Agrippa’s Magical Topaz
Is to him the more precious,
Blushing with golden splendor.
Both appearance and in ethereal brightness
It shows the steadfast duty
Of the contemplative life.
~Marbodus, 11th-Century Bishop of Rennes
(Trans. C. W. King, 1870)
Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa von Nettesheim (1486–1535) was a German alchemist and magician. He wrote De Occulta Philosophia Libri Tres (Three Books of Occult Philosophy), a widely read book on the subject of magic and the occult arts.
In his day Agrippa was a controversial figure because magic was associated with sorcery and witchcraft, which were banned by the Church. According to Paolo Giovio, Agrippa’s book was “a work most corrupting to the curious and to be found only in the hands of the impious.” Unfortunately this became a widespread attitude, even though Agrippa explained to his readers (ed. L. W. de Laurence, 1913): “[A] Magician doth not, amongst learned men, signify a sorcerer or one that is superstitious or devilish; but a wise man, a priest, a prophet.”
Agrippa believed that magic should not be considered heretical. His aim was to purge the science of magic of the demonic practices and unsavory reputation it had acquired in the Middle Ages. He believed that magic was not the work of the devil but of God. Agrippa claimed that “magic was received by philosophers, commended by divines, and is not unacceptable to the Gospel.”
The art of magic is the art of worshiping God. ~Sir Walter Raleigh
By returning to the pure wisdom of the ancients, Agrippa believed magic could become a useful science, with tangible benefits for mankind. In the hands of a master magician, or magus, Agrippa believed his reformed magic had the power to work miracles: “But those things which are for the profit of men—for the turning away of evil events, for the destroying of sorceries, for the curing of diseases, for the exterminating of phantasms, for the preserving of life, honor, or fortune—may be done without offense to God or injury to religion, because they are, as profitable, so necessary.”
The first volume of Agrippa’s Occult Philosophy was devoted to natural magic—or the comprehensive knowledge of Mother Nature, including her occult secrets. In Agrippa’s day, many believed that everything on Earth was influenced by celestial bodies. Plants, animals, and gemstones were all said to be governed by stars and planets. Thus—according to Agrippa—topaz, water, quicksilver, dogs, and parsley were a few of the things that fell under the power of the planet Mercury.
Agrippa believed that magic should make use of the natural affinities and antipathies (or enmities) that existed between all things:
“There are Inclinations of Enmities, and they are, as it were, the odium, and anger, indignation, and a certain kind of obstinate contrariety of nature, so that any thing shuns its contrary and drives it away out of its presence. Such kinds of inclinations hath rhubarb against choler, treacle against poison, the sapphire stone against hot boils and feverish heats and diseases of the eyes; the amethyst against drunkenness, the jasper against flux of blood and offensive imaginations…the topaz against spiritual heats, such as are covetousness, lust, and all manner of excesses of love.”
Although Agrippa was careful to distance himself from black magic, he was denounced as a sorcerer and heretic. Dark legends swirled about him throughout his life and followed him to his deathbed. According to Paolo Giovio:
“He died before he reached old age in a mean, dark inn at Lyons, execrated by many as a wretch suspected of practicing black art, because they thought he took about with him an evil genius in the shape of a black dog. Therefore, when, as death drew near, he was urged to repent, he took off the dog’s leather collar studded with nails in a pattern of magic symbols and angrily burst out with these last words, ‘Begone, accursed beast that has utterly destroyed me!’ And that favorite dog, the constant companion of all his journeyings, deserted his dying master and was never seen again.”
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