Trithemius (Johann) (1462-1519)

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Trithemius (Johann) (1462-1519)

Alchemist and magician. The son of a German vine grower named Heidenberg, he received his Latin name from Trittenheim, a village in the electorate of Trêves, where he was born. He lost his father when he was a year old, and his mother re-married.

Trithemius worked all day in the vineyards and studied at night. He read whatever books he could beg or borrow. With his share of the patrimony bequeathed by his father, Trithemius went to Trêves, entered as student at the university, and assumed the name of Trithemius.

By the age of 20, Trithemius had acquired the reputation of a scholar. In the winter of 1482, he left Trêves and returned to Trittenheim to visit his mother.

On arriving at Spanheim, Trithemius found the roads impassable due to snow. He went to a neighboring Benedictine monastery. There he stayed for several days. He liked the monastery and voluntarily took the monastic vows and retired from the world. In the course of two years, he was elected abbot and devoted himself to the repair and improvement of the monastery.

After 21 years as abbot, the monks elected another abbot. Trithemius left Spanheim and wandered from place to place, until finally elected abbot of St. James of Wurzburg, where he died in 1519.

Trithemius devised a shorthand called stenoganographia, stigmatized as a Kabalistic and necromantic writing, concealing his most fearful, occult secrets. He wrote a treatise on the subject, another on the supposed administration of the world by its guardian angels, translated into English in 1647 by the astrologer William Lilly. He wrote a third book on geomancy, or divination by means of lines and circles on the ground, a fourth upon sorcery, and a fifth on alchemy. In his work on sorcery, Trithemius made an early mention of the popular story of Faust, and recorded his experiences with the spirit named Hudekin.

Reportedly, Trithemius gave the Emperor Maximilian a vision of his deceased wife, the beautiful Mary of Burgundy. Reputedly he defrayed the expenses of his monastic establishment at Spanheim by resources obtained from the philosophers' stone.


Seligmann, Kurt. The History of Magic. New York: Pantheon Books, 1948. Reprinted as Magic, Supernaturalism and Religion. New York: Pantheon Books, 1971.