Agrippa, Heinrich Cornelius
The alchemy he practised was spiritual alchemy, although he also studied healing and medical alchemy.
Agrippa was married three times and had a large [very large] family, so his spiritual alchemy was, shall we say, not entirely a success. As will be apparent if you read the dedications he made to various women in his books, together with the title of his books, for example, Declamation on the Nobility and Preeminence of the Female Sex, Agrippa not only loved women, but also eventually realised they were the route and the means by which one achieved spiritual enlightenment.
His ideas on both magic and alchemy changed over the years as he appeared to learn more; as such his earlier works may not reflect his later beliefs. In his early days it appears he believed in the use of 'chemicals' and 'plants' to provide an experience - overload techniques. There is then the real possibility that he began to realise the dangers of dabbling in something that you have not fully gained competency in and advising others to do the same. Competent magicians can effect environmental control – levitation, weather control, communication with spirit beings, various sorts of healing [particularly ‘expunging demons’ – exorcism] and so on, but they can also turn sorcerer – downright wicked. And if they are wicked they can invoke demons and issue death prayers. They can also be possessed. In case anyone smiles with amusement at this, you might turn for edification to the entry for Daniel Pinchbeck.
Third Book of Occult Philosophy – Agrippa
But of magic I wrote whilst I was very 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 dissuade others from this destruction. For whosoever do not in the truth, nor in the power of God, but in the deceits of devils, according to the operation of wicked spirits presume to divine and prophesy, and practising through magical vanities, exorcisms, incantations and other demoniacal works and deceits of idolatry, boasting of delusions, and phantasms, presently ceasing, brag that they can do miracles, I say all these shall with Jannes, and Jambres, and Simon Magus, be destinated [sic] to the torments of eternal fire.
In other words be careful what you are playing with, because magic is not for the dabbler or the ignorant.
There are some who assume from the quote above that he gave up magic, but this to me shows he knew all too well what magic can do.
If you learn how to levitate, for example, it might be as well to learn how to get down, otherwise you spend your whole time on the ceiling like Joseph of Cupertino.
So what do we know of his life?
1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Agrippa Von Nettesheim, Henry Cornelius
AGRIPPA VON NETTESHEIM, HENRY COHNELIUS German writer, soldier, physician, and by common reputation a magician, belonged to a family many members of which had been in the service of the House of Habsburg, and was born at Cologne on the 14th of September 1486.
The details of his early life are somewhat obscure, but he appears to have obtained a knowledge of eight languages, to have studied at the university of Cologne and to have passed some time in France. When quite young he entered the service of the German king, Maximilian I, and in 1508 was engaged in an adventurous enterprise in Catalonia. He probably served Maximilian both as soldier knight and as secretary, but his wonderful and varied genius was not satisfied with these occupations, and he soon began to take a lively interest in theosophy and magic.
In 1509 he went to the university of Dôle, where he lectured on John Reuchlin's De Verbo Mirifico, but his teaching soon caused charges of heresy to be brought against him, and he was denounced by a monk named John Catilinet in lectures delivered at Ghent. As a result Agrippa was compelled to leave Dôle; proceeding to the Netherlands he took service again with Maximilian.
In 1510 the king sent him on a diplomatic mission to England, where he was the guest of Colet, dean of St Paul's, and where he replied to the accusations brought against him by Catilinet.
In 1510, Agrippa studied briefly with Johannes Trithemius, and Agrippa sent him an early draft of his masterpiece, De occulta philosophia libri tres. Trithemius was guardedly approving, but suggested that Agrippa keep the work more or less secret; Agrippa chose not to publish, but continued to revise and rethink the book for twenty years.
During his subsequent wandering life in Germany, France, and Italy, Agrippa worked as a physician/healer, legal expert, and soldier [knight]. But his spare time was mainly devoted to the study of the occult sciences and to problematic theosophical questions. As a consequence of his interest in magic and alchemy, he would spend most of the rest of his life being denounced for one sort of deviation or another.
