesod, I climbed further up the tree, proceeding to the next two sephiroth, Hod/Mercury and Netzach/Venus, which balance each other, bringing equilibrium to the mind and heart. In the sphere of Hod/Mercury, we develop mental clarity, discernment, and eloquent speech. Mistele assigns vivacity as the common virtue of Hod, which is characterized by a liveliness and quicksilver adaptability to the ever-changing present moment. The airy nature of Mercury brings a sparkling effervescence, like bubbly sea foam, to the lunar waters of Yesod.
Netzach/Venus integrates body (Malkuth/Earth), mind (Hod/Mercury), and soul (Yesod/Moon). According to Mistele, its virtue is “a beauty that draws together and harmonizes all aspects of oneself.”11 He describes it as a “magnetic fluid” derived from the watery realm of Yesod.12 This boundless stream of loving, healing, feminine magnetism draws us in and embraces us with the mysterious pull of an emerald sea. “One of the initiations or mysteries of Venus is to find such love in yourself,” Mistele says.13
The initiation of Netzach is “personality integration,” and the divine virtue is “purity of motives.”14 If you’re dishonest with yourself, which is a vice of Hod/Mercury, then you can’t attain Netzach’s divine virtue of pure motives. You would have to refer back to the sphere of Hod and cultivate the virtue of honesty. Sometimes people deny their true feelings and intentions with their words, but practicing the art of active listening can help us discern the truth of other people’s motives and assist us in bringing own words and feelings into alignment. According to Mistele, active listening “involves noticing incongruities—the differences between what a person is saying and the feelings expressed through body language—facial expression, gestures, intonation, or even word choice.”15
I appreciate Mistele’s emphasis on the element of Water when working with Yesod/Moon, Hod/Mercury, and Netzach/Venus because I associate them with the watery realm of emotion and how we relate to others. The Moon, which rules the tides, has the most obvious connection to water. The Greek goddess of love, Aphrodite, was born from the foaming sea, and the watery association of her star, the planet Venus, is still preserved today in the Virgin Mary’s epithet Stella Maris, meaning “Star of the Sea.” (I personally believe that Aphrodite Urania, or Heavenly Aphrodite, also known as Venus, the Mother of Rome, is still being worshiped today by Catholics under the guise of the Virgin Mary.) Associating Mercury, the planet closest to the Sun, with the element of water may seem strange to some Westerners, but in the Chinese elemental system, quicksilver Mercury is known as the “water star.”16
When Mars entered Capricorn, the sign of its exaltation, I began reading the chapter on “Rule 5: Gevurah/Mars: Self-Mastery.”17 In the fires of Gevurah, we alchemically transmute our weaknesses into strengths.
“The mystery of Gevurah is that when harmoniously integrated, the four elements become one energy field combining two opposite polarities of masculine/electric and feminine/magnetic,” Mistele says.18
Mistele notes the societal imbalance of masculine and feminine energies, made manifest in how “our entire civilization is fiery and electrical,”19 and praises science, industry, and rational thinking, while the more elusive, intangible feminine qualities of receptivity, empathy, nurturing, and intuition tend to be devalued. He believes this imbalance can be corrected through inversion. Instead of surrounding women with “masculine technology and institutions,” Mistele says we should aspire for a “magical androgyny,” in which “the feminine encircles and encloses the masculine within itself.”20
For me, this brought to mind how the metal of Venus is copper, and copper wire is used to conduct electricity (masculine energy). Mistele gives examples of this in nature, such as how the earth’s mantle insulates its molten outer core, which generates the earth’s magnetic field and is as hot as the surface of the sun. The inner core is made of solid iron, the metal traditionally associated with Mars, and it is the size of Pluto, which is an interesting comparison, considering that Pluto, the God of the Underworld, is the higher octave of Mars in modern astrology.
Mistele often uses mermaid women, who embody unconditional love, as an example of idealized divine feminine energy. “Unlike human women who embody all five elements, incarnated mermaids embody the one element of Water in their auras,” Mistele says.21 Mistele refers to himself as a “mermaid greeter,” which means that he identifies and assists “mermaid spirits who have incarnated in human bodies at birth and have grown up usually thinking that they are human.”22 He says that mermaid women “are totally in the moment, totally receptive, completely giving of themselves. There is no ego weighing them down, no guilt, no loss of innocence, and no insecurity that might awaken jealousy or bitterness.”23 Since they don’t have the emotional needs of a human, they never feel neglected, because they are complete themselves.
When describing mermaid women, I feel that Mistele romanticizes the selfless, unconditional love of the divine feminine a bit too much, and I think that he should have touched on the importance of women protecting themselves from potential harm by maintaining healthy boundaries, because it can be very dangerous for any woman, whether she is fully human or has the soul of a mermaid, to go around wearing her heart on her sleeve and pouring out unconditional love on emotionally unavailable or cruel people in an attempt “to create love where love does not exist.”24
He vaguely acknowledges this by mentioning that incarnated mermaid women have to conceal their identities to protect themselves from stalking and violence, but I would have liked the importance of healthy boundaries to have been emphasized. His anecdotes about various mermaid women he has encountered fascinated me and I’d like to learn more, so I’m looking forward to his forthcoming book, titled Encounters with Mermaids: Lessons from the Realm of the Water Elementals, (Release date: August 13, 2024) which is a new edition of his previous work Undines: Lessons from the Realm of the Water Spirits (2010).
“We all have mermaids and mermen inside of ourselves,” Mistele says. “The whole point of the ten rules and ten sephiroth of the Tree of Life is that the greater universe is reflected inside of us.”25
The Hermetic Tree of Life is an immersive guide for those who are seeking divine embodiment by internalizing the Tree. The exercises contained within its leaves will help readers recognize and harmonize the elemental qualities within. Mistele’s elemental approach will likely appeal to witches, magicians, and pagans. My personal foundational text on the subject was The Witches’ Qabala by Ellen Cannon Reed, which explores the Tree from a pagan perspective, and I found that background to be compatible with Mistele’s elemental focus. This book is accessible to those who have little previous knowledge of the Kabbalistic Tree of Life, but I do think it is helpful to have some basic foundation to build upon, because Mistele doesn’t supply any background information on the Tree. Surprisingly, there is no diagram of the Tree itself in this book, but readers can easily find an image online for reference. Regardless of your current relationship with the Tree, The Hermetic Tree of Life will assist you in the lifelong spiritual quest to become your best self.
Rachel Christina McConnell is a witch, tarot reader, intuitive astrologer, and writing spider. She holds an MFA in Fiction from Columbia University in the City of New York. Her short stories have appeared in Dark Moon Lilith Press and Minerva Rising Press’s The Keeping Room. Links to her publications are available here: https://rachelchristinamcconnell.wordpress.com