The Language of Demons and Angels

The Language of Demons and Angels

While Agrippa is most directly relevant for scholars of Renaissance intellectual history and history of science, this work is not directed solely to such scholars. Indeed, I want to show that the methods and ideas of other disciplines can contribute to the analysis of Renaissance magic. In particular, I hope to use Agrippa’s work to reopen some central definitional questions in the discipline of the history of religions. Finally, I intend to demonstrate the important contiguity of Renaissance magicalthinking to modern philosophical debates about interpretation and meaning, thus adding (at least) some additional material for reflection.

In order to explain and synthesize these goals, it is necessary to give some critical account of the various methods applied. I subdivide them into three groups: history of religions, history of ideas, and textual criticism.

Anthropology and History of Religions

On the face of it, it seems as though a necessary preliminary to an analysis of Renaissance magical texts would be a definition of magic. Unfortu- nately, the question of such a definition has a long and troubled history and now seems more or less moribund. Like many cemetery residents, however,  it  is  “not  dead,  only  sleeping,”  and  haunts  many  facets  of contemporary discussion in the history of religions and anthropology. In what follows, I summarize these arguments about definitions, then propose a way of reopening the question more profitably.
The classic description of the problem was Malinowski’s phrase, “magic, science, and religion” in the eponymous essay.6 How does magic relate to these other modes of belief, thought, and behavior? More broadly, what is magic? We can break down the answers into three categories, which I term proto-science, illicit religion, and social cleavage.

The notion that magic and witchcraft have some relationship with rationality or science was perhaps most famously formulated by Sir James Frazer in The Golden Bough: “In short, magic is a spurious system of natural law as well as a fallacious guide of conduct; it is a false science as well as an abortive art.”7 After discussing the “laws” which underlie the magician’s “logic,” Frazer tells us that these are ultimately based upon the “principles of association”; in ringing prose, he argues that these principles are excellent in themselves, and indeed absolutely essential to the working of the human mind. Legitimately applied they yield science; illegitimately applied they yield magic, the bastard sister of science.8

Despite this negative comparison, it should not be thought that Frazer had nothing positive to say about magic. By defining magic in terms of such laws as “contagion” and “homeopathy,”9 by discussing magicians as “men of the keenest intelligence and the most unscrupulous character” who in spite and because of their deceptions have often “been most beneficent in their use of [their power],”10 he brought to the fore several issues which would haunt scholars for the next century:

Is there not a certain rationality, however defined, or application of rational principles, which inheres in magical practices?

Does magic have some historical or analogical relation to modern science? Does it have such a relation to religion?
What status can we attribute to the claims of magicians; in other words, is a magician, in general, a “sorcerer who sincerely believes in his own extravagant pretensions” or a “deliberate impostor”?

Frazer’s own opinions on these issues are easily catalogued and, in the main, set aside.   First, while there is certainly  a  “rationality” to these practices, “the primitive magician knows magic only on its practical side; he never analyses the mental processes on which his practice is based, never reflects on the abstract principles involved in his actions.”11 However rational the principles dredged up by the “philosophic student” to explain these practices, the practitioner cannot be said to be a “scientist,” i.e. a rational, careful thinker. On the second question, Frazer argues the famous evolutionary theory (similar to that of E.B. Tylor), that magic leads to religion, which in turn leads to science. Finally, he argues forcefully that the successful magician is a deliberate fraud, although “if we could balance the harm they do by their knavery against the benefits they confer by their superior sagacity, it might well be found that the good greatly outweighed the evil,”12 in other words the fact that a magician is a fraud does not mean we must discard all respect for him, although we have none for his pretended beliefs.

Emile Durkheim and Marcel Mauss split radically from Frazer’s model. Simply put, they argue that magic is a sort of illicit religion; or rather, that it is similar in some ways to religion, distinguished largely by its anti- religious character:

Magic takes a sort of professional pleasure in profaning holy things; in its rites, it performs the contrary of the religious ceremony. On its side, religion, when it has not condemned and prohibited magic rites, has always looked upon them with disfavor.13

Similarly, A magical rite is any rite which does not play a part in organized cults—it is private, secret, mysterious and approaches the limits of a prohibited rite.14

Thus magic is construed as a social behavior, albeit one whose character is often anti-social. For Mauss, “sympathetic formulas [à la Frazer] . . . will not be sufficient to represent the totality of a rite of sympathetic magic. The remaining elements are not negligible.”15

The notion of magic as illicit religion has considerably more validity than is (now) generally accepted. So-called magical rituals or practices are commonly denounced by religious authorities, and it is thus difficult to avoid the charge that by accepting emic definitions of magic arising from such denunciations, we implicitly give credence to the illicit religion theory. At the same time, practices apparently extremely similar are valorized by the same authorities as valid modes of religious practice and experience, sometimes even as licit defenses against magic. Luther’s denunciation of the doctrine of transubstantiation is in some ways relatively typical: by arguing that the Catholic notion of the mass was “magical” he formulated a powerful assault.

Although Luther’s attack on the “magical” practices of Catholicism tends to uphold magic as illicit religion, not all practices conventionally labeled magical fit such a description. Most importantly, solitary practitioners such as witches cannot easily be categorized in this fashion. By shifting the focus of analysis from the practice to its social context, however, Durkheim and Mauss made the first step towards a theory of magic as primarily an artifact of social interactions.

The problematic relationship between “magic” and “religion” eventually led to the invention of what has become the standard anthropo- logical approach to magical behaviors, inaugurated primarily by E.E. Evans-Pritchard in his discussions of the Zande. Evans-Pritchard found an internal distinction between two different types of magic, which he designated “witchcraft” (mangu) and “sorcery” (ngwa).16 This was something new—a distinction within magic, rather than an exterior one such as homeopathic/contagious. The most important point about this distinction for all later discussions of magic is that sorcery is a technique, something acquired or learned, whereas witchcraft is inherent in the witch:
Azande believe that some people are witches and can injure them in virtue of an inherent quality. A witch performs no rite, utters no spell and possesses no medicines. An act of witchcraft is a psychic act.17

As Mary Douglas put it, Azande witches were thought to be dangerous without knowing it; their witchcraft was made active simply by feelings of resentment or grudge. The accusation attempted to regulate the situation by vindicating one and condemning the other rival.18

Douglas (and also Victor Turner) correctly points to the accusation as the essential issue in Evans-Pritchard’s witchcraft definition: since witches do not necessarily know that they are such, acts of witchcraft are often unwitting. Thus in a consideration of witchcraft, the only evidence that it has occurred is that an accusation is made and sustained (usually by oracle).

Before moving on to consider the line of debate which followed, I want to note that all this applies only to Evans-Pritchard’s notion of witchcraft; it has essentially no bearing whatever on what he called sorcery (ngwa), a point often forgotten. For him, the idea of figuring out the underlying rationality of an overt magical act is an application of what he called the “if I were a horse” mentality, of naively imagining oneself in the magician’s shoes, which mentality he ascribed to Tylor, Frazer, and Malinowski. Instead, Evans-Pritchard focused on effects, believing that “for the social anthropologist, religion is what religion does.”19 Given this presupposi- tion, he simply focused on accusations and hence on witchcraft, rather than on the odd practitioner of sorcery per se (except as a specialist in healing or fending off witchcraft).

Since Evans-Pritchard’s book on the Zande, the majority of analyses have concentrated on this social role of magic (meaning witchcraft), and thus examine the circumstances of accusations rather than the content of putative magical actions. For the scholar, this simplifies the issue considerably. One need not consider the details of magical acts, examine the exact content of accusations, or most of all ask why someone would attempt magical acts against someone else. This is particularly convenient (and this is a euphemism) when discussing the European witch craze, because it enables the scholar to attack the authorities who sanctioned the witch-burnings without questioning whether they might have had, in some instances, a legitimate case. In other words, the question of whether an accused witch might have actually performed magical acts becomes irrelevant, and the authorities who condemn the witch can be denounced for their oppressive behavior. But however much we deplore the punishment, it is theoretically possible that at least a few condemned witches might have been guilty as charged.

While recent studies of the witch-craze take seriously the content of the accusations,20 very few consider the possibility that some witches might actually have practiced magic,21 nor have they shown much interest in performed magical acts. Instead, the focus is on a content-less “witch- craft,” where no act is involved—only an accusation. This approach has certain problematic ramifications, of which Jonathan Z. Smith22 lists five:

It is extremely rare that the “necessary” sociological data are available, especially when dealing with the past rather than modern ethnographies;

One tends to assume that the magician is disempowered in some manner, and thus the accusation sustained because the powerful accuse the powerless, as in the witch craze;23

This focus ignores the possibility that someone might actually practice magic;

The scholar cannot explain or analyze professional magicians or their beliefs and practices; and

We are unable to get beyond the native usage of the term “magic” and produce an effective second-order explanatory terminology, because there is essentially no data for magic.

While the “social cleavage” theory of magic is very effective for understanding certain types of data, it seems that many forms of magic fall outside the scope of this theory, particularly those which involve docu- mented magical practices.

If we wish to analyze magical practices rather than accusations, we are forced to return to the problem of rationality and focus on the internal (symbolic) structure of the magical act. The issue is traditionally whether this structure is “rational” or “coherent,” and generally focuses on the problem of falsification: if a magical act is supposed to produce some effect, and if, so far as the outside observer can discern, the act has no mechanism by which to do so causally, why does magic not die out? How can intelligent people continue to believe that their magic will have effects when this claim is so clearly falsifiable?

Frazer’s answer was that the magician has a whole host of prefabricated excuses—counter-magic, slight errors in casting—but then Frazer assumed that the magician is more or less a clever fraud. For him, magic does not die out because magicians deceive people into perpetuating it.
Malinowski’s response is not much more satisfactory. His mimetic explanation of magic argues that the magician imitates the effect he wants to cause. Because the magician becomes subjectively and emotionally involved  in  his  actions  by  “acting  the  part,”  the  action  produces  a psychological equivalent of the desired effect in the practitioner (i.e. it is

I would add that this analytical approach tends to effect disempowerment, by treating the accused as though they had no social agency. cathartic of the desire which provoked the magical act), and thus no falsification occurs. Following Evans-Pritchard’s remarks,24 we might ask if this does not imply a kind of idiocy or childishness: if I punch a wall because I am angry at someone, I do not for a moment believe that the person in question has been punched.

There have been few recent attempts to answer these questions. Perhaps the most important is Stanley Tambiah’s move to Austin’s speech- act theory, in which the words of a magic spell are granted power as “performative utterances,” like the speech-act of christening a ship.25 This approach (if extended in a more sophisticated manner) has certain potential advantages, as we shall see in chapter four below. It permits a contextual understanding of certain types of “magical” behavior while elevating the content of magical speech to the status of a datum, and it neatly blocks off the “if I were a horse” approach. Above all, the turn towards Austin removes the difficulty of the magician-as-charlatan: there is no need to believe that a deliberate (as opposed to unwitting) magician, if intelligent, must necessarily be a fraud.

At the same time, Tambiah’s approach ultimately prevents our making the distinctions which are most interesting with regard to magic, such as whether a magical act differs from other acts. After all, if magic is understood simply as “performative utterance,” it cannot be distinguished from the many types of such utterances not usually thought of as magical, such as the christening of a ship. In particular, many of the utterances associated with religious ritual would also fit into the category of performative utterance, such that the category of magic becomes useless.26 If there is to be any utility to the term “magic,” as Durkheim and Mauss noted, it must be in some ways distinguishable from religion and science.

Since the objective of the present work is to analyze the content of a magical text by a highly intelligent professional magician, we must move beyond these classic discussions of magic and its methods. Initially, we must be content with Agrippa’s definitions of magic, since we have no effective ones of our own. At the same time, I submit that precisely this sort of analysis provides the greatest possibility of constructing a second- order explanatory theory of magic.

Note Smith’s terminological classification:

Unlike a word such as “religion,” “magic” is not only a second-order term, located in academic discourse. It is as well, cross culturally, a native, first-order category, occurring in ordinary usage which has deeply influenced the evaluative language of the scholar. Every sort of society appears to have a term (or, terms) designating some modes of ritual activities, some beliefs, and some ritual practitioners as dangerous, and/or illegal, and/or deviant. (Even some texts, conventionally labeled “magical” by scholars, themselves contain charms and spells against what the text labels “magic.”) . . . Moreover, it is far from clear that, in many cases, these native distinctions can be properly rendered, in all their nuances, by the common English terms “magic,” “witchcraft,” “sorcery.”27

Smith here suggests that “magic” is in some way a “cross-cultural” native terminology, while at the same time noting that the terminologies may not be entirely commensurate with “magic.” In addition, as noted earlier, he wants to distinguish between how “they” define magic and how modern scholars should define it:

Giving primacy to native terminology yields, at best, lexical definitions which, historically and statistically, tell how a word is used. But, lexical definitions are almost always useless for scholarly work. To remain content with how “they” understand “magic” may yield a proper description, but little explanatory power. How “they” use a word cannot substitute for the stipulative procedures by which the academy contests and controls second- order, specialized usage.28

Although in a broad sense magic may often be a “native, first-order category,” it is precisely so only in one case: the debates and texts about magic in early modern Europe. What is more, these debates are power- fully constitutive of the modern usage of such terms as “magic,” both in and out of the academy, because of the historical continuity of those debates to the scientific revolution and the invention of the academy, not to mention their relevance to such texts as Goethe’s Faust.

If it is recognized that every translation of a term involves a compari- son, i.e. that translating the Zande term ngwa as “sorcery” means comparing the Zande usage of ngwa with the modern English “sorcery,” then we are led to a peculiar conclusion: every translation of a non- European term as “magic,” as well as every attempt to define a second- order “magic,” is necessarily a comparison with a number of rather poorly understood practices in (particularly) early modern Europe.

Thus the analysis of European magical history is a necessary preliminary to the definition of magic as a second-order scholarly term. While we must eventually separate the second-order usage from its history, it is impossible to effect this separation until we have a clearer idea of what is being separated from what.

For example, it is worth noting that essentially all modern attempts to define “magic” have worked from the assumption that there are relatively few types of magic. In the Renaissance, as we shall see with Agrippa, there were understood to be a great many different types of magic, such as natural magic, demonic magic, mathematical magic, ceremonial magic, witchcraft, and so forth, all fairly distinct in methods and objectives. This goes some way towards explaining our inability to make everything conventionally labeled as “magic” conform to a single theoretical structure: only modern academics have ever believed that all types of magic were so conformable.

The History of Ideas

In order to revive the definition of magic as a scholarly issue, it is necessary to understand the history of the term and the debates which surrounded it; this analysis of DOP should go some way toward improving that under- standing. To achieve this, DOP must be understood in its historical context, particularly the context of debates about magic.

Interpreting those debates is not simple, however, and brings up the entire vexed historiography of Renaissance intellectual currents. The discussion which follows is by no means exhaustive, being limited to a few closely related historiographical approaches which have been applied to specifically magical problems.

The more traditional approach, associated particularly with historians of science and of philosophy, concentrates heavily on issues of source and influence, and evidences a desire to situate the object of study within a chronological trajectory. Thus analysis of a given work is primarily effected through examination of (1) the author’s sources, and (2) the scientific or philosophical developments in which that author participated. In the case of Agrippa, this trajectory has been plotted by Charles Nauert in his Agrippa and the Crisis of Renaissance Thought,29 and ably supplemented and expanded by Paola Zambelli in a great many articles. The chronology of Agrippa’s life is as clearly determined as it is likely to be, barring the discovery of as yet unsuspected documents. Agrippa’s sources for DOP have been carefully detailed by Vittoria Perrone Compagni in her critical edition,30 and the earlier massive annotations of Karl Anton Nowotny are still useful.31 Although little study has focused on DOP ’s influence on later generations, despite Yates’s call to action quoted above, nods in this direction have appeared in works on such
figures as Dee, Bruno, and Robert Fludd.

In spite of this wealth of scholarship, DOP remains mysterious, largely because the work is difficult to situate within a known intellectual current such as science or philosophy. That is, DOP ’s relevance to the history of science is difficult to determine, inasmuch as it constantly bumps against the edges of modern accounts of the scientific revolution without having had much apparent direct influence. With regard to philosophy, Agrippa’s influence on thinkers such as Montaigne is well established, but DOP ’s role is unclear—it is the Pyrrhonism of De vanitate which so impressed Montaigne, and we do not know whether he ever read DOP.

We thus face a conundrum. On the one hand, we know that Agrippa, and particularly DOP, had considerable influence upon at least two centuries of magical thinking; on the other, we have been unable to situate the author within an historical lineage that justifies this importance.

Here I argue for a move away from this methodology. The approach in question is to some degree teleological, treating an author’s thought in terms of the disciplines which ultimately emerged from the lineage in which that author participated. Historians of philosophy, for example, commonly analyze magical philosophy in light of the history of philosophy more broadly construed, as it moved towards Descartes, Bacon, and Hobbes. This mode of scholarship derives at least partially from a reaction against the earlier and more obviously teleological model of (especially) the history of science, which tended to “grade” early scientists on their contributions to scientific knowledge. In that model, a figure such as Paracelsus could be considered scientific when his ideas were both scientifically accurate and new, and pre- or proto-scientific when inaccurate.32 More recently, such scholars as Walter Pagel and Allen Debus have revised the historiography of Paracelsus, such that his importance to the scientific revolution depends upon his influence upon the intellectual currents which produced that revolution; for example, Paracelsus’s work promoted a desire to look at nature anew rather than accepting Aristotelian and Galenic authority.
While this important historiographical shift has led us to revise our thinking about magical thinkers such as Paracelsus, Dee, and Bruno, this methodology necessarily focuses on the thinker rather than the texts, and on the influence of the texts rather than their content. This focus has dramatically improved our understanding of the intellectual currents of the Renaissance, but Agrippa has remained peripheral. Thus if the early approach denied Agrippa any value, more recent scholarship has recog- nized his importance without being able to explain it. I argue that, given the influence of Agrippa’s writings, we must assume that later magical thinkers found something of importance in their content; thus we are led ineluctably toward textual analysis as the next logical stage in the historiography of Renaissance magic.

A less traditional approach is that associated with Frances Yates, who in  the  1960s  and  ‘70s  inaugurated  the  most  important  rethinking  of Renaissance magical thought in modern scholarship. Her methods do not initially seem fundamentally different from those discussed above: the same structure of sources, influences, and situation in an intellectual current is apparent in the majority of her works. However, a comparison of methodologies quickly reveals subtle but radical differences.

In her masterpiece Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition, Yates unravels Bruno’s ideas in two stages. First, she presents Bruno’s predeces- sors in the “Hermetic” movement, moving from Hermes Trismegistus himself through Marsilio Ficino, Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, Agrippa, and on to “Religious Hermetism in the Sixteenth Century.” Having thus situated Bruno within an intellectual tradition, she gives a biographical and intellectual account of the Nolan thinker’s short life. The denoue- ment of her book discusses the fate of Hermetism after 1600 (when Bruno was burned at the stake), thus gesturing towards the influence of Bruno upon his immediate successors.

The critical point of departure, emblematic of the Warburg school, is the notion of a “Hermetic movement.” Rather than situate Bruno in the history of science or philosophy as commonly construed, she places him in a previously unknown intellectual movement. This movement and its history are traced with considerable care in Yates’s work, with periodic redefinitions—the “Hermetic” movement becomes the “Hermetic- cabalist” movement, and so forth. Having inserted this movement into Renaissance intellectual history, she argues that it has significant points of contact with the history of science and philosophy. These contacts in turn lead to a demand for a drastic revision of the historiography of the period—after all, if prior histories of Renaissance thought did not even discern the presence of the movement, much less its purposes, then there must be something terribly wrong with those prior histories.

There is a complex and problematic methodology here, which unfortunately Yates herself never made explicit. In a fascinating article on the methodology of the Warburg school,33 Carlo Ginzburg notes a standard assessment of this method as being based upon “philological concreteness and precision; objectivity and the accompanying rejection of theoretical presuppositions and abstract hypothetical generalizations ; and interdisciplinary approaches, the shattering of academic compartments, or those simply dictated by tradition.”34 But this school has produced two major theorists, Erwin Panofsky and E.H. Gombrich, and by a brief examination of the former’s art-historical methods, we can gain some insight into the problems and strengths of what has become the dominant strain of scholarship of Renaissance magical currents.

Panofsky, as is well known, divides the analysis of artistic images into a tripartite structure: pre-iconographical description, iconographical analysis, and iconological interpretation.35 The object of study is in each case different, as is the purpose and method.

“Pre-iconographical description” has as its object the “primary or natural subject matter,” that is, “the world of motifs.” Based on a relatively universal human experience, one interprets the image. For example, the pre-iconographical subject matter of a given painting might be a man crucified upon a cross. The viewer can identify the man as such, can identify the cross as a wooden, cross-shaped object, and can recognize the man’s facial expression as agony, ecstasy, or whatever: “Everybody can recognize the shape and behavior of human beings, animals and plants, and everybody can tell an angry face from a jovial one.”36

Iconographical analysis adds historico-cultural knowledge to the interpretation: by moving to iconography, we identify the crucified man as Jesus. Panofsky here moves from what Charles Peirce would call “iconic” relations, based on resemblance, to “symbolic” relations, which are purely conventional in character. He uses the example of an Australian bushman, who “would be unable to recognize the subject of a Last Supper; to him it would only convey the idea of an excited dinner party.”37

With the move to “iconology,” Panofsky’s method becomes at once highly problematic and filled with rich potential, and it is here that we begin to see Yates’s method. Iconological interpretation seeks “those underlying principles which reveal the basic attitude of a nation, a period, a class, a religious or philosophical persuasion—qualified by one personal- ity and condensed into one work.” By means of this iconology, Panofsky wishes to consider Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper “as a document of Leonardo’s personality, or of the civilization of the Italian High Renais- sance, or of a peculiar religious attitude, [such that] we deal with the work of art as a symptom of something else which expresses itself in a countless variety of other symptoms.”38

Iconology of this sort marks the entire Warburg school (with the possible exception of Gombrich): it is the attempt not only to understand some object (a text, a painting) as a product of its historical context, but also as in some manner representative of that context, and thereby to interpret context by means of the object. The object becomes a document for the understanding of history, rather than an isolated aesthetic piece.

In the history of ideas more generally, one crucial benefit of this “iconological” method is that it annuls the older “genius” approach, in which a thinker such as Descartes or Newton was represented as an isolated genius. By presupposing that the object of analysis is a document for understanding history, the scholar is forced to read the Meditations as related to the historical-cultural situation in which Descartes lived and participated.

Put so broadly, it is difficult to argue the contrary position, that documents should be forcibly removed from historical context. But is this really the only contrary position? If we examine the presuppositions of iconology, and the Warburg school more generally, the notions of “culture” and “history” are relatively unexamined. In addition, a complex circularity appears in the heart of the method, which may or may not be resolvable. For purposes of brevity, I restrict this critique to three points. First, if the Last Supper is a document for understanding the Italian High Renaissance, it is required that there be an Italian High Renaissance. That is, this movement must be singular, concrete, and readily definable. So for every object to be studied, it is necessary that we discover a definable context in which to fit it. Two points follow immediately for a study of Agrippa’s DOP : (1) we cannot use DOP as a document for understanding magic, since as we have seen magic is not singular, concrete, or readily definable; (2) we must situate DOP within some movement of which it would be typical, even though such a movement is not previously known. Frances Yates’s notion of “the Hermetic movement” is an attempt at such positioning: by postulating the existence of such a movement, texts like Agrippa’s can be seen as typical rather than peculiar.

This leads to the second problem with this Warburg method: if we postulate a “Hermetic movement” so as to make Agrippa’s work typical, then the only documentation of that movement is precisely works like Agrippa’s. In other words, the movement is defined and described on the basis of the very documents which it was postulated to explain. In art criticism, the same problem obtains: if we interpret a painting in light of its context, then try to interpret the context in light of the painting, we are in grave danger of finding only confirmation for our prior beliefs about the painting and the historical context. At its extreme extent, this method leads to a Geistesgeschichte of “the true spirit of the Renaissance,” or alternatively to the wholesale invention of grand, secret movements in history, such as Yates’s “Rosicrucian enlightenment.”39 

A third difficulty appears in Panofsky’s remark that iconology desires to understand the Last Supper “as a document of Leonardo’s personality, or of the civilization of the Italian High Renaissance, or of a peculiar religious attitude. . . .” But which one? Or all at the same time? The several possibilities listed (and one could adduce many others) lead to another circularity: if some aspect of the Last Supper does not fit our understanding of the Italian High Renaissance, we can simply conclude that this aspect is a datum for understanding Leonardo’s personality, moving us from history to psychology. And even supposing that one had great confidence in psychological interpretations of historical figures, what data could we adduce for such an interpretation apart from precisely those aspects of Leonardo’s work which do not fit previous understandings of his historical context? Similarly, Yates is bound to interpret supposedly Hermetic texts entirely in that context. For example, she argues that Agrippa must have written his retraction of DOP in order to appease church authorities, who were supposedly anti-Hermetic; that the remainder of De vanitate, in which the retraction appeared, is violently and even viciously anti-clerical is irrelevant for Yates, because the only documentation she has for a “Hermetic movement” is the texts of such men as Agrippa, and hence they must be interpreted in that light.

We are dealing here with problems of interpretation, and indeed with the theory of interpretation. The difficulties of the Warburg method are not the result of “fuzzy thinking” or a lack of precision; they are funda- mental problems which arise in the study of any cultural product, made more apparent by selecting as the object of study a nearly undefinable idea such as magic. If earlier it seemed that Agrippa would provide a window onto the history of “magic” as a term, it now seems that the use of Agrippa as a window onto anything is riddled with insoluble difficulties.
I do not claim to have a solution to these problems, a “secret key” to occult philosophy or magic. Instead, I suggest that these problems are precisely where analysis needs to begin. In other words, I suggest that problems of interpretation are precisely the problems with which we need to investigate Agrippa. By considering Agrippa’s magic in terms of our own deep concerns about the nature of meaning, interpretation, and language, we can at last find common ground.

Textual Methods for the Study of Renaissance Magic

I have argued that careful textual analysis of Agrippa (for example) is necessary to advance understanding of Renaissance magic and of the definitional problem of magic in general, and thus some discussion of textual-critical methodology is crucial. But this brief discussion of hermeneutics, deconstruction, and semiotics is not intended merely to introduce and summarize the means by which I will effect my analysis of Agrippa. On the contrary, these very methodologies can themselves be clarified and advanced by application to Agrippa. In the present volume, critical theories are not simple lenses for examination, but rather philo- sophical ideas in conversation with the text, thus negating a fallacious distinction between “primary” and “secondary” sources, “object of study” and “method for study.”

When reading Agrippa, one cannot avoid being struck by the centrality of linguistic and textual issues. Like so many Christian thinkers in all ages, Agrippa uses the terminology of “two books” written by God for the instruction of humanity: Scripture and Nature. Within the field of the Renaissance history of science, much time has been devoted to the question of reading Nature, with particular emphasis on its relationship to the development of modern science.40 DOP, however, does not seem to privilege either book over the other, but rather describes techniques for reading both books, separately and in parallel, and also suggests the possibility of writing in (or at least parallel to) these two books. Book I of DOP, devoted to Natural Magic, focuses almost entirely on the book of Nature; Books II and III, on Mathematical and Ceremonial Magic, take up various abstruse exegetical techniques, some derived from Kabbalah, others from Christian theological and philosophical sources. All of these methods seem to be both exegetical and, if you will, in-getical, based on active writing, in addition to the semi-passive reading of exegesis: magical hermeneutics—hermetic hermeneutics, we might say—is a primary issue in the work. In order to examine the nature of magical practice inDOP, then, it will be necessary to take up these techniques of magical reading and writing, and my own hermeneutics must be guided by those of the text. In reading DOP, then, we are reading a book about reading.

But who is reading what? All modern formulations of the dynamics of interpretation agree that the intentions and ideas of the author are inaccessible; in addition, I have argued above that this interpretation of DOP must turn away from Agrippa and towards the text itself—to use Paul Ricoeur’s lovely formulation, the analytical focus of the reading is in fact necessarily upon “the world in front of the text.”  Thus the issue of author largely drops from consideration, to be replaced by an implied or projected authorial (or other) voice. For DOP, the projected author is a magus, one who has to some degree succeeded in the objectives of magic, thus establishing his credentials as an authority on magic.
In DOP, the magus reads the books of Scripture and Nature—but these texts are not precisely the same as those to which a modern reader has access, but rather projections in the same way as the magus is a projection. For example, the text of Nature as it appears in DOP includes occult forces whose reality a modern scientist would not accept. Thus the world in front of DOP includes projected texts distinctive to that world, as well as a projected magus who reads and interprets the texts.

Between the projected magus and the projected texts there exists necessarily a hermeneutic circle, an interpretive process of the magus entering the text and returning for philosophical reflection. After all, the magus is a reader of texts, and those texts are both autonomous and to some degree created by the magus in his role as hermeneut. Since this hermeneutic circle is central to the magical perspective of DOP, it seems logical that a modern scholar can analyze this projected circle.

The ramifications of this conclusion are considerable. Hermeneutic circles, if analyzed as such, have certain universal characteristics.41  Neither Agrippa nor the projected magus can avoid these characteristics—pre- understanding, aporia, disjuncture, reflection, etc.—any more than can a modern scholar, although the terminology is of course modern.

Two effects of this method of analysis are particularly worth noting. First, it is difficult to avoid the charge that any interpretation attempts to “make present” something about the object of interpretation. Tradition- ally, the notion was that perfect interpretation would make the author’s true meaning present; this has been discredited, to be replaced by various theories about the potential presence of some interactively constructed meaning more or less cognate with at least some “real” meaning in the text. The purpose of the analytical method proposed here is somewhat different: by entering into an interpretive relationship with a hermeneutic circle, what is made present is itself a process of making-present. In short, what is reconstructed in this analysis is neither Agrippa nor Agrippa’s “real meaning,” but rather certain aspects of the logocentrism implied by the world in front of DOP.

Second, if the hermeneutic circles of the world in front of DOP are an attempt to make something present, it seems clear that the “something” in question is the real intention of the Author of the Texts, i.e. God. To put this another way, the very structure of DOP as a hermeneutical endeavor already ensures that the objective of the occult philosophy is to make God’s true intentions present to the magus. This has a very specific meaning in Renaissance thought: it can only refer to an attempt to reach some form of mystical unity with God.

Thus, by shifting the object of study from Agrippa to the implicit hermeneutic project in front of DOP, we both clarify the magical project of the occult philosophy, and also set that philosophy into direct conversa- tion with modern linguistic and hermeneutic philosophies.

I have raised the haunting specter of “logocentrism” in the preceding discussion; it remains to explain not only what I mean by this but also how (and why) I intend to apply Jacques Derrida’s famous idea. Parallel to the search for hermeneutic circles, I plan not to deconstruct DOP (or discover how it deconstructs itself), but instead to seek in DOP certain fundamental principles of deconstruction. This is not to say that the occult philosophy is deconstruction avant la lettre, any more than seeking hermeneutic circles implies that Agrippa is already a post-Gadamerian theorist of hermeneu- tics. Rather, I argue that Agrippa’s magic was part of a philosophical movement which contained within itself the seeds of Derrida’s theory of grammatology, though the vagaries of the intellectual history of the early modern period shifted the focus of philosophical reflection away from those seeds until, more or less coincidentally, they resurfaced in (post-) modern times. The Occult Renaissance can perhaps be seen as a point at which history failed to turn, or at which it turned differently than Agrippa might have hoped.

Logocentrism is the crucial idea here. Derrida argues that the history of western thought has usually granted speech (logos) priority over writing, such that speech is understood as a more or less direct representation of thought, while writing is only a representation of speech and hence more distant, more fallen, more false. At the same time, he demonstrates that this idea deconstructs itself: discussions of the primacy of speech cannot avoid the haunting presence of writing. Writing is said to be a “supple- ment,” in the sense that it is an (unnecessary) addition to speech. Yet Derrida notes that “supplement” has a double meaning: a supplement is always a necessary addition. For example, the supplementary volumes to a dictionary include entries not in the main volumes, and are necessary for the dictionary to be complete; the supplement is thus external and yet crucial to the entirety of the work.

Derrida’s arguments are infamously complex; here I only sketch an outline of part of one particularly relevant version: the essay “Plato’s Pharmacy,”42 which discusses Plato’s dialogue Phaedrus and particularly the section on a supposedly Egyptian myth of the origins of writing.
To summarize the myth briefly, the god Theuth (Thoth, more or less equivalent to Hermes) approaches the king (Thamus/Ammon, king of the gods as well as of Egypt) and offers him the arts which Theuth has invented, particularly the art of writing.

Theuth said, “This discipline, my King, will make the Egyptians wiser and will improve their memories: my invention is a recipe (pharmakon) for both memory and wisdom.” But the king said, “. [T]his invention will produce forgetfulness in the souls of those who have learned it because they will not need to exercise their memories, being able to rely on what is written, using the stimulus of external marks that are alien to themselves rather than, from within, their own unaided powers to call things to mind. So  it’s  not  a  remedy  for  memory,  but  for  reminding,  that  you  have discovered. And as for wisdom, you’re equipping your pupils with only a semblance of it, not with the truth.”43

The crucial word for Derrida’s discussion is pharmakon  [NVD:"6@<], meaning both medicine and poison: Theuth brings writing as a pharmakon/remedy for memory, but the king recognizes it as a pharmakon/poison. Thus for Plato, writing has the appearance of wisdom, truth, and memory, but is in fact destructive of all these, creating a dead semblance of memory and a shadowy imitation of truth. Derrida argues that this pharmakon is a supplement in the sense given above: Theuth would not present writing as a medicine if there were no sickness. Thus the invention of writing implies that speech always already lacks some- thing, that it is incomplete, that it requires a supplement.

In many of his works, Derrida argues that this logocentric phenome- non, this constant desperate attempt to recapture presence by further supplementation, is part of the long heritage of western philosophy from Plato onward.44 For our purposes, however, it is significant that his history of philosophy (borrowed from Heidegger) skips the occult philosophies of the Renaissance, presumably because they rarely had much direct influence upon what we now think of as the mainstream of philosophy. But when considering Derrida’s philosophy in the context of Renaissance magic, certain peculiarities are interestingly suggestive.

First, it is not coincidental that Theuth, inventor of writing, also invented such arts as astrology, medicine—and magic. In a sense, magic is mythologically bound up with writing; indeed, Renaissance magic (such as Agrippa’s) can be read as the ultimate pharmakon for the lack of presence. It is hardly surprising that Theuth is generally equated with Hermes, the patron deity as it were of Renaissance magicians.

Second, a unique conjunction occurred in early modern occult philosophy, between classical western philosophies (Neoplatonic and Aristotelian) and Jewish thought, particularly Kabbalah. Kabbalah is (if one can generalize) primarily oriented around text, specifically Hebrew text. It was commonly accepted that Hebrew was the pre-Babel language, the language of Adam and of God, the language in which Adam named all the animals “and whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name” (Gen. 3:19). As has been discussed by historians of linguistics and semiotics,45 this was taken to mean that the Hebrew language was not arbitrary in the linguistic sense: Hebrew words and letters connected to their referents not by cultural convention but by divine fiat.46 In other words, the occult philosophers saw in Kabbalah an ancient and holy science which could discern and demonstrate the presence of God in Scripture. I suggest, then, that DOP can be read as an attempt to solve the problem of logocentrism by an appeal to the prisca magia: DOP ’s magus uses ancient holy magical techniques to make manifest the immanent presence of the Divine in the world. This establishes a communication between the magus and God which relies neither on speech nor text, but on the undifferentiated absolute Word of God (Christ/Logos) by means of which God created the world.

Thus the magical project of DOP is one of rising through the spoken and written manifestations of the Word (Nature and Scripture, respec- tively) to the true, undifferentiated Word, the Word which requires no supplement, which is itself presence. If Derrida reminds us that all language is haunted by absence, Agrippa recognizes this problem and seeks a solution in magic, through a kind of reconstructive deconstruction of the universe itself. Which attempt is perhaps the most extreme form of logocentrism possible.

On the opposite extreme, the search for immanent presence in the universe can lead to endless semiosis; the semiotician Umberto Eco calls this “Hermetic drift,” and ascribes it to Giordano Bruno and other Hermetic thinkers:
I shall call Hermetic drift the interpretive habit which dominated Renais- sance Hermetism and which is based on the principles of universal analogy and sympathy, according to which every item of the furniture of the world is linked to every other element (or to many) of this sublunar world and to every element (or to many) of the superior world by means of similitudes or resemblances. It is through similitudes that the otherwise occult parenthood between things is manifested and every sublunar body bears the traces of that parenthood impressed on it as a signature.47
Here every object is like a word in the Adamic language, having meaning because of its nature, and because of the nature of Nature itself. The difficulty of this type of semiosis is that it is unlimited: if every element is linked to every other, the process of meaning-relations can never end, and no final determination of even a functional meaning can be made.

Considering the previous discussion of Derrida and magic, it should come as no surprise that Eco’s other example of “unlimited semiosis” is that which he ascribes to “irresponsible” deconstructionists. For them, the process of supplementation and deconstruction leads to an infinite path without any potential for ending in meaning. That is, the results of any interpretive act are determined by the preconceptions of the interpreter, and have essentially no connection with the object interpreted.48

But in Agrippa’s magic, as already indicated, there is an end-point: the process of unlimited semiosis is fixed to an unlimited Meaning, i.e. God, because Christ breaks the unending cycle of interpretation as the Incarnate Word. Every element of Creation connects to every other because every element is part of the Divine plan, and hence each piece is an essential element in a single, infinitely large meaning. The object of the occult philosophy thus becomes the search for connections, because these connections are constitutive of Meaning. The process of interpreting DOP is thus once again a process of following a search for meaning, of interpreting a process of interpretation.

48 Eco does not tar Derrida himself with this brush; on the contrary, he notes in the already cited essay: “In Grammatology [Derrida] reminds his readers that without all the instruments of traditional criticism ‘critical production will risk developing in almost any direction at all and authorize itself to say almost anything. But this indispensable guard- rail has always only protected, it has never opened a reading’” (ibid., 37). Eco uses this as support for his contention that “frequently Derrida—in order to stress nonobvious truths—disregards very obvious truths that nobody can reasonably pass over in silence. I think . . .that Derrida takes many of these obvious truths for granted—while frequently some of his followers do not” (ibid., 36). Eco’s citation is from Of Grammatology, trans. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1974), 158.

Cornelius Agrippa: Life

Agrippa’s biography has been written a number of times, most importantly by Charles Nauert,49 and ably supplemented by several scholars, particu- larly Paola Zambelli. As the present work is a close reading of DOP, the following merely summarizes prior scholarship.

