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John Dee in the court of Queen Elizabeth I

The Enigmatic Doctor Dee

John Dee, the great English magus, bibliophile, scholar, mathematician, astronomer, astrologer, occultist, and advisor to Queen Elizabeth, was characterized by a seeming inconsistency, an almost schizoid syndrome, on the surface. Born in Tower Ward, London on 13 July 1527, Dee’s father was either a vintner and/or a tailor to King Henry VIII. Dee studied Latin and entered St. John’s College, Cambridge, in 1542. There he claimed to have studied eighteen hours a day, taking breaks only for religious observances. He graduated and became a fellow of St. John’s, and in December 1546 was appointed an under-reader of Greek at Trinity College. In May 1547 he made his first trip to continental Europe, attending the University of Louvain (Belgium) where he developed a friendship with the great geographer Gerardus Mercator. Dee returned to England to take an M.A. degree at Cambridge, then spent the summer of 1548 through July 1550 on the continent – studying at Louvain and lecturing at the University of Paris. Although commonly referred to as “Doctor Dee” even during his lifetime, there is currently no solid evidence that he ever formally was awarded a doctorate by any university. He may have simply been addressed as “Doctor” in recognition of his universally acknowledged vast learning, although it has been suggested that Dee may have been awarded a doctorate in medicine by the University of Prague.

In 1551 Dee first became deeply involved with the English Court, coming under the patronage of Sir William Cecil (1521 – 1598) who at that time was Secretary of State to Edward VI, and would serve in various capacities to the monarchs Edward VI, Jane Grey, Mary, and Elizabeth. As described further below, Dee was not always in good graces with the Court – he was imprisoned for a short time in 1555 – but with the accession of Elizabeth as Queen (reigned 1558 – 1601), he appears to have been favored for the majority of the rest of his life. Indeed, Elizabeth was quite fond of Dee, consulting him on many important matters. Dee not only astrologically advised her on the best day for her coronation, but he also sent intelligence back to her during his trips through Europe. In other words, Dee may have been Elizabeth’s secret agent.

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During the 1560s through 1580s Dee, along with his family and household, split his time between traveling through continental Europe and living in Great Britain. It was during the period of about 1581 through 1589 that he was most extensively involved in his now infamous séances, his angelic conversations, with various scryers or mediums, but most notably Edward Kelley. Many of these sessions took place while on the move in continental Europe. On 2 December 1589 Dee returned to England, after a six-year absence, and lived out the last two decades of his life, dying in December 1608 (or possibly early in 1609). At the end of his life Dee was described as having “a very faire cleare rosie complexion, a long beard as white as milke; he was tall and slender; a very handsome…mighty good man he was… He wore a Gowne like an Artist’s, with hanging sleeves, and a slitt.” In his prime Dee was not only a highly learned scholar and magus but also a robust specimen of a man, known to be a good horseman, a fancier of steeple-chases, a keeper of hounds, and a sponsor of lavish parties that included dancing and fireworks.

Doctor John Dee by most superficial accounts and glosses was an honest, good, naively innocent, pious, and godly man of devout Christian faith, who would in the end utilize methods of scrying (in particular, crystal gazing with the assistance of a medium) as a way to converse with God’s angels in an attempt to gain superhuman knowledge and omniscience. In the words of Dee scholar György E. Szőnyi, “the English Doctor did not make a covenant with the Devil”. However, I believe the evidence leads us to the opposite conclusion. Dee, I suspect, possessed genuine paranormal powers, and his “angels” where certainly not imaginary (even if they were arguably of his own making, the knowledge they brought had in some but not all cases a veridical basis). But were they “angels” as Dee wanted to believe, or “devils”? Dee may have deluded himself and made a Faustian-style pact with lesser darker spirits, a pact sealed with sexual-magical rites of a traditional “black magic” nature that ostensibly Dee abhorred and repudiated. Common threads throughout Dee’s research and life are an obsession with knowledge (and thus power and prestige), and he was even willing to commit adultery at the promise of gaining knowledge. Dee’s quest for ultimate knowledge and godlike understanding is evident both in his perhaps most famous publication, the Monas Hieroglyphica (1564) and his angelic conversations (Enochian magic). I will consider each in turn, but first we need to mention a work that inspired Dee. 

