Angels We Have Heard on High – A Brief Look at Dr. John Dee

On Ankhie’s desk, still dark with the residue of this morning’s coffee (we drink it strong and sooty here at Chez Weiser), is a mug bearing the likeness of Dr. John Dee.  I need only look within a 3 foot circle around me to see his portrait (or his name) several more times – books, posters, trivets (don’t ask)  – the point being that wherever you find occult interest, you’ll find Dr. Dee.  What you say? You don’t know about John Dee? Well, let our good friend Lon Milo DuQuette tell you a little bit about him in this short excerpt from Enochian Vision Magick: An Introduction and Practical Guide to the Magick of Dr. John Dee and Edward Kelly:

The Magick of Dr. John Dee

***

Son of a gentleman server to Henry VIII, John Dee was a true Renaissance magus and one of the most extraordinary individuals of his time. Historian John Aubrey called him “one of the ornaments of his Age.”23 That is saying a lot, for his age was peopled with some of the brightest lights in the history of western civilization: Queen Elizabeth I, Charles V, Francis Bacon, Ben Johnson, Edmund Spenser, GiordanoBruno, Christopher Marlowe, and William Shakespeare.

Dee’s unique genius blossomed at Cambridge University, and his fame as a published mathematician propelled him as a young man to academic rock-star status throughout Europe. It also brought him to the attention of the rulers of his world, including the future QueenElizabeth.

He was the master of scores of disciplines. He was a physician, an engineer, a theologian, an astronomer, and cartographer. He invented the nautical instruments and developed the advanced navigational charts that helped make Britannia ruler of the waves. He even coined the term Britannia. A master astrologer, he was allowed to choose the date of Elizabeth’s coronation, and throughout her reign he remainedher friend and counselor.

Because he was fluent in many languages and lectured often on the continent, Elizabeth enlisted his services as a spy. Dee enjoyed this role very much. As a matter of fact, I believe he remained in this position until the day she died. He was fascinated with cryptography and loved word and letter puzzles. Dee was secretly known as “the queen’s eyes,” and he signed his dispatches to her with the stylized image of a handshading two eyes.

***

Yes, John Dee, on “her majesty’s secret service,” was the first agent 007.24 Dee possessed the largest private library in England and was constantly enlarging it. He was perhaps the most educated man of his day. Part of his education included esoteric philosophy, Qabalah, alchemy, and magick—not illogical pursuits for a Renaissance magus. Magick, in particular, was a science to be explored and exploited. Dee wanted to talk to angels (as did the biblical patriarch Enoch) not only to discover the wisdom of the past and the secrets of the universe, but also, more immediately, to discover the secrets of Elizabeth’s enemies and brandish the power to magically manipulate the spiritual forcesthat control them. Dee wanted to be a magical spy.

His approach to magick (at least at first) was pretty standard procedure for the day. After bathing and dressing in clean clothes (extraordinarymeasures for the times—unless, of course, it was May, when many people of the day took their annual bath), he would enter a room set aside for the purpose. There he would drop to his knees before a consecrated table/altar and for a half hour or so pray fervently to God and His good angels, alternately reciting a litany of self-abasing confessions of his unworthiness to enter into the divine presence and boasting of his God-given right to do that very thing. With his consciousness duly exalted by prayer, he would then gaze into a crystal or a black mirror (a process known as scrying25) and wait to receive a vision.

In theory that’s how it was supposed to work. However, even though Dee was skilled at composing long and eloquent prayers, he was not very good at scrying. In 1581 he started to advertise for someone who was. He had a small measure of success with a handful of rented seers until March of 1582, when he made the acquaintance of one Edward Talbot. Talbot (who would soon confess that his name was actually Kelley) was an unemployed alchemist’s assistant and convicted forger. Kelley’s questionable character notwithstanding, his skills as a scryer immediately impressed Dee, who hired him on the spot at asalary of fifty pounds a year, a handsome figure for the day.

The partnership of Dr. John Dee and Edward Kelley would last until 1587. Their angelic-magick workings for the most part concluded in 1584. During their time together they engaged in hundreds of scrying sessions of varying lengths, in which Kelley gazed into a crystal ball or a black obsidian mirror and reported everything he saw and heard during a variety of angelic communications. Dee, sitting at a nearby table with pen and ink, led the questioning and recorded everything in anal-retentive detail.

