John Dee

And the Enochian Script


John Dee See Also: Roger Bacon , Fulcanelli
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Remembered mostly as an alchemist and seer who worked with the Enochian script, John Dee (1527 – 1608) was a mathematician astronomer and cartographer and had an extensive academic career. He was the first to apply the principles of Euclidian geometry to navigation and built the relevant instruments. He also coined the name “Britannia”, He was the most famous magic scholar of the sixteenth century. It is also widely believed that Shakespeare’s Prospero is based on the life and character of John Dee.

John Dee was born near London on the July 13, 1527, the son of Roland Dee who was of Welsh descent. Roland Dee dealt in textiles and, in addition was a gentleman server in the court of King Henry VIII. He claimed to be descended from Roderick the Great, Prince of Wales. Like Bacon and Agrippa he was born a genius. In 1542, Dee entered Cambridge College aged 15 and graduated in 1544 with a BA. In 1546 he became a fellow of Trinity College, and was given the role of Greek underwriter.

< Living in the turbulent religious and political struggles of Tudor England, John Dee was protestant but not a very devout one, and he was happy to call himself a Catholic as the need arose. However, his religious views were considered sufficiently heretical to earn him a few years in jail.

During 1546 he began to make astronomical observations. Using a quadrant and a cross-staff he made (as he later wrote in Compendious Rehearsal):-

... observations (very many to the hour and minute) of the heavenly influences and operations actual
in this elemental portion of the world.Of which sort I made some thousands in the years then following.

The Monas Hieroglyphica Later he visited Holland and France and mixed with leading academics there, living in Louvain by 1548. He turned down an offer of an appointment at the Sorbonne, and spent a few months lecturing geometry in Paris, and he also taught at Louvain and Brussels Universities. On his return to England in 1551, he taught navigation and mathematics to Naval Captains, an occupation which was to continue for thirty years. However, he is better known for his study and involvement in occult practices.

After that, his fortunes took a downturn. Queen Mary Tudor (Bloody Mary) had him arrested amid accusations of attempting to kill her with sorcery. He was imprisoned in Hampton Court in 1553. This may have been because of a horoscope that he cast for Elizabeth, Mary's sister and later to become Elizabeth I, in which he prophesied when Mary would die. He was set free but later re-arrested on charges of heresy, finally being released in 1555. In 1556 Queen Mary granted him a full pardon.

When Queen Elizabeth succeeded to the throne in 1558 Dee’s fortunes changed. He had shown loyalty to Elizabeth for many years and rapidly became, in effect, royal wizard-in-chief. He was even commissioned to predict the best astrological time for her coronation. When a wax doll with pins in it was found near the royal residence, Dee was called in to use counter-magic. However the rumours about his occult dealings persisted throughout his life and caused him many problems.

The occult was not his only preoccupation and he worked to reform the English calendar, to promote a national library and to enhance the English claim to the New World by trying to prove that it had once been part of the realm of King Arthur.

The Monas Hieroglyphica

In 1564 he published The Monas Hieroglyphica followed the next year by Di Trigono. The Monas Heiroglyphica is a symbol created by Dee and he believed it to be the ultimate symbol of Occult knowledge. Elizabeth became his patron, consulting him when a new star was discovered in 1572 and in 1577 she asked him to interpret the significance of a comet which had been observed.

The upper semicircle is the moon, the circle below is the sun, the cross represents the four elements but also refers to birth, crucifixion and resurrection

Slavische Barokliteratur, Munich, 1970

Strange dreams and feelings and mysterious noises within his home led him to begin trying to contact the spirit world in 1581. On 25 May 1582 he claimed to have made his contact with the spirit world, through his crystal ball. This was the culmination of years of studying the occult, alchemy and crystallomancy. Spirit contact then became a major focus for Dee for the rest of his life. He began to employ scryers. Dee then interpreted their observations and made extensive notes. He worked initially with a scryer called Barnabas Saul until Saul had some disturbing encounters and he lost his ability to contact the spirit world.

In March 1582 Dee started to search for another scryer and eventually found Edward Kelly (1555 to 1595). Kelly was 27 years old and seemed ideal. In reality he was an experienced confidence trickster whose ears had been cropped for forgery and who fooled Dee for many years. Supposedly he once dug up a corpse in Lancashire in order to practice necromancy, an event often wrongly attributed to Dee. However, he presented himself to Dee as a humble student eager to learn from the great master. In November 1582 they encountered an Angel called Uriel, who gave instructions for a magical talisman for contacting the spirit world more easily. Uriel was, both in occultism and in Christian imagery, the Archangel of the Earth. However, he also figures among the Steganographic demons as listed in the literature of John Truthemus (1462 to 1516). A translation by Tait, Upton and Walden was published by McLean in 1982. Dee also had an obsidian scrying mirror, now in the British Museum.

Dee began to use the mysterious Enochian script known as “the language of angels” to communicate with the Angels. The origins of the language are obscure but many who have worked with Enochian magic claim that it works. The Enochian magical system of the Golden Dawn was a vast elaboration of Dee’s original Enochian system. De’s manuscripts barely survived the Great Fire of London and similarly, the Golden Dawn manuscripts were almost lost. The freemason Elias Ashmole preserved Dee’s manuscripts and experimented on his own. Speculation on the Enochian texts continued until MacGregor Mathers took the matter up and the work continues down to Pat Zalewski who brought the threads together in “Golden Dawn Enochian Magic” (Llewellyn Publications).

