I just finished reading Tyson’s version of Three Books of Occult Philosophy. A lot of people really don’t like Tyson’s annotations for whatever reason but I can’t think of an edition I would prefer to Tyson’s. I haven’t read the Whitehead version, I’m told it was unannotated and frankly Tyson is scholarly enough to leave Agrippa’s own errors in and earmark them for explanation at the end. Good examples of this are Arabic or Greek loanwords (or spirits) which Agrippa spells out phonetically but confuses them for similar sounding names. Ino is not Juno, as Tyson points out 6+ times.
If someone only wants to read one of the books, read the last chapter of book 1 and then read all of book 2. Book 2 is where most of the magic how we think of magic today is explained complete with charts by Tyson. Frequently in the time period, books were published with the assumption the reader knew and would make his own chart for a particular table, and if the charts ever existed at all, they’re usually omitted until Tyson’s notes at the end of the chapter. Lists are common and thankfully presented in a way we all understand, such as the names of Angels and planets. The real meat of the Tyson book, however, is the bibliography. While Agrippa gives us a wonderful tour of “magic” in book 2, what he was reading (and what Tyson attempts to enumerate) is just as valuable as the content itself.
I read it cover to cover minus the dictionary at the back, but I did make it a point to page through the bibliography, indexes, and dictionaries. Really if the book were presented in a modern format, it would be presented backwards. Book 3 is the apologia, which is fairly common in those days like “Oh I’ve renounced magic after seeing the wickedness of this entire book I wrote on magic” but also has some notations on Geomancy revisited which Tyson helpfully points out is fundamentally broken (while also poking at Skinner). It also contains the magic squares, which is really important to the material in the previous book but not explored in depth until the third book. Specifically copying the seals verbatim for talismans is not a good idea and I haven’t figured out where Agrippa gets his seals from. Tyson, for that matter, doesn’t know either and supposes a relationship to Jewish Mysticism but I feel this is a reach. The most popular version of these is reproduced from The Magus which Tyson goes into extensively how the seal of Saturn is made, and why the seal of Venus is wrong. Thankfully, Tyson also includes illustrations where they would help and attributes them.
That being said, the modern read of this book would present the third book first, possibly breaking the apologia out into an introduction, present the third book material first, then move into more esoteric and general magical topics in book 2, then present book 1. Book 1 is a fun hodgepodge of random facts Agrippa feels is important and reads, frankly, like a high school book report or research project. One of my favorite examples is “Ostriches eat iron”. I’m sitting on the train going “OK I paid money for this?” This goes with “Salamanders live in fire”. The salamanders quote we sort of know about from Crowley and various other modern texts and this is typically presented as “fire elementals are salamanders”. If we only went by Crowley or the majority of llewelyns publications, we would be content there. However there’s a much larger play here which didn’t click until book 2, where certain elements are ruled by certain planets at certain times, which give them dominion over certain animals. This is very wu wei. (See timaeus). Therefor salamanders represent the most correct and purest form of fire, but their manifestation on the physical plane is subject to the same laws as anything else where their gross body is consumed by fire. Are vulgar salamanders attracted to vulgar fire? Of course – as is every other cold blooded animal in the pet store.
What’s all this about ostriches eating iron then? Getting into Agrippa’s head, he probably observed birds eating rocks. Anyone who’s raised chickens knows that chickens “eat” rocks for their crops, and they’re pretty selective about what rocks they consume. Coupled with bird heads being magnetic, suddenly the idea that Agrippa is sitting in a lab somewhere with a bird head on a pin and a compass isn’t so far fetched. From a mundane perspective, that’s the way to read the first book. Agrippa is observing thing X, seeing effect Y, and he writes it down. Where would he get an ostrich given his economic situation? I have no idea. However from an occult perspective, he is suggesting that birds are attracted to and of the nature of iron (which by itself has properties) so they’re also governed by Mars. This has interesting implications for very specific types of divination (augury) which would then excel at answering specific types of questions. In fact, his view of divination lends itself to exactly this – he feels as though divination is observation of the natural states of things while “predicting the future” is firmly under prophecy.