No evidence exists that Agrippa was seriously accused, much less persecuted, for his interest in or practice of magical or occult arts during his lifetime, but he did lose several positions and had to spend most of his time on the move. This rather infers he was a true alchemist and magician and never became a sorcerer. It may also infer that as a practising alchemist he used the sexual techniques inherent in alchemy – probably sex magick, peaking and sexual stimulation. This would also explain why he was never tried for heresy – he didn’t openly oppose church doctrine, but he did use ‘forbidden practises’.
1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Agrippa Von Nettesheim, Henry Cornelius
Returning to Cologne Agrippa followed Maximilian to Italy in 1511, and as a theologian attended the council of Pisa, which was called by some cardinals in opposition to a council called by Pope Julius II. He remained in Italy for seven years, partly in the service of William VI, marquis of Monferrato, and partly in that of Charles III, duke of Savoy.
In 1518 the efforts of one or other of his patrons secured for Agrippa the position of town advocate and orator, or syndic, at Metz.
Here, as at Dôle, his opinions soon brought him into collision with the monks, and his defence of a woman accused of witchcraft involved him in a dispute with the inquisitor, Nicholas Savin. The consequence of this was that in 1520 he resigned his office and returned to Cologne, where he stayed about two years. He then practised for a short time as a physician at Geneva and Freiburg, but in 1524 went to Lyons on being appointed physician to Louise of Savoy, mother of Francis I.
In 1528 he gave up this position, and about this time was invited to take part in the dispute over the legality of the divorce of Catherine of Aragon by Henry VIII; but he preferred an offer made by Margaret, duchess of Savoy and regent of the Netherlands, and became archivist and historiographer to the emperor Charles V. Margaret's death in 1530 weakened his position, and the publication of some of his writings about the same time aroused a new the hatred of his enemies; but after suffering a short imprisonment for debt at Brussels he lived at Cologne and Bonn, under the protection of Hermann of Wied, archbishop of Cologne.
About the only time Agrippa came seriously close to having to face the true horrors of the Inquisition, was when he eventually decided to publish his revised De occulta philosophia. The Inquisition tried to stop the printing of De occulta philosophia, which from the point of view of this site adds new interest in the work [whether right or wrong], as it means they thought it was a serious threat.
Agrippa escaped to France, where he was arrested by order of Francis I for some disparaging words about the queen-mother; but he was soon released, and on the 18th of February 1535 died at Grenoble.
1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Agrippa Von Nettesheim, Henry Cornelius
His memory was long defamed in the writings of the monks, who placed a malignant inscription over his grave. Agrippa's work, De occulta philosophia, was written about 1510, partly under the influence of the author's friend, John Trithemius, abbot of Würzburg, but its publication was delayed until 1531, when it appeared at Antwerp. It is a defence of magic, by means of which men may come to a knowledge of nature and of God, and contains Agrippa's idea of the universe with its three worlds or spheres. His other principal work, De Incertitudine et Vanitate Scientiarum et Artium Atque Excellentia Verbi Dei Declamatio, was written about 1527 and published at Antwerp in 1531. This is a sarcastic attack on the existing sciences and on the pretensions of learned men. In it Agrippa denounces the accretions which had grown up around the simple doctrines of Christianity, and wishes for a return to the simple beliefs of the early Christian church. He also wrote De Nobilitate et Praecellentia Feminei Sexus, dedicated to Margaret of Burgundy, De matrimonii sacramento and other smaller works. An edition of his works was published at Leiden in 1550 and they have been republished several times.
De occulta philosophia was a major influence on Giordano Bruno and John Dee, and also had an influence on the Rosicrucians and other Christian mystical movements. It was 'ill-understood' once the scientific revolution had taken a hold simply because it was spiritual and also because it used a great deal of symbolism. The book (whose early draft, quite different from the final form, circulated in manuscript long before it was published) is often cited in discussions of Albrecht Dürer's famous engraving Melencolia I (1514).
