Yates, Frances. Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition.




The great forward movements of the Renaissance all derive their vigour,

their emotional impulse, from looking backwards. The cyclic view

of time as a perpetual movement from pristine golden ages of purity

and truth through successive brazen and iron ages still held sway and

the search for truth was thus of necessity a search for the early, the

ancient, the original gold from which the baser metals of the present

and the immediate past were corrupt degenerations. Man’s history was

not an evolution from primitive animal origins through ever growing

complexity and progress; the past was always better than the present,

and progress was revival, rebirth, renaissance of antiquity. The classical

humanist recovered the literature and the monuments of classical

antiquity with a sense of return to the pure gold of a civilisation better

and higher than his own. The religious reformer returned to the study

of the Scriptures and the early Fathers with a sense of recovery of the

pure gold of the Gospel, buried under later degenerations.

These are truisms, and it is also obvious that both these great returning

movements were not mistaken as to the date of the earlier, better

period to which they turned. The humanist knew the date of Cicero,

knew the correct date of his golden age of classical culture; the

reformer, even if not clear as to the date of the Gospels, knew that he

was trying to return to the earliest centuries of Christianity. But the

returning movement of the Renaissance with which this book will be

concerned, the return to a pure golden age of magic, was based on a

radical error in dating. The works which inspired the Renaissance

Magus, and which he believed to be of profound antiquity, were really

written in the second to the third centuries A.D. He was not returning

to an Egyptian wisdom, not much later than the wisdom of the Hebrew

patriarchs and prophets, and much earlier than Plato and the other

philosophers of Greek antiquity, who had all—so the Renaissance

Magus firmly believed—drunk from its sacred fountain. He is returning

to the pagan background of early Christianity, to that religion of

the world, strongly tinged with magic and oriental influences, which

was the gnostic version of Greek philosophy, and the refuge of weary

pagans seeking an answer to life’s problems other than that offered by

their contemporaries, the early Christians.


The Egyptian God, Thoth, the scribe of the gods and the divinity of

wisdom, was identified by the Greeks with their Hermes and sometimes

given the epithet of “Thrice Great”. 1 The Latins took over this

identification of Hermes or Mercurius with Thoth, and Cicero in his De

natura deorum explains that there were really five Mercuries, the fifth

being he who killed Argus and consequently fled in exile to Egypt

where he “gave the Egyptians their laws and letters” and took the

Egyptian name of Theuth or Thoth. 2 A large literature in Greek

developed under the name of Hermes Trismegistus, concerned with

astrology and the occult sciences, with the secret virtues of plants and

stones and the sympathetic magic based on knowledge of such virtues,

with the making of talismans for drawing down the powers of the stars,

and so on. Besides these treatises or recipes for the practice of astral

magic going under the name of Hermes, there also developed a philosophical

literature to which the same revered name was attached. It is

not known when the Hermetic framework was first used for philosophy,

but the Asclepius and the Corpus Hermeticum, which are the most

important of the philosophical Hermetica which have come down to us,

are probably to be dated between •. •. 100 and 300.3 Though cast in a

pseudo-Egyptian framework, these works have been thought by many

scholars to contain very few genuine Egyptian elements. Others would

allow for some influence of native Egyptian beliefs upon them. 4 In any

case, however, they were certainly not written in remotest antiquity by

an all-wise Egyptian priest, as the Renaissance believed, but by various

unknown authors, all probably Greeks, 5 and they contain popular

Greek philosophy of the period, a mixture of Platonism and Stoicism,

combined with some Jewish and probably some Persian influences.

They are very diverse, but they all breathe an atmosphere of intense

piety. The Asclepius purports to describe the religion of the Egyptians,

and by what magic rites and processes the Egyptians drew down the

powers of the cosmos into the statues of their gods. This treatise has

come down to us through the Latin translation formerly attributed to

Apuleius of Madaura. 6 The Pimander (the first of the treatises in the Corpus

Hermeticum, the collection of fifteen Hermetic dialogues7) gives an

account of the creation of the world which is in parts reminiscent of

Genesis. Other treatises describe the ascent of the soul through the

spheres of the planets to the divine realms above them, or give ecstatic

descriptions of a process of regeneration by which the soul casts off the

chains which bind it to the material world and becomes filled with

divine powers and virtues.


Festugière has analysed the state of mind of the epoch, roughly the

second century after the birth of Christ, in which the Asclepius and the

Hermetic treatises which have reached us in the Corpus Hermeticum collection

were written. Externally that world was highly organised and at

peace. The pax Romana was at the height of its efficiency and the mixed

populations of the Empire were governed by an efficient bureaucracy.

Communications along the great Roman roads were excellent. The

educated classes had absorbed the Graeco-Roman type of culture,

based on the seven liberal arts. The mental and spiritual condition of

this world was curious. The mighty intellectual effort of Greek philosophy

was exhausted, had come to a standstill, to a dead end, perhaps

because Greek thinking never took the momentous step of experimental

verification of its hypotheses—a step which was not to be taken

until fifteen centuries later with the birth of modern scientific thinking

in the seventeenth century. The world of the second century was weary

of Greek dialectics which seemed to lead to no certain results. Platonists,

Stoics, Epicureans could only repeat the theories of their various

schools without making any further advances, and the tenets of the

schools were boiled down in textbook form, in manuals which formed

the basis of philosophical instruction within the Empire. In so far as it

is Greek in origin, the philosophy of the Hermetic writings is of this

standardised type, with its smattering of Platonism, Neoplatonism,

Stoicism, and the other Greek schools of thought.

This world of the second century was, however, seeking intensively

for knowledge of reality, for an answer to its problems which the

normal education failed to give. It turned to other ways of seeking an

answer, intuitive, mystical, magical. Since reason seemed to have failed,

it sought to cultivate the Nous, the intuitive faculty in man. Philosophy

was to be used, not as a dialectical exercise, but as a way of reaching

intuitive knowledge of the divine and of the meaning of the world, as a

gnosis, in short, to be prepared for by ascetic discipline and a religious

way of life. The Hermetic treatises, which often take the form of dialogues

between master and disciple, usually culminate in a kind of

ecstasy in which the adept is satisfied that he has received an illumination

and breaks out into hymns of praise. He seems to reach this

illumination through contemplation of the world or the cosmos, or

rather through contemplation of the cosmos as reflected in his own

Nous or mens which separates out for him its divine meaning and gives

him a spiritual mastery over it, as in the familiar gnostic revelation or

experience of the ascent of the soul through the spheres of the planets

to become immersed in the divine. Thus that religion of the world

which runs as an undercurrent in much of Greek thought, particularly

in Platonism and Stoicism, becomes in Hermetism actually a religion, a

cult without temples or liturgy, followed in the mind alone, a religious

philosophy or philosophical religion containing a gnosis.


The men of the second century were thoroughly imbued with the

idea (which the Renaissance imbibed from them) that what is old is

pure and holy, that the earliest thinkers walked more closely with the

gods than the busy rationalists, their successors. Hence the strong

revival of Pythagoreanism in this age. They also had the impression that

what is remote and far distant is more holy9; hence their cult of the

“barbarians”, of Indian gymnosophists, Persian Magi, Chaldean astrologers,

whose approach to knowledge was felt to be more religious

than that of the Greeks. 10 In the melting-pot of the Empire, in which all

religions were tolerated, there was ample opportunity for making

acquaintance with oriental cults. Above all, it was the Egyptians who

were revered in this age. Egyptian temples were still functioning, and

devout seekers after religious truth and revelation in the Graeco-Roman

world would make pilgrimages to some remotely situated Egyptian

temple and pass the night in its vicinity in the hope of receiving some

vision of divine mysteries in dreams. 11 The belief that Egypt was the

original home of all knowledge, that the great Greek philosophers had

visited it and conversed with Egyptian priests, had long been current,

and, in the mood of the second century, the ancient and mysterious

religion of Egypt, the supposed profound knowledge of its priests,

their ascetic way of life, the religious magic which they were

thought to perform in the subterranean chambers of their temples,

offered immense attractions. It is this pro-Egyptian mood of the

Graeco-Roman world which is reflected in the Hermetic Asclepius with

its strange description of the magic by which the Egyptian priests

animated the statues of their gods, and its moving prophecy that the

most ancient Egyptian religion is destined to come to an end. “In that

hour”, so the supposed Egyptian priest, Hermes Trismegistus, tells his

disciple, Asclepius, “In that hour, weary of life, men will no longer

regard the world as the worthy object of their admiration and reverence.

This All, which is a good thing, the best that can be seen in the

past, the present, and the future, will be in danger of perishing; men

will esteem it a burden; and thenceforward this whole of the universe

will be despised and no longer cherished, this incomparable work of

God, glorious construction, all-good creation made up of an infinite

diversity of forms, instrument of the will of God who, without envy,

lavishes his favour upon his work, in which is assembled in one all, in a

harmonious diversity, all that can be seen which is worthy of reverence,

praise and love.” 12 Thus Egypt, and its magical religion, becomes

identified with the Hermetic religion of the world.

So we can understand how the content of the Hermetic writings

fostered the illusion of the Renaissance Magus that he had in them a

mysterious and precious account of most ancient Egyptian wisdom,

philosophy, and magic. Hermes Trismegistus, a mythical name associated

with a certain class of gnostic philosophical revelations or with

magical treatises and recipes, was, for the Renaissance, a real person, an

Egyptian priest who had lived in times of remote antiquity and who

had himself written all these works. The scraps of Greek philosophy

which he found in these writings, derived from the somewhat debased

philosophical teaching current in the early centuries •. •., confirmed

the Renaissance reader in his belief that he had here the fount of

pristine wisdom whence Plato and the Greeks had derived the best that

they knew.


This huge historical error was to have amazing results.

It was on excellent authority that the Renaissance accepted Hermes

Trismegistus as a real person of great antiquity and as the author of

the Hermetic writings, for this was implicitly believed by leading

Fathers of the Church, particularly Lactantius and Augustine.

Naturally, it would not have occurred to anyone to doubt that these

overwhelmingly authoritative writers must be right, and it is indeed a

remarkable testimony to the prominence and importance of the

Hermetic writings and to the early and complete success of the Hermes

Trismegistus legend as to their authorship and antiquity that Lactantius,

writing in the third century, and Augustine in the fourth, both accept

the legend unquestioningly.


After quoting Cicero on the fifth Mercury as he “who gave letters

and laws to the Egyptians”, Lactantius, in his Institutes, goes on to say

that this Egyptian Hermes “although he was a man, yet he was of great

antiquity, and most fully imbued with every kind of learning, so that

the knowledge of many subjects and arts acquired for him the name of

Trismegistus. He wrote books and those in great number, relating to

the knowledge of divine things, in which he asserts the majesty of the

supreme and only God, and makes mention of Him by the same names

which we use—God and Father.” 13 By these “many books”, Lactantius

certainly means some of the Hermetic writings which have come

down to us, for he makes several quotations from some of the treatises

of the Corpus Hermeticum and also from the Asclepius. 14 The very early date

at which Lactantius would place Hermes Trismegistus and his books

may be inferred from a remark in his De ira Dei where he says that

Trismegistus is much more ancient than Plato and Pythagoras. 15

There are many other quotations from, and references to Hermes

Trismegistus in Lactantius’ Institutes. He evidently thought that Hermes

was a valuable ally in his campaign of using pagan wisdom in support

of the truth of Christianity. In the quotation just made, he has pointed

out that Hermes, like the Christians, speaks of God as “Father”; and in

fact the word Father is not infrequently used of the supreme being in

the Hermetic writings. Still more telling, however, was Hermes’ use of

the expression “Son of God” for the demiurge. To demonstrate this

remarkable confirmation of the truth of Christianity by this most

ancient writer, Lactantius quotes, in Greek, a passage from the Asclepius

(one of the quotations which has preserved for us fragments of the lost

Greek original):


Hermes, in the book which is entitled The Perfect Word, made use of

these words: “The Lord and Creator of all things, whom we have

thought right to call God, since He made the second God visible and

sensible. . . . Since, therefore, He made Him first, and alone, and one

only, He appeared to Him beautiful, and most full of all good things;

and He hallowed Him, and altogether loved Him as His own Son.” 16

The Perfect Word, or Sermo Perfectus, is a correct translation of the original

Greek title of the Asclepius, 17 and the passage which Lactantius quotes in

Greek corresponds roughly to a passage in our Latin translation. Thus

the Asclepius, the work which contains the weird description of how the

Egyptians fabricated their idols and the Lament for the Egyptian

religion, becomes sanctified because it contains a prophecy concerning

the Son of God.


It was not only in the Asclepius that the Hermetic writers used the

expression “Son of God”. At the beginning of Pimander, which is the

Hermetic account of creation, the act of creation is said to be through a

luminous Word, who is the Son of God. 18 When discussing the Son

of God as the creative Word, with quotations from the Scriptures,

Lactantius brings in Gentile confirmation, pointing out that the Greeks

speak of Him as the Logos, and also Trismegistus. He was doubtless

thinking of the passage on the creative Word as the Son of God in the

Pimander, and he adds that “Trismegistus, who by some means or other

searched into almost all truth, often described the excellence and the

majesty of the Word.” 19


Indeed, Lactantius regards Hermes Trismegistus as one of the most

important of the Gentile seers and prophets who foresaw the coming

of Christianity, because he spoke of the Son of God and of the Word. In

three passages of the Institutes he cites Trismegistus with the Sibyls as

testifying to the coming of Christ. 20 Lactantius nowhere says anything

against Hermes Trismegistus. He is always the most ancient

and all-wise writer, the tenor of whose works is agreeable to Christianity

and whose mention of God the Son places him with the Sibyls

as a Gentile prophet. In general passages Lactantius condemns the

worshipping of images, and he also thinks that the demons used by

Magi are evil fallen angels. 21 These things are, however, never associated

by him with Trismegistus, who always appears as a revered

authority on divine truths. It is no wonder that Lactantius became a

favourite Father for the Renaissance Magus who wished to remain a



Augustine was, however, a difficulty for the Renaissance Magus who

wished to remain a Christian, for Augustine in the De Civitate Dei delivers

a severe condemnation of what “Hermes the Egyptian, called

Trismegistus” wrote concerning idols, that is to say of the passage in

the Asclepius, which he quotes at length, on how the Egyptians in their

magical religion animated the statues of their gods by magic means, by

drawing spirits into them. 22 Augustine is using, not a Greek text of the

Asclepius, as Lactantius had done, but the same Latin translation which

we have, and which must therefore be at least as early as the fourth

century. 23 As mentioned before, this translation used to be attributed to

Apuleius of Madaura.


The context in which Augustine makes his attack on the idolatrous

passage in the Asclepius is important. He has been attacking magic in

general and in particular the views on spirits or daemones held by

Apuleius of Madaura. 24


Apuleius of Madaura is a striking example of one of those men,

highly educated in the general culture of the Graeco-Roman world

who, weary of the stale teachings of the schools, sought for salvation

in the occult, and particularly in the Egyptian type of the occult. Born

circa •. •. 123, Apuleius was educated at Carthage and at Athens and

later travelled to Egypt where he became involved in a lawsuit in

which he was accused of magic. He is famous for his wonderful novel,

popularly known as The Golden Ass, 25 the hero of which is transformed

by witches into an ass, and after many sufferings in his animal form,

is transformed back into human shape after an ecstatic vision of the

goddess Isis, which comes to him on a lonely seashore whither he has

wandered in despair. Eventually he becomes a priest of Isis in an

Egyptian temple. The whole mood of this novel, with its ethical

theme (for the animal form is a punishment for transgression), its

ecstatic initiation or illumination, its Egyptian colouring, is like the

mood of the Hermetic writings. Though Apuleius was not really the

translator of the Asclepius, that work would certainly have appealed to



Augustine calls Apuleius a Platonist, and he attacks him for the views

on airy spirits or daemones which he held to be intermediaries between

gods and men in his work on the “demon” of Socrates. Augustine

regards this as impious, not because he disbelieves in airy spirits or

demons but because he thinks they are wicked spirits or devils. He then

goes on to attack Hermes Trismegistus for praising the Egyptians for

the magic by which they drew such spirits or demons into the statues

of their gods, thus animating the statues, or making them into gods.

Here he quotes verbally the god-making passage in the Asclepius. He

then discusses the prophecy that the Egyptian religion will come to an

end, and the lament for its passing, which he interprets as a prophecy

of the ending of idolatry by the coming of Christianity. Here too,

therefore, Hermes Trismegistus is a prophet of the coming of Christianity,

but all credit for this is taken away by Augustine’s statement that

he had this foreknowledge of the future from the demons whom he



Hermes presages these things as the devil’s confederate, suppressing

the evidence of the Christian name, and yet foretelling with a sorrowful

intimation, that from it should proceed the wreck of all their idolatrous

superstitions: for Hermes was one of those who (as the apostle says),

“Knowing God, glorified Him not as God, nor were thankful, but

became vain in their imaginations, and their foolish heart was full of

darkness. . . .”26


Yet, continues Augustine, “this Hermes says much of God according to

the truth”, though in his admiration for the Egyptian idolatry he was

blind, and his prophecy of its passing he had from the devil. In contrast,

he quotes a true prophet, like Isaiah, who said, “The idols of

Egypt shall be moved at His presence, and the heart of Egypt shall melt

in the midst of her.” 27


Augustine says nothing whatever about Hermes’ mention of the

“Son of God”, and his whole treatment of the subject is perhaps, in

part, a reply to Lactantius’ glorification of Hermes as a Gentile prophet.

Augustine’s views on Hermes naturally presented a difficulty for the

many devout admirers of the Hermetic writings in the Renaissance.

Various courses were open to them. One was to affirm that the idolatrous

passage in the Asclepius was an interpolation made in the Latin

translation by the magician, Apuleius, and was not in the lost Greek

original by Hermes. This course was adopted by several Hermetists of

the sixteenth century, as will be seen later. 28 But to the Renaissance

Magus, the magic in the Asclepius was the most attractive part of the

Hermetic writings. How was a Christian Magus to get round Augustine?

Marsilio Ficino did it by quoting Augustine’s condemnation, and

then ignoring it, though timidly, by practising magic. Giordano Bruno

was to take the bolder course of maintaining that the magical Egyptian

religion of the world was not only the most ancient but also the only

true religion, which both Judaism and Christianity had obscured and



There is another passage on Hermes Trismegistus in the De Civitate

Dei, widely separated from the one on the Egyptian idolatry and in

quite a different context. Augustine is affirming the extreme antiquity

of the Hebrew tongue and that the Hebrew prophets and patriarchs are

much earlier than any of the Gentile philosophers, and the wisdom of

the patriarchs earlier than the Egyptian wisdom.

And what was their [the Egyptian’s] goodly wisdom, think you? Truly

nothing but astronomy, and such other sciences as rather seemed to

exercise the wit than to elevate the knowledge. For as for morality, it

stirred not in Egypt until Trismegistus’ time, who was indeed long

before the sages and philosophers of Greece, but after Abraham,

Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, yea and Moses also; for at the time when Moses

was born, was Atlas, Prometheus’ brother, a great astronomer, living,

and he was grandfather by the mother’s side to the elder Mercury, who

begat the father of this Trismegistus. 29


Augustine thus confirmed with the great weight of his authority the

extreme antiquity of Hermes Trismegistus, who was “long before the

sages and philosophers of Greece”. And by giving him this curious

genealogy, whereby he is dated three generations later than a contemporary

of Moses, Augustine raised a question which was to be

much debated concerning the relative dates of Moses and Hermes. Was

Hermes slightly later than Moses, though much earlier than the Greeks,

as Augustine said? Was he contemporary with Moses, or earlier than

Moses? All these views were to be held by later Hermetists and Magi.

The need to date him in relation to Moses was stimulated by the

affinities with Genesis which must strike every reader of the Hermetic



From other early Christian writers, more about Hermes Trismegistus

could be learned, 30 particularly from Clement of Alexandria, who, in

his striking description of the procession of the Egyptian priests, says

that the singer at the head of the procession carried two books of

music and hymns by Hermes; the horoscopus carried four books by

Hermes on the stars. In the course of this description, Clement states

that there are forty-two books by Hermes Trismegistus, thirty-six of

which contain the whole of the philosophy of the Egyptians, the other

six being on medicine. 31 It is very improbable that Clement knew any

of the Hermetica which have come down to us, 32 but the Renaissance

reader believed that he had in the Corpus Hermeticum and the Asclepius

precious survivors of that great sacred library of which Clement



About 1460, a Greek manuscript was brought to Florence from

Macedonia by a monk, one of those many agents employed by Cosimo

de’ Medici to collect manuscripts for him. It contained a copy of the

Corpus Hermeticum, not quite a complete copy, for it included fourteen

only of the fifteen treatises of the collection, the last one being missing.