Necromancy ritual

Steganographia (Secret Writing)

Perhaps one of the most profound influences on Dee’s subsequent research, career, and personal life was the discovery, while traveling in the Low Countries in late 1562 or early 1563, of a manuscript copy of Steganographia (‘Secret Writing’) by Johannes Trithemius (1462 – 1516). This was possibly made known to Dee on his visit to Antwerp through the typographer and bookseller Christopher Plantin or by the Dutch printer Willem Silvius in whose home Dee stayed. Trithemius was for twenty-two years an abbot at the Benedictine abbey of Sponheim, resigning in 1505, only to join the Benedictine cloister of Wurzburg a year later. Trithemius was extremely well read and wrote extensively; Steganographia was completed by about 1500, and had limited circulation in manuscript form for over a hundred years before its first print publication in 1606. Dee was lent a manuscript of the book and spent ten solid days copying half of it, and an (unnamed) Hungarian nobleman copied the rest for him. Writing on 16 February 1563 to Sir William Cecil back in England, Dee stated he had found a book, “the most precious juell that I have yet of other mens travailes recovered”, “a boke for which many a lerned man has long sought and dayly doth seeke; whose use is greater than the fame thereof is spread. The title is on this wise ‘Stegan[o]graphia Joannes Tritemij’.”

Steganographia was, purposefully on many levels, a secretive book. It was regarded by a number of Trithemius’s and Dee’s contemporaries (as well as subsequent readers, right up into modern times) as a powerful manual of daemonic magic, and thus heretical despite being penned by a learned and respected abbot. This is not surprising, in that it records the names of numerous daemons (angels, spirits, and devils) along with the invocations to be used in summoning them. While some in modern times have interpreted the Steganographia as primarily or solely a treatise on cryptography, the truth seems to be more complex. Steganographia was not only a work on cryptography, encipherment, and secret writing; it was also a book of applied magic, including alchemy, cabbalistic number symbolism, demonology, angelology, occult philosophy, and other types of esoteric studies. If Trithemius was accused or suspected of any one of these subjects, his fall back position could be that his book was actually on one of the other subjects. But, in fact, it treated all of these subjects seriously. Indeed, one aspect of the work was the transmission of thoughts from one person to another over great distances without words, writing, or signs – that is, what we would now label telepathic transmission. This, arguably, is the underlying basis of all scrying, séances, and various forms of “fortune telling”, and includes telepathic transmissions not only geographically (from one place to another) but also temporally (both forward into the future and back into the past). 

The discovery of a copy of Steganographia appears to have crystallized many of Dee’s thoughts and studies that had been incubating for years, even decades. The immediate result was his Monas Hieroglyphica. Later, still inspired by the work of Trithemius, Dee would undertake his conversations with ‘angels’. 

The Meaning of the Hieroglyphic Monad

The work of which Dee was most proud, and for which he is famous (along with his angelic conversations), is the Monas Hieroglyphica, a short book that Dee composed over twelve days in January 1564 (although he had been working on the topic for years) and which was published in Antwerp in March 1564. In this Hermetic treatise, consisting of twenty-four theorems based on and describing a symbol known as the hieroglyphic monad (as illustrated on the title page of his monograph), Dee attempted to embody universal knowledge that would, he believed, be destined to revolutionize the arts and sciences. Ultimately, its exact meaning and significance – both what Dee intended, and what is encoded occultly in the monad – is subject to debate. For Dee, the monad was a “cosmic image” that served many functions, including as a symbol or talisman of potent power and a sort of “revelatory mandala” for introspective contemplation and “an intuitive understanding of the cosmos and a unification with the wisdom of God.” To properly understand the Monas Hieroglyphica one needed private instruction or a key; manuscript copies and word of mouth versions of such instruction may have circulated during Dee’s lifetime and shortly thereafter, but now seem to be lost (unless secreted away by select initiates who will not reveal what they know). Dee personally explained his work to both Queen Elizabeth and Emperor Rudolf II (Rudolph II).

Dee’s monad was based on ancient precedents, though he presented it in a novel form. A common idea, one that has “characterized most times and cultures – an insight corroborated by anthropology”, is “that intellectual progress depends on the recovery of knowledge attained by the ancients.” 

According to Dee, ancient magi had known the true structure of the heavens and preserved their knowledge for subsequent generations in the common planetary signs that they carefully designed not only to represent the heavenly bodies but also to reveal cryptically what was true about them. 

This he took advantage of in designing the hieroglyphic monad, and in his explanations of it. It is not known precisely when Dee first hit upon the design of the hieroglyphic monad, but he used it on the title page of his 1558 book, Propaedeumata Aphoristica (‘An Aphoristic Introduction’), consisting of 120 aphorisms dealing with the connections between astronomy, geometry, and astrology, although Dee did not explicitly discuss the monad in his 1558 book. 

Superficially Dee’s hieroglyphic monad looks like the standard astronomical symbol for Mercury combined with the symbol for Aries at its base. However, there are subtle differences: in the original hieroglyphic monad the upper crescent does not rest on the circle, but interlinks with it, and the circle has a center. This signifies, as Dee states explicitly in Theorem X of the Monas Hieroglyphica, that the basic elements of the hieroglyphic monad are the Moon (crescent), Sun (circle with central point indicated), the cross representing the four basic elements and the terrestrial realm, and the astrological sign of Aries (representing alchemically the fire or the heat necessary for transmutation). The four elements, in a material sense, were traditionally water, earth, fire, and air or moisture, cold, heat, and dryness, but for Dee they were also “to be, to live, to feel and to comprehend (esse, vivere, sentire et entelligere).”

