Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa (1486-1535)

Three Books of Occult Philosophy by Agrippa, printed 1651. Photo Credit: Neil Girling/Flickr/Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa von Nettesheim was born in Cologne, France, 1486, but beyond that, little is known about his early years. In 1499, he entered university at Cologne. Over the course of his education, he learned eight languages, and studied alchemy and hermetic philosophy. He took a position as secretary to Maximilian I, king of Germany and Rome, and spent a good deal of time socializing with scholars and nobles.

According to scholar Charles Nauert, rumor has it that Agrippa formed or joined a secret society in Paris at this time.

Agrippa the Educator & Feminist

In 1509 Agrippa joined the teaching staff at the University of Dole, France, where he lectured on Johann Reuchlin's De Verbo Mirifico, which expounded on kabbalistic theory and ideas. When local clergy denounced him as a heretic, Agrippa tried to win the support of Maximilian's daughter Margaret of Austria, by writing The Nobility and Preeminence of the Female Sex, which touted the moral and spiritual superiority of women. The work was never published, and Margaret never intervened on his behalf.

Agrippa and the Occult

Although he spent many years in service to Maximilian, Agrippa's true interest lay in the occult, and he accumulated a vast wealth of knowledge. He studied theology, astrology, medicine, and alchemy, as well as how all those subjects tied in with his theories of divine magic.

In 1510, he wrote a three-volume treatise entitled Occult Philosophy and sent it to Abott Johannes Trithemius for approval. Trithemius' response was that Agrippa should be cautious, "lest ye be trod under the oxen's feet, as oftentimes happens." The manuscript was not published for another two decades.

Agrippa's Personal Life

Not much is known about the details of Agrippa's personal life, but one thing is apparent from writings of the time: he was considered arrogant and vulgar by many people with whom he came into contact. Nauert says Agrippa was frequently in conflict with the church -- he thought monks were narrow minded and foolish, and they saw him as a heretic doomed to eternal damnation. He was married at least three times -- his first two marriages left him widowed, and his third wife ruined any financial stability he might have had.

By 1515, Agrippa had moved on to Italy with Maximilian, and found himself knighted for battlefield valor. He traveled to Padua and Turin, where he lectured on alchemy and kabbalistic theory, and in 1516 he was appointed to a government position in Metz. Two years later, that came to an end when Agrippa successfully defended a country woman from charges of witchcraft. The case's inquisitor threatened to prosecute Agrippa for his heresy, and Agrippa returned to France to practice medicine.

By 1529, Margaret of Austria had finally come around and agreed to be a sponsor of Agrippa -- he also had the support of King Henry VIII of England and the German emperor.

Agrippa published On the Vanity of the Arts & Sciences, in which he stated that all human thought and activity are vain, and proceeded to denounce traditional forms of magic -- including those which he had previously written about in the still-unpublished Occult Philosophy. He was accused of impiety, and Emperor Charles V demanded he recant many of his statements.

In 1535, the emperor decried Agrippa as a heretic and sentenced him to death. Agrippa escaped to France, aided by friends who had bailed him out of debtors' prison earlier, and fell sick along the way to Lyon. His pupil Johann Weyer, whose study of witchcraft is detailed in A History of Madness in Sixteenth-Century Germany, states that Agrippa didn't survive his journey, and died in Grenoble in 1535.

Interestingly, the story of Agrippa does not end with his death.

Following 1535, there were rumors that Agrippa had summoned demons on his death bed, and that a black dog roamed the countryside as his familiar. The black dog appears in tales as Faustus, Mephistopheles, and even as a grim in the Harry Potter series. Mary Shelley references Agrippa's works in Frankenstein and Mortal Immortal.


Agrippa's Occult Philosophy views magic as physics blended with philosophy and mathematics. Although magic has nothing to do with the supernatural -- such as the devil and sorcery -- it depends on natural psychic gifts. Agrippa explained that the ultimate power of will could be used to effect change, and that one could achieve communion with the divine by learning the harmonies of nature.

The first book in Occult Philosophy covers magic of the natural world: stones, wood, metals, herbs, etc. Agrippa discusses the ties of the four elements to everything else in the universe. He states that occult virtues can be obtained by studying the correspondences and relationships between existing things.

The second book of Occult Philosophy delves into the magical properties of celestial bodies and numbers -- the magic of mathematics and science. Agrippa references planetary correspondences as a source of power.

The final installment of this work covers the realm of high magic -- communing with Pagan gods, angels, and other spirits. He explains ways to communicate with these beings, and with God as well. Agrippa goes into lengthy discourse on how to create magical symbols, the construction of amulets and talismans, and the kabbalistic tree of life.

Agrippa explains that angels are immortal spirits and non-physical entities. According to his work, there are three kinds of angels:

  • Supercelestial angels: focused only on worshiping the Christian God, they receive light directly from heaven and pass along orders.
  • Celestial, or worldly angels: concerned with the governing of the heavens and stars, these angels have secret names and seals that are used in ceremonial magic.
  • Ministers: these angels concern themselves with the daily affairs of mankind and earth; these ministers are divided into four categories that align with the four cardinal elements and rule mind, reason, imagination, and action.

Agrippa states that there are nine orders of demons which are malevolent, but have the potential for redemption:

  • False gods, ruled by Beelzebub
  • Spirits of lies, ruled by Pytho
  • Vessels of wrath, ruled by Belial
  • Revengers of evil,ruled by Asmodeus
  • Deluders, ruled by Satan
  • Aerial powers, ruled by Meririm
  • Furies, ruled by Apollyon
  • Accusers, ruled by Astaroth
  • Tempters and ensnarers, ruled by Mammon

For further reading, I recommend Henry Morley's Cornelius Agrippa: The life of Henry Cornelius Agrippa von Nettesheim, published in 1856.


Photo Credit: Neil Girling/Flickr/Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)