33 Though the Plato manuscripts were already assembled, awaiting

translation, Cosimo ordered Ficino to put these aside and to translate

the work of Hermes Trismegistus at once, before embarking on the

Greek philosophers. It is Ficino himself who tells us this, in that dedication

to Lorenzo de’ Medici of the Plotinus commentaries in which he

describes the impetus given to Greek studies by the coming of Gemistus

Pletho and other Byzantine scholars to the Council of Florence, and

how he himself was commissioned by Cosimo to translate the treasures

of Greek philosophy now coming into the West from Byzantium.

Cosimo, he says, had handed over to him the works of Plato for translation.

But in the year 1463 word came to Ficino from Cosimo that he

must translate Hermes first, at once, and go on afterwards to Plato;

“mihi Mercurium primo Termaximum, mox Platonem mandavit

interpretandum”. 34 Ficino made the translation in a few months, whilst

the old Cosimo, who died in 1464, was still alive. Then he began on

Plato. 35


It is an extraordinary situation. There are the complete works of

Plato, waiting, and they must wait whilst Ficino quickly translates

Hermes, probably because Cosimo wants to read him before he dies.

What a testimony this is to the mysterious reputation of the Thrice

Great One! Cosimo and Ficino knew from the Fathers that Hermes

Trismegistus was much earlier than Plato. They also knew the Latin

Asclepius which whetted the appetite for more ancient Egyptian wisdom

from the same pristine source. 36 Egypt was before Greece; Hermes was

earlier than Plato. Renaissance respect for the old, the primary, the faraway,

as nearest to divine truth, demanded that the Corpus Hermeticum

should be translated before Plato’s Republic or Symposium, and so this was

in fact the first translation that Ficino made.


Ficino gave his translation the title of Pimander, which is really the

title of only the first treatise in the Corpus Hermeticum, but which he

extended to cover the whole Corpus, or rather the first fourteen of its

items which were all that his manuscript contained. He dedicated the

translation to Cosimo, and this dedication, or argumentum as he calls it,

reveals the state of mind, the attitude of profound awe and wonder, in

which he had approached this marvellous revelation of ancient

Egyptian wisdom.


In that time in which Moses was born flourished Atlas the astrologer,

brother of Prometheus the physicist and maternal uncle of the elder

Mercury whose nephew was Mercurius Trismegistus. 37

So the argumentum begins, with a slightly garbled version of the Augustinian

genealogy of Hermes, which at once places him in extreme

antiquity, and almost in a Mosaic context.


Augustine has written of Mercurius, continues Ficino, also Cicero

and Lactantius. He repeats the information from Cicero that Mercurius

“gave laws and letters” to the Egyptians, adding that he founded the

city called Hermopolis. He was an Egyptian priest, the wisest of them

all, supreme as philosopher for his vast knowledge, as priest for his

holiness of life and practice of the divine cults, and worthy of

kingly dignity as administrator of the laws, whence he is rightly called

Termaximus, the Three Times Great. 38

He is called the first author of theology: he was succeeded by

Orpheus, who came second amongst ancient theologians:

Aglaophemus, who had been initiated into the sacred teaching of

Orpheus, was succeeded in theology by Pythagoras, whose disciple

was Philolaus, the teacher of our Divine Plato. Hence there is one

ancient theology (prisca theologia) . . . taking its origin in Mercurius

and culminating in the Divine Plato. 39


It is in this preface to the Pimander that Ficino gives for the first time

his genealogy of wisdom which he worked out, not mainly from

Gemistus Pletho, who does not mention Trismegistus, but from the

Fathers, particularly Augustine, Lactantius, and Clement. He was to

repeat the genealogy of wisdom many times later: Hermes Trismegistus

always has either the first place in it, or is second only to Zoroaster

(who was Pletho’s favourite as the first priscus theologus), or is bracketed

first with Zoroaster. 40 The genealogy of the prisca theologia forcibly demonstrates

the extreme importance which Ficino assigned to Hermes as

the fons et origo of a wisdom tradition which led in an unbroken chain to

Plato. Much other evidence could be quoted from his works of Ficino’s

unquestioning belief in the primacy and importance of Hermes, and

this attitude impressed an early biographer of the Florentine philosopher

who says that “he (Ficino) held it as a secure and firm opinion

that the philosophy of Plato took its origin from that of Mercurius,

whose teachings seemed to him closer to the doctrine of Orpheus and

in certain ways to our own Theology (that is, to Christianity) than

those of Pythagoras.” 41


Mercurius wrote many books pertaining to the knowledge of divine

things, continues Ficino in his preface to the Pimander, in which he

reveals arcane mysteries. Nor is it only as a philosopher that he speaks

but sometimes as a prophet he sings of the future. He foresaw the ruin

of the early religion and the birth of a new faith, and the coming of

Christ. Augustine doubts whether he did not know this through the

stars or the revelation of demons, but Lactantius does not hesitate to

place him among the Sibyls and the prophets. 42


These remarks (which we have paraphrased, not fully translated,

from the argumentum) show Ficino’s effort to avoid Augustine’s

condemnation of his hero for the Egyptian idolatry in the Asclepius,

which he does by emphasising the favourable view of Lactantius. He

next goes on to say that of the many works which Mercurius wrote,

two principally are divine, the one called Asclepius, which Apuleius the

Platonist translated into Latin, and the one called Pimander (that is the

Corpus Hermeticum), which has been brought out of Macedonia into Italy

and which he himself, by command of Cosimo, has now translated into

Latin. He believes that it was first written in Egyptian and was translated

into Greek to reveal to the Greeks the Egyptian mysteries.

The argumentum ends on a note of ecstasy which reflects those gnostic

initiations with which the Hermetica are concerned. In this work, so

Ficino believes, there shines a light of divine illumination. It teaches

us how, rising above the deceptions of sense and the clouds of fantasy,

we are to turn our mind to the Divine Mind, as the moon turns to the

sun, so that Pimander, that is the Divine Mind, may flow into our

mind and we may contemplate the order of all things as they exist in



In the introduction to his edition of the Hermetica, Scott outlined

Ficino’s attitude to these works as follows:

Ficino’s theory of the relation between Hermes Trismegistus and the

Greek philosophers was based partly on data supplied by early Christian

writers, especially Lactantius and Augustine, and partly on the

internal evidence of the Corpus Hermeticum and the Latin Asclepius of

Pseudo-Apuleius. He saw . . . that the resemblance between the Hermetic

doctrines and those of Plato was such as to imply some historical

connection; but accepting it as a known fact that the author of the

Hermetica was a man who lived about the time of Moses, he inverted

the true relation and thought that Plato had derived his theology,

through Pythagoras, from Trismegistus. And his view was adopted, at

least in its main outlines, by all who dealt with the subject down to the

end of the sixteenth century. 43


This is undoubtedly a fact, and one which all students of the

Renaissance Neoplatonism which Ficino’s translations and works

inaugurated would do well to bear in mind. It has not been sufficiently

investigated what was the effect on Ficino of his awestruck approach to

the Hermetica as the prisca theologia, the pristine fount of illumination

flowing from the Divine Mens, which would lead him to the original

core of Platonism as a gnosis derived from Egyptian wisdom.

Contemporaries shared with Ficino his estimate of the extreme

importance of the Hermetic writings for, as P. O. Kristeller has pointed

out, his Pimander had an immense diffusion. 44 A very large number of

manuscripts of it exist, more than of any other work by Ficino. It was

printed for the first time in 1471 and went through sixteen editions to

the end of the sixteenth century, not counting those in which it

appears with the other works. An Italian translation of it by Tommaso

Benci was printed at Florence in 1548. In 1505, Lefèvre d’Etaples

brought together into one volume Ficino’s Pimander and the translation

of the Asclepius by Pseudo-Apuleius. The bibliography of the editions,

translations, collections, commentaries on the Hermetic writings in the

sixteenth century is long and complicated, 45 testifying to the profound

and enthusiastic interest aroused by Hermes Trismegistus throughout

the Renaissance.


The ban of the mediaeval Church on magic had forced it into dark

holes and corners, where the magician plied his abominated art in

secrecy. Respectable people might sometimes employ him surreptitiously

and he was much feared. But he was certainly not publicly

admired as a religious philosopher. Renaissance magic, which was a

reformed and learned magic and always disclaimed any connection

with the old ignorant, evil, or black magic, was often an adjunct of an

esteemed Renaissance philosopher. This new status of magic was

undoubtedly mainly due to that great flood of literature which came in

from Byzantium, so much of which dated from those early centuries

after Christ in which the reigning philosophies were tinged with

occultism. The learned and assiduous reader of such authors as Iamblichus,

Porphyry, or even of Plotinus, could no longer regard magic as

the trade of ignorant and inferior persons. And the genealogy of

ancient wisdom, which Ficino did so much to propagate, was also

favourable to a revival of magic, for so many of the prisci theologi were

prisci magi, and the literature which supported their claims also really

dated from the occultist early centuries •. •. To the most ancient Zoroaster,

who sometimes changes place with Hermes as the earliest in the

chain of wisdom, were attributed the Chaldean Oracles, which were not,

as supposed, documents of extreme antiquity but dated from the second

century •. •. 46 The incantatory magic supposed to have been

taught by Orpheus, who comes second in the chain of prisci theologi,

was based on the Orphic hymns, most of which date from the second

or third century •. •. 47 Thus Hermes Trismegistus was not the only

most ancient theologian or Magus whose sacred literature was badly



Nevertheless it is probable that Hermes Trismegistus is the most

important figure in the Renaissance revival of magic. Egypt was traditionally

associated with the darkest and strongest magic, and now

there were brought to light the writings of an Egyptian priest which

revealed an extraordinary piety, confirming the high opinion of him

which the Christian Father, Lactantius, had expressed, and whom the

highest authorities regarded as the source of Plato. It was, almost certainly,

the discovery of the Corpus Hermeticum, which demonstrated the

piety of Hermes and associated him so intimately with the reigning

Platonic philosophy, which rehabilitated his Asclepius, condemned by

Augustine as containing bad demonic magic. The extraordinarily lofty

position assigned to Hermes Trismegistus in this new age rehabilitated

Egypt and its wisdom, and therefore the magic with which that

wisdom was associated.




The Hermetic literature divides into two branches. On the one hand

there are the philosophical treatises, such as those in the Corpus Hermeticum,

and the Asclepius, to which can be added some other specimens of

this literature, particularly the fragments preserved in the anthology of

excerpts compiled by Stobaeus. 1 On the other hand there is the astrological,

alchemical, and magical literature, much of which also went

under the name of Hermes Trismegistus. These two branches cannot be

kept entirely separate from one another. 2 Not only do we have in the

Asclepius an actual description of magical practices in the admiring reference

to the methods by which the Egyptians “made gods”, but also

even the loftiest and most mystical of the philosophical Hermetic treatises

presuppose, as we have seen, an astrological pattern in the cosmos.

1 Text of the Stobaeus fragments, with French translation, in C. H., vols. III and IV.

2 Scott tried to make such a separation, treating the philosophical Hermetica as quite

distinct from, and infinitely superior to, the “masses of rubbish” going under the name

of Hermes (Scott, I, p. 1). Festugière, on the other hand, devotes the first volume of his

Révélation to “L’Astrologie et les Sciences Occultes” in which he treats of the magical and

astrological texts as the necessary preliminary to the study of the philosophical Hermetica.

Cf. also Thorndike, I, pp. 287 ff.

Yates, Frances. Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition.

Florence, KY, USA: Routledge, 1964. p 47.


Copyright © 1964. Routledge. All rights reserved.

Gnosticism and magic go together. The pessimist gnostic needs to

know the magical passwords and signs by which he may rid himself of

the evil material power of the stars in his upward ascent through the

spheres. The optimist gnostic has no fear to draw down by sympathetic

magic, invocations, talismans, those same powers of the universe

which he believes to be good.

The methods of sympathetic magic3 presuppose that continual effluvia

of influences pouring down onto the earth from the stars of which

the author of the Asclepius speaks. It was believed that these effluvia and

influences could be canalised and used by an operator with the requisite

knowledge. Every object in the material world was full of occult

sympathies poured down upon it from the star on which it depended.

The operator who wished to capture, let us say, the power of the planet

Venus, must know what plants belonged to Venus, what stones and

metals, what animals, and use only these when addressing Venus. He

must know the images of Venus and know how to inscribe these on

talismans made of the right Venus materials and at the right astrological

moment. Such images were held to capture the spirit or power of the

star and to hold or store it for use. Not only the planets had attached to

each of them a complicated pseudo-science of occult sympathies and

image-making, but the twelve signs of the zodiac each had their plants,

animals, images, and so on, and indeed so had all the constellations and

stars of the heavens. For the All was One, united by an infinitely complex

system of relationships. The magician was one who knew how to

enter into this system, and use it, by knowing the links of the chains of

influences descending vertically from above, and establishing for himself

a chain of ascending links by correct use of the occult sympathies

in terrestrial things, of celestial images, of invocations and names, and

the like. The methods and the cosmological background presupposed

are the same whether the magician is using these forces to try to obtain

concrete material benefits for himself, or whether he is using them

religiously, as in the hieratic magic described in the Asclepius, for insight

into the divine forces in nature and to assist his worship of them.

Into the Hellenistic astrology which is the background of the philosophical

Hermetica an Egyptian element had been absorbed, namely the

3 For a good summary of the subject, see Festugière, I, pp. 89 ff.

Yates, Frances. Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition.

Florence, KY, USA: Routledge, 1964. p 48.


Copyright © 1964. Routledge. All rights reserved.

thirty-six decans, or thirty-six gods who ruled over the divisions into

ten of the 360 degrees of the circle of the zodiac. 4 That strange people,

the Egyptians, had divinised time, not merely in the abstract sense but

in the concrete sense that each moment of the day and night had its

god who must be placated as the moments passed. The decans, as they

came to be called in Hellenistic times, were really Egyptian sidereal

gods of time who had become absorbed in the Chaldean astrology and

affiliated to the zodiac. They all had images, which vary in different lists

of them, and these lists of the powerful images of the decans had come

out of the archives of the Egyptian temples. The decans had various

aspects. They had definite astrological significance, as “Horoscopes”

presiding over the forms of life born within the time periods over

which they presided, and they were assimilated to the planets domiciled

in their domain, and to the signs of the zodiac, three decans going

with each sign as its three “faces”. But they were also gods, and powerful

Egyptian gods, and this side of them was never forgotten, giving

them a mysterious importance. The high place which the author of the

Asclepius assigns to the “Thirty-Six Horoscopes” in his list of gods is a

genuinely Egyptian feature of that work, and in one of the Stobaeus

fragments we hear, within the familiar framework of a conversation

between Hermes and his son Tat, of the great importance of the


We have said, my child, that there is a body which envelops the whole

ensemble of the world: you should represent it to yourself as a circular

figure, for thus is the All.

I represent to myself such a figure, as you say, O father.

Represent now to yourself that, below the circle of this body, are

ranged the thirty-six decans, in the middle between the universal circle

and the circle of the zodiac, separating these two circles, and, as it

were sustaining the circle of the All and circumscribing the zodiac,

4 On the decans, see Festugière, I, pp. 115 ff.; Bouché-Leclercq, L’Astrologie grecque, Paris,

1899, pp. 215 ff.; F. Boll, Sphaera, Leipzig, 1903, pp. 15 ff., 176 ff.; O. Neugebauer, The Exact

Sciences in Antiquity (Princeton, 1952), Harper Torchbook Reprint, 1962, pp. 81 ff. The

specialised study of the decan images is that by W. Gundel, Dekane und Dekansternbilder,

Studien der Bibliothek Warburg, XIX, 1936.

Yates, Frances. Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition.

Florence, KY, USA: Routledge, 1964. p 49.


Copyright © 1964. Routledge. All rights reserved.

moving along the zodiac with the planets, and having the same force

as the movement of the All, alternatively with the Seven. . . . Pay attention

to this: since the decans command over the planets and we are

under the domination of the seven, do you not see how there comes to

us a certain influence of the decans, whether through the children of

the decans, or through the intermediary of the planets? 5

The decans appear here as powerful divine or demonic forces, close to

the circle of the All, and above the circles of the zodiac and the planets

and operating on things below either directly through their children or

sons, the demons, or through the intermediary of the planets.

Thus the philosophical Hermetica belong into the same framework of

thought as the practical Hermetica, the treatises on astrology or alchemy,

the lists of plants, animals, stones and the like grouped according to

their occult sympathies with the stars, the lists of images of planets,

signs, decans, with instructions as to how to make magical talismans

from them. The following are only a few examples from this vast and

complex literature ascribed to Hermes Trismegistus. There is a treatise

supposedly by Hermes on the names and powers of the twelve signs of

the zodiac6; others on which plants go with the signs and the planets7;

a book of Hermes Trismegistus to Asclepius on the occult virtues of

animals8; a treatise on astrological medicine dedicated by Hermes to

Ammon the Egyptian which describes how to treat illnesses caused by

bad stellar influences by building up links with the methods of sympathetic

magic and talismans to draw down, either an increase of good

5 C. H., III, pp. 34, 36 (Stobaeus Excerpt, VI). In the notes to this passage (ibid., p. L),

Festugière explains the children or sons of the decans as demons. Cf. also Révélation, I, pp.

118– 20; Scott, III, p. 374 (where a diagram is given to illustrate the fact that, according to

this passage, the decans are outside and above the circle of the zodiac).

6 See Thorndike, I, p. 291; Festugière, I, pp. 111– 12.

7 Thorndike, loc. cit.; Festugière, ibid., pp. 143 ff.

8 Festugière, ibid., pp. 207 ff., discussing the “Livre court médical d’Hermès Trismégiste

selon la science astrologique et l’influx naturel des animaux, publié à l’adresse de son

disciple Asklépios.” As can be seen from this French translation of the title, this type of

treatise often brings in the same characters as those whom we meet in the philosophical

Hermetica. This treatise on animals is addressed by Hermes to Asclepius, like the


Yates, Frances. Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition.

Florence, KY, USA: Routledge, 1964. p 50.


Copyright © 1964. Routledge. All rights reserved.

virtue from the star which has been causing the trouble or bringing in

influences from another star. 9

The name of Hermes Trismegistus seems to have been particularly

strongly connected with the lists of images of the decans. The Liber

Hermetis Trismegisti, 10 a treatise on astrology and astrological magic which

has been brought to light in recent years begins with the decans, and

the Liber Sacer, 11 or sacred book, of Hermes, is a list of decan images, and

of the stones and plants in sympathy with each decan, with instructions

as to how to engrave the images on the correct stone, which is to

be fixed into a ring together with the relative plant; the wearer of the

ring must abstain from all foods antipathetic to the decan.

In short, Hermes Trismegistus is indeed a name to conjure with in

all this type of literature concerned with occult sympathies and talismans.

Again in his capacity as Hermes-Thoth, inventor of language, of

words which bind and unbind, he plays a rôle in magic, 12 and some of

the magical prayers and invocations assigned to him are like those in

the Corpus Hermeticum.

The name of Hermes Trismegistus was well known in the Middle

Ages and was connected with alchemy, and magic, particularly with

magic images or talismans. 13 The Middle Ages feared whatever they

knew of the decans as dangerous demons, and some of the books

supposedly by Hermes were strongly censured by Albertus Magnus as

containing diabolical magic. 14 The Augustinian censure of the demonworship

in the Asclepius (by which he may have meant in particular,

decan-worship) weighed heavily upon that work. However, mediaeval

writers interested in natural philosophy speak of him with respect;

for Roger Bacon he was the “Father of Philosophers”, 15 and he is

9 See Thorndike, I, p. 291; Festugière, I, pp. 130– 1.

10 Festugière, I, pp. 112 ff. The Liber Hermetis was discovered by Gundel and published by

him in 1936.

11 Festugière, I, pp. 139 ff.

12 Ibid., pp. 283 ff.

13 Thorndike, II, pp. 214 ff.; Festugière, I, pp. 105 ff.

14 In his Speculum astronomiae; see Albertus Magnus, Opera, ed. Borgnet, X, p. 641; and cf.

Thorndike, II, p. 220. Albertus Magnus is one of the mediaeval writers who perhaps

knew the Latin Asclepius (see C. H., II, pp. 268– 9).

15 Thorndike, II, p. 219.

Yates, Frances. Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition.

Florence, KY, USA: Routledge, 1964. p 51.


