Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa (1486–1535) was an important occult philosopher whose seminal work, Occult Philosophy, had a profound impact on the development of Western occultism and Magic. Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa—also known as Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa von Nettesheim— wrote extensively on Neoplatonic philosophy and kabbalistic magic, and sought to unite the two.
Agrippa had a difficult life. Far ahead of his time and contemptuous of other intellectuals, he was misunderstood by his contemporaries, and he angered authorities of church and state. He was born on September 14, 1486, in Cologne, and in 1499 entered the university there. He probably adopted the name “von Nettesheim,” or “of Nettesheim,” himself, after the founder of Cologne.
Agrippa had a quick and inquiring mind. He learned eight languages and engaged in a deep study of alchemy, the hermetica, and the kabbalah. His personal aim was to achieve a spiritual union with the Godhead. His first job was an appointment as court secretary and then soldier to Maximilian I, king of Rome and Germany.
He was sent to Paris, where mixed with scholars and the nobility, founding a secret society with them. His love of intrigues and secrecy would continue throughout his life. In 1509, Agrippa went to Dôle, where he lectured on the kabbalah at the university and earned a doctorate of divinity. He tried to win the patronage of Maximilian’s daughter, Margaret of Austria, with a flattering work, The Nobility of Women, but the clerics denounced him as a heretic and prevented publication of the work. Margaret did not come to his aid.
Agrippa abandoned his efforts and went to England and then Cologne. His arrogance created strained relationships even with his admirers. Agrippa collected a vast store of occult knowledge and made notes for what would become his most important work, the three-volume Occult Philosophy, a summation of all the magical and occult knowledge of the time.
In 1510, he sent the manuscript to Abbot Johannes Trithemius, at the monastery of St. Jakob in Würzburg, for approval. Trithemius was impressed and responded with this advice:
I have only one more admonition to give you. Never forget it: to the vulgar, speak only of vulgar things; keep for your friends every secret of a higher order; give hay to the oxen and sugar to the parrot. Understand my meaning, lest you be trod under the oxen’s feet, as oftentimes happens.
Occult Philosophy remained unpublished until 1531 because of efforts to block it by Dominican inquisitors. The first edition was followed by the complete work in 1533. By then Agrippa had been “trod under the oxen’s feet” many times over and had even recanted the material in his manuscript. During the intervening years between 1509 and 1531, he drifted around Europe, forming secret societies and working at various jobs. He was frequently at odds with the church, for he considered many monks to be ignorant and narrow-minded.
He was unlucky in marriage and money: two wives died and the third ruined him emotionally and financially. In 1515, Agrippa went to Italy with Maximilian’s army. He was knighted on the battlefield. The cardinal of St. Croix sent him to Pisa on church business, but the church council disbanded, prematurely ending any ecclesiastical career Agrippa might have entertained.
He then went to Turin and Padua, lecturing on alchemy and Hermes Trismegistus, and gaining fame for his knowledge. In 1516, the Lords of Metz named him advocate, syndic and orator of the city. That job lasted only two years. Agrippa successfully defended a country woman against charges of witchcraft , which embroiled him in a dispute with the inquisitor of Metz. The chief evidence against the woman was that her mother had been burned as a witch.
Agrippa destroyed the case against her—and the credibility of the inquisitor—with the theological argument that man could be separated from Christ only by his own sin, not that of another. The humiliated inquisitor threatened to prosecute Agrippa for heresy. Agrippa returned to Cologne and then moved on to Geneva and Fribourg, where he practiced medicine.
In 1524, he went to Lyons and was appointed physician to Duchesse Louise of Savoy, the mother of the King Francis I of France. The post secured him a long-sought-after pension. But the Duchesse wanted him to tell her fortune by astrology, which he considered beneath his vast talents. She was slow to pay him and kept him confined to Lyons, impoverished, until 1526, when she left Lyons.
In 1529, Agrippa had four sponsors: King Henry VIII of England, the chancellor of the emperor of Germany, an Italian marquis, and finally Margaret of Austria, who made him historiographer. He accumulated enough money to spend his time studying alchemy. Agrippa’s work On the Vanity of Arts and Sciences was published. In it he declared that all human thought and activity are vain—a complete contradiction of his championship of magic in his yet-unpublished manuscript Occult Philosophy.
Agrippa’s pension was canceled, and he was jailed for debt in 1531. His friends released him, but only a year later, his writings caused him to be accused of impiety. The Dominicans attempted to block publication of some of his work. Emperor Charles V demanded that he recant many of his opinions. In 1535, the emperor condemned him to death as a heretic. Agrippa fled to France but was imprisoned.
Sprung free by friends once again, he set out for Lyons but fell sick along the way and died. During his life, Agrippa attracted many pupils. One of the most famous was Johann Weyer, who wrote extensively on Demonology. Agrippa wrote numerous other works, which he collected together with his letters toward the end of his life and published as Opera.
