Rare Book of the Month: Agrippa Von Nettesheim and Things That Go Bump in the Night

(The following is a guest blog post written by Elizabeth Gettins, Library of Congress digital library specialist.) 

Frontispiece portrait of Agrippa Von Nettesheim from "De Occulta Philosphia." 1533. Rare Book and Special Collections Division.

Frontispiece portrait of Agrippa Von Nettesheim from “De Occulta Philosphia.” 1533. Rare Book and Special Collections Division.

Agrippa Von Nettesheim. Now that is a name with heft! This mouthful of a name is attached to a very interesting thinker who might be a good candidate for “father of Halloween.” He would fit right in with witches, black cats, tombstones, bats, ghouls, ghosts and things that go bump in the night. His lifelong passion, of all things, was the study of the occult.

Von Nettesheim, (1486-1535) wrote “De Occulta Philosophia” and a number of other works that address the supernatural and occult phenomenon. Published in Cologne in 1533, the work was considered to be the ultimate compendium of occult philosophy.

Using ideas from previous scholars to advance and formulate new and serious academic inquiry, Von Nettesheim joined the burgeoning Renaissance movement by melding concepts of science and magic in an to attempt to explain life’s mysteries. His ideas conflicted with the teachings of the church as they either brought up inconsistencies or introduced new explanations that were counter to Christian dogma. However, Von Nettesheim believed that one could arrive at Christ through the practice of magic and contemplation of philosophy. Essentially, one could understand the divine by practicing magic.

Born in Germany, Von Nettesheim was a jack of many studies, including theology, astrology, alchemy and magic. He was considered a controversial figure because he supported many radical thinkers of his time like Johannes Trithemius, who was a cryptographer and occultist. Not one to shy away from his convictions, Von Nettesheim publically espoused Trithemius’ doctrines and was accused of heretical thinking. However, he was shrewd enough to avoid serious persecution by not publishing “De Occulta Philosphia” for a number of years. Initially it was only available in manuscript form.

Illustration from "De Occulta Philosophia." 1533. Rare Book and Special Collections Division.

Illustration from “De Occulta Philosophia.” 1533. Rare Book and Special Collections Division.

Interestingly, Von Nettesheim appeared to recant his occultist beliefs later in his life. It is not known if this was a political maneuver he used to protect himself or if he had changed his ideas from his youth to a softer, more inclusive cannon of thought.

“De Occulta Philosophia” is just one work of many that the Rare Book and Special Collections Division holds on the topic of the occult and magic. The McManus-Young Collection and the Harry Houdini Collection offer seminal works and make the Library an important source for the study of magic. The McManus-Young Collection is particularly strong in publications and pictorial material relating to magic and magical apparatus, including works on conjuring, ventriloquism, fortune-telling, spiritualism, witchcraft, gambling, hypnotism, automata and mind reading. The Harry Houdini Collection includes publications, scrapbooks and other material relating to spiritualism and magic. In particular, the Houdini Collection contains a number of magic books inscribed or annotated by well-known magicians. Also in the collection are prints, playbills, printed ephemera, periodicals and many volumes of pamphlets on such topics as card tricks, mediums, hypnotism, handcuff escape methods and chalk-talking.

Harry Houdini. 1905. Rare Book and Special Collections Division.

Harry Houdini. 1905. Rare Book and Special Collections Division.

The Rare Book and Special Collections Division’s digital page Materials on Science, Magic and Mathematics offers a broad view of samplings from early thought regarding the mechanisms behind the functioning of man’s world around him to works on modern legerdemain (or sleight of hand). In the spirit of those that had the courage to explore and question the things that go bump in the night, take a scroll through this antiquated world of rudimentary science, old magic and the modern illusion!

Other Resources at the Library of Congress

Variety Stage: Digital collection that includes Harry Houdini

Magic Videos from the Motion Picture and Recorded Sound Division

Magic Posters Images from the Prints and Photograph Division

The Fantasy and Folklore of All Hallows: An essay from the American Folklife Center

Halloween in Chronicling of America: Articles from the Newspaper and Current Periodical Reading Room

A Ghostly Image: A blog post from the Prints and Photographs Division

Resources for Witchcraft at the Library of Congress: The John Davis Batchelder Collection and A Train of Disasters; Puritan Reaction to New England Crisis of 1680-90s

Other sources: Digitized works of Trithemius: Polygraphiae Libri Sex Ioannis Trithemij and Steganographia qvæ Hvcvsqve a Nemine Intellecta, both from the George Fabyan Collection

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