Copyright © 1964. Routledge. All rights reserved.

sometimes given a genealogy which makes him even more ancient

than Ficino or the designer of the Siena mosaic thought. In the preface

to a twelfth-century translation of an alchemical work, it is stated that

there were three Hermeses, namely Enoch, Noah, and the king, philosopher,

and prophet who reigned in Egypt after the Flood and was

called Hermes Triplex. The same genealogy of “Hermes Mercurius

Triplex” is also given in a thirteenth-century treatise on astrology, and

the same explanation of why he is “three-fold”. 16 It will be remembered

that Ficino in his argumentum before the Pimander gives a similar

explanation of “Trismegistus” as referring to Hermes in his triple capacity

of priest, philosopher, and king or law-giver. The mediaeval

genealogy, however, takes Hermes Triplex back before Moses to the

time of Noah.

There is an extremely comprehensive treatise on sympathetic and astral

magic, with particular reference to talismans, which goes under the

name of Picatrix. Though the authorship of Picatrix is not assigned to

Hermes Trismegistus, the work frequently mentions him with great

respect and it is important because it may have been one of Ficino’s

authorities on talismans and sympathetic magic.

Like many of the magical works attributed to Hermes which reached

the Western Middle Ages and the Renaissance, the Picatrix was originally

written in Arabic, 17 probably in the twelfth century. There was a big

influence of Hermetic and gnostic literature and ideas on the Arabic

world and particularly among the Arabs of Harran. Talismanic magic

was practised by these Arabs, and the influence came through the

16 Ibid., pp. 215, 222. These are perhaps echoes of the twelfth-century pseudo-Hermetic

Liber Hermetis Mercurii Triplicis de VI rerum principiis, which has been published by Th. Silverstein

in Archives d’histoire doctrinale et littéraire du Moyen Age, 1955 (22), pp. 217– 302. On the

influence of this work, see above, p. 13, note 3.

17 The Arabic text of Picatrix, ed. H. Ritter, is published in Studien der Bibliothek Warburg, Vol.

XII, 1933, A German translation by H. Ritter and M. Plessner of the Arabic text is

published in Studies of the Warburg Institute, University of London, Vol. 27, 1962; an outline

in English of the contents of the Arabic text is given in this volume.

Besides these editions, see on the Picatrix, H. Ritter, Picatrix, ein arabisches Handbuch

hellenistischer Magie, in Vorträge der Bibliothek Warburg, 1922; Thorndike, II, pp. 813 ff.;

Festugière, I, pp. 389, 397 (in the appendix on Arabic Hermetic literature by Louis

Massignon); Garin, Cultura, pp. 159 ff.

Yates, Frances. Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition.

Florence, KY, USA: Routledge, 1964. p 52.


Copyright © 1964. Routledge. All rights reserved.

Sabeans who were immersed in Hermetism, in both its philosophical

and religious, and its magical aspects. Picatrix is by an Arabic writer

under strong Sabean, that is to say, Hermetic, influence, and he gives

his lists of magic images, his practical advice on magical procedures, in

an elaborate philosophical setting, the philosophy expounded being in

many respects similar to that which we find in some treatises of the

Corpus Hermeticum and in the Asclepius. Ficino and his friends would be

able to recognise in the Picatrix many of the ideas and philosophicoreligious

sentiments expressed by the wonderful author of Pimander, the

Egyptian Moses and the prophet of Christianity, and yet here this philosophy

is in a context of practical magic, how to make talismans, how

to draw down the influences of the stars by establishing the chains of

links and correspondencies with the upper world.

The Latin translation of Picatrix18 is shorter than the Arabic text; in the

proem it is stated that the work has been translated from Arabic into

Spanish by order of Alfonso the Wise, but this Spanish translation has

not survived. The Latin Picatrix was certainly circulating a good deal in

the Italian Renaissance. 19 There was a copy of Picatrix in Pico della

Mirandola’s library. 20 It was known to Ludovico Lazzarelli, 21 a most

ardent Hermetist contemporary with Pico. Giovanni Francesco Pico,

nephew of the great Pico, shows some knowledge of it in a work

written after his uncle’s death. 22 Symphorien Champier, who edited a

new edition of the Hermetica but was anxious to dissociate Christian

Hermetism from the magic of the Asclepius, speaks of Picatrix (in 1514)

with disapproval and accuses Peter of Abano of having borrowed from

it. 23 The popularity of this text-book of magic is attested by the fact that

18 Of this Latin translation there is as yet no edition. But it is the Latin translation which

was used in the Renaissance, not the Arabic original, and, since it differs somewhat from

the Arabic original, it must be used by students of Renaissance writers.

The manuscript of the Latin Picatrix which I have used is Sloane, 1305. Though a

seventeenth-century manuscript, it corresponds closely to earlier manuscripts (see

Thorndike, II, p. 822) and it has the advantage of being written in a clear and legible


19 E. Garin, Medioevo e Rinascimento, Florence, 1954, pp. 175 ff.; Cultura, pp. 159 ff.

20 P. Kibre, The Library of Pico della Mirandola, New York, 1936, p. 263; cf. Garin, Cultura, p. 159.

21 See Ludovico Lazzarelli, “Testi scelti”, ed. M. Brini, in Test. uman., p. 75.

22 G. F. Pico, Opera, Bâle, 1572– 3, II, p. 482; cf. Thorndike, VI, p. 468.

23 In his criticism of the errors of Abano; cf. Thorndike, II, p. 814; V, pp. 119, 122.

Yates, Frances. Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition.

Florence, KY, USA: Routledge, 1964. p 53.


Copyright © 1964. Routledge. All rights reserved.

Rabelais directed one of his shafts at it when he spoke of “le reuerend

pere en Diable Picatris, recteur de la faculté diabologique”. 24 The

secretive way in which such a book circulated is described by

Agrippa D’Aubigné in a letter written between 1572 and 1575 in

which he says that King Henri III of France had imported some

magical books from Spain which he was allowed to see, after much

difficulty and not without solemnly swearing not to copy them;

amongst them were “les commantaires de Dom Jouan Picatrix de

Tollede”. 25

Thus there is a good deal of evidence that this Picatrix, though it was

never printed, had a considerable circulation in manuscript during the

fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Since there is no manuscript of it

earlier than the fifteenth century, 26 it is possible that it began to circulate

in the same century as that which saw the apotheosis of Hermes


The Picatrix opens with pious prayers and promises to reveal profound

secrets. For knowledge is the best gift of God to man, to know

what is the root and principle of all things. The primal truth is not a

body, but it is One, One Truth, One Unity. All things come from it and

through it receive truth and unity in the perpetual movement of generation

and corruption. There is a hierarchy in things, and lower things

are raised to higher things; and higher things descend to lower things.

Man is a little world reflecting the great world of the cosmos, but

through his intellect the wise man can raise himself above the seven


From this short sample of the philosophy of Picatrix, it can be seen

that the magician bases himself upon a gnosis, an insight into the

nature of the All.

The order of nature is further expounded in two passages. 27 God or

the prima materia is without form. There derives from the formless

incorporeal One the series of

24 Pantagruel, III, 23; cited by Thorndike, II, p. 814.

25 Agrippa d’Aubigné, OEuvres completes, ed. E. Réaume and F. de Caussade, Paris, 1873, I, p.


26 On the manuscripts, see Thorndike, II, pp. 822– 4.

27 Picatrix, Lib. I, cap. 7, and Lib. IV, cap. I (Sloane 1305, ff. 21 verso ff.; ff. 95 recto ff.).

Yates, Frances. Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition.

Florence, KY, USA: Routledge, 1964. p 54.


Copyright © 1964. Routledge. All rights reserved.

Intellectus or mens


Materia, or material nature, the elements and the elementata.

Spiritus descends from the above to the below and resides in the place

where it is caught (ubi captus est). Or, as it is put in another chapter28 “the

virtues of the superior bodies are the form and power of the inferiors,

and the form of the inferiors is of a material related to the virtues of the

superiors; and they are as it were joined together, because their corporeal

material (of terrestrial things) and their spiritual material (of the

stars) are one material.” The whole art of magic thus consists in

capturing and guiding the influx of spiritus into materia.

The most important of the means of doing this is through the making

of talismans, images of the stars inscribed on the correct materials,

at the right times, in the right frame of mind, and so on. The whole of

the first two long and complicated books of Picatrix is devoted to this

most difficult art which demands a deep knowledge of astronomy,

mathematics, music, metaphysics, and indeed practically everything,

for the introduction of spiritus into talismans is a most tricky business

and no one can succeed in it unless he is a resolute philosopher.

Lists of the images suitable for use on talismans are given, of which

the following are a few examples from the lists of planet images. 29

Two images of Saturn.

“The form of a man with a crow’s face and foot, sitting on a throne,

having in his right hand a spear and in his left a lance or an arrow.”

“The form of a man standing on a dragon, clothed in black and

holding in his right hand a sickle and in his left a spear.”

Two images of Jupiter.

“The form of a man sitting on an eagle, clothed in a garment, with

eagles beneath his feet. . . .”

“The form of a man with a lion’s face and bird’s feet, below them a

dragon with seven heads, holding an arrow in his right hand. . . .”

28 Picatrix, Lib. II, cap. 12 (Sloane 1305, ff. 52 recto ff.).

29 The planet images are listed in Lib. II, cap. 10 (Sloane 1305, ff. 43 recto ff.).

Yates, Frances. Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition.

Florence, KY, USA: Routledge, 1964. p 55.


Copyright © 1964. Routledge. All rights reserved.

An image of Mars.

“The form of a man, crowned, holding a raised sword in his right hand.”

An image of Sol.

“The form of a king sitting on a throne, with a crown on his head and

beneath his feet the figure (magic character) of the sun.”

An image of Venus.

“The form of a woman with her hair unbound riding on a stag, having

in her right hand an apple, and in her left, flowers, and dressed in

white garments.”

An image of Mercury.

“The form of a man having a cock on his head, on a throne, having

feet like those of an eagle, with fire in the palm of his left hand and

having below his feet this sign (a magic character).”

An image of Luna.

“The form of a woman with a beautiful face on a dragon, with horns

on her head, with two snakes wound around her. . . . A snake is wound

around each of her arms, and above her head is a dragon, and another

dragon beneath her feet, each of these dragons having seven heads.”

As can be seen from these examples, the magic images of the planets

are usually recognisably related to the classical forms of these gods and

goddesses but with strange and barbaric additions and modifications.

There is a full list in Picatrix of the images of the thirty-six decans, 30

grouped with the signs of the zodiac to which they belong.

The images of the decans of Aries.

First decan. “A huge dark man with red eyes, holding a sword, and

clad in a white garment.”

Second decan. “A woman clad in green and lacking one leg.”

Third decan. “A man holding a golden sphere and dressed in red.”

And so the list goes on, for all the thirty-six decans belonging to the

twelve signs, all with weird and barbaric images.

30 The lists of decan images are in Lib. II, cap. 11 (Sloane 1305, ff. 48 verso ff.).

Yates, Frances. Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition.

Florence, KY, USA: Routledge, 1964. p 56.


Copyright © 1964. Routledge. All rights reserved.

Having fully dealt with talismans and their manufacture in his first

two books, the author of Picatrix discusses in his third book31 what

stones, plants, animals, and so on go with the different planets, signs,

and so on, giving full lists, what parts of the body go with the signs,

what are the colours of the planets, how to invoke the spirits of the

planets by calling on their names and powers, and so on. The fourth

book32 deals with similar matters, and with fumigations and ends with

orations to the planets.

The work is thus a most complete text-book for the magician, giving

the philosophy of nature on which talismanic and sympathetic magic is

based together with full instructions for its practice. Its objects are

strictly practical; the various talismans and procedures are used to gain

specific ends, for the cure of diseases, for long life, for success in

various enterprises, for escaping from prison, for overcoming one’s

enemies, for attracting the love of another person, and so on.

Hermes Trismegistus is often mentioned, as the source for some

talismanic images and in other connections, but there is in particular

one very striking passage in the fourth book of Picatrix in which

Hermes is stated to have been the first to use magic images and is

credited with having founded a marvellous city in Egypt.

There are among the Chaldeans very perfect masters in this art and

they affirm that Hermes was the first who constructed images by

means of which he knew how to regulate the Nile against the motion

of the moon. This man also built a temple to the Sun, and he knew

how to hide himself from all so that no one could see him, although he

was within it. It was he, too, who in the east of Egypt constructed a City

twelve miles (miliaria) long within which he constructed a castle which

had four gates in each of its four parts. On the eastern gate he placed

the form of an Eagle; on the wester gate, the form of a Bull; on the

southern gate the form of a Lion, and on the northern gate he constructed

the form of a Dog. Into these images he introduced spirits

which spoke with voices, nor could anyone enter the gates of the City

except by their permission. There he planted trees in the midst of

31 Sloane 1305, ff. 37 recto ff.

32 Sloane 1305, ff. 95 recto ff.

Yates, Frances. Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition.

Florence, KY, USA: Routledge, 1964. p 57.


Copyright © 1964. Routledge. All rights reserved.

which was a great tree which bore the fruit of all generation. On the

summit of the castle he caused to be raised a tower thirty cubits high

on the top of which he ordered to be placed a light-house (rotunda) the

colour of which changed every day until the seventh day after which it

returned to the first colour, and so the City was illuminated with these

colours. Near the City there was abundance of waters in which dwelt

many kinds of fish. Around the circumference of the City he placed

engraved images and ordered them in such a manner that by their

virtue the inhabitants were made virtuous and withdrawn from all

wickedness and harm. The name of the City was Adocentyn. 33

Passed through the vivid imagination of the Arab of Harran, we seem

to have here something which reminds us of the hieratic religious

magic described in the Asclepius. Here are the man-made gods, statues of

the animal- and bird-shaped gods of Egypt, which Hermes Trismegistus

has animated by introducing spirits into them so that they speak with

voices and guard the gates of this magical Utopia. The colours of the

planets flash from the central tower, and these images around the circumference

of the City, are they perhaps images of the signs of the

zodiac and the decans which Hermes has known how to arrange so

that only good celestial influences are allowed into the City? The lawgiver

of the Egyptians is giving laws which must perforce be obeyed,

for he constrains the inhabitants of the City to be virtuous, and keeps

them healthy and wise, by his powerful manipulation of astral magic.

The tree of generation in the City may perhaps also mean that he

controls the generative powers, so that only the good, the wise, the

virtuous and the healthy are born.

In his striking passage about the City of Adocentyn, the author of

Picatrix soars above the level of his utilitarian prescriptions of individual

talismans as cures for tooth-ache, aids to business progress, means

for downing rivals, and the like, to a wider view of the possibilities

of magic. One might say that this City shows us Hermes Mercurius

Triplex in his triple rôle of Egyptian priest and god-maker, of

33 Picatrix, Lib. IV, cap. 3 (Sloane 1305, f. III recto). In the Arabic original, the name of the

City is “al-As•münain”; see the German translation of the Arabic text (cited above, p. 49,

note 2), p. 323.

Yates, Frances. Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition.

Florence, KY, USA: Routledge, 1964. p 58.


Copyright © 1964. Routledge. All rights reserved.

philosopher-magician, and of king and law-giver. Unfortunately no

date is given for the founding of Adocentyn, so we have no means of

knowing whether this took place in the time of Noah and soon after the

Flood, or in the time of Moses, or not much later than Moses. But the

pious admirer of those two “divine” books by the most ancient

Hermes—the Pimander and the Asclepius—might surely have been much

struck, by this vivid description of a City in which, as in Plato’s ideal

Republic, the wise philosopher is the ruler, and rules most forcibly by

means of the priestly Egyptian magic such as is described in the Asclepius.

The City of Adocentyn in which virtue is enforced on the inhabitants by

magic helps also to explain why, when the magical Egyptian religion

decayed, manners and morals went to rack and ruin, as is so movingly

described in the Lament. And in the prophecy in the Asclepius, after the

Lament, of the eventual restoration of the Egyptian religion, it is said:

The gods who exercise their dominion over the earth will be restored

one day and installed in a City at the extreme limit of Egypt, a City

which will be founded towards the setting sun, and into which will

hasten, by land and by sea, the whole race of mortal men. 34

In the context of the Asclepius, the City of Adocentyn might thus be seen,

both as the ideal Egyptian society before its fall, and as the ideal pattern

of its future and universal renovation.

The author of Picatrix also states, at the beginning of the passage

quoted above, that Hermes Trismegistus built a Temple to the Sun,

within which he presided invisibly, though this Sun Temple is not

explicitly connected with his City. Hermes as a builder of a Temple to

the Sun could also connect in the mind of the pious reader of Pimander

(by which I mean, of course, the fourteen treatises of the Corpus Hermeticum

which Ficino included under that title) and of the Asclepius, with the

many passages on the sun in those works. For example, in the Corpus

Hermeticum V it is stated that the sun is supreme among the gods of

heaven35; in the Corpus Hermeticum X, the author, using Platonic terminology,

compares the sun to the Good and its rays to the influx of the

34 Asclepius (C. H., II, p. 332).

35 C. H., I, p. 61; Ficino, p. 1843.

Yates, Frances. Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition.

Florence, KY, USA: Routledge, 1964. p 59.


Copyright © 1964. Routledge. All rights reserved.

intelligible splendour. 36 And in the list of the gods of Egypt in the

Asclepius the Sun ranks as far greater than one of the planets. 37 He is

above the thirty-six horoscopes in the list of gods, and the thirty-six are

above the spheres of the planets. To find Hermes Trismegistus in the

Picatrix as the builder of a Temple of the Sun, would thus accord perfectly

with the teaching of that holy priscus theologus in the Pimander and in

the Asclepius.

When Marsilio Ficino began to dabble in his magic, which included a

tentative use of talismans, there were plenty of mediaeval authorities

which he might have used who give lists of talismanic images, amongst

them Peter of Abano, who lists the decan images, and whom Ficino

cites by name38 in his treatise De vita coelitus comparanda, a possible translation

of which might be “On capturing the life of the stars”. He would

also find much encouragement for the practice of magic in certain of

the Neoplatonic authors whom he studied and translated, particularly

Proclus, or Iamblichus “On the Egyptian Mysteries”. Nevertheless, as D.

P. Walker has shown, his chief incentive or exemplar was almost certainly

the description of magic in the Asclepius. 39 Walker has suggested

Picatrix as among the possible sources for Ficino’s practical magic, 40 and

as the above analysis of that work has shown, the pious admirer of the

“divine” Pimander and the “divine” Asclepius would find much in this

practical treatise on talismanic magic to remind him of the utterances

of the most ancient Hermes Trismegistus in his two divine books. It

could have been the Picatrix, read in the context of his Hermetic studies,

which enabled the pious Christian Neoplatonic philosopher to make

the transition to a practice of magic.

Magic had never died out during the Middle Ages, in spite of the

efforts of the ecclesiastical authorities to exercise some check over it

36 C. H., I, p. 114; Ficino, p. 1847.

37 Asclepius (C. H., II, pp. 318 ff.). Jupiter, as the heaven, and the Sun, rank as the highest

gods in the list, followed by the thirty-six decans; last and below these are the planets, in

which Jupiter and Sol figure again but now only in a lower capacity as planets. See above,

pp. 36– 7.

38 See below, p. 77.

39 See below, pp. 70– 1.

40 Walker, p. 36; Garin, Cultura, pp. 159 ff.

Yates, Frances. Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition.

Florence, KY, USA: Routledge, 1964. p 60.


Copyright © 1964. Routledge. All rights reserved.

and to banish its more extreme forms. Nor was it by any means only in

Florence and under cover of Ficino’s Neoplatonism, that the interest in

the magic images of the stars was reviving in Italy. On the other side of

the Appenines, in Ferrara, the Duke Borso d’Este had covered a great

room in his palace with a cycle of paintings representing the months of

the year and showing, in its central band, the signs of the zodiac with

the images of the thirty-six decans most strikingly painted. In this

room, the decoration of which was finished before 1470,41 we may

see, in the lowest band of the frescoes the omniform life of the court of

Ferrara and above it the images of the thirty-six strung out along the

zodiac. The series begins with the three decans of Aries and their sign

(Pl. 1a); though their forms are slightly variant from the images which

we quoted from the list in Picatrix they are easily recognisable as in the

main the same, the tall dark man in white (Pl. 1b), the woman who is

hiding under her skirts the unfortunate fact that she has only one leg,

the man holding a sphere or circle. Despite their charmingly modernised

costumes, these are really the Egyptian gods of time, the demons

banned by Augustine.

We are not, however, here concerned with revivals of star images in

other centres and outside the main current of Florentine Neoplatonism.