John Dee's Hieroglyphic Monad

The exact origin of the hieroglyphic monad is unclear; Dee implied that he had designed it himself when he complained, in a handwritten note preserved on his personal copy of Chymisticum Artificium Naturae (1568) that the author of that work, Gerard Dorn, had reproduced a version of the hieroglyphic monad without so much as acknowledging Dee. Szőnyi suggested that in a general sense the monad may have been inspired by and derived from the ancient use of circles and crosses. Dee, according to Szőnyi, read about their symbolic significance in the works of the Neo-Platonist Marsilio Ficino (1433 – 1499) which he possessed and studied, and from that discussion derived his monad. I will take Szőnyi’s hypothesis further and suggest that Dee derived his monad from arguably one of the most ancient and fundamental symbols or talismans, that of an equilateral cross, surmounted by a point at the intersection of the arms of the cross, within a circle (and on the most refined versions of this symbol, four ever so slight quarter crescents are indicated on the inner portions of the circle between the points where the arms of the cross join the circle). This symbol has been viewed as a primordial solar symbol, the wheel of the Sun (and the later symbol for the Sun is a circle with a central point, as already noted), and also the symbol for planet Earth (the circle containing the cross, representing as well the four cardinal points). Indeed it combines both. Sometimes, particularly among classicists, it is simply referred to as a “chariot wheel” and this symbol appears in the context of chariots and other vehicles in Greek and Roman times, but it is also the wheel of fortune, the wheel of the movement of the heavens, the reflection of the connection between the celestial and terrestrial (“as above, so below”), the divine and the mundane, and much more. Dee’s hieroglyphic monad separates the circle and point from the cross, placing them on top of the cross. Of the crescents, it places a half-circle crescent at the very top interlocking with the circle, and it places the remaining two smaller crescents (call them quarter crescents) at the base of the cross, forming the symbol of the fire or Aries.

The hieroglyphic monad, and Dee’s writings and teachings about it, was (it seems) intended to reveal all essential astronomical and alchemical knowledge, cabbalistic intelligence, the basis of all geometry and mathematical knowledge, the structure of the cosmos (both the macrocosm and the microcosm), and the nature of the human condition. Furthermore, from the hieroglyphic monad could be generated all numbers and all of the alphabets of all languages including, most importantly, the first language of Adam (and of God), the lingua adamica (also referred to as the Enochian language, which Dee would later seek knowledge of through the angelic conversations). The lingua adamica was of extreme importance because in this first and primordial language of God could be found not just knowledge but also power in the words. Indeed, the monad itself, if its use was properly understood, was a powerful magic talisman. By harnessing the talismanic powers of the monad, the Magus could command spirits, perform alchemical transmutations, and finally and most importantly undergo the “mystical transmutation of ‘understanding,’ the exaltatio” and, I would add, harness what in modern parlance might be called paranormal powers to effect real changes in the world we know.

Such lofty and mystical goals set forth in the Monas Hieroglyphica do not preclude more pragmatic uses of the monad and accompanying treatise, both in terms of conjuring and in terms of encoding ciphers for secret messages, such as for espionage purposes. There are many reasons to believe that Dee acted, at least in part, as a spy for Queen Elizabeth. Dee even used the code name 007 (apparently representing Dee’s eyes serving the queen, with a bar over the eyes and a line to the right – plus seven is a sacred number, a number of mystery and divinity); 007 was later adopted by Ian Fleming for his James Bond character. But without Dee’s personal teaching or unpublished key to the Monas Hieroglyphica these aspects of the treatise are highly elusive, to say the least. 

The Monad and Levi’s Baphomet

Here I wish to point out what, to me, are some obvious similarities between Dee’s hieroglyphic monad and the “Sabbatic Goat” or “Baphomet of Mendes”, particularly as reconstructed in the now famous nineteenth century depiction by Éliphas Lévi (presumably based on much earlier Templar prototypes combined with Hermetic, alchemical, and cabbalistic symbology – the originals being deeply guarded secrets and thus not available to profane eyes). Superficially, at first glance, it may seem like a stretch to seriously compare Dee’s monad with Lévi’s Baphomet, but pursuing it further, I do believe there are real connections. Lévi’s Baphomet can be derived or deduced from the monad, and vice versa: ultimately, at a fundamental level, they may represent the same principles, although taking different external forms. Athanasius Kircher in his Oedipus Aegyptiacus (1653 – 1658) reproduced and discussed Dee’s hieroglyphic monad (without citing Dee, however), and also put forth an elaborate “Mathematica Hieroglyph” based on Dee’s monad, but added further decorative elements, such as turning the Aries symbol into a snake which is not far from the caduceus of Lévi’s Baphomet. Dee, in his learning, would certainly have been aware of various early forms of Baphomet (in written descriptions as well as depictions), from which Lévi ultimately derived his illustration. Lévi, in turn, took an interest in the work of Dee’s associate Edward Kelley, and therefore must have had some familiarity with the work of Dee and his most famous book, the Monas Hieroglyphica. As a side note, Aleister Crowley was greatly influenced by the angelic conversations and Enochian Magic of John Dee and Edward Kelley, reproducing and extending such practices, particularly by incorporating extensive sexual rites within the Dee-Kelley framework. Crowley believed, or at least claimed, that he had been both Edward Kelley and Éliphas Lévi in previous incarnations. 

