Agrippa von Nettesheim, Henry Cornelius
German soldier and physician, and an adept in alchemy, astrology,
and magic. He was born at Cologne September 14,
1486, and educated at the University of Cologne. While still a
youth he served under Maximilian I of Germany. In 1509 he
lectured at the University of Dole, but a charge of heresy
brought against him by a monk named Catilinet compelled
him to leave Dole, and he resumed his former occupation of
soldier. In the following year he was sent on a diplomatic mission
to England, and on his return followed Maximilian to
Italy, where he passed seven years, serving various noble patrons.
Thereafter he practiced medicine at Geneva, and was appointed
physician to Louise of Savoy, mother of Francis I; but,
on being given some task which he found irksome, he left the
service of his patroness and denounced her bitterly. He then
accepted a post offered him by Margaret, duchess of Savoy, regent
of the Netherlands. On her death in 1530, he traveled to
France, where he was arrested for some slighting mention of
the Queen-Mother, Louise of Savoy. He was soon released,
however, and died at Grenoble in 1535.
Agrippa was a man of great talent and varied attainments.
He was acquainted with eight languages and was evidently a talented
physician, soldier, and theologian with many noble patrons.
Yet, notwithstanding these advantages, he never seemed
free from misfortune; persecution and financial difficulties
dogged him and in Brussels he suffered imprisonment for
debt. He frequently made enemies, and the persecution of the
monks with whom he often came into conflict was bitter and increasing.
His principal works were a defense of magic, entitled De occulta
philosophia, which was not published until 1531, though
written some twenty years earlier; and a satirical attack on the
scientific pretensions of his day, De incertitudine et Vanitate
Scientiarum et Artium atque Excellentia Verbi Dei Declamatio, also
published at Antwerp in 1531. His other works included a treatise
De Nobilitate et Praecellentia Feminu Sexus, dedicated to Margaret
of Burgundy out of gratitude for her patronage.
His interest in alchemy and magic dated from an early period
of his life and gave rise to many tales of his occult powers.
It was said that he was always accompanied by a familiar in the
shape of a large black dog. There is a tradition that on his death
he renounced his magical works and addressed his familiar
thus: Begone, wretched animal, the entire cause of my destruction!
The animal fled from the room and plunged into
the Saone, where it perished. It was said that at the inns where
he stayed, Agrippa paid his bills with money that appeared
genuine enough at the time, but which afterward turned to
worthless horn or shell, like the fairy money which turned to
earth after sunset. He was also said to have summoned the spirit
of Cicero (died 43 B.C.E.) to pronounce his oration for Roscius,
in the presence of John George, elector of Saxony, the earl
of Surrey, Erasmus, and other eminent people. Cicero duly appeared,
delivered his famous oration, and left his audience
deeply moved. Agrippa was supposed to have a magic glass in
which it was possible to see objects distant in time or place.
One other story concerning the magician is worthy of record.
About to leave home for a short time, he entrusted his
wife with the key of his museum, warning her to permit no one
to enter. But a curious boarder in their house begged for the
key, till at length the harassed hostess gave it to him. The first
thing that caught the students attention was a book of spells,
which he began to read. A knock sounded on the door. The student
took no notice, but went on reading, and the knock was
repeated. A moment later a demon entered, demanding to
know why he had been summoned. The student was too terrified
to make reply, and the angry demon seized him by the
throat and strangled him. At the same moment Agrippa entered,
having returned unexpectedly from his journey. Fearing
that he would be charged with the murder of the youth, he persuaded
the demon to restore him to life for a little while and
walk him up and down the market place. The demon consented;
people saw the student apparently alive and in good health,
and when the demon allowed the semblance of life to leave the
body, they thought the young man had died a natural death.
However, an examination clearly showed that he had been
strangled. The true state of affairs leaked out, and Agrippa was
forced to flee for his life.
These fabrications of the popular imagination were probably
encouraged rather than suppressed by Agrippa, who loved
to surround his comparatively harmless pursuits of alchemy
and astrology with an air of mystery calculated to inspire awe
and terror in the minds of the ignorant. It is known that he had
correspondents in all parts of the world, and that from their letters
he gleaned the knowledge which he was popularly believed
to obtain from his familiars.
Agrippa, Henry. Three Books of Occult Philosophy. London:
Chthonois Books, n.d.
Agrippa von Nettesheim, H. C. Philosophy of Natural Magic.
New Hyde Park, N.Y.: University Books, 1974.
. Three Books of Occult Philosophy or Magic. New York:
Samuel Weiser, 1971.
Federmann, Reinhard. The Royal Art of Alchemy. New York:
Chilton Book, 1969.