We are concerned with how it was that Marsilio Ficino, who took

such extreme care to present the revival of Plato and Neoplatonism as a

movement which could be accorded with Christianity, allowed a

fringe of magic to penetrate into this movement, thus inaugurating

those philosophies of the Renaissance in which magical undercurrents

are never far absent. The theory of the prisca theologia, of the piety and

antiquity of Hermes Trismegistus, priscus theologus and Magus, offered an

excuse for Ficino’s modern philosophical magic. The attraction of the

Asclepius had probably already been exerting its pull in the earlier

Renaissance, 42 and when Ficino—dropping Plato in order to translate

the Corpus Hermeticum first—found here a new revelation of the sanctity

41 P. D’Ancona, Les Mois de Schifanoia à Ferrara, Milan, 1954, p. 9. The identification of the

strange images grouped with the signs of the zodiac as being the images of the decans

was first made by A. Warburg, “Italienische Kunst und Internationale Astrologie im

Palazzo Schifanoja zu Ferrara”, Gesammelte Schriften, Leipzig, 1932, II, pp. 459 ff.

42 E. Garin, Medioevo e Rinascimento, p. 155, mentions Salutati and Manetti as writers

influenced by the Asclepius before Ficino’s revival of Hermetism.

Yates, Frances. Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition.

Florence, KY, USA: Routledge, 1964. p 61.


Copyright © 1964. Routledge. All rights reserved.

of Hermes and a confirmation of Lactantius’ high opinion of him as

the prophet of the “Son of God”, he felt authorised to adopt the Lactantian

view and tried to evade the Augustinian warning. The presence of

Hermes Trismegistus inside the Duomo of Siena in the character of a

Gentile prophet which Lactantius had given him, is symptomatic of the

success of this rehabilitation.

We must not forget that the other prisci theologi, such as Orpheus or

Zoroaster, were also Magi, and also authorised by their antiquity

revivals of forms of magic. Yet Hermes Trismegistus is the most

important of the prisci magi from the point of view of the incorporation

of magic with philosophy, for in his case there was a body of supposedly

most ancient philosophical writings to be studied, and these

writings, in addition to their echoes of Moses and their prophetic

understandings of Christianity before Christ, also prophetically

shadowed the teachings of the divine Plato.

Lactantius wrote his Divine Institutes in the context of the rather superficially

Christianised Empire of Constantine, and his apologetics in that

work are directed towards persuading pagans to become Christians by

emphasising how much in paganism is close to Christianity, or prophetic

of Christianity. Between Lactantius and Augustine there had taken

place the pagan reaction under the apostate Emperor Julian, with its

attempt to drive out the new upstart religion by a return to the philosophical

“religion of the world” and to the mystery cults. In his “Hymn

to Helios”, Julian worships the Sun as the supreme god, the image of

the intelligible Good; and he says that there are also in the heavens a

multitude of other gods.

For as he (the Sun) divides the three spheres by four through the

zodiac . . . so he divides the zodiac also into twelve divine powers; and

again he divides every one of these twelve by three, so as to make

thirty-six gods in all. 43

Throughout Origen’s reply to Celsus it is evident how large a part

Egyptianism had played in the type of Neoplatonic religion which

43 Julian, Works, Loeb edition, I, pp. 405, 407.

Yates, Frances. Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition.

Florence, KY, USA: Routledge, 1964. p 63.


Copyright © 1964. Routledge. All rights reserved.

came back in the pagan reaction. Celsus argues about how much “one

may learn from the Egyptians”, and Origen quotes the following

passage from his lost work:

They (the Egyptians) say that the body of man has been put under the

charge of thirty-six daemons, or ethereal gods of some sort. . . . Each

daemon is in charge of a different part. And they know the names of

the daemons in the local dialect, such as Chnoumen, Chnachoumen,

Knat, Sikat, Biou, Erou, Erebiou, Rhamanoor, and Rheianoor, and all

the other names which they use in their language. And by invoking

these they heal the sufferings of the various parts. What is there to

prevent anyone from paying honour both to these and to others if he

wishes, so that we can be in good health rather than ill, and have good

rather than bad luck, and be delivered from tortures and


To this Origen replies:

By these remarks Celsus is trying to drag our souls down to the daemons,

as though they had obtained charge over our bodies. He has

such a low opinion of paying an undivided and indivisible honour to

the God of the universe that he does not believe that the only God who

is worshipped and splendidly honoured is sufficient to grant the man

who honours Him, in consequence of the actual worship he offers to

Him, a power which prevents the attacks of daemons against the righteous

person. For he has never seen how, when the formula “in the

name of Jesus” is pronounced by true believers, it has healed not a few

people from diseases and demonic possession and other distresses.

. . . According to Celsus we might practise magic and sorcery

rather than Christianity, and believe in an unlimited number of daemons

rather than in the self-evident, and manifest supreme God. . . . 44

Writing after the pagan reaction, Augustine cannot accept Lactantius’

44 Origen, Contra Celsum, VIII, 58– 9; translated H. Chadwick, Cambridge, 1953, pp.

496– 7.

Yates, Frances. Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition.

Florence, KY, USA: Routledge, 1964. p 64.


Copyright © 1964. Routledge. All rights reserved.

hopeful view of Hermes Trismegistus as the holy prophet of Christianity,

and utters his warning against the demon-worship of the Asclepius.

Yet even Augustine lent his support to the colossal misdating of that

work, by which Hermes appears as prophesying the coming of Christianity,

though he had this knowledge through the demons.

Believing in the immense antiquity of the Corpus Hermeticum and the

Asclepius, and following Lactantius’ estimate of their holy and divine

character, the pious Christian, Ficino, returns in his study of them, not,

as he thinks, to the antiquity of a priscus theologus who prophetically saw

into Christian truth (and authorised the practice of magic), but to the

type of pagan philosophical gnosis with Egyptianising and magical

tendencies, which characterised the anti-Christian reaction under

Julian the Apostate.

The type of magic with which we are to be concerned differs profoundly

from astrology which is not necessarily magic at all but a

mathematical science based on the belief that human destiny is irrevocably

governed by the stars, and that therefore from the study of a

person’s horoscope, the position of the stars at the time of his birth,

one can foretell his irrevocably foreordained future. This magic is astrological

only in the sense that it too bases itself upon the stars, their

images and influences, but it is a way of escaping from astrological

determinism by gaining power over the stars, guiding their influences

in the direction which the operator desires. Or, in the religious sense, it

is a way of salvation, of escape from material fortune and destiny, or of

obtaining insight into the divine. Hence “astrological magic” is not a

correct description of it, and hereafter, for want of a better term, I shall

call it “astral magic”.

It is in a very timid hesitating and cautious manner that Ficino

embarks on a mild form of astral magic, attempting to alter, to escape

from, his Saturnian horoscope by capturing, guiding towards himself,

more fortunate astral influences. Yet this comparatively harmless

attempt at astral medical therapy was to open a flood-gate through

which an astonishing revival of magic poured all over Europe.

Yates, Frances. Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition.

Florence, KY, USA: Routledge, 1964. p 65.


Copyright © 1964. Routledge. All rights reserved.


Ficino, whose father was a physician, was himself a physician as well

as a priest, and his Libri de Vita, 2 divided into three books and first

published in 1489, is a treatise on medicine. It was absolutely inevitable

that a medical treatise of the Middle Ages or the Renaissance

should make use of astrological presuppositions universally taken for

granted. Medical prescriptions were normally based on assumptions

such as that the signs ruled different parts of the body, that different

bodily temperaments were related to different planets. Much of Ficino’s

book could therefore be regarded, as he claimed, as normal medicine.

Nevertheless he was also putting forward in it a subtle and imaginative

kind of magic involving the use of talismans. He was nervously aware

of possible dangers in this, and in his preliminary address he tells the

1 Ficino’s magic has been admirably discussed by D. P. Walker in his book on Spiritual and

Demonic Magic from Ficino to Campanella to which I am greatly indebted in this chapter. I am

also indebted to E. Garin’s essay, “Le ‘Elezioni’ e il problema dell’astrologia” in Umanesimo

e esoterismo, ed. E. Castelli, Archivio di Filosofia, Padua, 1960, pp. 7 ff.

2 Libri de vita is the collective title of a work divided into three books, the third of which

has the title De vita coelitus comparanda. On the many editions of the Libri de vita, which was

evidently one of the most popular of Ficino’s works, see Kristeller, Suppl. Fic., I, pp.

Ixiv-lxvi. It is included in Ficino, Opera, pp. 530– 73.

Yates, Frances. Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition.

Florence, KY, USA: Routledge, 1964. p 66.


Copyright © 1964. Routledge. All rights reserved.

reader that “if you do not approve of astronomical images” these may

be omitted. 3

The work is intended primarily for students who are liable through

over-intense application to their studies to grow ill or melancholy. 4

This is because the nature of their occupations brings them under the

influence of Saturn, for contemplation and hard abstract study belong

to Saturn who is also the planet of the melancholy temperament, and

the star which is inimical to the vital forces of life and youth. Melancholy

students who have used up their vital powers in their studies, and

the old in whom these forces are in any case declining, are therefore

advised to avoid as far as possible plants, herbs, animals, stones, and the

like belonging to Saturn, and to use and surround themselves with

plants, herbs, animals, stones, people, belonging to the more fortunate,

cheerful, and life-giving planets, of which the chief are Sol, Jupiter, and

Venus. Ficino has many enthusiastic passages on the valuable “gifts”

making for health and good spirits to be obtained from these planets,

which he poetically describes more than once as “the Three Graces”. 5

The equation of beneficent astral influences with the Three Graces may

be derived from a passage in the Emperor Julian’s Hymn to the Sun. 6

Gold is a metal full of Solar and Jovial spirit and therefore beneficial in

combating melancholy. Green is a health-giving and life-giving colour,

and the reader is urged to come to “Alma Venus” 7 and to walk in the

green fields with her, plucking her flowers, such as roses, or the crocus,

the golden flower of Jupiter. Ficino also gives advice on how to choose

a non-Saturnian diet, and thinks that the use of pleasant odours and

scents is beneficial. We might be in the consulting room of a rather

expensive psychiatrist who knows that his patients can afford plenty of

gold and holidays in the country, and flowers out of season.

Talismans are not mentioned until the third book, which is the one

which has the title De vita coelitus comparanda. Its first chapter opens with

3 Ficino, p. 530 (address to the reader before Lib. III, De vita coelitus comparanda).

4 On Ficino and melancholy, see E. Panofsky and F. Saxl, Dürer’s Melencolia I, Studien der

Bibliothek Warburg, 2, 1923; L. Babb, The Elizabethan Malady, East Lansing, 1951.

5 Libri de vita, II, III, 5, etc.; (Ficino, pp. 536– 7).

6 Julian, Works, Loeb edition, I, p. 407.

7 Libri de vita, II, 14 (Ficino, pp. 520– 1).

Yates, Frances. Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition.

Florence, KY, USA: Routledge, 1964. p 67.



some obscure philosophy. 8 It is clearly enough based on the wellknown

tripartite division of intellect, soul, and body, but apart from

that it is somewhat confusing. There is an intellect of the world and a

body of the world, and between them is the soul of the world. In the

divine mens or intellect are the Ideas; in the soul of the world are

“seminal reasons” as many in number as there are ideas in the mens, and

corresponding to them or reflecting them; to these seminal reasons in

the soul there correspond the species in matter, or in the body of the

world, which correspond to the reasons or depend on them, or are

formed by them. If these material forms degenerate they can be

reformed in the “middle place”, presumably by manipulating the next

highest forms on which they depend. There are congruities between

the “reasons” in the soul of the world and the lower forms, which

Zoroaster called divine links and Synesius, magic spells. These links

depend not so much on stars and demons as on the soul of the world,

which is everywhere present. Wherefore the “more ancient Platonists”

formed images in the heavens, images of the forty-eight constellations,

twelve in the zodiac, and thirty-six outside it, images also of the thirtysix

“faces” of the zodiac. From these ordered forms depend the forms

of inferior things.

Ficino states in the sub-title to the Liber de vita coelitus comparanda that it

is a commentary on a book on the same subject by Plotinus. He does

not specify here of what passage in the Enneads he is thinking, but P. O.

Kristeller has observed that in one manuscript the De vita coelitus comparanda

appears among the commentaries on Plotinus at Ennead, IV, 3, xi. 9

Plotinus here says:

I think . . . that those ancient sages, who sought to secure the presence

of divine beings by the erection of shrines and statues, showed

insight into the nature of the All; they perceived that, though this Soul

(of the world) is everywhere tractable, its presence will be secured all

the more readily when an appropriate receptacle is elaborated, a

place especially capable of receiving some portion or phase of it,

8 Libri de vita, III (De vita coelitus comparanda), I (Ficino, pp. 532– 3).

9 Kristeller, Suppl. Fic., I, p. lxxxiv; cf. Garin, article cited, pp. 18 ff. Walker (p. 3, note 2)

points out that Enn. IV, 4, 30– 42, may also be relevant.

Yates, Frances. Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition.

Florence, KY, USA: Routledge, 1964. p 68.


Copyright © 1964. Routledge. All rights reserved.


something reproducing it and serving like a mirror to catch an image

of it.

It belongs to the nature of the All to make its entire content reproduce,

most felicitously, the Reason-Principles in which it participates; every

particular thing is the image within matter of a Reason-Principle which

itself images a pre-material Reason-Principle: thus every particular

entity is linked to that Divine Being in whose likeness it is made. . . .10

We seem to have here the two main topics of which Ficino is speaking,

but put in a different order, which makes the thought-sequences a little

clearer. (1) How the ancient sages who understood the nature of the All

drew down divine beings into their shrines by attracting or securing a

part of the soul of the world. This corresponds to Ficino’s mention of

magic links or spells, described by Zoroaster or Synesius, which are

congruities between reasons in the soul of the world and lower forms.

Ficino follows this by the mention of star images, as though these were

a part of the magical linking system, and indeed stating that from the

ordering of these celestial images the forms of lower things depend.

(2) The outline of Neoplatonic theory—which Ficino puts before the

allusion to magic, and Plotinus after it—of the reflection of the Ideas in

the divine intellect in their images or forms in the soul of the world,

whence they are again reflected (through the intermediaries in the soul

of the world) in material forms.

What would make sense of Ficino’s introduction of the reference to

celestial images in his commentary on the Plotinus passage would be if

he thinks that such images are in some way organically related to those

“seminal reasons” or “reason principles” in the soul of the world

which are the reflection in that “middle place” of the Ideas in the

divine mind. Hence such images would become forms of the Ideas, or

ways of approaching the Ideas at a stage intermediary between their

purely intellectual forms in the divine mens and their dimmer reflection

in the world of sense, or body of the world. Hence it was by manipulating

such images in this intermediary “middle place” that the ancient

sages knew how to draw down a part of the soul of the world into their


10 Plotinus, Enn, IV, 3, xi; English translation by S. MacKenna, London, 1956, p. 270.

Yates, Frances. Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition.

Florence, KY, USA: Routledge, 1964. p 69.


Copyright © 1964. Routledge. All rights reserved.

There is, further, in Ficino’s words, the notion that the material

forms in the world of sense can be, as it were, re-formed, when they

have degenerated, by manipulation of the higher images on which they

depend. In his analysis of this passage, E. Garin has defined this process

as the imitation or reconstruction of the higher images in such a way

that the divine influences are recaptured and reconducted into the

deteriorated sensible forms. 11 Thus the priestly Magus plays a semidivine

rôle, maintaining by his understanding of the use of images the

circuit which unites the highest divine world with the soul of the

world and the world of sense.

In his article on “Icones Symbolicae”, E. H. Gombrich has analysed

the mode of thought, so difficult for a modern to understand, by

which, for a Renaissance Neoplatonist, an “ancient” image, one which

reached him from traditions going back, so he believed, into a remote

past, did actually have within it the reflection of an Idea. 12 An ancient

image of Justice was not just a picture but actually contained within it

some echo, taste, substance, of the divine Idea of Justice. This helps us

to understand the way in which Ficino thinks of those star images

descending from “the more ancient Platonists”, though, in the case of

such images, the relation to the Idea is even closer, through the cosmology

of mens, anima mundi, corpus mundi in which the images have a

definite place.

Thus Ficino’s commentary on the Plotinus passage becomes, by

devious ways, a justification for the use of talismans, and of the magic

of the Asclepius, on Neoplatonic grounds—on the grounds that the

ancient sages and the modern users of talismans are not invoking devils

but have a deep understanding of the nature of the All, and of the

degrees by which the reflections of the Divine Ideas descend into the

world here below.

As D. P. Walker has pointed out, 13 at the end of the De vita coelitus comparanda

Ficino returns to the commentary on the Plotinus passage with

11 Garin, article cited, pp. 21 ff.

12 E. H. Gombrich, “Icones Symbolicae: the Visual Image in Neoplatonic Thought”, J. W. C. I.,

1948 (XI), pp. 163– 92.

13 Walker, pp. 40– 1.

Yates, Frances. Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition.

Florence, KY, USA: Routledge, 1964. p 70.


Copyright © 1964. Routledge. All rights reserved.

which he had begun the book, and now he states that Plotinus in that

passage was merely imitating, or repeating, what Hermes Trismegistus

had said in his Asclepius. This means that the De vita coelitus comparanda

is a commentary only secondarily on Plotinus and primarily on

Trismegistus, or rather, on the passage in the Asclepius in which he

described the magical Egyptian worship.

When any (piece of) matter is exposed to superior things . . . immediately

it suffers a supernal influence through that most powerful agent,

of marvellous force and life, which is everywhere present. . . . as a

mirror reflects a face, or Echo the sound of a voice. Of this Plotinus

gives an example when, imitating Mercurius, he says that the ancient

priests, or Magi, used to introduce something divine and wonderful

into their statues and sacrifices. He (Plotinus) holds, together with

Trismegistus, that they did not introduce through these things spirits

separated from matter (that is demons), but mundana numina, as I

said at the beginning, and Synesius agrees. . . . Mercurius himself,

whom Plotinus follows, says that he composed through aerial

demons, not through celestial or higher demons, statues from herbs,

trees, stones, aromatics having within them a natural divine power (as

he says). . . . There were skilful Egyptian priests who, when they could

not persuade men by reason that there are gods, that is some spirit

above men, invented that illicit magic which by enticing demons into

statues made these appear to be gods. . . . I at first thought, following

the opinion of the Blessed Thomas Aquinas, that if they made statues

which could speak, this could not have been only through stellar influence

but through demons. . . . But now let us return to Mercurius and

to Plotinus. Mercurius says that the priests drew suitable virtues from

the nature of the world and mixed these together. Plotinus follows him,

and thinks that all can be easily conciliated in the soul of the world for it

generates and moves the forms of natural things through certain seminal

reasons infused with its divinity. Which reasons he calls gods for

they are not separated from the Ideas in the supreme mind. 14

14 De vita coelitus comparanda, 26 (Ficino, pp. 571– 2). Another important description of the

hieratic magic which Ficino knew well was Proclus’ De Sacrificiis et Magia which he translated

(Ficino, pp. 1928– 9), and on which see Festugière, I, pp. 134– 6; cf. also Walker, pp.

36– 7; Garin, article cited, pp. 19– 20.

Yates, Frances. Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition.

Florence, KY, USA: Routledge, 1964. p 71.


Copyright © 1964. Routledge. All rights reserved.


An interpretation of this passage is that Ficino used to agree with

Thomas Aquinas, who explicitly condemns as demonic the magic in

the Asclepius, 15 but since he has read Plotinus’ commentary he understands

that, though there may have been bad Egyptian priests who used

demonic magic, Hermes Trismegistus was not one of them. His power

came only from the world, from his insight into the nature of the All as

a hierarchy in which the influence of the Ideas descends from the

Intellect of the World, through the “seminal reasons” in the Soul of the

World, to the material forms in the Body of the World. 16 Hence, celestial

images would have their power from the “world” not from

demons, being something in the nature of shadows of Ideas, intermediaries

in the middle place between Intellect and Body, links in the

chains by which the Neoplatonic Magus operates his magic and

marries higher things to lower things.

Thus the magic of the Asclepius, reinterpreted through Plotinus, enters

with Ficino’s De vita coelitus comparanda into the Neoplatonic philosophy

of the Renaissance, and, moreover, into Ficino’s Christian Neoplatonism.