It should be said at this point that the Enochian script interpreted by Dee had no connection to the “lost” Book of Enoch. This manuscript was written in the first or second century AD and was a very influential source for early Jewish and Christian thinkers. It introduced many now familiar ideas like the introduction of evil into the world by “fallen angels” and the Resurrection and Final Judgement. However, the book was suppressed by the early church and thought to have been destroyed. It was rediscovered in Ethiopia (then Abyssinia) by the Scottish explorer James Bruce in 1773. The Book of Enoch was first translated by Richard Laurence in 1821 and was published in a number of successive editions, the final one being released in 1883. So the legend is that Enochian magic was originally delivered to man by Enoch, the prophet of Genesis. Enochian calls are reputed to be the language of he Angels and Hebrew is merely a faint echo, The Enochian tablets are considered to be the talismans from which all other sigils are derived. However, historically, there is, therefore, no possible way that John Dee could have made reference to the Book of Enoch.

Dee and Kelly’s fame grew and extended to the continent, bringing with it a source of income, which Dee used to fund his experiments into the transmutation of base metals into gold, a long-term aim of alchemists. Dee claimed to have found the 'Elixir Vitae' (The alchemical elixir of life or philosophers stone) hidden in the ruins of Glastonbury Abbey.

The Polish Albert Laski, Count Palatire of Siradz, descendant of the Anglo-Norman Lacies, came to England in search of Dee and Kelly (always the con artist), duped him into believing he was bound for greatness and many messages were received from the Spirit world involving Laski, Kelly, Dee, and European politics. Dee and Kelly convinced Laski to return to Poland with them and their wives. They began trying to transmute iron into gold to fund their exploits in European politics but their transmutation experiments never worked. Living in almost royal splendour, they eventually relieved Laski of his entire fortune.

Meanwhile, back at home in England things were not going well. In 1583 a mob believing Dee to be a wizard, attacked Dee's home at Mortlake and destroyed his collection of books and occult instruments.

Laski provided a letter of introduction to Emperor Rudolph II. The emperor, who was taken with the idea of the Philosophers Stone, welcomed them in Prague in 1586. However the Pope was not so impressed and he demanded that the Emperor should dismiss them or that they should be imprisoned or burned at the stake. They visited the court of King Stephan of Poland but he thought they were frauds, and they ended up working as fortune-tellers on the streets of Krakow for a while, eventually managing to install themselves in the Castle of Count Rosenberg. Two years later their experiments had still not met with any success despite countless excuses.

Dee and Kelly began to look at returning to England again and they sent Queen Elizabeth a brass warming pan with a disk of gold in it, which they claimed they had transmuted from iron. However, Kelly and Dee eventually parted company after a series of rows which involved Kelly’s interest in Dee’s wife. This arose after Kelly, somewhat predictably, received a message from the Angels that Dee and Kelly should share their wives. Kelly returned to Bohemia to try his luck at the royal court again. Dee was given permission by Queen Elizabeth I to return to England in 1589 with a vast retinue of servants. No-one seems to know where he got the money from to pay for them, and in any case he soon got through the cash. Queen Elizabeth turned a deaf ear to his requests for money and her successor, James, was simply not interested. Dee failed to make a scryer out of his son Arthur and back at Mortlake, Dee continued his studies with two other scryers, both charlatans. Dee was given the Chancellorship of St Paul's Cathedral by Elizabeth, and in 1595 swapped this to become Warden of Manchester College, a position which proved acrimonious. He retired from this post in 1603 when he returned to Mortlake to continue his fortune telling. He was accused of being a wizard in 1604, and had to ask King James I for protection.

While Arthur Dee, John Dee’s son (1579 to 1651), failed to become a scryer he nevertheless had a successful career of his own, becoming one of the leading Paracelsians of the seventeenth century. His views caused him to be persecuted by the Royal College of Physicians but he nevertheless became Royal Physician to James 1 and later became Tsar Michael’s personal doctor.

In his old age, John Dee confessed to The Holy Roman Emperor Rudolph II that he had sought knowledge through study for forty years but had come to the conclusion that there was no man or book who could give him he knowledge he wanted. He had therefore decided that the only way he could obtain this knowledge was directly from the spirits. However, in the age of the inquisition, he was always very careful to call them “holy angels”.

John Dee died in poverty at Mortlake in 1608 aged 81 years while Kelly died in 1595, in a fall from a window while trying to escape from prison in Prague.

Modern students of magic assert that John Dee possessed some genuine magical knowledge early in his career but that his involvement with Kelly turned him into more a charlatan than a genuine magical student and that he then lost his powers.

John Dee’s curious diaries, edited by Edward Fenton, were published in 1998. John Aubrey, a distant relative, recounts that he was “a very handsome man, with a long beard white as milke... he wore a gowne like an artist’s gowne, with hanging sleeves... the children dreaded him because he was accounted a conjurer.”


Acknowledgements and further reading:

Alchemy and AlchemistsSean MartinCox & Wyman
Alchemy and MysticismAlexander RoobTaschen
Dictionary of DemonsFred GettingsRider
Golden Dawn Enochian MagicPat ZalewskiLlewellyn Publications
Magicians, Wizards and SorcerersDaniel CohenJ. M. Dent & Sons
The Book of Enoch the ProphetTranslated by Richard LaurenceAdventures Unlimited Press
The Oxford Companion to British HistoryJohn Cannon (Ed.)OUP

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© Ken James 2008