De Occulta Philosophia * Henry Cornelius Agrippa * 1533
I had read quite a lot about this book and its writer and I have paged through this translation more than once, but it wasn’t until recently that I finally got a copy. To review!
H.C. Agrippa from Nettesheim can be regarded as the summum of the Renaissance occult tradition. Like most of his colleagues he saw himself as a good Christian being involved in good magic. This last he pushed to the limits which is the reason why he had such a bad name. Like many of his predecessors Agrippa combined the Christian Cabala of Giovani Pico (from Mirandola) and especially that of his master Johann Reuchlin with the angelic magic of Trithemius and the hermetic tradition that followed after Marsilio Ficino’s translations of the major hermetic scriptures.
Also in Agrippa’s vision creation can be divided in three worlds and this division is reflected in the three parts that the english title refers to. First there is the elemental world and the first book is about the natural magic in the Ficino-tradition. It involves the cooperation with natural forces to reach a certain goal by using talismans and musical incantations. This is in contradiction to the more “strong” magic concerning the using of these forces. The second world is the celestial world and the second book is about celestial magic. Here you can think of mathematics, music, optics, astromony, numerology and the summoning of angels. The last world is the supercelestial or intellectual world and the third book deals with ceremonial magic.
Already in 1651 the first and the last translation in English appeared and this translation of Donald Tyson is the first in 350 years. Agrippa himself is said to be quite sloppy at times, but the first English translation was full of mistakes. Tyson took up the work to clear “De Occulta Philosophia” and especially its english translation from mistakes. The backcovers claims to give you the seals and images how they were meant which is already something in itself, but there is much much more!
The book opens with a short intro and a long biography of Agrippa. Then follows the translation of book I with its 74 chapters which are all no longer than three pages. The notes of Tyson are often longer. He searched for the sources of the quotes and references and tried to explain obscure sentences.
Book II has 60 chapters also of modest length, but this book contains a lot of images. Strangely enough there are a lot of images of people who lived after Agrippa, especially Robert Fludd and keeping a few discriptions of Agrippa’s work in mind, I get the idea that some of the original drawings of Agrippa are left out or replaced!
Book III has 65 chapters which are almost all very short, but here and there 3 or 4 pages.
Three letters of Agrippa are followed by chapters 41 to 48 of another work of Agrippa called “De Incertitude et Vanitate Scientiarum” or “about the uncertainty and vanity of sciences”. In this book Agrippa writes about magic and the occult in a cynical (but informative) way and was meant to keep the inquisition a bit on a distance.
Then come 8 appendices of Donald Tyson wonderfully explaining subjects such as magic squares, the practical kabbalah or geomancy more fully.
51 Pages with a biographical dictionary, 13 pages with a geographical dictionary, an ordered list with quotes from the Bible and apocryphia and the 63 pages general index!
The translation is well-readable, but as you may expect of a magical book from the Renaissance, this is no easy-reading book. Sometimes Agrippa speaks of a subject at length, often pretty short. This book is and remains a studybook, but is also a wonderfull reference-work which gives this book a right for existence until today.
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