Essential Reads: De Occulta Philosophia

Illustrations from De Occulta Philosophia by Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa

De Occulta Philosophia Libri III(engl. The Three Books of Occult Philosophy) were written and published by Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa during the 16th century, the first book of this work was published in 1531 in Paris, Cologne and Antwerp. There are several curious stories revolving these three books, which influenced western esotericism almost like no other work, as well as their author.

Agrippa himself was born in 1486 near Cologne and studied at the University of Cologne. Agrippa’s biography in itself is so interesting that it could fill whole books(which it did), so I’m keeping it short. His careers throughout his life included theology, being a soldier, doctor and much more. He probably got involved with the occult very early on and we also know that his primary teacher of the occult sciences and arts was the German abbot Johannes Trithemius; who also taught Paracelsus, one of the most influential doctors and alchemists.

On Agrippa’s Recantation of the Occult and Magic

Now, before Agrippa published his De Occulta Philosophia he recanted all occult sciences and arts – which is the first curious thing about this work and Agrippa himself. In his recantation of the occult, he writes:

“But of Magick I wrote whilest I was very yong [young] three large books, which I called Of Occult Philosophy, in which what was then through the curiosity of my youth erroneous, I now being more advised, am willing to have retracted, by this recantation; I formerly spent much time and costs in these vanities. At last I grew so wise as to be able to disswade others from this destruction; For whosoever do not in the truth, nor in the power of God, but in the deceits of divels [devils], according to the operation of wicked spirits presume to divine and prophesy, and practising through Magicall vanities, exorcismss, incantions and other demoniacall works and deceits of Idolatry, boasting of delusions, and phantasmes presently ceasing, brag that they can do miracles, I say all these shall with Jannes, and Jambres, and Simon Magus, be destinated to the torments of eternall Fire.” Agrippa, De incertitudine et vanitate Scientiarum.

In his introduction to De Occulta Philosophia he also tries to explain why he decided to publish something he himself retracted and apparently views as evil:

“I retracted those things which I did being a boy, and in my book of the vanity and uncertainty of Sciences I did for the most part retract this book. […] I being affected, determined to set it forth my self, thinking that there might be less danger if these books came out of my hands with some amendments, than to come forth torn, and in fragments out of other mens hands. Moreover, I thought it no crime if I should not suffer the testimony of my youth to perish. Also we have added some Chapters, and we inserted many things, which did seem unfit to pass by, which the curious Reader shall be able to understand by the inequality of the very phrase; for we were unwilling to begin the work anew, and to unravell all that we had done, but to correct it, and put some flourish upon it. Wherefore now I pray thee, Curteous [courteous] Reader, again, weigh not these things according to the present time of setting them forth, but pardon my curious youth, if thou shalt findd any thing in them that may displease thee.” Agrippa, Introduction to De Occulta Philosophia.

It is safe to say that there is no sufficient reason other than Agrippa wanting to publish his own writings himself rather than other people taking advantage of his work. We also read that Agrippa and Trithemius decided to edit De Occulta Philosophia; so what we get is not what he originally wrote. Historians are generally split when it comes to Agrippa’s recantation and the publication of his work. On one hand Agrippa probably didn’t suffer as much persecution as people might think which might point his recantation being an honest one, but on the other hand he still decided to publish De Occulta Philosophia and he had his own student of the occult, Johann Weyer. Recent scholars like Nauert have come to believe that Agrippa never rejected magic in its entirety, just the early manuscript of De Occulta Philosophia.

Whatever the case may be, Agrippa did end up publishing his complete work De Occulta Philosophia Libri III in 1533, roughly two years before he died in 1535 at the age of 48.

Pages from an English edition of De Occulta Philosophia

Contents of De Occulta Philosophia Libri III

As the title of this work already suggests, it consists of three separate books. Book I deals with natural magic; which includes planetary and magical properties of natural materials, the elements and much more. In the first two chapters of Book I Agrippa also lays out the basic system of magic, how magic works and what disciplines one must study in order to master the occult sciences and arts. Book II deals with celestial magic; which mainly consists of planetary magic and of the celestial languages as well as numerology. Book II also includes the famous planetary tables which are found in later works of magic until this day.

Planetary Tables from Book II of De Occulta Philosophia

Those planetary tables are one example of the impact Agrippa’s work had. After De Occulta Philosophia got published, those planetary tables would pop up in other writings concerning magic such as manuscripts of The Key of Solomon as well as Archidoxis Magicae(pseudo-Paracelsus). Both the seals as well as the numerical tables were used to make planetary pentacles and talismans.

