Bovelles on Trithemius: English translation
Charles de Bovelles recollected the Steganographia of Johann Tritemius, abbot of Sponheim, in these words:
“I turned aside to visit Tritemius and found him to be a mage and not distinguished in any part of philosophy. I leafed through his Steganographia rapidly reading the start of numerous chapters. I had the book in my hands for not quite two hours and then threw it aside on the spot, as all the incantations and barbarous, unfamiliar names of spirits – not to say demons – were beginning to frighten me: for all those kinds of names (so far as I could make them out) come from unknown languages, either Arabic or Hebrew, Aramaic or Greek – few or none were Latin. There were also countless characters marking the individual incantations. What Tritemius wrote in the letter to Boscius consists of clear, straightforward words without any letters or words being transposed, for all to read and understand. Whatever kind of secret is in it remains unknown, and to that extent he speaks truly.
“Now in all the Steganographia of this kind he inserts holy and pious sounding passages throughout, to be sent to a friend instead of a letter: in fact, however, they are the tears of a crocodile. It seems to me that he is doing what St Dionysius means in his letter to Sosipater on Apollophanes: he wickedly uses godly things against God, scheming to use witless, worldly wisdom to empty out divine wisdom. Now since he claims to do the whole thing without the aid of spirits, he is actually (as Daniel says) making up lies in his head. I think he must still keep a good angel from God, to cut in half and dissolve the evil compact with malevolent angels which he sets up and ratifies as he openly declares by that very fact. In fact, if I recall correctly, he sticks to this exact order in the Steganographia.
“First he goes over the names of the spirits themselves, and then he sets out their incantations and writes individual characters below them: lastly he provides diagrams from which one may draw forth and select names of spirits suited to individual incantations, as often as the need presents itself. There is a fourfold division into Emperors, Dukes, Counts and Servants, with exactly twelve emperors of the entire world like the number of winds in the tradition of the philosophers. Of those he designates four main ones, East, South, West and North and calls them Emperors for being great. Under each Emperor he arranges Dukes, something like three or four hundred. Under the individual Dukes, Counts on the same principle in even greater numbers: and untold Servants under the Counts. With all this set up he turns to his work. When he wants to share his advice (for so he calls the secrets) with a distant friend, instead of a letter he writes a speech steeped in the dye of holiness and devotion, marking it with the character of one or other of the twelve Emperors, and sends it off to the friend, who will (he says) know what to do.
“This friend, once he has received the letter, opens it and starts by noting which particular Emperor’s character is on the corner of the letter. If it is the prince of the East he turns to the east and unfolds the letter to show it to that quarter of the sky and forthwith consults his books to see which incantations will force that prince to send him one or other of his subjects. He selects two incantations, and first, with the letter still on display and gazing towards the dawn, he pronounces one. When this is duly done, that Emperor sends one of his Dukes, Counts or Servants flying swiftly to the spot, visible to the man at a distance as a cloud or mist hanging in the air. Then when he utters the words of the second incantation, that spirit approaches more closely and right next to him opens up his friend’s requested secret and declaims it to his ears. It is my impression that these invocations are not consecutive speech but a specific combination of the names of such spirits as are dedicated to a particular kind of magical practice. As I say, the names of this kind are virtually all unknown, resembling Arabic and so on.
“I remember reading as follows in that man’s work: these spirits are malevolent and good for nothing. They have a great hatred of the light and love darkness. Strong enchantment is needed to constrain them to our purposes. And if fear strikes you while conjuring them and you tremble for one instant, or go astray in reciting the incantation (whether by omitting a word or altering the order) they will slay you on the spot. If that is how prone they are to vengeance, how can anyone be so deluded as to esteem them as mild and good spirits? In that work I saw a number of invocations, called by him potent, with which anybody who would like to make use of the services of spirits could bind a spirit to him, forcing it to dwell in his house and wait on him in all things. Moreover, that spirit must be housed (so he says) in the most secluded spot, for fear that it will slay those who rashly encounter it. I think I have done more than enough in revealing these things to make you more clearly aware of the dyes, not to say lies, of this man and his art.”
Thus Bovillus: but Tritemius accuses him of lies and ingratitude, defending himself to Emperor Maximilian in the preface to his book Polygraphia. I once read some books of Steganographia, containing diagrams and names of spirits, at the home of Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa, and copied part without his knowledge. It has taken me this long to describe the content of various notorious books, so that with this knowledge the others of the same batch can be condemned more quickly. This is the fountainhead and firmament of the discipline and craft, the methodology of the blasphemous business, with which men who are without doubt wretched twice over, persuade themselves (boasting with a smile in their bosom), to hearken to wraiths, coerce spirits, disturb the stars, bow to the elements, and use its unconquerable power and the blind power of coerced spirits to perform stupendous deeds beyond the laws of nature. To their misery witness their vain fates and failed results after immense and time consuming effort. They perform effects, not miracles, since they obtain their results not with the aid of God but by leave of men’s disbelief and by compacts with demons. The boasts of the crafts of this school, the Ars Almadel, the Ars Bulaphiae, the Ars Artophil, the Ars Revelationum and many other similar prodigies of impiousness should not be tolerated an iota. They are the more destructive for the very reason that they seem to the uninstructed to look the more divine.