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The occult Renaissance

a word of advice: you may want to read my article about “the philosophical renaissance in italy” first to put things in a wider perspective and for background information.

In my article “The Philosophical Renaissance In Italy” I have written about the beginning of the Renaissance in Italy focussing on the philosophical side. In this article I will leave Italy and since especially in other countries there came a more esoteric side, I will speak some more about that. In the mentioned article I told about the humanist tradition as starting-point for Renaissance-thinking. Ironically enough, humanism outside Italy has brought forth two very opposital movements. One is the more occult movement, the other led to the reformation and the coming up of Protestantism. Initially the two weren’t too hostile towards each other, but later there came friction and when the Catholics started to win back territory (the so-called counter-reformation) occultism was completely not-done. I will leave the reformation for what it is and go to the second offspring of humanism here, but of course the two can’t be taken apart entirely.

My aim for this article is a less historical one and more focussing on the ideas. In order to keep the length in proportions, I will only speak about some of the big names. You will get an idea of the development of the occult. First I have to make a jump in history to give a good view of the story.

The art of memory

Frances Amelia Yates (1890-1981) wrote an entire book about this subject, which she felt needed to to give a good idea of the history of the Hermetic tradition. Three classical sources are recognised: 1) the anonymously written Ad Herenium that was rediscovered in 1482 and which was initially believed to be by Marcus Tullius Cicero (106-43BC); 2) Cicero himself; and 3) Fabius Quintillian (35-100). Also Aristotle (384-322BC) and St. Augustine (of Hippo 354-430) have written about the subject as did many other classical writers.
Very simply explained the idea is as follows. In order to remember something (a speech, information, images) you imagine that your memory is a large building with different rooms. The rooms should not look too much alike, otherwise you won’t keep them apart. The things you need to remember, you ‘put into’ the rooms and when you need to bring it back to memory, you walk through your building, looking inside the rooms. Archetypical images were used to make them easier to remember/recognise. There were different techniques for different things to remember, but here you have the general idea.

In times that book printing wasn’t yet invented, this art was highly acclaimed. In the Middle Ages for example famous theologians like Tomas of Aquino (1226-1274) and Albertus Magnus (1200-1280) were much in favour of this art, which they turned into a religious/devotional art. The big medieval Christian orders of the Dominicans and Franciscans even had their own systems that they taught to their pupils.

Also in the Middle Ages there was a non-classical art of memory, coming from the first person I want to talk about.

Ramon Lull

Ramon Lull (1232-1316) was born in Spain in an exciting time in the Middle Ages. It wasn’t just scholacism and dogmatism in these days. The Cathars prospered in southern France and especially in Spain under the rule of the Muslims and with a lot of Jews living there, some interesting developments took place. The Jewish esoteric system Kabbalah (“tradition”) was crystallised in Spain in this period. The Sepher Zohar (book of splendour) for example, was first printed in 1275. Frances Yates has an interesting theory about these developments. She says that maybe the influence of the ideas of John Scotus Erigena (810-875) came back in the interest because of the Clavis Physicae of Honorius Augustodunensis (1080-1157). Ramon Lull built his system partly on these Scotian ideas and the Kabbala became a Jewish version of it. It is also possible that Lull was influenced by Jewish and Arabic ideas, but this is not certain. He did write several works in Arabic, but mostly in the hope that Arabic readers would take over his ideas.

Lull lived in a time where astrology was regarded heretic, but still he wanted to use it in the “Art” that was revealed to him in a vision on mount Randa (on Mallorca) in 1272. He came up with an equally genius as difficult solution: letters.

