Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa

The German humanist Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa von Nettesheim (1486-1535).
Agrippa. The German humanist Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa von Nettesheim (1486-1535).
Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa von Nettesheim was a magician and occult writer, astrologer, and alchemist. He may also be considered an early feminist.


He was born of minor noble birth in Cologne September 14, 1486; according to his student Johann Weyer, Agrippa died in Grenoble, in 1535, and while no evidence places Agrippa clearly after 1534 there is little reason to doubt Weyer. Some have proposed the date February 18, 1535, but this is entirely unconfirmed.

In 1509, he taught at the University of Dole in France, lecturing on Johann Reuchlin’s De verbo mirifico; as a result, Agrippa was denounced, behind his back, as a “Judaizing heretic.” Agrippa’s vitriolic response many months later did not endear him to the University.

In 1510, he studied briefly with Johannes Trithemius, and Agrippa sent him an early draft of his masterpiece, De occulta philosophia libri tres, a kind of summa of early modern occult thought. Trithemius was guardedly approving, but suggested that Agrippa keep the work more or less secret; Agrippa chose not to publish, perhaps for this reason, but continued to revise and rethink the book for twenty years.

He was for some time in the service of Maximilian I, probably as a soldier in Italy, but devoted his time mainly to the study of the occult sciences and to problematic theologico-legal questions, which exposed him to various persecutions through life, usually in the mode described above: he would be denounced for one sort of heresy or another, privately, and would then reply with venom considerably later. Apart from losing several positions, however, it does not appear that Agrippa was persecuted in any significant fashion.

During his wandering life in Germany, France and Italy he worked as a theologian, physician, legal expert and soldier.

After Agrippa’s death, rumors circulated about his having summoned demons. In the most famous of these, Agrippa, upon his deathbed, released a black dog which had been his familiar. This black dog resurfaced in various legends about Faustus, and in Goethe’s version became the “schwarze Püdel” Mephistopheles.

Contrary to much received opinion, however, there is no evidence whatever that Agrippa was seriously accused, much less persecuted, for his interest in or practice of magical or occult arts during his lifetime.


Agrippa is perhaps best known for his books. An incomplete list:

  • De incertitudine et vanitate scientiarum atque artium declamatio invectiva (1526; printed in Cologne 1527), a skeptical satire of the sad state of science. This book, a significant production of the revival of Pyrrhonic skepticism in its fideist mode, was to have a significant impact on such thinkers and writers as Montaigne, Rene Descartes, and Goethe.
  • De occulta philosophia libri tres (Three Books of Occult Philosophy, Book 1 printed Paris 1531; Books 1-3 in Cologne 1533). This summa of occult and magical thought, Agrippa’s most important work in a number of respects, sought a solution to the skepticism proposed in De vanitate. In short, Agrippa argued for a synthetic vision of magic whereby the natural world linked to the celestial and the divine through Neoplatonic participation, such that the ordinarily licit natural magic was in fact validated by a kind of demonic magic stemming ultimately from God. By this means Agrippa proposed a magic that could resolve all epistemological problems raised by skepticism in a total validation of Christian faith. The book was a major influence on such later magical thinkers as Giordano Bruno and John Dee, but was ill-understood after the decline of the Occult Renaissance concomitant with the Scientific Revolution. (Note that Philosophy of Natural Magic: Complete Work on Natural Magic, White & Black Magic, 1569, ISBN 1564591603, is simply book 1 of De occulta philosophia libri tres.)
  • Declamatio de nobilitate et praecellentia foeminei sexus (Declamation on the Nobility and Preeminence of the Female Sex, 1529), a book on the theological and moral superiority of women.

A spurious Fourth book of occult philosophy, sometimes called Of Magical Ceremonies, has also been attributed to him; this book first appeared in Marburg in 1559 and was certainly not by Agrippa.

(A semi-complete collection of his writings were also printed in Lyon in 1550; more complete editions followed.)

Modern editions of Agrippa’s works

De occulta philosophia libri tres. Ed. Vitttoria Perrone Compagni. Leiden and Boston: Brill, 1992.

Three Books Of Occult Philosophy. Trans. J. F. Edited by Donald Tyson. St. Paul, MN: Llewellyn, 1993.

Declamation on the Nobility and Preeminence of the Female Sex. Trans. Albert Rabil, Jr. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996.

Of the Vanitie and Vncertaintie of Artes and Sciences. Edited by Catherine M. Dunn. Northridge, CA: California State University Foundation, 1974. ASIN: B0006CM0SW

Further reading

Lehrich, Christopher I. The Language of Demons and Angels. Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2003. The only in-depth scholarly study of Agrippa’s occult thought.

Nauert, Charles G. Agrippa and the Crisis of Renaissance Thought. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1965. The first serious bio-bibliographical study.

van der Poel, Marc. Cornelius Agrippa, the Humanist Theologian and His Declamations. Leiden and Boston: Brill, 1997. Detailed examination of Agrippa’s minor orations and the De vanitate by a Neo-Latin philologist.

Yates, Frances A. Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition. The University of Chicago Press, 1964. Provides a scholarly summary of Agrippa’s occult thoughts in the context of Hermetism.

External links

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