Frankenstein, Agrippa, and Magic

close up of spider web with water drops on it
Beaded, by Myriams-Fotos, licensed CC0 on Pixabay


Though the upcoming term is promising to be one of my most busy, I have high hopes for participating in Networked Narratives, a new online course (?… or more like an event, a happening, a creation?) organized by Alan Levine and Mia Zamora.

According to the description of the course, we will be looking at questions like:

How have networks transformed our ability to tell, share, and participate in stories in the digital age?

How can we design for narrative emergence in an open network?

So what I’m getting from this is that we’ll be telling stories, designing narratives, or maybe one big one, and seeing what happens when we do that in an open, networked way.

But also:

In pursuing these source elements of networked narratives, we take cues from the age of alchemy.

Well, this piqued my interest. So does the collaborative storytelling, mind you, but the connection to alchemy really sparked something for me. That’s because it’s something that I’ve learned just a little about here and there, and want to know more.

Hoffmann & Shelley

In the Arts One course I am part of, this past term we read E.T.A. Hoffmann’s “The Sandman,” in which alchemy plays an important, but obscured role (fittingly). The father of the main character dies in some kind of fire, after working mysteriously for years with someone named Coppelius, who brings with him a dark foreboding every time he visits. Later, the fiancée of the main character tells him that his father probably died in an accident involving alchemy. The whole story is purposefully shrouded in uncertainty, so we aren’t really sure if that is what happened, or if the father and Coppelius were doing other nefarious activities (see my students’ blog posts on this story for more!).

picture of the character Victor Frankenstein leaving a room in which he has just created his creature
Frontispiece to 1831 edition of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, public domain on Wikimedia Commons

In addition, in past years in Arts One we have read Shelley’s Frankenstein, and there too there are hints but not much substance about alchemy and magic. Victor Frankenstein is said to have studied works by Cornelius Agrippa, Albertus Magnus, and Paracelsus (whose original, very excellent name was Philippus Aureolus Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim) when he was a teenager. Then when he went off to university he dropped all that and studied more “respectable” scientific works and processes. But when it comes to having created his creature, it is suggested that his earlier studies of alchemy and magic were related.

So I have had little brushes with alchemy over the years in teaching this course, but I really don’t know anything about it. So, to take a cue from Laura Gibbs, who is using this course as an opportunity to learn more about alchemy, I’m going to at least start investigating more about some of these people I’ve read about, but only have a tiny, obscure, mysterious sense of what they were up to.

Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa von Nettesheim (1486-1535)

I’m going to start with Agrippa, though I don’t have a lot of time today to write about him and will have to put this into a couple of parts, probably. I started by looking at the entry on him in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, which is an amazing resource that is free, though not openly licensed.

engraving of profile of Agrippa with his name written around the frame of the engraving
Image of Agrippa, public domain on Wikimedia Commons

According to the SEP, Agrippa was “the author of the most comprehensive and most widely known book on magic and all occult arts, De occulta philosophia libri tres / Three Books of Occult Philosophy”, the first draft of which was published in 1510, and the completed work in 1533. Several things strike me about what Agrippa was trying to do, including that he was connecting religion and magic. He thought that God had given secret knowledge to a few people in various societies in antiquity, according to the SEP article, and that medieval scholars had distorted this knowledge. Thus, what was needed was to get back to what these select ancient scholars had learned from God:

Mastery of this ancient wisdom would grant a select company of wise men power to reform corrupt religion, to reshape an unjust society, and to gain control over themselves and all of nature. A reformed magic would endow those who truly understood it with power to achieve things that seem miraculous and beyond the ability of ordinary human beings. (SEP on Agrippa)

Magic, then, was just wisdom about the nature of the world given by God to a select few, who would then be able to do things that to those who don’t have that knowledge seem “magical.” In his own work, Agrippa was careful not to reveal the secret knowledge to just anyone reading; he wanted to make sure that it was accessible only those with the intelligence to understand and the moral goodness to use the knowledge for the good of humanity. Thus, according to the SEP:

Agrippa cautioned his readers that he had written in such a way that the prudent and intelligent would understand but the corrupt and unbelieving would not; underneath his own text there was a “scattered meaning” (dispersa intentio) that the wise would be able to extract and put together, finding in one place the principles that would reveal the true meaning of another passage where the significance was not evident (OP 3: 65). [OP is the Occulta Philosophia text]

What is really interesting to me here is that for Agrippa, magic is simply knowledge that only a few have, and it is that which is provided by God. At least, that’s what I’m getting from my relatively quick reading of part of the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article. I guess in a way I still think of magic sort of like this, though I don’t connect it to religion: magic is that which we don’t quite understand, which seems mysterious, but which isn’t actually mysterious–it’s based on knowledge that some people have that allows them to fool us into thinking they’re doing something unbelievable. We just aren’t initiated into the knowledge required.


This reveals a somewhat troubling aspect of this view of magic, though: it is highly elitist and exclusive. Only those with a particular level of intelligence, or morality, or who have been chosen by those already in the know, get to be in the know.

Which is precisely not how I’d like to think of my participation in this course; I don’t want it to end up being exclusive, that people who know others in the course or who know something about alchemy or digital storytelling are the only ones who feel welcomed. And knowing the people involved, I think we will try our hardest not to let that happen, though sometimes it just happens given how much we already know each other and enjoy each other and already speak a common language.

To me, this is something to be continually aware of, to reflect on, and to be on the lookout for how it might feel closed-off to newcomers …




  1. Laura Gibbs says:

    Such a great theme to think about, Christina! It is so true about secret codes and secret handshakes and secret language etc. etc. that they are both inclusive (something we share, a bond, we know each other through the code) but also exclusive, keeping out those who don’t know. I run into that so much by having Latin as a hobby: I love the way that knowing Latin can help me “unlock” things that haven’t been put into English, and I really like sharing what I find with others (and I loved teaching Latin way back in the day when I was a Latin teacher)… but at the same time I am so aware of how Classics in general, and often Latin in particular, was a way to exclude people, keeping them out. I left Classics because I just couldn’t abide the elitism of it, but I never stopped loving Latin, and it is so exciting to be able to use it as part of this wild NetNarr adventure, unlocking things to share with other people. I haven’t done a Latin bit for today, in fact, so I will use your post as my prompt to go make something to share. Happy New Year!

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