The application is pretty obvious and lends itself to alchemical thought, which would have been a hot topic in Agrippa’s day. Lets say that someone is coughing up a lung (I am!) and therefor has an abundance of phlegm. In book 1 chapter xlix, we’re told phlegm is blue (watery), and would point us to Jupiter. In book 2 chapter xxxvi, we’ve given the contrary nature to phlegm: But the Celestial Images, according to whose likeness Images of this kinde are framed, are very many in the heavens: Some visible and conspicuous, others onely imaginable, conceived and set down by Egyptians, Indians and Chaldeans [Chaldaeans]; and their parts are so ordered, that even the figures of some of them are distinguished from others: for this reason they place in the Zodiack circle twelve general images, according to the number of the signs: of these they constituting Aries, Leo, and Sagittary for the fiery and oriental triplicity, do report that its profitable against Feavors [fevers], Palsie [palsy], Drosie, Gout, and all cold and phlegmatick infirmities, and that it makes him who carrieth it to be acceptable, eloquent, ingenious and honorable, because they are the Houses of Mars, Sol, and Jupiter.
This sounds like it’s straight up simple astrology (including putting Jupiter in the wrong place in my opinion), but what he’s actually doing is looking up into the heavens (the ideal world) to find applications which apply to the microcosm. Normally for instance I’ve been charging my necklace with a sun candle I’ve consecrated in the name of Michael to try to keep me in good health. I’ve been having real hit-or-miss episodes with it and I think the error is because I’m relying on a spirit to do the work. Spirits are busy. Spirits may not always agree. Rather than operate on a purely ceremonial magic level, I think the thing to do is charge the necklace at a more profitable time. What is a profitable time? I see that today, for my location, at 5pm, both the Sun and Mars are going to be in Aries (without any of the gotchas Agrippa mentions). It would be good then to construct a talisman to one (or both) in the hour and write phlegm on them with the kamea generator, in the appropriate colors of the planets. What I’m actually doing here is using the already sympathetic conditions in the universe for magic rather than trying to perform an evocation. I am good at evocational magic, I suck at emergency magic, I’m hoping natural magic can fill the gap. No android phone? No problem – book 3 explains the planetary squares and how they work!
Now a word of caution. Book 3 has the planetary seals. They’re OK for, say, Saturn, but they’re wrong for Venus. Tyson really takes a swing and a miss here. In my mind, Agrippa is looking at the seal for Venus and he’s looking not at the general seal, which tend to be symmetric and orderly on how the squares are generated, but he’s looking at a seal generated from someone trying to operate magic. I took at stab at teasing a name out for about an hour last night and came up dry, but from doing this sort of kamea magic successfully as a staple (while not understanding the underpinnings as previously explained), it really looks to me like someone was using the square of venus with some intent on top of it. Perhaps Agrippa was supposed to copy the square but not the spell and he mistook the instruction. My guess is that if the spell was over, either because it worked or not, the operator would have given the square freely to a trusted friend or associate. There’s another important idea here too, and it’s sort of made note of but not explicitly stated – the talismans and such are a way of fixing a force. Once the desired result is achieved and things have been returned to their natural state, my guess is the talismans would be disposed of or given away or returned. Much in the same way alchemical tinctures would have been consumed, things return to their most natural state. Magic, therefor, does also when left “in detriment”. To further the example of the phlegm, Agrippa probably wouldn’t have (by my reading) paid any mind to the other planets positions so long as they weren’t in any of the special configurations (detriment, combust, etc) for the planetary forces he was interested in. Some magicians go nuts and produce wonderful, amazing things based on the entire solar system, but Agrippa would have omitted planetary forces he didn’t wish to fix.
Lets imagine our magical microwave. We want to make tea. Tea is very good until it’s either too strong or too astringent. In Agrippa’s Alchemical Microwave, he knows that tea contains virtues of flavors and dryness (astringency), and heat. He wants to fix heat, so he can adjust the other two. He would pick a fortunate time to make a heat talisman to apply in his tea (though contact) which fixes the heat component. He lets the other two adjust and then removes the heat talisman when his tea is of an agreeable nature. What doesn’t he care about? The color, and other things, but he doesn’t care to fix the color nor does he care what role it plays. He just lets it do it’s own thing according to it’s nature. In Agrippa’s world, however, the tea is already made. He just comes across it and feels that it is not optimal and corrects it through the application of virtues. Agrippa does not delve into making golems and whatnot, nor does he feel he can create. His world exists and is controlled through the application of forces, rather than the idea of man as a creator. After all would we really have tea if we first had to create the tea leaf?
Agrippa, when he wrote the books, says “I see these terrestrial effects” (book 1) “so they have these spiritual effects” (book 2) “and therefor it is lawful according to God” (book 3). Understand the reasoning, and the rest falls into place.