A spurious Fourth book of occult philosophy, sometimes called Of Magical Ceremonies, has also been attributed to him; this book first appeared in Marburg in 1559 and is not believed to have been written by Agrippa.
Main Works of Agrippa
- De incertitudine et vanitate scientiarum atque artium declamatio invectiva (Declamation Attacking the Uncertainty and Vanity of the Sciences and the Arts, 1526; printed in Cologne 1527), this book had a significant impact on such thinkers and writers as Montaigne, René Descartes, and Goethe
- Declamatio de nobilitate et praecellentia foeminei sexus (Declamation on the Nobility and Preeminence of the Female Sex, 1529), a book pronouncing the theological and moral superiority of women. Edition with English translation, London 1670
- De occulta philosophia libri tres (Three Books Concerning Occult Philosophy, Book 1 printed Paris 1531; Books 1-3 in Cologne 1533). This summa of occult and magical thought, Agrippa's most important work in a number of respects, sought a solution to the skepticism proposed in De vanitate. In short, Agrippa argued for a form of magic whereby the natural world combined with the celestial and the divine - spiritual experience with the celestial as opposed to terrestrial hierarchy
- De matrimonii sacramento – Agrippa wrote and published this book at the beginning of 1526, at a time when his position at the French court became increasingly untenable. He dedicated the treatise to Margaret of Angouleme, duchess of Alencon and later Queen of Navarre. De matrimonii sacramento is the only treatise of which Agrippa provided a translation, namely in French. This French translation along with a Latin version was printed in 1526 and again in 1529 as part of his Collected treatises. The book not only describes the sacredness of marriage but also supports the sort of practises that Alice Bunker Stockham proposed.
Jean Chapelain – Letters
Some men, although they are to be considered good Christians, do not approve of your treatise on marriage because of a few passages, and they happen to be men who speak frequently with their Highnesses. Therefore I have postponed the presentation of the volume, fearing that it might rather lead to your disgrace than to your advantage
Other reference works
- Cornelius Agrippa: The Humanist Theologian and His Declamations - Marc Van Der Poel
The observations are a selection from his works, the links above take you to the full works, although clearly all you will get is the text and not the symbolic meaning. I have taken the unusual step of using Marc van der Poel's analysis of De matrimonii sacramento in which he mentions the specific Biblical texts that Agrippa uses to support his argument. Agrippa knew his symbolism and would have known the Bible was symbolic; as such the texts he uses in the passages are key and tell us more about his beliefs than his writing, which by its very subject matter had to be very carefully worded, given that he was advocating the use of sex [with women] to provide spiritual experience and his opposition were supposedly 'celibate' monks who practised repression.
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- Agrippa, Heinrich Cornelius - Sacramentum matrimonii antiquissimum est - 01
- Agrippa, Heinrich Cornelius - Sacramentum matrimonii antiquissimum est - 02
- Agrippa, Heinrich Cornelius - Sacramentum matrimonii antiquissimum est - 03
- Agrippa, Heinrich Cornelius - Sacramentum matrimonii antiquissimum est - 04
- Agrippa, Heinrich Cornelius - Sacramentum matrimonii antiquissimum est - 05
- Agrippa, Heinrich Cornelius - Sacramentum matrimonii antiquissimum est - 06
- Agrippa, Heinrich Cornelius - The Philosophy of Natural Magic – Chapter 03
- Agrippa, Heinrich Cornelius - The Philosophy of Natural Magic – Chapter 04 - Numbers
- Agrippa, Heinrich Cornelius - The Philosophy of Natural Magic – Chapter 04 - Spirits
- Agrippa, Heinrich Cornelius - The Philosophy of Natural Magic – Chapter 05
- Agrippa, Heinrich Cornelius - The Philosophy of Natural Magic – On healing 01
- Agrippa, Heinrich Cornelius - The Philosophy of Natural Magic – On healing 02