Trithemius, Johannes (1462–1516) German abbot, alchemist, magician, and historian. Johannes Trithemius authored numerous works on occult philosophy that influenced writers and artists, among them Henry Cornelius Agrippa. The great French occultist Eliphas Levi called Trithemius the greatest dogmatic magician of the middle ages.
Trithemius was born in Trittenheim near Trèves (Trier). His father, John Heidenberg, was a prosperous vine grower. His father died when he was young. He later took as his last name the place where he was born, a custom of the day.
An unhappy childhood with an abusive stepfather propelled him into deep study at an early age; he was fascinated by mysticism and the occult arts. Later, he said that an Angel had appeared to him in childhood and offered him two tablets with letters written upon them. After he chose one, the angel promised to fulfill his prayers and then vanished. After that, he had an insatiable desire to study and learn. He taught himself how to read German and engaged in secret lessons at night to learn Latin. This experience with the angel may have influenced his occult works, which were heavily couched in Symbols.
Trithemius left Trittenheim for Heidelberg—a center of Alchemy and occultism—where he became the student of an unknown teacher. He went to Trèves and entered the university there.
In 1482 a seeming fluke incident altered the course of his life. While traveling back to Trittenheim, he was forced by a blizzard to seek shelter at the Benedictine monastery of Saint Martin at Sponheim. He was so taken by the life of the monks that he entered the order, and within two years—at age 23—he was named abbot. At the time of his visit, the monastery had fallen on hard times, but under his direction, it was restored to prosperity. One of his passions was building up the monastery’s library from a mere 48 books to more than 2,000. He took on students, one of whom was Henry Cornelius Agrippa von Nettesheim.
Trithemius’s knowledge eventually led to accusations that he was a SORCERER, and stories of his conjurations arose. He is said to have enabled Emperor Maximilian to see a vision of his dead wife, Mary of Burgundy.
Trithemius resigned his post in 1506, but soon he was named abbot at another Benedictine monastery, Saint Jakob at Würzburg. He remained there for the rest of his life. According to lore, he was often tormented by a spirit named Hudekin.
Trithemius concealed occult secrets in PENTACLES.
He wrote some 70 works. Veterum sophorum sigilla et imagines magicae is a history of magic written entirely in pentacles, containing TalismanS and magical images. He explains the science of Incantations and Evocations in Stenoganographia, his original shorthand method for conjuring spirits, and in Polygraphia, on ciphers and MagicAL ALPHABETS. De septem secundeis, on the planetary angels who rule the cycle of ages, includes one of his rarer pentacles: a white triangle and black triangle joined at the base. The white triangle contains a knight with the inscription of the TETRAGRAMMATON, and the black triangle contains a fool looking at his own reflection. This pentacle, said Levi, “is the distinction between miracles and prodigies, the secret of apparitions, the universal theory of magnetism and the science of all mysteries.” The meaning of it is that the wise man rests in fear of the true God and the fool is overwhelmed by the fear of a false god made in his own image. By meditating on the pentacle, one will find “the last word of Kabbalism and the unspeakable formula of the Great Arcanum,” said Levi.
According to legend, Trithemius discovered the secret of the Philosopher's Stone, which was the real reason why the monastery prospered so much under his leadership.It was also said that he practiced forms of Magic, including NECROMANCY. Stenoganographia was denounced as magical and devilish. Agrippa wrote his first version of his monumental work, Occult Philosophy, while studying with Trithemius and dedicated the work to him.
- Levi, Eliphas. The History of Magic. 1860. Reprint, York Beach, Maine: Samuel Weiser, 2001.
- Mackay, Charles. Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1932.
- Seligmann, Kurt. The Mirror of Magic. New York: Pantheon Books, 1948.
- Three Books of Occult Philosophy Written by Henry Cornelius Agrippa of Nettesheim. Transl. by James Freake. Ed. and annot. by Donald Tyson. St. Paul, Minn.: Llewellyn Publications, 1995.