Agrippa von Nettesheim, Henricus Cornelius (September 14, 1486—1535) - Witchcraft Hall of Fame

The Element Encyclopedia of Witchcraft: The Complete A-Z for the Entire Magical World - Judika Illes 2005

Agrippa von Nettesheim, Henricus Cornelius (September 14, 1486—1535)
Witchcraft Hall of Fame

Cornelius Agrippa was the leading occultist of the sixteenth century and among the most influential magicians of all time. His influence is felt over High Ceremonial magic as it is over folk magic. His Three Books of Occult Philosophy is the cornerstone of Western occult tradition.

Agrippa was legendary in his own time and continues to be: many believe him to be the prototype for legends of Dr Faust. He lived at a time when it was deathly dangerous to be an occultist, and he spent most of his life just one step ahead of witch-hunters.

Henricus Cornelius Agrippa von Nettesheim was born of noble parentage in Cologne. His family, the von Nettesheims, had served the royal house of Austria for generations. However, in his writings Agrippa almost exclusively referred to himself only as “Cornelius Agrippa” and he is most commonly known that way today—or even as just plain Agrippa.

In 1499, he entered the University of Cologne where he read Plato and Plotinus. His interest in the occult manifested at an early age, perhaps inspired by Albertus Magnus, reputedly another master magician, whose work Agrippa studied and who is buried in Cologne. From the start, Agrippa was independently minded with an incorrigible thirst for knowledge.

He spent time in Italy studying Hermeticism and Kabalah with Jewish masters (and acknowledged them!) at a time when the Church suggested Kabalah was diabolical. He was among the founding fathers of Cabalah, the Christian variation of the Jewish mystical tradition.

Agrippa consorted and traveled with Romany. He studied with Abbot Trithemius of Sponheim with whom he shared an interest in contacting planetary spirits. Shortly after staying with Trithemius in c.1509, Agrippa composed his first book De Occulta Philosophia, though it would not be published for another 20 years.

In his early twenties, Agrippa was sent on a mission to France by Emperor Maximilian I. In Paris he fell in with a group of free-thinking dissident scholars who formed a secret society dedicated to world reform. Agrippa fought for a time with peasants dispossessed of their lands.

Agrippa became professor of Hebrew at the University of Dole, France. A Franciscan monk accused him of heresy (the first of many such accusations) and he quickly left town, beginning a life of wandering. Sometimes he won the patronage of aristocrats who supported him. Other times, he was jailed for debt or for insulting the powerful. He had a sharp tongue and offended many, as when he suggested that nunneries often served as private brothels and that houses of prostitution tended to be located suspiciously close to monasteries.

As a part-time lecturer at a Dutch university, Agrippa expounded on the superiority of the female sex and the wisdom of the Jewish Kabalah. He landed in trouble with Dutch clerics who once again sent him packing.

Image Agrippa went to London where he worked as an astrologer and taught Hebrew.

Image He went to Pavia where he lectured on Hermes Trismegistus. Once again, he fell foul of the clergy and had to leave town quickly.

Image He went to Metz where he was appointed Public Advocate.

Nicholas Savini, Dominican Inquisitor of the Faith at Metz, arrested a peasant girl whose mother had been condemned as a witch. Agrippa as Public Advocate protested that this was irregular procedure as heredity was insufficient evidence for accusation. Despite his efforts, Agrippa was unable to prevent the girl from being tortured; however he was able to secure her acquittal. The result of her acquittal was that those who had initially accused her of witchcraft were fined and Agrippa, in turn, was accused of being a witch.

He got out of town fast, fleeing home to Cologne where he found the Inquisition a little too uncomfortable. He left Cologne and went to Geneva, then to Chambrai, Fribourg, and Lyons supporting himself by practicing medicine. Although not technically a physician, he was extremely knowledgeable and apparently a very skilled healer. During various episodes of the plague, licensed physicians reputedly fled but Agrippa stayed, ministering to the ill, although his primary instruction for others on how to avoid and survive plague was to leave the area immediately. Practicing medicine was the skill that enabled Agrippa to support himself and his family for most of his life.

Agrippa developed a reputation as a sorcerer, magician, and alchemist. He allegedly dabbled in necromancy and divined via crystal balls and magic mirrors. He evolved into something of a bogeyman figure. Mothers would frighten children into obedience by warning that otherwise Agrippa would “get” them.

Margaret of Austria invited Agrippa to the Netherlands; in order to accept, he was obligated to obtain a passport. Upon seeing his request, the Duke of Vendôme tore it up rather than sign it, refusing to sign passports for conjurors.

Many legends sprang up about him. Agrippa was allegedly always accompanied by his big black poodle, Monsieur. Some said he was just crazy about his dog; some suggested Monsieur was his familiar; still others insisted the dog was a disguised demon. According to legend, following Agrippa’s death, the dog jumped into the Saône River and either died or disappeared. Other legends suggested that Agrippa could be in two places at once and that he paid for lodgings with money that later transformed into seashells after Agrippa had left town.

The most famous legend regarding Agrippa involves a visitor who persuaded Agrippa’s wife to let him enter his laboratory while the master was away from home. The visitor, the classic sorcerer’s apprentice, started playing with Agrippa’s books and tools and managed to conjure up a demon who demanded to know why he’d been summoned. The demon was in no mood for amateurs and when Agrippa returned, he discovered the young man dead. Fearing he’d be charged with murder, Agrippa himself summoned the murderous spirit and had the spirit temporarily revive the young man, who was then taken to the marketplace so that he would be witnessed walking around there. He collapsed and finally died for good there in the market.

Considering the era in which he lived, Agrippa himself displayed amazing tolerance for others’ spiritual beliefs, writing that “the rites and ceremonies of religion vary with different times and places and each religion has something good.” His personal motto was “Let no man who might belong to himself belong to another.”

De Occulta Philosophia was published in Antwerp in 1533, despite the Inquisition’s attempts to halt publication. De Occulta Philosophia suggests that the universe is a living being with a soul as well as a carnal body composed of four elements: air, earth, fire, and water. The knowledge of the elemental composition of an object reveals its powers (or, in the language of Agrippa’s time, its “virtues”).

Shortly after his death in Grenoble, a fourth volume was attributed to Agrippa. This book deals mainly with demons and is apparently partly derived from the Lemegeton (see BOOKS: Grimoires). Johann Weyer, Agrippa’s closest follower, denounced this book as a fraud and it is now generally acknowledged that Agrippa did not write that fourth book, or at least not all of it. (When the grimoire The Magus was published in 1801, its compiler and editor Francis Barrett was accused of plagiarizing the Fourth Book of Agrippa.)

Further Reading: Although English translations of Agrippa first appeared in 1651, his work was largely available only in fragments. Finally, in 2003, an eminently readable, clear, lucid translation of Agrippa’s Three Books of Occult Philosophy was published under the Llewellyn Sourcebook Series, with translations by James Freake and edited and annotated by occult scholar Donald Tyson.