Origins of Tables of Correspondence

This essay is a draft – it will change, disappear, reappear, and probably get retitled, so don’t get too attached.

When we look at a table of correspondence, it’s often hard to know where it came from. Did someone just make it up? Did it come from an oral tradition, or a 15th century grimoire? If it’s a table of correspondence that works for you, it doesn’t really matter where it originated, but it can be interesting to find out where it’s from.

The tables of correspondence that most people use are a lot older than they realize – in some cases, they date back to 100CE and earlier. The early tables didn’t include things like colors or herbs, but were concerned more with astrological concepts, angels, and other concepts of the divine. Eventually, users extrapolated what they needed to know from these tables. If love is associated with Venus, and the color red is associated with Venus, then the color red must correspond to love. Eventually, the planet Venus – the source of the correspondence – may have dropped out of the table altogether.

Regardless of what table of correspondence someone is using, it’s unlikely to in the original form.

Some of the most well-known Hermetic tables of correspondence are from Agrippa’s Three Books of Occult Philosophy, first printed in 1531.

Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Agrippa is generally considered a primary source for many tables of correspondence – though a primary source, in this area, is defined as the one that is the basis for many others. But Agrippa’s work pulled from other sources, as did most of the other Hermetic tables of correspondence. We just don’t have easy access to these earlier sources, nor are they in formats or languages that are understandable to most modern practitioners.

Sources other than Agrippa or contemporary to Agrippa aren’t readily available. We generally aren’t going to go to the bookstore and pick up Peter of Abano’s Heptameron, a guide to angel magic from the 13th century. Odds are that Archidoxis magica (The Archidoxes of Magic), a 16th century book of sigils for talismanic magic supposedly authored by Paracelsus himself, isn’t something you can order from Amazon. Many of the tables from previous eras were put together in the Calendarium Naturale Magicum Perpetuum, published circa 1620, a book of magical and numerical symbolic philosophy that was synthesized from many sources. This is possibly the prettiest of the sources, but not particularly easy to use.

A page from Calendarium Naturale Magicum Perpetuum

Those sources – while old and important – aren’t original, either. Most of the books in the Nag Hammadi library (with the exception of the Gospel of Thomas) are generally dated to the 4th century, and they contain lists of aeons (good beings) and archons (evil beings), which correspond to lists of virtues and vices. The Book of Enoch, which is normally dated to around the first century CE, contains lists of angels and their spheres of influence. Claudius Ptomley’s treatises from around 150CE contained planetary tables – The Almagest‘s Book IX contains “the Order of the Spheres of Sun, Moon, and the 5 Planets” and his Tetrabiblos (also known as the Quadripartium) discussed the physical “Influence of the Planetary Orbs,” as well as putting them into binary categories like male and female, diurnal and nocturnal. Even Ptomley isn’t a true primary source – the Tetrabiblios itself was synthesized from earlier sources, like most works on astrology.

It’s almost impossible to know where our correspondences come from – but it’s important to know that they do come from somewhere. They’re not just invented. There’s a reason we correspond colors to emotions, herbs to intentions, even planets to days. Without realizing it, your choice of a candle color may be dictated by a chart from the 14th century.