Early Years (1486-1518)

Born in Cologne in 1486 to a family of minor nobility or upper bourgeoi- sie, Agrippa matriculated in 1499 at the University of Cologne, receiving the magister artium in 1502. Considering the traditionalism of the Cologne university, it is no surprise that the iconoclastic Agrippa later criticized the instruction.50 He learned some astrology from his father, who died in 1519, and it seems certain that Agrippa’s abiding interest in esoteric learning began early.51
Between 1507 and 1509 he traveled extensively, spending time in Paris and Spain, possibly in service to Emperor Maximilian I. Apparently he also formed or joined a secret society of like-minded occult students, but we have minimal information as he swore an oath of secrecy.52
In 1509 Agrippa visited Johannes Trithemius, Abbot of Sponheim, a distinguished humanist, theologian, and expert on cryptography and magic, to whom shortly thereafter he sent the complete Juvenile Draft manuscript of DOP.53 Trithemius approved, and encouraged Agrippa to

49 Charles G. Nauert, Agrippa and the Crisis of Renaissance Thought (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1965). I will eschew constant citations to this seminal work.
50 On Cologne’s traditionalism, see James V. Mehl, ed., Humanismus in Köln (Cologne: Böhlau Verlag, 1991), esp. Charles G. Nauert, “Humanists, Scholastics, and the Struggle to Reform the University of Cologne, 1523-25,” 39-76.
51 Epistolae 1, 23 (ab D. Ioanni Tritemio, Abbati, 1510), 622: “Hinc concitatus est in me spiritus meus, atque propter ipsam cum admirationem, tum indignationem volui et ego philosophari, non illaudabile opus me facturum existimans, qui ab ineunte aetate semper circa mirabilium effectuum et plenas mysteriorum operationes curiosus intrepidusque extiti explorator.”
52 On Agrippa’s secret society, see Nauert, Agrippa, 17-25 et passim. Paola Zambelli, “Umanesimo magico-astrologico e raggruppamenti segreti nei platonici della preriforma,” in Umanesimo e esoterismo: Atti del V convegno internazionale di studi umanistici, Oberhofen, 16-17 settembre 1960, ed. Enrico Castelli (Padua, 1960), 157-58, presents a “strong theory” of the society, but cf. Nauert, 318-321, and esp. 321n.100 for a critical assessment.
53 The copy sent to Trithemius is the source for the Juvenile Draft (W).  On Trithemius, see Noel Brann, Trithemius and Magical Theology: A Chapter in the Controversy over Occult Studies in Early Modern Europe (Albany: SUNY, 1999), and The Abbott continue his studies, though he suggested that the young scholar be circumspect in his discussions.54 Also in 1509, Agrippa gave lectures on Johannes Reuchlin’s De verbo mirifico (1494) at the University of Dôle, on the strength of which he received a doctorate in theology. Unfortunately Jean Catilinet, provincial superior of the Franciscans for Burgundy, denounced Agrippa as a “judaizing heretic” (haereticum Iudaisantem ). In a pattern that would be typical for Agrippa, he was accused of heresy behind his back, and could not defend himself until later. The defense, in the form of a letter to Catilinet, was dated 1510 but published in 1529.55 During 1510, Agrippa was in London, apparently serving secret ends, perhaps on behalf of Maximilian I.56 At any rate, he studied St. Paul with John Colet, and began a commentary on Romans, not extant. Apart from a few brief trips, however, Agrippa spent 1511 through 1518 in Italy, caught in the French-Italian wars; Agrippa was involved in these military affairs on the side of the Emperor.
During a sojourn at Pavia in 1512 he probably taught a course on the Symposium, the inaugural lecture of which survives,57 and upon returning in 1515 another course on the Pimander, the first dialogue of the Hermetica.58 He also wrote Dialogus de homine, which survives in fragments, an excursus on the anthropology of Pico’s Heptaplus.59
Agrippa also acquired a patron, Guglielmo Paleologo (1494-1518), Marquis of Monferrato, and to him in 1516 dedicated his most important work of this period, Liber de triplici ratione cognoscendi Deum (hereafter De triplici ).60 During this period Agrippa likely wrote a draft of Dehortatio gentilis theologiae, which van der Poel suggests should be read as a seventh chapter of De triplici ; the work was printed in 1529.61
At the end of his time in Italy, Agrippa lectured on scripture in Turin, and wrote an oration for a student taking a doctorate in law.62

Middle Years (1518-28)

In 1518, Agrippa once more sought a patron. Though briefly involved with Charles III, Duke of Savoy, he took up a position as legal advisor to the free Imperial city of Metz. He also acquired many friends during his time in Germany, and their surviving letters reflect wide-ranging interests. While in Metz, Agrippa became embroiled in a fight about the legend that Saint Anne was married three times, each time giving birth to a daughter called Mary (the Virgin and two others).  Agrippa supported Jacques Lefèvre d’Etaples (c.1460-1536) against this theory, and was again accused of heresy—as usual anonymously, making direct confrontation impossible.63 He immediately wrote a Defensio in an angry, sarcastic style which would be typical of his later refutations, rebuttals, and apologies.64 The same period saw the famous witch trial, in which Agrippa achieved the acquittal of a woman accused of witchcraft. His victory over Inquisitor Nicolas Savin involved legal and theological arguments on witchcraft, sin,
and proper legal process for torture and interrogation of prisoners.65

Agrippa’s involvement in these conflicts made his position untenable. He moved to Cologne in 1520, then to Geneva in 1521, where he worked as a physician. His wife died either in Geneva or on the journey, and was buried in Metz; he took a second wife in Geneva, with whom he had six children. In 1522 he negotiated a position with Charles III, Duke of Savoy, but eventually moved to Freiburg as town physician in 1523.
In 1524, he became physician to Louise of Savoy; unfortunately, they disagreed intensely, as Agrippa was offended by her demands for astrologi- cal prognostications, for the popular form of which he had little respect. When Louise left Lyon in 1525, she ordered him to remain, and the royal treasurers stopped paying his salary.

In 1526, Agrippa completed his famous De vanitate, a scathing satire on all human knowledge. Some have suggested that its acid pessimism arose from bitter disappointment with the French court, about whose “treachery” he complains in several letters; this is plausible, if simplistic.66 Agrippa also published Declamatio de sacramento matrimonii, dedicated to the widowed sister of King Francis I, Margaret of Angoulême, duchess of Alençon. Presumably he hoped to regain favor, but instead court theologians criticized the work to the Queen Mother. As usual, the criticism was done behind Agrippa’s back, and he could not respond.

Understandably, given his precarious position, Agrippa offered his resignation in July 1527, and left for Antwerp in the end of that year.

Final Years (1528-35)

The journey to Antwerp was delayed, and he arrived in July, 1528; his family joined him in October.67 Agrippa worked for Margaret of Austria, governor of the Low Countries, and spent a peaceful few years there, apart from the death of his wife in the plague which swept Antwerp in 1529.68

In 1529, Agrippa received Imperial Privilege to publish several works: DOP, De vanitate, In Artem brevem Raymundi Lullii Commentaria et Tabula Abbreviata, and Orationes et Epistolae. He also published a volume containing De nobilitate, Expostulatio, De triplici, De sacramento matrimo- nii, Dehortatio, De originali peccato, and Regimen adversas pestilentiam.

In September 1530, Agrippa published De vanitate ; despite the Privilege Margaret worried about its orthodoxy. Without seeking Agrippa’s opinion, she sent to the Faculty of Theology at Louvain, whence it was sent to the Emperor’s brother Ferdinand, who took exception to its skepticism and wrote about it to the Emperor. The Faculty denounced De vanitate on eighteen points, presented to the Imperial Privy Council in (as usual) a secret document. Agrippa, furious that once again he had been attacked without the opportunity to respond, wrote both an angry Querela against his accusers and an Apologia defending the book.69 These were eventually published in 1533, anonymously, but De vanitate had been publicly condemned by the Sorbonne Faculty on March 2, 1531. Agrippa’s troubles put him out of favor and reduced him to poverty. In 1530 he moved to Malines, where in 1531 he was imprisoned for debt.

Shortly after his release in early 1532, Agrippa traveled to Cologne to visit the Archbishop elector, Hermann von Wied, with whom he had begun correspondence in early 1531. At that time, in fact, the first book of his much-revised DOP had appeared in several editions at Cologne, Antwerp, and Paris, with a dedicatory epistle to von Wied.

Agrippa now began publishing DOP. Typically, in 1532 the Cologne Inquisitor, Konrad Köllin of Ulm, preached against the book as heretical. Agrippa of course responded with venom, in three works: an address defending himself and attacking the Cologne Faculty of Theology, aligning himself with Erasmus and Reuchlin;70 a book on the Cologne Dominicans’ heresies, not extant;71 and finally a preface to the writings of Godoschalcus Moncordius, a Cistercian monk about whom nothing is known except that he met Agrippa in Bonn; Agrippa apparently lambasted the Dominicans, but the work was not published and the preface is lost. In  late  1532  or  1533,  Agrippa  moved  to  Bonn.    He petitioned Margaret of Hungary, now governor of the Low Countries, for payment of his overdue salary, and continued relations with the publisher Johannes Soter in Cologne.72 In 1533 his commentary on the “Ars brevis” of Ramon Lull was published,73 as was at long last the complete DOP. In 1535 Soter also published an edition of Agrippa’s collected orations, but it is unclear whether Agrippa was involved with this.

Suddenly in 1533, Agrippa vanishes. No correspondence survives, and his final years are unknown. According to his student Johann Weyer (1515-88), Agrippa took a wife, but repudiated her in 1535. He traveled to Lyon, was briefly imprisoned by Francis I, and died in Grenoble.74
After his death, stories of Agrippa’s traffic with demons circulated, leading to his incorporation into the Faust legends and his reputation for black magic. In one story, an anonymous boarder or student of Agrippa’s comes to a bad end. As Martín Del Rio tells it:

This happened to Cornelius Agrippa at Louvain. He had a boarder, who was too curious, and Agrippa having once gone somewhere, had given the keys of his museum to the wife whom he afterwards divorced, forbidding her to allow any one to enter. That thoughtless youth did not omit, in season and out of season, to entreat the woman to give him the means of entering, until  he gained his prayer.   Having entered the museum, he  fell upon a book of conjurations—read it. Hark! there is knocking at the door; he is disturbed; but he goes on with his reading; some one knocks again; and the unmannerly youth answering nothing to this, a demon enters, asks why is he called? What is it commanded him to do? Fear stifles the youth’s voice, the demon his mouth, and so he pays the price of his unholy curiosity. In the meantime the chief magician returns home, sees the devils dancing over him, uses the accustomed arts, they come when called, explain how the thing happened; he orders the homicide spirit to enter the corpse, and to walk now and then in the market-place (where other students were accustomed frequently to meet), at length to quit the body. He walks three or four times, then falls; the demon that had stirred the dead limbs taking flight. It was long thought that this youth had been seized with sudden death, but signs of suffocation first begot suspicion, afterwards time divulged all.75

Another typical story is that of Agrippa’s black dog, which resurfaced as Faust’s schwarze Püdel.76 M. Thevet recounts this story in purple prose:
At last, having betaken himself to Lyons, very wretched, and deprived of his faculties [!], he tried all the means that he could to live, waving, as dexter- ously as he could, the end of his stick, and yet gained so little, that he died in a miserable inn, disgraced and abhorred before all the world, which detested him as an accursed and execrable magician, because he always carried about with him as his companion a devil in the figure of a dog, from whose neck, when he felt death approaching, he removed the collar, figured all over with magic characters, and afterwards, being in a half-mad state, he drove it from him with these words: “Go, vile beast, by whom I am brought utterly to perdition.” And afterwards this dog, which had been so familiar with him, and been his assiduous companion in his travels, was no more seen; because, after the command Agrippa gave him, he began to run towards the Saône, where he leapt in, and never came out thence, for which reason it is judged that he was drowned there.77

Weyer’s refutation of this story tells more about Agrippa’s personality and habits than any other single source:
I will no longer allow a statement that I have read in several different writers to be wrapped in silence—namely, that the Devil, in the form of a dog, had been a companion to Agrippa right up until his last breath, and that he then vanished somehow or other. It never ceases to amaze me that men of such repute sometimes speak, think, and write so foolishly on the basis of an idle rumor that had circulated. The dog was black, of moderate stature, and was named Monsieur in French. . . and if anyone knew him well, I did, since I often walked him on a rope leash when I was studying under Agrippa. . . . I think that this false rumor arose partly because Agrippa was too childishly fond of this dog (as some people are), very often kissing him, and sometimes putting him by his side at the table, just as he allowed him in bed with him under the covers at night, after he had repudiated his [third] wife.    Also, the rumor arose partly because my master, though he constantly hid himself among his papers . . . and scarcely came out once in eight days, was nevertheless usually informed about what was going on in different countries. Some persons of little prudence used to attribute this fact, in my presence, to the dog—as being a demon; but in truth Agrippa received letters daily from every region, written by eminent scholars.78


Agrippa wrote a great many treatises, orations, declamations, and letters. It is unnecessary to survey all of these here, but a few points need to be summarized: first, De vanitate, arguably Agrippa’s most influential work; next, a summary of DOP itself, and a brief account of the Juvenile Draft; and finally, the famous retraction of 1526.

De incertitudine et vanitate scientiarum atque artium, atque excellentia verbi Dei declamatio (1526)
De vanitate, undoubtedly Agrippa’s best-known work, consists essentially of a scathing satirical assault on all forms of human knowledge, at times gracefully written, at others heavy-handed and inelegant. The book was

78 Weyer, De praestigiis, 113. Nauert (ch. 12: “Fact and Fantasy: Agrippa’s Position in Intellectual History,” 322-34) uncovers many hidden ways in which Agrippa, as both a thinker and a figure of legend, had a significant impact on later literature and thought.

destined to be extremely influential on the thought of the later sixteenth century, notably on Montaigne and (negatively) Descartes; rather later, it was to cause a minor crisis in the thought of the young Goethe.79
De vanitate has been compared to Nicholas of Cusa’s On Learned Ignorance, works in praise of the ass such as that of Apuleius, and especially Erasmus’s Praise of Folly. Indeed, Erasmus himself commented positively on De vanitate, although one has the impression that he felt it to be far too vicious, and that he disapproved of Agrippa’s war with the monks:
I liked the emotional force [*,\<TF4H] of your language and the richness of your material, and I do not understand why the monks are so offended. As you censure the bad ones, so you praise the good ones, but they only like to be praised. What I advised you before, I would advise you now, that if you conveniently can, you extricate yourself from this contention. Of
this, before everything, take heed that you do not mix me up with the matter: I am burdened with more than enough ill-will, and this would trouble me, while doing you more harm than good.80
The structure of De vanitate is simple enough, beginning with a bitingly satirical letter to the reader listing everyone to be criticized in the book and what they will think of its author:

The wandering Cosmographers will banish me beyond Muscovy and the frozen Sea The Almighty Bishops will reserve my sins for Everlasting
fire. The Lecherous Whores will threaten to give me the French Pox.81

Agrippa then moves on to 102 chapters (103 including the conclusion), each attacking a particular art. For each, he gives a brief account of the content and history of the art, then goes on to attack its professors.

The mode of critique varies with the subject. In some cases, as with the art of Goetia or Necromancy,82 Agrippa simply points out various classical and scriptural authorities for the condemnation of these “rites of detestable curiosity” (nefariae curiositatis ritibus) and lists a number of famous necromancers and books of goetic magic.83

More often, he engages in satire reminiscent of (if generally less elegant than) Erasmus’s Encomium moriae, as in his brutal assault on monks:
. . .at this day in many countries they alone usurp the holy name of Religion, and do boast that they are the companions of Christ, and fellow mates of the Apostles: whose life oftentimes is most wicked full of covetous- ness, of luxuriousness, of gluttony, ambition, of indiscreetness, of knavery, and stored with all kinds of mischief, but always unpunished for the pretense of Religion.84

Such attacks are often augmented by the juxtaposition of chapters, as when the chapter on monks is followed by that “On the whorish Art”:
very many houses of Nuns and Beguines be as it were private stews of harlots, which we know also that Monks and religious persons (lest their chastity should be defamed) have oftentimes maintained in monasteries under a Monk’s hood and man’s apparel.85

Agrippa’s use of humorous anecdotes is worth noting, especially because it was one such story which occasioned a significant part of his later troubles with the Louvain faculty. In his chapters on painting and engraving (caps. 24 & 25), Agrippa jokes:

. . . I learned in time past in Italy, that there was in Pictures and Images an authority greatly to be esteemed: for whereas there was an obstinate strife between the Augustine Friars and the vulgar Canons before the Pope, concerning the habit or apparel of St. Augustine, that is to say, whether he did wear a black weed [habit] upon a white Coat, or a white weed upon a black Coat. And finding nothing in the Scriptures which made to the ending of this strife, the Roman Judges thought good to prefer the whole matter to Painters, and Image Makers, and that which they could avouch out of Ancient Pictures and Images should be held for a Definitive sentence. I being grounded upon this example, when sometime with exceeding great diligence I searched for the Original of the Friars’ cowl, and could find nothing for that matter in the Scriptures, at length, I went me to the Painters. and again diligently examining every thing from the beginning, immediately in the forepart of the History the Devil was painted with a Cowl, to wit, he which went to tempt Christ in the Desert. I rejoiced exceedingly that I had found that in the picture which until that time I could not see in writing: that is to say, that the Devil was the first author of the Cowl, of whom afterward, I suppose, that other Monks and Friars took up the fashion under diverse colors, or perhaps have retained it as a thing left to them by inheritance.86

When he discusses arts for which he has some respect, however, the attacks become more specifically directed at errors, though he never passes up an opportunity to snipe at monks or scholastic theologians. Agrippa’s attack on scriptural interpretation, for example, merely warns that:
all the interpreting Divines, forasmuch as they are men, they also suffer human things, in one place they err, in another they write contraries and repugnances, oftentimes they disagree from themselves, in many things, they go besides the mark, and every man seeth not all things.87

The argument of De vanitate is not that all knowledge is worthless, as has sometimes been maintained, but rather that no knowledge can have value unless it is guided by faith. In interpretation, for example, it is needful to have a higher spirit to judge and discern, which is not given us by men, nor by flesh and blood, but is given from above by the father of light, for none without his light can truly speak any godly thing. And this light is God’s word, by which all things are made, giving light to every man that cometh into this world, and giving them power to be made the sons of God.88

The work ends with a lengthy discussion of the word of God and an encomium on the virtues of the ass (caps.100 and 102).
De vanitate is part of the genre of skeptical and satirical reformist works of the period, of which the most famous is Erasmus’s Encomium moriae. Agrippa’s main contribution here is his early use of Pyrrhonist skepticism and his comprehensive survey of all human knowledge.89

De occulta philosophia libri tres (1510/1531/33)

DOP is divided into three books, explicitly connected with the Neoplaton- ic worlds (natural, celestial, divine). As the remainder of the present work reads DOP closely, I give only a brief summary here.

Each book of DOP begins with dedicatory epistles. The work opens with Agrippa’s letter to Trithemius, which prefaced the juvenile draft of 1510, to which is appended Trithemius’s response. This is followed by a letter to Hermann von Wied, Archbishop Elector of Cologne, written for the 1531 printing of Book I. Books II and III each begin with letters to Hermann von Wied, written for the final 1533 printing of the entire DOP. These epistles are not of much interest for the present analysis of DOP, though we shall return to parts of them here and there, but one passage from the third letter to von Wied is worth quoting at length:

When we, by the remembrance of [divine science’s] majesty being always busied in divine studies, do every moment contemplate divine things, by a sage and diligent inquisition, and by all the degrees of the creatures ascending even to the Archetype himself, we do draw from him the infallible virtue of all things; which those that neglect, trusting only to natural and worldly things, are wont often to be confounded by diverse errors and fallacies, and very oft to be deceived by evil spirits. But the understanding of divine things purgeth the mind from errors, and rendereth it divine, giveth infallible power to our works, and driveth far the deceits and obstacles of all evil spirits, and together subjects them to our command.90
This importantly reverses the usual criticism of Agrippa as magician, that he strays beyond licit natural magic into dangerous demonic magic.91 The argument here is precisely the contrary: without ceremonial, demonic magic, natural (and presumably celestial) magic tends to slip into evil and darkness. As the present analysis will show, this argument is that of DOP in nuce, and is subtly consistent with De vanitate.

Turning to the body of the text, Book I, on Natural Magic, opens with a brief synopsis of the work (ch. 1), followed by a definition of magic and its parts (ch. 2). Next we turn to the elements (chs. 3-8) and the occult virtues which depend upon them (chs. 9-13). Next comes a general theory of these virtues and their discovery (chs. 14-22), and astrological ascrip- tions of virtues and elements (chs. 23-34), interleaved with a discussion of seals and characters (ch. 33). Next come mixtures of elements and virtues, and how they are attracted and drawn (chs. 35-39), followed by specific discussions of magical techniques for this purpose (chs. 40-50). This general discussion is followed by specific examples in chapter 51, from which we move to forms of divination (chs. 52-60). Divination having led to issues of the mind and spirit, we are led to a general discussion of the mind (ch. 61) and a lengthy analysis of the passions (chs. 62-66). Next

The Juvenile Draft

The juvenile draft of 1510 is miraculously preserved in its original form, as the extant copy appears to be the presentation copy sent to Trithemius. Vittoria Perrone Compagni has constructed a comparative table of contents of this manuscript against the final draft; here only a few brief notes need be made.92

The juvenile draft is considerably shorter, and in some respects structured differently from the final version. Several chapters shift from one book to another, while others are broken across two or more final chapters. Two of Agrippa’s most important sources, Reuchlin’s De arte cabalistica and Francesco Zorzi’s De harmonia mundi, had not been written in 1510, and their incorporation dramatically expands the text, particularly in its treatment of Kabbalah.

In the course of the present work, it will periodically be important that certain passages and chapters do or do not appear in the juvenile draft, and this is mentioned where appropriate. Nonetheless, there is more consis- tency than difference between the two drafts, just as the bulk of Agrippa’s writings represent a consistent development of a core philosophy.93

The Retraction

The classic argument against Agrippa’s consistency derives from chapter 48 of De vanitate, devoted to illusions (praestigiae), where Agrippa gives this famous retraction of DOP:

I also as a young man wrote on magical matters three books in a sufficiently large volume, which I have entitled Of Hidden Philosophy, in which books whatsoever was then done amiss through curious youth, now being more advised I will that it be recanted with this retraction, for I have in times past consumed very much time and substance in these vanities. At the length I got this profit thereby, that I know by what means I should discourage and dissuade others from this destruction. For all they that presume to divine and prophecy not in the truth, not in the virtue of God, but in the illusion of devils, according to the operation of wicked spirits, and exercising deceits of idolatry, and showing illusions and vain visions, the which suddenly ceasing, they avaunt that they can work miracles, by Magical vanities, exorcisms, enchantments, drinks of love, Agogimes, and other devilish works, all these with Iamnes and Mambres and Simon Magus shall be condemned to the pains of everlasting fire.94

This retraction has occasioned many theories and explanations, because it seems clear that Agrippa continued to work on the final version of DOP during the 1520's, and it is certain that he was revising furiously in the period immediately preceding the final publication of the work in 1533. Auguste Prost argued that Agrippa ceased believing in magic, as evidenced by the retraction, and that in later life “tout cela est pour Agrippa  exercice et jeu d’esprit.   C’est peut-être bien plutôt ce qu’on appellerait aujourd’hui oeuvre de charlatanisme.”95

Lynn Thorndike’s stated that Agrippa “was not untrue to himself in printing . . . this work [DOP] begun in his youth.”96 It is unclear whether he means that De vanitate was a product of Agrippa’s later thought or a passing mood; Thorndike seems so unsure that it is easy to misread him as saying that DOP was completed in Agrippa’s youth. 

Joseph Leon Blau, discussing Agrippa in the context of Christian Kabbalah, suggested that “for a brief period in his life the skeptic was uppermost in him; both before and after this period he was the credulous philosopher of magic.”97
Frances Yates, despite her mistaken impression (probably from Thorndike) that Agrippa “had completed the work by 1510, but did not publish it until 1533, that is several years after,” proposed a new theory which became quite influential. She argued that the retraction was:
a safety-device of a kind frequently employed by magicians and astrologers for whom it was useful, in case of theological disapproval, to be able to point to statements made by themselves ‘against’ their subjects, by which, however, they usually mean that they are only against bad uses of such  knowledge, not their own good uses.98

One can only assume that Yates had not read De vanitate, which is so viciously anti-clerical as to make any notion of a “safety-device” bizarre in the extreme. This is particularly unfortunate because, in a review of the better-informed Charles Nauert’s Agrippa and the Crisis of Renaissance Thought, she used her theory as a springboard for critique.99
The most convincing theory to date was proposed by Marc Van der Poel. He notes that in DOP ’s letter to the reader, Agrippa remarks with some asperity that his early work has circulated in imperfect manuscripts, and argues that a complete version of the revised work will be preferable. In addition, Van der Poel points to the remark in De vanitate that “all they that presume to divine and prophecy not in the truth, not in the virtue of God. . .they avaunt that they can work miracles, by Magical vanities. . .” are consigned to the fires of hell. Van der Poel interprets this as leaving room for a legitimate and non-demonic magic, as in Marsilio Ficino or Pico, as opposed to the wicked vanity condemned in De vanitate.100

This latter argument had already been partly made by Paola Zambelli and M.H. Keefer,101 as Van der Poel notes, and is crucial to interpretation not only of the retraction but of De vanitate and DOP as coherent parts of Agrippa’s work. But in acknowledging that the retraction is not what it appears to be, we can go further toward understanding Agrippa’s distinctions.  As we shall see in chapters three and four below, Agrippa’s retraction leaves room for multiple forms of demonic magic, some licit, some illicit. In particular, the retraction condemns those who “avaunt that they can work miracles, by Magical vanities,” rather than condemning the magical practices themselves, leaving room for those who “divine and prophecy” within the truth and virtue of God.

The retraction is in some ways an excellent example of the subtlety of Agrippa’s writing at its best. De vanitate argues conclusions which seem directly contradictory to DOP, and this apparent disjuncture in Agrippa’s thought has occasioned numerous interpretations. The critical point here is that Agrippa’s statements in De vanitate cannot always be taken at their simplest level; indeed, De vanitate and DOP can in places be read as flip sides of the same coin, one pessimistic and the other optimistic.

I will argue that Agrippa is often quite careful about his verbiage. In DOP, as a rule, Agrippa uses technical terminology consistently, rarely using two different terms simply for stylistic variety.102 I suggest, in fact, that careful terminological consideration of DOP reveals arguments in no way inconsistent with De vanitate . When Agrippa uses different terms apparently synonymously, I begin with the assumption that the synonymy is illusory, one of Agrippa’s many tricks to deceive the incautious reader.



Natural philosophy is the genius that has regulated my fate; I desire, therefore, in this narration, to state those facts which led to my predilection for that science. When I was thirteen years of age I chanced to find a volume of the works of Cornelius Agrippa. I opened it with apathy; the theory which he attempts to demon- strate and the wonderful facts which he relates soon changed this feeling into enthusiasm. A new light seemed to dawn upon my mind, and, bounding with joy, I communicated my discovery to my father. My father looked carelessly at the title page of my book and said, “Ah! Cornelius Agrippa! My dear Victor, do not waste your time upon this; it is sad trash.”
—Victor Frankenstein

The body of De occulta philosophia opens with a statement of purpose. I quote this in its entirety, but its meaning will require the next three chapters of analysis to become clear.

Seeing there is a threefold world, elementary, celestial, and intellectual, and every inferior is governed by its superior, and receiveth the influence of the virtues thereof, so that the very original, and chief Worker of all doth by angels, the heavens, stars, elements, animals, plants, metals, and stones convey from himself the virtues of his omnipotency upon us, for whose service he made, and created all these things: wise men conceive it no way irrational that it should be possible for us to ascend by the same degrees through each world, to the same very original world itself, the Maker of all things, and First Cause, from whence all things are, and proceed; and also to enjoy not only these virtues, which are already in the more excellent kind of things, but also besides these, to draw new virtues from above.1

The Natural Magic Problem

Natural magic is and must remain a fundamental problem for historians of early modern science and intellectual history. It is clear that natural magic in the sixteenth century had something to do with the development of new approaches to and theories of nature and experiment, but beyond this now obvious point scholars disagree continually.

Much of the difficulty is that definitions of natural magic have minimal consistency from thinker to thinker. Although a few somewhat ill- informed scholars have thought otherwise, thinkers of the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries generally considered this form of magic licit, if occasionally dangerous.5 Thus the definitional problem is that the category “natural magic” contains, for most orthodox thinkers, all the acceptable forms of magic and nothing else. In essence, “natural magic” often equates to “acceptable magic.”

This stance led to a kind of backward reasoning by more radical thinkers on both sides. For those most antagonistic to magic in all its forms, the constant push is to contract the category—to argue that some practice is not natural, and thus remove it simultaneously from “natural magic” and from legality.6 On the opposite end of the spectrum, as we shall see, many magical thinkers argue the naturalness of (for example) astrology and alchemy, thereby claiming legality through a rhetoric of inclusion. In effect “natural” became a terminological weapon in the long battles among thinkers about nature and its relation to humanity and the divine.

For the historian of science, such rhetorical conflict makes things at once extremely complex and full of interest, not least because it is precisely such debates that led to the re-imagining of nature which was at least important to, if not the crux of, the scientific revolution.
Agrippa’s position in all this is peculiar and difficult, leading in part to the general ambivalence toward him among historians of science. Unlike most of his contemporaries, Agrippa does not use “natural” apotropaically, because he considers natural magic only one of several licit forms of magic.

Rather than arguing, with Ficino, that astrological talismans are licit because rooted in natural forces, he accepts them on their own merits as mathematical or celestial magic. Indeed, DOP goes so far as to argue that the moral validity of natural magic arises not from its naturalness, but from its deeper dependence from the celestial and divine.  DOP ’s reversal of the usual defense of suspected forms of magic also entails its problem- atic relationship to the history of science, since on the surface seems that the work argues against precisely the separation of nature and divinity foundational for the scientific enterprise.

Of course, any reader familiar with the last few decades of historiogra- phy on the scientific revolution will recognize the problem with the preceding argument: it is no longer possible to say glibly that the scientific revolution depended upon— or even necessarily involved—such a separation of nature from the divine. Our understanding of Agrippa's relationship to the scientific revolution is conditioned by our perception of that revolution, a matter of constant concern for many historians.7

The following analysis focuses on these problems of definition. The principal distinction in early modern definitions of natural magic was that between natural and demonic magic, the latter closely overlapping with the technical term “superstition.” As defined by the Roman Inquisition, “It is superstitious to expect any effect from anything when such an effect cannot be produced by natural causes, by divine institutions, or by the ordination and approval of the Church.”8 Thus superstition can be simply ignorance, as in the case of a belief about the curative properties of some supposedly magical stone, or it can be heretical or diabolical, as in the case of an appeal to a supernatural but not divine agency for assistance.

I begin with two important thinkers representing major types of position. First, Marsilio Ficino (1533-1599), whose definitions were foundational for most later thinkers on the definitions problem. Second, Johannes Trithemius (1462-1516), whose rather confused and confusing definitions show an important rhetorical approach to, or rather sidestep of, the problem of natural magic, and certainly influenced his one-time student Agrippa. Having examined these critical definitions and their implications, I turn to Agrippa’s natural magic. After a discussion of the occult virtues and power, I return to Agrippa’s explicit definitions in both DOP and De vanitate, and attempt to derive a provisional definition of natural magic.

Marsilio Ficino, On Life

The importance of Marsilio Ficino to the history of early modern magical thought cannot be overstressed; he must surely rank along with Cusanus and Pico as one of the founding thinkers of the Renaissance occult revival. Although Frances Yates stressed primarily his translation of the Hermetica, claiming this as the inaugural moment of the “Hermetic tradition,” it is mainly to De vita libri tres [Three books on life, 1489] that we must turn for an understanding of Ficino’s magical thought.

I have noted above that Ficino’s explication of the two kinds of magic had continuing force throughout the early modern period; as we shall see, Trithemius adheres to the categorization while in large measure ignoring its substance. Agrippa, however, breaks down the entire distinction in favor of a more complex and logically consistent series. Let us begin with Ficino’s original division and definitions, which I shall analyze in some detail:
[T]here are two kinds of magic. The first is practiced by those who unite themselves to demons by a specific religious rite, and, relying on their help, often contrive portents. This, however, was thoroughly rejected when the Prince of this World was cast out. But the other kind of magic is practiced by those who seasonably subject natural materials to natural causes to be formed in a wondrous way. Of this profession there are also two types: the first is inquisitive, the second, necessary. The former does indeed feign useless portents for ostentation. Nevertheless the necessary type which joins medicine with astrology must be kept.9

As Kristeller puts it, “the expert can conduct certain hidden forces of nature into an object and so produce talismans or effective remedies. This type of magic is a kind of art, and Ficino makes extensive use of it for medical purposes.      ”10

For Ficino, the underlying principle is that of movement and force, which must necessarily have some end. These ends are defined by faculties:
Nature gave to the thick bodies an appetite and tendency through which they would desire the lower places and gave them in addition gravity and cold as means through which they could descend to the desired place [the center of the world]. It gave to the subtler ones the desire for the higher place and added lightness and warmth as means through which they would reach their desired ends.11

Plants and animals are mixtures of elements, and as such have additional faculties. Plants have the faculties of nutrition and generation, animals also that of sensation.12 Meanwhile the celestial spheres move circularly, because “the Soul of the respective sphere constitutes the invisible center.” At the same time this motion must have an end, like other motions, and for Ficino this end is the end of the universe: “The present state of the world represents a transitory process limited at both extremes by the moments of creation and of Last Judgment.”13

As to the human soul, it too has faculties and movements, often expressed as appetites: “the natural appetite of the human intellect and will is directed toward the infinite true and good only, that is, toward God, as its end.”14 Again,

The whole attempt of our Soul is to become God. This attempt is no less natural for men than the attempt to fly is for birds. For it is inherent in all men always and everywhere and therefore follows, not a contingent quality of an individual, but the nature of the species itself.15

There is thus a parallelism between the Soul and fire, because both tend to rise to the tops of their respective spheres:
The end of fire is the concavity of the last heaven. Therefore, if there were no obstacle each flame would fly up to that place, and when it reached that concavity, if it had sufficient extension, it would extend itself throughout that whole concavity in order to enjoy entirely what is natural to it. The goal and end of the mind is the true and good itself: God. There it runs by an essential instinct like fire.

This fundamental principle of motion or force is thus divided into two main portions, appetite (tendency, instinct) and means or method. Under natural circumstances, forces are applied to objects because the cause of the force has an appetite to do so, and the object receives the force because there is a means by which it may do so. This essentially Aristotelian conception is expanded greatly to take into account the application of celestial forces upon earthly (and particularly human) objects, and it is this expansion that constitutes the bulk of what Ficino means by “natural magic.”

I attach here D. P. Walker’s excellent diagram of Ficino’s natural magic (figure 1). The first point to notice is that the A and B divisions of the various forces (vis) point to a distinction between different sorts of force. The A forces are generally accepted, and do not necessarily have anything to do with magic as such—as Walker puts it, “Uses of these A forces are liable to be considered magical only if planetary influences are combined with them, that is, if they are astrological painting, music, etc.”17 The B forces, on the other hand, are more certainly magical, and may be considered illegitimate or false by various thinkers; Ficino grants the reality of all these forces, but does not universally accept their legality.
The vis imaginum, or power of images, refers both to objects like paintings and to things like Ficino’s famous talismans, which draw celestial power by astrological affinities (e.g. a gold talisman draws solar influence). In celestial magic, while the inherent natural drawing power of objects is dealt with under natural magic.

The vis musices seems to function exactly the same way as the vis imaginum, simply operating through a different physical sense. At the same time, Ficino wishes to distinguish music from other arts because of its higher, nobler power—“music hath charms” indeed!19 With respect to the B type of musical power, which “proposes the production of effects by means of the mathematical or numerical correspondence between the movements, distances or positions of the heavenly bodies and the proportions of consonant intervals in music,” Walker notes quite accurately that in Ficino, “The B division of the vis musices remained . . . purely theoretical.”20 He recognizes, though, that Agrippa was probably the first to discuss this “purely theoretical” musical magic in relatively concrete terms; he does not, however, remark on the fact that Agrippa placed such magic squarely in the celestial magic of Book II.21

The vis rerum is the most basic type of natural magic, and in a sense the most indubitably natural. The A division, elemental qualities, includes powers and forces (or virtues) which are inherent in a thing because of its elementary makeup—stones are earthy and therefore heavy, dense, and dry; animals are fiery and thus move rapidly and have warm blood. The B division, occult qualities, includes virtues inherent in a thing because of some celestial influence—gold is Solar, silver Lunar, and so on. These qualities are “occult” because they cannot be determined by the senses alone, but require some application of reason, be it in constructing and analyzing experiments, or in working out the underlying rationale which predicts the celestial affinities of a given thing.22 This division is crucial to Agrippa’s natural magic, and we shall return to it; for the moment, let us simply note that unlike the other three vires, all forms of vis rerum are considered entirely natural by both Ficino and Agrippa—in fact, the vis rerum is the exemplary form of natural magic for both thinkers, although Ficino in order to defend certain practices as licit stretches the analogy to other vires considerably farther than Agrippa.

Vis verborum, the power of words, is critical to the performance of many magical acts as well as the construction of talismans and such; at the same time, this power is particularly susceptible to accusations of demonic magic, because words require an intelligent interpreter. “The words or letters, . . . having no one-to-one correspondence with a planet or planetary object, can only be effective through the medium of an intelligent being who understands their significance, namely, a human being, a planetary angel or a deceiving demon.” The A and B divisions of this force represent for Ficino a safe and a dangerous solution to the problem—the safe solution (A) “is to confine the effects to the operator or to human patients who also see the talisman, whose signs can then be understood by them and become effective through their intelligences; this excludes effects on inanimate things, on the body, or at a distance.”23 The more dangerous solution (B) is to undermine the assumption that words have “no one-to-one correspondence with a planet or planetary object” by postulating a bridge across the arbitrary nature of the sign. Walker suggests that Ficino strongly supports the A solution, and avoids dealing directly with the B, so that his talismanic magic can to some degree have it both ways.
An important corollary of this division of the vis verborum should be noted. There is an implicit assumption that human intelligences in some way differ radically from celestial ones; that is, the A type (poetry or whatever) is here considered perfectly licit because it has a natural object (a human mind) and natural means by which to affect that object (air and the ear or eye). At the same time, Ficino does not usually treat the human mind as a simply material/natural object, but rather places it in the higher spheres. From this apparent inconsistency, I suspect that Ficino’s distinction of natural/demonic does not refer to objects or subjects of magical acts, only to his beloved forces and means. On this reading, the only magical acts inherently proscribed are those requiring the manifesta- tion of intelligent forces ; the difficulty (as we shall see with Trithemius) is then how to distinguish between intelligent forces and others, except in the obvious case of an explicit demonic conjuration.

Walker, Spiritual and Demonic Magic, 80.
In his analysis of Ficinian natural magic, Walker comes up with an interesting and problematic definition, which I quote in its entirety:
In the present scheme, that is, of natural magic, the planets and the operator are not supposed to act directly on anything higher than the spirit, which is the vehicle of the imagination. The effects produced on inanimate things  or directly on bodies (unless by the vis rerum ) are more difficult to explain without assuming a supernatural agent (angelic, demonic or divine) than the purely psychological ones; the same is true of the more odd or abnormal psychosomatic ones, for example, stigmatization or nervous diseases, as opposed to blushing or sleep. There is therefore a strong tendency for the effects of natural magic to be confined to the purely psychological, and the more ordinary psychosomatic ones. The more miraculous effects could be explained as natural, but only by assuming a power in the human spirit which was not generally admitted.24
As should be clear from our examination of the four vires, the difficulty with this definition is that the vis rerum, the ideal-type of natural magic, is set to one side, and the entire focus is on the various effects on humans. In the context of Ficino this is understandable and accurate, since his main interest  is  in  medical  magic.   At  the  same  time  I  argue  that  Ficino’s category  of  “natural  magic”  is  not  entirely  coherent  or  consistent. Everything of importance is explained by a loose analogy to vis rerum, a privileged but under-theorized example, and furthermore certain logically implied parts of the various subcategories are discarded on rather shaky grounds. As Walker indicates in his footnote to the above passage, “Natural magicians are neither consistent nor disingenuous on this point [i.e. affecting only the human spirit]; they use the A kinds of the vires imaginum & verborum, which plainly have intellectual effects.”25

He wrote works on witchcraft and demonology, solidly in line with the hard-line orthodoxy of (for example) Malleus Maleficarum.

Scholarship on Trithemius’s non-magical thought has long had a solid basis, but until the publication of Noel Brann’s long-awaited Trithemius and Magical Theology it has been exceptionally difficult to penetrate the abbot’s magic.26 By examining in detail the extensive and little-read corpus of Trithemius’s works, Brann establishes a continuity and harmony between the abbot’s anti-demonic polemics and his occult enthusiasms, particularly his famous interest in ciphers as magical techniques. We shall return to Steganographia (ca.1500), Trithemius’s most important text on ciphers, in the context of Agrippa’s divine magic (page 189 below); for the moment I want to focus on the terminology of “natural magic.”