Eliphas Levi's Baphomet of Mendes

Perhaps more to the point are the depiction, description, and discussion of Dee’s monad in an important magical-alchemical synthesis written and published in Dee’s lifetime: Il Mondo Magico di gli Heroi (‘The Magical World of the Heroes’) by Cesare della Riviera (1605), particularly as discussed by della Riviera’s modern disciple and interpreter Julius Evola. Although Evola acknowledged that the monad symbol is found in Dee (1564), della Riviera precisely reproduced and discussed the monad without ever mentioning Dee by name. Was this a simple oversight? I suspect not. Rather, my hunch is that the monad had entered the consciousness of many hermeticists and magi, perhaps often through secret manuscript copies of the key that apparently pertained to the Monas Hieroglyphica (possibly without ever having seen an actual printed copy of the Monas) and there may have been a widespread attitude that the monad was a universal and eternal symbol that should not or need not be associated with any particular person. Certainly della Riviera was not the only writer to discuss the monad without citing Dee; others included Athanasius Kircher.

Evola describes the monad, which he refers to as an ideogram, as a “synthesis of the condition of the human being” (which as a microcosm reflects the macrocosm): 

The vulgar Moon and Sun ([the crescent sign of the Moon with both horns pointed upward] and [the sign of the Sun, a circle with a dot in the center]) – that is the exteriorizations of ordinary waking consciousness – are in ascendance (above) with regard to the elemental forces of the Body (symbolized by the cross [the sign of the cross]), which, however, in their depths ([the sign of Aries] in turn is found under [the sign of the cross]), are recapitulated by the primordial virile form, [the sign of Aries], the sign already explained as Θείον – Sulfur or Divine Energy – in a ‘pure state’.

Pursuing Evola’s (based on della Riviera) description of the monad further, the similarities to Lévi’s “hieroglyphic figure” or Baphomet are remarkable. The Sun and Moon of the monad correspond to the head and its cerebral organ, the equivalent of the head of Baphomet with the horns (Moon) and torch of “equilibrating intelligence”, and the pentagram on the forehead with one point in the ascendant representing the microcosm and revelation. The cross of the monad corresponds to the body or “middle zone of the human organism with the center in the heart, which is equivalent to the center of said cross and thence to Quintessence, to the secret Heaven, the Water of Life, and all the other symbols referring to the ‘Spirit’ principle”. This is the body proper, the arms, and the wings of the illustration of Baphomet, which in turn are further elaborated symbols of the spirit, its attributes, its workings, its dualities and subdivisions, and ultimately its secrets of unity and redemption. On the arms of Lévi’s Baphomet are inscribed “Solve [et] Coagula” (dissolve or solution or breaking down, and coagulation or coming together), referring to the alchemical work of breaking down, reworking, and transmutation, whether it be of base metal to create gold in a physical sense, or more generally causing transformations in the outer world, body, mind, consciousness, spirit, or psyche – harnessing the power of natural and occult forces and agents to effect change, and most importantly inner change, the essence of the Great Work. Indeed, Lévi explicitly notes that the figure of Baphomet represents the Great Work. As Evola writes, referring to the monad (but his words apply equally well to the “idol” Baphomet), “The contents of this region are essentially made up of translations of processes that at first are produced nonmaterially in the mid-region, manifesting forces still deeper”.

Describing his image of Baphomet, Lévi wrote, “The lower portion of the body is veiled, portraying the mysteries of universal generation, which is expressed solely by the symbol of the caduceus.” Describing the equivalent portion of the monad, Evola writes:

From the center of the Cross, which is the equivalent of the central and immobile hub out of which the ‘wheel of the elements’ rolls, we rejoin the third region, the inferior region corresponding to [the symbol of Aries]. This is the site of the nonhuman creative forces that in the corporeal structure crop up from the power of sexual generation, whose organs are situated precisely in the center of that which physically corresponds to this region. It is the foundation, the first root out of which everything springs into action through elemental processes to be manifested in the energies and internal and external forms of the particularized consciousness of the individual. 

