Mathetic Analysis of Agrippa, the Elements, and the Planets

When I got my start in Hermetic magic a few years back, I began with Fr. Rufus Opus’ texts, which basically took Cornelius Agrippa and ran with it.  To be fair, this is an excellent way to start a study of Renaissance-Modern Hermetic occultism, since Agrippa can arguably be said to be the grandfather-text of all modern neopagan and Hermetic books you find in bookstores nowadays.  His three volume (or four, if you count the spurious collection published after his death) compendium of knowledge talked about literally everything that could be talked about when it came to the occult lore and theory of his day.  It’s so important that I and many others still, almost half a millennium later, still reference it frequently and thoroughly, especially his highly usable tables of correspondence.

One of his most useful is the Scale of Four (book II, chapter 7), where Agrippa gives a list of everything that can be broken down into four categories, such as the four evangelists, the four elements, the four archangels, the four rivers of Hell, and so forth.  It’s important here to notice that Agrippa assigns the eight spheres of the cosmos (seven planets plus the fixed stars) to the four elements in the following way:

  • Fire: Mars, Sun
  • Air: Jupiter, Venus
  • Water: Saturn, Mercury
  • Earth: Fixed Stars, Moon

He doesn’t explain in this section why he associates the planets the way he does, but he does so earlier in the series (book I, chapters 23 to 29).  Agrippa describes in these chapters the qualities, natures, correspondences, and associations of each of the seven planets in detail, including their overall natures:

  • Sun: “lucid flame”
  • Moon: “the Earth, then the Water, as well as that of the Sea, as of the Rivers and all moist things”
  • Saturn: “Earth, and also Water”
  • Jupiter: “Air”
  • Mars: “Fire, together with all adust, and sharp things”
  • Venus: “Air, and Water”
  • Mercury: “Water, although it moves all things indistinctly”

So, while Agrippa may give us a clean and organized way to elementally look at the planets in his Scale of Four, the more thorough description of the planets complicates things.  Jupiter is definitely Air, and the Sun and Mars are definitely Fire, and if Mercury is any one thing then it’d be Water (either in spite of or because of how it “moves all things indistinctly”).  Agrippa then goes on to claim (when combined with the Scale of Four) that the Moon is more earthy than watery, Saturn is more watery than earthy, and Venus is more airy than watery.  Based on how he describes things in book I and then how he classifies them in book II, I’d say there’s something more to the picture here.

Going back to the same Scale of Four, Agrippa gives four “qualities of the celestial elements”, which are:

  • Fire: Light
  • Air: Diaphanousness
  • Water: Agility
  • Earth: Solidity

These four qualities relate to the elements in a high, celestial, almost rarefied way; it’s like what the corresponding quality is among superterrestrial and nonelemental entities.  Fire, after all, gives off light; Air allows things to be seen clearly; Water allows things to move swiftly; Earth allows things to be solid or (and?) slow.  Thus, it makes sense for the light-giving Sun to be given to Fire, and clear-yet-bright Jupiter to Air.

Looking at the planetary organization to the elements given in the Scale of Four, notice how Agrippa organizes the planets.  Going from the Earth to Fire, we have the farthest sphere of the heavens (Fixed Stars) going down to the next farthest (Saturn), then the next (Jupiter), then the next (Mars); at this point, we start back with Fire and go back down to Earth, starting with the Sun, then to Venus, then to Mercury, then to the Moon.  By combining our descriptions of the elements with those of the celestial qualities, we get the following:

  • Fixed Stars: outer, Earth, Solidity
  • Saturn: outer, Water, Agility
  • Jupiter: outer, Air, Diaphanousness
  • Mars: outer, Fire, Light
  • Sun: inner, Fire, Light
  • Venus: inner, Air, Diaphanousness
  • Mercury: inner, Water, Agility
  • Moon: inner, Earth, Solidity

