In an earlier posting, I posed the question: how does one read Agrippa’s Occult Philosophy? Do you just use it as a reference book, skipping around and cherry-picking what you need as you go along? Do you systematically plunder its treasures by going on serious research expeditions (picture the magician as the Great White Hunter, slogging through the jungle with his large-bore rifle over his shoulder, a gaggle of native porters in tow), ransacking the index with your carefully composed laundry list of terms? Or do you start from the beginning and attempt to sequentially read all seven hundred-odd pages (not including the many appendices and the biographical and geographical dictionaries) of heavily annotated text.
After reading a few of the appendices, and skipping around to become familiar with its contents, the awareness slowly arose in me that my best chance of understanding the book would come from starting at the beginning and reading it to the end. That doesn’t preclude every now and then mounting expeditions into its lush undergrowth to find specific things I need, but on the whole, I don’t feel like I’d be paying the tome the proper respect if I didn’t read the whole thing.
But it’s more than that. As I examined the structure of the book, I noticed that Agrippa had built up his system in a truly Hermetic fashion. He starts with the elements and earthly things and works his way up to subtler and subtler or finer and finer phenomena (noumena, actually).
It occurred to me that this was likely a precursor of the Golden Dawn’s initiation, and a reflection of the kaballistic rose (elements in the center, surrounded by the planets, surrounded by the stars of the zodiac). This begs the question: where did Agrippa learn what he knew? Who initiated him? Surely he was initiated. He didn’t hatch from an egg that way. Even that great master, the historical Jesus, had to undergo initiation before he was able to manifest the Christ Consciousness (what do you think he was doing those first 30 years?) Was Agrippa taught by some branch of a timeless brotherhood who transmitted the wisdom of the ancients? Was the writing of his book an act like that of the Grimm brothers, who sensed that the traditional tales should be recorded for posterity before people stopped telling them. Was it like Regardie’s, Crowley’s and Fortune’s act: revealing what had been secret to that point in order that it not get lost forever?
I’d be willing to wager he was initiated, and I think the structure of the book reflects the order in which the knowledge was traditionally presented. It’s actually meant to be read sequentially. Each chapter builds upon the previous one. So if you do nothing but cherry picking, you might not really understand what you’re reading, since you don’t really understand what Agrippa means when he uses certain terms, which is already a problem since this is a translation into archaic English from Latin, and we don’t necessarily understand these English words the same way nowadays.
The next question was: when and how do you read it? If I put this book in my briefcase, not only would nothing else fit in there, but my right arm might eventually become longer than my left. And I’m not sure I’d feel comfortable if my colleagues saw me reading it in the cafeteria at lunchtime, although they have seen me read some pretty weird things before. The Mistress of Bonesinger Studio claims that she reads it in bed, although she still hasn’t revealed to me the particular technology she uses to accomplish this feat. I imagine it must involve ropes and pulleys, and perhaps some of the aforementioned native porters.
I find the nature of the book, both physically and its contents, confine me to reading a short chapter or two before bed, or with my morning breakfast on weekends (the only meals I ever eat alone at home). The chapters, including the profuse annotation, are short enough to read in one sitting.
A classics professor of mine once said, in his authoritative Oxford accent, “There are two kinds of people in this world: those who write in books, and those who don’t!” He was of the camp who don’t write in books, and I was proud to be in the same camp. But with time, I find that with my middle-aged memory and study habits, I have increasingly come to read certain types of books with a pencil in hand. And so it is with Agrippa. I underline the things that strike me as important, and scribble notes in the margins. I tell myself that when I have time (ha!) I will go back and copy the underlined passages and notes into a notebook. We’ll see.