Evola’s comments apply equally well (if not better) to Baphomet! All in all, I hope that you, the reader, will seriously consider the possibility that Dee’s hieroglyphic monad and Lévi’s hieroglyphic figure of Baphomet are simply two versions of the same basic symbol and concept, a symbol that in and of itself is reflective of realities and possibilities and interconnections in the Cosmos, both the microcosm and macrocosm, but is neither “good” nor “bad”. The Baphomet (and likewise the monad) is not inherently evil or a symbol of the “devil” except as some persons might want to brand or interpret it as such. 

Angel Conversations and Enochian Magic

Although Dee certainly did not conceal his conversations with angels, in his lifetime he did not widely publish on them either and they were not commonly known until a half century after his death when, in 1659, Meric Casaubon published portions of Dee’s magical journals describing various scrying sessions along with other notes. Casaubon’s book formed the foundational basis for subsequent Enochian magic. It has been suggested that Dee’s interest in acquiring personal ‘angel guides’ may date back to a 1552 meeting with Gerolamo Cardano (1501 – 1576), a physician, scientist, astrologer, and practicing occultist who claimed to be guided by his own spirit, not unlike the daemon of Socrates. According to his diaries, Dee began his studies in scrying no later than 1579, and possibly even as early as 1569. They did not really take off, however, until he began to use Edward Kelley as his scryer and medium in 1582 – a close collaboration that would last until 1589. Ultimately Dee and Kelley developed an elaborate set of procedures for conversing with ‘angels’ that were primarily perceived (seen and heard) by Kelley who, using a crystal or “shew stone” (that is, via crystallomancy, considered a branch of “opticall science” in Dee’s time), would relate the details to Dee, acting as scribe. At times séances consisted of only Dee and Kelley, at other times various observers and guests were included. 

The angels themselves were not physical entities. Rather, this is how Dee described them: “I do think you have no organs or Instruments apt for voyce, but are mere spirituall and nothing corporall, but have the power and property from God to insinuate your message or meaning to ear or eye so that man’s imagination shall be that they hear and see you sensibly.” Through the ‘angels’, Dee hoped to learn the sought after lingua adamica or Enochian alphabet and language (named after the Old Testament character of Enoch, to whom God had previously revealed this primordial language), along with the basis of so-called Enochian magic. Dee, via the angels, desired to seek the direct company of the Deity and regain the prisca theologia (“the primitive wisdom of our ancestors” or the original true ancient theology) that had been lost since the fall of humankind in Eden. 

‘Enochian’ script channeled by Edward Kelley
‘Enochian’ script channeled by Edward Kelley

Needless to say, the entire issue of the validity (if any) of Dee’s scrying adventures and conversations with angels has been a subject of heated controversy ever since. Conventional historians of science have tended to dismiss this phase of Dee’s career as so much nonsense, while on the other hand certain occultists have taken the concept of Enochian magic very seriously, even putting it into practice with, in some cases, very tangible results (Aleister Crowley is but one example). On the surface, Dee accepted that the angels were messengers from God, rather than from Satan/Lucifer and the darker forces. Yet there is evidence from the angels themselves that they were hardly pure and lovely, but often a bit peevish to downright perverse. Furthermore, they did not always give veridical information.

On numerous occasions Kelley charged that the ‘angels’ (the supposed spiritual beings they were communicating with) were wicked and evil, and at times Kelley wanted nothing more to do with them. Furthermore, they were far from omniscient, and not only in making prognostications that never came true, but seemingly lacking basic knowledge in some cases. Here are some examples. Concerning Albert Łaski (a Polish or Bohemian nobleman who met Dee and Kelley in England in 1583, and traveled with them through central and eastern Europe), it was predicted that he would become King of Poland, yet this never occurred. In one case the angels seemed to be ignorant of basic geography. In another case, they made arithmetical errors. And in addressing Stephen Báthory (1533 – 1586), King of Poland (1576 – 1586), they were guilty of a major faux pas when they referred to him as having risen from the ranks of an ordinary soldier, which was hardly the case given that he was a member of a distinguished aristocratic family, and prior to being elected King was the Prince of Transylvania.

The angels did, however, also relay veridical information that arguably could not be known through the normal senses. For instance, Deacon noted, “It is easy now to dismiss as roguery or guesswork the fact that in their [Dee’s and Kelley’s] spiritual exercises they were able to verify lands that had not been properly charted, or point correctly to where gold could be found in the overseas possessions. The fact remains that such discoveries were afterwards acknowledged to be true, by men such as Hakluyt and Camden.” The angels made other predictions that appear to have been fulfilled, including the death of Mary, Queen of Scots, and the Spanish Armada. In another case, an angel predicted that a certain person would be “devoured by fishes” within five months, and indeed he drowned at sea before that time was over. Dee himself, and his second wife Jane Fromond, were both known to have prophetic and clairvoyant dreams, and also to have occasionally been plagued by poltergeist type phenomena, including rappings, knockings, and a fire that broke out mysteriously.