Not all of the sessions yielded profound revelations. Indeed, many appear to be attempts by the communicating intelligences to simply keep the conversation going. There were numerous instances when information received in earlier sessions was amended (sometimes radically) in subsequent sessions. There were even times when the magicians were informed that they had been deceived in earlier communicationsby evil spirits. Nevertheless, the consistency of the bulk of the material is staggeringly impressive, and the double-/triple-blind nature in which it was delivered, especially the angelic language, calls, and magical tablets, boggles the imagination.

The Dee and Kelley years can be viewed as having occurred in three major phases, resulting in what appears on the surface to be three separateand unique magical systems. I will discuss these in more detail shortly. Here at the beginning it is enough to simply point out it is the third and last phase of their angelic workings (the three-month period between April 10 and July 13, 1584) that yielded the material for the system of vision magick that can be properly called Enochian.

The Enochian period was highly productive and bore much promise. In fewer than a hundred days Dee and Kelley received an angelic language, tablets containing the names of elemental and celestial beings, and calls in the angelic tongue that promised to unlock the secrets of heaven and earth. With sad, almost Faustian irony, however, once the Enochian material was in their hands, Dee and Kelley did notproceed to actually operate the system in subsequent workings.

They would go on to other magical adventures, attempting to impress (with little success) the crown heads of Europe with their supernatural counsel. Finally, after nearly five years of working together, years of exhausting magical sessions, and years of traipsing their families around Europe (not to mention a notorious wife-swapping incident), familiarity finally bred contempt, and the two magicians parted company withoutever getting into the driver’s seat of Enochian  magick and turning the key.

Dee’s complicated life would draw him back to the English court and the distracting world of political intrigue and survival. In 1588, as the Spanish armada set sail to annihilate England’s much smaller fleet (an event Dee predicted years earlier), Elizabeth called again upon her Merlin. Dee shocked her courtiers by urging the queen to not engage the Spanish armada and keep her ships at bay, prophesizing that a mighty storm would scatter and destroy the Spaniards. Elizabeth wisely heeded Dee’s words. The storm manifested right on cue, and in the chaos that followed, the Spanish armada went down to defeat. In many circles Dee was credited with magically raising the tempest that saved England. The story of this event became instant legend. William Shakespeare, writing only twenty-three years later, would use Dee asthe model for Prospero, the storm-raising magician in his play, The Tempest.

Kelley’s post-Enochian years would not earn him such renown. His ambitions kept him on the continent, where he peddled the promise of alchemical treasures to the crown heads of Europe. He was knighted by Emperor Rudolph II of Bohemia but was shortly thereafter imprisoned by his royal patron for failing to manufacture alchemical gold. With fairy-tale panache, Sir Edward Kelley plunged to an untimely death inNovember of 1595 while attempting to escape from the turret of Emperor Rudolph’s prison tower.

Dee’s end was not so colorful. Elizabeth appointed him warden of Christ’s College in Manchester, but it was not a happy tenure. His wife (and, it is believed, several of his children) died there during the plague in 1605. Dee returned to his home at Mortlake, where his daughterKatherine cared for him until his death in late 1608 or early 1609.

How so many of Dee’s manuscripts survived to see the light of the twenty-first century is a magical wonder story in and of itself. Several of the most important documents Dee had hidden in the false bottom of a cedar chest (can we get much more romantic?), where they lay undiscovered for over fifty years after his death. Through a curious chain of events (that tragically saw a portion of the manuscripts baked as pie wrappings), the surviving material came to the attention of the illustrious antiquary, politician, astrologer, chemist, and Freemason, Alias Ashmole (1617–1692), one of the few people in the world capable of recognizing the importance of the discovery. Thanks to Ashmole, the material was catalogued and finally housed safely in his own museum at Oxford, the British Museum, and the British Library, where, over three hundred years after its  reception, it captured the attention of S. L. MacGregor Mathers, Wynn Wescott, and the adepts of the HermeticOrder of the Golden Dawn, then Aleister Crowley—and now you.

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