The latter feat necessitated, as we have seen, much ingenious evasion of

authoritative Christian pronouncements. When Ficino wrote the De vita

coelitus comparanda he had perhaps recently been reading Origen against

Celsus, which he cites in chapter XXI, 17 and where he might have

noticed the quotation from Celsus where the pagan accuses the Christians

of mocking the Egyptians “although they show many profound

mysteries and teach that such worship (in the Egyptian magical

religion) is respect to invisible ideas and not, as most people think, to

ephemeral animals.” 18 Eager to snatch at anything in favour of his hero,

the holy Hermes Trismegistus, Ficino might have been encouraged by

Origen’s reply to this: “My good man, you commend the Egyptians

with good reason for showing many mysteries which are not evil, and

obscure explanations about their animals.” Nevertheless, the context in

which this remark is made is less encouraging, and Origen’s whole

effort was directed towards refuting Celsus’ view of the history of

15 Contra Gentiles, III, civ-cvi.

16 cf. Walker, p. 43.

17 Ficino, p. 562.

18 Origen, Contra Celsum, trans. H. Chadwick, Cambridge, 1953, p. 139.

Yates, Frances. Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition.

Florence, KY, USA: Routledge, 1964. p 72.


Copyright © 1964. Routledge. All rights reserved.

religion, which was that an ancient good, religious tradition, of which

the Egyptians were an example, had been corrupted, first by the Jews,

and then still further destroyed by the Christians.

Ficino’s magic is based on a theory of spiritus which has been admirably

defined by D. P. Walker, to whose book the reader is referred for a full

and scholarly discussion of this subject. 19 Ficino bases the theory of

how we are to “draw down the life of heaven” upon the spiritus as the

channel through which the influence of the stars is diffused. Between

the soul of the world and its body there is a spiritus mundi which is

infused throughout the universe and through which the stellar influences

come down to man, who drinks them in through his own spirit,

and to the whole corpus mundi. The spiritus is a very fine and subtle

substance, and it was of this which Virgil spoke when he said:

Spiritus intus alit, totamque infusa per artus

mens agitat molem et magno se corpore miscet. 20

It is to attract the spiritus of a particular planet that animals, plants, food,

scents, colours, and so on associated with that planet are to be used.

The spiritus is borne upon the air and upon the wind, and it is a kind of

very fine air and also very fine heat. It is particularly through the rays

of the Sun and of Jupiter that our spirit “drinks” the spirit of the


Now there is nothing about the spiritus theory in the passage in the

Enneads which seems to be the chief basis of Ficino’s commentary, and,

though it may be obscurely referred to elsewhere by Plotinus, I have

not been able to find in that philosopher any such clear-cut definition

of the spiritus mundi as the vehicle of stellar influences and the basis of

magical operations such as Ficino seems to be working from. Where he

could have found such a clear-cut theory, and specifically in relation to

practical magic and to talismans, was in the Picatrix. As we saw in the

19 Walker, pp. 1– 24 and passim. Ficino’s chief expositions of the spiritus theory in the Libri de

Vita are in Lib. III (De vita coelitus comparanda), I, 3, 4, 11, 20, but the theory is assumed and

referred to throughout.

20 Virgil, Aeneid, VI, 726– 7. Quoted by Ficino in De vita coelitus comparanda, 3 (Ficino, p. 535).

Yates, Frances. Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition.

Florence, KY, USA: Routledge, 1964. p 73.


Copyright © 1964. Routledge. All rights reserved.

last chapter, the theory of magic in that work depends on the series

intellectus, spiritus, materia; the material of lower things being intimately

related to the spiritus material in the stars. 21 Magic consists in guiding or

controlling the influx of spiritus into materia, and one of the most

important ways of doing this is through talismans, for a talisman is a

material object into which the spiritus of a star has been introduced and

which stores the spiritus. This theory of pneumatic magic, Ficino could

have studied in Picatrix, together with the lists of things which attract

spiritus, full instructions for making talismans, and lists of images for

using on talismans. The possibility that Ficino may have used Picatrix is

increased by the similarity of some of the images which he describes to

some of those in Picatrix.

Ficino’s images are mostly in chapter XVIII of the De vita coelitus

comparanda. After mentioning the images of the signs of the zodiac, he

says that there are also images of the faces of the signs, drawn from the

Indians, Egyptians, and Chaldeans (lists of decan images do come from

these sources), as for example:

In the first face of Virgo a beautiful girl, seated, with ears of corn in her

hand and nursing a child. 22

This decan image in this actual form, with the child, is drawn not from

Picatrix, but from Albumazar, whom Ficino mentions as the source. It is

the only decan image which he describes—all his other images are

planet images—and he is not sure whether it is right to use it. He then

says that if you want to obtain gifts from Mercury, you should make his

image on tin or silver, with the sign of Virgo and characters of Virgo

and Mercury; and the decan image for the first face of Virgo may be

added “if this is to be used”. This talisman would thus consist of the

image of Mercury, some signs and characters, and perhaps the Virgo

image with the child. Note that the talisman is not a medical talisman,

but to obtain intellectual “gifts” from Mercury.

To obtain long life, you may make the image of Saturn on a sapphire

in this form: “An old man sitting on a high throne or on a dragon, with

21 See above, pp. 54– 5.

22 De vita coelitus comparanda, 18 (Ficino, p. 556).

Yates, Frances. Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition.

Florence, KY, USA: Routledge, 1964. p 74.


Copyright © 1964. Routledge. All rights reserved.

a hood of dark linen on his head, raising his hand above his head,

holding a sickle or a fish, clothed in a dark robe.” (Homo senex in altiore

cathedra sedens uel dracone, caput tectus panno quodam lineo fusco, manus supra caput

erigens, falcem manutenens aut pisces, fusca indutus ueste. 23) This image is close to

one in Picatrix and contains elements from two others. (Saturn images

in Picatrix: Forma hominis super altam cathedram elevatus & in eius capite pannum

lineum lutosum, & in eius manu falcem tenentis: Forma hominis senex erecti, suas manus

super caput ipsius erigentes, & in eis piscem tenentis . . . : Forma hominis super draconem

erecti, in dextra manu falcem tenentis, in sinistra hastam habentis & nigris pannis

induti. 24) For a long and happy life, says Ficino, you may make on a

white, clear, stone an image of Jupiter as “A crowned man on an eagle

or a dragon, clad in a yellow garment.” (Homo sedens super aquilam uel

draconem coronatus . . . croceam induto uestem. 25) There is a very similar image

of Jupiter in Picatrix. (Forma hominis super aquilam . . . omnia suis vestimenta sunt

crocea. 26)

For the curing of illnesses, Ficino advises the use of this image: “A

king on a throne, in a yellow garment, and a crow and the form of

the Sun” (Rex in throno, crocea ueste, & coruum Solisque formam). 27 The resemblance

of this image to one in Picatrix is striking: Forma regis supra

cathedram sedentis, & in sui capite coronam habentis, et coruum ante se, et infra eius

pedes istas figuras (magic characters). 28 In Picatrix this is not a medical

talisman, as in Ficino, but will enable a king to overcome all other


For happiness and strength of body, Ficino advises an image of a

young Venus, holding apples and flowers, and dressed in white and

yellow. (Veneris imaginem puellarem, poma floresque manu tenentem, croceis & albis

indutam. 29 The comparable Venus image in Picatrix is: Forma mulieris capillis

expansis & super ceruum equitantes in eius manu dextra malum habentis in sinistra vero

flores et eius vestes ex coloribus albis. 30)

23 Ficino, pp. 556– 7.

24 Picatrix, Lib. II, cap. 10; Sloane, 1305, f. 43 verso.

25 Ficino, p. 557.

26 Picatrix, loc. cit. Sloane, 1305, loc. cit.

27 Ficino, loc. cit.

28 Picatrix, loc. cit.; Sloane, 1305, f. 45 recto.

29 Ficino, loc. cit.

30 Picatrix, loc. cit.; Sloane, 1305, f. 44 verso.

Yates, Frances. Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition.

Florence, KY, USA: Routledge, 1964. p 75.


Copyright © 1964. Routledge. All rights reserved.

An image of Mercury described by Ficino is “A helmeted man sitting

on a throne, with eagle’s feet, holding a cock or fire in his left hand. . . .

(Homo sedens in throno galeratus cristatusque, pedibus aquilinis, sinistra gallum tenens

aut ignem. . . .31 A comparable Mercury image in Picatrix is: Forma hominis in

eius capite gallum habentis, & supra cathedram erecti & pedes similes pedibus aquilae & in

palma sinistra manus ignem habentis. 32) Ficino says that this image of Mercury

is good for wit and memory, or, if carved in marble, is good against


The resemblances between Ficino’s talismans and those in Picatrix are

not absolutely conclusive evidence that he used that work. He knew,

and mentions, other source for images, 33 and the gods on his talismans

are mainly composed of their normal forms, such as Jupiter on an

eagle, or Venus with flowers and apples. Nevertheless one does gain the

impression that he had been looking through the chapter on planet

images in Picatrix. What is interesting is that, on the whole, he seems to

avoid decan images, concentrating almost entirely on planet images.

This was noticed by W. Gundel, the great authority on decan images,

who thinks that Ficino’s partiality for planet images reflects a traditional

rivalry between decan and planet images which Ficino decides

in favour of the latter. “Bei Ficinus ist die alte Rivalität der grossen

Systeme der dekan- und der planetengläubigen Astrologie zugunsten

der Planeten entschieden.” 34 One wonders if this choice was related to

the avoidance of demonic magic. By avoiding the images of the decan

demons and by using planet images—not to evoke the demons of the

planets but only as images of “mundane gods”, shadows of Ideas in the

Soul of the world—the pious Neoplatonist could perhaps believe that

he would be doing only a “world” magic, a natural magic with natural

forces, not a demonic magic. Watching Ficino’s anxieties and hesitations,

one is amazed at the daring of those bold characters beyond the

31 Ficino, loc. cit.

32 Picatrix, loc. cit.; Sloane, 1305, loc. cit.

33 Particularly Peter of Abano. He never mentions Picatrix by name. Perhaps he thought

that Abano was a safer source to mention. The later controversy accusing Abano of

having borrowed from Picatrix (see above, p. 53) might have been indirectly aimed at


34 Gundel, Dekane und Dekansternbilder, p. 280.

Yates, Frances. Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition.

Florence, KY, USA: Routledge, 1964. p 76.


Copyright © 1964. Routledge. All rights reserved.


Appenines, in Ferrara or in Padua35 who did not fear to decorate the

walls of their apartments with the images of the terrible Thirty-Six.

It is very strange to follow the convolutions and involutions of

Ficino’s mind in this chapter XVIII. Before he introduces his lists of

planetary talismans he has some curious remarks on the cross as a kind

of talisman. 36 The force of the heavens is greatest when the celestial rays

come down perpendicularly and at right angles, that is to say in the

form of a cross joining the four cardinal points. The Egyptians hence

used the form of the cross, which to them also signified the future life,

and they sculptured that figure on the breast of Serapis. Ficino, however,

thinks that the use of the cross among the Egyptians was not so

much on account of its power in attracting the gifts of the stars, but as a

prophecy of the coming of Christ, made by them unknowingly. Thus

the sanctity of the Egyptians as prophets of Christianity through their

use of the cross as a talisman comes in as an appropriate introduction

to the list of talismanic images.

After this list, Ficino makes great play with the recommendation by

doctors, particularly Peter of Abano, of the use of talismans in medicine.

Then, after some references to Porphyry and Plotinus, he comes to

Albertus Magnus, described as Professor of Astrology and Theology,

who in his Speculum astronomiae has distinguished between false and true

use of talismans. 37 Next he again worries over what Thomas Aquinas

35 The images of the decans are shown in the astrological scheme on the walls of the

Salone at Padua; this scheme was first fully interpreted by F. Saxl (Sitzungsberichte der Heidelberger

Akademie der Wissenschaft, 1925– 6, pp. 49– 68) through study of the astrology of Guido

Bonatti and of the Astrolabium planum of Peter of Abano, the figures of which are derived

from Albumazar. Cf. J. Seznec, The Survival of the Pagan Gods, trans. B. F. Sessions, New York,

1953, pp. 73– 4.

36 “Tunc enim stellae magnopere sunt potentes, quando quatuor coeli tenent angulos imo

cardines, orientis uidelicet occidentisque, & medii utrinque. Sic uero dispositae, radios ita

conjiciunt in se inuicem, ut crucem inde constituant. Crucem ergo ueteres figuram esse

dicebant, tum stellarum fortitudine factam, tum earundem fortitudinis susceptaculum,

ideoque habere summam in imaginibus potestatem, ac uires & spiritus suscipere Planetarum.

Haec autem opinio ab Aegyptijs uel inducta est, uel maxime confirmata. Inter

quorum characteres crux una erat insignis uitam eorum more futuram significans,

eamque figuram pectori Serapidis insculpebant. Ego uero quod de crucis excellentia fuit

apud Aegyptios ante Christum, non tam muneris stellarum testimonium fuisse arbitror,

quam uirtutis praesagium, quam a Christo esset acceptura . . .” Ficino, p. 556.

37 Ficino, p. 558.

Yates, Frances. Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition.

Florence, KY, USA: Routledge, 1964. p 77.


Copyright © 1964. Routledge. All rights reserved.

has said in the Contra Gentiles, finally reaching a position which he

imagines is near to that of Thomas, namely that the talismans have their

power mainly from the materials of which they are made, not from

the images. 38 Yet if they are made under the influence of a harmony,

similar to the celestial harmony, this excites their virtue.

In short, by devious means, Ficino has extracted his use of talismans

from blame. I believe that he is thinking primarily of planetary talismans,

and of these used not in a “demonic” manner but, as Walker has

said, with “spiritual” magic, a magic using the spiritus mundi, to be

attracted mainly through groupings of plants, metals, and so on, but

also through use of planetary talismans which address the stars as

world forces, or natural forces, and not as demons. 39

“Why, then, should we not permit ourselves a universal image, that

is an image of the universe itself? From which it might be hoped to

obtain much benefit from the universe.” This cry comes at the beginning

of chapter XIX, after the long defence of planetary images, used in

a “natural” way, in the preceding chapter. This universal image or

“figure of the world” (mundi figura) may be made in brass, combined

with gold and silver. (These are the metals of Jupiter, Sol, and Venus.) It

should be begun in an auspicious time, when Sol enters the first degree

of Aries. It should not be worked at on the Sabbath, the day of Saturn. It

should be completed in Venus “to signify its absolute beauty”. Colours

as well as lines, or lineaments, should be inserted into the work. “There

are three universal and singular colours of the world, green, gold, and

blue, dedicated to the Three Graces of heaven”, which are Venus, Sol,

and Jupiter. “They judge therefore that in order to capture the gifts of

the celestial graces, these three colours should be frequently used, and

into the formula of the world which you are making should be

inserted the blue colour of the sphere of the world. They think that

gold should be added to the precious work made like the heaven itself,

and stars, and Vesta, or Ceres, that is the earth, dressed in green.” 40

There is a good deal which I have not been able to understand in this

description. The figure seems to refer to a New Year as a new birthday

38 Ibid., loc. cit.; cf. Walker, p. 43.

39 But cf. Walker’s discussion (pp. 44– 53) of “Ficino and the demons”.

40 Ficino, p. 559.

Yates, Frances. Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition.

Florence, KY, USA: Routledge, 1964. p 78.


Copyright © 1964. Routledge. All rights reserved.

of the world, or even to the first birthday of the world, the creation

(Pico della Mirandola’s Heptaplus is mentioned). But in general it may be

said that the making of this magical or talismanic object belongs into

the context of the Libri de vita as a whole which have all been concerned

with various techniques for drawing down, or drinking in, the influences

of the Sun, of Venus, and of Jupiter, as health-giving, rejuvenating,

anti-Saturnian powers. The object described, or hinted at (for the

description is very vague) would seem to be a model of the heavens

constructed so as to concentrate on drawing down the fortunate influences

of Sol, Venus, Jupiter. Certainly the colours of these planets are to

predominate in it, and it may probably be presumed that their images

are depicted in it. The inclusion of Ceres in green as the earth is

understandable, but Vesta is strange.

Such an object, Ficino seems to say, may be worn, or placed opposite

to be looked at, 41 suggesting that it is perhaps a medal, perhaps an

elaborate jewel.

He then says that the figure of the world may be constructed so as

to reproduce the motion of the spheres, as was done by Archimedes,

and has been done recently by a Florentine called Lorenzo. He is here

referring to the astronomical clock made by Lorenzo della Volpaia42

for Lorenzo de’ Medici which contained representations of the

planets. Such a figure of the world, says Ficino, is made not only to be

gazed at but to be meditated upon in the soul. It is obviously a

different kind of object to the one previously hinted at. It is a cosmic


Finally, someone may construct, or will construct:

on the domed ceiling of the innermost cubicle of his house, where he

mostly lives and sleeps, such a figure with the colours in it. And when

41 “uel gestabit, uel oppositam intuebitur” (ibid., loc. cit.).

42 See A. Chastel, Marsile Ficin et l’Art, Geneva-Lille, 1954, p. 95. Lorenzo della Volpaia’s

clock is referred to by Poliziano, Vasari and others (references in Chastel, op. cit., pp. 96– 7,

note 16). Chastel thinks that the whole of the passage on making an image of the world

in the De vita coelitus comparanda is a description of Della Volpaia’s clock. I do not think that

this is the case. Ficino is describing three different kinds of objects made to represent the

figure of the world, one type being the cosmic mechanism of which Della Volpaia’s clock

is an example.

Yates, Frances. Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition.

Florence, KY, USA: Routledge, 1964. p 79.


Copyright © 1964. Routledge. All rights reserved.

he comes out of his house he will perceive, not so much the spectacle

of individual things, but the figure of the universe and its

colours. 43

I understand this to mean a painting on the ceiling of a bedroom, a

painting which is also still a figure of the world, with perhaps still the

figures of the Three Graces, the three fortunate planets, Sol, Venus, and

Jupiter predominating, and their colours of blue, gold, and green as the

leading colours of the painting or fresco.

These various forms of the “figure of the world” are thus artistic

objects which are to be used magically for their talismanic virtue. They

are attempting to influence “the world” by favourable arrangements of

celestial images, so as to draw down favourable influences and exclude

non-favourable ones. In short, these unfortunately so vaguely hinted at

works of art are functional; they are made for a purpose, for magical

use. By arranging the figure of the world and its celestial images with

knowledge and skill, the Magus controls the influences of the stars. Just

as Hermes Trismegistus arranged the images in the City of Adocentyn,

which was planned as an image of the world, so as to regulate the astral

influences on the inhabitants in such a way as to keep them healthy and

virtuous, so Ficino’s “figures of the world” would be calculated to

regulate the influences in the direction indicated in the Libri de Vita,

towards a predominance of Solar, Jovial, and Venereal influences and

towards an avoidance of Saturn and Mars.

The point in the description of the “figures of the world” to which I

want to draw particular attention in view of later developments in this

book is that these figures are not only to be looked at but reflected or

remembered within. The man who stares at the figure of the world on

his bedroom ceiling, imprinting it and its dominating colours of the

planets on memory, when he comes out of his house and sees

innumerable individual things is able to unify these through the images

of a higher reality which he has within. This is the strange vision, or

the extraordinary illusion, which was later to inspire Giordano Bruno’s

efforts to base memory on celestial images, on images which are

shadows of ideas in the soul of the world, and thus to unify and

43 Ficino, loc. cit.

Yates, Frances. Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition.

Florence, KY, USA: Routledge, 1964. p 80.


Copyright © 1964. Routledge. All rights reserved.

organise the innumerable individuals in the world and all the contents

of memory.

In his article on “Botticelli’s Mythologies”, E. H. Gombrich quotes a

letter from Ficino to Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de’ Medici, in which

Ficino tells the young Lorenzo that he is giving him an “immense


For anyone who contemplates the heavens, nothing he sets his eyes

upon seems immense, but the heavens themselves. If, therefore, I

make you a present of the heavens themselves what would be its

price? 44

Ficino goes on to say that the young man should dispose his “Luna”,

that is, his soul and body, in such a way as to avoid too much influence

from Saturn and Mars, and to obtain favourable influences from the

Sun, Jupiter, and Venus. “If you thus dispose the heavenly signs and

your gifts in this way, you will escape the threats of fortune, and, under

divine favour, will live happy and free from cares.”

Gombrich discusses the “Primavera” (Pl. 2) in relation to such a

disposition of the stars, suggesting that the Mercury on the extreme left

is a planetary image, raising and dismissing the possibility that the

Three Graces might be Sol, Jupiter, and Venus, and emphasising that the

central figure is certainly a Venus. What I have now to suggest does not

conflict with the general line of his approach.

