Elizabethan England hosted many interesting and influential
personalities, from Francis Bacon, Walter Raleigh and Francis Drake to Edmund Spencer, Christopher Marlowe and William Shakespeare. In this milieu we also find the eccentric philosopher and scientist John Dee. He collected the empire’s biggest library, and his contributions to mathematics, cartography and navigation greatly influenced the age of English exploration and discovery. However, he was also an ardent explorer of the celestial realms: John Dee believed firmly in the existence of angels. Together with the alchemist Edward Kelley he conducted magical rituals in order to commune with the
heavenly messengers. The result was a series of letter tables and verses in a previously unknown language. A proof of the existence of angels?
By Egil Asprem (publisert 13.12.2006)
In the years between 1582 and 1587 Dr John Dee (1527 – 1608), the philosopher and court astrologer of Queen Elizabeth I, underwent a series of magical operations together with his scryer Edward Kelley. They had made contact with the angels. The angels purportedly communicated wonderful revelations to the two, of a most complex magical system with the potential of divining all the knowledge a man of science (like Dee) could possibly ask for.
As if that was not enough, the angels even disclosed to them the primordial language originally spoken by Adam before the Fall, uttered by God in the genesis of the world and still spoken by the angels themselves. This is the language today known as “Enochian”, which still has a revered position in many contemporary occult currents and movements. Among these are the Aurum Solis, various derivations of The Golden Dawn, the magical system of Aleister Crowley and Anton LaVey’s Church of Satan, to name but a few.
The language of the angels
John Dee and Edward Kelley had already been in contact with the angels for some months when the heavenly ambassadors began the first revelation of what would be seen as the most perplexing aspect of Dee and Kelley’s magical enterprise: The Angelic or Adamic language.
It started during their “Angelic conference” on 26 March 1583, when Kelley, staring into the stone and reporting his visions to Dee (serving as the scribe) as always, started having visions of a strange twenty-one lettered alphabet. A couple of days later the first actual text in this purported Angelic tongue was received. To begin with, Kelley had visions of great square tables, each with 49 x 49 squares. The instructions from the angels were that these tables should be filled with letters forming words.
According to John Dee’s transcription of this incident, it seems like Kelley would report “seeing” the text that made out the horizontal lines of the tables, and then read them aloud to Dee: “Palce duxma ge na dem oh elog …” The texts that resulted from these actions in spring 1583 constitute the first of two groups in the very limited Enochian text corpus, termed by Dee Liber Logaeth, “speech from God”.
The second group of texts were received a year later, in Krakow. It is this group of texts, the so-called Enochian “keys” or “calls” that are seen as constituting the Enochian language “proper”. These are 48 specific invocations, or prayers, apparently designed for particular use within the magical system. It is believed that each of these short calls was thought to invoke a specific current of energy, or open up a certain realm or part of the cosmos. There is also a significant difference marking these texts from the previous, in that they come with English translations.
For instance, the first call starts with “Ol sonf vors g, gohó Iad Balt, lanish calz vonpho” and is rendered in English “I reign over you, says the God of Justice, in power exalted above the firmaments of wrath” (Laycock 1994: 248). However as we shall see later, the method of obtaining these texts is a bit more shrouded in mystery, and seemingly far more technical than that of the first reception.
It is clear from John Dee’s diaries that he considered these revelations to be the language spoken by Adam before the Fall. Thus it is perhaps also interesting to note that the term “Enochian” does not occur in his manuscripts, while he referred to it as either “Angelic” or “Adamic”. The later term “Enochian” bears a reference to the Old Testament patriarch Enoch, who we read about in Genesis, and the apocryphal “Book of Enoch”. There has been a vast interest in this figure in magical and esoteric currents ever since antiquity, as he was said to escape death and instead “walked with God”. According to the tradition, Enoch was taken to the heavens and shown all the secrets of creation and the cosmos. No doubt this figure fascinated John Dee himself, and Enoch is referred to in the manuscripts as being the previous mortal who was granted the knowledge of the Angelic tongue.
The sceptic’s dilemma
Modern day enthusiasts of the Enochian system of magic received by Dee and Kelley often point to the Enochian language as the hard evidence of the reality of supra-human intelligences (i.e. the angels), as well as the validity, veracity and potency of the Enochian system. It is often claimed that Enochian language show traits of being a hitherto unknown natural language, possessing its own grammar, phonetic system and even its own alphabet. It is also claimed that the language is so complex, subtle and intricate, and the material received in it so poetically potent and well-composed, that attributing it to a scam by Edward Kelley seems like mere folly (e.g. Crowley 1989: 612).
To take but one example, a recent editor of John Dee material, Gerald Suster, writes that sceptics are left with the “genuine and interesting intellectual problem” that:
a) Enochian bears little relation to any known language.
b) Yet philologists agree that it is impossible for a man to invent a new language.
