If you are like me, you have heard of Cornelius Agrippa’s Occult Philosophy (the most famous of the medieval grimoires), and have always imagined it as the most mysterious and arcane of ancient texts, filled with the Esoteric Lore of the Past. (Well, actually, it is filled with esoteric lore, but lore that is esoteric to anyone not acquainted with Magick-Use). While the information found in Agrippa is without doubt quite ancient, it is nonetheless reassuringly familiar to any modern Magick-Worker. As is made clear in the voluminous edition of Donald Tyson, released by notable Magickal Publishers Llewellyn, Occult Philosophy is the world’s first (in its medieval time, the most thorough and well-organized) “How-To” Ritual Book.
The reasons to be indebted to Mr. Tyson are many; an incredible amount of time was clearly committed to the editing and annotating of these three sizable volumes, first published in 1531, and then printed in English in 1651. Working from that translation, Tyson has scrupulously fixed many errors, following Agrippa’s sources back towards their originals as much as possible. The result is the most comprehensive and painstaking edition of a work not printed in its entirety since the mid-seventeenth century, called by Mr. Tyson the “Foundation Book of Western Occultism.”
Agrippa’s genius was to systematize the Science and Art of medieval Magick into a better organized and presented form than had been yet known. Drawing upon Egyptian, Greek, Roman, Arabic and Jewish sources, he assembled the “most complete repository of Pagan and Neoplatonic magic ever compiled,” leading the reader through the “ancient world of the occult,” imparting in the process “what amounts to a doctoral degree in classical occultism.” Occult Philosophy became the “single most important guide” to European Magick-Working for the past 500 years, influencing such others as Francis Barrett and the Golden Dawn.
Reading this edition makes plain that what we have inherited as Magick-Use is indeed the same procedures, orientations, and basis as understood by the Middle Ages (and understood by them to have come from the Ancient World; one of Agrippa’s more enjoyable habits is to reference Classical sources as confirmation of his assertions). Therefore, looking this Llewellyn edition over, I get a kick out of how much it reads like a 1500s “How-To” book, complete with color and planetary correspondences, recipes for incenses, and Cabbala and the Zodiac discussed. The first book starts off with an explanation of “What magic is, what are the parts thereof”; goes into “Of the four elements, their qualities, and mixtions”; and then on to “Of the Spirit of the World, what it is, and how by way of media it unites occult virtues to their subjects.”
We learn of “The composition of some fumes appropriated to the planets”; “of numbers, and of their power, and virtue”; and “of the divine names, and their power and virtue.” “How he that will receive oracles must dispose himself” is covered, as is “What imprecations and rites the ancients were wont to use in sacrifices and oblations,” as well as “Of consecrations, and their manner.” And then finally we discover “How occult virtues are infused into the several kinds of things by Ideas, through the help of the Soul of the World, and rays of the stars: and what things abound most with this virtue.”
In short, as Mr. Tyson indicates, Agrippa’s Occult Philosophy is the best, most encyclopedic, dissertation upon medieval Magick, influential across the centuries down to our own time. My great thanks to Donald Tyson for his untiring work, and to Llewellyn for their publication of this excellent and essential volume. This is the true medieval history to our own Rites, Traditions, and Philosophy.