Scotus divided the world in four parts, from divine to material. The second highest world is that of the names of God, which became Lull’s “Dignitates Dei”, divine dignities (also called “principiae”, principles) of which Lull recognised nine, but sometimes ten or sixteen. The nine most-used dignities are bonitas (goodness), magnitudo (magnitude), eternitas (eternity), potestas (power), sapientia (wisdom), voluntas (will), virtus (strength), veritas (truth) and gloria (glory). These dignities or creative primordial causes got the letters BCDEFGHIK. A is reserved for the Holy Trinity (essentia, unitas, perfectio) and the I or J is always left out. The divine attributes form themselves into a trinitarian structure by which they became a reflection of the Trinity. Also they work through the elements.

“Lull believed that he had found a way of calculating from the fundamental patterns of nature”, Frances Yates writes in her Lull & Bruno.

Lull’s use of letters is interesting. It had never been done before, but his Jewish contemporaries were also experimenting with systems and meditations on Hebrew letters It has never been proved that Lull was really influenced by this. Ironically enough he never wrote anything about the Kabbala, but after his death pseudo-Lullian Kabbalistic and alchemical writings appeared. For both systems the original Ars Raymundi proved helpful.

Also in threes are the three powers of the soul of Augustine that Lull recognised; the intellectus or the knowing and finding of the truth; the voluntas the training of the will towards loving the truth and the memoria or remembering the truth.

Further Lull uses elements (A, B, C and D) to group the stars and constellations, questions, subjects, virtues, etc. which are all put in rotating schemes. But Lull’s art wasn’t just a way to remember things, it was a dynamic system involving the asking of questions and combining possibilities. Yates quotes Lynn Thorndike (1882-1962) in Lull & Bruno saying: “By properly arranging categories and concepts, subjects and predicates in the first place, one could get the correct answer to such prepositions as might be put.” The wheels are used to get answers to questions by turning the wheels and thus combining different possibilities. Ars Combinatoria is not for nothing the title of one of Lull’s writings, but also one of his Arts.

Augustine has been mentioned and this is also the starting point of Lull leaving behind the scholastic Middle Ages behind for a more neoplatonic system. Lull was really a predecessor of the Renaissance, he replaced the images that the classical and medieval memory students used by letters and the static buildings became revolving schemes, incorporated with astrological imaginary.

Lull was familiar with the classical art of memory and saw his art as an expansion of it. His system resembled the Kabbalistic meditation system of Abraham Abulafia (1240-1292), but without Hebrew. The Dominicans didn’t feel much for Lull’s system, but the Franciscans were not entirely uninterested and even approved his writings.

Because Lull put much stress on the elements and the names of God and these are also recognised in the Jewish and Muslim worldviews, he thought that his art had missionary possibilities. His lifework was to convert Jews and Muslims to Christianity.

Most of the massive amount of writings of Ramon Lull have never been published or studied properly, but they deal with a wide variety of subjects. His art on the level of ‘coelum’ (heaven) for example, involved the twelve signs of the zodiac and the seven holy planets to which again letters are assigned and in combination with the dignitates dei Lull came to some kind of astral science and also astral medicine in which powers can be used for beneficial matters. Herein Lull is also a predecessor of Ficino and Bruno (see later).

Lull was a predecessor of the Renaissance in various ways, so these very rough sketches of the Ars Raymundi can be seen as an introduction and foundation of the rest.

Marsilio Ficino

In my article about the philosophy in Renaissance Italy I have given you the story of Marsilio Ficino (1433-1499), so I will not tell too much about the person this time. As we now know Ficino was the turn-on of a renewed interest in Plato (427-347BC) and Plotinus (204-270), but also of the Hermetic tradition, since he was the first translator of the Corpus Hermeticum. Besides massive translation-works Ficino wrote a lot material himself. Ficino had quite a magical worldview. Like Lull he wrote about medicine, but not in a way we understand this today. For a good doctor astrological knowledge was evident and Ficino even incorporated some kind of astrological magic. Ficino said that you can use the powers in the universe and from earth to do good and his magic is mostly called “natural magic” or “spiritual magic”. Angels or spirits (forces of nature) could be stemmed favourable for beneficial purposes by using sound, music, scent or talismans. Ficino’s knowledge of talismans and his magic in general he learned from the Hermetic writings Asclepius and the Picatrix and Ficino wrote most about it in his De Vita Coelitus Comperanda (on obtaining life from the heavens – 1489).