Trithemius divides magic into Ficino’s two categories, natural and demonic, which are again essentially cognate to the categories licit and illicit. There are no subdivisions of much importance. For instance, in the autobiographical Nepiachus we find that there are four forms of magical illusion (praestigium), of which three are demonic and one natural. The first is explicit demonic conjuration, the second is implicit conjura- tion (using “words, charms, incantations, and objects”), the third is “such deception as those wanderers employ who are known as jugglers,” and the fourth and only licit form “pertains to natural magic, under whose auspices marvelous effects (the causes of which those who admire them do not understand) are produced by proficients through the occult applica- tion of natural virtue.” “Regrettably,” Brann notes sardonically, “Trithemius left his readers in the dark as to how they might distinguish, in any particular case, the last-named category of illusion from its demonic look-alikes.”27

This  lack  of  specificity  is  endemic  to  Trithemian  natural magic:

The Virtues and Powers

In DOP, as in Ficino, the bones of the natural world are the four elements, which combine and mix to form the fundamental structures and objects of nature. These structures are infused with virtues, which either arise from the elements (natural virtues) or descend from the stars (occult virtues). Thus occult virtues are hidden powers, not appreciable to the senses, such as magnetism; prime among occult virtues, however, is Life, that is the state of being alive, which is caused by the presence of a (usually) celestial entity which vivifies nature. Parallel to this natural structure, the skeleton of the celestial is made up of numbers, which combine through harmony and proportion to make up the celestial forces and powers. These powers are the source of life in nature, but they also participate in the third, divine world to a greater or lesser extent. Thus a chain of vivification hangs downward from God, through the celestial, and into nature, just as the architecture of the universe is ultimately founded upon the simple elements. The linguistic and theological implications of this descending chain will be the focus of chapters three and four below; in the current discussion we shall see how the basic structure functions in the natural sphere, the directly experientially accessible third of the creation.
DOP ’s account of the elements and the virtues is fairly standard, compiled from orthodox and reliable sources. For example:

There are four elements, and original grounds of all corporeal things, Fire, Earth, Water, Air, of which all elementated inferior bodies are compounded; not by way of heaping them up together, but by transmutation, and union; and when they are destroyed, they are resolved into elements. For there is none of the sensible elements that is pure, but they are more or less mixed, and apt to be changed one into the other: even as Earth becoming dirty, and being dissolved, becomes Water.    36

This account is complicated by a hierarchy of three orders: pure, com- pounded, and derivative (decomposita), in chapter I:4; we shall return to this in a discussion of alchemy.

Natural virtues, as mentioned before, are obvious and arise from the elements, while occult virtues on the other hand are not from any element and this virtue is a sequel of the species, and form of this or that thing; whence also it being little in quantity, is of great efficacy; which is not granted to any elementary quality. For these virtues having much form, and little matter, can do very much; but an elementary virtue, because it hath more materiality, requires much matter for its acting.37

Much of DOP ’s theoretical argument here comes from Ficino, or at least parallels that great magical thinker closely. Furthermore, the argument is scattered across many chapters, and rarely stated as an argument. Consequently it is simpler to analyze DOP ’s theory of virtues by contrast with the Ficinian system which we have already discussed in detail; after this analysis I shall return to the question of DOP ’s argumentative techniques.
As in Ficino, there are a number of basic kinds of force, which may be expressed elementally and sensibly as natural virtues, or spiritually and insensibly as occult virtues. The primary medium of virtues is the World- Spirit, which “by way of [being a] medium. unites occult virtues to their
subjects,”38 although other spiritual forms (the human spirit, etc.) may also serve this function. Although I do not find the division of vis rerum, imaginum, musices, and verborum explicitly stated, it will serve admirably to explain DOP ’s divergence from De vita.

The vis rerum (power of things) is the exemplary form of natural magic, whose A and B divisions correspond to the natural and occult virtues. In DOP, as I have suggested, this division also corresponds to a direction of movement, rising up from the elements or descending from the stars. This is a critical issue for DOP: virtues act through a spiritual medium, either the World-Spirit or the human fantastic spirit, which are explicitly paralleled. Thus the vis rerum is always entirely natural in the strict sense that the forces employed are always part of the natural world.

The vis imaginum (power of images) is divided into an entirely licit A form, the aesthetic power of visual images, and a dubious B form, their inherent power. A golden talisman inscribed with a beautiful image of Apollo would combine the two powers—the beauty of the image gives it aesthetic power, while the golden medium gives it inherent power.

Now I have invented this particular example to raise a difficult question about Ficino’s magic, one for which Agrippa supplies a possible answer. The talisman is clearly Solar, in that it is made of the Solar metal and inscribed with a Solar image. But does the representation of Apollo have Solar virtue because of an inherent or an aesthetic power? To put it another way, which form of the vis imaginum is capable of interpreting an image at what Panofsky called the iconographic level, where it becomes relevant that the beautiful man in the image is Apollo?

So far as I can tell, Ficino does not clearly distinguish these levels, and it is thus unclear whether the requirement of an intelligent interpretant falls into the licit A or the questionable B category. I think Ficino does not want us to examine this issue closely; he simply presumes that the talisman’s interpretant will be a human viewer, and ignores the question of whether the celestial force attracted by the talisman will also have to be intelligent in order to be so attracted.

In DOP, however, this problem is handled quite logically: the A and B forms of vis imaginum are parts of two entirely different spheres. Chapters 23 through 34 list and explain the celestial ascriptions of various natural objects—metals, animals, plants, stones, etc., and it is thus explicit that to “draw not only celestial, and vital, but also certain intellectual and divine gifts from above,”39  including by the B type of vis imaginum, is a central part of natural magic. As we shall see in the next chapter, however, the A type is part of the celestial magic.
This differentiation suggests a more general point about DOP ’s natural magic. The medium of natural magic is never intelligent or entirely controlled by an intelligence. The World-Spirit, as we have seen, is merely an essence or medium not unlike the four elements; indeed it is the fifth essence. Similarly in mental magic, the medium is the fantastic spirit, the fantasy, which is significantly free of higher control by the reason. As we have seen, this avoidance of the manipulation of intelligences was a typical principle for the distinction between natural and demonic magic; DOP is rigidly consistent about it, not permitting the sort of blurry borderlines which we saw in Ficino and Trithemius.

The vis musices (power of music) is not sharply distinguished from vis imaginum in DOP, and the principles which apply to the latter will serve to explain the former. There are inherent and natural powers of musical notes which depend on their ruling celestials, and the effects of such powers seem to be entirely psychological, moving the passions.40 The passions are part of the human natural structure, connected to the rational (celestial) and intellectual (divine) by the fantasy; as such, the power to influence passions implies a very high form of natural magic, but does not necessarily require the intervention of reason. Thus while the majority of the B division of vis musices, as well as all of the A division, falls squarely into celestial magic, there is some portion of the B division which is natural, in that it depends only on the inherent occult qualities of musical tones understood as a form of sound.

Finally we come to the vis verborum (power of words). Ficino approaches this in much the same way as he approaches the vis imaginum, by presuming that the intelligence affected by words’ meanings is that of a human subject (patient), thus there are no demons necessarily involved, and therefore his use of chants and hymns is entirely “natural.” We will not be surprised to find that DOP does not accept this solution, but in point of fact the handling of language in the natural magic is quite complex, and requires some analysis.

The crux of the Agrippan approach to vis verborum is the division we have come to expect: insofar as words are treated as sound or noise, they have a natural power; insofar as they are intelligent language requiring a rational interpreter, they are celestial. In the main, of course, language is not treated merely as sound, in DOP or elsewhere, so the majority of the discussions of language are in Book II, and will take up much of the analysis in chapter three. We would expect, then, that Book I would treat language in passing, as it did music. In fact, however, linguistic issues are scattered throughout the natural magic, with the bulk of the discussion in Book I’s last few chapters. Before we can extrapolate an Agrippan definition of natural magic, we need to understand why language is so important.

Humans are divided into natural, celestial, and divine portions, in strict microcosm of the tripartite universe. According to DOP ’s version of this common Neoplatonic theory, the body parts are subject to various spheres, just as gold is subject to the Sun, and also like gold they are fundamentally part of the natural world. The mental and spiritual powers, however, are of the three spheres, not merely under their influence; thus the senses are natural, reason celestial, and intellect divine. As was true for Ficino, the barrier between natural and celestial is bridged by the imagination, the vis imaginativa, generally called in DOP the fantasy.41

Thus human minds can affect nature the same way as can the stars: through a spiritual medium such as the World-Spirit or the vis imaginati- va. So long as the part of the force or mind that causes the effect is not itself intelligent, the magic is natural, although only very slightly differenti- ated from celestial magic. For example, when passions work themselves out upon the body, this can be called natural magic, because the passions are close enough to nature to be themselves affected by the senses fairly directly. If reason motivates passions, the distinction between natural and celestial becomes essentially nil. But if reason affects the body directly, however, this is unquestionably celestial magic. We will return to mental magic in this chapter.

Having laid this groundwork, DOP sets forth a fairly straightforward argument with respect to language vis-à-vis natural magic:
It being showed that there is a great power in the affections of the soul, you must know moreover, that there is no less virtue in words, and the names of things, but greatest of all in speeches, and motions, by which we chiefly differ from brutes, and are called rational. . . from that reason which is according to the voice understood in words, and speech, which is called declarative reason, by which part we do chiefly excel all other animals. For 8@(`H [logos ] in Greek signifies, reason, speech, and word.

Nature and Natural Magic

At the opening of the present chapter we saw Agrippa’s basic definition of magic:

Magic is a faculty of wonderful virtue, full of most high mysteries, containing the most profound contemplation of most secret things, together with the nature, power, quality, substance, and virtues thereof, as also the knowledge of whole nature. 43

At the very beginning of DOP, the three kinds of magic are further defined as follows:

. . . [Wise men] seek after the virtues of the elementary world, through the help of physic, and natural philosophy in the various mixtions of natural things; then of the celestial world in the rays, and influences thereof, according to the rules of astrologers, and the doctrines of mathematicians, joining the celestial virtues to the former; moreover they corroborate and confirm all these with the powers of divers intelligences, through the sacred ceremonies of religion. The order and process of all these I shall endeavor to deliver in these three books: whereof the first contains natural magic, the second celestial, and the third ceremonial.44

The distinction is clear enough: natural magic is limited to nature, i.e. the sublunary world, and does not deal with “the rays, and influences” of the stars, nor with the “divers intelligences” of the supercelestial world. In the context of Ficino and Trithemius, however, this clear categorization cannot go unchallenged. Although Agrippa’s general project of a restoration of magic is entirely in accord with that of his onetime master, the two magicians disagree sharply about “natural magic” and, by extension, about “nature”.

In chapter 42 of De vanitate, Agrippa has another definition of natural magic, immediately preceded by the remark in chapter 41 that “many have divided Magic two manner of ways, that is natural and ceremonial.”45 The definition itself is in two parts, the first simply repeating that “natural magic is nothing else, but a singular power of natural knowledge. . . and the active part of natural philosophy,” etc. The second part, separated from the first by a very lengthy list of famous natural magicians from around the world, is worth quoting in its entirety:

Natural magic then is that which, having intently beheld the forces of all natural and celestial things, and with curious searching found out their order, doth in such sort publish abroad the hidden and secret powers of nature: coupling the inferior things with the qualities of the superior, as it were by certain enticements, to cause a natural joining of them together, and thereof oftentimes do arise marvelous wonders: not so much by art as by nature, whereunto this art doth proffer herself as a servant when she works these things. For the magicians, as very diligent searchers of nature, bringing the things which are prepared by nature, applying and setting active things to passive ones, very often bring forth effects before the time appointed by nature, and these [effects] are by the common sort accounted miracles: whereas despite this they are but natural works, nothing else coming between but the foretaking of time: as if a man in the month of March would cause roses to bloom. 46

In other words, natural magic only causes effects which can and do happen by natural means; the magician encourages and delimits the effects, but the causes are entirely within nature. Furthermore, the underlying principle of natural-magical effects is that they involve the speeding-up of time, such as making flowers bloom out of season. Since this is simply encouraging nature to work faster than usual, “nothing else comes between,” i.e. there are no intelligences involved in this magic at all, and so it is not demonic magic in any way.

Let us conclude with a provisional definition arising from our analyses thus far: natural magic is simply magic that does not involve intelligences. This definition, of course, is essentially the same as those of Ficino and Trithemius; what sets Agrippa apart is (1) the rigidity of the category, and
(2) the valuation which is applied to inclusion and exclusion.

As we have seen, Ficino and Trithemius include in natural magic many forms in which intelligences are involved; the explanations are generally weak, depending more on the moral acceptability of any given form of magic to the author than they do on the internal logic of the categories. Agrippa’s natural magic, however, excludes almost everything that could possibly involve intelligences, and such forces as the powers of words or music which bridge the natural-celestial division are carefully split. This is not to say that Agrippa is entirely consistent, only that he is more so. His project to construct a coherent and systematic philosophy of magic requires him to focus his attention on categorical definitions; Ficino and Trithemius really have no such project, and as such the fuzziness of their definitions is a peripheral problem.

The fundamental issue of natural versus other kinds of magic, of course, is that of legality—such famous authorities as Albertus Magnus and Thomas Aquinas had accepted natural magic but anathematized demonic magic. Thinkers like Ficino and Trithemius thus focused their definitions upon a moral balance: if a given magical practice is licit, it must be natural. As we have already seen, however, Agrippa’s project to restore the good name of magic leads him very far from this basic problematic, and he accepts celestial/mathematical magic and divine/ceremonial magic as equally legitimate as the natural variety.

If this provisional definition is fairly clear, it does not yet lay all the problems to rest. First, we have seen that the application of the human mind causes potential difficulties for the distinction between celestial magic and mental forms of natural magic; is there some principle that allows one to tell the difference with surety? Second, it has been more or less obvious from the beginning that Agrippa grants the legitimacy of non- natural magic; at the same time it is clear that such a position was wildly iconoclastic, not to say potentially dangerous. The crucial question, then, is why does he grant this legitimacy? The fact that the logic of the system requires it is worth noting, but it does not fully answer the question.

In order to unravel this difficulty, we need to examine more closely the position of the magus, the practitioner, in natural magic. To do this, I shall take up Frances Yates’s notion of “man the operator” and consider its relevance to DOP and to the skepticism of De vanitate.

The Practice of Natural Magic: Man as Operator

The so-called “Yates thesis” was a much-belabored subject over the last two decades of the historiography of science, not always with a clear vision of the contours of that thesis. At the same time, general agreement has been reached that Frances Yates, however exciting to read and think about, was wrong. Although I support that conclusion in broad terms, our examination of DOP ’s natural magic will reveal that she was not always wrong, or was sometimes right in odd and surprising ways. Before moving on, then, it is worth examining the “Yates thesis.”

The reign of ‘Hermes Trismegistus’ can be exactly dated.  It begins in the late fifteenth century when Ficino translates the newly discovered Corpus Hermeticum. It ends in the early seventeenth century when Casaubon exposes him. Within the period of his reign the new world views, the new attitudes, the new motives which were to lead to the emergence of modern science made their appearance.
The procedures with which the Magus attempted to operate have nothing to do with genuine science. The question is, did they stimulate the will towards genuine science and its operations?47

To give her affirmative answer to this question, Yates postulated several steps leading to the scientific revolution, changes in worldview which promoted the advent of scientific thinking and thus of modern science.

H. Floris Cohen summarizes her position in terms of five claims, of which two are relevant for an analysis of Agrippa: (1) magical fascination with numbers encouraged scientific mathematization; and (2) the power of an individual human magus to dominate nature encouraged an active, experimental approach.48

The former claim will concern us when we come to DOP ’s mathemati- cal magic in chapter three. The issue of an “operative” approach to nature, though, is central to the natural magic of Book I, closely tied to the position of the magus in the relation between natural and divine.
What has changed is Man, no longer the pious spectator of God’s wonders in the creation . . . but Man the operator, Man who seeks to draw power from the divine and natural order.49

I suggest that Yates’s interpretation is essentially accurate, but since it is not clear how “Man the operator” is equivalent to “Man the scientist” it is extremely difficult to correlate her insight to a better understanding of sixteenth century science.
There are really two parts to the “operative” thesis: the active position of the magician with respect to the universe, and the way in which this activity is expressed. The first is linked to Man the microcosm, which in Yates’s understanding makes the magician an active participant in the forces of the universe. As we have already seen, the power of the human mind as an active force is a significant problem in Book I, and it is to this problem that the present section will turn; the next section focuses on the epistemology of such active participation in nature. Thus the current issue is “Man the operator,” while the next section takes up “Man the scientist.”

Natural Magic and the Mind

The discussion of the mind and its powers really begins in chapter 58, “Of the reviving of the dead, and of sleeping, and wanting victuals many years together,”50 which opens with the following theoretical statement:

The Arabian philosophers agree, that some men may elevate themselves above the powers of their body, and above their sensitive powers; and those being surmounted, receive into themselves by the perfection of the heavens, and intelligences, a divine vigor. Seeing therefore that all the souls of men are perpetual, and also all the spirits obey the perfect souls; magicians think that perfect men may by the powers of their soul repair their dying bodies with other inferior souls newly separated, and inspire them again. 51

In the next chapter but one, we read that “It happens also sometimes, that not only they that are asleep, but also they that are watchful do with a kind of instigation of mind, divine. ,” and that this is most common among melancholics.52 This is immediately followed by a lengthy chapter on the construction and constitution of the human body, senses, appetites, and passions. Thus it is established that people, being made up of elements and virtues (including life) like all other natural things, are subject to superior, i.e. celestial and divine influences.
Chapter 61 discusses “the forming of man” in fairly standard terms. The parts of the body are made up of elemental mixtures, “subjected to the service of the soul,” with the head assigned the noblest forms “as the tower of the whole body. . . .”53   The five external senses are related to the four elements in hierarchical order: highest is sight, related to Fire; next hearing and Air; smell has “a middle nature betwixt the Air, and the Water;” taste is related to Water; and lowest of all is touch, corresponding to Earth. This hierarchy is further demonstrated by range: sight works at the greatest distance, taste and touch the shortest, although “the touch perceives both ways, for it perceives bodies nigh; and . . . by the medium of a stock or pole.”

There are four interior senses, following Averroes: “common sense,” which “doth collect, and perfect all the representations which are drawn in by the outward senses.” Second is imagination, which “represents nothing,” but rather “retain[s] those representations which are received by the former senses, and . . . present[s] them to the third faculty . . . which is the fantasy. . . .” Fantasy is the power to judge or discern “what or what kind of thing that is of which the representations are” and then to place the constructed judgements into memory, the fourth interior sense.
Fantasy is in a way superior to the others, “belonging to all the powers of the mind,” because it receives impressions both from below (the senses) and above (the incorporeal mind) and assigns them to their proper places. Most importantly for our purposes, it “forms all the actions of the soul, and accommodates the external to the internal, and impresses the body with its impression.” In other words, the fantasy acts as a bridge between the natural or corporeal mind and the celestial, incorporeal mind; at the same time, the fantasy is within nature and not entirely subordinated to the powers of the incorporeal mind.

This incorporeal mind hath a double nature, the one, which inquireth into causes, properties, and progress of those things which are contained in the order of nature, and is content in the contemplation of the truth, which is therefore called the contemplative intellect. The other is a power of the mind, which discerning by consulting what things are to be done, and what things to be shunned is wholly taken up in consultation, and action, and is therefore called the active intellect.

There is thus a tripartite hierarchy of the powers of the mind: the external senses, the internal senses, and the incorporeal mind. Parallel to this, there are three appetites:

the first is natural, which is an inclination of nature into its end . . . : another is animal, which the sense follows, and it is divided into irascible, and concupiscible: the third is intellective, which is called the will. . . .

Here a critical distinction is drawn. The animal appetites refer always to things presented to the senses, and as such always deal with external things, “desiring nothing unless in some manner comprehended.” The will, on the other hand, is free, not only in the normal theological sense, but also in that it stands on the far side of the corporeal/incorporeal divide, and as such need not refer only to external things, nor to real ones. As such it is possible to will impossible things—“as it was in the devil, desiring himself to be equal with God”—and most importantly for our present purposes, it is possible to will things that do not (yet) exist.

When the will is applied to impossible or depraved ends, this leads to four wilful passions: oblectation, which is suppression of the mind in favor of pleasure; effusion, which goes beyond oblectation such that “the whole power of the mind is melted;” “vaunting and loftiness,” i.e. arrogance,
in which the will glories in some imagined good not actually accom- plished; and finally “envy, or a certain kind of pleasure or delight at another man’s harm, without any advantage to itself.”

As DOP moves on from Chapter 61 to discuss the mind more generally, “we find eleven passions . . . which are love, hatred; desire, horror; joy, grief; hope, despair; boldness, fear; and anger.”54 The critical point about these passions is that they are linked to the body through the fantasy, as we saw above. Indeed, “The fantasy, or imaginative power hath a ruling power over the passions of the soul when they follow the sensual 
apprehension.”55 Thus a strong passion can alter the body, either by moving the spirit (turning red with anger) or by imitation, “as in setting the teeth on edge at the sight or hearing of something, or because we see or imagine another to eat sharp or sour things.”56

Having established that there are logical reasons for the power of the passions over the body and vice-versa, by means of the fantasy, DOP takes the logical next step in chapter 65, “How the passions of the mind can work out of themselves upon another’s body.”57

Therefore let no man wonder that the body, and soul of one may in like manner be affected with the mind of another, seeing the mind is far more powerful, strong, fervent, and more prevalent by its motion than vapours exhaling out of bodies; neither are there wanting mediums, by which it should work, neither is another’s body less subjected to another’s mind, than to another’s body. Upon this account they say, that a man by his affection, and habit only, may act upon another.58

Several examples are adduced, such as the fact that a man bitten by a mad dog becomes mad, or that “the longing of a woman with child doth act upon another’s body, when it signs the infant in the womb with the mark of the thing longed for.”59

This chapter ends with a “teaser,” a hint of great things to come in Book II: “Now then, if the aforementioned passions have so great a power in the fantasy, they have certainly a greater power in the reason. and lastly, they have much greater power in the mind.” This remark is unexplained, except that “by this means we read that many miracles were done by Apollonius, Pythagoras, Empedocles, Philolaus, and many prophets, and holy men of our religion.”60

Natural Magic and the “Operative” Magus
Over the course of Book I, several critical points have been established independently, making the conclusion of Agrippa’s section on the mind inevitable. First, natural things are subject to celestial influence. Second,
this influence can and often does produce occult virtues. Third, these virtues can be made operable by art. Fourth, the core of the human mind is within the natural sphere, and as such subject to celestial influence. Fifth, the celestial portion of the human mind can be brought to bear to influence other people. Sixth, and most important, all these effects and wonders are entirely natural and normal, parts of the constitution of the world.

Human minds, at the celestial (rational) level, can thus influence natural bodies, and in fact often cannot help doing so—falling in love, becoming angry, crying out in fear, or wincing at someone else’s discom- fort are all effects of the celestial mind on the natural body. Moral judgment does not apply here, except in the sense that envy or lust are sinful; fear, empathy, or love have nothing to do with sin. Therefore, suggests DOP, manipulation of natural things by celestial forces is licit, natural magic.

In our provisional definition of natural magic we excluded the use of intelligences, but in light of mental magic this exclusion needs complica- tion. An act of magic has three relevant parts: the source of magical force, the medium through which it operates, and the object acted upon. Clearly the intelligence of the source is irrelevant in DOP, for without the human mind all mental magic would be excluded. The object acted upon seems equally irrelevant, since natural magic can affect others’ minds and passions. The critical issue in natural magic seems to be the medium: if the magic operates only through the natural World-Spirit or the equally natural human fantasy, then the magic must ipso facto be natural.
We are far from the timid pseudo-natural magic of Ficino. It is difficult to imagine Ficino supporting this extremist mental magic, and more difficult to imagine him citing Thomas Aquinas to make the point, as Agrippa does in chapter 67, “How man’s mind may be joined with the mind, and intelligences of the celestials, and together with them impress certain wonderful virtues upon inferior things.”61 The chapter ends with a warning, inserted in the final version:

Everyone therefore that is willing to work in magic, must know the virtue, measure, order, and degree of his own soul, in the power of the universe.
Let us return to Yates’s notion of the “operative” magus, with which this section began. It is now fairly clear that, as Yates suggested, the magus of DOP stands above nature to some degree—certainly the magus does indeed “draw power from the divine and natural order.” In particular, we have seen that it is the human mind which stands above nature, following the traditional ascription of reason and intellect to a higher sphere.

At the same time, although Yates’s conception of the magus is relatively accurate here, it is unclear what, if anything, this operative approach has to do with a scientific one. If Agrippa theorized a magus with considerable power, both of knowledge and of action, over nature, this does not in itself strengthen Yates’s claim that magic promoted science.

What is missing is application. In a discussion of Chinese alchemical thought, the chemist and historian of alchemy Nathan Sivin pointed to a problem which is the mirror-image of that which confronts us:

Our ability to grasp the import of its theories is the key to understanding both the aims and results of Chinese alchemy. The empirical content of alchemy has little significance unless we know what it meant to the alchemist, within what framework he understood it. If one of the elixirs of immortality, for instance, turns out to be more or less pure metallic arsenic, it is tempting to chalk this up as another accomplishment of Chinese science. But are we justified in doing so if we find out that the elixir was not considered different in kind from, say, calomel or vermilion?62
In the case of DOP and Yates’s “operative magus” theory, the situation is precisely reversed. Yates’s argument is founded upon the notion that empirical content is irrelevant for understanding magic vis-à-vis science. Rather than claiming, as did Sivin’s opponents, that a given empirical discovery (such as metallic arsenic) is automatically an achievement for a culture’s science, Yates claims that a given theoretical stance evidences such achievement; thus an interest in the power of numbers is ipso facto a move toward mathematization, regardless of the empirical content of this interest in numbers, e.g. a fascination with numerology.

We cannot accept either extreme. Sivin’s question (or its inverse) is pertinent: if a given theoretical stance or position is analogous to a later crucial development in the seventeenth-century scientific revolution, it is tempting to consider that stance another achievement for magical science, as it were. But are we justified in doing so if we find that the theory was not considered different in kind from a theological position?
In the next section, then, we must begin to answer these questions by focusing on the relationship between “empirical content” and theory—in particular, we need to focus on experimentalism, and the relationship between experience and reason.

Magic and Skeptical Philosophy: Experience versus Reason

In a passage quoted above, Yates proposed the connection between magic and science which has occupied us in the previous section:
The procedures with which the Magus attempted to operate have nothing to do with genuine science. The question is, did they stimulate the will towards genuine science and its operations?63

But is it in fact true that magical operations “have nothing to do with genuine science?” Yates probably has in mind various Kabbalistic conjurations and such, but in the context of natural magic, it is very difficult indeed to find an absolute division between scientific and magical operations.  We have seen that “man the operator” is at the very top of natural magic, standing in a dominant relationship to nature. In the present section, I want to follow up the implications of Yates’s question by asking what “man the operator” has to do with “man the scientist,” or rather, “man the experimenter.”

H. Floris Cohen notes that Yates leaves unexplored “easily the most plausible of the various causal connection she adduced between the Hermetic movement and the rise of early modern science,” i.e. the potential connection between an activist and an experimental approach to nature.64 This connection was realized primarily in the figure of Francis Bacon, whose ideas developed at least partly in the context of earlier magic and alchemy.65 If DOP grants a dominant and operative position to the magus, can it be said that Agrippa points toward an experimental approach? If so, we would be on fairly firm ground in claiming for hima significant position among the early sixteenth-century predecessors of the scientific revolution.

In order to explore this possibility, it is important to take up the prob- lem of Agrippa’s skepticism, and further to relate it to his opinion of practices or ideas whose relationship to the scientific revolution is strongly established. For the present analysis, then, I will consider, first, Agrippa’s skepticism and its epistemological implications, and second, his stance vis- à-vis alchemy, which Yates dubbed “the Hermetic science par excellence.”66 I will argue that there are indeed glimmers of an experimentalism in DOP and De vanitate, but that they are considerably more tenuous than the “Yates thesis” might suggest.


The important of the skeptical revival in the Renaissance has been generally recognized in the last few decades, particularly since the publication of Richard Popkin’s definitive study.67 What has not always been clearly recognized is the importance and congruence of magical and scientific thought with skepticism in its early modern form.

The question of skepticism and magic is of particular importance when dealing with Agrippa, who not only wrote DOP but also that monument of satirical skepticism, De vanitate, which so influenced Montaigne and others. It is crucial, when reading DOP, to see that the two works not only do not contradict one another, but actually complement each others’ arguments. I shall make this case briefly at the end of the chapter, and more deeply in the conclusion of the present work; for the moment, something needs to be said about skepticism in general, and its relation to natural magic (and science) in particular.

Pyrrhonist or Pyrrhonian skepticism originated in the Hellenistic period, and argued “that there was insufficient and inadequate evidence to determine if any knowledge was possible, and hence that one ought to suspend judgment on all questions concerning knowledge.”68 Skepticism of this sort is in no way equivalent to modern skepticism, characterized by thoroughgoing doubt about unproven and especially nonmaterial claims. On the contrary, many Renaissance skeptics can be labeled “fideists”:

Fideism covers a group of possible views, extending from (1) that of blind faith, which denies to reason any capacity whatsoever to reach the truth . . . , to (2) that of making faith prior to reason. This latter view denies to reason any complete and absolute certitude of the truth prior to the acceptance of some proposition or propositions by faith . . . even though reason may play some relative or probable role in the search for, or explanation of the truth. In these possible versions of fideism . . . knowl- edge, considered as information about the world that cannot possibly be false, is unattainable without accepting something on faith, and . . . independent of faith sceptical doubts can be raised about any alleged knowledge claims.69

The Pyrrhonists brought to bear a number of devastating arguments, particularly the unreliability of the senses, the imperfect nature of human reason, and the logical impossibility of finding a fixed standard by which to judge truth-claims.

Popkin argued implicitly, and Cohen explicitly, that the Pyrrhonist revival stimulated the rise of experimental science. Cohen summarizes the scientific-skeptical position as follows:

The sceptics are right: It is not given to man to gain knowledge of the essence of things, and nature is not necessarily wholly transparent to our understanding. But the sceptics are wrong, too, for the inescapable limitations of human reason and sense experience do not condemn us to ignorance. Rather, we can construct a science of how phenomena appear to us, with our experience serving as a guideline and the verification of predicted experiences as a criterion.70

Popkin did not think much of Agrippa’s contribution to the revival of skepticism, describing De vanitate as “fundamentalist anti-intellectualism,” although he granted that “it represents a facet of the revival . . . and it had some influence in producing further interest in sceptical thought.”71 He also noted its influence on Montaigne and Descartes.

As I shall argue periodically throughout the present work, Agrippa’s skepticism is not so much anti-intellectual as peculiarly fideist. For Agrippa, the scientific-skeptical position is unacceptable, because it presumes the inherent value of “a science of how phenomena appear to us.” In the magical world of DOP, such a goal is entirely unworthy of the high estate of man.

Of all the conclusions of Pyrrhonist skepticism, the most devastating criticism is the lack of a single absolute standard. All knowledge is relative, in that every piece of data depends on other data. This is the same problem  which  faces  Eco’s  “irresponsible”  deconstructionists:  without something solid to ground interpretation, we can make any text say anything at all, and we are left with unlimited semiosis (see page 23 above). What is required, then, is either (1) some absolute point of reference, or (2) a strong gradation or hierarchy which, if it does not fix interpretation solidly, at least keeps it within approximate guard-rails.

Descartes, of course, sought an absolute point in the cogito; Montaigne, like Eco in a way, relied on the common sense of reasonable people. We could go on: Paul Ricoeur’s guard-rails are hermeneutic circles, Manfred Frank’s human subjectivity, and so on.
In De vanitate, however, Agrippa chose as an absolute point of reference faith in Christ, which left him in a bind. It is no help to have a point of reference if that point is transcendent, because the value of the absolute point is its relativity to other potential knowledges, i.e. that it can be used as a standard from which to judge data. Thus it is necessarily the object of DOP to connect the absolutely transcendent divine with the other objects and structures of the universe. If this goal can be achieved, the magus, at least, is able to salvage truth from the wreckage of skepticism by referring always to the divine. At the same time he himself attains transcendence, for absolute knowledge of the universe as it depends from the divine is divine knowledge.

Agrippa’s Alchemy: Part 1

The “Hermetic science par excellence,” alchemy, can in general terms be said to fit this description: it is an art by which the magus, through manipulation of the objects and structures of the universe, attempts to attain both transcendence and absolute or divine knowledge of the universe. At the same time, it is immensely difficult to define “alchemy” in a way consistent with all its various usages in the medieval and early modern periods, to say nothing of the alchemical practices of non- European cultures. Fortunately, this definitions problem is only peripher- ally relevant to the present discussion, since Agrippa predates the great revolution in early modern alchemical thought—the Paracelsian revolu- tion.72 To examine the contours of Agrippa’s alchemical interests, however, a modicum of historiographical definition is necessary.

One scholarly take on alchemy is medico-chemical (iatrochemical), and seeks the origins of modern chemistry, medicine and pharmacology in alchemical thought and practice. This is not to say that such scholarship wishes (nowadays) necessarily to tout alchemy as science, or proto-science (á la Frazer, in a sense), but rather to understand the ways in which the origins of certain chemical, clinical, and especially pharmacological ideas arise in the work of alchemical practitioners. Critical questions often focus upon experimental theory and method, as manifested (for instance) in an alchemist’s unwillingness to accept traditional authority over his own observations. Such scholarship is not, so far as I can tell, particularly interested in definitions—it is largely irrelevant here whether a given thinker was or was not an alchemist; what is at stake is that thinker’s ideas, particularly with respect to specific movements and developments in natural philosophy, medicine, and science.

A very different approach was pioneered by Mircea Eliade in The Forge and the Crucible, a comparative study of alchemical and metallurgical traditions around the world. Eliade took it as a basic assumption that “alchemy” was a complex, a pattern of thought and practice which had parallels in numerous societies. He argued that the primary component  of this complex was a linkage between mastery of nature and mystical transcendence: “the alchemist takes up and perfects the work of Nature, while at the same time working to ‘make’ himself.” Ultimately, alchemy was a spiritual pursuit grounded in a “demiurgic enthusiasm”: “in taking upon himself the responsibility of changing Nature, man put himself in the place of Time; that which would have required millennia or aeons to ‘ripen’ in the depths of the earth, the metallurgist and alchemist claim to be able to achieve in a few weeks.” 

72 The scholarly literature on Paracelsus and his intellectual descendants is enormous and ever-expanding. Walter Pagel’s Paracelsus: An Introduction to Philosophical Medicine in the Era of the Renaissance, 2d ed. (Basel, New York, etc.: Karger, 1982) is still indispensable, while Allen G. Debus’s works on the English and French Paracelsians admirably cover a wide swath of Paracelsus’s intellectual descendants. For the most up-to- date bibliographies, one could hardly do better than to survey recent articles in Isis and Ambix—research on Paracelsus is in flux, and any attempt by a non-expert such as myself to cover its grounds can only be outdated soon after its writing.
The great secret lay in discovering how to ‘perform’ faster than Nature, in other words . . . how, without peril, to interfere in the processes of the cosmic forces. Fire turned out to be the means by which man could ‘execute’ faster, but it could also do something other than what already existed in Nature. It was therefore the manifestation of a magico-religious power which could modify the world and which, consequently, did not belong to this world.73

For Eliade’s alchemist, then, mastery over nature entailed marriage with her, and consummation of the union of natural and celestial gave birth to a divine, “perfected” being.

DOP is not saturated with alchemical terminology, and as I will show, Agrippa’s relationship to that art was more than a little hesitant. In order to make sense of the data, we need at all times to keep in mind these two scholarly approaches to the history of alchemy, which we will see replicated to some degree in Agrippa’s own thought.

Alchemy is mentioned only four times in the entirety of DOP. There is a single explicit mention of alchemy in Book I, with reference to the World-Spirit or quinta essentia:74

[T]he alchemists endeavor to separate this Spirit from gold, and silver; which being rightly separated, and extracted, if thou shalt afterward project upon any matter of the same kind, i.e. any metal, presently will turn it into gold, or silver. And we know how to do that, and have seen it done: but we could make no more gold, than the weight of that was, out of which we extracted the Spirit. For seeing that is an extense form, and not intense, it cannot beyond its own bounds change an imperfect body into a perfect: which I deny not, but may be done by another way.75
Chapter 4 of Book II, “Of unity, and the scale thereof,” mentions the art in passing:

There is one thing created of God, the subject of all wondering, which is on Earth, or in heaven; it is actually animal, vegetable, and mineral, everywhere found, known by few, called by none by its proper name, but covered with figures, and riddles, without which neither alchemy, nor natural magic, can attain to their complete end, or perfection.76

The two remaining references are in Book III, one of which is merely a reference to Geber,77 the other a remark that “heaven . . . doth those things, which the force of the fire cannot do by its natural quality (which in alchemy is most known by experience).      ”78

The first passage quoted above, on gold-making, suggests that this form of alchemy, while reasonable and coherent in terms of the general structure of nature and of natural magic, is rarely if ever successful, and it can hardly be taken as a pro-alchemical statement. The second passage, however, is more oblique, its rhetoric suggestive of a passage in Trithemius to which we shall return momentarily.

We have seen that the natural world rests upon the four elements of classical Aristotelian theory; this is complicated by a hierarchy of three orders: pure, compounded, and derivative (decomposita), appearing in a key chapter I:4:

Of the first order are the pure elements, which are neither compounded nor changed, nor admit of commixtion, but are incorruptible, and not of which, but through which the virtues of all natural things are brought forth into effect. . . .

Of the second order are the elements that are compounded, changeable [multiplicia et varia], and impure, yet such as may be by art reduced to pure simplicity, whose virtue, when they are thus reduced to their simplicity, doth above all things perfect all occult operations and operations of nature: and these are the foundation of all natural magic.

Of the third order are those elements, which originally and of themselves are not elements, but are derivative [decomposita], various [varia, multipli- cia], and changeable one into the other. They are the infallible medium, and therefore are called the middle nature, or soul [anima] of the middle nature. Very few there are that understand the deep mysteries thereof. In them is, by means of certain numbers, degrees, and orders, the perfection [consummatio] of every effect in what thing soever, whether natural, celestial, or supercelestial; they are full of wonders, and mysteries, and are operative, as in magic natural, so divine. 79

This tripartite hierarchy derives from Trithemius, as Vittoria Perrone Compagni has noted; further, as Noel Brann has made clear, the structure was central to the Abbott of Sponheim’s magical theology.80 Trithemius describes “three principles of natural magic without which no marvelous effect can be performed” and links them explicitly to Pythagorean numerology. The first principle is the Unity, the second the evolution of the monad into the binary, and the third the evolution into multiplicity through ternary, quaternary, and denary. The second principle is at “the center of natural magic,” while the third “is the consummation of the number of the grades and of the order through which all the philosophers of the secrets of nature and inquirers of the truth of God have pursued their marvelous effects.”81 According to Brann, this third principle was that in which “Trithemius perceived the transformation of theoretical into operational magic” without ever slipping from licit natural magic into illicit demonic magic:

Success in the operation, [Trithemius] insisted, is dependent on a spiritual transformation, via series of spiritual stages from the denarium to the unity, within the soul of the operator. “Whoever has been elevated to the uncompounded and pure state of utter simplicity,” as he put this idea to Westerburg, “may be perfect in every natural science, may bring marvelous works to pass, and may discover amazing effects.” . . . [Trithemius also puts it another way,] this time suggestive of alchemical imagery: “If a man is reduced to his own unified simplicity by a suitable cleansing through purifying fire, he is permitted to plumb the depths and perform all the mysteries of possible knowledge.”82

In DOP I:4 too, the rhetoric is suggestive of alchemy, though neither so explicit nor so internally-directed as Trithemius’s:
Let no man therefore, without these three sorts of elements, and the knowledge thereof, be confident that he is able to work anything in the occult sciences of magic, and nature. But whosoever shall know how to reduce those of one order, into those of another, impure into pure, compounded into simple, and shall know how to understand distinctly the nature, virtue, and power of them in number, degrees, and order, without dividing the substance, he shall easily attain to the knowledge, and perfect operation of all natural things, and celestial secrets.83

In the context of Trithemius’s clearly alchemical rhetoric, two major questions cannot help but arise here: First, is DOP ’s “knowledge . . . of all natural things, and celestial secrets” equivalent to the Great Work, the alchemist’s central preoccupation? Second, given that where Trithemius refers to the purification of the operator, DOP mentions only “whosoever shall know how to reduce those of one order, into those of another,” does this difference imply a non-transforming alchemy, an anti-alchemical stance, or perhaps a search for some knowledge which would itself be transforming?
Recall Eliade’s idea that “the alchemist takes up and perfects the work of  Nature,  while  at  the  same  time  working  to  ‘make’  himself,”  that alchemy was “the manifestation of a magico-religious power which could modify the world and which, consequently, did not belong to this world.” While it has been argued that medieval alchemy does not fit this model, there is little question that Renaissance alchemy indeed generally focused upon the transmutation of human souls into spiritual gold by sympathetic or analogical connection to the transmutation of metallic elements in the crucible.84 Trithemius, as was implied above (and as Brann makes explicit), used stock alchemical imagery and metaphor to represent various stages and aspects of human transcendence to the divine, and while there is no reason to imagine that the abbot of Sponheim worked at the forge and crucible himself,85 certainly his rhetoric fits Eliade’s mystical concep- tion of the spagyrical art.