Book III then deals with ceremonial magic; as well as theology, religion and magic and their relation to each other. Agrippa discusses types of spirits, philosophy of the soul as well as the importance of religion. He starts off the first chapter of Book III with the following:

“Whosoever therefore, Religion being laid aside, do consider only in naturall things, are wont very oft to be deceived by evill spirits; but from the knowledge of Religion, the contempt and cure of vices ariseth, and a safeguard against evil spirits; To conclude, nothing is more pleasant and acceptable to God than a man perfectly pious, and truly Religious, who so far excelleth other men, as he himself is distant from the Immortall gods.” Agrippa, De Occulta Philosophia, Book III, Chapter I.

Throughout the whole three books Agrippa hints at the fact that he is just giving enough information in order for the reader to figure things out and even encourages to reader to research on their own. If you don’t understand any of which he wrote, it’s you and not him; at least according to Agrippa himself. Some examples:

“And there are in all Nations, and Languages alwaies the same, and like to them, and permanent; to which were added, and found out afterwards many more, as by the ancient, so by latter Chyromancers [chiromancers]. And they that would know them must have recourse to their Volumes.” Agrippa, De Occulta Philosophia, Book I, Chapter XXXII.

“Now how the seals, and Characters of the Stars, and spirits are drawn from these tables, the wise searcher, and he which shall understand the verifying of these tables, shall easily find out.” Agrippa, De Occulta Philosophia, Book II, Chapter XXII.

“I will not here discourse any longer of these, seeing these, and many more necessary things are sufficiently handled in the Volums of Astrologers.” Agrippa, De Occulta Philosophia, Book II, Chapter XXX.

Additional to this Agrippa also mentions his sources like you would expect from a scholar. His sources range from several philosophers to some theologians as well as myths and legends found in classic writings.

Agrippa, quite contratry to his recantation, decided to conclude his whole work with the following:

“You therefore sons of wisdom and learning, search diligently in this book, gathering together our dispersed intentions, which in divers places we have propounded, and what is hid in one place, we make manifest in another, that it may appear to you wise men; for, for you only have we written, whose mind is not corrupted, but regulated according to the right order of living, who in chastity, and honesty, and in sound faith fear and reverence God. […] But ye, envious, caluminators, sons of base ignorance, and foolish lewdnest, come not nigh our writings, for they are your enemies, and stand on a precipice, that ye may erre and fall head-long into misery. […] therefore let no man be angry with me, if we have folded up the truth of this science with many Enigmaes, and dispersed it in divers places, for we have not hidden it from the wise, but from the wicked and ungodly, and have delivered it in such words which necessarily blind the foolish, and easily may admit the wise to the understanding of them.” Agrippa, De Occulta Philosophia, Book III, Chapter LXV.

Illustration from Book II of De Occulta Philosophia

What this work is, and what it’s not

So what exactly is De Occulta Philosophia and what is it not? It is safe to say that those three books are a compilation of information and sources regarding the occult as well as theology; it is a very big one at that. Agrippa gives examples of planetary properties, what to look out for in astrology and he even gives you a good idea on the spirit world. What he doesn’t do is give you a 101 instruction on how to do magic. Agrippa saw magic as a holy art, which needed to be studied in order to be mastered and we can see his stance throughout his work. He never writes out a 101 instruction for the reader, he wants the reader to study and think for themselves.

It’s not like editions of the Key of Solomon or the Arbatel, which give you very basic(and sometimes misleading) instructions. Agrippa basically wants you to do the work yourself; and I can safely say that you won’t need an instructional grimoire if you have De Occulta Philosophia as your basis. You could say that Agrippa in this sense acts like a teacher who passes his wisdom on in those three books for those who are willing to study in order to master their craft.

Either way, no matter if you are a Renaissance occultist like myself or not; those three books remain influential on ceremonial magic, demonology, talismanic magic and planetary magic; conclusively also a lot of modern magical practices. They are an essential read for anyone who wants to study the occult and magic in a serious matter, as well as anyone who is interested in planetary magic, magical properties of materials and even for those interested in Christian or monotheistic magic.

Literature

  1. “De Occulta Philosophia Libri III” or “The Three Books of Occult Philosophy” by Agrippa. Read for free.
  2. “The Life of Henry Cornelius Agrippa Von Nettesheim in Two Volumes” by Henry Morely.
  3. “Agrippa and the Crisis of Renaissance Thought” by Charles Nauert.

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