Music was particularly important to Ficino. He played his lyre and sang “Orphic hyms” which were probably magic incantations. Ficino did his utmost -though- to stay away of ‘demonic magic’ which involved the calling of demons (bad angels). One point to make here is the following: Ficino had three souls, a lower, a higher and a middle soul. The middle soul is the mediator between the other two and called “spiritus”. This non-rational soul is influenced by ‘spiritual magic’ and however Ficino’s magic also must have had darker elements, he scarcely kept that to himself. More you will read about this in the following piece about Pico.

Giovani Pico

Even within Ficino’s “Platonic Academy” a more ‘strong’ kind of magic appeared. Giovani Pico (of Mirandola) (1463-1494) was introduced to Ficino’s academy at an early age. In the beginning he was still a follower of Aristotle and couldn’t quite find himself in Ficino’s Platonism, but later in his life he came more to Plato. Pico travelled all across Europe and in Spain he studied with Jews. Shortly before the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492, Pico was taught Hebrew and was introduced to the Kabbala. He wanted to use the Kabbala to prove the truth of the Christian doctrines and therewith became the founder of the Christian Cabala. Pico always wrote this word with a “c” and I follow him therein to divide the Jewish version (“Kabbalah”), from the Christian one.

It wasn’t just Christianity and Cabala that Pico brought together. Pico compared the knowledge that he got from his Jewish friends with the Hermetica that he learned from Ficino and discovered that both recognised that creation took place by Word. This and other parallels led Pico to not only believe that both systems are from the same time (that of Moses), but he worked the systems to one.

However Pico was of the opinion that there is difference between good (or natural) magic and bad magic, his aims surpassed those of Ficino. Natural magic carefully avoided to reach ‘beyond the stars’ where both good and bad demons live and dealt only with spirits by using talismans and the like. Pico’s complementary ‘more strong philosophy’ of Christian Cabala went as far as to summon angels and archangels by using the power of their names in the Hebrew language. As you may know Hebrew characters also have a numerological value, so each word also has a numerological value. The combination of sound and number proved a good way to do magic. Pico really “tried to tap the higher spiritual powers beyond the natural powers of the cosmos” to quote Frances Yates some more. Where Ficino still used the angels as powers to try to work with him, Jewish occultists summoned angels for their benefit and ever since Pico angels have mostly been used in a Kabbalistic and magical way. Still, in Pico’s well-known 900 ‘conclusiones’ he states that magic should always be accompanied by Cabala to make it both powerful and safe.

Francesco Giorgi

This Franciscan friar was a much more ‘harmonious’ person than most of the people I write about in this article. This resulted in the fact that Giorgi (1466-1540) didn’t fall from grace when the suppression of the occult started.

Giorgi’s most famous book is De Harmonia Mundi Totius (about universal harmony – 1525), a large work about the harmony between the micro- and macrocosmos. Giorgi had met Pico and was much influenced by his Christian Cabala. Also Giorgi learned Hebrew and got himself a large library of Hebrew books. However in basis he stood more in the Pythagorean tradition that was popular in medieval times, Giorgi added Ficinian hermetism and Pician Cabala in his worldview.

What is most remarkable about Giorgi is that he was a very theoretical person. He didn’t come to practical magic or Cabala, but wrote and pondered mostly. The summit of the ‘harmonia mundi’ for Giorgi was to be found in architecture in which the architecture could design a building reflecting the universe. His cosmos was based on number and his god was a great architect and as the sun the heart of the cosmos. Giorgi helped designing and building Francesco church in Venice.