The very tenuous connection established between Agrippa’s occasional terminology and a broader complex of mystical-alchemical transmutation is of questionable value. First, it is by no means clear that this terminology has the force with which the Trithemian (and Eliadean) contexts have invested it.   Second,  there  is  essentially  nothing  here  which strongly suggests a mystical end. Finally, and most importantly, there is simply not enough data here from which to draw a strong conclusion. Rather than continuing to dig in DOP for such slight hints, then, let me move to the far larger and more direct discussion of alchemy in De vanitate.

Alchemy in De vanitate

The position of alchemy in Agrippa’s works is problematic because, as is so often the case, DOP and De vanitate do not appear to agree. At the same time, the De vanitate text is exceptionally rich and complex, while DOP skirts around the issue to a surprising degree. In the present discussion, I argue that there is no single “Agrippan” position on alchemy; the majority of the extant texts are hostile to alchemical practice, and while the possibility of a higher, transcendent alchemy is open, I suspect Agrippa himself had little faith in the Great Work.
As mentioned in the preceding chapter (page 25 above), Agrippa seems to have joined or formed a kind of secret society when he was a young man, probably in the period 1507-1509. There is good reason to think that the members practiced alchemy in a material sense; a letter in 1509 has Agrippa setting up “our usual alchemical shop.”86 Indeed, Nauert argues that Agrippa’s early interest in practical alchemy was quite considerable at this time, and not mere flimflam to attract the wealthy and foolish:

Although he doubtless counted on his alchemical work to attract interest and perhaps was not above intimating that his work was more successful than it really was, it is likely that Agrippa was as earnest in his efforts to transmute metals as in his search for a patron.87

If it is thus clear that the young Agrippa practiced alchemy with at least some degree of seriousness, his late attitude toward the art is far less so.

Chapter 90 of De vanitate, on alchemy, is unusually complex and difficult. On the one hand it includes an attack on the art which is relatively unoriginal in content but bitingly satirical and engagingly written. On the other hand, it appears to permit exceptional license to alchemists on the grounds that the author himself is an alchemist! My suspicion is that the entire piece is an unusually cruel and bitter attack, perhaps motivated by Agrippa’s own experience with alchemy, but it is hard to know whether this reading is entirely sufficient.

The primary criticism of alchemy, by no means original to Agrippa, is that most alchemists are confidence tricksters who take money from their victims by promising them gold; alchemists deceived by their own lies end up diseased and destitute:

[So] they fill the ears of a credulous man with words, that they may void his purse of money; and to whomever they pledge a fortune, from him they demand funds. and through this monstrous imposture they drive [their victims] to puff air at furnace mouths by the opening and closing of purses [follibus auram impellere fornacibus].88 And there is no sweeter madness than to believe that the fixed can be made volatile, and the volatile fixed; so the most repulsive coals, sulfur, excrement, venom, urine, and all harsh pains are to you sweeter than honey, until eventually all their possessions, merchan- dise, and patrimony are boiled away, and transmuted into ash and smoke, all the while they have cheerfully promised the rewards of their long labors, and a golden fetus to be born, and perpetual health and youth; and when at last they have spent their substance, then they begin to grow old, aged, ragged [annosi, pannosi], and starving, always smelling of sulfur, soiled ink- black among the coals, paralytic from the continual handling of quicksilver, with nose-effluence their only affluence, and generally so miserable that for three pennies they would sell their souls. 89

A secondary criticism, equally common in such attacks, is that alchemical texts are written in an impenetrable jargon which hides its vanity behind a veil of pseudo-erudition:

[M]ost people [have come] to believe that all the books of that art were only quite recently invented, which opinion is given not a little credence by such authors as Geber, Morienus, Gilgilidis, and the rest of that crowd of obscure and otherwise uncelebrated names, and also by the discordant terms which they use for things, the inelegance of their writing, and their twisted way of philosophizing.

As usual in the De vanitate chapters on magic, however, Agrippa con- structs a kind of loophole, through which the true form escapes being tarred with the same brush as the false. In the discourse on alchemy, this loophole is exceptionally obvious and unsubtle:

I could say moreover a great many things about this art (to which I am not entirely inimical) if I had not sworn, as is usual for those who are initiated into the mysteries, to keep silence.

A little later, we come to the following extraordinary passage, which I reproduce in full:

In truth, it would take too long to recount all the foolish mysteries of this art, and the vain riddles of the Green Lion, the Fugitive Hart, the Fleeing Eagle, the Dancing Fool, the Dragon devouring its own tail, the Swollen Toad, the Crow’s Head, the black which is blacker than black, the Seal of Hermes, the Mud of Foolishness (of wisdom, I should say), and of innumerable similar trifles; and finally of that one single blessed thing, beside which there is no other, which may be found everywhere, the foundation [subiecto] of the most holy Philosophers’ Stone, to wit—I have almost idly let slip the name of the thing, whereby I should be sacrilegious and perjured. Yet I will speak, by circumlocution, and more obscurely, that none but the sons of the art and they who have been initiated into the mysteries, may understand. It is a thing, which has substance, and is not overly Fiery, nor altogether Earthly, nor simply Watery, nor of a very sharp or very blunt quality, but in between, and light to the touch, and in a way tender, or at least not hard, not unpleasant, and really rather sweet to the taste, agreeable to the smell, delectable to the sight, pleasant and jocund to the hearing, beautiful90 to the imagination. I may say no more, though there be things greater than these; but I deem this art, on account of the familiarity which I have with it, especially worthy of that honor by which Thucydides defines an honest woman, saying “she is best of whom in praise or censure there is least talk.”

In light of Eliade’s mystical alchemy, or Trithemius’s alchemical rhetoric for that matter, the obvious reading of this passage is a mystical, transcen- dent one: we are to cast off the “trifles” of gold-making and so forth, and seek the sublime truth and wisdom of the Philosopher’s Stone. Such a reading is certainly in accord with Agrippa’s generally positive attitude towards magico-religious techniques and ideas, and is further supported if we suppose that he agreed with his one-time master Trithemius, who (as we have seen) wrote grandly of the Great Work while holding the usual gold-making alchemy in contempt.

My suspicion is that this reading is a misreading; I argue instead for an ironic and satirical understanding of this passage. Irony can never really be proven, absent some contemporary comment from the author telling us how the passage was meant, and of course the notion of intention is itself highly problematic. Rather than fight with futility, I will simply state my reasons for reading this passage as I do and move onward.
First, Agrippa was closely tied to the humanist movement inaugurated by Petrarch which, among many other factors, promoted elegance of Latin expression as against the medieval bastard Latin common in scholastic works. Note also the passage cited above in which alchemical writers are denounced for “the discordant terms which they use for things, the inelegance of their writing, and their twisted way of philosophizing.” Furthermore, note that the entirety of De vanitate cap. 90 is an exuberant rhetorical exercise, with many plays on words, intricate logic, considerable erudition, and (in my opinion) significant literary grace.91 I suggest that this interest in clarity and grace cannot be squared with the lengthy, somewhat ridiculous “not this but not that ” rhetoric of the “Philosophers’ Stone” passage.

Second, the description of the Philosophers’ Stone is so vague as to be meaningless. Alchemical texts of the sort parodied here use various obscure terms to avoid giving their meaning directly—a marriage between the White Lady and the Black King produces the Red Man, etc. Without knowing what these terms mean, as both chemical processes and meta- phors of spiritual transmutation, it is essentially impossible to make sense of such discussions. This sort of jargon is parodied in the sentence preceding that of the Stone: “the Green Lion, the Fugitive Hart, . . . the Mud of Foolishness (of wisdom, I should say).” The description of the Stone, on the other hand, is perfectly comprehensible, and gives the semblance of deep meaning, but could actually refer to a vast range of objects—given the reference to Thucydides, it is entirely possible that this description is of a beloved woman.

Magic, Experience and Reason

I have suggested several times that De vanitate does not fundamentally contradict DOP, and that they are in many respects complementary. Although we will return to this question in chapter five, our current preoccupation with De vanitate and alchemy requires that we elaborate upon the problem of Agrippa’s skepticism vis-a-vis his magic.

In his analysis of Agrippa’s thought, Charles G. Nauert proposed some interesting ideas about the mutual relations among science, magic, and skepticism, in particular suggesting a distinction between the empirical

and the theoretical. In De vanitate, Agrippa criticized the former on the grounds of unreliability:

Now since the senses are often deceived, certainly they can prove no test [experientia] genuine to us. Moreover since the senses can in no way reach the intellectual [side] of nature, and [since] the inferior causes of things, from which their natures, effects, and properties or passions must be demonstrated, are by common consensus entirely obscure to our senses, is it not certain that the way of truth via the senses is barred? wherefore also all those deductions and sciences which are founded at their roots upon these very senses, all must be uncertain, erroneous, and fallacious.92
According to Nauert, “in attacking the various occult arts of prognostica- tion, [Agrippa] does not deny that there may be some factual truth in their predictions. Rather, his favorite charge . . . is that [these arts’] defenders can allege . . . only fortuitous experiences to uphold their claims.” 93 As Agrippa himself puts it, “. . . it is necessary that we impugn the error of all these arts for no other reason, than this, that they clearly lack all reason espite all those who have supported chiromancy, “nevertheless they all can show nothing beyond conjectures and observations of experience.”94 In other words, it is a sufficient criticism that the propo- nents of such arts have anecdotal data but no solid theories with which to ground them.

At least in De vanitate, then, it appears that Agrippa is an extreme anti- empiricist. At the same time, as we shall see shortly, Book I of DOP often privileges experience over reason.

Nauert proposes a reconciliation:

By the time he wrote De vanitate, Agrippa argued that any higher patterns of explanation, in the occult arts or in any science, are merely arbitrary constructs of the human mind without any objective existence. This is true of the various astronomical cycles, epicycles, signs, and houses; it is also true of metaphysical concepts. Real but possibly erroneous sensory knowledge and arbitrary intellectual patterns: after all has been said, these still survive the general intellectual wreckage produced by De vanitate. 95
By this reading, at least, DOP does not flatly contradict De vanitate in that the former retains the “real but possibly erroneous sensory knowledge” and attempts to build a coherent “arbitrary intellectual pattern” out of them. Indeed, Nauert argues that, for Agrippa, “All patterns of interpretation .

. . are artificial and arbitrary, the magical ones no more so than any others. So one may adopt them provisionally as long as they are useful.”96 Thus the distinction between empirical and theoretical knowledge leads to a parallel distinction between a utilitarian approach to practical knowledge, typified by the natural magic of DOP, and an epistemological critique of the accessibility of truth, typified by the skepticism of De vanitate.

In the context of our preceding discussions, Agrippa’s magical skepticism would constitute a third position, simultaneously supportive and critical of both the former’s utilitarian bracketing (to use a term from phenomenology) of the trans-sensory, and the latter’s demand for systematic truth. From Nauert’s point of view, Agrippa’s juggling of these positions tended toward “an adumbration of the idea of hypothesis and its subjection to the test of facts, a procedure that characterizes the methodol- ogy of modern science.”97

Nauert’s reading of Agrippa’s skepticism overstresses the parallel between Agrippa’s skepticism and scientific thought. Nevertheless his insight is of critical importance for understanding how it is possible for Agrippa to hold so many apparently contradictory views and defend them all with such vigor. For these various apparently irreconcilable positions are not, as has sometimes been supposed, merely passing notions in what Nauert called “the odyssey of Agrippa’s mind.” On the contrary, he is not only aware of the contradictions but defends them.98 Furthermore the weight of Nauert’s analysis suggests that the reconciliation of magic and skepticism might lead strongly toward the natural sciences as they would appear in the seventeenth century.

Agrippa’s Alchemy: Part 2

The references to alchemy in DOP and De vanitate can be reconciled by following up a variant of the experience/reason distinction, the distinction of practice and theory. On the practical side, Agrippa attacks every aspect of the praxis of alchemy, apparently sparing nothing: this is alchemy as gold-making,  confidence  tricks,  and  the  “sweet  madness”  by  which “eventually all their possessions, merchandise, and patrimony are boiled away, and transmuted into ash and smoke.” On the theoretical side, Agrippa attacks certain goals:

So they seek to alter the species of things, and presume to forge (as they say) a certain blessed Philosophers’ Stone whereby, like Midas, all bodies touched are changed into gold and silver. Moreover they endeavor to draw a certain quintessence from the highest inaccessible heavens, by the enormous power of which they promise not only more riches than Croesus had, but also, by expelling old age, youth and perpetual health, and even immortality.

We know also that “the senses are often deceived, [and] certainly they can prove no test [experientia] genuine to us.” This suggests that experientia equals practical reality, more specifically sensibly perceptible reality. Furthermore “since the senses can in no way reach the intellectual [side] of nature, . . . the way of truth via the senses is barred.” Therefore it can be said that natural experience, that is to say knowledge derived from practical interaction with nature, is without certainty and even the potential for truth.

Experience, then, understood in this naturalistic sense, requires reason, meaning both theory and the celestial human ratio. Without reason in the celestial sense, no natural thing can be perceived or understood by a human observer—there is no means by which a human observer may observe the phenomena, and no mind to interpret the data once observed. Without reason in the theoretical sense, no natural thing can be understood—there is no structure against which to categorize and analyze the phenomenon. In these discussions, then, we must recognize that ratio carries both meanings.
Let us continue to follow this line. Recall that Ficino understood all forces and powers to have a necessary endpoint, a telos ; we have seen nothing to suggest that Agrippa disagreed. Indeed, I would argue that nature itself has a telos which, given the structure of the Neoplatonic cosmos, must necessarily be celestial. In other words, without the celestial, without reason, nature has no meaning, no purpose.

Alchemy, like all natural magic, simply brings forth and encourages natural forces and processes, as for instance speeding time in the crucible to quicken the gestation of gold from base metals. Giambattista della Porta expressed this particularly well:

Art being as it were Nature’s Ape, even in her imitation of Nature, effecteth greater matters than Nature doth. Hence it is that a Magician being furnished with Art, as it were another Nature, searching thoroughly into those works which nature doth accomplish by many secret means and close operations, doth work upon Nature, and partly by that which he sees, and partly by that which he conjects and gathers from thence, takes his sundry advantages of Nature’s instruments, and thereby either hastens or hinders her work, making things ripe before or after their natural season, and so indeed makes Nature to be his instrument.99

At the same time, some alchemical goals and claims (immortality, elemental transmutation, transcendence) require powers far beyond nature. According to Aristotelian elemental theory, with which Agrippa does not essentially disagree, natural substances cannot be transmuted into othersubstances withinnature—such transformation is transubstantiation, such as the wafer and wine becoming flesh and blood in the Mass. Transubstantiation cannot occur in nature, and requires the interference of a divine presence—a miracle. To transmute lead into gold would similarly require a miracle, though perhaps a relatively minor one; thus to complete the Great Work would require a miracle and so demonstrate and consecrate the holiness of the alchemist.

In order to accomplish its goals, then, alchemy must transcend the natural—its goals and telos must be within the celestial and divine realms. In theory, such transcendence would validate the art; indeed, alchemy can only possibly be valuable or valid insofar as it goes outside of nature, transcends nature—in the Eliadean sense alone can it be worthwhile for Agrippa. But in order so to transcend nature entirely, alchemy must cast aside the imitation of nature, the entire notion of “discovering how to ‘perform’ faster than Nature” as Eliade put it. In this case, it becomes something quite other than alchemy. 

There remains one possibility, which takes us far outside what can be derived from Book I or De vanitate. Alchemy in a broad sense could survive the “intellectual wreckage” of DOP and De vanitate if the grounds of transmutation, the crucible, were translated into the trans-natural, something rational but participating in both the natural and the divine. The obvious possibility here is the human microcosm, fundamentally residing in the rational but bound to the natural and reaching toward the divine; indeed, this is exactly the Eliadean sense of alchemy absent any of the technical terminology or chemical practices. But once such trappings are removed, could it not be said that language, and particularly the purely rational written language, fits these characteristics, at least in potentia? Can we imagine a text which would fit all these criteria? Which would itself be a microcosm?

Three possibilities leap to mind, all of them I think accurate to DOP, though we cannot as yet prove this. First, of course, is the Divine Word, the logos, Christ, whose incarnation enables natural magic and skepticism to solve their difficulties by providing an entirely human, hence natural, and yet entirely transcendent, divine goal and absolute point of reference. Second, parallel to the first, is the Divine Word as Scripture, itself a microcosm of the universe. Finally, and I think most interestingly, De occulta philosophia itself can be read as this perfect microcosm of the universe and of man. In a sense, where the alchemist used a crucible to construct a controlled and perfect microcosm, Agrippa’s crucible was DOP itself.


What has all this gained us? We have come to see that DOP ’s natural magic is defined idiosyncratically, that in it the human mind stands in a peculiarly dominant and yet external relationship to nature, and that Agrippa’s radical skepticism undercuts the entirety of the natural-magical project. In sum, we have learned that the natural magic of DOP is incomplete, depending from higher spheres and realities which in themselves have no place in natural magic.

DOP ’s natural magic leads up to an end which, in good skeptical fashion, hangs from an external point. As yet, we cannot confidently identify that point; we have insufficient data. We know that it is in some way rooted in the mind, or rather, that it is analogous to the internal mental relations among intellect, reason, and imagination/sense, by way of fantasy. We know further that it is something to which purely phenomenal knowledge does not pertain—this is the basis of skepticism. Beyond this, we can only make guesses at this stage.
I have already hinted at the final conclusion of this line of reasoning, as it progresses through the entirety of DOP; for the moment, I note a few relevant items.

First, the skepticism of De vanitate is congruent with the basic outlook of DOP, which suggests that the external reference point must be divine, and specifically must relate to the Word of God—“excellentia verbi dei.” Second, we should take seriously the structure of the work, not only in its division into three books parallel to three worlds, but also within each world; this suggests that the concluding chapters of Book I on language and word stand in a conclusive, superior position with respect to the rest of  natural  magic—again,  “excellentia  verbi  dei.”    Finally,  we  must recognize the fundamental limitation of a radically exterior point of reference to ground knowledge, i.e. that it cannot be connected to anything interior to the system; in other words, the choice of a divine point of reference demands either a renunciative, apophatic mysticism, or some instance of a crossing, at which the divine becomes entirely natural, or the natural divine—a third time, “excellentia verbi dei.” In sum, I suggest that the natural magic must be read as leading up to Christ, the incarnation in nature of the Divine Word.

Unfortunately, this also entails that the natural magic requires (depends from) the celestial and especially the divine magic. In other words, these claims and questions about the natural magic cannot satisfactorily be answered absent evidence from Book II and Book III. At the same time, we have some idea of what we expect to find in those books.

In Book II, we will see an analysis of language and form; that is, a linguistic theory which enables the Incarnation to connect to the problem of interpretation, i.e. of the mind’s dominance over natural things. In Book III, we will see conclusive evidence that the status of the interpretant, the magus, is analogous to that of the Logos, producing a kind of intellectual mysticism which is anything but negative or apophatic. In essence, Books II and III will demonstrate what is implied by Book I, that magic enables the human soul of the magus to achieve an understanding of God which moves from natural voice to written language and beyond, transcending language to achieve unity with the Word.
But before turning to these later books, let us return to our historiographical problems.

Science, Magic, and the Yates Thesis

The great problem with the “Hermetic” debate was that scholars did not fundamentally agree about what “science” is or was, which necessarily led into a historiographical cul-de-sac. Admittedly the debate is now more or less defunct, it having been agreed that the “Yates thesis” was, if not wrong, then at least exaggerated, but the more basic problem remains. I suggest that our investigation of DOP can help clarify the issue.
Yates herself drew an important distinction which strongly suggests what she meant by science:

The basic difference between the attitude of the magician to the world and the attitude of the scientist to the world is that the former wants to draw the world into himself, whilst the scientist does just the opposite, he externalises and impersonalises the world by a movement of will in an entirely opposite direction to that described in the Hermetic writings. 100

H. Floris Cohen points out a crucial conclusion which Yates drew from this distinction:

[T]he persistence of Hermetic patterns of thought throughout much of the 17th-century adventure in science betrays an acute awareness, among many though not all the pioneers of the Scientific Revolution, that their new science, however irresistible in its intellectual sweep, caused an attendant loss of insight into the endlessly complex makeup of the human personal- ity—not without consequence for man’s future handling of nature.101
Although Yates’s conception of science as opposed to magic is simplistic, her argument about the relationship of scholar (scientist or magus) to “world” is worth salvaging if we add a little precision. First, as suggested by the quotation-marks in the previous sentence, the notion of “world” cannot stand. In DOP, the three worlds are fundamentally distinct, though connected. In order to avoid category mistakes in comparing science and magic, we must limit “the world” to the world of nature.

To go further, it is just such a limitation which constitutes the distinction I think Yates had in mind. The “externalizing” of nature Yates considered preeminently scientific sees nature as fundamentally different from the metaphysical aspects of humanity (mind, spirit, soul). In this conception, the study of nature must exorcize the effects of the scholar from the experiment, because such effects cannot be studied with the same tools as can nature. However philosophically problematic we may find the scientist’s goal of objectivity, it is logically necessary once a distinction between physical and metaphysical is accepted. Rather than externalizing and impersonalizing nature “by an act of will,” the scientist surrenders the will as an object of study in order to study better the workings of nature. Yates is right to contrast this conception with Hermetic doctrine, as the latter rests so fundamentally upon the microcosm. If man is a microcosm, then the study of his metaphysical aspects is necessarily part of any analysis of nature. After all, purely natural (e.g. biological) examination of can humanity rarely focus on those parts of human nature most critical for distinguishing between humans and other living beings, those constitutive of human culture such as language, religion—even magic. Thus the preeminent object of study for the Hermeticist must be the relationship between scholar and universe. If it is found that certain tools, particularly those of the natural sciences normally conceived, cannot accurately be applied to this fundamentally metaphysical relationship, then those tools must be acknowledged as inadequate to the object of study.

Further precision can be applied to Yates’s formulation by recognizing that her “internalizing” and “externalizing” are not actions but axioms: the scientist limits study in order to attain specific goals, while the magician, denying the validity of such a limitation, must examine the totality of the universe. It may be said that the scientist, in this conception, is required to believe in progress, in that he or she contributes data and conclusions to an ever-growing mass of scientific information on the assumption that future generations will synthesize it and answer large questions; this was certainly the point of Bacon’s House of Solomon in his New Atlantis. In Yates’s Hermetic conception, the magician cannot so parcel out the work, because one cannot evaluate the truth of a datum until it has been fitted into the grand scheme, particularly since the physical senses are unreliable. I do not claim that this exegesis of Yates’s definition-by-distinction really solves the problem of definition, nor do I think Yates herself would have been entirely happy with the conclusions I draw. I do think, however, that it goes some way toward understanding both the natural magic of DOP and its ambivalent relationship to the development of modern science.
Art, Nature, and Science

Although we are hardly ready for conclusions, it is perhaps valuable to assess Agrippa in light of the scientific revolution at this point. Modern historiography of that revolution tends to work from the general premise that the development of   modern experimental science entailed not only a series of specific discoveries—the circulation of the blood, the heliocen- tric solar system, the calculus and Newtonian mechanics, etc.—but also a number of crucial theoretical and methodological shifts. To evaluate Agrippa as a forerunner of the scientific revolution, then, it is necessary to view his work in the context of shifts in world-view or approach.

There are two such intellectual movements which provide useful context. First, of course, is the revival of skepticism. There can be little doubt of the influence of this revival upon many major figures in the scientific revolution, Descartes and Bacon being perhaps the most obvious. It is equally indisputable that Agrippa made an influential and important contribution to the skeptical revival by writing De vanitate, and the fact that Descartes read this book as a young man further strengthens the connection. At the same time, it is worth considering the fact that Agrippa’s skepticism was violently opposed to phenomenal knowledge; indeed De vanitate’s most direct opposite might well be Bacon’s Novum organum. In chapter five below, we will return to this question of De vanitate, skepticism, and the scientific revolution, but it is already clear that, to the extent that his book contributed to the projects of Descartes and Bacon, Agrippa would likely have objected to such as misuse and misreading.

The work of Paolo Rossi on Francis Bacon provides a second theoreti-cal context for evaluating Agrippa’s science. Rossi argued that Bacon worked towards an annulment of the classical Aristotelian distinction between art and nature, which proposed a sharp and inviolable boundary between the two. Rossi’s claim, in short, is that Bacon’s understanding of technology undermined the art-nature division, in that he thought such inventions as gunpowder or the compass could be useful for investigating nature, both as instruments and as objects of study.102

On the other hand, William Newman has recently suggested that the blurring of the art-nature division which occurs in Bacon was strongly foreshadowed by alchemical literature. Newman’s point is that the notion of art as “Nature’s Ape” and the related concept that art can make nature perform her works more rapidly than usual, provide essentially the same critique of the art-nature division as did Bacon. Furthermore, Newman points out, alchemical apologists have a habit of defending their art by reference to the wonderful technical accomplishments which it has produced, particularly gunpowder, chemical dyes, and glass. Again, he argues, the valorization of technological developments in Bacon can be seen to trace directly back to Bacon’s considerable knowledge of his alchemical forebears.103

All the points emphasized by Newman appear clearly and explicitly in Agrippa. The definitions of natural magic in both De vanitate and in DOP itself point to a notion of art as emulation of nature which, when properly employed, encourages nature’s operations. Similarly, the only portion of the De vanitate piece on alchemy which could be read apologetically discusses the alchemists’ technical accomplishments, of which Agrippa provides a familiar list:

I do not deny that through this art many very excellent crafts had their beginnings. From hence came the compositions of azure, cinnabar [cinnabrii], cinnabar [minii], purple, and what is called musical gold, and other colors. We are indebted to this art for orichalcum104 and the alloys of all metals, their bindings and assaying, and their separations. The gun is the terrible invention of that art. Hence also came the most noble art of glass- making, of which one Theophilus has written an excellent book.105

This is not to suggest that Agrippa’s work laid the groundwork for Bacon’s. As Newman shows, the partly undermined division between art and nature considerably preceded not only Bacon but Agrippa as well, and there was certainly nothing very new about Agrippa’s restatement. At the same time Agrippa’s writings undeniably influenced later thinkers. If it is impossible to claim that Bacon got his notions of art and nature from Agrippa, it is also unnecessary; what is relevant is that Bacon need not have gone far afield in his reading. In sum, I suggest that Thorndike’s assessment of DOP as “valuable in a scattering way for its bibliography” is, oddly enough, accurate—thinkers in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries likely used it in precisely this way, as a kind of reference volume. If Agrippa made little other direct contribution to the scientific revolution, he nevertheless deserves recognition for this.

A Theory of Language?

Our reading of Agrippa’s skepticism leans heavily on a distinction between “real but possibly erroneous sensory knowledge” and “arbitrary intellectual patterns.” If Agrippa’s “real skepticism concerned . . . the jump from sensory knowledge to the higher levels of ratiocination,”106 we must recognize that this is for DOP primarily a problem of communication: how do the senses communicate with reason and the intellect? which in the macrocosm is equivalent to the question, how does the natural world communicate with the divine?
This is a metaphysical and linguistic problem of no mean proportions, and it remains the most pressing question at the end of the natural magic. The foundation of divine-natural communication has been laid by the Incarnation of Christ, as suggested above; nevertheless, it is hard to see how this singular instance could ground every possible reflection of the basic problem. In essence, what is required is a theory of language which can support all the weight already placed upon it.



On the Study-table a book there lay, Which Agrippa himself had been reading that day; The letters were written with blood therein, And the leaves were made of dead men’s skin;

And these horrible leaves of magic between Were the ugliest pictures that ever were seen, The likeness of things so foul to behold, That what they were is not fit to be told.
—Robert Southey

First, we have seen that the natural magic is at heart a magic of logos, a magic bound up with the Incarnation, with the immanent, physical presence of God in the world, which grounds language in the material. The mathematical or celestial magic should, logically, be the magic of writing, and hence of Scripture. This is confirmed by the explicit focus of the two transitional chapters, “Of the virtue of writing. . .” and “Of the proportion. . . of letters.

Logically superior to the fallen nature of speech, for the many human languages divided at Babel
have according to their diversity received divers, and proper characters of writing, consisting in their certain order, number, and figure, not so disposed, and formed by hap, or chance, nor by the weak judgment of man, but from above, whereby they agree with the celestial, and divine bodies, and virtues. 3

Writing simultaneously rests upon the prior existence of speech and depends from the superior reality of the celestial. To understand the mathematical is to approach the written, and vice versa. Book II thus explicates the magic of writing from number through character to name.
We have seen (page 66 above) that Frances Yates understood the magic of DOP to depend on an “operative” conception of the magus; what has not been sufficiently stressed is that this operative conception was for Yates associated particularly with mathematical magic. Although she incorrectly concluded that such a stance vis-à-vis mathematics laid the foundations for the scientific mathematization of nature, her insight to correlate mathe- matics and operative power is of considerable value. In this chapter, then, we will consider how DOP understands the activity of magical power.4
The natural magic, as we saw, develops towards its completion in the incarnation of the Word of God in Christ. At the same time, we saw no evidence of a theory of language as such, nor any clearly theorized channel for communication between the divine and the natural apart from the special instance of Christ. It is not surprising, given the structure of DOP, that we find this explication of communication in Book II, midway between the natural and the divine.

As we move through the celestial magic, the theory of language and signification begins to become clear. We learn the constituent parts of language and how they relate, the different ways in which signs can refer to objects, and the potential effects of such reference. As mentioned above, we also see that written language is granted a privileged position in the scheme of language, and begin to understand that privilege.

Exemplum: Magic Squares and Figures

Natural magic is relatively easy to imagine, being based upon the manipulation of concrete objects—magnets, stones, animals, etc. Mathematical magic, however, hinges upon practices which correlate mathematical, geometrical, and formal abstractions with material objects; as such, the magic of Book II is quite alien to our experience. For clarity’s sake, then, let us begin with a concrete, practical example.
Chapter 22 is entitled “Of the tables of the planets, their virtues, forms and what divine names, intelligences, and spirits are set over them.”5 It contains a series of magic squares and magical figures (signacula, characteres) with minimal explanation.6 The seven heavenly bodies, in order from farthest to nearest, are connected to magic squares of order three through nine (there being no possible squares of orders one or two), giving Saturn the square of three, Jupiter that of four, and so forth up to the Lunar square of order nine. Each square is expressed in both Arabic numerals and Hebrew gematria, the traditional Hebrew numbering system, in which numbers from 1 to 9, 10 to 90, and 100 to 900 are represented by letters of the alphabet. Attached to each square is an abstract planetary character (character) and two or three sigils (signacula) connected with various spiritual beings of the planet, generally an “intelligence for good and a demon for evil.”7 From the rather gnomic text, it is apparent that these sigils and characters derive from the demons’ names and the relevant magic squares, using the numerical values of letters described in preceding chapters of DOP. The description of the Saturnian square follows:

Of these the first is assigned to Saturn, and consists of a square of three, containing the particular numbers of nine [i.e. the numbers one to nine], and in every line there are three [numbers], in every direction, and along each diameter a total of fifteen, the sum of all the numbers being forty-five. Over this are set such divine names as fill up the numbers, with an intelligence to what is good and a demon to what is evil; out of the same numbers is drawn the sigil or character of Saturn and of the spirits thereof, such as we shall beneath ascribe to its table.8
There is also some general information about how these figures can be inscribed upon talismans, and what they may be used for. The chapter ends,
Now how the sigils, and characters of the stars, and spirits are drawn from these tables, the wise searcher, and he which shall understand the verifying of these tables, shall easily find out.9


Magic Squares

A magic square is a numerical table made up of consecutive numbers, such that the sum along any row, column, or complete diagonal (corner-to-corner) is constant. One generally describes such squares by the number of rows or columns; thus a square of order four is one with four rows and four columns, and includes all integers from 1 to 16 inclusive. They may have as few as three rows and as many as the constructor desires. There is only one possible square of order three, although rotation and mirroring can produce a total of eight mathematically equivalent variations. For the square of four, there are at least 800 unique squares, and the numbers continue to increase dramatically as the squares get larger. When dealing with a square as large as DOP ’s Lunar square, of order nine, the number of possibilities is so large as to be difficult to calculate even with modern techniques.10

Magic squares show certain consistencies regardless of size, and thus rules may be devised which will always produce a magic square, as opposed to all magic squares. Arabic mathematicians probably knew some of the vast number of possible rules as early as the seventh century C.E., and the thirteenth-century Byzantine mathematician Manuel Moschopoulos described rules and squares which were almost certainly the chief source (directly or otherwise) for the squares in DOP.11

The connection between squares of different sizes and the sequence of heavenly bodies apparently dates at least to old Harranian culture, and was certainly common among Arabic thinkers by about the twelfth century. The usual Arabic system moved sequentially outward from the earth, such that the moon was assigned the square of three, Mercury the square of four, and so forth, while the system in DOP II:22 works the opposite way.12 
Construction of Demonic Sigils

The planetary and demonic marks are apparently entirely original, although the underlying notions may derive from various sources.13 As II:22 is absent from the Juvenile Draft, and in fact is not even mentioned in the projected table of contents of the 1531 DOP, we have only the 1533 DOP to guide our reading.

The demonic sigils (signacula) are derived from the magic squares as written in Hebrew. The method is conceptually quite simple—one merely connects the relevant letters with straight lines—but putting it into practice is rather more difficult. When, as often happens, a letter of the demon’s name does not appear in the square, the constructor substitutes the letter which is one-tenth its value in gematria numbers; thus, for example, the letter lamed (l=30) is replaced with the letter gimel (g=3). This is based on a system known as aiq beker (rkb qy)), also called the nine chambers, most simply represented by the chart (figure 4) which appears in DOP III:30. Gematria numbers themselves are explained in II:19.

This simple numerological trick solves almost all the various difficulties in the demonic sigils; unfortunately it is not entirely consistently applied. In two instances (Nachiel, the Intelli- gence of the Sun, and Hagiel, the Intelli- gence of Venus), a final lamed is re- placed with gimel, despite the fact that lamed actually appears in the square, perhaps because this makes the sigil look somewhat cleaner. In some cases, a tens digit followed by a ones digit is repre- sented in the sigil by the single position which has both letters, as with the yod- alef ()y=11) in Graphiel, the Intelligence of Mars. 

Planetary Characters

The construction of the planetary characters (characteres) is considerably more difficult, because it is difficult to see what if any rules have been applied. In fact, the rules are extremely consistent, followed in every instance but one. Their derivation hinges upon the fact that there are thousands of possible magic squares, but that only specific squares produce the demonic sigils in DOP. The planetary characters incorporate If we compare this method with that of the most impressive academic work on the subject, we find that it is essentially the same, although he is unable to account for all the difficulties of the larger squares: Karl Anton Nowotny, “The Construction of Certain Seals and Characters in the Work of Agrippa of Nettesheim,” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 12 (1949), 46-57. Cazalas’s earlier and more problematic version, on the other hand, is extraordinarily complex, and depends on vastly extended squares with linear addition applied along each line of the sigils. The primary objection to this explanation is that its creator is unable to make it work for most of the sigils; indeed, the few which do add up correctly strike me as largely fortuitous. The argument from simplicity further undermines what must be the most inventive and complex solution to the problem squares, of which the latter group is subdivided into doubly-even (divisible by four) and singly-even (divisible by two but not four). We can divide the characters into parallel groups.

T characters for Mars (5) and Venus (7) set into their respective grids with the proper magic squares. There are notable formal similarities: an X shape running along the diagonals; a curving hook extending up on the bottom right; curves, circles, or a more complex figure in the three remaining triangular spaces. Taking these as distinct elements, we find a number of significant features. First, the top-left to bottom-right diagonal, plus the curving hook, connects sequential num- bers: for the character of Mars, the numbers 11 through 16; for Venus, 22 through 29. Next, the various curves and figures which fill the triangular spaces connect numbers of the same factor of ten; that is, all of the numbers in each set are tens, or forties, or less than ten, etc. The peculiar trident-cross figure at the top of the Venus character thus resolves into a cross and a V-shape, the one connecting forties (41, 42, 49, 48) and the other tens (16, 17, 10). The top-right to bottom-left diagonal seems to be included for symmetry.15 Finally, the center squares, marked by the crossing-point of the X-shape, contain numbers equal to (n2+1)/2, i.e. the middle of the sequence from 1 to n.16

15 Although it could be argued that this line connects numbers which increase from (n+1)/2 in increments of n with n being the order of the square.
16 Nowotny explains odd-numbered characters with a complex chessboard method, such that the half-circles and the circle in the Venus character connect squares of the same color. While this solution is intriguing, I fail to see how it could aid a constructor. In addition, the chessboard method does not seem to appear in contemporary sources.

Construction of Mars and Venus characters

These distinctive features of the Venus and Mars characters refer to a construction rule found in Moschopoulos.17 For any odd-numbered square, place the number 1 in the square just below the center. Number 2 goes in the square immediately down and to the right of 1, and continue counting up in this fashion. When you reach the bottom row, wrap around to the top, and similarly wrap from the rightmost column to the leftmost. When you reach an already filled square, which will happen every n squares, move down two spaces, fill in the next number, and continue from there with the down-to-the-right motion as before.

If a hypothetical magus remembers the planetary character but not the rule, the square can be quickly reconstructed, provided that the magus has at some point taken the trouble to work out the correlation. Let us suppose the constructor recalls that the “middle” number falls in the middle of the square, and that the lines have something to do with sequential numbers.18 Filling in 13 in the center of the square of order five, the sequence 11 through 15 fills in immediately. Following the curved hook, 16 is added. This step alone is sufficient to complete the square, as it incorporates the rules about wrapping bottom-to-top and right-to-left with the rule of jumping down two squares at the end of a sequence. The constructor now continues marking 17 through 20 and 21 through 25; working backwards from 11, the remaining squares can be filled. Any doubts vanish when the constructor sees that the curves in open quadrants connect numbers of the same tens digit (24-25-20, 12-17- 18, 18-19-14).