Sigillum Dei Aemeth
Sigillum Dei Aemeth used by John Dee

The angels, as they imparted the Enochian alphabet and language, developed an elaborate cosmography of the universe, visible and invisible. They described how the Earth and the Air are partitioned and governed among angels, numbering ultimately in the tens of thousands. Four Watchtowers stand at the four corners of Earth, with each Watchtower containing twelve gates that lead to “angelic ‘cities’ or dimensions of reality”. There are evocations (Calls or Keys) for summoning and commanding spirits and angels, and to open the “gates to the cities of wisdom.” 

Interestingly, or one might say quite amazingly, even though Dee “could not have had access to the sacred text of the Book of Enoch” he seems “to have [had]…good informants [i.e., the “angels”] because Enoch’s appearance in Dee’s private mythology embedded in his angelic conversations shows interesting convergence with the since-discovered original Enochian literature”. For instance, Dee discusses “the chief Watchman” and the “Watch-Tower”, which indeed are found in the Book of Enoch.

Who, exactly, were the “angels”? Were they representatives of the Almighty Creator? Did they really have the ability to teach Dee the lingua adamica? Or were they of other stock? In one session, a spirit explicitly stated that the “angels” were not from God, as recorded in the following dialogue. 

SPIRIT: Are you so foolish to think that the power of God will descend into so base a place? . . . What greater imperfection than to imagine, much more believe, that the Angels of God will, or may descend into so filthie a place, as this corruptible stone is?

DEE: What causeth thee to come here?

SPIRIT: Thy folly.

In an infamous series of sessions, toward the end of the partnership between Kelley and Dee, the impish spirit Madimi appeared lewdly naked, and reported that Dee and Kelley were required to share all things in common, including carnal knowledge of their wives – so-called “cross matching”. Dee proffered abhorrence to such acts, but gave in and after much discussion and misgivings on the part of the various participants, a written pact was drawn and signed by Dee, Kelley, and their wives; “the adulteries… [were] consummated on May 23, 1587”. This could be viewed as an alchemical (even homosexual) “marriage” between Dee and Kelley, although in fact it spelled the beginning of the end of their relationship. What was in it for Dee? He, by his own admission, had “pawned” his soul hoping, expecting, divine secrets to be subsequently revealed to him—in the words of Madimi, “That you may become full of understanding, and in knowledge above common men.”  Dee does not appear to have ever been satisfied that this promise was fulfilled, casting doubt on the credibility and agenda of the ‘angels’.

Donald Tyson, a modern practitioner of Enochian magic, has suggested a rather sinister agenda for the so-called angels with which Dee conversed, writing…

…it seems clear that it was the intention of the angels that the Keys be ritually applied to the Watchtowers, not so that human beings could learn divine secrets of nature, as Dee believed, but to open the way for the demons of Coronzon [“the Enochian name for Lucifer”] to enter into our unconscious minds. Once firmly established in our personal unconscious, these spirits would then be able to gain an increasing control over our physical world by manipulating our perceptions, emotions and thoughts. 

Ultimately, according to this view, the intention of the ‘angels’ was to bring about the Apocalypse, a universal Armageddon. Has this now occurred, or will it in the future? I will leave this topic to be pondered by modern practitioners of Enochian rituals. 

Who, or What, was Edward Kelley?

Among Dee scholars, Edward Kelley (or Kelly) is almost universally considered a real, genuine, person, if not the most savory of characters. He is said to have been born on 1 August 1555 at Worcester, and some believe he attended Oxford using the alias Edward Talbot (or Talbott), the name by which he would first introduce himself to John Dee, but left Oxford after getting into some sort of trouble there. He may have been trained as an apothecary and he may have briefly been a secretary to the magus and occultist Thomas Allen. Sometime around 1580 he was apparently convicted of some form of forgery, either falsifying title deeds and/or counterfeiting coins, and was pilloried and had his ears cut off or cropped; from then on he generally wore a black skullcap to hide the condition of his ears. Kelley was also accused of necromancy and black magic, including the disinterring (with an accomplice) of a fresh corpse from a churchyard and using it to solicit predictions via an evil spirit concerning the “manner and time of the death of a Noble yong Gentleman.” Kelley is also reported to have indulged in various drugs, including aconite and nightshade, to artificially induce delirium and hallucinations, a practice used by sixteenth-century witches. 

Kelley, using the name Talbot, appeared at Dee’s home in Mortlake on 10 March 1582, applying for the job of medium or scryer. According to various accounts, Kelley also enticed Dee with a phial containing a red powder (supposedly the alchemical “powder of projection” that could turn base metal into gold) and an undeciphered alchemical manuscript that he claimed came from the ruins of Glastonbury (or possibly from Wales), that apparently included references to ten places in England/Britain containing hidden treasure. Kelley became closely associated with Dee, acting as his scryer and associate in various alchemical and occult studies, living in his household, and traveling with Dee on the continent until they parted company in Bohemia (located in the modern Czech Republic) – Dee returning to England while Kelley remained behind under the patronage of Rudolf II. After Dee’s departure, Kelley was knighted by the emperor for his alchemical work, but subsequently imprisoned in Prague when he would not or could not produce gold from meaner metals. He attempted an escape in November 1595, but fell from a wall, turret, or tower (some sort of battlement), broke his legs and sustained other injuries from which he died shortly thereafter.