Surely, the “immense present” which was a “present of the heavens

themselves” which Ficino sent to Pierfrancesco was a construction of a

similar nature to that described in chapter XIX of the De vita coelitus

comparanda on “making a figure of the universe”. It was an image of the

world arranged so as to attract the favourable planets and to avoid

Saturn. The “present” was probably not some actual object but advice

as to how to make, internally in the soul or the imagination such a

“figure of the world” and to keep the inner attention concentrated on

its images, or possibly also how to have a real object or talisman

44 Ficino, p. 805; cf. E. H. Gombrich, “Botticelli’s Mythologies: a study in the Neoplatonic

symbolism of his circle”, J. W. C. I., VIII (1945), p. 16.

Yates, Frances. Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition.

Florence, KY, USA: Routledge, 1964. p 81.


Copyright © 1964. Routledge. All rights reserved.

designed to be used for reflection in the mind. Though painted earlier

than the De vita coelitus comparanda was written, or at least published,

Botticelli’s “Primavera” is surely such an object, designed with such a


Far be it from me to attempt yet another detailed interpretation of

the figures in the “Primavera”. I want only to suggest that in the context

of the study of Ficino’s magic the picture begins to be seen as a

practical application of that magic, as a complex talisman, an “image of

the world” arranged so as to transmit only healthful, rejuvenating, antiSaturnian

influences to the beholder. Here, in visual form is Ficino’s

natural magic, using grouping of trees and flowers, using only planetary

images and those only in relation to the “world”, not to attract

demons; or as shadows of Ideas in the Neoplatonic hierarchy. And,

whatever the figures on the right may represent mythologically, is it

not the spiritus mundi which blows through them, blown from the puffed

cheeks of the aerial spirit, made visible in the wind-blown folds of the

draperies of the running figure? The spiritus which is the channel for the

influences of the stars has been caught and stored in the magic


How different is Botticelli’s Alma Venus, with whom, as Ficino

advises, we walk in the green and flowery meadows, drinking in the

scented air, laden with spiritus—how different she is from the prim little

talisman Venus, with an apple in one hand and flowers in the other! Yet

her function is the same, to draw down the Venereal spirit from the

star, and to transmit it to the wearer or beholder of her lovely image.

Ficino’s Orphic magic45 was a return to an ancient priscus theologus, like

his talismanic magic with its disguised, or revised, return to Hermes

Trismegistus. Orpheus comes second after Trismegistus in the Ficinian

lists of prisci theologi. The collection of hymns known as the Orphica,

which was the main though not the only source of Orphic hymns

known to the Renaissance, dates probably from the second or third

century •. •., that is from roughly the same period as the Hermetica.

They were probably hymns used by some religious sect of the period.

Their content is usually to call upon a god, particularly the Sun, by his

various names, invoking his various powers, and there is more than a

45 On Ficino’s Orphic magic, see Walker, pp. 12– 24.

Yates, Frances. Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition.

Florence, KY, USA: Routledge, 1964. p 83.


Copyright © 1964. Routledge. All rights reserved.

touch of the magical incantation in them. Ficino and his contemporaries

believed that the Orphic hymns were by Orpheus himself and were

of extreme antiquity, reflecting the religious singing of a priscus magus

who lived long before Plato. Ficino’s revival of Orphic singing has deep

importance for him because he believes he is returning to the practice

of a most ancient theologian and one who foresaw the Trinity. 46 It thus

has underlying it the same type of historical error as that which

induced his profound respect for the Hermetica.

Ficino used to sing the Orphic songs, accompanying himself probably

on a lira da braccio. 47 They were set to some kind of simple monodic

music which Ficino believed echoed the musical notes emitted by the

planetary spheres, to form that music of the spheres of which Pythagoras

spoke. Thus one could sing Sun hymns, or Jupiter hymns, or Venus

hymns attuned to those planets, and this, being re-enforced by the

invocation of their names and powers, was a way of drawing down

their influences. The spiritus theory also lies behind this vocal or aural

magic, as it does behind the sympathetic and talismanic magic. The

Orphic magic is thus exactly parallel to the talismanic magic; it is used

for the same reasons, to draw down chosen stellar influences; its

medium or channel is again the spiritus. The only difference between the

two magics, and it is of course a basic one, is that one is visual, working

through visual images (the talismans) whilst the other is aural and

vocal, working through music and the voice.

Walker thinks that the incantatory and aural magic which is

described in the De vita coelitus comparanda is really the same as the Orphic

singing, though this is not expressly stated. 48 The two branches of

Ficino’s magic—sympathetic magic with natural groupings and

talismans, and incantatory magic with hymns and invocations—are

certainly both represented in that work.

The incantatory magic raises the same problem as the talismanic

magic, namely, is it a natural magic, addressed to the gods as powers of

the world, or a demonic magic, invoking the demons of the stars. The

answer here is probably the same as in the case of the talismanic magic,

46 See Walker, “Orpheus the Theologian and the Renaissance Platonists”, J. W. C. I., XVI

(1953), pp. 100– 20.

47 Walker (Spiritual and Demonic Magic), pp. 19, 22.

48 Ibid., p. 23.

Yates, Frances. Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition.

Florence, KY, USA: Routledge, 1964. p 84.


Copyright © 1964. Routledge. All rights reserved.

namely that Ficino regarded his incantations as purely natural magic. At

least we have Pico della Mirandola’s word for it that the Orphic singing

is natural magic for he calls it by this name in one of his Conclusiones


In natural magic nothing is more efficacious than the Hymns of

Orpheus, if there be applied to them suitable music, and disposition

of soul, and the other circumstances known to the wise. 49

And in another of his Orphic Conclusions, Pico definitely states that the

names of the gods, of which Orpheus sings, are not those of deceiving

demons but “names of the natural and divine virtues” 50 diffused

throughout the world.

To complete our view of Ficino’s natural magic, we thus have to

think of him drawing down the stellar influences by musical incantations

as well as by sympathetic arrangement of natural objects, talismans,

exposing oneself to the air, and so on, for the spiritus is caught by

planetary songs as well as in the other ways described. There may be an

even closer connection between the Ficinian talismans and the Ficinian

incantations, for in chapter XVIII, after his long and involved defence of

his talismans, he seems to say that these are made “beneath a harmony

similar to the celestial harmony” 51 which excites their virtue. I do not

know whether this passage can be taken to mean that a Ficinian talisman

or talismanic type of picture, was made, or painted, to the accompaniment

of suitable Orphic incantations which helped to infuse the

spiritus into them.

In spite of all his precautions, Ficino did not avoid getting into

trouble for the Libri de vita, as we learn from his Apologia52 for that work.

People had evidently been asking questions such as, “Is not Marsilius a

priest? What has a priest to do with medicine and astrology? What has

a Christian to do with magic and images?” Ficino counters by pointing

out that in ancient times, priests always did medicine, mentioning

Chaldean, Persian, and Egyptian priests; that medicine is impossible

49 Pico, p. 106; quoted by Walker, p. 22.

50 Pico, p. 106. See below, p. 96.

51 Ficino, p. 558.

52 Ibid., pp. 572– 4. On the Apologia, see Walker, pp. 42 ff., 52– 3.

Yates, Frances. Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition.

Florence, KY, USA: Routledge, 1964. p 85.


Copyright © 1964. Routledge. All rights reserved.

without astrology; that Christ Himself was a healer. But above all he

emphasises that there are two kinds of magic, one demonic magic

which is illicit and wicked, the other natural magic, which is useful

and necessary. The only kind of magic which he has practised or

advised is the good and useful kind—magia naturalis. 53

How elegant, how artistic and refined is this modern natural magic! 54 If

we think of the Neoplatonic philosopher singing Orphic hymns,

accompanying himself on his lira da braccio decorated with the figure of

Orpheus taming the animals, and then compare this Renaissance vision

with the barbarous mutterings of some invocation in Picatrix, the

contrast between the new magic and the old is painfully evident.

Beydelus, Demeymes, Adulex, Metucgayn, Atine, Ffex, Uquizuz, Gadix,

Sol, Veni cito cum tuis spiritibus. 55

How remote is the gibberish of this demonic invocation to Sol in

Picatrix from Ficino and his “natural” planetary songs! Or if we think of

the flowers, jewels, scents with which Ficino’s patients are advised to

surround themselves, of the charmingly healthy and wealthy way of

life which they are to follow, and compare this with the filthy and

obscene substances, the stinking and disgusting mixtures recommended

in Picatrix, the contrast is again most striking between the new

elegant magic, recommended by the fashionable physician, and that

old dirty magic. Again, it would seem that the primitive talismanic

image might be expanded by Renaissance artists into figures of

immortal beauty, figures in which classical form has been both

recovered and transmuted into something new.

And yet there is absolute continuity between the old magic and the

new. Both rest on the same astrological presuppositions; both use in

their methods the same groupings of natural substances; both employ

talismans and invocations; both are pneumatic magic, believing in the

spiritus as the channel of influence from the above to the below. Finally,

53 Ficino, p. 573; cf. Walker, p. 52.

54 E. Garin (Medioevo e Rinascimento, p. 172) draws a contrast between mediaeval “bassa

magia” and “magia rinascimentale”.

55 Sloane, 1305, f. 152 verso.

Yates, Frances. Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition.

Florence, KY, USA: Routledge, 1964. p 86.


Copyright © 1964. Routledge. All rights reserved.

both are integrated into an elaborate philosophical context. The magic

of Picatrix is presented in a framework of philosophy; and Ficino’s

natural magic is fundamentally related to his Neoplatonism.

We have, in short, to think of Renaissance magic as both in continuity

with mediaeval magic and also the transformation of that tradition

into something new. The phenomenon is exactly parallel with that

other phenomenon which Warburg and Saxl discovered and studied,

namely how the images of the gods were preserved through the Middle

Ages in astrological manuscripts, reached the Renaissance in that barbarised

form, and were then reinvested with classical form through the

rediscovery and imitation of classical works of art. 56 In the same way,

astral magic comes down in the mediaeval tradition and is reinvested

with classical form in the Renaissance through the rediscovery of Neoplatonic

theurgy. Ficino’s magic, with its hymns to the Sun, its Three

Graces in an astrological context, its Neoplatonism, is closer in outlook,

practice, and classical form to the Emperor Julian than it is to Picatrix.

Yet the substance of it reached him through Picatrix, or some such

similar text-books, and was transformed by him back into classical

form through his Greek studies. One might say that the approach

through the history of magic is perhaps as necessary for the understanding

of the meaning and use of a Renaissance work of art as is the

approach through the history of the recovery of classical form for the

understanding of its form. The Three Graces (to take this perennial

example) regained their classical form through the recovery and imitation

of the true classical form of the group. They perhaps also regained

their talismanic virtue through the renaissance of magic.

And yet, just as a pagan Renaissance work of art is not purely pagan but

retains Christian overtones or undertones (the classical example of this

being Botticelli’s Venus who looks like a Virgin), so it is also with

Ficino’s magic. This cannot be regarded as a purely medical practice

which he kept quite separate from his religion because, as D. P. Walker

56 See Warburg’s Gesammelte Schriften; Saxl’s catalogues of illustrated astrological manuscripts

and other writings (for bibliography, see F. Saxl, Lectures, Warburg Institute, University

of London, 1957, I, pp. 359– 62); and cf. J. Seznec, The Survival of the Pagan Gods, pp.

37 ff.

Yates, Frances. Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition.

Florence, KY, USA: Routledge, 1964. p 87.


Copyright © 1964. Routledge. All rights reserved.


has emphasised, it was in itself a kind of religion. Walker has quoted a

passage from Ficino’s close disciple and imitator, Francesco da Diacetto

in which this comes out most clearly. 57 Diacceto describes how one

who wishes to acquire “solarian gifts”, should robe himself in a mantle

of solarian colour, such as gold, and conduct a rite, involving burning of

incense made from solar plants, before an altar on which is an image

of the sun, for example “an image of the sun enthroned, crowned, and

wearing a saffron cloak, likewise a raven and the figure of the sun.”

This is the solar talisman in the De vita coelitus comparanda which we

thought might be derived from Picatrix. 58 Then, anointed with

unguents made from solar materials he is to sing an Orphic hymn to

the Sun, invoking him as the divine Henad, as the Mind, and as the

Soul. This is the Neoplatonic triad under which the Emperor Julian

worshipped the Sun. As Walker says the triad is not actually mentioned

in the De vita coelitus comparanda. But it is alluded to by Plotinus in that

passage in the Enneads on which Ficino’s work is a commentary, as the

example of the hierarchy of the Ideas. 59 Diacceto’s solar rites thus bring

out something which is implicit in the De vita coelitus comparanda and they

probably reflect Ficino’s own practices. If so, Ficino’s magic was a

religious magic, a revival of the religion of the world.

How could a pious Christian reconcile such a revival with his Christianity?

No doubt the Renaissance religious syncretism, by which the

Neoplatonic triad was connected with the Trinity would account for

regarding sun-worship theoretically and historically as a religion having

affinities with Christianity, but this would hardly account for the

revival of it as a religious cult. The moving force behind this revival was

probably, as Walker has suggested, Ficino’s deep interest in the

Egyptian magical religion described in the Asclepius. It was on this, and

only secondarily on Plotinus, that the De vita coelitus comparanda was a

57 Francesco da Diacceto, Opera omnia, ed. Bâle, 1563, pp. 45– 6; cf. Walker, pp. 32– 3. On

Diacceto, see Kristeller, Studies, pp. 287 ff.

58 See above, p. 75. In this passage, the talismanic image of the sun is almost reverting to a

“statue”, worshipped with rites as in the Asclepius.

59 “The sun of that sphere . . . is an Intellectual-Principle, and immediately upon it

follows the Soul depending from it . . . the Soul borders also upon the sun of this sphere,

and becomes the medium by which it is linked to the over-world”; Plotinus, Ennead, IV, 3,

XI; McKenna’s translation, p. 270.

Yates, Frances. Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition.

Florence, KY, USA: Routledge, 1964. p 88.


Copyright © 1964. Routledge. All rights reserved.

Your ebrary Copy is not complete. Please return to your browser until the Copy has completed; then you can Paste successfully.




Pico della Mirandola, contemporary of Ficino, though younger, began

his philosophical career under Ficino’s influence and imbibed from

Ficino his enthusiasm for magia naturalis which he accepted and recommended

much more forcibly and openly than did Ficino. But Pico is

chiefly important in the history of Renaissance magic because he added

to the natural magic another kind of magic, which was to be used with

the magia naturalis as complementary to it. This other kind of magic

which Pico added to the equipment of the Renaissance Magus was

practical Cabala, or Cabalist magic. This was a spiritual magic, not

spiritual in the sense of using only the natural spiritus mundi like natural

magic, but in the sense that it attempted to tap the higher spiritual

powers, beyond the natural powers of the cosmos. Practical Cabala

invokes angels, archangels, the ten sephiroth which are names or

powers of God, God himself, by means some of which are similar to

other magical procedures but more particularly through the power of

the sacred Hebrew language. It is thus a much more ambitious kind of

magic than Ficino’s natural magic, and one which it would be impossible

to keep apart from religion.

For the Renaissance mind, which loved symmetrical arrangements,

Yates, Frances. Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition.

Florence, KY, USA: Routledge, 1964. p 90.


Copyright © 1964. Routledge. All rights reserved.

there was a certain parallelism between the writings of Hermes Trismegistus,

the Egyptian Moses, and Cabala which was a Jewish mystical

tradition supposed to have been handed down orally from Moses himself.

In common with all Cabalists, Pico firmly believed in this extreme

antiquity of the Cabalistic teachings as going right back to Moses, as a

secret doctrine which Moses had imparted to some initiates who had

handed it on, and which unfolded mysteries not fully explained by the

patriarch in Genesis. The Cabala is not, I believe, ever called a prisca

theologia for this term applied to Gentile sources of ancient wisdom, and

this was a more sacred wisdom, being Hebrew wisdom. And since, for

Pico, Cabala confirmed the truth of Christianity, Christian Cabala was a

Hebrew-Christian source of ancient wisdom, and one which he found

it most valuable and instructive to compare with Gentile ancient wisdoms,

and above all with that of Hermes Trismegistus who particularly

lent himself to Pico’s essays in comparative religion because he was so

closely parallel to Moses, as the Egyptian law-giver and author of the

inspired Egyptian Genesis, the Pimander.

Looking at the Hermetic writings and at Cabala with the eyes of Pico,

certain symmetries begin to present themselves to our enraptured gaze.

The Egyptian law-giver had given utterance to wonderful mystical

teachings, including an account of creation in which he seemed to

know something of what Moses knew. With this body of mystical

teaching there went a magic, the magic of the Asclepius. In Cabala, too,

there was a marvellous body of mystical teaching, derived from the

Hebrew law-giver, and new light on the Mosaic mysteries of creation.

Pico lost himself in these wonders in which he saw the divinity of

Christ verified. And with Cabala, too, there went a kind of magic,

practical Cabala.

Hermetism and Cabalism also corroborated one another on a theme

which was fundamental for them both, namely the creation by the

Word. The mysteries of the Hermetica are mysteries of the Word, or the

Logos, and in the Pimander, it was by the luminous Word, the Son of

God issuing from the Nous that the creative act was made. In Genesis,

“God spoke” to form the created world, and, since He spoke in

Hebrew, this is why for the Cabalist the words and letters of the Hebrew

tongue are subjects for endless mystical meditations, and why, for the

practical Cabalist, they contain magical power. Lactantius may have

Yates, Frances. Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition.

Florence, KY, USA: Routledge, 1964. p 91.


Copyright © 1964. Routledge. All rights reserved.

helped to cement the union between Hermetism and Christian Cabalism

on this point, for, after quoting from the Psalm “By the word of

God were the heavens made”, and from St. John, “In the beginning was

the Word”, he adds that this is supported from the Gentiles. “For

Trismegistus, who by some means or other searched into almost all

truth, often described the excellence and the majesty of the Word”, and

he acknowledged “that there is an ineffable and sacred speech, the

relation of which exceeds the measure of man’s ability.” 1

The marrying together of Hermetism and Cabalism, of which Pico

was the instigator and founder, was to have momentous results, and the

subsequent Hermetic-Cabalist tradition, ultimately stemming from

him, was of most far-reaching importance. It could be purely mystical,

developing Hermetic and Cabalist meditations on creation and on man

into immensely complex labyrinths of religious speculation, involving

numerological and harmonic aspects into which Pythagoreanism was

absorbed. But it also had its magical side, and here, too, Pico was the

founder who first united the Hermetic and Cabalist types of magic.

It was in 1486 that the young Pico della Mirandola went to Rome with

his nine hundred theses, or points drawn from all philosophies which

he offered to prove in public debate to be all reconcilable with one

another. According to Thorndike, these theses showed that Pico’s thinking

“was largely coloured by astrology, that he was favourable to natural

magic, and that he had a penchant for such occult and esoteric

literature as the Orphic hymns, Chaldean oracles, and Jewish cabala”, 2

also the writings of Hermes Trismegistus. The great debate never took

place, and theologians raised an outcry over some of the theses, necessitating

an Apology or defence which was published in 1487 together

with most of the oration on the Dignity of Man, with which the debate

was to have opened. That oration was to echo and re-echo throughout

the Renaissance, and it is, indeed, the great charter of Renaissance

Magic, of the new type of magic introduced by Ficino and completed

by Pico.

In the following pages I shall be using Pico’s theses, or Conclusiones,

1 Lactantius, Div. Inst., IV, ix; Fletcher’s translation, I, p. 226.

2 Thorndike, IV, p. 494.

Yates, Frances. Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition.

Florence, KY, USA: Routledge, 1964. p 92.


Copyright © 1964. Routledge. All rights reserved.


his Apology, and also the Oration. 3 My objects are strictly limited. First,

I shall draw out what Pico says about magia or magia naturalis, endeavouring

to determine what he means by this. Secondly, to show that Pico

distinguishes between theoretical Cabala and practical Cabala, the latter

being Cabalist magic. And, thirdly, to prove that Pico thinks that magia

naturalis needs to be supplemented by practical Cabala without which it

is but a weak force. These three objectives overlap with one another,

and it may not always be possible to keep the different threads distinct.

And I must add that, though I am certain that by “practical Cabala” Pico

means Cabalist magic, I shall not be able to elucidate what procedures

he used for this, since this is a matter for Hebrew specialists to


Amongst Pico’s nine hundred theses there are twenty-six Conclusiones

Magicae. These are partly on natural magic and partly on Cabalist magic. I

select here some of those on natural magic.

