The Western Esoteric Traditions (Part 5)

My summer reading: The Western Esoteric Traditions: a Historical Introduction by Nicholas Goodrick – Clarke (Oxford University Press – 2008).

In this series of blog posts, I’m tracing the Western Esoteric traditions through history, with special attention paid to the contribution of these traditions to the work of Carl Jung.


By the 16th century, the distinction between Ficino’s natural magic and demonic magic starts to blur. 

First stop, is the German humanist Johannes Reuchlin, who builds on Ficino’s magic and Pico’s work with the Kabbalah.  Now the power of words, figures, secret rites, and holy names comes to the fore and teachings in Hebrew become justified in the Christian community. 

Next up, is monastic abbot, Johannes Trithemius, who was a follower of Reuchlin and his work. Now, Christian humanists turned their attention to angelic magic, and Trithemius gives precise instructions on how to summon angels to gain knowledge from them as well as use them to send long distance messages.[1]  His 3 book treatise, Steganograhia, dealt with progressively more powerful spirits demonstrating how they are invoked by prayer, incantation, and precision timing:

  1. in his first book, he warns about the dangers of dealing with the spirits of air because they are both arrogant and rebellious,
  2. in his second book, he enumerates the spirits governing each hour and day,
  3. in his third book he connects all of the Angels and spirits with the seven (visible) planets.

Trithemius also dabbled in prediction and prohecy. His message was that each progressive age (measured in Platonic months of 2480 terrestrial years each with reference to the procession of the equinoxes through the 12 Zodiac signs), would be governed by a particular angel. Knowing his angels, as he did, this allowed him to envisage major currents in political and religious change throughout human history. His underlying thesis was that God, as the first intellect, had delegated these various angelic governors to oversee these fixed periods.

As far as history was concerned, Trithemius was unfortunate. In the end, his notoriety became confused with the legend of Doctor Faustus, which became world famous through the 17th century play (of the same name) by Christopher Marlowe.

Enter Henry Cornelius Agrippa, born in Cologne in 1486, who ushers in the 2nd Golden Age of Hermetic and Christian Kabbalistic practice. Not only does he spread the word through his travels and teachings, but having finally settled in Northern Italy, he is involved with the translation of more ancient works that become accepted into mainstream Christian thought and practice. In his mind, this was only right, convinced as he was that these writings would bring men back from intellectual pride and despair into humble acknowledgement of God’s goodness. The benefit of this approach is clear: with such mastery and revelation, men would regain the upper hand over nature, which had been lost with the antics of Adam in the Garden of Eden.

As Dr Liz Greene points out, Jung was familiar with Agrippa’s work on angels and it did influence his work with Philemon, his ‘daimon’, in Liber Novus. In this, Jung took the view from Jewish magic that ‘guardian angels’ could be pretty much the same thing as one’s daimon, which could be determined from one’s natal or birth chart.[2] This conclusion, however, was harder for him to reach than one might think, given that, as Dr Greene notes, guardian angels are usually understood to be ontologically separate from the human soul. The idea that one’s guardian angel may also be found within is on the fringe, although it is found in the work of Agrippa, where it was demonstrated that through appropriate theurgy (in keeping with the mundus imaginalis of Iamblichus) one is able to invoke his or her angelic ‘higher Self’.

Unfortunately for Agrippa, he (along with other adherents of this 2nd Golden Age) gets caught out in the crossfire of the Reformation, wherein with the new Protestant ideal, the focus is now on the frailty of man and no longer on his confident, hubristic Neoplatonist magic. Nonetheless, Agrippa’s legacy lives on, which leads us to the next link in the chain, England’s John Dee and Edward Kelly.

As advisor to Queen Elizabeth I, John Dee enjoyed support and great freedom. Hence, he was a major intellectual force in Elizabethan England. This makes perfect sense. He possessed a library of over 2,500 printed books and 170 manuscripts including the complete works of Marsilio Ficino an edition of the Corpus Hermeticm. As a result, there is no doubt  he was well versed in the current state of the hermetic and kabbalistic arts. Yet as his own major work, Propaedeumata Aphoristica (1558), made clear is real interest lay Arabic and mediaeval Oxford natural science, suggesting as he did that the celestial influence on the everyday lives of men on earth was direct cause and effect rather than sympathetic.  “Whatever exists in actuality spherically projects into each part of the world rays, which fill up the universe to its limit.” 

Overtime , however, hermetic and kabbalistic thought did leave its mark on his work, most famously in Monas (1564) which scholar, Frances Yates, suggests was really a type of magical amulet infused with astrological power, its purpose to bring the human psyche into unity. It’s important to note that other scholars offer a similarly interesting yet competing analyses of that work. 

That his personal library included work by Johannes Trithemius about spiritual (angelic) planetary governors as noted above, did suggest that he was interested in Angel magic . But because he lacked the clairvoyant gifts, he needed intermediaries hence entered, Edward Kelly, a talented medium who most certainly had a reputation for walking on the dark side. There is evidence that the believed that the noises come of voices, operations, and even dreams that he had during the period of working with Kelly were indeed the good Angels bearing genuine messages from God. He felt confident in this given that his experience tallied with those recorded by Agrippa. Reuchlin, and Trithemius.

Interestingly, although the stigma of being a conjurer finally did stick to Dee, there’s little evidence that either he or Kelly attempted to command the angels with whom they were in contact, to do their personal bidding. Although there is plenty of evidence that Dee was much more interested in learning the secrets of creation through his angelic encounters than in obtaining spiritual illumination. This does, then, leave a suggestion that like Kelly, Dee had been drawn to the darker end of the occult spectrum.

(to be continued)


[1] The word angel is derived from the Greek aggelos, or ‘one going’ or ‘one sent’, a ‘messenger’. Aggelos is sometimes used in translation for the Hebrew mal’akh, or ‘messenger’. Biblical applications of the word, both in Hebrew and Greek, refer to certain heavenly intelligences. Whom God employs in the office of messengers to carry out his will amongst humanity. Not surprisingly, the Christian conception of angels stems from much earlier Jewish ideas of God enthroned in a celestial palace, with various coming and goings on heavenly journeys with chariots. For more, see, Angelomorphism and Magical Transformation in the Christian and Jewish Traditions by Alison Greig (pp 129-144); in Culture and Cosmos: A Journal of the History of Astrology and Cultural Astronomy, papers from the 2013 Sophia Centre conference, special double issue on Celestial Magic, vol. 19 , Number 1 and 2, Spring/ Summer and Autumn/Winter 2015

[2] Green, Liz; Jung’s Studies in Astrology: Prophecy, Magic, and the Qualities of Time. London: Routledge (2018), pp.104-105.

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