Henry Cornelius Agrippa was a young prodigy who assembled a massive treatise on esotericism and magic in the early 1500's. The books, published in 1533, were dedicated to Abbot Johannes Trithemius, a Lutheran minister steeped in the occult tradition of the times. The text is a cornerstone of Western magical tradition. It was translated from Latin into English by J. F. (possibly James Freake) in 1651. Donald Tyson used the J. F. translation for his ambitious annotated edition published by Llewellyn in 1993. Those of us who acquired the 1993 printing were grateful to have it, but the antiquated language and various translation flaws presented difficulties.

Eric Purdue took on the enormous task of translating the 1992 Latin critical edition for modern readers. This modern white knight-wizard's expertise in classical astrology and magic is a huge bonus, as he possesses the knowledge to elucidate what Agrippa was actually trying to say. As Purdue points out in his introduction, J. F. wasn't familiar with astrological terminology, and neither was Donald Tyson. Consequently the 1993 edition is embedded with errors. All translators are not created equal! The prior knowledge each translator brings to the table is critical to the end-product. A solid foundation of knowledge is absolutely necessary to wade through this intensely dense and complicated book and make it comprehensible to others.

Purdue modernizes the language but attempts to preserve as much as possible, and he takes special care with the intent of the original terminology. Agrippa's margin notes make their first appearance in English. Bonus! Some of Agrippa's names for stones, minerals, and botanical species remain problematic. The text is extensively footnoted to cite original source material. Agrippa lifted entire passages word-for-word from 200+ primary source books. Amazingly, about 90% of these sources have been identified. “Three Books” isn't simply a copy-book, though. Agrippa created a complex organizational structure to present the material in an orderly manner and tied the quotations together with his own observations and summaries.

Agrippa states in his opening letter to Abbot Trithemius that his books were written exclusively for educated men with the philosophical and magical worldview that was pervasive during the Renaissance. This worldview centers on a pre-Copernican earth-centered cosmos, medieval astrological techniques, and Neoplatonic Hermeticism fused with Sephardic-Mezarabic Kabbalah. This is not what Donald Michael Kraig refers to as “the WASP Kabbalah” that's familiar to most contemporary practitioners. Readers without prior knowledge on these topics will find the text daunting.  

Agrippan magical techniques make extensive and elaborate use of the Law of Correspondences. The earth and sky are linked to produce particular results. There are detailed descriptions of how and why certain things have corresponding relationships, and how related items can be gathered to form a conduit to superior realms and leverage the assistance of non-corporeal beings (angels, spirits, intelligences, and daemons). He outlines the criteria for using astrology to choose appropriate times for performing a ritual operations. Some of the material echoes the techniques and goals of late medieval alchemy, but Agrippa's focus is on providing exquisitely detailed instructions for performing the type of astrological talismanic magic peculiar to the medieval and Renaissance eras.

The instructions for magical operations are sometimes impossible or impracticable for modern wizards. Readers attempting to replicate these spells should be prepared to devise appropriate substitute ingredients. Agrippa's outline of correspondence theory is invaluable for providing the basis for substitutions. In fact, the true value of “Three Books” lies in the detailed philosophical concepts and exposition of cosmic and astrological theories that are at the heart of Western magical procedures.

Even with the modern translation, this is slow and heavy reading. It is thought-provoking on a deeply complex level; the reader is obliged to absorb and process each nugget of wisdom. Purdue has done a remarkable job of crafting an accessible book, but it's still the literary magical-philosophical equivalent of climbing Mount Everest.

Purdue is a modern translation hero. The merit of this work places him in the company of James Holden, David Pingree, Ben Dykes, and the members of Project Hindsight. Although his heroic efforts will be lauded by a relatively small group of geeky wizards and neo-classical astrologers, it doesn't reduce the magnitude of the project, the excellence of its presentation, or the historic impact his translation of “Three Books” will have on succeeding generations of scholars. The burgeoning scope of ancient texts that are becoming available through the labors of these translators is quietly but pervasively transforming the underground stream of esotericism in the 21st century. A classical revival is well underway, and the new translation of Agrippa's “Three Books” is a significant milestone achievement.

This book is highly recommended for ceremonial-astrological magicians and Hermetic-Neoplatonic philosophers with prior exposure to medieval astrology. Purdue plans to complete and publish Books Two and Three in the next few years, and they will be eagerly awaited and anticipated with relish. The importance of this new translation can't be overstated, nor can the immense difficulty of translating one of the most complex books published during the Renaissance. Accolades and ovations for Mr. Purdue for having the courage to take on this labor of love.

~review by Elizabeth Hazel

Author: Henry Cornelius Agrippa
Translated by Eric Purdue
Academic Edition
Renaissance Astrology, 2012
207 pg

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