Another large interest of Giorgi was astrology and here we come to another strange thing in his philosophy. Like his contemporaries Giorgi recognised the 12 signs of the zodiac, the 7 holy planets and the angels as natural forces, but he was of the opinion that casting horoscopes is a too lengthy and uncertain process and goes as far to identify someone’s leading planet with his/her guardian angel to make the process easier. This –for his time- weird unity of planets and angels led the official church to take over some of Giorgi’s ideas on these subjects.

Johann Reuchlin

With this German humanist, lawyer and contemporary of Pico, we leave Italy and go to Germany. Reuchlin (1455-1522) was also a fervent traveller and met Pico in Italy. Just as all of the previous mentioned persons, Reuchlin mastered different languages, in his case Latin, Greek and Hebrew and of course his native language.

Reuchlin was very much into Cabala en Hebrew. His Rudimenta Hebraica (1506) was the first book about Hebrew grammar by a non-Jew. He was regarded an authority on the subject of the Jews but fell victim to a Jewish controversy in which his opinion was asked. This plus the problems about his own person gave Reuchlin a bad name in the later years of his life.

The Cabala had become quite popular in Germany already, but after Reuchlin things took a high flight. His first work on the subject was De Verbo Mirifico (about the wonderful word -1494) in which he (among other things) speaks about the power of Hebrew words and their numerological values. Large parts of the book are dedicated to the putting of Jesus Christ in the Jewish texts. The unpronouncable name of God “YHVH” (the tetragrammaton, most given as either “Jehova” or “Jahwe”) is expanded with an “S” making it “YHSVH”, Joshua or Jesus Christ, in this way the Creator. De Verbo Mirifico is a beginnersbook (“a beginner rushing to print” Joseph Blau wrote) and contains several mistakes. Reuchlin even gives an incorrect Kabbalistic tree for example! Some mistakes would later be corrected, some not.

It took 20 years for Reuchlin to finish his second Cabalistic word being the famous De Arte Cabalistica (about the art of the Cabala – 1517). This book is said to be the first full treatise on the subject by a non-Jew and became the bible of the Christian Cabalists. De Arte Cabalistica not only speaks about numerological magic, but also the Cabalistic letter-manipulations and meditative techniques.

Reuchlin had a Hermetic Academy in Heidelberg where he met Trithemius (see below). Trithemius is mostly notorious because of his summoning of angels and also Reuchlin experimented with this, which was of course fuel on the fire of his enemies. I will now move to Reuchlin’s student for a bit more like on this kind of magic.

Johann Trithemius

It is said that Johann Heidenberg (1462-1516) couldn’t read until he was 15 years old. Then he had a vision in which he was given the choice between the knowledge of language and the knowledge of images. Thinking that the word was the power of creation, Johann chose the knowledge of language and so it was and he started writing. Born in Trittenheim in Germany, he named himself after his village of birth and Heidenberg has ever since been known as ‘Trithemius’.

After his vision the development of Trithemius went fast. He met the Reuchlin in Heidelberg -as said- and at the age of 21 Trithemius already was abbot of a Benedictine monastery in Sponheim. There he studied the medieval system of the hierarchies of angels of the pseudo-Dionysus (the Areopagite) as many occultists did before him. According to the Areopagite there are nine hierarchies of angels. Trithemius largely expanded this system and taught that there are angels ruling over hours of the day (book II Steganographia-see later) and regions of the world (book I Steganographia). These angels are ruled by seven planetary angels (book III Steganographia). I have schemes of these angels in a text called The art of drawing spirits into crystals, but I haven’t been able to find out from what book of Trithemius this is. The most famous work of this German is the Steganographia which has existed as manuscript for many many years, but wasn’t published until 1606. Followers and Trithemius himself thought that it would be too dangerous to publish and it is a strange work for sure!

On first sight it seems to be a work to summon angels. You have to find the appropriate angel first. You have to find the correct angel of the hour by dividing the hours that it is light (or dark of course) in twelve and look up the angel in a table. This angel you summon by using the numerological value of his name and an ununderstandable incantation. Then you can use this angel to have a message brought to someone. Also Trithemius hoped that he could get angels to give him information and/or images of things that happen on another part of the world.

