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Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa


Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa von Nettesheim (b. Cologne, September 14, 1486 – d. Grenoble, France, February 18 1535) was a German magician, occult writer, astrologer, and alchemist.



IIn 1512, he taught at the University of Dole in France, lecturing on Johann Reuchlin's De verbo mirifico; as a result, Agrippa was denounced, behind his back, as a "Judaizing heretic." Agrippa's vitriolic response many months later did not endear him to the University.

In 1510, he studied briefly with Johannes Trithemius, and Agrippa sent him an early draft of his masterpiece, De occulta philosophia libri tres, a kind of summa of early modern occult thought. Trithemius was guardedly approving, but suggested that Agrippa keep the work more or less secret; Agrippa chose not to publish, perhaps for this reason, but continued to revise and rethink the book for twenty years.

During his wandering life in Germany, France and Italy he worked as a theologian, physician, legal expert and soldier.

He was for some time in the service of Maximilian I, probably as a soldier in Italy, but devoted his time mainly to the study of the occult sciences and to problematic theological legal questions, which exposed him to various persecutions through life, usually in the mode described above: He would be privately denounced for one sort of heresy or another. He would only reply with venom considerably later.[citation needed]

There is no evidence that Agrippa was seriously accused, much less persecuted, for his interest in or practice of magical or occult arts during his lifetime, apart from losing several positions.[citation needed]

According to his student Johann Weyer, Agrippa died in Grenoble, in 1535.[citation needed]

Appearances in fiction

After Agrippa's death, rumors circulated about his having summoned demons. In the most famous of these, Agrippa, upon his deathbed, released a black dog which had been his familiar. This black dog resurfaced in various legends about Faustus, and in Goethe's version became the "schwarze Pudel" Mephistopheles.

Agrippa is briefly mentioned in the Harry Potter series, appearing on a Chocolate Frog card.

In the nineteenth century, Mary Shelley mentioned him in some of her works. In her gothic novel Frankenstein, Agrippa's works were read and admired by Victor Frankenstein. In her short story The Mortal Immortal, Agrippa is imagined as having created an elixir allowing his apprentice to survive for hundreds of years.

The novel The Fiery Angel (1908) by Valery Bryusov (on which Sergei Prokofiev's opera The Fiery Angel is based), set in the sixteenth century, features a visit paid to Agrippa by the protagonist Ruprecht who is seeking advice on the occult. In novel and opera, Agrippa is presented as being in a dangerous position with the religious authorities: he emphatically denies to Ruprecht that his research is supernatural, stating instead that it is the study of nature itself.

In 1916 Agrippa is briefly mentioned in Joyce's "A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man" by the protagonist Stephen: "A phrase of Cornelius Agrippa flew through his mind".

In Vaclav Havel's modern rewrite of Doctor Faustus, Fistula tempts Doctor Foustka to indulge in witchcraft, noting that he has several books by occultists such as Agrippa, Nostradamus, Eliphas Levi, and Papus. Temptation: A Play in Ten Scenes.


Agrippa is perhaps best known for his books. An incomplete list:

  • De incertitudine et vanitate scientiarum atque artium declamatio invectiva (The Speech Attacking the Uncertainty and Vanity of the Sciences and the Arts, 1526; printed in Cologne 1527), a skeptical satire of the sad state of science. This book, a significant production of the revival of Pyrrhonic skepticism in its fideist mode, was to have a significant impact on such thinkers and writers as Montaigne, Rene Descartes, and Goethe.
  • Declamatio de nobilitate et praecellentia foeminei sexus (Declamation on the Nobility and Preeminence of the Female Sex, 1529[1]), a book on the theological and moral superiority of women. Edition with English translation, London 1670[2]
  • De occulta philosophia libri tres (Three Books About 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 synthetic vision of magic whereby the natural world linked to the celestial and the divine through Neoplatonic participation, such that the ordinarily licit natural magic was in fact validated by a kind of demonic magic stemming ultimately from God. By this means Agrippa proposed a magic that could resolve all epistemological problems raised by skepticism in a total validation of Christian faith. For example, Agrippa analyzes herbal treatments for malaria in numeric terms: "Rabanus also, a famous Doctor, composed an excellent book of the vertues of numbers: But now how great vertues numbers have in nature, is manifest in the hearb which is called Cinquefoil, i.e. five leaved Grass; for this resists poysons by vertue of the number of five; also drives away divells, conduceth to expiation; and one leafe of it taken twice in a day in wine, cures the Feaver of one day: three the tertian Feaver: foure the quartane. In like manner four grains of the seed of Turnisole being drunk, cures the quartane, but three the tertian. In like manner Vervin is said to cure Feavers, being drunk in wine, if in tertians it be cut from the third joynt, in quartans from the fourth."
The book was a major influence on such later magical thinkers as Giordano Bruno and John Dee, but was ill-understood after the decline of the Occult Renaissance concomitant with the Scientific Revolution. The book (which circulated in manuscript long before it was published) is often cited in discussions of Albrecht Dürer's famous engraving Melencolia I (1514). (Note that Philosophy of Natural Magic: Complete Work on Natural Magic, White & Black Magic, 1569, ISBN 1-56459-160-3, is simply book 1 of De occulta philosophia libri tres.)

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 was certainly not by Agrippa.

(A semi-complete collection of his writings were also printed in Lyon in 1550; more complete editions followed.)

Modern editions of Agrippa's works

  • De occulta philosophia libri tres. Ed. Vitttoria Perrone Compagni. Leiden and Boston: Brill, 1992: ISBN 90-04-09421-0.
  • Three Books Of Occult Philosophy. Trans. J. F. Edited by Donald Tyson. St. Paul, MN: Llewellyn, 1993: ISBN 0-87542-832-0.
  • Declamation on the Nobility and Preeminence of the Female Sex. Trans. Albert Rabil, Jr. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996: ISBN 0-226-01059-7

No proper modern edition of De vanitate presently exists.

Further reading

  • Lehrich, Christopher I. The Language of Demons and Angels. Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2003: ISBN 90-04-13574-X. The only in-depth scholarly study of Agrippa's occult thought.
  • Nauert, Charles G. Agrippa and the Crisis of Renaissance Thought. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1965: ASIN B000BANHI6. The first serious bio-bibliographical study.
  • van der Poel, Marc. Cornelius Agrippa, the Humanist Theologian and His Declamations. Leiden and Boston: Brill, 1997: ISBN 90-04-10756-8. Detailed examination of Agrippa's minor orations and the De vanitate by a Neo-Latin philologist.
  • Yates, Frances A. Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition. University of Chicago Press, 1964: ISBN 0-226-95007-7. Provides a scholarly summary of Agrippa's occult thoughts in the context of Hermeticism.

See also

This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article "Heinrich_Cornelius_Agrippa". A list of authors is available in Wikipedia.
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