John Dee had a mixed reputation in 16th Century London. In his capacity as a learned medical doctor and an astrologer patronised by the very Queen of England, he enjoyed respectability and social importance, but this was tempered by suspicion and mistrust arising from reports that he dabbled in alchemy, magic and spiritualism.
His quest to discover the secrets of the universe (refer to notes for ‘At Mortlake’) had indeed led him to make contact with the spirit world in what he referred to as ‘actions’ using the services of ‘scryer’ – a medium, or (more specifically) a crystal-gazer. In the early actions, Dee recorded making contact with spirits, but apparently little transpired from such contact to greatly further his cause.
Then, in March 1582, an enigmatic character called Edward Talbot turned up at Mortlake. A younger man than Dee (who was now 54), of dubious background, certainly rougher and less educated than Dee’s usual circle, and given to explosive outbursts of temper, Talbot subsequently disappeared, only to reappear in November 1582 under the name Edward Kelley. Kelley had an unsettling effect on Dee’s household, and apparently his presence made Dee’s wife Jane physically ill. However, Kelley proved to be a scryer of incomparable ability, and thus was born an intense partnership between Dee and Kelley which would last for the next five years.
In the very first ‘action’ they conducted together, Dee records the appearance of the archangel Uriel. Dee’s first question to Uriel sought to establish whether one of his books, a rare Arabic text known as The Book of Soyga, had any relevance to his quest. Uriel’s reply was forthright and momentous: ‘That book was revealed to Adam in paradise by the good Angels of God’. Dee then requested Uriel’s guidance in interpreting the Book, but Uriel replied that only Michael could fulfil that role.
Uriel advised that special preparations must be made before the archangel Michael could be invoked. A special table was to be constructed from ‘sweet wood’, two cubits square and two cubits tall, with each leg to stand on a divine seal made of wax and bearing a special motif which appeared in the scrying crystal. The table was subsequently constructed and became known as The Holy Table or Table of Practice.
In another action, Kelley sees a vision of Dee kneeling before Michael who anoints Dee with a great sword as part of Dee’s preparation to receive divine knowledge. Michael then begins to dictate tables of strange characters for Dee to transcribe, a process which leads to the collation of Dee’s book(s) of mysteries – the Liber Mysteriorum. In one particularly significant action in April 1582 lasting nearly three hours, Michael dictated a series of seven tables of characters, each comprising seven rows and seven columns, which were said to reveal the structure of divine government.
However, while producing copious amounts of dictated notes, Dee was experiencing very little success in his attempts to interpret the information therein. In the first action following Talbot’s reappearance as Kelley in November 1582, a spirit called King Camara appeared and asked Dee what he desired. Dee explained his difficulties in interpreting the information from Michael. In response, King Camara proclaimed that ‘One thing is yet wanting… A meet receptacle… a Stone… Lo, the mighty hand of God is upon thee. Thou shalt have it’, following which a crystal is reported to have physically materialised in Dee’s room – one which becomes known as the ‘shew-stone’ and which greatly increases Kelley’s scrying powers.
The flow of information continued, interspersed with visits from various spirits who commanded Dee to undertake a sequence of hazardous journeys around Europe, with his family and Kelley in tow. In July 1584, in the Polish city of Krakow, the archangel Gabriel appeared and announced that Dee now had the keys of God’s ‘storehouses… wherein you shall find (if you enter wisely, humbly and patiently) Treasures more worth than the frames of the heavens’. So, Dee apparently now had in his Liber Mysteriorum the language given by God to Adam (and also revealed to Enoch), but which was lost in the fall of man and the global destruction of the great flood.
Dee’s actions with Kelley continued until their ways parted in the Bohemian capital Prague in 1587. Dee arrived back in Mortlake in 1589, and lived another 20 years (to the age of 81), but it appears that he never reached any significant understanding of the divine language in his possession.
© Peter Ulrich 2005