While dismissed in scientific circles, the idea that we could arrive at some language that more accurately or efficiently communicates with spirits or our own deep minds is a common one in magic. The most famous of attempts to do is often called Enochian, although the creator, John Dee, called it "the Angelic Language." John Dee, who was court astrologer to Queen Elizabeth I in the sixteenth century, specifically characterized his attempt to contact angelic beings and learn their language as an attempt to recover an anterior Ur-language that was spoken by Adam before the fall.
What Dee ended up with, thanks to the help of his friend Edward Kelley, is a collection of short poetic utterances and many, many names, all derived from complex tablets. While Kelley was well known to be a charlatan in other things (he was famous for attempting to pass off fake gold as an alchemical success, for example), and while there are places in his records of his work with Dee where he tries, quite obviously, to lie about what the spirits are saying, it's not so easy to dismiss the entire proceeding as a fraud. Dee would ask Kelley to sit at a table and look into a shew stone or scrying device. Kelley would, presumably, enter some sort of trance while Dee prayed for angels to appear. Eventually, Kelley would announce the presence of an angel, and Dee would converse through the interpretation of Kelley. This procedure led to a series of complex tablets, filled with letters, whose general internal consistency must have meant Kelley, if a charlatan, had a profound memory. From these tablets, by some means or code now obscure to us (despite the fact that we have Dee’s notes), the angels would point to certain letters, which Kelley reported and Dee transcribed. These letters spelled out eighteen angelic keys or calls, word by word, backwards. Once composed, the angels would provide translation, which Dee would try to match up with the calls line by line.
The main attraction of Dee’s system is that it provides an almost infinite number of angels that, as Donald Tyson points out1, are associated with regions of the earth. Dee, being active in politics in Queen Elizabeth I’s court, would of course find such a thing attractive, particularly because Renaissance magic was primarily conceived as begging the aid of certain spirits, whether demonic or angelic. Dee’s system provided a very flexible system of magic, with many angelic (and therefore good) names to call on, to accomplish any number of tasks in various regions of the earth. Dee composed, in other words, the ultimate grimoire of "white" magic.
The evocation of such spirits has been dealt with in multiple books, and while there is controversy I’m no more qualified than the next fellow to elucidate it. What interests me are less the names and more the keys or calls. Linguistically these provide a puzzle, in the form of a series of questions: (1) Are they a language, and if so, from where? (2) What is their purpose? (3) What is their origin? (4) To what purpose can we put them now?
The first of these questions, is Enochian a language, is easily answered: no. Not, at least, by any standard definition of language. While there are elements that look language-like, such as grammatical endings, a cursory examination shows them to be completely random. Unless this language has nothing but irregular verbs, which could mean it is indeed the language of nonhuman entities and largely unlearnable by people, the verb endings are random. The fact that verb endings also seem to differ in words with the exact same case, tense, gender, number, person, and mood would indicate that these endings mean nothing. Of course, if it’s not a human language, and is indeed the language of angels, then it very well may mark verbs for something no human language does, or even for some purpose no human could comprehend. If that’s the case, and I doubt that it is, then human analysis couldn’t possibly avail much.
While not a language, Enochian also isn’t random. Words mean the same things consistently, and vocabulary is rarely mixed up. If Kelley or Dee fabricated Enochian, they did so very, very carefully—and if they did so, why not be just as careful about grammar? What Enochian appears to be is not a language but a sort of complex substitution code called a relexification. In a relexification, words from one language are replaced with different, or made up, words. One famous example of a relexification code is that used by Navajo code talkers during World War II. Navajo speakers were hired by the military to replace common and important words with Navajo code phrases. Such a code is incredibly difficult to break; one needs to collect a large number of messages and link them to various contexts to break the code, and by then the relexification could be changed. While it has been suggested that Dee developed Enochian for just this purpose, there is exactly zero evidence that he ever used the language to spy or pass messages, and there simply isn’t enough of the language to do either. Plus, the language lacks some important words a spy might need—no words for soldier or war, for example.