I noted that among Dee scholars, Kelley is almost universally considered a real, genuine, person. A notable exception is Roy Norvill who writes, in his book The Language of the Gods (1987), that “Edward Kelly [the spelling of the name that Norvill uses], as a real person, never existed, for he was nothing but an elaborate invention by Dee”. Norvill contends that Dee was an Hermetic initiate who purposefully and consistently wrote in allegory, both in his published works and in his private diaries and notes (which he realized other people would look through, and which were written with the possibility of potential publication). Dee purposefully portrayed himself as an immensely learned and erudite scholar who was also incredibly naïve and gullible, and thus taken advantage of by the younger and somewhat dishonest man, Edward Kelley, and the ‘angels’ that Kelley conjured up. As a side note, although it seems not to be the case that Dee was directly a founder of Rosicrucianism (an order linked with the more general Hermetic tradition), there appear to be strong correlations between Dee’s travels and influence in central Europe and the rise of the Rosicrucians in the early seventeenth century.

Norvill asserts that the name Edward Talbot is first mentioned in a diary entry by Dee on 9 March 1582, but the initials of Edward Kelley do not appear until 22 November 1582, and “there is no sound reason to identify one with the other”. By Norvill’s hypothesis, various attributes of the fictitious Kelley serve sound allegorical purposes. That Kelley was convicted of falsifying deeds is a reflection of Dee falsifying the narrative (i.e., creating the fiction of Kelley and the angelic conversations). Kelley’s conviction for counterfeiting coins refers to the alchemical transmutation of base metal to gold. The cutting off of Kelley’s ears is an allegory of the loss of one’s flesh, moving away from the physical and material, resulting ultimately in the transformation of the emphasis of one’s consciousness to the inward and higher self and intelligence. The black skullcap is a symbol of the beginning of the mental process of the would-be adept, the long and difficult labor to control the will and master the forces of one’s own mind while cleansing one’s psyche of erroneous (if commonly accepted) ideas and assumptions. In this light, the angelic conversations and séances that Dee and Kelley supposedly carried out were simply a fiction created by Dee – “an elaborate allegorical joke”, in the words of Norvill, although I suspect that they masked something both more sinister (experiments and keys of genuine magic, daemonic magic, whether or not Kelley was real or perhaps a fill-in for numerous personages, real and fictitious) and more pragmatic (cryptographic codes, useful for espionage in particular), not unlike Steganographia

Many other aspects of the supposed ‘Edward Kelley’ suggest, according to Norvill, that he never existed as a real life person. Kelley’s notorious bad temper and fits would fit the concept of the would-be adept attempting to tame and control the mind and consciousness. I suggest that Kelley’s delving into necromancy and apparent interest in wife-swapping and sexual rituals would provide a cover for Dee’s own fascination with such practices. If the wife-swapping (“cross-matching”) had really occurred, and the participants were really sworn to the utmost secrecy on pain of instant death, then why did Dee record such actions in writing, taking the risk that they could be seen by prying eyes, or even be published? Concerning the red powder and alchemical manuscript that Kelley may have acquired from the ruins of Glastonbury, Dee himself visited Glastonbury in 1574 to study first-hand the ancient earthworks there that seem to represent the zodiac, and may contain the secret of the Magnum Opus (the Great Work). Indeed, I suggest that Dee allowed the fictitious Kelley to be the alchemist so as to avoid being charged with such activities. 

This gets to the heart of why, according to Norvill, Dee would perpetuate such an elaborate and prolonged fiction. Dee had every reason to fear arrest and conviction, which could even carry a death sentence, for some form of sorcery, heresy, witchcraft, or the like. From an early age, Dee was occasionally accused (both formally and informally by rumor) of sorcery and black magic. The first time recorded may have been about 1546, when as part of staging a play by Aristophanes at Trinity College he created a mechanical “flying” beetle that was so realistic that some thought he must have used magic. Much more seriously, in 1555 Dee was imprisoned for about three months on allegations of “lewde and vayne practices of calculing and conjuring”, apparently connected with his casting of horoscopes for Queen Mary (by invitation of the Queen) and her half sister, Princess Elizabeth (who later became Queen, and favored Dee); Dee’s actual offense may have been to show Mary’s horoscope to Elizabeth. He was charged with treason, and then heresy, but after some months regained his freedom. It may be significant to Dee’s later care in concealing his activities with fictions, ruses, and false leads, that even while he was in prison a fellow cellmate, Barthlet Green, was burnt at the stake for heresy. Such might be enough to make many a person a bit paranoid. 

