Dürer's Melancholia

Two Little Gems
My mind was blown the other day by a posting Anthromama wrote about going crystal digging with her family. There’s a place in Montana in the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest called the Crystal Park Mineral Collection Area. You can dig in the sandy soil and unearth quartz crystals, just like the ones you buy in stores or from gem vendors at fairs. I once had a dream about digging in the garden and pulling out quartz crystals, but I thought that was something that only happened in my dream reality.
Plowing through the early chapters of Occult Philosophy is a little like digging for crystals. The ground is dry and sandy. They didn’t write books back then the way they do now. There was no editor at the publishing house insisting that there should be funny anecdotes, or that the language should be simplified for the less sophisticated readers, or that it needs more practical exercises and bullet-point lists. Or to chide the translator, “Just because it’s a translation doesn’t mean it has to be awkward and sound like a translation.”
And, as when digging for crystals, you have to break a sweat doing the spade work. Every sentence requires concentration to extract the meaning. And your critical faculties have to be engaged the entire time. The gems one is hunting in Agrippa are the ageless wisdom, but it requires sifting through the detritus of his milieu. You can’t just take what’s written there at face value.
On the one hand, you need to comprehend the universal meaning of the four elements (fire, air, water and earth), and figure out how they apply in our contemporary world, but on the other, you can’t pretend you’ve never heard of particle physics or chemistry, or that you didn’t learn about things like cells and organelles and DNA in biology. It’s a real balancing act.
You know the gems are in there, but also have to be realistic and adjust your evaluation of the text with the knowledge that there were things Agrippa didn’t know about, and had he known about them, he might have adjusted his views and approaches. Note that I say “adjust”, and not “abandon.” Any mystic, occult scholar or magician worth his salt knows (or should know) that although many ideas of the past have been made obsolete by modern discoveries, we shouldn’t be so arrogant as to believe that all knowledge from the past is obsolete.
As I said: a balancing act. You have to keep your radar on a sensitive setting to pick up the valuable bits, but you also have to keep the mental filters strong enough to cut out the noise.
Agrippa followed one convention of his time that makes it a little easier to distinguish the important material from the less important: the reasoning employed in laying out his arguments is consistently deductive. He starts with the general principle and then lines up the specific examples that illustrate that principle. So it pays to read the first paragraph of each of the short chapters carefully. Perhaps more than once. If you understand what he is saying in that paragraph, then everything that follows in the rest of the chapter can be seen as illustration of his point. If a later paragraph in a chapter baffles you, go back to the first paragraph to recall what point the baffling paragraph is meant to illustrate. So the vital thing is that you understand what the chapter is about, not necessarily all the details of that chapter. I imagine that once you’d read the book, you could go back and read the first paragraph of each chapter and it would be like reading a book of aphorisms.
I’ll confess: I can’t wait to get to the sexier, juicier parts of the book where Old Cornelius Baby lays down the holy names and symbols and other goodies, but I don’t want to disrespect the book. And I think there’s a good possibility that I’ll understand more about the nature of those high-altitude goodies and their potential function in my life if I also let Agrippa be my Sherpa in the foothills leading up there.
So what kind of gems can one find in the early chapters of Occult Philosophy? Here are two humble examples.
In Chapter VI – Of the wonderful natures of Water, Air, and winds – After discussing the life-giving qualities of water, and the cleansing qualities, there is a paragraph which reads:

“The gospel also testifies of a sheep-pool, into which whosoever stepped first, after the water was troubles by the angel, was made whole of the disease he had. The same virtue, and efficacy we read was in a spring of the Ionian nymphs, which was in the territories belonging to the town of Ellis, at a village called Heraclea, near the river Citheron: which whosoever stepped into, being diseased, came forth whole, and cured of all disease.”

It is a principle taught by esoteric schools that one of water’s unique properties is the ability to store and conduct psychic energies (energies often too subtle to measure with today’s instruments). This is what makes holy water holy. It stores the blessings that have been shed on it. Recently, this property is being explored by the controversial figure Masaru Emoto, who is exploring the patterns water crystallizes into after exposure to various human vibrations, including minds focussed in prayer, music, and human speech. There is also rigorous scientific study being done on water’s ability to Store and Amplify Subtle Energy Fields.
So this little passage indicates that Agrippa was well aware of this property of water, and suggests that it is important for the occult philosopher, i.e. the magician, to incorporate this feature into his understanding of that element. It’s exciting to see the proof that this was already known by renaissance sages, and that they could cite biblical evidence that it has been known for a long, long time. It could even be a hint at a healing technique: have an angel “trouble” (meaning move or stir) some water and then use it as medicine.
The other little gem I ran across in the very same chapter, is part of his discussion of the element of air as the medium of mind. It goes like this:

“And hence it is possible naturally, and far from all manner of superstition, no other spirit coming in between, that a man should be able in a very little time to signify his mind unto another man, abiding at a very long and unknown distance from him, although he cannot precisely give an estimate of the time when it is, yet of necessity it must be within 24 hours; and I myself know how to do it, and have done it. The same also in time past did the Abbot Tritenius both know and do.”

If you read this passage carefully you realize that he is talking about telepathy: “to signify his mind unto another man.” And he is talking about direct thought transference, because it is done with “no other spirit coming in between.” And 20th century parapsychologists thought they discovered ESP!
So, reading the early chapters of Occult Philosophy involves, admittedly, a lot of burrowing and grubbing about in medieval obscurity, aggravated by a convoluted translation.
But the gems are there. And I’m finding them!