The Lunar square (order nine) presents some difficulties here. Although the method of constructing the square is the same as for the other odd squares, the character is not in any way indicative of the construction technique. Nowotny suggests that the four shapes merely represent the astrological symbol for the moon, and I think on balance that he must be correct, although it would be more accurate to say that the figures are geomantic, considering that DOP II:51, on geomantic characters, includes a lunar character which looks almost the same as the figures here, and which is  the system used in DOP is one presented by Moschopoulos.20 Quar- ter each four-by-four square with an X. Next, begin at the top right and count sequentially, moving right to left exactly as Hebrew is written. Each time a square containing a line is encountered, enter the relevant number, and count but do not fill the empty squares. Once this is complete, start over backwards—from left to right and from bottom to top, and fill only empty squares. If we compare this extremely simple construction method with the planetary characters, we find that the connected X-shapes represent spaces filled “forwards,” where curves and disconnected lines represent spaces filled during the second “backward” writing sequence. Once again, a constructor who remembers the character but only a vague sense of the rules can quickly fill in the entire square.21
The only singly even square here is a square of six, for the Sun (figure 9). This type of square is in some ways the most difficult to construct, and the solar character is a rather clever way of representing the rules graph- ically, although it would likely require a bit of experimentation for the constructor who remembers very little; the rules for the Sun square are similar to those for doubly-even squares, and may well have been developed by Agrippa himself.22 Once again, begin by connecting the corners with an X, and fill in the squares so marked on the “forward” pass and the remainder on the “backward” pass. Now consider the four hook-

Construction of character of the Sun

21 Nowotny’s explanation is substantially similar to mine, but uses a rotation of 180/ for all the numbers on the circle of the square of four (Jupiter). While this does indeed produce the desired square, it requires considerable reworking for the square of eight (Mercury). The rule in Moschopoulos is very similar to that explained here, although of course Moschopoulos fills in the numbers from left to right.

Our analysis of the magic squares and their respective sigils and characters has demonstrated, at the least, that the magical figures in DOP are in no way random or haphazard. Despite his modern reputation, Agrippa was not simply an encyclopedist who collected odd bits of obscure knowledge and fantasy. On the contrary, DOP is the work at once of a careful collector and a surprisingly original redactor. From the scattered collection of possible rules for constructing magic squares, for example, Agrippa carefully selected those that fit a relatively continuous system, and even devised a new rule to fit them better.
If it is clear that the various magical sub-systems in DOP are not haphazard, this suggests that there must be some continuity to the whole. That is, rather than asking whether there is a method in the madness, we must ask what the method is, and what end it serves.

Exemplum: The Practice of Images

The only other practical application of mathematical magic, Book II, chapter 50, “Of certain celestial observations and the practice of some images,”24 divides readily into three parts. First, a series of images (imagines) constructed for specific purposes, both positive and negative, such as producing success for petitions, driving away animal pests, or bringing misery upon one’s enemies. The second section contains similar though more complex images which bring true or prophetic dreams, and which involve the names of angels. This second series appears only in the final version of DOP, where the first appeared in Book II, chapter 16 of the juvenile draft. Finally, the chapter ends with a short section on the theory of images, also appearing only in the final draft.

It is worth quoting the final, theoretical portion in its entirety:

But know this, that such images work nothing, unless they be so vivified that either a natural, or celestial, or heroical, or animastical, or demoniacal, or angelical virtue be in them, or assistant to them.

But who can give a soul to an image, or make a stone to live, or metal, or wood, or wax? And who can raise out of stones children unto Abraham? Certainly this arcanum doth not enter into an artist of a stiff neck: neither can he give those things which hath them not. Nobody hath them but he who doth (the elements being restrained, nature being overcome, the heavens being overpowered) transcend the progress of angels, and comes to the very Archetype itself, of which being then made a cooperator may do all things, as we shall speak afterwards.25

The Practice of Images

The basic theory of image-construction is simple enough:

So to make anyone fortunate, we make an image in which these are fortunate, viz. the significator of the life thereof, the givers of life, the signs, and planets. Moreover let the ascendant, the middle of the heaven, and the lords thereof be fortunate: also the place of the Sun, and place of the Moon; Part of Fortune, and lord of conjunction or prevention made before their nativity, by depressing the malignant planets. But if we will make an image to procure misery, we must do contrariwise, and those which we place here fortunate, must there be unfortunate, by raising malignant stars.26
In other words, one constructs an image at a time when the stars and planets are in a position favorable to the desired end. Upon the image one inscribes a series of figures which represent the planets and signs in an ideal configuration, along with the names and perhaps the seals of any particularly useful and relevant demons.

So for gain let there be made an image under the ascendant of the nativity of the man, or under the ascension of that place to which thou wouldst appoint the gain, with a fortunate ascendant; and thou shalt make the lord of the second house, which is in the house of substance to be joined with the lord of the ascendant in the trine or sextile, and let there be a reception amongst them; thou shall make fortunate the eleventh and the lord thereof, and the eighth; and if thou canst, put the Part of Fortune in the ascendant, or the second; and let the image be buried in that place, or carried from that place, to which thou wouldst appoint the gain.27

The meaning is not entirely clear. In particular, it is difficult to tell which instructions refer to the time when the image is to be made and which to the characters, seals, and names to be inscribed on the image, if any. The instructions which appear only in the final draft are rather more specific:

And let there be made an image of dreams, which being put under the head of him that sleeps, makes him dream true dreams concerning anything that he hath formerly deliberated of: and let the figure of that be the figure of a man sleeping in the bosom of an angel, which thou shall make in the Lion [Leo] ascending, the Sun keeping the ninth house in Aries; thou shalt write upon the breast of the man the name of the effect desired, and on the head of the angel the name of the intelligence of the Sun. Let the same image be made in Virgo ascending, Mercury being fortunate in Aries in the ninth house, or Gemini ascending in Mercury being fortunate, and keeping the ninth house in Aquarius; and let it be received from Saturn with a fortunate aspect, and let the name of the Spirit of Mercury be writ upon it. Let also the same be made in Libra ascending, Venus being received from Mercury in Gemini in the ninth house, by writing upon it the angel of Venus. 28

The passage continues with possible ascendants and ninth houses for each planetary angel.

The instructions here are clear enough, and require only a fairly basic understanding of astrology (or a decent textbook) and an ephemerides to put into effect. Indeed, it is difficult to reconcile the simplicity of these images’ construction with the passage quoted above, which states that only the true magus, having conquered nature and overtopped the heavens, could possibly construct such images.

Suppose, however, that one were to try to follow the directions and construct one of these images. Certain questions immediately arise: What should they be made of? What should the images look like? How large should they be? What are the relevant names to be inscribed? Should both sides of the image be inscribed, and indeed, should the image be flat or otherwise?
Having worked through both the natural and the mathematical magic, we could come up with possible answers to these questions.29 More to the point, however, we need to address the more important question: Why these directions? In other words, is it possible to work out why Leo ascending, with the Sun in the ninth house in Aries, combined with the intelligence of the Sun, should have the effect of producing true dreams? For the sake of clear explication, I will walk through the construction and meanings of this single image.

Constructing a Solar Image for Dreams

Let us first select an appropriate time for the operation, a time when Leo is ascendant and the Sun is in Aries. A sign is ascendant when it is rising on the eastern horizon, which lasts for about 30 degrees of the rotation of the earth, or about two hours; consequently Leo will be ascendant for about two hours every day, at which time it is by definition in the first house, placing Aries in the ninth house.30 The ninth house extends from midheaven to 30 degrees past, approximately equivalent to the two hours from noon to two o’clock. 31 Leo will be ascendant every noon or so for about one month out of every year, generally late July to late August. So we will plan to construct our image a little after noon in early August.32

The sun rules the sign Leo, as noted in II:36, and thus magicians “made also the image of a lion against melancholy phantasies, the dropsy, plague, fevers, and to expel diseases, at the hour of the Sun, the first degree of Leo ascending. . . .”36  In addition, Leo and Aries are both of the fiery triplicity, ruled by Mars and the Sun, and associated with light, mind, intellect, sight, and related ideas, as noted in the scale of the number four.37

The first and ninth houses are trine, which is to say situated 120 degrees apart. In general, “a conjunction [0° apart], or a trine, or sextile [60°] aspect are of friendship,” but “all planets are afraid of the conjunc- tion of the Sun, rejoicing in the trine, and sextile aspect thereof.” 38 Consequently the Sun in Leo might frighten the lion, but the same planet in Aries, trine to Leo, is fortunate for the operation.
Now we construct the image itself. The shape and size are not specified, but we may infer that the image should be relatively small, and perhaps flat, so that it can easily fit under a sleeper’s pillow. On the image we engrave a figure, that is a picture of some kind, of a man sleeping “in the bosom of an angel.” A quick glance at the various surviving talismanic images suggests that this need not be elaborate, perhaps a simple line- drawing, executed to the best of the magician’s ability.39

39 In Steganographia 3.1 on Orifiel, the angel of Saturn, Trithemius remarks on the aesthetics of images: “And note that it is not necessary that the images be made works of art or that great care be expended on them. However simple they be, it matters not, provided they have a general likeness enabling them to be recognised as images of men. If one wish to make them works of art and if he be able to do so, nothing will prevent, and yet no good is done” (emphasis mine).  Although scholarship on Steganographia 3 is rather vexed, a reading of this passage in an Agrippan context suggests that Trithemius may agree in principle with his one-time student on the aesthetic properties of images. As we saw in
The tricky part comes when we are told to “write upon the breast of the man the name of the effect desired, and on the head of the angel the name of the intelligence of the Sun.” The name of the effect desired might certainly be “imago somniorum,” image of dreams, but there are other possible answers, and the text is not clear on this point.

The name of the “intelligence of the Sun” is more problematic. It might well be Nachiel (l)ykn), which we saw in the previous exemplum as the intelligence of the Sun. At the same time, it is possible that any of the many other Hebrew (or Hebraic-seeming) names found in other chapters might serve. In addition, the magic squares, not mentioned here, suggest a connection between these names and the squares, such that the ideal way of “writing the name” of one of those demons would be to reproduce the demon’s sigil rather than its name as such.

Given the context, where this dream-image has been added only in the final draft of 1533, at more or less the same time as the magic squares of II:22, I will suggest a possible (though unprovable) solution. On one side of the image, which is a flat talisman of gold, we inscribe the character of the Sun; on the other side, we draw the figure in question, with the sigil of Nachiel inscribed on the angel’s head. As to the name of the effect, I cannot suggest anything specific, although it seems not unreasonable that a well-educated magus might find an apposite biblical citation and extract the name.40

The practice of images confirms our previous understanding of the magic squares and sigils, i.e. that the magical figures in DOP are not random or haphazard. In addition, it has become increasingly clear that the practical application of any system in DOP requires extensive knowledge of all parts of the text. It is impossible to pick up the book and use it, cookbook-fashion, to summon demons or prophetic dreams.
I suggest that this difficulty of use, this “user-unfriendliness,” is a deliberate strategy. By shrouding even apparently practical chapters in a the previous chapter, Agrippa placed the aesthetic aspect of vis imaginum out of the natural realm; given that Trithemius does not consider any strictly demonic magic licit, this passage may indicate his avoidance of the problem: he believes that the aesthetic power of images is irrelevant. The Steganographia of Johannes Trithemius, trans. Fiona Tait, Christopher Upton, and Dr. Walden, ed. 

Theories of Signification

Up to now we have seen only a few specific applications of magical theory in celestial magic. In order to extrapolate DOP ’s more general theory of the power of signs, which remains largely implicit in the text, we must examine briefly some other theoretical approaches to these issues.
DOP uses a great many sources, as we have seen before, and Book II is if anything less explicit about its references than Book I. Of the most important sources, Al-Kindi’s De radiis [On rays] is not well known now, but was critical for the development of magical theories of influence, so I will summarize the text at some length. I will not discuss Reuchlin’s De verbo mirifico and De arte cabalistica , or the infamous Picatrix, because their contents are quite well known and discussed in many secondary sources;42 portions of Pico’s 900 Conclusions will be discussed in the next chapter. For clarity’s sake, I will also discuss some issues related to writing which arise in modern semiotics and linguistic philosophy.

Al-Kindi: the Theory of Images

De radiis [On rays] is a Latin translation of a work by al-Kindi (Abû Yûsuf Yaqûb b. Ishaq al-Kindi), an Arabic philosopher of the ninth century, to whom Ibn al-Nadim’s Fihrist [Catalog, c. 1500] attributes more than 270 works, few now extant. Al-Kindi, a distinguished philosopher with a wide range of interests, had a significant role in the Arabic revival of Greek learning which occurred under the Abbassid dynasty. He died in Baghdad around 873 (A.H. 260) at the age of eighty or so.43

The original Arabic of De radiis is not extant. The Latin translation, which dates from the twelfth century, is probably at least similar to the Arabic original, but it is possible that the work is entirely spurious. In its Latin form, however, the work was well known to such figures as Roger Bacon and Albertus Magnus, and is referred to (at least implicitly) by Ficino, Pico, Zorzi, and Agrippa himself.44

De radiis is an entirely theoretical work, dealing with abstract principles of magic.  In brief, it argues that all things are interconnected by “rays,” like invisible beams of light, which can only be perceived by their effects. Every celestial object projects these rays, which then strike every other object in the “machine of the world” and produce effects dependent upon the star which emits them, the location of the receiving object, the strength of correspondence between emitter and receptor, and the other rays which strike the same receptor. For example, Mars emits rays which (among other things) promote warlike or aggressive qualities; these rays strike all objects, which thus incline more or less strongly to such qualities. An object’s location may place it directly under the influence of Mars, such that the rays strike quite directly; if the location places the object at a greater or lesser angle of incidence to the rays, they strike with more or less effect. Some objects, by virtue of form, substance, accidents, and so forth, are particularly receptive to Martian rays, as for example objects made of iron, brass, or sulphur, or warlike animals and people. These receptors are more strongly affected by Martian rays than those which fall under other stars, as silver under the Moon, or melancholic people under Saturn.

Every object of the material world also produces rays, which are in a sense refractions or aggregates of the celestial rays. Thus a piece of silver tends mainly to project lunar rays, but it will also project Martian rays in proportion to the position of Mars in the sky and the other characteristics of the silver object (such as being inscribed with a figure of Mars).

What we think of as sensible perception is our reception of the totality of all these rays. In other words, if I perceive a candle, I am in fact perceiving a vast number of rays which the candle is projecting; these rays reflect the form, substance, accidents, influences, and every other possible quality and characteristic of the candle. Indeed, what I really perceive is not the candle at all, but the image which these rays induce in my mind.

Since humans are a microcosm of the universe, the image so produced is similarly microcosmic; it is in every way a perfect replica, and an entirely real (but not at all material) object. If I grasp this image firmly in my mind, I can affect it by force of will, and produce a parallel effect upon the physical object which projected the image. Thus I can light the candle simply by adding to the mental image the additional characteristics and qualities of a candle-flame, such as heat, light, smoky smell, etc.

The only difficulties in lighting a candle in this fashion are (1) the revised image must be nearly perfect, and (2) the magician must will it to happen very strongly. Al-Kindi is not absolutely clear on how to go about this; apparently mental training of some sort is necessary, and the magician generally supplements the magical action with additional acts, such as speaking words, playing music, making gestures, and so forth. These additional acts produce their own rays, and if properly chosen, add to the force of the magician’s will, ensuring that the candle does indeed light.
Physical images, discussed near the end of the work, are supplementary objects acting in much the same ways as supplementary actions. The magician constructs an image of or related to the object which he ultimately wishes to affect, or to the effect which he wishes to produce. This image should be connected to the object by strong resemblances and correlations, i.e. by a great many powerful rays. Thus the image should be constructed at an astrologically appropriate time and place, of an appropriate material, in an appropriate shape, inscribed with appropriate figures, words, etc. The construction of the image, in fact, is described in the same manner as the fundamental magical procedure of will, in that image-construction depends on an act of will, with the magician strongly desiring or willing that the image act in the desired fashion, as an ideal reflection of the object or effect in question.

Before moving on, a few points should be noted. First, it is not entirely clear how the supplemental actions support the central act of will. Given DOP ’s theory of the mind and the fantasy discussed in the previous chapter, I think these supplementary actions are supposed to function in two ways: (1) they produce rays which tend to encourage the desired effect upon the object, for example reflecting solar rays to encourage fire on a candle; and (2) these same rays produce similar effects on the mental image of the object, acting through the fantasy to bolster the magician’s will and improve the clarity or perfection of the altered image.

Second, al-Kindi makes clear that rays are bi-directional, although they seem to have a dominant direction. In effect, they establish conduits for power between any two objects, and a magician can send power from receptor to emitter. The importance of supplemental actions seems to imply that this is more difficult than simply encouraging the effect of already-present rays. For example, a lead talisman of Saturn is connected both with Saturn and with the person who wears it. Because the rays move downward from the celestial sphere to the talisman and thence to the wearer, it is easier to strengthen the effect of the talisman on the wearer than it is to use the person to affect the talisman, and it is easier to streng- then the effect of Saturn on the talisman than it is to use the talisman to affect Saturn itself (which last would appear, in De radiis, to be nearly impossible, although perhaps not absolutely so).

Third, although al-Kindi stresses the importance of words as the most critical form of supplementary magical actions, devoting more than a third of De radiis to “the power of words,” 45 very little of his language-theory appears to have been picked up in DOP. We will see later that there are some interesting intersections, but DOP ’s theory of language breaks quite sharply from Al-Kindi.

The Semiotics of Writing

For the most part, semioticians and linguists have denigrated writing as irrelevant to the “universals” of language.46 For Roman Jakobson, “to preach the mere coexistence of the phonological and graphic systems while denying the primary, fundamental nature of the former would be a misleading distortion of the actual linguistic stratification,”47 and he stresses that “in the relation between graphic and phonological entities, the former  always  functions  as  a  signans  and  the  latter  as  a  signatum.”48 Similarly, C.F. Hockett argues that “the channel for all linguistic communication is vocal-auditory,” which necessarily “excludes written language from the category ‘human language.’”49

On the other hand, the evidence adduced for this denigration of written language is almost immediately suspect. Most of the arguments have been speciously historical, even evolutionary: it is the fact that writing emerges historically later than speech which denies writing the status of a language universal.50 As Jacques Derrida and others have noted, the criticism of written language is at heart a moral one. Saussure’s dictum that “Writing veils the appearance of language; it is not a guise for language but a disguise,” his claim that “the spoken word is so intimately bound to its written image that the latter manages to usurp the main role,”51 make clear his demonization of writing, which he attempts to veil with false historicism.

Nevertheless, Josef Vachek and a few other linguists have studied writing as a distinct form of language. Their conclusions are surprising: some argue that written language constitutes an almost entirely separate mode of language from speech, having its own langue and parole; to use functionalist terminology, there are both spoken and written norms. In the context of these norms (or langues), Fred Householder has even made the suggestion that in logical terms, written language is prior to spoken.52

In its barest form, the argument is that, in communities which have a written as well as a spoken norm of language, the written rapidly attains considerable social status—literacy becomes a marker of the elite. When speech is used in such a community, Householder argues, the listener refers to the written norm to ensure clear understanding, a referential process unnecessary with written text. For example, “eye” and “I” are pronounced identically, requiring the listener to refer to a broader norm for comprehension; in a written text, on the other hand, there is no possibility of misunderstanding the one for the other. Jacques Derrida has made this point with his neologism différance, pronounced the same as différence but which, in its written form, suggests a participial, active sense of both differing and deferring.53

In some systems, such as Chinese, there is no direct phonetic compo- nent of the written characters; despite this, the referential process which Householder describes occurs in Chinese as well. The most common example is names: when a speaker gives a name, each syllable is commonly repeated with a two- or three-character phrase which identifies the character’s meaning. This would translate something like, “Householder. House, as in dwelling. Holder, as in one who owns.” Thus the spoken norm can be said to depend upon the written norm.

Because of the lack of a fixed order of graphemes, Chinese characters are not strongly sequenced as are the letters of the alphabet. Despite this, they can be looked up in a dictionary. In the most common system, each character is broken down visually, such that a portion can be read as a special sub-character, or radical. The radicals have a more or less set sequence, based upon the number of brush-strokes necessary to write them. Having found the radical in the index, one consults the sub-section of characters with the same number of additional brush-strokes as the character sought. This provides a manageable list of characters.

In Chinese, then, graphemes are commonly categorized by the way they are produced, with no reference whatever to a phonetic scheme. Beyond this, it is important to note that the relation between a Chinese character and its meaning is utterly arbitrary, except in a very few cases of extremely ancient characters which derive from pictographs of the things represented. Reading Chinese characters, then, depends on a number of systems (stroke-order, radicals, rote memorization, ideographic representation) which have no connection to the spoken language, as powerfully evidenced by the near-universality of the Chinese written language as compared to the many mutually incomprehensible spoken dialects.
Vachek notes two distinctive features of writing which are of particular relevance to an analysis of magical figures: first, the difference in temporal control of the utterance; second, the sequential and even ordinal nature of written characters within many writing systems. To the latter I would append the visual divisibility of the grapheme which as we have seen can supplement or substitute for sequentiality.

(1)    Temporal control: A listener is jailed by the speaker, locked into the speaker’s delivery. The speaker controls the temporal extension of the utterance, and the listener cannot skip back and forth. In written language, however, it is the reader who holds the whip hand, providing of course that this reader has already attained sufficient mastery of the graphic system. In terms of ideology and control, an orator dominates the situation, in that the listener has very limited options: he may surrender control and wait for an opportunity to speak; he may refuse to listen and thereby surrender his opportunity to respond; or he may attempt to wrest control from the speaker by interrupting, heckling, or even responding when he has not actually listened.

The Elementary Forms of Language

We have wandered some way from the contents of DOP, unraveling some sources and theories upon which it draws and to which it can be paralleled; now we can reconnect these theories with the practices described in the exempla: the sigils and characters of the magic squares, and the practice of images for dreams. In doing so, it will become clear that DOP has its own consistent and coherent theory of language and signification. In brief, Book II describes the bases, theories, and practice of a transcendent written language which inscribes and impresses life upon a lifeless medium. In
order to clarify this practice, it is simplest to divide DOP ’s approach to language into two portions: elementary units and theories of signification.

Number and Harmony

As was made clear in the previous chapter, Book I argues that nature and logos rests upon an elemental foundation. Similarly, Book II argues that celestial language rests upon a numerical foundation.

Numbers in DOP do not merely count, but represent. Because there are seven planetary bodies, for example, the number seven can represent the planets.58 This is equally true with the ordinal aspect of num- bers—since Saturn resides in the third sphere (counting downwards from heaven), the number three can represent Saturn. The argument is implicit in the parallel between the natural elements in Book I and the numbers in Book II. In nature, for instance, fire is linked to heat by a two-way semiosis, such that heat implies fire and fire implies heat. Similarly, numbers imply what they count or order, and vice-versa.

Like the elements, also, numbers can be joined together to construct complex objects or signs which similarly act by a referential process through the more basic numbers.

Again, all things that are, and are made, subsist by, and receive their virtue from numbers. For time consists of number, and all motion, and action, and all things which are subject to time, and motion. Harmony also, and voices have their power by, and consist of numbers, and their propor- tions, and the proportions arising from numbers, do by lines, and points, make characters, and figures: <and these are proper to magical operations, the middle which is betwixt both being appropriated by declining to the extremes, as in the use of letters.>59

As in Jakobson’s theory that written language signifies by reference to spoken language, these complex signs signify by reference to numbers. In addition, the interaction of numbers in such signs is determined by relationships of harmony and proportion, which parallel the chemical interactions of the elements. These harmonies and proportions are geometrical and mathematical, but they are also concretely realized in the celestial world in such structures as the proportions of the human body (as imago Dei) and of the stars. Even more complex are semes which derive from human proportions, celestial positions (e.g. constellations), or pure geometry. Such complicated signs thus signify by a long chain of reference, from human proportion (for example), to basic harmony and proportion, and thus to simple formal numbers.

Figure and Image

This is to be observed, whatsoever wonderful thing figures work when we write them in papers, plates, or images, they do not do it but by the virtue acquired from sublimer figures, by a certain affection which natural aptitude or resemblance procures, in as much as they are exactly configured to them, as from an opposite wall the echo is caused, and in a hollow glass the collection of the solary rays, which afterward reflecting upon an opposite body, either wood, or any combustible thing, doth forthwith burn it: or as an harp causeth a resounding in another harp, which is no otherwise but because a suitable and like figure is set before it . . . Similarly the figures of which we have spoken, and whatever characters, conceive the virtues of the celestial figures according as they have been opportunely impressed upon things or ritually constructed for the ruling figures, such that one figure is of affinity with, and doth express the other.60
This long paragraph is one of the very few explicit statements about the theory of figures in DOP, and requires our attention. The remark about the harp is a standard of natural-magical literature, quoted and re-quoted from Pliny.61 Here, the harp, like the concave mirror, is used to demon- strate what is essentially al-Kindi’s theory of images: two fundamentally identical objects are necessarily linked by rays, which can be sufficiently strong to have physical effects if the two objects are close together. The analogy proceeds stepwise, with visible solar rays in the case of the mirror, and invisible rays (or sound-waves) in that of the harp. Adding these two together produces the theory of celestial images.

When the construction of a magical image is done correctly, “one figure is of affinity with, and doth express the other” from which it is made. This is a crucial phrase, and it is typical of DOP that it should be hidden in the middle of a largely unremarkable chapter. There is a distinction here: on the one hand, the constructed figure is of affinity with, i.e. has an occult connection to, the celestial figure from which it is derived; on the other, the constructed figure expresses the celestial one. In a linguistic or semiotic context, the implication is that the constructed figure refers to the celestial in two different ways, by resemblance (iconicity) and by conven- tion (symbolism). That is, the constructed figure is like the word “cat,” expressing the notion cat within a given (arbitrary) symbol system, and it is simultaneously an image, depicting the animal by an iconic affinity.

Both types of reference here also have an indexical power, to which we shall return. For the current discussion of figures, however, there are three important points for DOP ’s system. First, resemblance or affinity is not equivalent to expressive meaning. Second, these two modes of reference can be added, that is, both can be present in any given sign. Third, the ray-connections between natural and celestial objects (mirror and sun) are not dissimilar to those between natural objects (two harps), except that, as with al-Kindi, the dominant direction of celestial rays is downward (sun affects mirror), where natural rays seem entirely bi-directional (any harp affects any harp).

Character and Hieroglyph

DOP does not explicitly discuss hieroglyphs in much detail, which is rather a pity, as the issue was of considerable importance in magical and linguistic speculations during the Renaissance. The most extended remark on the subject is as follows:

Therefore the religious volumes of the Egyptians and those belonging to the secrets of their ceremonies, were made of consecrated paper; in these they did write down letters which might not be easily known, which they call holy. Macrobius, Marcellinus and others say, they were called hiero- glyphs, lest perchance the writings of this kind should be known to the profane, which also Apuleius testifies in these words, saying, “The sacrifice being ended, from a secret retired closet he bringeth forth certain books noted with obscure letters, affording compendious words of the conceived speech, partly by the figures of beasts of this kind, partly by figures full of knots, and crooked in manner of a wheel and set thick, twining about like vine tendrils, the reading thereby being defended from the curiosity of the profane.”62

A similar (though shorter) remark appears in III:29, and in II:23 there is a passing remark on the ankh, “reckoned by the Egyptian priests, from the beginning of religion amongst sacred letters, signifying amongst them allegorically the life of future salvation.”63

DOP here accepts the two stock Renaissance interpretations of hieroglyphs. First, they were secret, priestly writing, as originally suggested by Plutarch and Herodotus; second, they relate allegorically to their meanings, a notion strongly confirmed by Horapollo.

Of course, neither is actually true of Egyptian hieroglyphs, but it must be recalled that the Rosetta stone was not found until 1799, and Renais- sance thinkers were extremely unlikely actually to decipher the ancient Egyptian language in any case. What is of greater interest and importance here is the magical and allegorical conception of hieroglyphs, and how that fits into a notion of written language more generally.

This twofold theory, based on secrecy and allegory, depends on a peculiar notion of interpretation. The idea is that a hieroglyph is perfectly transparent and extremely dense. That is, a single sign may represent a quite complex idea. Horapollo gives the famous example of the ouroboros:

THE UNIVERSE. When they wish to depict the Universe, they draw a serpent devouring its own tail, marked with variegated scales. By the scales they suggest the stars in the heavens. This beast is the heaviest of animals, as the earth is heaviest [of elements]. It is the smoothest, like water. And, as each year it sheds its skin, it [represents] old age. But as each season of the year returns successively, it grows young again. But the fact that it uses its own body for food signifies that whatever things are generated in the world by Divine Providence are received back into it by [a gradual process of] diminution.64

In theory, a priest, immensely well educated about all things sacred, would simply look at this hieroglyph and understand at once the complex notion of the universe. Even if he did not already know the glyph, he could derive its meaning from knowledge of allegorical interpretation, animals, divinity, and so forth. A layperson, however, could not make such a leap of interpretation, not having the foundation knowledge required.
In the context of DOP, it is worth noting that all the information about elements, animals, and so on, that is all the prerequisite knowledge for interpreting the hieroglyph, is contained in Book I. In effect, the “secrecy” of the priestly script can be read as a knowledge of natural magic. When Book I has been mastered and transcended, the magus is no longer one of the “profane” from whom the sacred books must be preserved.

Although hieroglyphs are usually thought of as pictures of animals and the like, we can see this hermeneutic theory in the workings of the sigils of the magic squares. Without considerable prior knowledge—of gematria, demonic names, planetary influences, magic squares, mnemo- technics—it is impossible to interpret the figures. With that knowledge, it is clear that the sigils are extremely condensed, multilayered signs.

The issue of hieroglyphs in the Renaissance has been discussed in a number of recent works, and need not be analyzed at length here.65 With respect to DOP ’s theory of language in general, however, it is critical to recognize precisely why Renaissance thinkers were wrong: they assumed that Egyptian writing could not be based upon Egyptian spoken language. This has most commonly been discussed as the prime reason that Egyptian could not have been deciphered in the Renaissance. If the equation is in a sense reversed, however, the interesting point is simply that Renaissance thinkers made the mistake of believing the Egyptians to be wiser than they. In essence, the magical conception of hieroglyphs, as seen in the exempla of the magic square sigils and the practice of images, was of a kind of writing which did not require speech. In the journey from sign to meaning, no detour through the morass of fallen, human language was required. As we shall see, this made the image more powerful magically, but it also made the sign transparent in a way that spoken language could never be. The great error of Renaissance linguistics here was to assume that the Egyptians had succeeded in achieving this goal; indeed, they likely erred in assuming that the Egyptians had had any interest in this goal.
Suppose, however, that Renaissance thinkers had been correct. This transparent and powerful hieroglyphic writing would then ground all other forms of writing, which in some sense derived from or were founded upon hieroglyphic concepts. That is, although in DOP Hebrew writing preceded hieroglyphics, this does not imply that Hebrew is not a kind of extended hieroglyphic alphabet. In other words, the idealized notion of the hieroglyph permits a smooth transition from ideal pictures and mathematics to alphabetic writing without ever entering the ordinary sphere of linguistics. Spoken and written language could thus be kept apart, in the natural and the celestial worlds, respectively.

Complex Signs

If hieroglyphs are the most iconic form of writing, we have already seen that they must ground the alphabet in some way. A transitional stage is presented in the form of geomantic figures, “the middle betwixt images and characters.   Being engraven or imprinted under the dominion of
their planets and signs, [they] do conceive the virtue and power of images,”66 in the sense that they draw down celestial and elemental powers as al-Kindi describes. At the same time, they are almost characters, because they are made when “geomantical diviners do reduce the points of their lots projected, by the excess of parity or imparity,” which is to say that the geomancer generates the figures by first poking out lines of dots in the ground, then determining which lines have an odd and which an even number of dots, then deriving a series of figures from these four binaries.67 Like the magic square sigils, geomantic figures cannot be interpreted without knowledge of their construction, and are similarly abstracted (and thus like characters).

Hebrew letters are similarly complex in DOP, in that they are not only characters, but also in a sense images, and beyond this rest upon a special divine and celestial foundation. “[T]he writing of the Hebrews is of all the most sacred in the figures of characters, points of vowels, and tops of accents, being placed in matter, form, and spirit just as the first stars were sown in their positions in the seat of God, which is Heaven.” One reading of this is that Hebrew characters derive from the positions of the stars, and are hence celestial images of some sort. But it can equally be taken to mean that they are like constellations themselves, such that the shapes of the characters were impressed upon them directly (i.e. arbitrarily) by God. Every aspect of Hebrew characters has multiple functions in DOP. In I:74, we learn that the magus “that will find them out, must by each joining together of the letters so long examine them, until the voice of God is manifest, and the framing of the most sacred letters be opened and discovered”; in other words, the divine breath resides in the intersections between characters.68 Hebrew characters also serve a numerical function, as explained before with gematria. The structure of the alphabet, too, correlates to the astrological and elemental powers, such that there “are threemothers,viz.yw)[alef-waw-yod], seven double, viz. trpkdgb [bet.- gimel-dale.t-kaf-peh-re's -.tav]; the other twelve, viz. #qc(snml+xzh [he- zayin-h. et.-tet.-lamed-mem-nun-sameh. -ayin-z. ade-qof-s'in  are simple,” paralleling the elements “Fire, Water, and Earth, for they account Air no element,” the seven planets, and the twelve zodiac signs, respectively, as shown in the table which accompanies I:74.69 Finally, of course, the words of Scripture were originally written in Hebrew, and thus any letter can serve as an abbreviation for words which begin with that letter.


Names are a special form of complex signs. A demon’s name is some- times meaningful in a simple sense, in that “sometimes names  of spirits are taken from those things over which they are set,” “being as it were borrowed from the stars, or men, or places, or times, or such like things,  the  divine  name  [e.g.  l),  el]  being  added  at  the  end.”   For example, Zedekiel is one name of the spirit of Jupiter, from the Hebrew name of Jupiter z. edek [qdc], or “if we call them [these demons] from the Latin words . . . Joviel       ”70

Names have a singular referent—a demonic name refers only to a single demon. At the same time, written names are aggregates, combinations of basic written forms to make up complex, representative structures. 71 Moreover, names were impressed upon objects by Adam, and hence have an arbitrary symbolic character not dependent on the characters or elements of which they are constituted. Adam’s function as nomothete is well known, but it is crucial to recognize the relationship between Adam’s naming and the Divine nominative function.

[A]s the great operator doth produce divers species, and particular things by the influences of the heavens, and by the elements, together with the virtues of planets; so according to the properties of the influences proper names result to things, and are put upon them by him who numbers the multitude of the stars, calling them all by their names, of which names Christ in another place speaks, saying, Your names are written in heaven.
Adam therefore that gave the first names to things, knowing the influences of the heavens, and properties of all things, gave them all names according to their natures, as it is written in Genesis, where God brought all things that he had created before Adam, that he should name them, and as he named anything, so the name of it was, which names indeed contain in them wonderful powers of the things signified.

Every voice therefore that is significative, first of all signifies by the influence of the celestial harmony; secondly, by the imposition of man. . .
. But when both significations meet in any voice or name, which are put upon them by the said harmony or man, then that name is with a double virtue, viz. natural, and arbitrary, made most efficacious to act, as oft as it shall be uttered in due place, and time, and seriously with an intention exercised upon the matter rightly disposed, and that can naturally be acted upon by it.72

Here the additive nature of reference is made abundantly clear. Names, like signs in general, can be doubly powerful if they combine natural and arbitrary modes of signification. The argument of the whole passage is that spoken names rely for their power on (1) the celestial world, in the form of the influence of the stars and harmonies, and (2) human (and divine) reason, in the arbitrary reason of the ultimate nomothetes Adam and Christ. In effect, then, the power of names depends entirely upon the rational, celestial world.

Celestial names parallel this structure, in the sense that a spirit’s name may come either from its powers and office or from human imposition.
[T]he masters of the Hebrews think that the names of angels were imposed upon them by Adam. . . . Hence . . . it is in the power of man to impose names upon spirits, but of such a man only who is dignified, and elevated to this virtue by some divine gift, or sacred authority. But . . . names for the most part are put upon them from their works, signifying some certain office, or effect.73

In sum, names are the preeminent form of complex signs, and rest upon the foundation of all other forms of signs. Their referential power seems to derive partly from the status of the nomothetes, but at the same time DOP argues that every perfect name is made up of constituent elements, from number through hieroglyph to Hebrew character, such that the total referential power is grounded in the fabric of the celestial and natural universe. As we shall see in the next chapter (page 193 below), this relation can be reversed—it can be argued that the universe depends from the simple and absolute power of true names, and that all natural and celestial aspects of such names are merely artifacts of the divine names. In such a conception, the natural and celestial aspects of divine names form a kind of laddered hierarchy which the magus climbs to reach the Divine.

The Power of the Sign

Now that the hierarchy of signs is relatively clear, we can move on to understand the underlying semiotic theory of DOP. For simplicity’s sake, I use C. S. Peirce’s famous triad, icon, index, and symbol. In brief, a symbol is a purely conventional and arbitrary sign, like a word in a natural language. An icon is a sign which is connected with its referent by a relationship of resemblance, like a picture of a thing. An index is a sign connected to its referent by some ontological relationship, like a footprint, a pointing finger, or a label on a jar.74
As we have seen, DOP makes use of all these forms of signification, but constantly mixes them together for magical purposes. In this section, I shall explain not only why different sign-types are so readily mixed, but also why this combinatorics has magical implications. In short, DOP presumes that multiple types of reference can be simultaneously present in any one sign, and that more references produce a more powerful connection between sign and referent.

Divine Arbitrariness

The omnipotent God hath by his providence divided the speech of men into divers languages; which languages have according to their diversity received divers, and proper characters of writing, consisting in their certain order, number, and figure, not so disposed, and formed by hap, or chance, nor by the weak judgement of man, but from above, whereby they agree with the celestial, and divine bodies, and virtues. But before all notes of languages, the writing of the Hebrew is of all the most sacred in the figures of characters, points of vowels, and tops of accents, being placed in matter, form, and spirit just as the first stars were sown in their positions in the seat of God, which is Heaven.75
The argument here parallels Reuchlin and Pico,76 to the effect that the characters of Hebrew writing arise from Divine providence, not from “the weak judgement of man”—in other words, they are not arbitrary. But DOP suggests that all writing is of this nature, not just Hebrew, although Hebrew is clearly the most powerful and divine. Given that all language is to some degree fallen from its pristine, Adamic state, DOP in effect argues that Hebrew is arbitrary, but that it is not completely so.77

Here we have a striking notion of the arbitrary nature of the sign. In modern theories, “arbitrary” is generally opposed to “natural,” where the typical example of “natural signification” is Cratylus’s idea that all words ultimately derive their meaning from onomatopoeia.78 “Natural” is here a euphemism for concrete, material, real—if a sign had a natural signifi- cance in this sense, it would be obvious to everyone what it must mean, like language before Babel.

In DOP, however, a sign ordained by God is both completely arbitrary and completely real in every possible sense of real. It is simply not true that Hebrew, or any other language, is “natural” in the Cratylian sense, as every Christian Hebraist was very well aware. But is this because God did not in any way ordain the Hebrew language, such that it is simply a language like any other? On the contrary, all languages are “not so disposed, and formed by hap, or chance, nor by the weak judgement of man, but from above, whereby they agree with the celestial, and divine bodies, and virtues.”
The solution to this apparent paradox is an exceptionally simple piece of Christian theology: it is man who has fallen, not God—it is the natural world which is farthest from the ultimately Real. Thus for DOP the whole relation between arbitrary and natural has to be reversed, because there is no special privilege in “natural” signification. The reason that Divinely arbitrary signs are not transparent signifiers is that humanity no longer exists in Paradise, and thus the Divine language is no more obvious to us than is the Divine Will.


We are told that the figure of written characters, i.e. their graphic appearance, was laid down “just as the first stars were sown in their positions in the seat of God.” In some sense, the shape of the characters is iconic, such that each letter depicts the stars. Book II, chapter 52 discusses “characters which are drawn from things themselves by a certain likeness.” These characters have “a certain probable similitude with the celestial images,” in that they are more or less equivalent to drawings of constellations or other groupings of stars in which the stars, represented by dots, have been connected with lines (not unlike the construction of demonic sigils by connecting letters with lines).79
DOP ’s “practice of images” uses images to draw the powers and influences desired, by means which parallel al-Kindi rather well. The image is constructed of the proper materials, in the proper form, at the proper time, and so forth. In al-Kindi’s terms, the image so constructed is ideally attuned to the relevant rays. As we have seen, though, al-Kindi argues that the two most important parts of image-construction are words and will, neither of which appears central to DOP ’s practice in Book II. The use of words in images is indicated in the instructions for the image of dreams: “thou shalt write upon the breast of the man [in the image] the name of the effect desired, and in the hand of the angel the name of the intelligence of the Sun.” In the twenty-odd years between the juvenile draft and the final one, then, a few words have been added to the practice of images, but there is no indication that these written names are anything but additional empowering signs which increase the image’s indexical connection with its object. In short, the practice of images in II:50 does not seem to reflect al-Kindi’s emphasis on words.