(Suster 2003: 139)
This whole argument rests on the assumption that Enochian in fact shows linguistic criteria associated with a real natural language. However, this might very well be an erroneous assumption, and indeed all these claims need a closer, critical assessment.
A sceptic’s answer: Donald Laycock’s linguistic analysis
The only competent linguist who to my knowledge has worked closer with the Enochian language – and published material on it – is the Australian linguist, anthropologist and sceptic Donald Laycock.
In his conclusion to the preface of The Complete Enochian Dictionary, Laycock is less than convinced of the supernatural origin of the language. He even disputes the claim that it can be considered a proper language.
First of all he points to the fact that there are significant differences between the two bulks of Enochian texts, those first received on 29 March 1583, and those received a year later in Krakow. The first texts were, as we have seen, simply spoken out by Kelley, staring into the “shewstone”, and transcribed by Dee. The texts are not given any definite English translation, except for some isolated words.
Laycock notes that the phonetic patterning of this material looks suspect for a natural language: there is a tendency of alternating between one- and two-syllable words only, and of words being arranged as simple variations over phonetically similar vowels (mostly varieties of the a-sound) (Laycock 1994: 33)
“Statistical studies in linguistics show that patterning of this nature is rare in normal language – though it is found in poetry and magical charms.” (ibid)
He goes on to state a more intriguing fact about this type of phonetic patterning: It is a common trait of glossolalia.
The nonsensical “speaking in tongues” is a phenomenon characteristically tied to trance-like behavior, and there are indeed passages from the records of the “Angelic conferences” that suggests Edward Kelley had a tendency of exhibiting such behavior at the times these verses were received. John Dee frequently notes before the receptions that “fire starts to spring from Kelley’s eyes”, and he “disappears into the stone” (ibid: 34; Peterson 2003: 303, 309, 322 etc). There are also references to him losing his memory of what had happened (Peterson 2003: 322), and the idea that “trance” is a separate state of consciousness often resulting in such memory loss has a long history (e.g. Ludwig 1972: 18; Spanos 1996).
Putting these items together, one could hypothesize that the first Enochian receptions – of not translated (nonsensical) mono- and duo-syllabic words from a “medium” exhibiting trance-like behavior – were in fact an instance of common glossolalia, a phenomenon that happens still every day in Pentecostal congregations all over the world.
The mysterious reception of the Enochian “Calls”
If the communications of spring 1583 seems quite easy to account for, the picture is a bit more complicated when it comes to the reception of the Enochian language proper in Krakow in April 1584 – at least on the surface of it.
As noted earlier, the reception process here seems much more complicated, and glossolalia does not altogether seem like a plausible solution. The Enochian “keys” or “calls” that were here received were processed letter by letter and word by word, backwards from the last word of each call.
The method in which this was done is not all that clear, mainly due to the obscure notes one finds in Dee’s manuscript transcripts of the sessions. In them each letter is mentioned, accompanied with numbers, some of them apparently signifying the position of the letters in the letter squares which they are taken from (Casaubon [ed.] 1659: 78-80). Apparently, the source of the letters is the texts mentioned above, which after being received (through glossolalia) were put into letter squares of 49×49 letters, and named Liber Logaeth. The rather amazing way in which these texts seem to have been received is often brought forward as a proof of the supernatural origin of the language, in that it could not have been constructed by Kelley himself. As Suster writes:
Kelley would report, for instance: “He points to column 5, rank 23”, apparently not mentioning the letter, which Dee found and wrote down … This implies that Kelley had absolutely no idea which words would be formed. To execute that feat, the man commonly denounced as a confidence trickster would have to know the exact positions of the 2,401 letters in each of the tablets. There must be an easier way of getting a living. (Suster 2003: 139)
He is quite right that there are easier ways to earn a living, and as I will show in a minute, Kelley knew that quite well. Once again Suster seems to be jumping to conclusions. Interestingly enough, the volume he himself has edited and selected contains the following account from the angelic sessions in Krakow, April 13 1584:
A (Two thousand and fourteen, in the sixth Table, is) D. 86. 7003. In the thirteenth Table is I. A In the 21st Table. 11406 downward.
I In the last Table, one less then Number. A word, Jaida you shall understand, what that word is before the Sun go down. (Dee cited in Suster [ed.] 2003: 71)
In Dee’s recording, all this seems to be taken from the mouth of the angel Nalvage speaking through Kelley, including the letters. Note the discrepancy between this and the account given by Suster himself.