The first of the magical conclusions is as follows:

Tota Magia, quae in usu est apud Modernos, & quam merito exterminat

Ecclesia, nullam habet firmitatem, nullum fundamentum, nullam

ueritatem, quia pendet ex manu hostium primae ueritatis, potestatum

harum tenebrarum, quae tenebras falsitatis, male dispositis intellectibus

obfundunt. 4

All “modern magic”, announces Pico in this first conclusion is bad,

groundless, the work of the devil, and rightly condemned by the

Church. This sounds uncompromisingly against magic as used in Pico’s

time, “modern magic”. But magicians always introduce their subject by

3 Pico’s Conclusiones, absolutely fundamental though they are for the whole Renaissance,

are available in no modern edition. The references to them and to the Apologia in this

chapter are to the 1572 edition of Pico’s works (abbreviated as “Pico”, see Abbreviations).

The references to the Oration are to the edition, with Italian translation, published

by E. Garin (G. Pico della Mirandola, De hominis dignitate, Heptaplus, De ente et uno, e scritti

varii, ed. E. Garin, Florence, 1942). An English translation of the Oration is included in The

Renaissance Philosophy of Man, ed. E. Cassirer, P. O. Kristeller, J. H. Randall, Chicago, 1948, pp.

223 ff. On the first version of the Oration, see Garin, Cultura, pp. 231 ff.

4 Pico, p. 104.

Yates, Frances. Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition.

Florence, KY, USA: Routledge, 1964. p 93.


Copyright © 1964. Routledge. All rights reserved.











Copyright © 1964. Routledge. All rights reserved.




Henry Cornelius Agrippa of Nettesheim1 is by no means the most

important of the magicians of the Renaissance, nor is his De occulta

philosophia really a text-book of magic, as it has sometimes been called. It

does not fully give the technical procedures, nor is it a profound philosophical

work, as its title implies, and Cardanus, a really deep magician,

despised it as a trivial affair. 2 Nevertheless the De occulta philosophia provided

for the first time a useful and—so far as the abstruseness of the

subject permitted—a clear survey of the whole field of Renaissance

magic. Since my book is not written by a really deep magician who

1 On Agrippa, see Thorndike, V, pp. 127 ff.; Walker, pp. 90 ff. Selections from Agrippa,

including one chapter of the De occulta philosophia, are published by Paola Zambelli, with

useful introduction and notes, in Test. uman., pp. 79 ff. See also her article, in which further

bibliography is given, “Umanesimo magico-astrologico” in Umanesimo e esoterismo, ed. E.

Castelli, Padua, 1960, pp. 141 ff.

The De occulta philosophia was first published in 1533. I have used the edition in H. C.

Agrippa, Opera, “Per Beringos fratres, Lugduni”, s. d., Vol. I.

2 Thorndike, V, p. 138.

Yates, Frances. Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition.

Florence, KY, USA: Routledge, 1964. p 146.


Copyright © 1964. Routledge. All rights reserved.

fully understands the procedures, but is only a humble historian’s

attempt to outline those parts of the subject which affect the understanding

of Giordano Bruno (who, incidentally, made great use of this

trivial work) and his place in the sequence of magical thinking, I propose

to devote a chapter to Agrippa’s popular book on the occult


He had completed the work by 1510, but did not publish it until

1533, that is several years after the publication of his De vanitate scientiarum

(1530) in which he had proclaimed that all sciences are vain,

including the occult sciences. Since Agrippa’s major interest, up to the

end of his life, was undoubtedly in the occult sciences, the publication

of the book on the vanity of such sciences before the publication of his

survey of those sciences in the De occulta philosophia can probably be

regarded as a safety-device of a kind frequently employed by magicians

and astrologers for whom it was useful, in case of theological

disapproval, to be able to point to statements made by themselves

“against” their subjects, by which, however, they usually mean that

they are only against bad uses of such knowledge, not their own good


The universe is to be divided, says Agrippa in the first two chapters

of his first book, into three worlds, the elemental world, the celestial

world, the intellectual world. Each world receives influences from the

one above it, so that the virtue of the Creator descends through the

angels in the intellectual world, to the stars in the celestial world, and

thence to the elements and to all things composed of them in the

elemental world, animals, plants, metals, stones, and so on. Magicians

think that we can make the same progress upwards, and draw the

virtues of the upper world down to us by manipulating the lower ones.

They try to discover the virtues of the elemental world by medicine and

natural philosophy; the virtues of the celestial world by astrology and

mathematics; and in regard to the intellectual world, they study the

holy ceremonies of religions. Agrippa’s work is divided into three

books; the first book is about natural magic, or magic in the elemental

world; the second is about celestial magic; the third is about ceremonial

magic. These three divisions correspond to the divisions of philosophy

into physics, mathematics, and theology. Magic alone includes all

three. Eminent magicians of the past have been Mercurius Trismegistus,

Yates, Frances. Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition.

Florence, KY, USA: Routledge, 1964. p 147.


Copyright © 1964. Routledge. All rights reserved.

Zoroaster, Orpheus, Pythagoras, Porphyry, Iamblichus, Plotinus,

Proclus, Plato. 3


After chapters on the theory of the four elements, he comes to the

occult virtues in things and how these are infused “by the Ideas

through the World Soul and the rays of the stars.” 4 This is based on the

first chapter of Ficino’s De vita coelitus comparanda, which is quoted verbally,

and Agrippa has understood that Ficino is there talking about the

star images as the medium through which the Ideas descend. “Thus all

the virtues of inferior things depend on the stars and their images . . .

and each species has a celestial image which corresponds to it.” 5 In a

later chapter on “The Spirit of the World as the Link between Occult

Virtues” 6 he is again quoting Ficino and reproducing his spiritus theory.

7 Then follow chapters on the plants, animals, stones, and so on

belonging to each planet, and to the signs of the zodiac, and on how

the “character” of the star is imprinted in the object belonging to it, so

that if you cut across the bone of a solar animal or the root or stem of a

solar plant, you will see the character of the sun stamped upon it. Then

come instructions on how to do natural magic by manipulations of the

natural sympathies in things and thus through arrangements and correct

uses of the lower things to draw down the powers of the higher

things. 8

So far, what Agrippa has been talking about is Ficino’s natural magic

as done in the elemental world that is through occult stellar virtues in

natural objects. But, as D. P. Walker has pointed out, 9 Agrippa does not

follow Ficino in taking care to avoid the demonic side of this magic by

aiming only at attracting stellar influences and not the influences of

3 Agrippa, De occult. phil., I, 1 and 2; ed. cit., pp. 1– 4.

4 Ibid., I, II; ed. cit., p. 18.

5 Ibid., loc. cit.; ed. cit., p. 19.

6 Ibid., I, 14; ed. cit., p. 23.

7 He is quoting from De vita coelitus comparanda, 3 (Ficino, p. 534). This, and other borrowings

from Ficino, are pointed out by Walker, pp. 89– 90.

8 Agrippa, De occult. phil., I, 15– 37; ed. cit., pp. 24– 53.

9 Walker, p. 92.

Yates, Frances. Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition.

Florence, KY, USA: Routledge, 1964. p 148.


Copyright © 1964. Routledge. All rights reserved.

spiritual forces beyond the stars. For you can draw down in this way,

says Agrippa, not only celestial and vital benefits (that is benefits from

the middle or celestial world) but also intellectual and divine gifts (that

is benefits from the intellectual world). “Mercurius Trismegistus writes

that a demon immediately animates a figure or statue well composed of

certain things which suit that demon; Augustine also mentions this in

the eighth book of his City of God.” 10 Agrippa fails to add that Augustine

mentions this with strong disapproval. “For such is the concordance of

the world that celestial things draw supercelestial things, and natural

things, supernatural things, through the virtue running through all and

the participation in it of all species.” 11 Hence it was that ancient priests

were able to make statues and images which foretold the future.

Agrippa is aiming at the full demonic magic of the Asclepius, going far

beyond the mild Neoplatonised magic of Ficino which he has been

describing in the earlier chapters. He knows that there is an evil kind of

this magic, practised by “gnostic magicians” and possibly by the Templars,

but adds that everyone knows that a pure spirit with mystical

prayers and pious mortifications can attract the angels of heaven, and

therefore it cannot be doubted that certain terrestrial substances used

in a good way can attract the divinities. 12

There follow chapters on fascination, poisons, fumigations (perfumes

sympathetic to the planets and how to make them), unguents

and philtres, rings, 13 and an interesting chapter on light. 14 Light descends

from the Father to the Son and the Holy Spirit, thence to the

angels, the celestial bodies, to fire, to man in the light of reason and

knowledge of divine things, to the fantasy, and it communicates itself

to luminous bodies as colour, after which follows the list of the colours

of the planets. Then we have gestures related to the planets, divinations,

geomancy, hydromancy, aeromancy, pyromancy, furor and the power

of the melancholy humour. There is then a section on psychology

followed by discussion of the passions, their power to change the body,

and how by cultivating the passions or emotions belonging to a star (as

10 De occult. phil., I, 38; ed. cit., p. 53.

11 Ibid., loc. cit.

12 Ibid., I, 39; ed. cit., pp. 54– 5.

13 Ibid., I, 40– 8; ed. cit., pp. 55– 68.

14 Ibid., I, 49; ed. cit., pp. 68– 71.

Yates, Frances. Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition.

Florence, KY, USA: Routledge, 1964. p 149.


Copyright © 1964. Routledge. All rights reserved.

love belonging to Venus) we can attract the influence of that star, and

how the operations of the magician use a strong emotional force. 15

The power of words and names is discussed in the later chapters of

the book, 16 the virtue of proper names, how to compose an incantation

using all the names and virtues of a star or of a divinity. The final

chapter is on the relation of the letters of the Hebrew alphabet to the

signs of the zodiac, planets, and elements which give that language a

strong magical power. Other alphabets also have these meanings but

less intensely than the Hebrew.


Mathematics are most necessary in magic, for everything which is done

through natural virtue is governed by number, weight, and measure. By

mathematics one can produce without any natural virtue, operations

which seem natural, statues and figures which move and speak. (That

is, mathematical magic can produce the living statues with the same

powers as those made by using occult natural virtues, as described in

the Asclepius which Agrippa has quoted on such statues.) When a magician

follows natural philosophy and mathematics and knows the middle

sciences which come from them—arithmetic, music, geometry,

optics, astronomy, mechanics—he can do marvellous things. We see

today remains of ancient works, columns, pyramids, huge artificial

mounds. Such things were done by mathematical magic. As one

acquires natural virtue by natural things, so by abstract things—

mathematical and celestial things—one acquires celestial virtue, and

images can be made which foretell the future, as that head of brass,

formed at the rising of Saturn. 17

Pythagoras said that numbers have more reality than natural things,

hence the superiority of mathematical magic to natural magic. 18

There follow chapters on the virtues of numbers and number groupings,

beginning with One which is the principle and end of all things,

15 Ibid., I, 50– 69; ed. cit., pp. 71– 109.

16 Ibid., I, 69– 74; ed. cit., pp. 109– 17.

17 Ibid., II, 1; ed. cit., pp. 121– 3.

18 Ibid., loc. cit.; ed. cit., p. 123.

Yates, Frances. Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition.

Florence, KY, USA: Routledge, 1964. p 150.


Copyright © 1964. Routledge. All rights reserved.

which belongs to the supreme God. There is one sun. Mankind arose

from one Adam and is redeemed in one Christ. 19 Then come chapters

on two to twelve, 20 with their meanings and groupings, as Three for

the Trinity21; three theological virtues; three Graces; three decans in

each sign; three powers of the soul; number, measure, and weight. The

letters of the Hebrew alphabet have numerical values and these are

most potent for number magic. Then follows an exposition of magic

squares, that is numbers arranged in a square (either the actual numbers

or their Hebrew letter equivalents) which are in accordance with

planetary numbers and have power to draw down the influence of the

planet to which they are related. 22

Then comes a treatment of harmony and its relation to the stars,

harmony in the soul of man, the effects of music rightly composed in

accordance with universal harmony in harmonising the soul. 23

After the long discussion of number in celestial magic, we have a

very long discussion of images in celestial magic, 24 with long lists of

such images, images for the planets, images for the signs, nor does

Agrippa fear actually to print the images of the thirty-six decan demons.

First of all he explains the general principles of the making of talismans

imprinted with celestial images. We need not go into this again

and a few examples from his image-lists will suffice. One image of

Saturn is “a man with a stag’s head, camel’s feet, on a throne or on a

dragon, with a sickle in the right hand, an arrow in the left.” 25 An

image of Sol is “a crowned king on a throne, a crow at his bosom, a

globe under his feet, robed in yellow”. 26 An image of Venus is “a girl

with loose hair wearing long white robes, holding in the right hand a

branch of laurel or an apple or a bunch of flowers, in the left hand a

comb.” 27 The Saturn image correctly made on a talisman gives long

19 Ibid., II, 4; ed. cit., pp. 125– 7.

20 Ibid., II, 5– 14; ed. cit., pp. 127– 62.

21 Ibid., II, 6; ed. cit., pp. 129– 31.

22 Ibid., II, 22; ed. cit., pp. 174 ff.

23 Ibid., II, 24; ed. cit., pp. 184 ff.

24 Ibid., II, 35– 47; ed. cit., pp. 212– 25.

25 Ibid., II, 38; ed. cit., p. 217.

26 Ibid., II, 41; ed. cit., p. 219.

27 Ibid., II, 42; ed. cit., p. 220.

Yates, Frances. Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition.

Florence, KY, USA: Routledge, 1964. p 151.


Copyright © 1964. Routledge. All rights reserved.

life; the Sol image gives success in all undertakings and is good against

fevers; the Venus image gives strength and beauty. The images of the

thirty-six decans of the zodiac begin, 28 with the alarming first decan of

Aries: “a black man, standing and dressed in a white robe, very huge

and strong, with red eyes, and seeming angry.” Agrippa also gives

images for the mansions of the moon and for fixed stars other than

those in the zodiac. 29 He thus provided a whole repertoire of images

for talismans to be used in celestial magic. He also describes how

images may be made, not to resemble any celestial figure, but to represent

the wish and intention of the operator, for example, to procure

love we might make an image of people embracing. 30 This opens up a

wide field for original invention in talismanic imagery.

“This is enough to say about images,” concludes Agrippa, “for you can

now go on for yourself to find others. But you must know that these

kind of figures are nothing unless they are vivified so that there is in

them . . . a natural virtue, or a celestial virtue, or a heroic, animastic,

demonic, or angelic virtue. But who can give soul to an image, life to

stone, metal, wood or wax? And who can make children of Abraham

come out of stones? Truly this secret is not known to the thick-witted

worker . . . and no one has such powers but he who has cohabited with

the elements, vanquished nature, mounted higher than the heavens,

elevating himself above the angels to the archetype itself, with whom

he then becomes co-operator and can do all things.” 31

Which shows how far, far behind him Agrippa has left the timid and

28 Ibid., II, 37; ed. cit., pp. 214– 17.

29 Ibid., II, 46, 47; ed. cit., pp. 221– 5.

30 Ibid., II, 49; ed. cit., pp. 227– 8.

31 “. . . & haec de imaginibus dicta sufficiant, nam plura ejusmodi nunc per te ipsum

investigare poteris. Illud autem scias, nihil operari imagines ejusmodi, nisi vivificentur

ita, quod ipsi, aut naturalis, aut coelestis, aut heroica, aut animastica, aut daemonica,

vel angelica virtus insit, aut adsistat. At quis modo animam dabit imagini, aut vivificabit

lapidem, aut metallum, aut lignum, aut ceram? atque ex lapidibus suscitabit filios

Abrahae? Certe non penetrat hoc arcanum ad artificem durae cervicis, nec dare poterit

illa, qui non habet: habet autem nemo, nisi qui jam cohibitis elementis, victa natura,

superatis coelis, progressus angelos, ad ipsum archetypum usque transcendit, cujus tunc

cooperatur effectus potest omnia . . .” Ibid., II, 50; ed. cit., pp. 230– 1.

Yates, Frances. Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition.

Florence, KY, USA: Routledge, 1964. p 152.


Copyright © 1964. Routledge. All rights reserved.

pious Ficino, who aimed only at doing natural magic in the elemental

world, with just a spot of celestial magic from a few planetary talismans,

used naturally. The Agrippan Magus aims at mounting up

through all three worlds, the elemental world, the celestial world, the

intellectual or angelic or demonic world, and beyond even that to the

Creator himself whose divine creative power he will obtain. The door

into the forbidden which Ficino had left only slightly ajar is now fully


Agrippa’s incantations also aim higher than Ficino’s Orphic singing.

Agrippa discusses the Orphic magic and how the divinities which he

names in his hymns are not evil demons but divine and natural virtues

established by God for the use of men and which are called upon in

these hymns. 32 Agrippa gives lists of names, attributes, powers of the

planets to be used in invocations to them, above all the Sun is to be

called upon by “whoever wishes to do a marvellous work in this lower

world”. The ambitious Magus should attract the influence of the Sun

in every possible way, praying to him not only with the lips but with

a religious gesture. 33 It is, in a manner, the Ficinian sun-worship

and solar Orphic incantations, but now used to obtain power to do

marvellous works.

The philosophy of magic in this book is important. Some of it is the

usual material about the soul of the world, with the usual Virgil quotation

on mens agitat molem, 34 but Agrippa is also using material from

the Corpus Hermeticum from which he constantly quotes (of course in the

form of opinions or sayings of Hermes Trismegistus). In relation to the

world soul, he quotes from “Mercurius’ Treatise De communi”, 35 one of

the Hermetic treatises which we analysed in our second chapter, 36 with

32 Ibid., II, 58; ed. cit., pp. 242– 3.

33 Ibid., II, 59; ed. cit., pp. 244– 5.

34 Ibid., II, 55; ed. cit., p. 239.

35 “Et Mercurius in tractatu quem de Communi inscripsit, inquit, Totum quod est in

mundo, aut crescendo, aut decrescendo movetur. Quod autem movetur, id propterea

vivit: & cum omnia moveantur, etiam terra, maxime motu generativo & alterativo, ipsa

quoque vivit.” Ibid., II, 56; ed. cit., p. 240. Compare the following from Ficino’s translation

of the De communi (Corpus Hermeticum, XII); “Nunquid immobilis tibi terra uidetur? Minime,

sed multis moribus agitata. . . . Totum . . . quod est in mundo, aut crescendo aut

decrescendo mouetur. Quod uero mouetur, id praeterea uiuit. . . .” Ficino, p. 1854.

36 See above, pp. 35– 6.

Yates, Frances. Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition.

Florence, KY, USA: Routledge, 1964. p 153.


Copyright © 1964. Routledge. All rights reserved.

its optimist gnosis of the divinity of the world and its animation,

exemplified from the continual movement of the earth as things grow

and diminish, which movement shows that the earth is alive. Agrippa

was thus not only using the Asclepius and its magic, but other treatises of

the Corpus Hermeticum the philosophy of which he incorporated into his

magical philosophy. 37 His impressive description of the ascent of an

all-powerful Magus through the three worlds is reminiscent of the

ascents and descents of the Magus Man of the Pimander. 38


In this book, Agrippa rises to yet higher flights, for it is concerned

“with that part of Magic which teaches us to seek and know the laws of

Religions”, and how by following the ceremonies of religion to form

our spirit and thought to know the truth. It is the opinion of all the

Magi that if spirit and thought are not in a good state, the body cannot

be, and according to Hermes Trismegistus we cannot have firmness of

spirit without purity of life, piety, and divine religion, for the holiness

of religion purifies thought and renders it divine. 39 The reader is

adjured to keep silence about the mysteries in this book, for, says

Hermes, it is an offence to religion to propagate among the multitude a

“discourse so full of the divine majesty”. 40 (This is from the opening of

the Asclepius.) Plato, Pythagoras, Porphyry, and Orpheus, and the Cabalists

also enjoin secrecy in religious matters, and Christ hid the truth in

parables. There is moreover a most necessary and secret thing which is

absolutely necessary for a magician, and which is the key to all magical

operations, and this is “the Dignification of man for such high virtue

and power”. 41 It is through the intellect, the highest faculty of the soul,

37 P. Zambelli has drawn attention to the many quotations from the Hermetica in the

De occulta philosophia, and to Agrippa’s development of Hermetic doctrines in a magical

direction (Test. uman., p. 108).

38 See above, p. 26.

39 Agrippa, De occult. phil., III, 1; ed. cit., p. 253.

40 Ibid., III, 2; ed. cit., p. 254.

41 Ibid., III, 3; ed. cit., pp. 256– 8. With this chapter should be compared III, 36, “On man

created in the image of God”, which Zambelli has reprinted with notes on its sources

many of which are Hermetic (Test. uman., pp. 137– 46).