As has been known for a long time Trithemius was very fond of cryptography (which is the literary translation of “steganographia”) (writing secret messages) and however he gives a ‘key’ to the first two books of the Steganographia in his Clavis Steganographia it wasn’t until 1996 that the codes have been cracked. The Steganographia turned out to be nothing more than Trithemius writing secret messages in the vein of: “see how I can write secret messages”!! So there are different layers of purposes in one of the strangest works of the Renaissance I asume.

Trithemius used magic to invent the early telephone and television, but he put much stress on the difference between magic and superstition (‘witches and wizards’) an opinion that people after him would take over.

Henry Cornelius Agrippa

Agrippa (1486-1535) can be seen as the person in who all I wrote about before came together. Like the previous persons, Agrippa can be regarded as a Christian Cabalist and he wanted to prove the authenticity of Christianity using Cabala. Also Agrippa was of the opinion that his magic was a good kind of magic, but many people were of another opinion. Even in his life Agrippa was regarded as a black magician and his black dog was an incarnation of the devil. Agrippa used the natural magic of Ficino, the Cabala of Pico and Reuchlin and further developed Trithemius’ angelic incantations. Agrippa learned Hebrew and was in short contact with Giorgi, but most of all he was a student of Johann Reuchlin and Trithemius, but Agrippa intended to surpass his masters. Especially because of his ceremonial works of magic, Agrippa got his bad name, but as mentioned, he saw himself as a good Christian. Living in the time of the reformation he also said that he was a follower of the Dutch humanist and early reformist Desiderius Erasmus (1466-1536) and he was not the only one supporting the reformation.

Agrippa’s first encounter with magic was a book of the medieval Albertus Magnus and it is said that he was the centre of an occult circle in his hometown Köln/Cologne in Germany, but has said to be travelling constantly (on behalf of this group?). London, Paris, Antwerp, Italy, Agrippa has been all across Europe to study or lecture on Lullism (which was his specialty), alchemy, science, Hermetism and the like.

However he wrote more works, Agrippa is best known for his ‘opus magnum’ De Occulta Philosophica (1531). A massive compendium of three books about the magic of the Renaissance that he wrote at the age of 24. The worldview in the Renaissance always had three worlds and also Agrippa recognised these. His ‘three books of occult philosophy’ follows this division. Book I is about (Ficino’s) natural magic (in the elemental world), dealing with the worldsoul and world of ideas; book II about celestial magic (numerology, geometry, optics, etc.) (in the celestial world) and book III is about ceremonial magic (angels, cabala, etc.) (in the supercelestial/spiritual/intellectual world). This book it far too large to speak about in short. Maybe an idea for a whole article?

Agrippa took some distance from magic for safety by writing that all knowledge, including magical, is in vein, but later in his life he even abandoned his magical pursuits and put his efforts to the Christian doctrines.

Philipus Aureolus Theophrastus Bombastus

This joke is told so often that I probably don’t have to give the wellknown name of this man anymore. Especially not when I also add “Von Hohemheim” after the place of his birth. I actually can’t continue without mentioning Paracelsus (1493-1541) but so much can be said about this son of a nobility-bastard from Germany that I will be forced to stay to a few elements of this man. Like his father, Paracelsus started to study medicine when he was 16. This included astrology in that time, but the interests of the young Paracelsus reached further. He was an utter and complete bastard without repect of other people’s opinions, but still Paracelsus has had students all the time he was travelling throughout Europe. Paracelsus was a fanatical alchemist, not to make gold, but to find the ultimate medicine. This caused him to become not only the inventor or chemical medicine, but also of homeopathics. People where delighted by the medicines of Paracelsus, because now they no longer had to eat cockroaches to get rid of their aches. But there were more breakthoughs coming from the man like on the fields of psychology, psychiatry, gyneology and anaesthetics.

