Three Books of Occult Philosophy

Three Books of Occult Philosophy

By Henry Comelius Agrippa of Nettesheim
edited and annotated by Donald Tyson;
Llewellyn Publications, Saint Paul, MN, 1994; paper, 938 pages.

When he delivered his massive manuscript to the Antwerp printers in 1531, Henry Cornelius Agrippa was a little concerned that his reading public would mistake him for a sorcerer since his subject was magic. After all, what this 45-year-old occultist was seeking to publish would be nothing less than the Renaissance's definitive handbook on all aspects of the Western esoteric tradition, from Kabbalah to medicine, astrology to herbalism, geomancy to angelology. Nor was it a book he was rushing into print, following a weekend 's illumination. He had written an early draft of it back in 1509 when he was all of twenty-five.

But now, two decades later, he wanted to assure his readers-and these would stretch across the next five centuries to our present generation - that to be a magician signified that one was not a conjurer or practitioner of forbidden arts, but rather a wise man, priest. and prophet. That said, he hoped his reader would receive "no little profit and much pleasure" from his efforts, providing they have as much "discretion of prudence as bees have in gathering honey." But if the "judicious" reader also learned how to destroy sorceries, turn away evil events, cure diseases, extirpate phantasms, preserve life, honor, and fortune, all the better, for these, too, are both profitable and necessary, said Agrippa.

As occultists and scholars have appreciated in the centuries since its first publication, Agrippa's Three Books of Occult Philosophy, drawing on Greek, Egyptian, Jewish. Roman, and Arabic esoteric sources, probably the most complete digest of pagan and Neo-platonic magical practice ever compiled. What makes this old fact a new publishing event in the mid-1990s is the prodigious editing work of Donald Tyson, a well-known writer on magical themes and guidebooks.

Llewellyn Publications are to be congratulated and thanked for undertaking such a huge but hugely necessary task of making Agrippa accessible and affordable to a large reading public. For too long, as Tyson explains. Agrippa's invaluable book on "the Art" was difficult and costly to obtain, and those editions that were available were marked by so many mistakes dating back to the first translations, that many important operations and correspondences in magic have long been misconstrued.

Tyson reconstructed and redrew nearly all the charts and tab les to correct mistakes. He documents, footnotes. explains, and amplifies Agrippa; in numerous special appendices Tyson gives the biographies of all the notables mentioned by Agrippa; and in eight supplementary chapters he explains magic squares, the elements, humours, geomancy, and practical Kabbalah. In his breadth of reference and precision of detail, Tyson nearly outdoes the old magus himself.

Tyson is not boasting when he declares to the reader that while this work was a "great labor" and "monumental task," it offers the serious reader "a graduate degree in Renaissance magic." This was evidently Agrippa's intention. because he leads the reader through a fund of accumulated knowledge from neoclassical and Hebraic occultism as it was understood in the early sixteenth century.

Agrippa 's scope was encyclopedic, but inherently fated to be incomplete. "Agrippa knew he could never compress the entire literature of magic into a single volume, so he pointed the way. The reader will derive inestimable profit in following his discretion," Tyson says.

Is Agrippa worth bothering with in our metaphysically profligate 1990s? With all our freelance "new age" psychics and channeled occultists, does a Renaissance text on magic offer us anything new? Most certainly. It gives us the source of this so called newness, which is nothing more than a little initiatory knowledge seeping into the awareness of a comparatively mass audience. In his three books, Agrippa gives us a touchstone, a standard reference source, and the bedrock of a perennial tradition that has seen yet another copious re-flowering in our own time. For anyone even a little familiar with the true root s of the art of magic. this book is doubly indispensable; for those new to the field. this is an excellent and metaphysically reliable starting point for a deep investigation. Even though it is generally inappropriate for an author to pitch his own book in this way, we can forgive Tyson for saying that "n o true student of the Art can afford not to possess this book."

The fact of the perdurability of this classic text raises an interesting question. Are we today more sophisticated than occultists and magical scholars of Agrippa's time? Or are we dilettantes, no better than those Monday morning mystics Agrippa dismissed as being satisfied with the "superficial and vulgar" account of the stars, their influences and manipulation s, those content with touching the "outside" of philosophy?

Agrippa wrote for those wanting the insider's track on occult philosophy., those who know that knowledge of the Art, both theoretical and practical, enables one, as Agrippa 's English translator in 1651 noted, to "operate wonderful things" that are "effected by a natural power," and to do so "without either offence to God or violation of religion." Surely we can't go wrong today with that sober approach.


Autumn 1994