As to the effects of will, there is no explicit mention of any act of will, although such acts are central to the ceremonial magic of Book III (page 177 below).

Indexicality: the Power of the Sign

Indexicality is, as it was for Peirce, rather the wild-card in DOP ’s semiotics. Every sign is an index because there is always an ontological connection between sign and referent, even (as we have seen) with arbitrary natural language. Again, as with the symbolic and the iconic, the indexical quality of a sign in DOP is one of degree. The Hebrew character kaf (k) is connected to the Sun because of divine ordination, which divided the alphabet into mothers, duals (planetary), and simples (zodiacal). If kaf is inscribed upon a gold talisman, at an appropriate solar time, it will point more strongly toward the Sun—the ontological, indexical character of the sign is strengthened.

Here DOP breaks from conventional sign-theory most completely. Contemporaries would certainly have recognized and accepted analog signification, but by claiming a necessary indexicality DOP makes a logical but extremely dangerous move. It is here also that the crux of DOP ’s linguistic theory hangs in the balance, for without the indexicality of all signs, magic becomes at once haphazard and deeply suspect.

The logic of the claim is relatively straightforward. If we grant the possibility of analog signification, we place all signs on a kind of contin- uum. At one end, we have the almost purely arbitrary signs of ordinary speech; here natural iconism is so attenuated as to be irrelevant—DOP does not propose a Cratylian theory—but nonetheless natural speech derives from, i.e. is iconically related to, ideal language before Babel, and similar arguments can be made about any apparently cultural-arbitrary sign. At the opposite end of the scale, we have Divinely arbitrary signs, which have an obviously ontological relation to their referents: God speaks, and the world comes into being. Given this continuum and a Neoplatonic universe, all signs participate in the Divine to some degree. That is, every sign has some relation to the natural, celestial, or divine world, which by hierarchical participation requires that all signs ultimately participate in Divinity. Therefore, logically, all signs have ontological connections to their referents.

Furthermore, the power of Divine expression is that it creates what is expressed, makes its meaning actual. By extension, all signs have this power, although in the vast majority of cases it is insufficient to create effects. By recognizing the different modes of signification, then adding them one to another, it is possible to make a sign more ontologically connected to its referent. If the modes of signification employed are hierarchically superior to the referent, e.g. if a celestial sign is employed vis-à-vis a natural object, the sign’s power is likely sufficient to dominate the referent. Therefore the ultimate effect of a magician’s perfect application of DOP ’s semiotic principles is that magical actions dominate worldly things.

Most importantly, this domination depends upon one absolute requirement—that God rule the universe. In other words, if the precepts of Christian faith are accurate, argues DOP, magical power is not only effective but dependent on the Divine.

As a final note on the theory of powerful signs, let us recall that De vanitate argues that all knowledge is vain, and only faith in God is certain. The magical argument just explicated in no way disagrees with this. On the contrary, it is an attempt to restructure knowledge such that it requires only the truth of Christian revelation. If it is granted that all human knowledge is ultimately linguistic/semiotic, i.e. depends entirely upon signs and signification, then DOP ’s approach is to hang all signification from the one immutable point. The parallel to Descartes is peculiar but interesting: where Descartes descends the scale until he reaches the lowest common denominator of reason, cogito ergo sum, and then attempts to rebuild knowledge from that fixed point, DOP grants a fixed point in God and then hangs all knowledge from it.84

Inscribing the Powers

We know that “whatsoever is in the mind, in voice, in word, in oration, and in speech, the whole, and all of this is in writing also. And as nothing which is conceived in the mind is not expressed by voice, so nothing which is expressed is not also written.” 85 So what is the difference between a written and a spoken name? And what is the effect of writing a name?

Let us recall our extended version of Vachek’s characteristics of writing: interpretive control by the recipient rather than the producer, arbitrary divisibility, and spatial rather than temporal extension. The latter two qualities have already been discussed in the context of analog signification: magical signs are arbitrarily divisible both visually and into distinct levels, the totality of the sign’s meaning and power deriving from the sum of all these factors. We have also seen, in the context of the dominating indexical power of the sign, that control of the sign is a difficult issue in DOP. When we come to think about what it means to write or inscribe  a magical figure, however, the question of control becomes central and rather clearer.

Contrary to popular opinion, DOP does not condone the summoning of infernal demons, and suggests that controlling angels is essentially impossible.86 Nevertheless many spirits, particularly celestial ones, can be summoned and controlled by a magician, and the inscription of demonic names is generally a major part of the process. The summoning and control of higher spirits is the focus of Book III, and will be discussed in the next chapter, but the basic theory of such processes, and the place of writing therein, are contained implicitly in such discussions as the magic squares of Book II.

The crucial point is that the names of spirits must be understood as instruments:

[S]acred words have not their power in magical operations, from themselves, as they are words, but from the occult divine powers working by them in the minds of those who by faith adhere to them; by which words the sacred power of God as it were through conduit pipes, is transmitted into [the faithful magicians].87

material numbers, and figures can do nothing . . . but representatively by formal numbers, and figures, as they are governed, and informed by intelli- gences, and divine numerations, which unite the extremes of the matter, and spirit to the will of the elevated soul, receiving through great affection, by the celestial power of the operator, a power from God, applied through the Soul of the Universe, and observations of celestial constellations, to a matter fit for a form, the mediums being disposed by the skill, and industry of magicians. 88

One way to put this, then, is that divine power, the active force in all natural things, acts upon the natural through and by means of the celestial. Celestial things are similarly structured, such that the highest celestial governors act upon formal numbers and figures by means of harmony, proportion, and the various characters. In effect, written language is the conduit of power between the celestial governors and the simple Platonic forms. By the Hermetic analogy of microcosm and macrocosm, the whole of writing/language is the conduit of power between God and Nature: God uses language to create—“And God said, Let there be light.”

The power of mathematical magic is twofold. First, one may produce enormous effects in the natural world, as “in former times rocks have been cut off, and valleys made, and mountains made into a plain. . . .” Second, one can impart celestial virtues, “as motion, life, sense, speech, soothsay- ing, and divination, even in matter less disposed, as that which is not made by nature, but only by art. And so images that speak, and foretell things to come, are said to be made, as William of Paris relates of a brazen head.”89 Writing takes “abstracted, mathematical, and celestial” virtues and imparts them upon natural objects, making them concrete, thus bringing celestial and divine powers into the natural world.

As we know, writing shifts the locus of control from producer to recipient. This characteristic seems to be reversed in DOP, as it is the inscriber who controls the discourse. But it is more accurate to say that the inscriber controls the sign inscribed, which is not the same as its meaning or significance. With magic squares, for example, the magus is both producer and in a sense recipient of the marks and characters. The inscription of a sigil imbues the talisman with demonic power, but the significance of the talisman is its application, not the demon. Once properly inscribed, the talisman is indexically linked to the demon, but it is not accurate to say that the talisman means the demon, any more than an electric appliance means electricity. The appliance’s significance is best understood in relation to function, as a refrigerator and food preservation; similarly, a talisman’s significance should be expressed in terms of what it does, as with a talisman of the Intelligence of Saturn (Agiel ) which “doth help to bring forth, or birth, and to make a man safe, and powerful, and to cause success of petitions with princes, and powers. ”

Once again, it is clear that DOP makes a peculiar distinction between iconicity and symbolism on the one hand, and indexicality on the other. Magical writing is indexically linked to powers, virtues, demons, or other supernatural forces, but the significance of such writing can only be understood in nature, that is by effects, which can in turn be predicted or prescribed by iconism and symbolism.

Fixity and Inscription

When a magician writes, he places himself in an analogical relationship with the divine. As God deploys language to create life, so the magus deploys language to vivify. The magus cannot create life, but he can control or channel it, causing an object to acquire life. This operation requires that the magus be like God in miniature, knowing everything about the object, understanding fully the powers employed, spiritually pure in every way.

But who can give a soul to an image, or make a stone to live, or metal, or wood, or wax? And who can raise out of stones children unto Abraham? Certainly this arcanum doth not enter into an artist of a stiff neck: neither can he give those things which hath them not. Nobody hath them but he who doth (the elements being restrained, nature being overcome, the heavens being overpowered) transcend the progress of angels, and comes to the very Archetype itself, of which being then made a cooperator may do all things. . . .

Here the argument for the sacred character of magic is particularly explicit. The true magus is one who first dominates and transcends the natural and celestial, then rises “to the very Archetype itself” in order to become a “cooperator.” The problem of diabolical magic was raised in De vanitate in the context of false miracles, as we saw in chapter one (page 40 above):

For all they that presume to divine and prophecy not in the truth, not in the virtue of God, but in the illusion of devils, according to the operation of wicked spirits, and exercising deceits of idolatry, and showing illusions and vain visions, the which suddenly ceasing, they avaunt that they can work miracles, by Magical vanities, . . . all these shall be condemned to the
pains of everlasting fire. [emphasis mine].

In DOP we see a clear explanation of this passage, in that the true magus who has risen to the Divine does not claim to work miracles by magical “vanities,” but actually performs miracles in the light and faith of God, whose absolute truth verifies and validates the miracles as something other than vanities. Once again, DOP ’s magic attempts a rectification and overcoming of all the “vanities” of knowledge by pinning them all to the unshakeable truth of faith.

In chapter two, we saw that DOP ’s natural magic is in a sense investiga- tive, a process of understanding the nature of God incarnate in the world. At the same time, the natural magic is “operative,” to use Yates’s term, in that the higher aspects of human nature (those which touch the celestial, such as fantasy and especially reason) have a material impact.    Not surprisingly, then, we have found that the mathematical magic, rooted in the celestial, is a magic of enacting, of understanding and manipulating the ways in which the higher functions dominate nature. Since mathematical and celestial magic is superior to the natural, the hierarchical structure of DOP and the universe ensures that the former dominates the latter. Thus mastery of mathematical magic entails dominance over the natural world.

The central theoretical issue of Book II is linguistic or semiotic, focused on the nature of signification. When this communicative orientation is placed in context, between the natural and the divine, it becomes clear that the mathematical communicates between the two, such that the magus approaches the divine through the celestial. Ultimately, Book II proposes a skeleton theory of the sign in a (to us) peculiar context: granted God’s existence, goodness, omnipotence, etc., how can signs function and what do they accomplish?

In the next chapter, I turn to the final portion of DOP, the religious or ceremonial magic (Book III), in which the occult philosophy comes to fruition. We shall see that, just as there are three worlds, there are three modes of language, and that the true magus’s destiny is to dominate all worlds through command of all languages and thus of all realities.


The most fleeting thought obeys an invisible plan, and may crown, or inaugurate, a secret design.    No one is
someone; a single immortal man is all men. Like Cornelius Agrippa, I am god, hero, philosopher, demon, and world—which is a long-winded way of saying that I am not.
—Jorge Luis Borges, The Immortal

In Book III, we move to the consummation of the magical art, the divine, religious, or ceremonial magic, which completes the magical and philo- sophical project begun in Books I and II. In the interest of clarity, let me briefly recapitulate the problems which remain at the outset.

In Book I, DOP implied that demonic magic is not only licit, but perhaps required for the highest forms of magic; Book III takes up this question explicitly, discussing demonic magic quite openly. In the present analysis, then, we must discover (1) what exactly is meant by demonic magic, and (2) how contact with demons can elevate the magus to the divine. Furthermore, we must ask what purpose is served by such elevation; that is, what the point of demonic magic is, and how it fits into the more general problematic of the magician’s relationship to God.

In Book II, the primary focus was linguistic, demonstrating the philosophical possibility of transparent and powerful written signs. As we begin reading Book III, it is not clear how this power of writing interacts with divinity. In other words, if the natural world is ruled by the power of speech, and the celestial world by that of writing, what linguistic structure applies to the divine? Beyond this, we must ask what kind of linguistic relationships obtain between the magician and the forces which rule the divine sphere, not only God Himself but also the angels.

Book III includes DOP ’s most detailed discussions of both Kabbalah and ritual, issues which haunted the margins of both the natural and especially the celestial magic. In the present chapter, then, it will be crucial to situate DOP with respect to scholarship on Kabbalah and ritual. This analysis raises a number of questions whose answers will inform our understanding of DOP in general; in the conclusion chapter they will also aid in explicating the ramifications of our reading of DOP for scholarship on the history and theory of magic.

With respect to Kabbalah, the primary question is whether Agrippa’s ritual-magical Kabbalah is Kabbalah at all. As we shall see, this leads to two broader issues: magic in Kabbalah generally, and the relationship between Christian Kabbalah and its Jewish sources. I shall argue that Agrippa’s Kabbalah is a deeply Christian and skeptical reinterpretation of Kabbalah, which nevertheless is not fundamentally at odds with the tradition of Kabbalah as it came down to him.

The second problem, that of magical ritual, takes us into the realm of ritual theory. At heart, the question here is whether Agrippa’s ritual magic can be understood as ritual, which is really dependent on the more general question of whether magic is religion. I do not propose to address the latter question in detail, although some consideration of the problem will appear in the conclusion chapter. For the moment, I shall simply take it for granted that DOP ’s ritual magic is indeed ritual.

At the same time, the framework of Agrippa’s magic is such that it requires some rethinking of ritual theory more generally; in particular, much of the semiotic or symbolic interpretive theory of ritual depends upon a highly logocentric conception of language, privileging speech over writing in a way radically inconsistent with Agrippa’s magical precepts. As such, I will propose a writing-centered approach to ritual, whose value will I hope be borne out by its effectiveness in the analysis.

In what follows, then, I have three objectives. First and foremost, I wish to demonstrate that Book III does indeed propose a theory which connects the various problems and hanging threads from Books I and II, and furthermore does so in a way which satisfies the theological concerns at hand. Second, I want to show that this theory, depending as it does upon a written rather than oral model of communication, fits quite neatly into Kabbalistic structures, and thus indicates that academic dismissals of magical Christian Kabbalah are over-hasty. Third, I would like to suggest that the written theory of ritual magic proposed here has considerable utility for modern scholars of ritual. Moreover, I believe such a theory will aid materially in rethinking magic as a distinct category, not divorced from that of religion but nevertheless not entirely coterminous with it; this last point will be discussed in more detail in the concluding chapter.
Magical Kabbalah

Scholars make a number of standard divisions within Kabbalah, generally identical or at least parallel to divisions internal to that tradition. Thus we read of merkavah (chariot) mysticism and bereshit (creation) mysticism, Zoharic and Yez. iratic traditions, and so forth.1 Premier among these distinctions, however, is that between theosophical and ecstatic Kabbalah.
This division has come to center-stage primarily through the work of Gershom Scholem and of Moshe Idel, Scholem’s most important student. In essence, the distinction is between an abstract, contemplative, or theoretical Kabbalah and an active, practical Kabbalah. At the same time, the term “practical Kabbalah” has its own meaning, whose contestation and limitation within the scholarly community are rarely overt, but color all major studies of Kabbalah. The underlying argument is important and problematic, and before turning to Kabbalah in DOP I must devote some space to the category of “practical Kabbalah” as it relates to theosophical and ecstatic Kabbalah, particularly as “practical Kabbalah” is often understood to have some overlap with “magic.”

Prior to the work of Gershom Scholem the category “Kabbalah,” or “Jewish Mysticism,” was usually pejorative and opposed to  “Rabbinic Philosophy” or a similarly rationalistic category. Antisemitic scholars saw in Kabbalah the stupidity and superstition which they expected from Jews, while their philosemitic opponents wished to promote Jewish thought and history by calling attention to facets of that tradition more congenial to a late-nineteenth century scholarly audience. Thus the general agreement was that Kabbalah was not worth discussing—regardless of a given scholar’s opinion of Judaism and the Jewish people, it was taken for granted that Kabbalah was superstitious nonsense.2

Through his tremendous output of books and articles, of which Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism is one of the most influential, Scholem nearly singlehandedly re-invented scholarly opinion of Kabbalah.3 So successful was this re-invention that it became possible to write dissertations and books about the subject, even to be a “Kabbalah expert” in a scholarly and entirely respectable sense. Indeed in modern Jewish studies, the erudition of “real Kabbalah experts” occasions considerable veneration and awe.

Scholem’s restoration of Kabbalah to respectability required him to make certain more or less deliberate oversimplifications, in essence public- relations moves. For our purposes, the most relevant of these was his extreme (over)emphasis on the philosophical, systematic, and mystical- contemplative side of Kabbalah, and his concomitant suppression of practical and ecstatic Kabbalah. In short, Scholem made it appear that Kabbalah was predominantly an intellectual tradition of mystical contemplation, and implied that the ecstatic or magical parts of that tradition were irrelevant bastardizations. By this sleight—and it is surely a sleight to hide what may be the majority of Kabbalistic documents and practices!—he promoted Kabbalah as worthy of intellectual respect and stoutly defended it against charges of superstition.

Once Scholem had succeeded, however, it was inevitable that Kabbalah experts would wish to re-balance the equation; this project has fallen, in large part, to Scholem’s student Moshe Idel. In his own considerable scholarly output, beginning with a doctoral dissertation on Abraham Abulafia, Idel has argued for the central importance to Kabbalah of the very practices once labeled “superstitious,” i.e. practical Kabbalah. In his award-winning book Kabbalah: New Perspectives, Idel divided the Kabbalistic traditions into two main camps: the theosophical, which is to say the kinds of contemplative, philosophical ideas and figures emphasized by Scholem, and the ecstatic, on which he himself focused. Now that no serious scholar would dismiss Kabbalah on any grounds, Idel and his contemporaries could open up the possibility of studying the entire range of Kabbalistic material, from the earliest origins to the most recent incarnations, from the most abstract and contemplative to the most practical and applied forms.

At the same time Idel, until recently, subdivided the range of “accept- able”  Kabbalah  far  more  subtly  than did Scholem.    On   numerous occasions Idel has argued, contra Scholem (and his predecessors), that practical Kabbalah must be added into the historiography of Kabbalah:

To understand Kabbalah is, according [to such scholars], seen as tantamount to understanding its tenets. This approach is not new; it has been in use since the Renaissance, when Christian scholars interesting in occult lores involved themselves in the study of the Kabbalah.    But the evaluation of Kabbalah as predominantly theoretical rather than practical is misleading.4

As the discussion continues, it becomes clear that “practical” Kabbalah is essentially equivalent to “ecstatic” Kabbalah; thus the addition of Abraham Abulafia or of Hasidic ecstatic practices apparently makes Kabbalah, the scholarly object of study, coterminous with Kabbalah, the lived and living tradition of Jewish mysticism. As Jonathan Z. Smith has noted, the addition of “practical Kabbalah” to modern scholarship has really amounted to the addition of “mystical techniques,” and has excluded the majority of what would more usually be called magic.5

But in some of his most recent books, Idel reveals implicitly that his earlier formulations actually discarded certain texts and practices— specifically, he had rejected forms of practical Kabbalah which do not fit into the narrower categories of ecstatic and theosophical Kabbalah, i.e. those which might be called magic.

Three Kabbalistic Models

Idel’s most extended meditation on magic and its place in Kabbalah comes in his recent book on H. asidism,6 in which he distinguishes among three “models”:

Historiographically, these three models can also be associated with particular scholars: Scholem emphasized the theosophical-theurgical, the earlier Idel and most of his Israeli contemporaries emphasized the ecstatic, and the late Idel and some American scholars have included (if not perhaps emphasized) the magical.

The theosophical-theurgical model, so central in Gershom Scholem’s scholarship, revolves around cosmological speculation of various sorts, most famously the theory of the ten emanations (sefirot) through which or by which the Creation was produced. The sefirot are usually greatly oversimplified in the numerous summaries of this doctrine which appear in scholarship on Christian Kabbalah, but in fact the Kabbalistic texts discussing the emanations are extremely various and complex; indeed, scholars from Scholem onwards have devoted many lengthy studies to comparative analyses of emanationist cosmologies and their theological precepts. For our purposes, it is sufficient to recognize that the sefirot were “conceived sometimes as the essence of God, and at other times as the vessel of the divine influx or the instruments of the divine activity.” 8 In the context of Agrippa’s exposure to Kabbalistic thought it is primarily Zoharic theosophy which is relevant, as several works of this kind were made available in Latin in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, and were of particular importance to the Kabbalistic thought of Giovanni Pico della Mirandola and Johannes Reuchlin.9

Through the translations, mistranslations, and reinterpretations of his teacher Flavius Mithridates, Pico was also aware of ecstatic literature, particularly that of Abraham Abulafia. The focus of this literature is the ideal of devequt, “as indicating moderate or extreme types of union with the Godhead. The other important aspects of this model [the ecstatic] are techniques to ensure the attainment of this ideal.”10   Specifically, Hitbodedut, meaning both solitude and mental concentration, hishtawwut or equanimity, and linguistic techniques of combining Hebrew letters or contemplating divine names are integral constituents of the mystical-ecstatic model. Paranormal experiences, such as revelations and prophecies, are also integral to this type of mystical model, more consonant with it than they are with theosophical-theurgical Kabbalah. The paramount importance of the linguistic components of these techniques must also be emphasized.11

As Idel himself admits, “The extent of the magical influence on Jewish mysticism is an issue that still awaits detailed treatment.” 12 Some texts presume that the special character of the Hebrew language enables its manipulators to have “magical” effects in the world, specifically by drawing down the power of the higher spheres. Others claim that “it is by cleaving to the spiritual source that rules this world—the universal soul—that the mystic or philosopher is able to affect the events in the sublunar world,” an idea which apparently stems from medieval contact between Jewish and Arabic thinkers.13 The distinction made by Idel is between the magician’s drawing down celestial forces on the one hand, and his rising above to command them on the other. He further notes a moral distinction between the two often made in Jewish sources from the fifteenth century and later, according to which “It is by fulfilling the divine will that the material and spiritual attainments are drawn down and not by attempts to force that will or short-circuit the order of nature.”14

If in Idel’s formulation there are three “models” in Kabbalah, the magical odel does not arise from its own literature but is found expressed in some works of the other two models.  For our present purpose of analyzing hristian Kabbalistic magic in a single text, I would like to reformulate this structure; I wish to emphasize that this reformulation may or may not be applicable to the broad scope of Jewish Kabbalistic texts, and is intended here as a heuristic device for subdividing and clarifying the issues at stake in DOP ’s Kabbalah.

For our purposes, then, we can say that Kabbalah has a speculative cosmological (theosophical) component, focused on the nature of the divine, commonly expressed in terms of the sefirot or emanations. Next, there is an ecstatic, mystical component, whose focus is on unity with the Godhead and the means of its achievement. Under these two general headings are sometimes found exteriorizing, “magical” practices. In some cases, these magical techniques are intended to draw down power from the sefirot, and may be understood as a kind of practical application of theo- sophical doctrines. In other cases, the magical techniques are more closely related to ecstatic techniques, and are intended to elevate the practitioner toward the Godhead, the main distinction between the magical and the ecstatic here being the magician’s intent to deploy divine forces in the world subsequent to his elevation above it.

Christian Kabbalah

Scholarship on Christian Kabbalah is extremely limited as compared with that on Jewish Kabbalah. Apart from the odd passing reference or short article, none of the great modern Kabbalah experts have worked on Christian Kabbalah, and most of their assessments have been negative, the basic conclusion being that Christian Kabbalah was a gross distortion of Kabbalah, based on poor scholarship and often wilful misunderstanding. This negative opinion was also clearly expressed in the first important scholarly work on the subject, Joseph Leon Blau’s The Christian Interpreta- tion of the Cabala in the Renaissance :

It is the general theme of this book that the use of cabala by Christian thinkers was a fad of no lasting significance; that, no matter what type of interpretation was momentarily aided by cabalistic speculation, this type of speculation rapidly proved to be a blind alley. Like astrology, alchemy, and other pseudo-sciences, cabala fell a legitimate victim to the development of scientific thinking.15

In the 1960s, at the same time as Frances Yates was rewriting the historiog- raphy of magic vis-à-vis science, François Secret inaugurated a sweeping revision of interpretations of Christian Kabbalah.16 Unfortunately for our purposes, Secret’s work is primarily a chronological and geographical survey of the reception and development of Kabbalah; he does not generally offer judgments, except to note that an intellectual development as wide-ranging and influential as Christian Kabbalah cannot be unimportant for a history of ideas. Insofar as an implicit judgment can be derived from Secret, it would appear that he favors Reuchlin and the Italian Kabbalists (Francesco Zorzi, Egidius da Viterbo) over others;17 he is wary of Agrippa, whom he accuses of a “curiosité trop charlatanesque.”18 In fact, “charlatanesque” is Secret’s most common negative adjective, suggesting that for him, the extension of Christian Kabbalah into extreme realms of magic and demonology was unfortunate, a misunderstanding likely prompted by unsavory motivations.

At the same time, it is worth noting thatmostof the negative assessments of Christian Kabbalah depend upon a kind of comparative gradation, not logically dissimilar to the old-fashioned positivistic model of the history of science, in which early scientists were graded on their accuracy with respect to the now-known facts of natural phenomena. In particular, the common basis of the criticisms of Christian Kabbalah is that its expositors misunder- stood what Kabbalah is really about, and instead focused most of their attention on elements marginal to if not entirely outside the purview oftrue Kabbalah. In short, Christian Kabbalists (or some of them) got it wrong, because they wasted their time on magic, numerology, and alphabetic manipulation rather than the theosophical, philosophical, contemplative core of Kabbalah.

Given our previous sketch of Kabbalistic models, it will come as no surprise that most scholarship on Christian Kabbalah has been based upon the work of Gershom Scholem, whose own assessment of the magical tendencies of Christian Kabbalah was largely negative:

Pico’s and Reuchlin’s writings, which placed the Kabbalah in the context of some of the leading intellectual developments of the time, attracted wide attention. They led on the one hand to considerable interest in the doctrine of Divine Names and in practical Kabbalah, and on the other hand to further speculative attempts to achieve a synthesis between kabbalistic motifs and Christian theology. The place of honor accorded to practical Kabbalah in Cornelius Agrippa of Nettesheim’s great compendium De Occulta Philosophia was largely responsible for the mistaken association of the Kabbalah in the Christian world with numerology and witchcraft.19

Based upon her reading of Scholem, Frances Yates stated that Kabbalah “was basically a method of religious contemplation which could, rather easily, pass into a kind of religious magic, though such a use of it was actually a degradation of its higher purposes.”20 Similarly, she suspects that “the genuine Hebrew Cabalist might be shocked by Agrippa’s interpretation of Cabala solely as white magic.”21

Fundamentally, there is a distinction made here between Kabbalah and magic; to the extent that a given work of Christian Kabbalah eschews the latter and is more or less accurate about the former—i.e. the sefirot and related theosophical concepts—that work is considered worthwhile. Agrippa’s work, on the other hand, is mere compilation, however broad- ranging: “The third book of De occulta philosophia contains, in fact, such a great number of references to pseudo-Kabbalistic ideas [idées prétendument kabbalistiques] that it is appropriate to regard the book as a ‘summa’” of such ideas.22

In the scholarly literature on early Christian Kabbalah—up to the time of Agrippa, that is—Reuchlin’s is the usual model, as we have seen with Secret. Although Pico of course precedes Reuchlin, his untimely death and the confusing nature of his 900 Theses makes it extremely difficult to determine the details of his thought on Kabbalah,23 whereas Reuchlin’s Deverbo mirifico and especially De arte cabalistica present that thinker’s version of Kabbalah at length and in a smoothly-argued fashion. The next great Christian Kabbalist, in the usual listing, would be Zorzi (Francesco Giorgi, 1466-1540), whose De harmonia mundi of 1525 is chock-full of various kinds  of Kabbalistic speculations.    Unfortunately, the size, technical vocabulary, and rarity of the volume seem to have precluded much detailed modern scholarship, and as such there is no general agreement about Zorzi’s thought in general or his Kabbalah in particular. As to Agrippa himself, we have seen that the usual reading of his Kabbalah is that he mangles Jewish mysticism in favor of radical demonic magic. In essence, then, Agrippa’s Kabbalah is usually compared with two models—Reuchlin’s and Scholem’s. But Reuchlin’s version of Kabbalah is not greatly at odds with Scholem’s; that is, Reuchlin places the cosmological speculations of theosophical Kabbalah at the center of his treatment, and various forms of linguistic and numerological manipulations at the margins, serving primarily as proof- texts. In the later De arte cabalistica, Reuchlin’s primary focus is not practical or ecstatic, and he denounces those who equate Kabbalah with magic:

According to our [the Jews’] forbears’ records, the working of miracles of this kind was so easy for Kabbalists that many spiteful cynics called them sly magicians—all as if it were not Michael who worked these deeds, but Samuel, through the medium of Egyptian spells and secret signs, and this despite the fact that the Kabbalists’ wand always stays the conjurors’, and that godliness works far more effectively than any deviltry. The skills of Kabbalah tend to work for the good of man, while the poison of false magic leads to their downfall.24

It is essential to note, furthermore, that Reuchlin Christianizes Kabbalah mainly by drawing parallels, arguing for fundamental agreement, and then ever compiled, along with an excellent and well-annotated translation. All references to the Theses in the present work use the numerical format proposed by Farmer: the first number indicates the group of theses, the second the particular thesis. The punctuation in between (period or angle brace) indicates whether the thesis in question is an “historical” thesis or one “according to my [Pico’s] own opinion.” Thus conclusions 28.1-47 are the Kabbalistic conclusions which relate the opinions of the Kabbalists themselves, while conclusions 11>1-72 are the “Cabalistic conclusions confirming the Christian religion,” constituting Pico’s synthesis of Kabbalah into his own philosophy.

Agrippa’s version of Kabbalah is quite different, though he has deep respect for Reuchlin and his work. But is it accurate to say that Agrippa’s Christian Kabbalah is unfaithful to Kabbalistic thought? I suggest that, on the contrary, he simply emphasizes other sources and models—thus Yoh. anan Alemanno’s magico-mystical model becomes relatively central, as it had been for Pico. Similarly, Agrippa leans more heavily on ecstatic than on theosophical sources. Taken in toto, Agrippa’s version of Kabbalah is not in its sources or structures necessarily unfaithful to the Kabbalah available in early modern Europe, but relies on magical and ecstatic models rather than theosophical ones.

As we shall see, however, DOP also rethinks Kabbalah on a Christian basis, rather than simply relating Kabbalistic concepts with occasional Christian glosses. Herein lies Agrippa’s “misunderstanding” of Kabbalah— he cuts it off to a great degree from its Jewish roots. Indeed, the attack in De vanitate denounces Kabbalah precisely because it is Jewish, because “the traitorous Jews do also affirm that Christ by this Art did oftentimes wonderful things [i.e. miracles].”26

Esotericism, Occultism, and Magic

Modern scholarship on magic in the West, particularly from the Renais- sance onwards, largely falls under the more general heading of “esotericism.” This field is conspicuously dominated by the figure of Antoine Faivre, who succeeded François Secret in the chair of “History of Esoteric and Mystical Currents in Modern and Contemporary Europe” at the École Pratique des Hautes Études in Paris.28 Although the majority of his analytical works are devoted to eighteenth-century materials, particularly Franz von Baader and Masonic Theosophy, several of Faivre’s introductory essays elucidate general methodology and definitions.29 In order to situate our discussion of DOP with respect to mystical and esoteric thought, it is worthwhile to examine these definitions closely.

Faivre’s definition of esotericism is semi-phenomenological, of the type, “X must have the following components, and often has the following additional components.” There are four required components: (1) a correspondence-theory of the universe, in which “symbolic and real correspondences . . . are said to exist among all parts of the universe, both seen and unseen;” (2) a notion of living nature, implying both the practical application of correspondences to produce effects and the knowledge of such praxis understood as gnosis; (3) “imagination and mediations,” which is to say that the imagination and memory interact with mediating structures (Faivre lists “rituals, symbolic images, mandalas, intermediary spirits”) to contact the divine and develop gnosis; and finally (4) the “experience of transmutation,” in which the esoteric practitioner is utterly transformed by and for the gnosis in question, such that in alchemy for instance there can be “no separation between knowledge (gnosis) and inner experience, or intellectual activity and active imagination if we want to turn lead into silver or silver into gold.”30

Each of these four components must be present, according to Faivre, before we may call some system of thought “esotericism.” More specifically, each can be understood to distinguish esotericism from some other mode of thought, such that with all four present, the system can be nothing other than esoteric. In particular, the correspondences distinguish an esoteric system from one based on “the principles of noncontradiction and excluded middle of linear causality,” and living nature distinguishes it from a scientific or monist one. The idea of “imagination and mediations” distinguishes esotericism from mysticism:

In somewhat oversimplified terms, we could say that the mystic . . . aspires to the more or less complete suppression of images and intermediaries because for him they become obstacles to the union with God. While the esoterist appears to take more interest in the intermediaries revealed to his inner eye through the power of his creative imagination than to extend himself essentially toward the union with the divine. He prefers to sojourn on Jacob’s ladder where angels (and doubtless other entities as well) climb up and down, rather than to climb to the top and beyond.31
Transmutation is in some respects formally different from the other three components, in that a system with the other three elements present, but lacking the experience of transmutation, “would hardly exceed the limits of a form of speculative spirituality.”32 In effect, it is transmutation, in the sense of initiation (especially ritual initiation) into gnosis which marks esoteric thought as a distinctive modality.

The two remaining more or less optional components are (5) “the praxis of concordance,” i.e. the theory that there is a truth behind all truths, or a religion behind all religions, such that the practice of establishing common denominators among several systems is understood to produce illumination; and (6)  an emphasis on transmission, which “implies that an esoteric teaching can or must be transmitted from master to disciple following a preestablished channel, respecting a previously marked path.”33

There are several grave methodological problems with this sort of definition, as should already be apparent from the critiques of Mircea Eliade’s work over the last few decades. In particular, Faivre falls into the dangerous trap of exclusivity: in order to avoid anachronism and what in other spheres have been called “category mistakes,” he asks that scholars refrain either from treating esotericism as something else or, conversely, from treating systems that are not really esoteric as esotericism.

Ritual Magic

In previous chapters, I have used various sources as conversation partners for Agrippa. Thus we have used Ficino’s natural magic to clarify Agrippa’s, and linguistic theories of writing to give us a vocabulary and a set of questions with which to explicate Agrippa’s semiotics. In this chapter, discussions of Kabbalah and esotericism serve a similar function, and the primary purpose of the present section is to explicate some aspects of modern ritual theory which will be of value for understanding Agrippa’s approach to ritual magic. At the same time, I have an additional purpose in discussing ritual theory. Not only do I want to show that Agrippa’s theory of ritual is complex and interesting, but I contend that a theoretical extrapolation from it will be of more general utility and applicability in the field of ritual studies. In other words, I think that DOP ’s theory of ritual—updated and expanded to cover a wider range of materials—will be a useful addition to the toolbox of the scholar of ritual.

In order to make this case efficiently, I have selected a single modern theory of ritual to represent a larger class of such theories; specifically, I use Stanley Jeyarajah Tambiah’s famous “performative approach” to explicate both the “symbolic” approach37 to ritual and its problems.

To put it very broadly, the symbolists eschew a tight linkage between ritual and social function, and focus instead on the ways in which ritual can be understood as linguistic performance. In contrast to the loose analogies between ritual and language drawn by such thinkers as Radcliffe-Brown and Eliade, the analyses of the symbolists employ concepts from linguistics and semiotics in a relatively sophisticated manner. But semiotics is not a “quick fix” for ritual; indeed, ritual theories which grow out of linguistic theories inherit the flaws and fallacies of their parent discipline, as I shall demon- strate using Tambiah as a case in point.

In Tambiah’s “performative approach” to ritual and magic,38 largely derived from John Austin’s speech-act theory, magic—which Tambiah understands to be simply a kind of ritual—is analyzed as a form of communication. Further, this communicative action is like Austin’s illocutionary speech—the communicative act is itself the conclusion rather than a proposition. In short, saying is doing.39 In the brief analysis that follows, I want to question two central constructs of Tambiah’s theory which, I think, are widely accepted among a broad class of ritual theorists. In both cases, it is questions raised in earlier chapters of the present work that give the initial impetus to criticism.

First, the notion that ritual is “communication” generally presumes implicitly that normative communication is spoken. As we have seen from Agrippa’s mathematical magic, however, it is possible to construct a magical theory of language and semiotics which presumes that normative communi- cation is written. If rituals (and especially so-called magical ones) are analyzed as written communication, a good deal of ritual theory requires extensive revision.

Second, the problem of falsification: if a magical act is supposed to produce some effect, and if, so far as the outside observer can discern, the act has no mechanism by which to do so, why does magic notdie out? How can intelligent people believe that their magic will have effects when this claim is so clearly falsifiable? Tambiah does not answer this question; instead, he uses speech-act theory toprevent it—one cannot ask whether a ritual works, only what and how it communicates. Agrippa’s approach to natural magic vis-à-vis skepticism, however, suggests a perspective from which a given ritual or magical practice might apparently fail utterly without this fact’s in any way contradicting the validity of the practice.

Ritual Communication

Let me begin with Tambiah’s definition of ritual:

Ritual is a culturally constructed system of symbolic communication. It is constituted of patterned and ordered sequences of words and acts, often expressed in multiple media, whose content and arrangement are character- ized in varying degree by formality (conventionality), stereotypy (rigidity), condensation (fusion), and redundancy (repetition). Ritual action in its constitutive features is performative in these three senses: in the Austinian sense of performative wherein saying something is also doing something as a conventional act; in the quite different sense of a staged performance that uses multiple media by which the participants experience the event intensively; and in the third sense of indexical values . . . being attached to and inferred by actors during the performance.40

These peculiar characteristics of ritual as opposed to “ordinary” communi- cation are entailed by the secondary communicative character of ritual, its nature as a representation or imitation of ordinary communication. In essence, Tambiah elides all communicative functions (including ritual) into one broad group, and then treats ritual as merely a somewhat unusual example from this group:

Now, if for the purposes of exposition we draw a crude distinction between ‘ordinary’ communicational behaviour and ‘ritual’ behaviour (accepting of course that both kinds are equally subject to cultural conventions), then we could say (forgetting the problem of insincerity and lying) that ordinary acts ‘express’ attitudes and feelings directly (e.g. crying denotes distress in our society) and ‘communicate’ that information to interacting persons (e.g. the person crying wishes to convey to another his feeling of distress). But ritualized, conventionalized, stereotyped behavior is constructed in order to express and communicate, and is publicly construed as expressing and communicating, certain attitudes congenial to an ongoing institutionalized intercourse. Stereotyped conventions in this sense act at a second or further remove; they code not intentions but ‘simulations’ of intentions.41

In other words “ordinary” communication represents “attitudes and feelings,” while ritual communication represents representation. Tambiah suggests that this secondary character of ritual has a purpose: it is not that ritual is “bad speech,” but rather that the limitations placed on ritual as communication enable it to communicate a broader sense of structure and order:

Rituals as conventionalized behaviour are not designed or meant to express the intentions, emotions, and states of mind of individuals in a direct, spontaneous, and ‘natural’ way. Cultural elaboration of codes consists in the distancing from such spontaneous and intentional expressions because spontaneity and intentionality are, or can be, contingent, labile, circumstan- tial, even incoherent or disordered.42

A reader of the present work will immediately have noticed the hint of writing in this “representation of a representation” formulation, which sounds suspiciously like Saussure or Jakobson in their attacks on writing. Let us be clear about Tambiah’s logocentrism:

Thus distancing is the other side of the coin of conventionality; distancing separates the private emotions of the actors from their commitment to a public morality. In a positive sense, it enables the cultural elaboration of the symbolic; but in a negative sense it also contributes to hypocrisy, and the subversion of transparent honesty.43

I would like to propose a written solution to the problem of ritual—that ritual communication can be understood as writing, and further is often better understood as writing. Given the necessary brevity of the present discussion, I cannot formulate all the possible details and ramifications of such a written theory. Instead, I would like to use DOP to make this demonstration: my analysis of DOP ’s ritual magic will combine DOP ’s writing-dominated semiotics with this theory of ritual as writing. Insofar as this theoretical basis brings to light interesting and valuable conclusions, about DOP and about ritual, I hope that I will have demonstrated the potential worth of a written theory of ritual. For the moment, let me simply sketch one possible direction for such a theory, and then move directly on to DOP ’s ritual magic.