Yates, Frances. Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition.

Florence, KY, USA: Routledge, 1964. p 154.


Copyright © 1964. Routledge. All rights reserved.

that miraculous works are done, and it is by an ascetic, pure, and

religious way of life that is to be achieved the dignification necessary

for the religious Magus. Certain ceremonies, such as the laying on of

hands, give this dignity. Whoever without the authority of office, or

the merit of holiness and doctrine, or the dignity of nature and of

education, presumes to do a magical work will achieve nothing.

Agrippa is evidently now taking us on from Ficino’s type of magic,

carried much further than Ficino took it, to Pico’s type of magic. The

mysterious allusions to Hermetic and Cabalist secrets, the dignification

which the Magus at this level undergoes, are very much in the vein of

Pico’s oration on the Dignity of Man. But, again, Agrippa is going

much further than Pico, for it is evident that the magic in the third or

intellectual world which is now going to be discussed is really priestly

magic, religious magic, involving the performance of religious


He next outlines a true divinely magical religion, based on faith, and

a superstitious religion, based on credulity. 42 The two are not

altogether unrelated, though the second is greatly inferior to the first.

Miracles can be worked by the second kind, as well as by the first,

provided that the credulity of the second kind is sufficiently strong. For

works, both of divine and credulous magic, demand above all things,

faith. He is next careful to point out that the religions of the old Magi,

such as the Chaldeans, Egyptians, Assyrians, Persians, were false as

compared with the Catholic religion and warns that all that he says

about them is taken from books and must not be taken too seriously.

Nevertheless, there was much that was good in those religions, and

those who know how to sift truth from falsehood can learn much from


The Three Guides in religion are Love, Hope, Faith, though four is a

Cabalist sacred number. Through these guides we can sometimes dominate

nature, command the elements, raise winds, cure the sick, raise

the dead. By the work of religion alone such works can be done without

the application of natural and celestial forces. But whoever operates

by religion alone cannot live long but is absorbed by divinity. The

magician must know the true God, but also secondary divinities and

42 Agrippa, De occult. phil., III, 4; ed. cit., pp. 258– 60.

with what cults they must be served, particularly Jupiter whom

Orpheus described as the universe. 43

The hymns of Orpheus and the ancient Magi are not different from

the Cabalist arcana and from the orthodox tradition. What Orpheus

calls gods, Denis (that is Pseudo-Dionysius) calls powers, and the Cabalists

call numerations (that is the Sephiroth). Ensoph in Cabala is the

same as nox in Orpheus (this is direct quotation of one of Pico’s conclusions).

The ten numerations or Sephiroth have names which act on all

creatures, from the highest to the lowest; first on the nine orders of

angels, then on the nine celestial spheres, then on men and the terrestrial

world. Agrippa now gives a list of the ten Hebrew Divine Names,

of the names of the Sephiroth and their meanings, with the angelic

orders and the spheres to which each are related. 44 We next have more

on the Hebrew divine names, a magical arrangement of Abracadabra

and pictures of talismans inscribed with names in Hebrew. 45 The influx

of virtue from the divine names comes through the mediation of

angels. Since the coming of Christ, the name •••• has all the powers, so

that the Cabalists cannot operate with other names. 46

There are three orders of intelligences or demons. 47 (1) supercelestial

having to do only with the divinity; (2) celestial, the demons

belonging to the signs, decans, planets, and other stars, all of which

have names and characters, the former used in incantations, the latter

engraved; (3) of the lower world, as demons of fire, air, earth, water.

The angels, according to the theologians, follow the same three

groupings; Seraphim, Cherubim, Thrones for the supercelestial world;

Dominions, Virtues, Powers, for the celestial world; Principalities,

Archangels, Angels, for the terrestrial world. The Hebrew orders of

angels correspond to these; there follow the names of the Hebrew

orders, and of the Hebrew angels corresponding to the spheres. The

43 Ibid., III, 5– 7; ed. cit., pp. 260– 5. The vaguely Trinitarian character of the religion of the

Magus is maintained by the numerological “three” groupings. In chapter 8 (ed. cit., pp.

265– 7), the Trinity is said to be foretold by ancient philosophers, particularly Hermes


44 Ibid., III, 10; ed. cit., pp. 268– 72.

45 Ibid., III, 11; ed. cit., pp. 272– 89.

46 Ibid., III, 12; ed. cit., pp. 279– 81.

47 Ibid., III, 16; ed. cit., pp. 287– 90.

Yates, Frances. Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition.

Florence, KY, USA: Routledge, 1964. p 156.


Copyright © 1964. Routledge. All rights reserved.

Hebrew doctors draw many other names of angels from the Scriptures,

such as the names of the seventy-two angels who bear the name of

God. 48

It is not necessary to go on with more of this. It is of course Cabalism

which Agrippa derives partly from Reuchlin and Trithemius49 but

which is ultimately based on Pico. Agrippa is thinking on the lines

which we studied in the last chapter; practical Cabala, or Cabalist

magic, which puts the operator in touch with angels or Sephiroth or

the power of divine names, also puts him in touch with the PseudoDionysian

angelic hierarchies, and thus becomes a Christian magic

which is organically connected with celestial or elemental magic

through the continuity linking all the three worlds.

In Agrippa, this magic is definitely connected with religious practices.

He has much in his later chapters on religious ceremonies and

rites, 50 on rich ritual with music, tapers and lamps, bells, altars. In a

chapter on magic statues, 51 the examples given are mostly ancient but

the reference to wonder-working images in churches is obvious. As he

says in his conclusion, 52 not everything has been said. The work is

arranged to enable those who are worthy eventually to work out what

is missing, and to prevent the unworthy from knowing too much. But

the pious reader will feel the magical discipline penetrating into him

and may begin to find himself in possession of powers formerly

acquired by Hermes, Zoroaster, and Apollonius and other workers of


The theme of the De occulta philosophia is Magia and Cabala, Cabala and

Magia, which was also Pico’s theme. The Magia of Ficino has developed

into a more powerful demonic magic which is however safeguarded (it

is hoped) by the overlapping of demons with angels. The Cabala of

Pico has developed into a powerful religious magic, which is in organic

continuity with celestial and elemental magic, ties up with the angelic

hierarchies, attempts to inform religious rites, images, ceremonial with

48 Ibid., III, 17– 25; ed. cit., pp. 291– 309.

49 Agrippa was in touch with both Reuchlin and Trithemius, both of whom specialised in

practical Cabala.

50 Ibid., III, 58– 64; ed. cit., pp. 384– 403. Walker (pp. 94– 6) has discussed these chapters.

51 Ibid., III, 64; ed. cit., pp. 399– 403.

52 Ed. cit., pp. 403– 4.

Yates, Frances. Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition.

Florence, KY, USA: Routledge, 1964. p 157.


Copyright © 1964. Routledge. All rights reserved.

magic, with the further suggestion that priests will be able to do miracles

with it.

Agrippa is carrying to extreme lengths, or perhaps to their logical

conclusion, the points which were at issue in the Pico controversy.

Garcia’s case that there is no connection between Magia and Cabala and

Christianity was lost when the sacred Egyptian bull, Pope Alexander VI,

gave his blessing to Pico.

Ficino’s gentle, artistic, subjective, psychiatric magic, Pico’s

intensely pious and contemplative Cabalist magic, are quite innocent of

the terrible power implications of Agrippa’s magic. But they laid the

foundations of this edifice, which is the direct result of the prisca theologia,

which was always a prisca magia, and particularly of the alliance

between the Egyptian Moses and the Moses of Cabala.

In its form and arrangement, and in its emphasis on the practical

results to be obtained from the various kinds of magic, the first two

books of the De occulta philosophia are reminiscent of Picatrix. 53 When one

sees the Magia, or in the third book, the Cabala, set out in this technical

way as recipes, the impression becomes strong that the magics which

Ficino and Pico had seen in a lofty context of Neoplatonic philosophy

or of Hebrew mysticism, are slipping back towards the old necromancy

and conjuring. It is significant that a correspondent writes to Agrippa

asking to be instructed in the mysteries, not of Magia and Cabala, but of

“the Picatrix and the Cabala”. 54

Yet it is also not so simple as that. For Agrippa’s necromancy and

conjuring are not mediaeval in spirit, not the old hole-and-corner

business of the persecuted mediaeval magician. They come invested

with the noble robes of Renaissance magic, with the Dignity of a

Renaissance Magus. Ficino’s Neoplatonising of the talismans is quoted;

the many references to the philosophy of the Corpus Hermeticum put the

Asclepius magic into the context of Hermetic philosophy and mysticism,

as Ficino saw it; above all, the advantages of practical Cabala in putting

the conjuror in direct contact with the angelic, or intellectual world,

53 E. Garin suggests (Medioevo e Rinascimento, p. 172) that the De occulta philosophia is greatly

indebted to Picatrix.

54 Quoted from a letter to Agrippa by Thorndike, V, p. 132.

Yates, Frances. Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition.

Florence, KY, USA: Routledge, 1964. p 158.


Copyright © 1964. Routledge. All rights reserved.

come out very clearly as priestly magic, and the highest dignity of the

Magus is seen to be the Magus as priest, performing religious rites and

doing religious miracles. His “marrying of earth to heaven” with

Magia, his summoning of the angels with Cabala, lead on to his

apotheosis as religious Magus; his magical powers in the lower worlds

are organically connected with his highest religious powers in the

intellectual world.

In short, what we are arriving at here is something which is really

very like the ideal Egyptian, or pseudo-Egyptian, society as presented

in the Hermetic Asclepius, a theocracy governed by priests who know the

secrets of a magical religion by which they hold the whole society

together, though they themselves understand the inner meaning of

those magical rites as being, beyond the magically activated statues,

really the religion of the mind, the worship of the One beyond the All,

a worship perceived by the initiated as rising beyond the strange forms

of its gods, activated by elemental and celestial manipulations, to the

intellectual world, or to the Ideas in the divine mens.

The problem of Renaissance Magic in relation to the religious problems

of the sixteenth century is a vast question and one which cannot

be tackled here, 55 or on the basis of the linking of magic with religious

ceremonies by an irresponsible magician like Cornelius Agrippa. Its

investigation would demand long study, starting from the Pico controversy

and leading no one knows whither. But certain obvious questions

present themselves. Was some of the iconoclastic rage of the reformers

aroused by there having been more magic put into religion in fairly

recent times? The Middle Ages had, on the whole, obediently followed

Augustine in banning the idolatry of the Asclepius. It was Lactantius,

Ficino and Pico (the latter strongly approved of by Pope Alexander VI)

who got Hermes Trismegistus into the Church, so that the issue

between magic and religion was no longer the simple mediaeval one

but very complex, arousing questions such as “What is the basis of

ecclesiastical magic?” Or, “Should Magia and Cabala be accepted as aids

to religion or rejected?” This question might also be put in the form

“Does an increase of magic help a religious reform?” To which one

55 The pioneer in seeing it as a problem is D. P. Walker in his Spiritual and Demonic Magic.

Yates, Frances. Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition.

Florence, KY, USA: Routledge, 1964. p 159.


Copyright © 1964. Routledge. All rights reserved.

answer might be the strong negative, “Let us get rid of all magic and

break the images.”

This is not, however, the form in which the question is put in

Cornelius Agrippa’s highly influential book. According to Agrippa,

there are two kinds of religious magic, one good and leading to the

highest religious insights and powers; the other bad and superstitious,

as it were a bad copy of the good kind. This was how Giordano Bruno,

the religious magician, saw the problem, and he got much—indeed

most—of his material for his solution of it from Cornelius Agrippa.

Yates, Frances. Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition.

Florence, KY, USA: Routledge, 1964. p 160.


Copyright © 1964. Routledge. All rights reserved.


1 Festugière, I, pp. 67 ff.

2 Cicero, De nat. deor., III, 22.

3 C. H., I, p. v. (preface by Nock); Festugière, III, p. 1.

In the first volume of his work, La Révélation d’Hermès Trismégiste, 8

4 As Bloomfield says, “Scholarship has veered from one extreme to the other on this

question of the Egyptian elements in Hermeticism” (see M. W. Bloomfield, The Seven Deadly

Sins, Michigan, 1952, p. 342, and the references there given). Festugière allows hardly

anything to it and concentrates almost entirely on the Greek influences in the Hermetica. A

cautious summary by Bloomfield (op. cit., p. 46) is as follows: “These writings are chiefly

the product of Egyptian Neoplatonists who were greatly influenced by Stoicism, Judaism,

Persian theology and possibly by native Egyptian beliefs, as well as, of course, by Plato,

especially the Timaeus. They were perhaps the bible of an Egyptian mystery religion,

which possibly in kernel went back to the second century •. •.” The mystery cult theory

is opposed by Festugière, I, pp. 81 ff.

5 According to Nock and Festugière; see C. H., loc. cit.; Festugière, I, pp. 85 ff.

6 The attribution, which is incorrect, dates from the ninth century; see C. H., II, p. 259: on

the Coptic version, see below, p. 470, note 128.

7 It is not known when the Corpus Hermeticum was first put together as a collection, but it

was already known in this form to Psellus in the eleventh century; see C. H., I, pp. xlvii– l

(preface by Nock).

8 Festugière, I, pp. 1 ff.

9 Ibid., I, pp. 14 ff.

10 Ibid., I, pp. 19 ff.

11 Ibid., I, pp. 46 ff.

12 C. H., II, p. 328.

13 Lactantius, Div. Inst., I, vi; English translation by W. Fletcher, The Works of Lactantius,

Edinburgh, 1871, I, p. 15.

14 On quotations by Lactantius from the Hermetica, see C. H., I, p. xxxviii; II, pp. 259,

276– 7.

15 Lactantius, De ira Dei, XI; Fletcher’s translation, II, p. 23.

16 Lactantius, Div. Inst., IV, vi; Fletcher’s translation, I, p. 220. Lactantius is quoting from

Asclepius, 8 (C. H., II, p. 304).

17 See C. H., II, pp. 276– 7.

18 See below, p. 24.

19 Lactantius, Div. Inst., IV, xi; Fletcher’s translation, I, p. 226.

20 Lactantius, Div. Inst., I, vi; IV, vi; VIII, xviii; Fletcher’s translation, I, pp. 14– 19; 220– 2;

468– 9.

The Sibylline Oracles themselves were no more genuinely antique than the Hermetica.

Forged Sibylline prophecies of Jewish origin appeared at some uncertain date, and were

later manipulated by the Christians. It seems difficult to distinguish what is of Jewish and

what is of Christian origin in the Oracula Sibyllina. See M. J. Lagrange, Le judaisme avant JésusChrist,

Paris, 1931, pp. 505– 11; A. Puech, Histoire de la littérature grecque chrétienne, Paris, 1928,

II, pp. 603– 15; and the note by G. Bardy in Oeuvres de Saint Augustin, Desclée de Brouwer, Vol.

36, 1960, pp. 755– 9.

21 Lactantius, Div. Inst., II, xv.

22 Augustine, De civ. Dei, VIII, xxiii– xxvi. He is quoting from Asclepius, 23, 24, 37; see C. H.,

II, pp. 325 ff.

23 C. H., II, p. 259.

24 De civ. Dei, VIII, xiii– xxii.

25 This is the title of the sixteenth-century English translation by William Adlington.

26 De civ. Dei, VIII, xxiii, quoted in the English translation by John Healey. The quotation is

from Romans, I, xxi.

27 Isaiah, XIX, i.

28 See below, pp. 189, 192– 3.

29 De civ. Dei, XVIII, xxix; quoted in John Healey’s translation.

30 See the collection of Testimonia in Scott, Vol. I.

31 Clement of Alexandria, Stromata, VI, iv, xxxv– xxxviii. Cf. Festugière, I, pp. 75 ff.

32 Clement does not mention the Hermetic writings, from which Scott concludes (I, pp.

87– 90) that either he did not know them, or knew that they were not of very ancient


33 The manuscript from which Ficino made his translation is in the Biblioteca Laurenziana

(Laurentianus, LXXI 33 (A)). See Kristeller, Studies, p. 223; the eleventh chapter in

this book is a republication in revised form of an article which Kristeller first published

in 1938 and which was the pioneer study of Ficino’s translation of the Corpus Hermeticum.

All students of Hermetism in the Renaissance are deeply indebted to Kristeller’s work.

34 Dedication by Ficino to Lorenzo de’ Medici of his epitome and commentaries on

Plotinus; Ficino, p. 1537.

35 “Mercurium paucis mensibus eo uiuente (referring to Cosimo) peregi. Platonem tunc

etiam sum aggressus”; Ficino, loc. cit. Cf. Kristeller, Studies, p. 223; A. Marcel, Marsile Ficin,

Paris, 1958, pp. 255 ff.

36 In order to understand this enthusiasm, a history of Hermetism in the Middle Ages and

in the Renaissance before Ficino is needed. For some indications of the influence of the

Asclepius in the Middle Ages, see C. H. II, pp. 267– 75. Interest in Hermetism (based chiefly

on Asclepius and on the pseudo-Hermetic Liber Hermetis Mercurii Triplicis de VI rerum principiis is

one of the marks of the twelfth-century Renaissance. For the influence of these works on

Hugh of St. Victor, see the Didascalicon, translated Jerome Taylor, Columbia, 1961, introduction

pp. 19 ff. and notes.

Many of the magical, alchemical, and astrological writings going under the name of

Hermes were of course known in the Middle Ages, see below, pp. 51– 2.

37 Argumentum before Ficino’s Pimander (Ficino, p. 1836).

38 This explanation of the meaning of “Thrice Great” is found in the Middle Ages; see

below, pp. 51– 2.

39 Ficino, loc. cit.

40 In the Theologia Platonica, Ficino gives the genealogy as (1) Zoroaster, (2) Mercurius

Trismegistus, (3) Orpheus, (4) Aglaophemus, (5) Pythagoras, (6) Plato (Ficino, p. 386).

In the preface to the Plotinus commentaries, Ficino says that divine theology began

simultaneously with Zoroaster among the Persians and with Mercurius among the

Egyptians; then goes on to Orpheus, Aglaophemus, Pythagoras, Plato (ibid., p. 1537).

This equating of Zoroaster with Hermes brings Ficino’s genealogy into some conformity

with that of Gemistus Pletho, for whom the most ancient source of wisdom is

Zoroaster, after whom he puts a different string of intermediaries to those given by

Ficino, but arrives eventually, like Ficino, at Pythagoras and Plato. See the passages quoted

from Pletho’s commentary on the Laws and from his reply to Scholarios in F. Masai, Pléthon

et le Platomisme de Mistra, Paris, 1956, pp. 136, 138.

For a valuable study of Ficino’s genealogies of wisdom, see D. P. Walker, “The Prisca

Theologia in France”, J. W. C. I., 1954 (XVII), pp. 204– 59.

41 Vita di Ficino, published from a manuscript of circa 1591 in Marcel, op. cit., p. 716.

42 In his work on the Christian religion (De Christ, relig., XXV), Ficino puts Hermes with

the Sibyls as testifying with them to the coming of Christ (Ficino, p. 29).

43 Scott, I, p. 31. The end of the sixteenth century is too early a date at which to put the

ending of this illusion; see below, chapter 21.

44 Kristeller, Studies, pp. 223 ff.; Suppl. Fic., I, pp. lvii– lviii, cxxix– cxxxi.

45 Scott, I, pp. 31 ff., and see further below, pp. 190, 199, 201– 2.

46 Pletho firmly believed in the extreme antiquity of these Oracles (see Masai, op. cit.,

pp. 136, 137, 375, etc.) which are for him the early fount of Zoroastrian wisdom the

streams from which eventually reached Plato. This exactly corresponds to Ficino’s

attitude to the Hermetica. It was not difficult for Ficino to mingle the waters of these

two pristine founts, since they were roughly contemporaneous and similar in their

atmosphere. Speaking of the Hermetica, Nock says, “Comme les Oracles Chaldaïques,

ouvrage du temps de Marc-Aurèle, ils nous révèlent une manière de penser, ou plutôt

une manière d’user de la pensée, analogue à une sorte de procédé magique . . .“ (C. H.,

I, p. vii).

The Chaldean Oracles were edited by W. Kroll, De oraculis chaldaicis in Breslauer Philolog. Abhandl.,

VII (1894), pp. 1– 76.

47 On the Orphica in the Renaissance, see D. P. Walker, “Orpheus the Theologian and the

Renaissance Platonists”, J. W. C. I., 1953 (XVI), pp. 100– 20.