Admittedly, this would render the numbers given more mysterious. However, as Laycock observes, they cannot at any rate refer to letters in the letter squares, since all the squares in the supposed source were 49×49, adding up only to 2,401 (Laycock 1994: 40). Some of the numbers given are much higher. It seems to me more likely that the numbers are conceived as having mystical, numerological importance. After receiving the word “Naoov”, for instance, Dee is asked to “add the numbers” of each letter. When he has done this the angel makes him square it, which leaves him with the number 22,306,729. This is according to the angel the number of the “Philosopher’s work” (Casaubon [ed.] 1659: 80).
Be the importance of the numbers as it may, the passage above indicates that the angel/Kelley actually mentioned each letter by name, and even spelled out the words they make up. The reception of each letter string ends with passages, in the angel Nalvage’s words, like “call it Hoath”, “call it Mad”, “call it Noco”, “call it Zirdo” and so forth (ibid: 79).
In the actions, we should imagine Kelley having visions of letters in the “shewstone” which the angel pointed to. He would then spell them out to Dee himself. The method thus seems far more explicit and straight forward than what Suster and many with him seems ready to admit (I should perhaps note in passing that Suster’s paragraph has a wording suspiciously close to Aleister Crowley’s in his Confessions. See Crowley 1989: 612). One should also mention that it is not even clear that this method was actually deployed all the way through. The exact procedure is only given for the very first text received. As Laycock notes, there are hints in the recordings that both Edward Kelley and the “spirits” themselves wanted to speed up the process after a while, being hold back only by Dee’s insistence on the letter-by-letter transcription (ibid: 41).
At any rate, the reception of this material is far more technical and less automatic than the former. Laycock notes however that the impracticality of the method also shows itself in the phonetic structure of the language here received, which differs significantly from the structure of the earlier material. The most noticeable difference is that the new material is less pronounceable than the earlier, including sudden clusters of both vowels and consonants, like the words ooaona, paombd, smnad and noncf.
This feature is not found in natural languages (Laycock 1994: 40). However, Laycock notes that it is exactly the feature you would expect when producing sentences by joining letters from a text in a natural language together according to a random pattern. As he says somewhat mockingly: “The reader can test this by taking, for example, every tenth letter on this page, and dividing the string of letters into words. The ‘text’ created will tend to look rather like Enochian.” (ibid: 40-41).
Phonology and grammar of Enochian
When one considers the linguistic properties of the language of these later receptions it becomes clear that it exhibits traits that are suspiciously English. Especially when one considers the claim of the language being the perennial “Adamic” language, spoken before the Fall, one would rather expect some proto-Semitic features to appear. The only feature slightly reminiscent of Semitic however, is the fact that when written with the Enochian characters, the language is written right to left.
The phonology, syntax and grammar all seem to be almost identical to English: Enochian seems to have both soft and hard values for consonants like c and g, and combines s and h to make the sh sound (ibid). According to Laycock, it does not seem to have a case system (ibid: 42), and the syntax is, judging from the translations given, purely English.
This is also quite remarkable, since not even with other European languages are such similarities (or rather, identity) of syntax extant (ibid: 43). In addition, the verbal system is highly incomplete, with conjugations only traceable for two verbs, of which one, “to be”, is (unsurprisingly) highly irregular. Also the numeral system seems obscure and quite randomised, consisting mostly of single letters in a way reminiscent of the Hebrew and Aramaic system, but distinct since it shows no recognisable pattern. Put briefly, the grammatical features of Enochian seem either purely English or totally randomised.
Another interesting feature can be noted considering the semantics of Enochian. There are certain Enochian words that are suspiciously reminiscent of words well known to Dee and Kelley, many taken from biblical contexts, with semantic meanings in a way cognate to them (ibid:42). For instance there is babalond, meaning “wicked, harlot”, with possible reference to “the whore of Babylon” of Revelations. Christeos, “let there be” seems related to Christ, or the Logos of the Gospel of John, and luciftias, meaning “brightness” may have a connection to Lucifer, the light bringer. Taken from another context important to Dee is londoh, translated as “kingdom”, which makes perfect sense taking into account Dee’s imperial ambitions for the Queen in London. The list could go on, but these examples suffice to make the point. The semantics of Enochian seems heavily influenced by notions in Dee and Kelley’s contemporary times.
The alphabet of the angels
One should perhaps also consider briefly the Enochian alphabet, which was received by Kelley on 26 March 1583.
The 21 letters which make up the alphabet are reminiscent of the type of “magical script” so common in occult treatises of the time. For instance, the standard occult reference work of the time, Cornelius Agrippa’s De occuluta philosophia contained a nice selection (Agrippa 2003:311, 406-7). However, to this day one has not been able to discern a definite source from which Dee and Kelley could have taken their particular alphabet. It has been noted that Dee had in his possession an alchemical treatise, Voarchadumia contra alchimiam, written by Giovanni Pantheus in 1530, where we find a table containing what is called an “Enochian alphabet of the ancients”. This has been suggested as a source for Dee, since the manuscript he possessed, which still exists, contains his abundant marginal notes, and even an attempt to write his own name in Pantheus’ alphabet (see facsimile in Laycock 1994:30-31).