The fact that these eight spheres share four elements among them in two equal and organized groups is something that was pointed out to me by the good Pallas Renatus, and he mentioned that the outer spheres tend to have these celestial qualities “veiled” or “muddled”, while the inner spheres have these qualities “clear”.  In other words, compare the Sun and Mars: they’re both ruled by/ruling Fire, though Agrippa describes the Sun as a “lucid flame” (clear light) while Mars is “Fire, together with all adust [dark]” (veiled light).  However, I can’t find where this notion of veiling comes from, and the system doesn’t always hold; Jupiter would seem to be the version of clear diaphanousness compared to the moist Venus’ veiled diaphanousness, but that’s just me.

So why am I talking about all this?  Because I want to explain why I have the planets arranged on the Tetractys of Life the way I do.  If you recall, I have the planets associated mostly the same as Agrippa, but with a few changes:

Planet Mathesis Agrippa
Fixed Stars Earth
Saturn Earth Water
Jupiter Air
Mars Fire
Sun Fire
Venus Water Air
Mercury Water
Moon Earth
Spirit Air

Most of the planets are the same in both Agrippa’s text and in my system of mathesis, but a few have changed.  Saturn in my system of mathesis is associated with Earth, not Water; Venus is Water, not Air.  To me, Saturn has always been described as cold and dry, which describes the quality of Earth, and I’ve never understood the notion of Saturn being watery except on an intellectual level; going deeper in any way has only ever led me to consider or realize Saturn as being dark, dry, lifeless earth.  This has been borne out by my visions and planetary work with the planet, and even though Agrippa gives Saturn to Water, he also describes it as earthy with many of the other correspondences (black bile/melancholy, heavy thing, black stones, terrestrial or subterranean animals, etc.) all line up with Saturn being earthy more than watery.  Venus, on the other hand, has always struck me as far more watery than airy, though (like any good sexual partner) she can go either way.  The mythological birth of Venus is from the remains of Sky (air) falling into Ocean (water); she rules both phlegm (water) and blood (air).  Speaking on a more meta-elemental level, I suppose it’s this ability of hers to shift between Air and Water that makes her more watery overall.

Further, the system of mathesis specifically recognizes Spirit as a force (a quasi-element between true elements and true planets), while Agrippa doesn’t really recognize it in this schema although he does talk about the quintessence at length (book I, chapter 37).  In the Tetractys of Life, I’ve given Spirit over to Air to pair with Jupiter as a “planet” on its own terms, though I admit this feels a smidge forced to me, even though it’s convenient.  Besides, considering Spirit as airy does indeed work; Spirit is the breath, the vital and invisible (diaphanous) essence that transfers celestial influence into terrestrial bodies.  It works.

While I don’t consider the Fixed Stars to really have their own element (since there’s no Greek letter that refers to it and because its position in the Tetractys of Life is too high up), I think that the Fixed Stars being fiery would be a better match than them being earthy despite my earlier thoughts on the matter.  The Fixed Stars are certainly earthy when compared to the Infinite Light and Unmanifest Monad, but to everything else lower than them, the Fixed Stars are definitely fiery for me.  Still, the Fixed Stars are on a whole different level than the elements, and they themselves are paired with Mundus, or the World (as opposed to the element of Earth).  Mundus doesn’t have a corresponding letter, either (although the element of Earth does), so I don’t think it’s proper to assign the World an element; likewise, the Fixed Stars don’t have their own element.  If anything, Mundus would be Earth and Stellae would be Fire, but in their own dyadic rank, any comparison with the elements would be strictly metaphorical.  Likewise, it’d be hard to assign elements to the triadic Reagents of Salt, Mercury, and Sulfur, though they’d go to Earth, Water, and Fire respectively.  This ties in with their astrological interpretations as Moon, Mercury, and Sun.