The Problem of Falsification

The problem of falsification is one of the oldest questions in the historiogra- phy of magic: why does the magician (or the magician’s audience) notnotice that the magic materially fails to operate? As we saw in chapter one, there are numerous classic answers to this question, from Frazer’s magician-as- illusionist theory to Malinowski’s theory of magic as catharsis.

Tambiah’s suggestion is that the magic does operate, but that the operation is linguistic rather than material. Specifically, he proposes that rituals operate in a linguistic sphere, more or less mapped upon the material sphere but not its equivalent; thus while there may be material effects described by the linguistic operations of ritual, one should not assume that the ritual is supposed by the natives to cause those effects materially. In other words, ritual affects the linguistic, semiotic, discursive sphere, in ways which usually parallel the material effects rhetorically ascribed to the ritual; this parallelism, and the natives’ awareness of it, should not be taken to mean that the natives think the ritual has material effects. Since discursive efficacy is not commonly demonstrable by the anthropologist, and material efficacy has been divorced from the efficacy of the ritual per se, it is impossible to say whether a given ritual “works” or not. As a privileged case in point, Tambiah identifies in native theories about word-magic:

Second, the continual drive towards accuracy of repetition, the desire to perform the ritual just the way one’s ancestors did, appears as a necessary artifact of the non-physicality of ritual’s medium. To put it more simply, writing in the ordinary sense is impressed upon a physical, lasting medium, such as paper, wood, bone, stone, metal. Without any necessary interven- tion by human actors (except negatively, to avoid destroying the book), the text will survive indefinitely. Ritual, however, is written in a medium (people, objects, spoken words, actions) which is not physically lasting; as such, it is incumbent upon knowledgeable practitioners, as librarians of ritual texts, to preserve the texts without alteration. Ritual stereotypy and repetition neatly parallels the Brahminical memorization arts, by which semi-oral texts are subdivided, despite an apparentloss of meaning, precisely in order to preserve meaning.

Third, in the ordinary course of culture ritual tends to become ontolo-gized, to be treated as a singular object rather than a series of discrete and distinct performances. Insofar as we think of ritual as parallel to speech, this is quite surprising, or at least requires explanation: we do notnormally refer to others’ speech-acts as objects; when we do so, it is generally in a special context—the christening of a ship, the pronouncing of vows. If ritual is treated as written text, however, this again becomes an expected characteris- tic: we do not usually refer to Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past as though the author were simply speaking to us, changing his mind unpredictably along the way; on the contrary, we treat the book as a Text, a Book, an object separate from the author. Just so Mass is Mass, a Christening a Christening, a Bris a Bris; the specific actors and details are irrelevant.46

Let me make a final point, which will become clearer over the course of the analysis of DOP ’s ritual magic. Tambiah, as noted above, equates magic with ritual. At the same time, he makes certain qualifications to this equation that call into question its entire basis. The most striking such qualification is in Tambiah’s assessment of divination:

Obviously such ritual enactments as various forms of divination, astrological consultations, mediumistic sessions do not predict their outcomes in advance, yet their ordering is so different from the uncertainties of a game. For they have as their aim the enabling of the client to effect a cure or a reconciliation, to make a decision, to avoid a danger, and in this sense the object of the exercise is to make a fruitful exchange between the occult and the human via the mediation of the officiant, a fruitful conjunction that will help to produce an orderly ongoing social existence.47
Having argued that magic and rituals are in essence rigged games, appearing undecided and in doubt while in fact not open to differences, Tambiah goes on to tell us that a primary form of magical behavior—divination—must be excluded from the category, precisely because the outcome is indeed in doubt. Or rather, he continues, because ritual is necessarily predetermined, it must be the case that the divinatory, “finding-out” aspect of divination is not important—what is important is that the client and the diviner have a nice chat which makes the client feel better!
Allow me to point out the simplicity of a written solution: the diviner is a professional reader. Random chance—defined culturally as god, gods, spirits, nature, the dead—produces a complex sign, of whose interpretation the client probably has very little knowledge. The reader, using a culturally determined canon of interpretive techniques, texts, images, and myths, reads the text, taking into account what he or she knows of the client’s situation. In a way, it is surprising that this theory has not been proposed before, given that every Western form of divination known to me uses the terminology of “reading.”

Ritual, Belief, and Secrecy

Ritual or ceremonial magic is the focus of Book III; unfortunately, as should be clear from our discussions of “magic” and “ritual,” it is unclear what exactly “ritual magic” would mean. DOP provides a number of definitions, as does De vanitate, and before turning to the main body of Book III some explication of definitions is in order.

The first definition in DOP is in Book I, chapter 2, on kinds of magic, and gives a general outline:
For we do procure, and attract not by natural powers only, but also by certain rites, and ceremonies, celestials, and by them divine virtues to ourselves; of which together with many rules the ancient magicians did treat in many volumes.51

There are in addition three important definitions early in Book III; the first, appearing in the dedicatory epistle to Archbishop Hermann von Wied, explains and defends the general purpose and function of ceremonial magic52 as follows:

But the knowledge of the divine science, doth only and very powerfully perform this for us. When we by the remembrance of its majesty being always busied in divine studies do every moment contemplate divine things, by a sage and diligent inquisition, and by all the degrees of the creatures ascending even to the Archetype himself, do draw from him the infallible virtue of all things, which those thatneglect, trusting only to natural and worldly things, are wont often to be confounded by divers errors and fallacies, and very oft to be deceived by evil spirits; but the understanding of divine things purgeth the mind from errors, and rendereth it divine, giveth infallible power to our works, and driveth far the deceits and obstacles of all evil spirits, and together subjects them to our commands. Yea, it compels even good angels and all the powers of the world unto our service, viz. the virtue of our works being drawn from the Archetype himself, to whom when we ascend, all creatures necessarily obey us, and all the quire of heaven do follow us. 53

Finally in Book III, chapter 3, there are the following statements:

Therefore it is meet that we who endeavour to attain to so great a height should especially meditate of two things: first, how we should leave carnal affections, frail sense, and material passions; secondly, by what way and means we may ascend to an intellect pure and conjoined with the powers of the gods, without which we shall never happily ascend to the scrutiny of secret things, and to the power of wonderful workings, or miracles; for in these dignifica- tion consists wholly, which nature, desert, and a certain religious art do make up.54

Secrecy and Initiation

Immediately after these definitions, DOP moves on to the issue of secrecy. Whosoever therefore thou art that now desirest to study this science, keep silent and constantly conceal within the secret closets of your religious breast, so holy a determination; for (as Mercurius [Trismegistus] says), to publish to the knowledge of many a speech thoroughly filled with so great majesty of the deity, is a sign of an irreligious spirit; and divine Plato commanded, that holy and secret mysteries should not be divulged to the people; Pythagoras also, and Porphyry consecrated their followers to a religious silence; Orpheus also, with a certain terrible authority of religion did exact an oath of silence from those he did initiate to the ceremonies of holy things.56

Later in the same chapter, we read the following somewhat different injunction:

Wherefore you will pardon me, if I pass over in silence many and the chiefest secret mysteries of ceremonial magic. I suppose I shall do enough, if I open those things which are necessary to be known, and you by the reading of this book go not away altogether empty of these mysteries; but on that condition let these things be communicated to you, on which Dionysius bound Timothy, that they which perceive these secrets, would not expose them to the unworthy, but gather them together amongst wise men, and keep them with that reverence that is due to them.57

Secrecy is a common problem in magical texts; indeed, magical literature is peppered with esoteric (in the simple sense) tropes. Several major types of secrecy, in two general classes, may be distinguished in DOP, and are fairly representative of the broader literature.

First, in the latter of the two quoted passages, DOP describes itself as filled with secrets that can only be discovered by the wise, a claim repeated in the conclusion of the entire work:

For we have delivered this art in such a manner, that it may not be hid from the prudent and intelligent, and yet may not admit wicked and incredulous men to the mysteries of these secrets, but leave them destitute and astonished, in the shade of ignorance and desperation.58

Here the “prudent and intelligent” can be understood as a twofold group. On the one hand, there are the initiates, whose prior knowledge of the relevant mysteries enables them to discern the truth hidden in the text. On the other hand, there are those sufficiently knowledgeable, wise, and reverent to discover the truth, but who have not yet been initiated; the implication is that this latter group will become initiated by means of their reading of DOP.

Second, as in the first definition quoted, there is the injunction to the wise, nottoreveal the truths they discover. This can be understood as a necessary corollary to the notion of  DOP as an initiatory text: those who become “the wise” through its study need to recognize the responsibilities attendant upon their new-found status.

Such a rhetoric of hiddenness and initiation is extremely common in magical texts, which has led to a tendency by certain scholars to equate magic with esotericism. This move is parallel to Evans-Pritchard’s with respect to witchcraft (see page 6 above), in that it shifts magical activity into the realm of the social, where it is more obviously subject to sociological and anthropological analysis. While the parallels between DOP ’s rhetoric of secrecy and that of initiation cults are certainly noteworthy, however, there are also interesting differences that require discussion.

First, the idea of auto-initiation by means of a text is striking. One possible implication is a hermeneutics of authorial intent: if close study of the text can make the author—himself an initiate—present to the reader, then the reader can receive initiation under the guidance of a master.

A more complex reading, and one which accords better with the semiotics we have seen in Book II, is that the author is no less present in the text than he would be in person; indeed, he may be more present, given DOP ’s tendency to privilege written media. As such the hermeneutic theory implied here is not so much naive as cynical about the value of face-to-face communication.

My sense is that this latter reading requires yet further complication. In chapter one above (see page 19), I mentioned Paul Ricoeur’s notion of a “world in front of the text,” which I have employed in a manner notentirely consistent with what I take to be Ricoeur’s meaning. In particular, I have throughout attempted to present DOP ’s understanding and analysis of a world not the same as our own, a world in which the various metaphysical principles discussed in DOP are accepted essentially at face value. The present examination of the idea of secrecy and initiation, however, suggests that the focus on a world in front of DOP is not only a methodological decision on my part, but also a precondition of DOP ’s argument.

Let me clarify. A reader engages in a circular process—the hermeneutic circle—of entering the text and then returning with meaning. The basic hermeneutical problem, however, is that the meaning so generated is not equivalent to some absolute “meaning of the text”; that is, two different readers will construct two different meanings from the same text. As Ricoeur puts it rather nicely, “With written discourse, the author’s intention and the meaning of the text cease to coincide.  Not that we can conceive of a text without an author; the tie between the speaker and the discourse is not abolished, but distended and complicated.”59 This has a great many philosophical ramifications. To summarize those of particular relevance here: (1) no text has an absolute and fixed meaning; therefore (2) the author of the text does not control what meaning the reader derives from it—the author of a text is absent, not present; (3) the ground upon which the reader engages with the text is not the world of the text but rather a world projected in front of it; therefore (4) the text under analysis is, in some sense, a text projected by the reader.

“Discourse . . . is what refers to the world, to a world. In spoken discourse this means that what the dialogue ultimately refers to is the situation common to the interlocutors.”60  Therefore the text can only point to some world in front of the text, a world in whose creation the reader participates as a dominant factor. An alternative construction, however, would suggest that spoken discourse is limited to a specific world, the world of the interlocutors; as such, it can fail to refer effectively, in that the interlocutors might disagree entirely about what worlds are legitimate objects of discourse. Written texts, on the other hand, are unfettered by the bonds of the now, indeed by the bonds of reality. As such,DOP can refer validly and coherently to a world whose characteristics do not match any world described by modern science without thereby being designated a “fantasy.” On the contrary, the absence of an authorial presence entails that it is the duty of the reader to move toward the projectedworldinfront of the text and not simply dismiss the text. To the extent that the reader can formulate the world in which the text is most fully meaningful, it is perhaps arguable that the text has succeeded in projecting (one of) its meaning(s):

Secrecy and Superstition

This hermeneutical understanding of the injunctions to secrecy aid considerably in understanding the first portion of Book III, particularly chapters 2 through 13, which link secrecy with belief, faith, and operative power:

62 This construction of written signs is at odds with Ricoeur’s formulation that the “material fixation” of discourse—for him the main purpose of writing—requires us to “concede that the perlocutionary act is the least inscribable aspect of discourse and that by preference it characterises spoken language” (Ricoeur, “Model of the Text,” 199-200). At base, Ricoeur’s assumption is that writing’s function is to fix spoken discourse in a material form, which implies that writing is dominated by the locutionary and to a lesser degree the illocutionary, while the perlocutionary remains outside writing’s normal sphere. Given the directions in which DOP has led us, we must admit that this assumption can be challenged. Ricoeur’s assumption can be rephrased in entirely logocentric terms: he thinks that writing’s function is limited to the transcription of speech. But if writing can have functions and effects not coterminous with the structure of speech-acts, it must equally be granted that writing may have perlocutionary (or per-grammatical) function, power, and force.

[E]ven as the divine powers detest public things and profane, and love secrecy; so every magical experiment fleeth the public, seeks to be hid, is strengthened by silence, but is destroyed by publication, neither doth any complete effect follow after; all these things suffer loss, when they are poured into prating and incredulous minds; therefore it behoveth a magical operator, if he would get fruit from this art, to be secret, and to manifest to none, neither his work nor place, nor time, neither his desire nor will, unless either to a master, or partner, or companion, who also ought to be faithful, believing, silent, and dignified by nature and education: seeing that even the prating of a compan- ion, his incredulity and unworthiness, hindereth and disturbeth the effect in every operation.63

As indicated by Faivre’s sixth component (transmission) the focus on
prisca theologia and its hidden nature often shades into claims about the manner by which seemingly lost truths have come down to a given writer. On the one hand, transmission is part of the initiation problem we have discussed previously, but the validity of particular modes of occult thought was also often established by historical claims, as with the antiquity of Hermes Trismegistus.
Kabbalah too had an ancient and secret history of transmission. In addition to the standard story of Moses’s secret teachings to the seventy or seventy-two wise men, Reuchlin in De arte cabalistica had traced a Kabbalistic lineage from Adam through Abraham, Moses, the prophets, and down to modern times, in which each important Kabbalistic patriarch was instructed by a specific angel:
“Our fathers’ teachers were famous angels. Raziel was Adam’s.” By the will of God this angel showed him the path to atonement. He gave Adam divine words, to be interpreted allegorically, in the way of Kabbalah. No word, no letter, however trifling, not even the punctuation, was without significance.70

For DOP, the value of ancient occult philosophies is not wholly bound up in either “concordance” or “transmission.” That is, while the antiquity of Kabbalah and its supposed partial agreement with Christian revelation are evidence of legitimacy, the magical efficacy of Kabbalistic practices is also dependent on the fact that the Jewish Kabbalists believe in it. In addition, the secret character of that lore furthers the strength of its practitioners’ belief, because it is not “poured into prating and incredulous minds.”

Thus in DOP the force of any occult practice depends on four factors, two analytical and two practical. On the analytical side, the accuracy and validity of a practice is established by (1) comparison and (2) chronol- ogy—comparison to other forms of prisca magia, chronology of transmis- sion. On the practical side, the crucial elements are (1) belief and (2) secrecy. In sum, no practice is inherently powerful, but requires activation by a practitioner’s faith and will.

Religion and the Divine

The true Christian magus, because of his correct faith, is subject to a threat not relevant to those whose faith is mere superstition, i.e. who believe in a false religion:

[W]hosoever, without the mixture of other powers, worketh by religion alone, if he shall persevere long in the work, is swallowed up by the divine power and cannot live long: but whosoever shall attempt this and not be purified, doth bring upon himself judgement, and is delivered to the Evil Spirit, to be devoured.71

It is no surprise that a magician who puts his faith in false gods is con- demned to perdition; what is striking here is that a Christian magus may be destroyed by the very purity and truth of his praxis.72 Therefore we must know, that as by the influx of the first agent, is produced oftentimes something without the cooperation of the middle causes, so also by the work of religion alone, may something be done without the application of natural and celestial virtues; but no man can work by pure religion alone.

The argument here is subtle and dangerous; or rather, it is subtle because it is dangerous. Hidden within this apparently orthodox formulation—the idea that one can be swallowed up by ecstatic communion with the divine—is the far more radical notion that demonic magic is necessary for the safety of the Christian magician: magic performed in light of true faith requires the use of mediating forces, “the mixture of other powers,” if the magus is not to be destroyed by the purity of his own practice.

Seeing that the being and operation of all things, depend on the mosthigh God, Creator of all things, from thence also on the other divine powers, to whom also is granted a power of fashioning and creating, not principally indeed, but instrumentally by virtue of the First Creator . . . it is necessary therefore that every magician know that very God . . . and also the other gods, or divine powers (which we call the second causes). 74
The most important such divine powers or second causes are the divine names and emanations, i.e. the sefirot, which in DOP are equivalent to the pagan gods correctly understood.

God himself, though he be Trinity in persons, yet is but one only simple essence; notwithstanding we doubt not but that there are in him many divine powers, which as beams flow from him, which the philosophers of the gentiles call gods, the Hebrew masters numerations, we name attributes.75
Thus the use of Orphic hymns and other pagan invocations of the gods is not fundamentally dissimilar to the worship of God in some particular aspect—God the Father, God who parted the Red Sea, God who spared Isaac, etc. The orthodoxy of any such invocation depends upon the practitioner’s faith and understanding: so long as the magician believes in the true faith, and furthermore knows that in his invocation Mercury is simply the divine aspect of understanding, as is the sefirah Binah (hnyb), his magical practice avoids idolatry. In addition, Sacred words have not their power in magic operations, from themselves, as they are words, but from the occult divine powers working by them in the minds of those who by faith adhere to them; by which words the secret power of God as it were through conduit pipes, is transmitted into them, who have ears purged by faith, and by most pure conversation and invocation of the divine names are made the habitation of God, and capable of these divine influences.76

Similarly, the garments of God and ornaments, are as it were certain ways and relations, or emanations, or conduit pipes, by the which he diffuseth himself; the hems of which as oft as our mind shall touch, so often the divine power of some member goeth forth, even as Jesus cried out, concerning the woman with the bloody issue, “Somebody hath touched me, for I perceive virtue to go forth from me.”77

Having established that the invocation of divine names is legitimate, DOP moves on to explain that the power of the divine names emanates downward “through all the middle causes into these inferior things,” because the execution of the divine will is distributed to various ministering angels, and thence to the stars, “but as it were by instruments, that after this manner all things might work together to serve him. 

Therefore the heavens receive from the angels, that which they dartdown; but the angels from the great name of God and Jesus, the virtue whereof is first in God, afterward diffused into these twelve and seven angels, by whom it is extended into the twelve signs, and into the seven planets, and consequently into all the other ministers and instruments of God, penetrating even to the very depths.79

Finally, at the end of chapter 13, DOP explains briefly and obliquely the purpose of all this lore for magical effects:

[I]f a man capable of the divine influence do make any member of his body clean and free from filthiness, then it becometh the habitale and proper seat of the secret limb of God, and of the virtue to the which the same name is ascribed: so that if that member want anything, the name being invocated, whence it dependeth, it is presently heard effectually, according to that, I will hear him, because he hath known my name; and these are the great and hidden mysteries, concerning which it is not lawful to publish more.80

The context here is twofold. The majority of chapter 13 discusses the parts and members of God, i.e. Kabbalistic meditations called Shi’ur Komah, the measure of the body.81 In the final portion of the chapter, such speculations are related to the doctrine of man as imago Dei:

These members therefore in God are like to ours, but the Ideas and exemplars of our members, to the which if we rightly conform our members, then being translated into the same image, we are made the true sons of God, and like to God, doing and working the works of God.82

The implication is clear: through meditation, contemplation, and ritual invocation of the divine aspects, the magician’s soul and body come to conform with increasing exactitude to the nature of the divine, until eventually the magician becomes a “true son of God” and a miracle-worker.
These claims are not unorthodox, and fall easily within a broad spectrum of mystical literature, Christian and Jewish alike. Insofar as DOP ’s discussion of the need for “other powers” can be understood to refer to this ascent through the divine names, its apparent radicalism is annulled. Atthe same time, it is important to note that the analysis of the hierarchies of ministering angels and stars occurs in between these other two discussions. Let us recall Moshe Idel’s description of two explanatory models for Kabbalistic magic: on the one hand, the magician may work more or less ecstatically, the practical effect of his techniques being elevation of the soul towards the divine nature; on the other, magical techniques may be employed to draw down power from the sefirot. Given our analysis of DOP in general, it seems clear that both forms are present here: the use of magical techniques to achieve mystical ends is formulated quite explicitly, but the discussion of angelic hierarchies implies that the same techniques may draw down power. The argument is not unusual in early modern magical literature, and had its most famous formulation in Pico’s Oration:83

Let us disdain earthly things, despise heavenly things, and, finally, esteeming less whatever is of the world, hasten to that court which is beyond the world and nearest to the Godhead. There, as the sacred mysteries relate, Seraphim, Cherubim, and Thrones hold the first places; let us, incapable of yielding to them, and intolerant of a lower place, emulate their dignity and their glory. If we have willed it, we shall be second to them in nothing.84

In sum, DOP ’s ceremonial magic has two linked functions. First, the techniques assist the soul’s cleaving to God, purifying and elevating the magician toward the divine. Second, through such elevation, the magician gains power over the angels and ministering forces, and can manipulate them to produce worldly effects. The higher the magician rises through the spheres and the divine world, the more powerful the angels which can be thus manipulated; furthermore (as we shall see) such manipulation binds the magician to the superior nature of the angels, aiding further ascent. By linking these two functions, DOP consecrates magic: no magician can control spirits whose status is higher than his own, therefore the manipula- tion of angels is both proof of purity and an instrument for achieving divine union. The radical promise of ceremonial magic is fulfilled: demonic magic leads the soul to God.

Manipulating the Demonic

Demonic magic is the primary form of ceremonial magic in DOP, and is discussed more or less explicitly throughout Book III. The techniques are arcane and complex, involving much technical detail of minimal relevance to our present analysis. Rather than summarize ad nauseam, I prefer to indicate the range of the text by showing a few examples in detail. The central question here is simple enough: how can one summon and control a demon? I will move through the textmore or less in order, taking up three topics: first, demonic names and their manipulation; second, divine frenzy and its use as a ritual technique; and third, purification and its importance to ceremonial magic.

The Names of Demons

Chapter 23 discusses the language of angels. Unlike many contemporary works enamored of Kabbalistic knowledge, DOP grants Hebrew only a limited priority. Indeed, the claim here is that the angels speak to us by impressing their meaning upon us:
[M]any think that if they use any idiom, it is Hebrew, because that was the first of all, and came from heaven, and was before the confusion of languages.

But if any speak at a distance from another, he mustuse a louder voice; but if near, he whispers in his ear: and if he could be coupled to the hearer, a softer breath would suffice; for he would slide into the hearer without any noise, as an image in the eye, or glass. So souls going out of the body, so angels, so demons speak: and what man doth with a sensible voice, they do by impressing the conception of the speech in those to whom they speak, after a better manner than if they should express it by an audible voice.85

Although the connection is not made explicit, it would appear that this means of communication parallels the way in which demons are themselves named: Adam imposed names on the angels in the same way as he named the animals. The logical conclusion is striking, and strengthens our earlier reading that a magician’s dominance over angels is a normal extension of the dignification produced by true ceremonial magic:
Hence the Hebrew mecubals86 think, togetherwithmagicians, thatitisinthe power of man to impose names upon spirits, but of such a man only who is dignified, andelevatedtothisvirtuebysomedivinegift, orsacredauthority.87

For most purposes, however, the names of demons are handed down by tradition, derived in some fashion from Scripture, or simply names of the offices or functions which the demons serve. Chapters 24 through 31 discuss such names, with numerous examples. Unlike the magic squares discussion in II:22, there are few ordered lists of mysterious and arcane- appearing names; on the contrary, these chapters discuss how to derive angelic names from other known facts. There is a good deal of technical material here, deserving comparative analysis with Kabbalistic texts.88 The complexity and detail of such a study, considering the entire eight chapters with reference to parallels in Book II especially, would require a work of comparable size to the present study. For our purposes, and as an example of the fascinating material found in these chapters, I simply discuss a single chapter and a single set of issues which arise from it.

“How the Hebrew mecubals drew forth the sacred

names of angels outof sacred writ, and of the seventy-two angels, which bear the name of God, with the tables of Ziruph, and the commutations of letters and numbers.”89  As indicated in its title, the chapter discusses how to derive angelic and demonic names from the Hebrew texts of scripture, particularly the Shemhamphoras, by which seventy-two names emerge from Exodus 14:19-21.90 As an example, verses 5 and 6 of “the 35 psalm with the Hebrews, but with us the 34,” read:91
Let them be like chaff before the wind, with the angel of the Lord driving them on!
Let their way be dark and slip- pery, with the angel of the Lord pursuing them!

Such comparisons, which would require linguistic expertise beyond my own, might go some way toward solving a rather vexed problem with regard to Agrippa’s Kabbalah—that is, how much Hebrew he knew, and from what sources (textual and personal) he learned Hebrew and Kabbalah. Some of the groundwork for such analysis has been laid by Chaim Wirszubski in Pico della Mirandola’s Encounter with Jewish Mysticism.

Prophecy, Frenzy, and Ecstasy

“soothsaying and frenzy” (vaticinium et furor), by which “oracles and spirits descend from the gods or from the demons upon the magician.106 This is one of the highest forms of ceremo- nial magic, because the soul becomes aligned to and strengthened by the demon which enters it. Thus through frenzy and ecstasy the magician’s soul rises to the divine and is perfected. There are three major forms: frenzy (of which there are four kinds), ecstasy, and oracle. The majority of DOP ’s discussion focuses on the types of frenzy, and I follow that emphasis here. In frenzy, the higher aspects of the soul (mind and intellect especially) are abstracted from the senses, and rise into the heavens to the divine. Each kind of frenzy has a particular effect on the soul, making it more like the divine in some specific manner. Thus the several frenzies constitute a rising
series, or rather, a set of rungs on the ladder up to God.

The first kind of frenzy proceeds from the Muses, “the souls of the celestial spheres,” and thus there are nine degrees parallel to the nine spheres (seven heavenly bodies, fixed stars, and primum mobile).107 The brief descriptions of each degree generally refer back to Books I and II, where the natural and celestial objects and structures favorable to each sphere were detailed. There is very little detail here. It appears that each form of frenzy induces the soul to rise to the appropriate sphere, which suggests a kind of course of nine degrees, at the end of which the magician’s soul would be attuned to the primum mobile.

Dionysian frenzy, the second kind, “doth . . . divert the soul into the mind, the supreme part of itself, and makes it a fit and pure temple of the gods, in which the divine spirits may dwell.”108 The divine spirits here are angels in the narrow and superior sense, such as Michael, Uriel, Raziel, and so forth; such angels sometimes speak prophecy through human mouths. Dionysian frenzy is produced “by expiations exterior, and interior, by solemnities, rites, temples, and observations . . .” (although few details are given), and by it “the soul . . . is filled . . . with felicity, wisdom, and oracles.

The third kind of frenzy “proceeds from Apollo, viz. from the mind of the world. This doth . . . make the soul rise above the mind, by joining it with deities, and demons.”110 The primary purposes of this art are to produce prophecy and intellectual wisdom, here seemingly equated:
We read . . . that Rabbi Johena, the son of Jochahad, did after that manner [by ritual techniques to bring on Apollonian frenzy] enlighten a certain rude countryman, called Eleazar, being altogether illiterate, that being compassed about with a sudden brightness, did unexpectedly preach such high mysteries of the Law to an assembly of wise men, that he did even astonish all that were near him.111

The final kind of frenzy is that of Venus, “and it doth by a fervent love convert, and transmute the mind to God, and makes it altogether like to God, as it were the proper image of God.”112 The knowledge communi- cated to the soul by this frenzy transcends prophecy and moves towards divine knowledge: “the soul being so converted into God . . . doth beside that it hath . . . obtained the spirit of prophecy, sometimes work wonderful things, and greater than the nature of the world can do, which works are called miracles.” It is essential that DOP is specific about the miraculous nature of the powers of the Venus-frenzied soul: “such a man is more excellent than they that are in heaven, or at least equal to them.” By this highest form of frenzy, the soul rises to the pinnacle of heaven.

It is not explicit that the lower degrees and kinds of frenzy are prerequi- sites for the higher, but the structure of the discussion supports such a reading. The cycle of nine Muses rises through the nine celestial spheres, which are rational/intellectual, while Dionysian frenzy “divert[s] the soul into the mind.” There is thus excellent reason to think that the frenzies are a graded sequence, raising the soul through the spheres, into the layers of the divine, and finally to God himself.

None of this discussion is apparently unorthodox; prophecy and divine frenzy are well-attested in Christian literature from the Bible onwards, and DOP carefully cites the apostle Peter.113 At the same time, we must bear in mind that DOP discusses such frenzy as part of ceremonial magic. In essence, the claim is that divine frenzy and ecstasy are produced by the very techniques—elevated to their highest forms, to be sure—of demonic magic! The logical and structural continuity of the chapters on angelic names with those on frenzy thus constructs a radical thesis in an apparently orthodox manner. If it is granted that the highest form of prophecy (not to mention the working of miracles) is caused by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in a human soul, and that lesser forms of prophecy are caused by a similar indwelling of angels, then we can logically extend this progression downwards to ordinary demonic powers. Therefore ceremonial magic, which aims primarily to contact and manipulate demonic beings, is simply a general category at the apex of which is a kind of sainthood. Furthermore the most straightforward means to achieve this highest of ends is to work one’s way up the chain, i.e. to begin by contacting the lower orders of demons (not infernal ones, naturally), thenwork up to the Lunar Muse, and so on up to God.


The great danger of demonic magic, of course, is that it is not always clear which sort of demons one is contacting—angelic or diabolic.
[T]hose that neglect [contemplation of the divine], trusting only to natural and worldly things, are wont often to be confounded by divers errors and fallacies, and very oft to be deceived by evil spirits; but the understanding of divine things purgeth the mind from errors, and rendereth it divine, giveth infallible power to our works, and driveth far the deceits and obstacles of all evil spirits, and together subjects them to our commands.114

Thus the principal means by which to avoid the deceptions of evil demons is divine contemplation. To this are added various means of ritual purification, whose analysis takes up the final chapters of DOP.

But the greatest part of all ceremonies consists in observing cleanliness, and purity, first of the mind, then of the body, and of those things which are about the body. Now impurity, because it oftentimes infects the air, and man, disturbs that most pure influence of celestial and divine things, and chaseth away the pure spirits of God. But sometimes impure spirits, and deceiving powers, that they be worshipped, and adored for gods, require also this purity. Therefore here is great need of caution. 115

One crucial purpose of purification, then, is to ensure the goodness and purity of any demons summoned. At the same time, chapters 53 through 64 harp on purification for another reason, more in keeping with the discussion of frenzy and ecstasy: purity of body and especially of mind not only enables divine instruction but causes it. “A human soul therefore when it be rightly purged, and expiated, doth then, being loosed from all impurity
. . . instruct itself.”116

The theory behind this is similar to that which we saw in frenzy:

For by how much the more we have relinquished the animal and the human life, by so much the more we live like angels, and God, to which being conjoined, and broughtinto a better condition, we have power over all things, ruling over all.117

It is in this lengthy survey of purity and purification that, at last, we see some aspects of ritual technique and theory spelled out clearly. Since purity induces divinity, as it were, it follows that “the greatest part of all ceremonies consists in observing cleanliness, and purity. . . .” The majority of the discussion of purifications is essentially a list: cleanliness, abstinence, penitence, adorations, sacrifices, prayers, consecrations. Buried within the exhaustive citations, however, are several important distinctions which clarify the nature of ritual magic in DOP.
A critical distinction is drawn between “sacred” and “consecrated”: sacred means “made holy by the gods themselves, or their demons, being . . . dedicated to us by the gods themselves,”118 while consecrated means “dedicated and consecrated by man to God”119 This is not itself an unusual or problematic split, but what falls into the two is worth examining closely. The list of sacred things has three elements. First, demons are sacred, “because in them God dwells.    Whence it is read in Exodus: I will send my angel who shall go before thee; observe him, neither think that he is to be despised, because mynameis inhim.”120 Second, “mysteries” are sacred, in which category are “sacred names and characters,” the cross, and certain prayers such as the Lord’s Prayer. Third, certain materials are sacred, as chrism, catechumen oil, and holy water. The oddity of this list is that it equates demons with such things as the Lord’s Prayer and holy water. In the context of ritual magic, the implication is that all sacred things are to be used; that is, a magical ritual may employ a demon in the same way and for the same reasons as it employs holy water.

The list of consecrated things is a good deal longer. First, vows and sacrifices; second, images, idols, icons, pictures, etc.; third, ritual actions, such as genuflexion, sprinkling holy water, burning candles, and so forth, collectively referredtoas“exteriorrites;”121 fourth, priests, who also have the power to consecrate additional objects; fifth, consecrated names, seals, and characters; and sixth, consecrated objects, which seems to be a catch-all. To these lists are added times, which may also be either sacred or consecrated, as the Sabbath on the one hand or a feast day on the other.

There are two points which should be made with regard to the lists of consecrated and opposed to sacred things. First, we saw above that holy water and oil are sacred, because divinely instituted; at the same time, the acts of sprinkling holy water, or anointing with oil, are consecrated. Given that sacred things may be used, the suggestion here is that the act of using a sacred thing is a consecrated act, which is to say “dedicated . . . by man to God.” In the context of ritual magic, this confirms our sense that manipula- tion of any divine thing is licit, even required, so long as the manipulating magus consecrates the action by his will toward divinity.

Second, “names, seals, and characters” appear in both lists. The distinction here is certainly that between divinely instituted names and those derived from Scripture or from offices. In the midst of the discussion of consecrated names, however, appears a striking passage which sheds considerable light on DOP ’s relationship with Kabbalah:

Magical work, unless they are Hebrew names, or closely derived from Hebrew,”124 the final draft of DOP suggests that the language of the name has little to do with its power. This reading is corroborated by already quoted remark in chapter 24, on demonic names:
Many and divers are the names of good spirits, and bad: but their proper, and true names, as those of the stars, are known to God alone, who only numbers the multitude of stars, and calls them all by their names, whereof none can be known by us but by divine revelation. But the masters of the
Hebrew think that the names of the angels were imposed upon them by Adam.125

The implication of the insertion of “Hebrew” is, I think, that when writing the Juvenile Draft Agrippa followed Reuchlin’s and Pico’s Kabbalistic understanding of Hebrew’s inherent superiority over all other lan- guages—hardly surprising, given that only a year before he had been lecturing on De verbo mirifico in Dôle. Over the next twenty-odd years, however, the status of Hebrew—and of language itself—shifts in Agrippa’s philosophy: no human language can contain the ultimate truths, because no human language can be truly transparent.

This brings us to some final points about purification and ritual method. In chapter 58, on adorations and vows, we learn that the purpose of such prayers is that “by the application of them to any deity we do so far move it, that he may direct his speech and answer by a divine way, by which God
speaks with men, but so occultly that very few perceive it.”126 Later in the same chapter, we read:

Now that is the best prayer, which is not uttered in words, but that which with a religious silence and sincere cogitation is offered up to God, and that which with the voice of the mind and words of the intellectual world, is offered to him.127

If we situate this discussion of silent prayer within the broader examination of ritual techniques, and recall that ritual techniques follow a lengthy consideration of oracles andprophecy, it is clear that DOP has added a third kind of language—the “occult” voice and words of the intellectual and divine world. This language transcends speech and writing, and the fallen nature of language in general, and simply communicates transparently.

Again, the notion of a divine language is hardly radical or problematic. At the same time, DOP claims that while the true magus can employ this “language,” the angels cannot. When dealing with inferior deities and spirits, the “various cooperators and instruments of God, viz.: the heavens, stars, administrating spirits, the celestial souls, and heros, which we must implore as porters, intepreters, administrators, mediators,” the magician must use other forms of communication, while the “voice of the mind” is directed to God alone.

This divine super-language requires purity and perfection in the mind; in fact it is the ability to use this language which constitutes the proper object of ritual purification. In this language, the magician simply expresses his will, and God expresses His: once the magus has reached this highest plane, he communicates directly with God. He speaks prophecy by participating in divine omniscience. Similarly, he performs miracles by participating in divine omnipotence. Indeed, prophecy and miracle are not sharply distinguished in Book III, suggesting that the magus, by acting as a perfect translator of the divine will—which is equivalent to the divine language—is transformed into a perfect instrument of that will.
In sum, the highest ritual magic is that by which the magician directly enacts the divine will in the natural and celestial worlds.

How to Summon a Demon

The reader may now expect (or hope for) a reconstruction of a demonic summoning ritual, incorporating all these elements in some fashion, perhaps with commentary. Unfortunately, I cannot fulfil that hope without wild speculations extending the present analysis far beyond DOP and into the literature of ritual magic more generally; in short, Agrippa simply does not provide sufficient information to perform the reconstruction.
The descriptions of rituals which do appear in DOP are essentially parenthetical remarks, often amusing but not terribly helpful. The following two examples are fairly typical:
I have seen and known some, writing on virgin parchment the name and seal of some spirit in the hour of the Moon: which when afterward he gave to be devoured by a water frog, and had muttered over some verse, the frog being let go into the water, rains and showers presently followed. I also saw the same man inscribing the name of another spirit with the seal thereof in the hour of Mars, which was given to a crow, who being let go, after a verse muttered over, presently there followed from that corner of the heaven, whither he flew, lightnings, shakings, and horrible thunders, with thick  clouds.128

Insofar as one can adduce a set of instructions from such descriptions, a demonic summoning would seem to contain the following components, divided chronologically:

Prior to the Ritual

Selection of an appropriate type of demon. This depends on the purpose for which the summoning is to be performed. If we wish to produce the Apollonian frenzy, for instance, we might choose to summon a Solar demon.

Selection of an appropriate time. For a Solar demon, we might chooseatimewhenthe Sunisascendant, perhapswith Leoatmidheaven.130

Derivation of the relevant name. This requires choosing a method by which to derive the name, which method should be appropriate to the office of the demon, and further the technical (often essentially crypto- graphic) derivation of the name.

Derivation of the proper seal. Again, simply the application of a technical procedure to the derived name. We may note under this heading that, especially when dealing with unpredictable and/or evil demons, it may be necessary to select and derive appropriate circles and texts to trap the demons and to protect the magus.

Purification of the actor(s). Note that the supreme purification, in which the magus communicates directly with the divine, is presumably not necessary, as it is ultimately the purpose of the ritual.

At the Time of the Ritual

These steps simply put into practice the steps above. That is, the location should be purified in a manner consistent with (a) the purification of the practitioner(s), and (b) the selected demon. Most information about such techniques is in Books I and II—Book I includes lists of fumigations appropriate to different planets, Book II has information about casting circles and inscribing seals, etc.

Purification of the place.

Construction of the ritual space.

Casting of the circle.

Inscription of the seal.

Recitation of appropriate hymns and/or verses.

Sacrifice of a form appropriate to the demon. Note that “men that are perfect, and truly religious need them not” apart from “the true sacrifice,” i.e. the mass.

Consecration of objects.

Words of command. Note that essentially no details are given about what words should be spoken, in what order, etc. No set-speeches appear in DOP, unlike most texts on ritual magic (see below).131

Beyond this we can go no further. As noted above, Agrippa does not give more explicit instructions, nor does he construct a ritual in recipe format. This is not simply an issue of available genres—the literature of ritual magic in the early modern period includes a great many such recipes, and as such it would not be entirely out of place for a sample ritual to be detailed in DOP.132

here are several reasons why I think a written-out ritual does not in fact appear in the text. First,DOP is a theoretical work, not a practical manual, and as such details only the theory of magic. Second, each ritual would need to be significantly different from others, depending on the demon, the purpose, the actors, and the location, to name only a few obvious factors. Third, inclusion of a complete magical ritual would place DOP squarely in the proscribed category of ritual magic texts, laying Agrippa open to far more serious and substantial charges than the rather nebulous claims of unorthodoxy actually leveled against him. Fourth, the details of magical practice presumably fall under the heading of “secrets,” and as such cannot be revealed openly to all readers. And finally, extending from the previous point, the “wise reader” is supposed to be able to construct his own ritual on the basis of the theoretical details laid down in DOP ; to give a complete set of ritual instructions voids this function.

