Three Books of Occult Philosophy

Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa, translated by Eric Purdue
Rochester, Vt.: Inner Traditions, 2021: 808 pp., three volumes, hardcover, $195.

Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa’s Three Books of Occult Philosophy are a cornerstone of the Western esoteric tradition. They have exerted enormous influence since they were first published in 1533.

These books were not translated into English until 1651, when one “J.F.” published a version in London. It has attracted a certain amount of veneration, but even apart from its archaic language, it is highly flawed. In certain places, one has the impression that J.F. himself did not understand what the Latin meant.

No one else translated the text into English for the next 370 years. Finally, a new version has come out from Eric Purdue. It is remarkably clear and readable, partly because Purdue has followed Agrippa’s style, which is, considering the complexity of the material, reasonably straightforward and matter-of-fact.

Purdue has had to face a number of difficulties in dealing with this text. Probably the most acute has to do with its long lists of plants, animals, and stones. Agrippa promulgated the doctrine of correspondences—“as above, so below”—and, like many occultists, connected each of the planets with different things on this earthly plane. The problem here is often identifying which things he meant. It is complicated by the fact that Agrippa followed the pattern of learned men in his day: he reproduced material from esteemed, often ancient, sources, such as the Natural History of Pliny the Elder, possibly without knowing himself what these words referred to in some instances.

To give some idea of the two translations, here are J.F.’s and Purdue’s versions of a passage chosen at random, from chapter 22 of book 3. To begin with, J.F.’s:

Therefore in what virtue thou thinkest thou canst most easily be a proficient in, use diligence to attain the height thereof, that thou mayest excel in one, when in many thou canst not: but in the rest, endeavor to be as great a proficient as thou canst: but if thou shalt have the overseers of nature, and religion agreeable, thou shalt find a double progress of thy nature, and profession: but if they shall be disagreeing, follow the better, for thou shalt better perceive at some time a preserver of an excellent profession, than of nativity.

Here is Purdue’s:

Therefore, attend to that virtue with which you can most easily progress to the highest honor and that you can excel in where all cannot. Yet, in other [virtues], strive to be as proficient as you can. Disregard nothing. If you have harmonious guardians of nature and profession, you will see a double progress and growth in both that nature and profession. However, if [these two geniuses] are unequal, follow the best: for you will sometimes receive a more distinguished profession than in the nativity.

This chapter deals with the three daemons or genii that rule over the human being: the divine one; the daemon of the natal astrological chart; and the daemon of the profession one chooses, “which the soul, when it chose this body and began to dress itself in the character, secretly desired.” This paragraph, the last in the chapter, deals with which one an individual should follow. If the daemons of the natal chart and the profession are in agreement, the individual will prosper in both areas. But if they are not, then, Agrippa is saying, follow the genius of the profession rather than the one of the nativity.

I read the Latin of the last clause differently from both translations: nam melius aliquando fomentum percipies egregiae professionis quam nativitatis. Fomentum here seems to mean something like comfort or even satisfaction; one online Latin dictionary gives solace as one of its meanings. So I would translate this, “For sometimes you will experience more satisfaction from a distinguished profession than from a nativity.”

This at least gives some idea of the issues a translator faces. A great deal of a translation’s success has to do with combining fidelity to the original with clarity and readability. Often this requires sacrificing a literal translation in favor of one that recasts the original grammatically or even restates it in other words. The Italians say, “Traduttori, traditori”: “Translators are traitors.”

In any event, Purdue’s translation is a useful and welcome one. But it does not, to my mind, supplant what up to now had been the most popular edition of Agrippa: an edition of J.F.’s translation with notes and comments by Donald Tyson, published in 1993. Tyson’s edition has notes that are much more detailed and comprehensive than Purdue’s. If I were to study the text carefully, I would read Purdue’s translation with Tyson’s at hand.

Inner Traditions has done justice to this text. It is published in a three-volume slipcased edition, which, though expensive, is handsomely executed. I believe that anyone with a deep interest in the Western occult tradition will want to own it.

Richard Smoley