This argument seems to be a bit thin, since a) the alphabet in this treatise does not bear any significant similarity to the angelic script of Dee and Kelley, and b) the word “Enochian”, which on the surface seems to be the only link between the two, was actually not used by Dee and Kelley themselves to refer to “their” language. Instead they used “angelic” and “Adamic”, “Enochian being a later convention. I would therefore argue that the Voarchadumia-manuscript is of little importance in this matter.
However, the idea of a perennial Adamic language that could still be recovered was a rather common speculation in esoteric circles of John Dee’s days (Harkness 1999:158-161). There were even elaborate discussions among the bright heads of Europe about which of the historical languages was closest to the perennial language spoken in Eden.
For instance, the great German philologer and proponent of the north-European renaissance Johann Reuchlin (1455 – 1522) considered the three biblical languages (Hebrew, Greek and Latin) the most likely candidates, while the French renaissance thinker Guillaume Postel (1510 – 1581) sided with Hebrew exclusively. A perhaps more daring but doubtlessly intriguing proposal was made by the Swedish natural philosopher Andreas Kempe (1622 – 1689), who argued that God spoke Swedish, that Adam named the animals in Danish, and that the Serpent tempted Eve in French (ibid: 160).
Kempe’s proposal must no doubt have been tempting considering the Swedish imperial ambitions at the time. At any rate, the extant discourses about the primordial Adamic language in Dee’s time should be account enough for his thoughts on the issue. However strange to us today, the idea was not that idiosyncratic after all.
An Ethiopian source?
Although I myself am quite satisfied at this point, I will consider another possible influence on Dee and Kelley which Laycock mentions: Going from the thesis that a genuine Adamic language should be expected to have some proto-Semitic features, Laycock compares the Enochian typescript with different kinds of Semitic alphabets.
He finds, however, that it does not resemble any of the proto-Semitic scripts, like Sumerian or Egyptian hieroglyphic. Rather it might have some similarities to much later Semitic languages, as Samarian and especially Ethiopian (Laycock 1994:28). Although this relation already seems to run counter to the claim of a primordial authenticity of the language, Laycock follows up on the lead hoping to find a more historically grounded source for the alphabet of Dee and Kelley. Laycock speculates that, given Dee’s persistent interest in the Apochrypha, and especially in the Enochian and Prophetic traditions present in Europe at the time, it might have been the case that Dee had seen an edition of the presumed lost Ethiopian Book of Enoch, possibly from Guilliam Postel, whom he met. According to this argument, he would have seen a text which fascinated him immensely, but would not be able to read it. He would, however, recognise the alphabet, and might have used a similar version of it in the later workings (ibid).
While this possibility cannot be totally denied, it seems at the same time to be a claim quite unsupported of evidence. Such a discovery in Europe at the time would no doubt have sparked greater publicity. For these reasons and due to the lack of evidence I find the claim at best highly unlikely. It seems more likely that the 21-letter alphabet was a genuine product of Kelley’s mediumistic creativity – inspired by the countless magical ciphers that he no doubt knew, but still original in its outlook. New magical alphabets seemed to surface almost every day in the early modern period. In my view there is nothing mysterious in the production of yet another one.
• Agrippa von Nettesheim, Henry Cornelius [Donald Tyson ed.] 2003: Three Books of Occult Philosophy. Completely Annotated with Modern Commentary. St.Paul: Llewellyn Publications.
• Casaubon, Meric. [ed.] 1659: A True & Faithful Relation of What Passed for many Yeers between Dr. John Dee and some Spirits: Tending (had it Succeeded) to a General Alteration of most States and Kingdoms in the World. London
• Crowley, Aleister 1989: The Confessions of Aleister Crowley. London: Arcana Penguin Books.
• Harkness, Deborah 1999: John Dee’s Conversations with Angels: Cabala, Alchemy and the End of Nature. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
• Laycock, Donald C. 1994: The Complete Enochian Dictionary. A Dictionary of the Angelic Language Revealed to Dr. John Dee and Edward Kelley. Boston: Weiser Books
• Ludwig, Arnold 1972: “Altered States of Consciousness”, in: Charles T. Tart [ed.]: Altered States of Consciousness. New York: Anchor Books/Doubleday
• Peterson, Joseph H. [ed.] 2003: John Dee’s Five Books of Mystery. Original Sourcebook of Enochian Magic. York Beach: Red Wheel/Weiser
• Spanos, Nicholas P. 1996: Multiple Identities and False Memories. Washington: American Psychological Association
• Suster, Gerald 2004: John Dee. Essential Readings. Western Esoteric Masters Series. Berkeley: North Atlantic Books