And alchemy also wasn’t Paracelsus’ only esoteric interest. He further developed the astrological medicine of Ficino and formed theories that are either or not still used today. He said that there are three basic materials: salt, sulpher and mercury. You are ill when these are out of balance and getting them in balance may include the calling on of celestial forces. Paracelsus gives detailed instructions of the making of talismans, what to engrave on what material and when (astrologically determined). This sometimes looks a lot like the system of Trithemius of who Paracelsus has shortly been a student.

John Dee

After Agrippa John Dee (1527-1608) from the United Kingdom is probably the best-known magician from the Renaissance. At an early age he was interested in mathematics which in that time was still regarded as magical (numerology) and not too long after his mathematical efforts Dee found interest in astronomy. This interest brought him in contact with the famous Belgian globe-maker Gerardus Mercator (1512-1594), a friendship that would last.

After some changes in the kingship in England with kings and queens that were much in favour of Dee or not at all, Dee started to study the Cabala. He taught himself Hebrew and started to buy texts for his rapidly expanding library. Also Dee believed that “the word” from Genesis was a Hebrew word and that Hebrew was the language of creation. Therefore a magician should be able to use this language for his own creations or alterations therein. Dee’s study of the Cabala (and Kabbala) made him acquainted with the summoning of angels and he started to make systematic principles (‘prayers’) to summon angels. He eagerly started to collect the writings of Trithemius and had to travel to Antwerp to lay his hands on a copy of the Steganographia. Following Trithemius in his opinion, Dee made a sharp division between magic and superstition.

However Dee then showed a growing interest in alchemy, his efforts to get answers from spiritual beings continued all his life. He proved unable to summon angels himself and had a large number of mediums doing this for him, but almost every single one of them was unfit. They either couldn’t get in contact with the correct beings or were unable to transfer the information correctly. In 1582 there was hope though.

“Mr Clerkson” who had brought Dee more mediums, introduced Dee to Edward Talbot. However Dee was well informed in the happenings in the occult world (he was very well aware of the bad name of Trithemius), he didn’t know about the reputation of this man who came to him under a false name. Edward Kelly (1555-1595) was regarded a fraud, a forgerer, a necromancer and a criminal who used some magical powder to produce gold.

So Dee got one of his ‘shew stones’ and asked ‘Talbot’ to ‘skry’. Of course this was preceded by some preparations, like prayers to the angel Dee hoped to appear. Already in the first sessions there were conversations with the archangel Uriel who Dee wanted to ask about his Arabic book with the names of angels the Book of Sogya, but however Uriel confirmed its authenticity, only the archangel Michael could explain the strange text in the angelic language (Enochian). It was the book that was given to Adam after all!

During the years Dee and Kelly split up and came together several times, Dee received magical tables, texts and books as well as practical information for his daily life. Not only from archangels, but from all kinds of spiritual beings. Kelly sees and tells Dee what to write down in his magical diaries. Dee also wrote a personal diary which is still available and as said the two received several books. Dee also wrote a book about his ‘skrying techniques’ and either together (and with the families) or alone, Dee and Kelly travelled all across Europe ever continuing their summonings.

However the drawings that Dee received look a bit too much like drawings of Trithemius, Dee is often regarded as the receiver of the Enochian language. Dee spent his life trying to ‘crack the code’ and found out that like Hebrew Enochian is alphanumeric, a letter is also a number and he used Cabalistic methods to work on them. Dee indeed very much was interested in coding, numbers and ciphers and wrote books on mathematics. Also he was a spy for queen Elizabeth (1533-1603).

Dee’s most famous writing is the Monas Hieroglyphica (1582). A strange and short work explaining his famous symbol using astrological, Cabalistic and magical imaginary. His symbol gave the name to these pages and it’s logo!