In Occult Philosophy, Agrippa said that magic is powerful, full of mystery, and comprises a profound knowledge of the most secret things. Magic is philosophy, physics, mathematics, and theology. It has nothing to do with the devil or sorcery, but it depends on natural psychic gifts such as second sight. He believed in the ultimate power of will and imagination to effect magic, and he understood the power that the mind has over the body. Man achieves his highest potential by learning the harmonies of nature.
The Astral body is the “chariot of the soul” and can leave the physical body like a light escaping from a lantern. The greatest and highest wonder-working name is Jesus. Occult Philosophy is comprised of three books. Book one covers natural magic in the elementary world, including stones, herbs, metals, and so forth. Agrippa agrees with the Neoplatonic idea that the elements exist everywhere throughout the universe, even in spirits and angels, in varying states of purity.
The elements birth natural virtues. The world soul, or Anima Mundi, infuses things with occult virtues through the agent of ideas. Occult virtues can be known and studied through “resemblances”—the sympathetic and antipathetic relationships between things. Book two covers the celestial or mathematical world and discusses the magical properties of celestial bodies and numbers.
Resemblances also occur among the planets, and provide a source of magical power to the magus. All things below are inferior to and influenced by all things above. Favorable influences can be obtained from the stars, “good Demons,” and even from God. Resemblances also govern divination and augury. Numbers and mathematics govern the order, structure, natural virtues, and harmony of all things.
Knowledge of numbers is necessary to understand musical harmony, which reflects the harmony of the cosmos. Agrippa discusses the work of Pythagoras, concerning sacred numbers dedicated to the elements and planetarian gods. Book three covers the intellectual world of pagan gods and spirits—including angels and Demons—and gives magical procedures for invoking and communicating with them, as well as with God. Agrippa gives instructions for making sigils and amulets, working with angelic scripts (see magical alphabets), and working with sound and fumes (see perfumes).
The kabbalistic tree of life is explained, including the hierarchies of angels and Demons associated with each sephirot. Agrippa says that religion is necessary to every act of magic. His concept of religion was not traditional or orthodox but a mixture of Christianity, Neoplatonism, and kabbalism. He states:
Religion is the most mysterious thing, and one about which one should keep silent, for Trismegistus says that it would be an offense to religion to confide it to the profane multitude.
Agrippa equates angels to intelligences and spirits in that they all are nonphysical entities, are immortal, and wield great influences over things in creation. There are three kinds in the traditions of the magicians. The first kind are the supercelestial angels, intellectual spheres focused on worshiping the one and only God. They infuse the lower angelic orders with the light they receive from God, and they instruct the orders in their duties.
The second kind are the celestial angels, or worldly angels, who are concerned with the spheres of the world and for governing “every heaven and star.” The celestials are divided into orders, as many as are there heavens and as there are stars in the heavens. All of these angels have names and seals that are used in ceremonial magic operations.
The third kind of angels are ministers who govern the daily affairs of Earth and people. They can help procure success and happiness—and also inflict adversity. The orders of ministers fall into four categories that are aligned with the characteristics of the four elements, which govern different faculties of mind, reason, imagination, and action. There are nine orders of Demons, according to Agrippa. They wander the Earth, enraged and fomenting trouble, but they have the potential for redemption if they repent.
The orders are, from the most important to the least:
• False Gods, who are ruled by Beelzebub and who usurp the name of God and demand worship, sacrifices, and adoration;
• Spirits of Lies, who are ruled by Pytho and deceive oracles, diviners, and prophets;
• Vessels of Iniquity, also called Vessels of Wrath, who invent evil things and the “wicked arts” such as card games and gambling, and who are ruled by Belial;
• Revengers of Evil, who are ruled by Asmodeus and cause bad judgment;
• Deluders, who are ruled by Satan and imitate miracles, serve wicked conjurers and witches, and seduce people by their false miracles;
• Aerial Powers, who are ruled by Meririm and cause pestilence and terribly destructive storms, and who are personified by the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse in the book of revelation;
• Furies, who are ruled by Abbadon (Apollyon) and wreak war, discord, devastation and evil;
• Accusers, who are ruled by Astaroth and lie and slander; and • Tempters and Ensnarers, who are ruled by Mammon and inspire covetousness and “evil genius.” A spurious Fourth Book of Occult Philosophy appeared in 1567 but was denounced by Weyer. (See grimoires.)
An English translation of Occult Philosophy, published in 1651, was plagiarized by Francis Barrett , who published a truncated version of it as his own book, The Magus, in 1801. The hermetic order of the golden dawn used Occult Philosophy as a key source.
- Morley, Henry. The Life of Henry Cornelius Agrippa. London: Chapman and Hall, 1856.
- Seligmann, Kurt. The History of Magic and the Occult. New York: Pantheon Books, 1948.
- Three Books of Occult Philosophy Written by Henry Cornelius Agrippa of Nettesheim. Trans. by James Freake. Ed. and anno. by Donald Tyson. St. Paul, Minn.: Llewellyn Publications, 1995.