Agrippa’s Magical Rituals

Despite its skeletal quality, the ritual outline given above affords us considerable material for further analysis. If we recall our earlier discussions of esotericism and modern ritual theory, we may draw several conclusions about the theory of magical ritual in DOP.
Let me begin by presuming coherence—that is, I begin with the assumption thatDOP ’s discussions of ritual components, with respect both to content and to relative prioritization, are not accidental or irrelevant. Thus, for example, I assume that the eight chapters devoted to derivation of angelic names implies not only that there are many ways to derive such names but also that these names are important.
With this assumption in mind, one of the most striking aspects of our ritual outline is the apparent unimportance of the final “words of com- mand.” Even the briefest glance at early modern ritual magic texts will confirm the strangeness of this lack: most such texts include lengthy (and rather tedious) set-speeches, often in two or more languages and including long lists of arcane-sounding names, which detail the purpose of the ritual, texts. To some degree set constraints on the demon’s form and manner of appearance, promise rewards for good behavior and threaten dire punishment for disobedience, and instruct the demon in its required tasks.133 If we assume that this lack of instructions and constraints is not simply a product of the needs of secrecy or the exigencies of potential inquisitorial scrutiny, we may wonder how it is that the demon knows what it is to do. In other words, if the ritual to summon a demon does notseem to include (or at least places no emphasis upon) explicit instructions for what tasks the demonis to perform, how does it find out? If the ritual produces prophetic ecstasy, how does the prophesy- ing power know what is being asked?
The simple, short reading is that, once the demon has appeared, the magus can simply talk to it. After all, most early modern ritual magic texts discuss the forms that the demon may take, the voices it uses, the signs (sounds, smells, visions) which portend its approach, and so forth. Some of these issues are also discussed in DOP,134 but again the descriptions are quite perfunctory; furthermore such a reading emphasizes face-to-face communi- cation in a way quite at odds with the rest of DOP ’s semiotics.
Instead, I suggest that the relative unimportance of explicit instructions to the demons can be correlated with DOP ’s failure to provide explicit instructions to the ritualist. I have referred to the latter sort of instructions as recipes; an equally valid metaphor might be musical scores. My point with either metaphor is that the instructions, followed correctly, produce the desired performance—food, music, ritual. But if we return to the idea proposed earlier in this chapter of ritual as written form, can it perhaps be said that the ritual is itself the recipe or score? In other words, is the ritual a textwhose correct interpretation or performance produces the desired end? Let me clarify by continuing the musical metaphor. If a magical ritual, by which I mean not a set of instructions but the performance of the ritual, is like a musical score, then the ritual is presumably then translated into magical or musical language. Here the magician’s act does not parallel that of the musician, but rather that of the composer. The magician composes the score (performs the ritual); the demon plays the music (produces the desired magical effect). If the score is sufficiently detailed and clear, the musician plays the music that the composer wants—the ritual itself constrains the demon to perform the effects desired by the magician. Thus explicit spoken commands are unnecessary, or at least relatively unimpor- tant, because the ritual itself is a set of detailed commands. 

Another metaphor, more clearly available within DOP and its cultural context, is ritual as hieroglyph. For those who can read the secret, magical language of demonic ritual—magicians and demons—the hieroglyphic ritual has a single, complex meaning. Further, the transparent and motivated nature of the magical hieroglyph is such that the reader is bound by the force of the reference; in other words a demon who reads the ritual cannot help but express its meaning by performing the desired actions.

Several aspects of DOP ’s discussion of demonic rituals confirm this reading. First, the emphasis placed on demonic names; in the hieroglyphic ritual, the demon is thus written into the text, ensuring that it is bound to the magicians’s desired ends. This binding has a double function: the demon is part of the text, and as such compelled by its meaning; in addition, the demon is addressed by the text, and thus compelled to read it.
Second, the tremendous focus on the magician’s ritual purity can also be reread. We may draw a parallel to various literatures on copying sacred texts, in which transcription is understood as a powerful and important ritual act. Further, the magician’s participation in the ritual binds him to its meaning in the same way as the demon is bound by its name; sufficient purification ensures that nothing is written into the ritual that should not be, such as base desires or a sinful nature, which could cause a moral shift in the ritual’s meaning. Moreover given that (as we saw in Book I) human minds can be bound through their sensual natures, a state of purity helps prevent the magician from being caught in his own magical snare. This point is neatly made in chapter 39:

Seeing every power and virtue is from above, from God, from the intelligences and stars, who can neither err nor do evil, it is necessary, that all evil, and whatsoever is found disagreeing and dissonant in these inferior things, do proceed, not from the malice of the influence, but from the evil disposition of the receiver. Therefore we being well disposed, the celestial influences cooperate all things for good; but being evil disposed, and having for our sins, that divine good, which was in us, departed from us, all things work for evil.    135

Third, the conception of ritual as hieroglyph clarifies our sense of DOP ’s ceremonial magic with respect to Faivre’s “experience of transmutation.” Because the magus is part of the text being read by the demons, the magical effects performed must inevitably affect the magus. There is thus “no separation between knowledge (gnosis) and inner experience, or intellectual activity and active imagination,” as Faivre put it. Indeed, if the “intellectual activity” here is the construction of the ritual/text, and the “active imagina- tion” is the enactment of its effects/meaning, then the magician is simulta- neously performer and audience, actor and acted-upon, and as such may be said to be utterly transformed by and for gnosis. In addition, Faivre’s formulation implies that most ceremonial magic will have a gnostic function, such as to learn or prophesy, which is entirely in accord with the text of Book III.

Finally, we may again note the lack of explicit instructions to the magus, and recognize that in our current reading such written instructions would act as pharmakoi. Although instructions remedy the possibility of memory- failure or incorrect ritual construction, they also poison the ritual by displacing the hieroglyph from its proper medium to one ill-suited to the text.   At base this is an occult reading of both Phaedrus  and  “Plato’s Pharmacy”: writing in one medium (ink on paper) is a pharmakon for writing in another (ritual, memory, even speech!).136


Before turning to general conclusions, there are two issues which should be considered here. First,DOP and Christian Kabbalah; and second, writing and ritual magic in DOP.

Agrippa’s Christian Kabbalah

Our initial discussion of Kabbalah scholarship left us with two primary questions about Kabbalah in DOP: First,inwhatsenseifanycanAgrippa’s
Kabbalah be legitimately called Kabbalah? Second, if Agrippa’s Kabbalah is Christian Kabbalah, what does that tell us about Christian Kabbalah as a form of thought?

Agrippa’s Kabbalah is certainly Kabbalah in any but the most parochial sense, i.e. if it is granted that Kabbalah need not be Jewish. We have seen that Idel’s magico-mystical model fits quite well with DOP, in which both the rising, ecstatic model of magical ritual and the descending, loosely theosophical model are central. Indeed, the intersection between these two models constitutes a major part of the magician’s itinerarium mentis in Deum. Further, a number of systems and theories of distinctively Kabbalist- ic provenance appear clearly in DOP, notably the sefirot, speculations upon divine and angelic names, and so forth.

It seems certain that Agrippa’s sources for these ideas were largely Christian—Pico, Reuchlin, Lazzarelli, Zorzi, Egidius da Viterbo—but he also made use of Jewish sources where they were available to him in Latin—Gikatilla’s Sha’are Orah in Paulus Riccius’s translation Portae Lucis, for example. Close examination of Agrippa’s sources has been left out of the body of the present analysis, since Vittoria Perrone Compagni’s critical edition of DOP makes clear which sources were used; it is certainly possible that comparison with the texts available to Pico and Reuchlin would reveal additional sources, but such analysis is outside the scope of the present study.   What is relevant here is that Agrippa’s Kabbalah derives from reasonably well-informed sources, which made available to him aspects of theosophical, ecstatic, and magical Kabbalah.

The problem with Agrippa as Kabbalist is that he radically reinterprets; the Kabbalah found in DOP has strong affinities with aspects of its Jewish sources, but is ultimately quite at odds with Kabbalah at a basic level. The question, then, is whether Agrippa grossly misunderstands Kabbalah, or whether the reinterpretation is in some sense reasonable.

In the present analysis, I have tried to demonstrate the coherence and internal consistency of DOP ’s Kabbalah. Certain points stand out, particularly the displacement of Hebrew from a supreme linguistic position, which as we have seen appears to be a relatively late development in Agrippa’s thought. I suggest, in particular, that the status-shift of Hebrew is emblematic of his skeptical, Christian rethinking of Kabbalistic ideas.

In Agrippa’s Kabbalistic sources, and I think Kabbalah generally, the primacy of Hebrew as sacred language is a central article of faith; without this assumption, a good deal of Kabbalistic speculation has no evidentiary foundation. However, Agrippa’s deeply Christian skepticism, as well as his linguistic sophistication, makes highly problematic the proposition that any human language is somehow transparent. Furthermore, Agrippa’s skepticism is founded on the notion that one single assumption—the Incarnation of Christ—is required to revitalize and correct all human knowledge; as such, an additional metaphysical absolute such as the perfection of the Hebrew language constitutes a major difficulty.

For the sake of clarity and brevity, I shall summarize Agrippa’s skeptical Christian reinterpretation of Kabbalah in a series of steps, as follows:
Christ’s Incarnation breaks the dominance of the Hebrew Law, and indeed “the Jews who are most skillful in using the names of God, can operate little or nothing after Christ.”137

Now the Incarnation is the appearance in Nature of the spoken Word of God. At this point, the tripartite nature of creation is fully empow- ered—Christ rules Nature, the world of Speech, as the natural incarnation of Logos; the Holy Spirit rules the Celestial, in the form of the written Word of Scripture; and God the Father rules the divine, the world of transparent and perfect super-language. Therefore the Incarnation completes the formation of the ladder up to God—by following Christ, the magus can rise through the spheres.

Therefore the power and sophistication of Hebrew Kabbalah is not to be despised, but can only take the Christian magus to the peak of those spheres in which the Holy Spirit dominates. Ultimately, the magus must break out of the vicious circle of language, Hebrew and otherwise, and transcend to perfect transparency by supra-linguistic communication with God.

Thus the restoration of all knowledge and truth, which is to say the correlation of all that we think we know against the absolute Truth of God, requires only a single axiomatic assumption—the Incarnation. Further- more, the ascent to Truth has only one absolute instruction—follow Christ. Along the way, all the priscae theologiae et magiae will be helpful, but ultimately the magus must discard them in the same way as the apophatic mystic discards all names as insufficient.

A final corollary of this interpretation is that Jews are excluded from this perfect union with God, because they cannot break out of the sphere of Law without the assistance of Christ.

In sum, Agrippa’s Kabbalahis a purely Christian one, treating this sacred Jewish lore as an extremely important and valuable tool, but not granting it fundamental superiority. In a way, we can perhaps say that Agrippa’s Christian Kabbalah represents a stage in the maturation of Christian Kabbalah, a step beyond the initial wide-eyed awe of Pico and Reuchlin, and of the young Agrippa himself, for whom the discovery of Kabbalah seemed to offer potential solutions to basic mystical and magical problems.

It remains for future scholarship to ask why Christian Kabbalah died as quickly as it did. After about the mid-seventeenth century, which saw Christian Knorr von Rosenroth’s massive Kabbala denudata [Kabbalah Unveiled],138 Christian Kabbalah more or less vanished as a form of occult thought. Jewish Kabbalistic thought, particularly Lurianic Kabbalah, reappears periodically over the next two centuries, in Behmenist thought, in Leibniz’s theories of perfect languages,139 in speculative Freemasonry, even in Schelling’s Die Weltalter ,140 and comes back to the center of occultism with Eliphas Lévi in the mid-nineteenth century. But Christian Kabbalah, of the sort formulated by Agrippa, Postel, and others in the sixteenth century, has its last gasp with Knorr von Rosenroth and Robert Fludd in the seventeenth century.

The reasons for this collapse still require analysis. Our presentdiscussion of Christian Kabbalah in DOP suggests that it may be necessary to look more closely into early modern linguistic philosophies. I suspect, in fact, that some strains of Christian Kabbalah essentially lived and died along with metaphysical linguistic philosophy, and that therefore a considerable wealth of Christian Kabbalah may have heretofore been ignored because it is not sufficiently obviously Kabbalistic to be included in the standard historical account.

Rewriting Ritual Magic

In DOP, the consummation of all ritual magic is to effect transparent communication between God and the magus. Ideally, the magus becomes a nexus between God and the World. Linguistically, we might say that God writes His message upon the magus, and the magus translates that message into the speech of the World. But in DOP, as we have seen, there are really three kinds of language, each proper to one sphere. As a general rule, magical power over nature employs celestial forces to control the natural; that is, the magus writes his effects into the celestial, which in turn speaks them into nature. Thus the conception of God writing and the magus speaking is incorrect, shifted one place in the system of three worlds and threelanguages: itwouldbemoreaccuratetosaythat(1) God communicates with the magus in the divine language of silence and transparency, (2) the magus writes that message celestially, and (3) the demonic hierarchy speaks the message into being in nature.

This is the supreme case, where the magus here has succeeded in the highest manner possible, an idealized picture of the perfect magus. Most magical rituals, however, are intended primarily to achieve this effect, and do notdepend on its prior completion. For the normal magician, the forces manipulated are mediate, demons rather than God. Further, the demons cannot communicate in the divine manner, but require exterior signs, fixed in space. In addition, they cannot speak in a way understandable to us: “But with what senses those spirits and demons hear our invocations, and prayers, and see our ceremonies, we are altogether ignorant.”141 Therefore under normal circumstances, a ritual is a written message sent to the demon to enable communication. Ritual techniques and symbols are thus a language which clothes the magician’s intentions, desires, and purity of purpose in signs comprehensible by demons.

My claim that ritual language in DOP is written does not depend exclusively on the linguistic abilities of demons; more interestingly, this magical ritual language has certain characteristics associated with writing, although one should not overstretch the analogy.

First, the ritual signs are fixed in space, made up of concrete, physical signs. At the same time, it may be pointed out that the ritual is also fixed in time, a characteristic normally associated with speech as against writing. Against this argument, I want to point to two factors which further the written interpretation. One is the fact that the time of the ritual is itself a sign, as indicated by the extended discussions of favorable times in DOP; we can thus understand the time of the ritual as part of its place, a place governed by favorable stars. In addition, the temporal aspect of the ritual can be understood to parallel the physical act of writing, which has little or no bearing on the interpretation of the text—that is, we cannot generally interpret a written text by presuming that it was written in exactly the order of its final formation, but rather ignore any editing or revisions and simply take the final text as a fixed object.

The second written-like characteristic of ritual language is the disjunc- ture of the final text from its author, which entails that interpretive control is in the hands of the recipient, rather than the producer. Once the signs are formed, the interpretation of the message is entirely up to the demons—the magus cannot correct misinterpretations. This is one of the dangers of demonic magic: if you get the signs wrong, the demons will not act according to your intention, but only according to the instructions actually given, rather like a computer program. Indeed, if the ritual is badly written, either (1) the demons will not understand that they are bound to interpret and obey it, in which case the ritual has no effect; or worse (2) the wrong sort of demons will take the opportunity to pretend that the ritual was correctly written, at which point the magus is likely deceived by them, and begins down the slippery slope to perdition.

Third, the signs are graphically (spatially) divisible: each sign has its own meaning, and can be interpreted separately. While the totality of the text has meaning, each element can be analyzed separately; indeed, individual analyses make upmany chapters of DOP. Further, note that the order of the ritual receives no particular treatment in DOP, implying that such subdivision is normal to the linguistic function of magic.

Once the ritual is written by the magus and read by the demons, we may note that the demons essentially respond in writing. First, they may write effects into the world—being celestial or divine, they do not speak their effects, as noted above. Second, they may produce prophecy or oracles: this should be understood as writing, since interpretive control does not remain with the message’s demonic producer, but is rather interpreted at the magician’s leisure. There is even some indication that it is common to use a proxy for basic prophecy, an assistant who is essentially the slate upon which the demons write their prophetic messages.142 Third, in frenzy and ecstasy, the demons write upon the magus’s soul; it is not so much that they communicate anything to him in a normal sense, but that they write effects, just as in other circumstances they write effects into the world.

As mentioned at the outset, I believe this approach to ritual as writing has broader application than DOP, or even Renaissance ritual magic. To begin with, it is important that divination and prophecy are among the most common  forms  of  “magical”  ritual,  however  “magic”  be  defined.   In Tambiah’s speech-act approach, divination is marginal, a special case; my sense is that a theory of magic which cannot treat divination is fundamen- tally unsound, rather like a theory of religion which ignores ritual. As we have seen with DOP, both in the ritual magic per se and in the mathematical magic, divination is readily understood as writing, and indeed is rather difficult to interpret otherwise. Thus the ritual-as-writing approach goes some way toward clarifying the centrality of divination in magic.

Second, this approach assists in rethinking the importance of space in ritual. Ritual, like writing, is fundamentally spatial, nottemporal, and thus thinking of ritual as writing makes the centrality of space logically necessary rather than a peculiarity. In other words, a written approach to ritual makes the spatial focus normal, even predictable; it is somethingwhich explains the nature of ritual, not something requiring explanation.
Finally, the instruction “write” is extremely common in magical rituals, as Jonathan Z. Smith has noted in the Preisendanz corpus of Greek Magical Papyri.143 By interpreting magical ritual as writing, this prevalence of writing within ritual becomes evidentiary.


If any, therefore, through his incredulity or dullness of intellect, doth not obtain his desire, let him not impute the fault of his ignorance to me, or say that I have erred, or purposely written falsely and lied, but let him accuse himself, who understandeth not our writings; for they are obscure, and covered with divers mysteries, by the which it will easily happen, that many may err and lose their sense; therefore let no man be angry with me, if we have folded up the truth of this science with many enigmas, and dispersed it in divers places, for we have not hidden it from the wise, but from the wicked and ungodly, and have delivered it in such words which necessarily blind the foolish, and easily may admit the wise to the understanding of them.
— Cornelius Agrippa, De occulta philosophia libri tres

There are two ways to perform an analysis by close reading of a text like DOP. First, one might construct a kind of parallel exegesis, with running commentary alongside a new, corrected translation. The advantage of this method is that every section of the work is considered, nothing left out, and the biases and prior conclusions of the scholar are, if not eliminated, at least partially suppressed; the great disadvantage, of course, is that the resulting analysis is unreadable. Second, one can begin with a few axes to grind, a few issues at stake, and selectively analyze those pieces of the work which seem relevant; so long as the scholar’s predetermined queries are passably compatible with those of the work in question, this produces an analysis which sacrifices coverage (and tedium) for depth.

As should be obvious, I have attempted the second method. The advantage of this is that the reading can be relevant to experts in more than one field; whether the reading is also readable is not for me to judge. I have organized these conclusions in three sections, based upon their possible interest to differing fields. In the first section, I briefly restate the general outline of the reading, then return to the problem of De vanitate with respect to DOP and Agrippa’s thought. In the second section, I examine this reading’s broader implications for early modern historians of ideas. The final section considers potential theoretical and methodological ramifications, returning to the broad questions which framed our reading in chapter one.

Agrippan Interpretations

Scholarly assessment of DOP has been predominantly negative. When Agrippa’s writings are granted intellectual value, it is usually in reference to De vanitate, though recent scholarship has also argued for the value of the numerous minor orations and theological texts.1
The standard criticism of DOP is that it is incoherent in one or more of several possible ways. Lynn Thorndike, whose focus was always upon the relation between magical thought and the rise of experimental science, put this most succinctly:

. . . [DOP ] is a disappointing book. It is not a practical manual or even a general theory of the subject but merely a literary description and review, full of what the author doubtless flattered himself was erudite allusion and humanistic eloquence. [Agrippa] has read widely in its [magic’s] past literature and [DOP ] is valuable in a scattering way for its bibliography. Yet even in this respect he has failed to achieve anything like an exhaustive or systematic review.2

This reading of DOP as a sort of compendium of quotations is not surprising, as the work bristles with references, usually unattributed,3 but the major criticism is that DOP is unoriginal, a compilation of other writers’ ideas with no argument or focus.

At the same time scholars have implied that the radically demonic orientation of DOP pushes it out of the range of acceptable discourse, and justifies its exclusion from the historiography of ideas. Finally, the apparent disagreement or disjuncture between the 1526 De vanitate and the 1531/33 DOP has been used as proof-positive that Agrippa was not a coherent or systematic thinker, and as such anything he argued or claimed need not be taken seriously. 

In this book, I have tried to counter all of these claims at once, by arguing  the  coherence,  consistency,  and  sophistication  of  Agrippa’s magical thought. Perhaps the most important point is consistency: throughout, DOP harps on its several issues, and discusses them in a rigidly logical fashion. Indeed, consistency itself appears to be a fundamental methodology in DOP, as we have seen in the peculiar and sometimes pedantic tendency to follow any principle logically to its ultimate conclusions, no matter how unorthodox or dangerous.

This tendency toward extreme consistency is perhaps most noticeable in DOP ’s emphasis on demonic magic. In Book I, the defense of demonic magic in DOP is based on strict and logical consideration of intelligence and its manipulation, and avoids the internal inconsistencies which marked Ficino’s and Trithemius’s definitions. In Book II, this same argument extends into the celestial and mathematical sphere, and the intersection of intelligences with Forms in a supra-natural and extra- temporal context leads at least partly to that book’s fixation on writing, particularly as an instrument in demonic magic. In Book III, the discussion of demonic magic is taken to its logical extreme: the superiority of demonic magic over natural magic is so great that demonic magic becomes a means to achieve union with God.

In The Savage Mind, Claude Lévi-Strauss remarked that “the first difference between magic and science is . . . that magic postulates a complete and all-embracing determinism.”4 Lévi-Strauss, inspired by his reading of E.E. Evans-Pritchard, suggests that science is fundamentally modest in its claims, that scientific analysis ceases at a certain culturally- determined point—to use Evans-Pritchard’s example, the scientist knows that a granary fell down because of wind, termites, and dry rot, and so concludes his analysis. The magician, however, continues the logic relentlessly: he demands to know why the granary fell down on someone. Not just someone, in fact—why did the granary fall on that someone? In theory, such a logic cannot end short of omniscience, of a divine understanding of all things simultaneously and how they all intersect and interact.
Whether or not Lévi-Strauss’s idea, or Evans-Pritchard’s, is an accurate picture   of   magic’s   underlying   logic—and   it   is   worth   renewed consideration—this demand for extreme logical consistency is a central element of DOP ’s magic. Although at times the logic is specious, DOP simply cannot be read  as  inconsistent  or  incoherent.  In  essence, DOP presumes consistency within the universe itself, that the apparently unrelated laws of Creation reduce to a few absolutely generalizable principles, and further that these general principles must apply in every circumstance. And in the end, all such principles reduce to one—or rather to One.

The principal difficulty in reading DOP, then, is that this absolute consistency requires evidence, leading to encyclopedic—and often tedious—lists of facts. Further, DOP uses this very tedium to mask unorthodoxy. We have seen on several occasions that a long and rather dull series of chapters, apparently containing only paraphrased citations, conceals a subtle and often radical argument, the very pedantry of the format making the argument seem obvious and unremarkable. I suggest, however, that this pattern is not simply a “defense mechanism” (to use Frances Yates’s unfortunate phrase) against potential persecution of the author; on the contrary, I think that DOP makes many of its most exciting arguments hard to find in order to preserve these secrets from the eyes of the foolish. If only “the wise” will discover the secrets of magic in DOP, then wisdom is partly connected with a willingness to read closely.

At the very beginning of this book, I noted that Agrippa referred to a “secret key” to DOP. Given the grand structure of the work, the secret key could hardly be some trick, some sleight; it would have to be a fundamental principle of occult knowledge and philosophy, a principle itself hidden and occult. The key must have the grandest possible cosmic significance, and at the same time be a methodological principle which guides the entirety of the magician’s quest. Furthermore, this key would need to be obvious, something which could not possibly be denied, something of which a “wise” reader would, upon realizing it, say “Of course!” In sum, Agrippa’s “secret key” cannot be anything other than faith in Christ.
On Occult Skepticism

The other great difficulty in scholarship on Agrippa’s thought has been the famous “retraction” of DOP which appears in De vanitate.5 In chapter two, I discussed a number of the theories which have been proposed to deal with this retraction, and suggested that the solution is twofold: first, the retraction is simply not as general and sweeping as it appears; second, the skeptical thrust of De vanitate in no way disagrees with the occult philosophy. In the wake of our close reading of DOP, I would like to resume the main points of this latter argument.
De vanitate argues a comprehensive Christian and Pyrrhonist skepticism. Human knowledge is fundamentally flawed, because each supposed fact depends on another, leading to infinite regress. Furthermore, all theoretical knowledge which depends upon the senses or reason is intrinsically incapable of breaking out of this epistemological prison, because sensory data are unreliable, and reason requires reliable data if it is to draw reliable conclusions. In short, all intellectual efforts are impotent before the fundamental absence of absolutes, indeed the fundamental absence at the core of the universe. Given this bleak picture of intellectual endeavors’ impotence, argues Agrippa, we can only discard our vain and fruitless pseudo-learning and prescind from the search for Truth. In its place, we can only have faith in Christ, the Word of God, who promised that if we asked for bread, we should not be given a stone. Such is, in brief, the central argument of De vanitate. It is an argument within the mainstream of the Renaissance skeptical revival, in which movement the book played a noteworthy part. From our present point of view, it should be noted that Descartes’s cogito does not answer the objections which De vanitate proposed; indeed, Descartes seems not to have recognized that the problem of infinite regress applies to rationally constructed data. As such, the value of the cogito as an absolute datum collapses in the face of Agrippa’s full-blown skeptical epistemology.

But the parallel between Descartes and Agrippa is worth pursuing. Of particular value here is the dual nature of the Cartesian project, made up of analysis and synthesis. In the analytical portions of the Discourse on the Method and the Meditations, Descartes moves inwards, applying his methodic doubt in a logically descending chain of supposed knowledges, none of which stand up to destructive skepticism. At the end of the analytical process, however, Descartes is left with one fact which cannot be doubted—the “I” which does the thinking—cogito ergo sum. With that one indubitable given, Descartes works synthetically to reconstruct all knowledge and philosophy. He establishes the existence of God, which guarantees the reality and validity of sensory data, then moves outward and upward with the synthetic reconstruction.

Agrippa’s project is not at heart dissimilar. De vanitate should be read as the first two of Agrippa’s Meditations on First Philosophy , concluding with one indubitable given: the Incarnate Word. DOP is the synthetic portion of the project, rebuilding and reconstructing knowledge and philosophy upon the capstone of Christ. The apparent disagreement between De vanitate and DOP is thus primarily an effect of the difference between analysis and synthesis.

One of the obvious questions to ask of Descartes’s synthetic project is whether the philosopher is actually consistent to the method he has described. That is, is every synthetic point really impregnable to the methodic doubt that produced the cogito? The same question may legitimately be asked of Agrippa: is it certain that every point made in DOP requires no axioms or assumptions apart from the Incarnation?

Throughout the present book, I have traced the ways in which DOP connects the occult and manifest principles and facts of the spheres with the certainty of the Incarnation. I have also tried to show that, from a linguistic-philosophical stance, the Incarnate Word actually makes a rather clever solution to problem of skeptical epistemology, in that it not only serves as an absolute datum for Nature and the Divine, but also establishes a metaphysical connection between the two by revealing a potentiality for language to achieve Truth through the Word.

Nevertheless, I can hardly claim that DOP ultimately achieves its synthetic goals. Just as Descartes needed his rather shoddy proof for the existence of God in order to progress beyond the cogito, and thereby inserted another unwarranted assumption, so Agrippa assumed that the reality of the Incarnation validated Scripture as a datum, and thereby precipitated the occult philosophy back into the prison of language.

In the Introduction I claimed that DOP seeks a way out of logocen- trism, out of the absence which haunts language and reality, and that the solution is perhaps itself the ultimate logocentrism; I think that the analysis bears this out. In the present context, we may add that it is De vanitate which exposes the absence, and proposes the Christian solution which guides the entirety of DOP. Any future assessment of the philosophical worth of Agrippa’s philosophical project must recognize that, like Descartes’s, it has two parts. While one might legitimately argue that the analytical De vanitate is more successful in achieving its goals than is the synthetic De occulta philosophia, this is not evidence against Agrippa as a philosopher—after all, the same can be said of Cartesian rationalism.

Historical Speculations

If we have now established DOP as a coherent and sophisticated philosophical statement, it remains to be seen what (if any) effect this has on the historiography of early modern intellectual currents. I cannot hope to project all the possible ramifications of a revised reading of DOP, nor do I wish to suggest that the present reading necessitates radical reinterpretation of early modern intellectual history in general.   Instead, I shall make a series of quick guesses about possible implications for particular areas of the history of ideas.
The impact of DOP upon the history of early modern magic is fairly obvious, although as noted before scholars have been wary of granting it the importance it deserves. One difficulty is simply that there are few scholars whose intellectual focus is magic, and most of these few bring to the field assumptions and priorities drawn from the history of science or philosophy. Furthermore most of those in this nascent discipline of the History of Magic seem primarily interested in thinkers later than Agrippa; at least partly inspired by Frances Yates, they orient their studies of magical thought around Giordano Bruno most especially, and to a lesser degree Dee, with Fludd, Ficino, Pico, and Cardano considerably behind.  Further, historians of magic are generally not theoretically oriented; they consider themselves historians in a relatively classical sense, and are leery of the admittedly deep pitfalls of “high theory.”

Theoretical Meditations

At the outset of this book I proposed that the various theoretical and methodological positions be used not only as lenses for examining DOP, but also as conversation partners for DOP ’s projected magus. Over the course of the analysis, this conversation has come to include a wide range of thinkers, both Agrippa’s contemporaries and our own, from a broad spectrum of disciplines and schools. As yet, however, the magus who occasions this imagined conversation has not responded, apart from very intermittent asides. In this final section, the time has at last come for the Agrippan magus to address the other thinkers at this odd symposium.

Hermetic Hermeneutics and History

Linguistic philosophy has played a significant role in this study, largely because DOP is deeply invested in a linguistic-philosophical project. In suggesting possible implications of this reading for (post)modern linguistic philosophy, I must acknowledge my own lack of expertise—I am not trained as a linguistic philosopher. At the same time, making sense of DOP has required some rethinking of linguistic issues, which may be of value for scholars so trained.

The primary point I would like to draw attention to is the issue of what I have termed analog signification (page 138 above). In Agrippa’s magical semiotics, the ultimate range of a sign’s possible motivation is unlimited; that is, a given sign can be locked to its referent to such a degree that manipulation of the sign has corresponding effects on the referent. While such a conclusion depends upon a metaphysics which can no longer be accepted, the idea that signification need not be thought in binary terms is worth consideration.

As a simple example, suppose we have a cat and several signs which refer to that cat. It is apparent that the spoken word /’kat/ and the written “cat” refer to the animal in different ways, and that “Fluffy” refers to her in yet another; all this is quite ordinary semiotics. Suppose we also have several iconic signs: a stick-figure drawing of a cat, a simple sketch, and a photograph of Fluffy herself. Can it be said that the photograph refers more strongly than the stick-figure? That is, is it a more effective way of referring to Fluffy? If it is further recognized that modern semioticians and linguistic philosophers are continually breaking down the arbitrary barriers between icon, index, and symbol, is there any a priori reason to assume that only icons have this range of referential power? If more than one mode of referring is employed—if the photograph has a label, for example—what effect does this have on the sign’s power?

This is not, I think, a question that can be dismissed easily. As I have argued (page 135), the logocentric criticism of writing as “distant” already implies that some signs are weaker than others. Most traditionally, the claim is that speech has presence while writing has only absence. But if more recent linguistic philosophy has granted that all language is haunted by absence, then a binary distinction between presence and absence cannot be maintained. At the same time it is clear that signs do not refer to all referents; thus it seems valid to say that, with respect to Fluffy at least, “cat” is a stronger sign than “dog.” We can go farther—both “cat” and “dog” are pets, and thus presumably both are stronger with respect to Fluffy than is “teacup,” not to mention an abstraction such as “magic.” Thus there is some reason to think that signs can be more or less “powerful,” but this notion of “power” has yet to be clearly formulated as part of the sign.  I suggest that Agrippa’s analog signification—which is theorized    in    various    ways    by    many    early    modern        linguistic philosophers—offers valuable resources for thinking the power of the sign. I  would  like  to  conclude  by  posing  a peculiar question.    In the Introduction, I discussed Jacques Derrida’s famous essay “Plato’s Pharmacy,” and remarked on Derrida’s failure to mention Theuth’s invention of magic (page 25). I think this absence points to a more general issue: the occult haunts the margins of Derrida’s work.  Ghosts, haunting,  specters—these  metaphors  are   used  constantly. In good Derridean fashion, then, we should ask what is signified by this common thread in deconstruction’s rhetoric.

Three avenues for investigation suggest themselves to me; it seems not unlikely that all three are closely intertwined. First, if (as I shall suggest in the next and final section) writing and magic are somehow conceptually linked, it is hardly surprising to find that magic makes its spectral presence known in philosophical discourse on writing. Second, a great part of  Derrida’s philosophical project has been to continue the overthrow of modernist metaphysics, whose outlines were most powerfully delineated in the early seventeenth century; as such, it is not intrinsically odd that the sixteenth century philosophical movement which was almost entirely destroyed by modern philosophy and science—I refer of course to magic—still haunts the margins of philosophical memory. Third, it is worth considering the periodic resurfacing of magical thought in philosophy after Descartes (Schelling’s fascination with Lurianic Kabbalah leaps to mind), which might provoke us to wonder whether magic has always played the role of modernism’s ghostly other.

I cannot project the conclusion of this magical deconstruction of deconstruction; I do believe, however, that this is a point at which early modern intellectual historians can play a role in modern philosophy. In general, such historians have been reluctant to involve themselves in “high theory,” and thus have not had much impact on recent philosophical speculation. This reluctance is unfortunate, having at times hampered historical scholarship, as suggested above in my discussion of Agrippa in the history of magic, science, and philosophy. Indeed, by avoiding “theory,” early modern intellectual historians have also perhaps deprived philosophers and theorists of insights which may prove of fundamental importance.

Writing Magic

In the Introduction I suggested that a reading of early modern magical thought might help clarify a hoary old problem in the history of religions and anthropology, the definition of magic. In chapter four, I added a sketch of a possible rethinking of ritual theory on written-semiotic lines (page 241). In this final section, I would like briefly to outline the ways in which the present analysis of DOP may assist in reopening the question of magic. I have no intention of proposing a new theory or definition of magic as such; rather, I would like to sketch a way to move the question forward which may prove more profitable.

Let me begin by granting some force to the social construction theory of  religion  and  ritual,  which  is  to  say  that  “religion”  and  “ritual,”  as ordinarily employed, are categories which primarily revolve around social spheres. Further, I accept provisionally that social interaction is ordinarily based upon and parallel to speech. I suggest, then, that we can clarify the oppositive nature of definitions of magic by postulating a similar connection between magic and writing.

Definitions of magic are very commonly negative, based on opposition: magic is the bastard sister of science, magic is illicit religion. A similar negative rhetoric is often applied to writing: writing is an imitation of memory, writing is a supplement to speech. But this notion famously deconstructs itself: writing is a supplement to speech, in that it is unnecessary and exterior to speech, but simultaneously necessary. For this very reason, it is also despised and suspected by the very people one would expect to valorize it, such as philosophers and academics. Suppose, then, that magic is defined as a supplement to religion; unnecessary and exterior, despised, but always already a haunting and needed figure on the margins of religion. And yet, that last sentence is just as accurate—and as inaccurate—if we replace “religion” with “science.” In a sense, magic is the writing of mainstream intellectual culture.

Let me clarify this gnomic remark. Suppose we imagine a broad intellectual sphere involving science and religion, not only the site of their contestation and intersection but also the totality of cultural life as dominated by these two general categories; we might call this broad sphere “mainstream intellectual culture.” Now all the constituents of mainstream intellectual culture thus defined are founded upon deep and essentially inevitable logocentric assumptions: it is hard to imagine the scientific or religious pundits of the present-day or early modern worlds surrendering all claims to knowledge and communication with the extra-human (Nature in itself, the divine) as flatly unworkable, useless, founded upon absence rather than presence. So if mainstream intellectual culture of modern and early modern Euro-American culture is at heart rooted in a fallacious metaphysics of presence, parallel to speech in a logocentric conception of language, what written specter haunts Europe?

The answer, I suggest, is magic.

The problem with this abstraction is that the categories are not commensurable. “Religion” and “science” are modern second-order constructs, abstract scholarly categories with no “real” existence elsewhere. “Magic,” on the other hand, seems to be a cross-cultural category with first-order utility. Furthermore since our present focus is on magic as a practiced phenomenon, not an artifact of social cleavages, we find that magic (or its apparent categorical parallels) in each culture has its own history, its own mythology, its own distinctive culture. Thus a purely abstract categorical definition will not suffice to cover “magic” in its lived cultural reality.

At the same time there is a relatively simple solution to this problem. Although “magic” begins as an oppositional label, an abstraction which carries the same valence as writing with respect to speech, that label once applied is often embraced by members of the culture in question. If magic begins as something which “they” do, very soon there will be a “they” who do in fact practice magic. And from that moment, magic has a history, and begins immediately to diverge from a simple abstraction.

This is not, let me hasten to add, an historical account. We are unlikely ever to find this inaugural moment, when “magic” ceases to be merely a label and becomes a lived practice, for the same reasons that we are unlikely to uncover evidence of the mythical “invention” of religion. But I suggest that the constant interaction of mainstream intellectual culture with those who embrace “magic” will generally ensure that the term retains some germ of the abstraction.

From a methodological and theoretical standpoint, this interaction must also be recapitulated constantly in scholarly analysis. On the one hand, there is no value in a definition of magic which cannot embrace actual magical practices; for this reason the social cleavage model is of little utility for magic in general, despite its value in the analysis of witchcraft in particular. At the same time, a purely historical and culturally specific description cannot serve a broad definitional function, as there is no reason to suppose that such a description will be generalizable. Thus a scholarly analysis of magic must continually cycle between “magic” as label and “magic” as practiced cultural reality, and through the operation of this hermeneutic circle we may begin to generate a functional scholarly category of magic.

My suspicion, as stated before, is that magical thought and practices will always be in some way bound up with the nature of writing. Thus practices which readily submit to analysis as written forms—divination being the most obvious—will tend to be those conventionally labeled “magical.” Such practices, and their practitioners, will tend to be implicated in many of the same effects which seem bound up with the nature of writing: on the social level the common prestige awarded to literacy will be paralleled in the prestige—awe, terror, etc.—associated with magical practices, while at the semiotic level, we will tend to find analysis by division and an association with temporal control.

The fact that writing necessitates and permits close reading, the process of breaking down and rebuilding a text in order to make it mean, often has the effect of making magicians appear to analyze their practices in a manner too often linked simply to the modern Western world. We “know” that the natives do not think the way we do, that they do not analyze their rituals and practices in the way a modern scholar does; the fact that magicians often seem to do so threatens this facile self-superiority (expressed romantically in terms of “what we have lost”) and may be partly responsible for the neglect of magical thought in the history of religions. At the same time, the oppositive structure of magic in the abstract is inherently threatening, not only to modern scholars but to mainstream intellectual culture in general. Again, we may draw a parallel to writing: writing threatens an intellectual culture which depends upon the metaphysics of presence, because writing makes obvious the absence at the heart  of  language.    In a similar way, perhaps, magic makes ob- vious—makes present, even—the instability of naturalistic and religious metaphysics. In this sense, it is not surprising that DOP seems at times to predict recent philosophical developments: Agrippa’s occult philosophy was founded upon questioning, taking advantage of, and overcoming the weaknesses inherent in the very foundations of modern thought.