But what about contemporary accounts, independent of Dee, which seem to testify to the reality of Edward Kelley? Norvill asserts that his fellow Hermeticists would have happily joined in on the fiction, including the Emperor Rudolf II who was deeply committed to Hermeticism, and thus would readily assent to allowing the fictional Kelley to carry the title of Knight of Bohemia (representing initiateship in Hermetic terms). Likewise, the books and tracts attributed to Kelley, and published under his name, were written by Dee (after all, it is not uncommon for authors to use pseudonyms, and Dee could easily have presented himself as Kelley’s representative to those not in on the fiction). I would add that it is not impossible that aspects of the fictional Kelley may have been based on a real life Edward Kelley or Edward Talbot, but a person who never had the long, full, and odd life of the Edward Kelley of whom Dee writes. At the end of his life when Dee no longer had any use for Edward Kelley, he let him die in a manner befitting his allegorical existence. As often depicted on Card XVI of the Major Arcana of the Tarot, Kelley fell to his ultimate death from a tower or battlement, representing the death and release from the materialistic imprisonment of the mind and consciousness, following application of the Hermetic mental process combined with the experience of revelation. Finally, Norvill argues that Kelley’s very name points to his fictitious nature. Kelley, also spelled Kelly, and often spelled Kelle in Dee’s original manuscripts, may be a form of word play (as so beloved by Dee, and Queen Elizabeth for that matter). The French word for “what” is “quel” (pronounced “kel”) and in the French of Dee’s time it was spelled “quelle”. This, according to Norvill, could represent the Hermetic phrase loosely translated as “What is it?”, a clear giveaway that we are dealing with Hermetic allegory. 

If Norvill is correct about the non-existence of Edward Kelley, not only might the fiction have served as an elaborate allegorical joke and cover for Dee’s Hermetic and heretical thinking, along with his very real experiments in conjuring, sorcery, alchemy, and magical-sexual rituals (carried out with who knows whom!), but it may have also been a way to conceal his work in cryptography and ciphers (the Enochian alphabet and language being perhaps above all a way of encrypting messages using a secret code). 

Assessing John Dee

How, ultimately, do we assess John Dee? Was he delusional in terms of believing in angelic conversations and magic? Harshly, Shumaker agrees with Luigi Firpo concerning “the downfall of his [Dee’s] mind and investigative methods after his meeting with Kelly [Kelley] in 1582.” Of course, this may have never occurred in a literal sense if Edward Kelley did not really exist, at least not as Dee describes him. Still, Shumaker’s point is clear. Shumaker and like-minded thinkers would…

…pass a decisively negative judgment upon the whole later part of his [Dee’s] career [i.e., the period of his séances and so forth] and to condemn, along with the angelic conversations, the recurrent tendency of mankind to find shortcuts, through all the varieties of magic, to the reliable knowledge about humanity and the universe toward which men may legitimately aspire… To this judgment may be added the impossibility that information of the kind obtained by Dee in the séances could ever, no matter how copiously elaborated, add up to ‘science’.

This is a very harsh assessment indeed, but also contains some basic assumptions on the part of Shumaker that may not be true. It is true that Dee became disillusioned with his purely “academic” and “scientific” studies, writing…

All my life time I had spent in learning: but for this forty years continually, in sundry manners, and in divers Countries, with great pain, care, and cost, I had from degree to degree sought to come by the best knowledge that man might attain unto in the world: and I found (at length) that neither any man living, nor any Book I could yet meet withal, was able to teach me those truths I desired and longed for . 

Animated Enochian magic seal

Long before becoming involved in séances, Dee had criticized common astronomers who “suffered under the open sky” when they could gain certain types of information from ancient signs and symbols. However, this does not mean that Dee completely gave up his more conventional studies (and indeed there is plenty of evidence that he did not, and he viewed scrying using a crystal or mirror as an expanded form of optics, a not uncommon idea among his contemporaries), but rather he began to supplement his studies with what we might refer to as more spiritual, mystical, and revelatory undertakings. Certainly Dee is not the only scientist or scholar to have found his conventional academic studies less than complete, and thus turned to other types of evidence in order to expand them and increase a holistic understanding of the world and cosmos. Furthermore, contra Shumaker’s assertions, it is not at all clear that Dee was taking a shortcut to knowledge with his “angelic conversations”. Rather, he spent some three to four decades pursuing his studies along these lines. He kept meticulous notes, questioned the results of the séances, repeated the “experiments”, and so on. Dee approached the séances as any good scientist of the time might approach a series of experiments. In modern terms, I would argue that Dee was pursuing serious studies in parapsychology and psychical research.

This article is excerpted from Darklore Volume 7, which is available for sale from Amazon US and Amazon UK. The Darklore anthology series features the best writing and research on paranormal, Fortean and hidden history topics, by the most respected names in the field.You can read more sample articles from the Darklore series at the Darklore website.

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