So that raises the second question: what’s the purpose of this language? The angels, if they just wanted to transmit a grimoire, could have transmitted the tablets and the means of drawing names from them, and left the keys out of it or provided them in English. Yet the angels seem to focus, largely, on the question of the language. They want Dee to learn it. To what end? Donald Tyson suggests that the keys may have been a means of bringing about the end of the world, or immanentizing the eschaton (speeding up the end of the age), as some might put it. What he overlooks is the fact that while the keys are filled with apocalyptic language, they are no more filled with such images than sermons of the time, and even sermons stretching back to the beginning of written English. There’s a long tradition, in other words, of apocalyptic writing in English; Dee and Kelley’s Enochian keys hardly stand out in the genre. While an interesting idea to "conjure with," there’s simply not much reason to think so other than the eschatological imagery of the keys themselves, which are common in the religious literature of the time.
Dee frequently asked about a book he had in his possession, filled with similar tablets, that he suggested might come from Adam’s own hand. The angels eventually reluctantly agree that, in fact, that book descends from Adam, as does, they say, the Enochian language. In this is the key of the language: the angels mean it to be a primal code for interpreting the magical world. Just as Adam defined his relationship to the animals with a series of labels, so Dee is—I suggest—to define his relationship to the world with a similar series. The keys are the beginning of that redefinition. Yet the language is incomplete, and the means by which the angels transmit it guarantees that it could not be finished before Dee’s eventual death. If, indeed, Dee was in contact with some sort of supernatural entities, they must have had something else in mind. Tyson convincingly argues that Dee was not the one who was supposed to complete the work of Enochian.2 He doesn’t suggest who might be.
That, of course, raises the question: is the origin of Enochian supernatural or human? While most scholars would argue that Kelley deceived Dee and created Enochian himself, I come down on the side of at least some supernatural influence. Kelley frequently didn’t understand what was going on. He would often ask the angels questions about alchemy, which they were loath to answer. Kelley knew little Latin and no Greek. On one occasion he carried on a long conversation in Greek, which he didn’t understand. In another, he created a complex Latin acrostic, something difficult to do with a language you don’t know well. Furthermore, the information often channeled by the angels was heretical to a degree not seen for hundreds of years; it would have gotten both men killed if it had been discovered, and so there’s no benefit for Kelley to fake such heresy. On the other hand, early drafts of some diagrams had been found on his person by Dee. Kelley explains them away with feeble excuses. The angels also spoke in bad Latin, when they did speak in Latin. They also contradict themselves, and in several places give blatantly wrong predictions. Often, they play up to Dee’s paranoia. Dee, however, was not completely credulous. He called the angels on their contradictions, and demanded independent confirmation of many claims. The most unusual circumstance is when the angels demand that Dee and Kelley swap wives. I've written elsewhere that I did not think they had done so; I have now changed my mind. After examining the source material, I think there is some veiled reference to the swap. This may have been Kelley’s attempt to get kinky; it also may have been a ploy by the angels. Even if Enochian did come from one of their minds, what a mind to create something so complex and yet consistent. Even the inconsistencies in grammar do not negate the careful memorization a hoax would imply. Such a hoax would be more work than getting an honest trade! And considering that neither Dee nor Kelley ever made money, as far as we can tell, out of Enochian, it would have been an elaborate hoax for little or no material gain. Dee even locked up most of his notes, to prevent being tried for heresy. That’s hardly the way to engineer a hoax.
1Donald Tyson, Enochian Magic for Beginners: The Original System of Angel Magic. Woodbury, MN: Llewellyn, 2005.
From Magic, Power, Language, Symbol, by Patrick Dunn
Patrick Dunn (Chicago, IL) is a poet, linguist, Pagan, and a university English professor with a PhD in modern literature and language. His understanding of semiotics and the study of symbols arise from his training in ...