Giordano Bruno

My previous article has also given the story of Giordano Bruno (1548-1600), so I won’t tell you too much about his life this time. Important is that “the Nolan” (after his birthplace in Italy) like Pico travelled all across Europe, but every time he got problems and was forced to leave. However at first side it may not seem like it, but Bruno was in some regards even ahead Agrippa. Bruno was a big admirer of Ficino, but also here Pico’s and Reuchlin’s Cabala had his interest. However all of the previous persons (but Agrippa) have worked with the art of memory, I now come back to Ramon Lull with who I opened this article. Bruno who incorrectly saw Lull as an alchemist and Cabalist, leaned heavily on several of Lull’s arts. One of these was Lull’s mnemonics, or the art of memory, but Lull’s ‘ars combinatoria’ was Bruno’s favourite magical system.

Bruno wrote several works about the art of memory such as De Umbris Idearum (of the shadows of ideas – 1582) and Cantus Circaeus (incantations of circe -1582). Where the Cantus already contains magical incantations, Bruno later made two books with ‘Lullianesk’ diagrams, but then for magical purposes.

Bruno had three ways of conjuring angels. The first was the use of word and song (natural magic), the second by using images, seals (as talismans) and characters (which he called mathematical magic), but his most favourite system is the previously described reworked Lullian diagrams which he called the system of imagination.

He used ‘links’ to conjure angels. Ficino already described these, but Bruno put the theory to practise. Bruno’s links where the rulers of the four cardinal points and also Bruno used the (numerological value of their) names for incantations and seals.

Whereas all the previous persons did their utmost to seem like devote Christians, Bruno openly critised the church and was of the opinion that the original Egyptian language (that Bruno thought was learned by Hermes Trismegistus) was far superior. This was really the drop that made the bucket flow over (as we say in the Netherlands) and Bruno was lured back to Italy and burned at the stake in 1600 after seven years of imprisonment.

Robert Fludd

Bruno’s death wasn’t the end of the occult in Europe, not by far. In the years after 1614 three manifests were published in Germany by the mysterious movement of the Rosicrucians. They seemed to be involved in Renaissance magic, Cabala and the like, but this time hardly any names. The Rosicrucians seemed to be a group of reformists with magical interests.

Also in 1614 the Hermetic scriptures were dated by Isaac Causabon (1559-1614) who placed the scriptures in Christian times. After this almost nobody dared to place Hermes in times of Moses.

Fludd (1574-1637) was born in England and became a Paracelsian doctor and fervent member of the Church of England. He was interested in chemistry, alchemy and the early Rosicrucian movement that arose in Germany after 1614. However his unorthodox interests didn’t bring him many friends in medical circles, he got his own practise in London and what was quite unique, with his own apothecary. In his laboratory he not only made medicines, but also conducted alchemical experiments. He not only treated his patients with medicines, but had a quite spiritual approach to his profession. He drew horoscopes and used some sort of magnetism.

It was a quite well known German alchemist who introduced Fludd to the Rosicrucians in 1615: Michael Maier (1569-1622) who is best known for his book Atalanta Fugiens (1617). Fludd was highly impressed by the Rosicrucian manifestoes. The effort of the Rosicrucians to unite science and spiritualism to form a new reformation was music in the ears of the British doctor. The German Rosicrucians surrounded themselves with a lot of mystery, Fludd openly admits to be a member of the society. He became the Rosicrucians patron, protector and defender.

But the Rosicrucians weren’t Fludd’s first mystical encounter. From around 1600 he had been studying Cabala, magic, astrology and alchemy which all proved to be elements of the Rosicrucians writings. In spite of all this, Fludd always remained a faithful member of the Church of England.

