Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa

Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa
Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa
Born 15 September 1486(1486-09-15)
Cologne, Germany
Died 18 February 1535(1535-02-18) (aged 48)
Grenoble, France
Cause of death Unknown
Occupation magician, occult writer, theologian, astrologer, alchemist, physician, legal expert and soldier

Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa von Nettesheim (September 15, 1486 – February 18, 1535) was a German magician, occult writer, theologian, astrologer, and alchemist.



Agrippa was born in Cologne in 1486. In 1512, he taught at the University of Dole in the Free County of Burgundy, 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 (Nauert demonstrates this pattern effectively.)

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. It is impossible of course to cite negatively, but Nauert, the best bio-bibliographical study to date, shows no indication of such persecution, and van der Poel's careful examination of the various attacks suggest that they were founded on quite other theological grounds.

It is important to mention that, according to some scholarship, "As early as 1525 and again as late as 1533 (two years before his death) Agrippa clearly and unequivocally rejected magic in its totality, from its sources in imagined antiquity to contemporary practice." Some aspects remain unclear, but there are those who believe it was sincere (not out of fear, as a parody, or otherwise).[1] Recent scholarship (see Further Reading below, in Lehrich, Nauert, and van der Poel) generally agrees that this rejection or repudiation of magic is not what it seems: Agrippa never rejected magic in its totality, but he did retract his early manuscript of the Occult Philosophy - to be replaced by the later form.

According to his student Johann Weyer, in the book De praestigiis daemonum, Agrippa died in Grenoble, in 1535.

Famous Sayings

He said: "Nothing is concealed from the wise and sensible, while the unbelieving and unworthy cannot learn the secrets." He emphasized: "All things which are similar and therefore connected, are drawn to each other's power." This is known as the law of resonance.

Appearances in Fiction and Folklore

After Agrippa's death, rumors circulated about him summoning 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 introduced as a conjuror in one of the earliest works of fiction in English, The Unfortunate Traveller (1594), by Thomas Nashe. The protagonist, in the company of his master the Earl of Surrey (a fictionalised version of the English poet), watches him perform magical tricks at Wittenberg. Agrippa is also shown to have met Sir Thomas More and Lord Cromwell (Henry VIII's ministers) and impressed them with his incredible learning (The Unfortunate Traveller, Bk IV).

Mary Shelley mentioned Agrippa in some of her works. In her 1818 gothic novel Frankenstein, Agrippa's works were read and admired by Victor Frankenstein. In her 1833 short story "The Mortal Immortal", Agrippa is imagined as having created an elixir allowing his apprentice to survive for hundreds of years.

Agrippa is briefly mentioned in Herman Melville's short story "The Bell-tower."

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.

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

In Václav 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.[2]

He is mentioned in Jorge Luis Borges' Labyrinths in the story "The Immortal", "Like Cornelius Agrippa, I am god, I am hero, I am philosopher, I am demon and I am world, which is a tedious way of saying that I do not exist."

Agrippa is a major character in Alex Comfort's 1980 novel "Tetrarch", supposing that in the last few minutes of his life, he "shamanized" into the world of the novel, became an "adept" and an ally and lover to the central characters of the novel. His treatise "On the Excellence and Preeminence of Women" is particularly mentioned.

Agrippa is a major character in Steve Englehart's series of Max August novels, beginning with The Point Man in 1980, and continuing through The Long Man and The Plain Man.

Agrippa is briefly mentioned in the Harry Potter series, appearing on a Chocolate Frog card. According to his card he was imprisoned for his writings (possibly about magic) because Muggles thought they were works of evil.

A medallion accredited to Cornelius Agrippa is used in Mike Mignola's comic book short story Hellboy: The Corpse; it was mentioned as being effective against a vampire cat from Kyoto and proved valuable against a war-god/pig-man.

A fictional architect by the name C. Agrippa was charged to design and construct the great Temple of Agrippa which is one of the five major environments in the alchemy-themed adventure game Zork Nemesis.

Cornelius Agrippa is the name of one of the feudal lords and ladies who rule over the lands of Alyria in the text-based MUD, Materia Magica.

Agrippa is a key figure in Peter Straub's 2010 novel A Dark Matter.

Agrippa is a character in Frictional Games' 2010 computer game Amnesia: The Dark Descent. In the game, his soul trapped in an emaciated human husk where he was imprisoned by his former pupil, the Prussian Baron Alexander of Brennenburg. He guides Daniel, the protagonist, and informs him of his past work and experience with Alexander.

Agrippa is mentioned in chapter 13 of Phantastes, A Faerie Romance by George MacDonald. The character of Cosmo von Wehrstahl has a secret drawer, in which "...lay the works of Albertus Magnus and Cornelius Agrippa... ."


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

  • 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), 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, René Descartes, and Goethe.[citation needed]
  • Declamatio de nobilitate et praecellentia foeminei sexus (Declamation on the Nobility and Preeminence of the Female Sex, 1529[3]), a book pronouncing the theological and moral superiority of women. Edition with English translation, London 1670[4]
  • 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 synthetic vision of magic whereby the natural world combined with the celestial and the divine through Neoplatonic participation, such that ordinarily licit natural magic was in fact validated by a kind of demonic magic sourced 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.
One example of the text, not especially indicative of its broader contents, is Agrippa's analysis of 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[citation needed], but was ill-understood[citation needed] after the decline of the Occult Renaissance concomitant with the Scientific Revolution. 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). (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.[citation needed]

(A semi-complete collection of his writings were also printed in Lyon in 1550; arguably more complete editions followed, but none is without serious textual problems.)

Modern editions of Agrippa's works

  • De occulta philosophia libri tres. Ed. Vittoria Perrone Compagni. Leiden and Boston: Brill, 1992: ISBN 90-04-09421-0.
  • Three Books Of Occult Philosophy. Trans. James Freake 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
  • Of the Vanitie and Vncertaintie of Artes and Sciences. Edited by Catherine M. Dunn. Northridge, CA: California State University Foundation, 1974. ASIN: B0006CM0SW

See also

Notes and references

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.
  • Morley, Henry. "Cornelius Agrippa: The Life of Henry Cornelius Agrippa von Nettesheim" Vol. I, London: Chapman & Hall, 1856.
  • 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.
  • McDonald, Grantley. ‘Cornelius Agrippa’s School of Love: Teaching Plato’s Symposium in the Renaissance’, in Practices of Gender in Late-Medieval and Early Modern Europe, ed. Peter Sherlock and Megan Cassidy-Welch (Turnhout: Brepols, 2008), pp. 151–75. An examination of one of Agrippa's university orations, on the subject of love, from a Neoplatonic and Cabalistic perspective.

External links

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