So what does that say about the element of Air?  Look at how we just described the elements in the different ranks of the Tetractys: we have all/no elements in the Monad; Fire and Earth in the Dyad; Fire, Water, and Earth in the Triad; and Fire, Air, Water, and Earth in the Tetrad.  Air is the last element to be formed in this understanding, arising only as a distinct force with a distinct metaphor.  In other words, Air has no direct or clean correspondence to any higher force.  Despite its loftiness and diaphanousness, it is the last of the elements to “come out” of the Tetractys, and although it’s by no means the densest, it’s the most complex of them all.  This matches up with our confusing hexagram paths in the Tetractys of Life, which allow for transfer between different levels of manifestation (up or down the Tetractys) as well as for transfer between different levels of activity (left or right on the Tetractys) in a way that the horizontal Water paths or diagonal Fire/Earth paths don’t allow.  Air allows for complete and dynamic change rather than natural evolution (Fire and Earth) or transference/mutation (Water).

Agrippa has some interesting things to say about the element of Air, as well (book I, chapter 6).  Emphasis is my own:

It remains that I speak of the Aire. This is a vitall spirit, passing through all Beings, giving life, and subsistence to all things, binding, moving, and filling all things. Hence it is that the Hebrew Doctors reckon it not amongst the Elements, but count it as a Medium or glue,joyning things together, and as the resounding spirit of the worlds instrument. It immediately receives into it self the influences of all Celestiall bodies, and then communicates them to the other Elements, as also to all mixt bodies: Also it receives into it self, as it were a divine Looking-glass, the species of all things, as well naturall, as artificiall, as also of all manner of speeches, and retains them; And carrying them with it, and entering into the bodies of Men, and other Animals, through their pores, makes an Impression upon them, as well when they sleep, as when they be awake, and affords matter for divers strange Dreams and Divinations…Also, when certain appearances, not only spirituall, but also naturall do flow forth from things, that is to say, by a certain kind of flowings forth of bodies from bodies, and do gather strength in the Air, they offer, and shew themselves to us as well through light as motion, as well to the sight as to other senses, and sometimes work wonderfull things upon us, as Plotinus proves and teacheth. And we see how by the South wind the Air is condensed into thin clouds, in which, as in a Looking-glass are reflected representations at a great distance of Castles, Mountains, Horses, and Men, and other things, which when the clouds are gone, presently vanish…

In this sense, Air is the element that fills all things, but that requires that there first exist things to be filled.  The presence of Air is predicated on the presence of space (which itself must be filled by Air) and on the presence of solid bodies.  The presence of bodies, of course, is predicated on there being at least Earth (for solidity of body), Fire (for spiritual reality and motion), as well as Water (growth and change).  The three elements of Fire, Earth, and Water must exist first before Air can exist; although Air does not come from these three, it can only come about once these three already exist.  Moreover, it works upon itself in a way that the other elements don’t.  Looking back at the Tetractys of Life, the paths of Water, Earth, and Fire all go in certain directions but never back to their beginning, while the paths of Air go in cycles, constantly changing upon itself in a loop like a convection cycle of hot and cold or moist and dry air.

While my interpretation of the planets and elements is slowly drifting further from Agrippa, the Golden Dawn, and Hermetic qabbalah than I originally thought it might, it’s also leading me into a new direction with mathesis becoming its own full system instead of something merely derivative from Qabbalah with names and symbols swapped out for others.  As Pallas Renatus had mentioned to me before, the Tetractys of Life and system of mathesis generally has internal consistency going for it, which is no bad thing; that much of my analysis points to new truths within something still experimental shows promise to my mind.  As I delve deeper into mathesis and possibly drift farther from qabbalah, I figure that the more I can explain differences between the two in a solid Hermetic framework, the better off I’ll be.  This is just part of that effort.


About polyphanes
I'm a software developer and Hermetic occultist living near Washington, DC, USA. I claim that I'm youthful, dashing, daring, and other things. I make things and chant stuff, and periodically write about them.

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