Maier and Fludd used the same engraver and Fludd’s drawings have become his trading-mark. Especially his complex diagrams of the universe appeal to people. Like his predecessors Fludd recognised the three worlds (elemental, ethereal and angelic). The same division Fludd made for the soul (corporal, spiritual, intellectual) and his divisions of the spheres is also threefold (colour and sensations (consciousness), spiritual correspondences and reflection within the mind). Also he put a lot of stress on the differences and resemblances between the macrocosmos and microcosmos. A concept that brought Fludd the most problems was that of the worldsoul or universal soul, especially in combination with his hierarchy of angels. A little strange in regard of the previous persons I wrote about, is Fludd’s dualism. He recognised a hierarchy of angels ànd a hierarchy of demons. Alchemy he saw as a method to divide the pure from the impure, light from darkness, sin from good, creation and spirit. The goal of the alchemist was to understand both sides and make a balance and this was not so far from what the church tried to do for their followers.

Also Fludd’s sun-centered worldview didn’t appeal to many contemporaries. He saw the physical sun as the physical counterpart of God, the worldsoul, which he called Jehovah.

However not without problems, Fludd lived a productive life and nowadays is one of the better-documented persons from the late Renaissance.

Athanasius Kircher

The last individual that I want to mention is the German Kircher (1602-1680). He was a universal man in every way. Though Jesuit Kircher was interested in a wide variety of subjects. He not only wrote books about magnetism, but his books about Egypt and Egyptian hieroglyphs made him the first Egyptologist in history. Kircher translated various obelisks and his writings were even used when more modern scientists were working on the Rosetta Stone. He was as enthusiastic about the Egyptian culture as Bruno was about the Egyptian religion and in spite of Causabon he said that Hermes was a contemporary of Abraham. Also Kircher was the first vulcanologist and he even descended into the Etna shortly after it erupted. Further Kircher studied the stars and his scientific interests and crave to collect lead him to found the first known public museum and even several inventions of his own. As the last in line of individual, I unfortunately have to tell you that Kircher had no good words for the art of alchemy.


However Giorgi was quite popular, Agrippa’s bad name became a problem for Pico and other esotericists in his time. The church became more serious in the knockdown of the magical movement. In 1559 the index of forbidden works was compiled and from 1580 on severe censorship was imposed, but as early as 1487 the Malleus Maleficarum was published. The notorious book that became the standard source of information for the Holy Inquisition. On top of all this, also in 1580 the book La Démonomanie Des Sorciers of Jean Bodin (1520-1596) saw the light of day. His statement was clear: occultists must die. And when the Catholics started to win back terrain from the Protestants (the so-called counter-formation), the witch craze began which spelled the end the occult.

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What to read if you have further interest?

Most books of F.A. Yates, especially Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition and The Occult Philosophy In The Elizabethan Age. If you want something easier to read, try The Elixer and the Stone of Baigent and Leigh.

Three Books Of Occult Philosophy by Agrippa
The Queen’s Conjurer, the life of John Dee

alchemical texts on Adam McLean’s page
western esoteric texts online
philosophical and magical texts

Don’t forget to look through my book-reviews section of course and check Amazon for example.


1 thought on “The occult Renaissance”

  1. I am not sure if you’re reading this. But it’s interesting to note that the occult and philosophical renaissance in Italy has been happening during the same time the card “game” Tarot became very popular in Italy and known masonic scholars such like Antoine Court de Gébelin made the first connection that the motives shown in the “Tarot” cards were not just a game, but an initiation system (preserved from Ancient Egypt when they foreseen their downfall during the invasion) to the Major Arcana. Nobody really knows how they first appeared, who draw them, etc. But Gébelin suspected that one of the Initiates brought it to the world, so that the ancient hermetic knowledge is not lost.

    The history of the Minor Arcana on the other hand though can be directly linked (!!) to be coming from the area around Egypt, the so-called “Mamluk cards” which have the SAME motives just portrayed differently and in context to the culture. For example: Instead of swords, the mamluk cards had motives of scimitars and instead of wands or scepters the mamluk cards had motives of polo sticks. However, their meaning didn’t change at all. There is legit evidence that even polo sticks were seen as an allegory to the mystical teachings (similar like the wand/scepter in Tarot).

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