THE AGE OF ENOCH AND METATRON
By Ed Simon
The Montréal Review, December 2023
When surveying the astral realms, John Dee, the great angelologist and chief astrologer to the court of Queen Elizabeth I of England, made use of a perfectly circular disk of jet-black obsidian, a special mirror which had found its way to Britain from Spain, before that having been one of the ritual objects used by the Aztec priests in the pyramidical Templo Mayor of Tenochtitlan. Looking within that disk sometime around 1583 is when Dee first discoursed with the most mysterious and greatest of angels, surpassing that of the archangels, and even the Seraphim and Cherubim, who has traditionally been known as Metatron. Like Dee, and Agrippa, and Ficino, and Pico dela Mirandola, this creature had once been a man; but unlike those magicians, he who was now known as Metatron had actually ascended to the celestial realms, elevated by the Lord unto the very status of an angel. A similar desire motivated the English magician, who as he wrote in The Enochian Invocation of Dr. John Dee, “I conjure and pray most zealously to your divine and omnipotent majesty, that all your angelic spirits… might be called from any and all parts of the universe, or at any time in my life, through the special domination and controlling power of your holy Names.” Greatest magus of the English Renaissance, and an examination of Dee’s official portrait rendered in oil and wood by some unknown hand and now permanent resident of the Ashmolean Museum at Oxford, shows an elderly man in black cloak and skull cap, a long-pointed beard falling straight and stiffly past a ruffled Elizabethan collar, a figure with the wizened, wizardly face of a Prospero.
Yates writes in The Occult Philosophy in the Elizabethan Age that Dee “appears as truly a man of the late Renaissance developing Renaissance occult philosophy in scientific directions, involved in the religious and reforming side of the movement,” so that despite how esoteric and otherworldly he may seem to us today, Dee was a consummate cosmopolitan during the period, a sterling intellect and possessor of the largest antiquary’s library in all of England, located at his estate of Mortlake in Richmond-upon-Thames where he examined all of the most current humanistic discourse in addition to the Hermetic Corpus. Educated on the continent at the great schools of Louvain and Brussels, Dee was exemplary even by the standards of the European circles whom he associated with. Compatriot to the great cartographers Abraham Ortelius and Gerardus Mercator and the astronomers Johannes Kepler and Tycho Brahe, the explorer Humphrey Gilbert and the poet Philip Sidney, as well as a correspondent with the great heretic Giordano Bruno, and honored guest in the eccentric court of Rudolf II, Holy Roman Emperor who resided in that magical, red-tiled, crooked, cobble-stoned city of Prague.
On a continent where the intelligentsia took magic seriously, Dee was one of that art’s most prominent initiates, even while he complains in his diary that he was dismissed by the common folk as a “companion of hellhounds, and a caller and conjurer of wicked and damned spirits.” A great explicator of mystical and symbolic secrets of creation, Dee explored such topics in Monas Hieroglyphica and of the supernatural elements of Euclid’s geometry, among a multitude of other subjects. These were works scribbled in glyphs and diagrams, foreign alphabets and magic circles, symbols and ciphers. By 1558, Dee had returned to the misty, Hesperian Isle of England where he became Elizabeth’s chief astrologer, casting horoscopes and advising the queen on national occult policy, particularly as regarded New World colonization. Making much of the monarch and his shared Welsh ancestry, and Dee claimed in Rare Memorials pertaining to the Perfect Art of Navigation that England had rights to America through the claimant of the apocryphal Celtic king Madoc who supposedly journeyed and colonized the Western Hemisphere a millennium before, with the necromancer arguing that this was the beginning of the “British Empire” – the magician’s usage being the first attested of that phrase.
America was where one of his most sacred of objects was procured, the aforementioned Aztec obsidian speculum, which seems to have come into his possession sometime in the 1580s, along with an assortment of other divinatory tools such as scrying mirrors and wax seals with occult symbols, amulets and crystal balls. There is no record of the Aztec speculum’s being owned by Dee other than the attestation of a subsequent possessor of the object, the nineteenth-century gothic novelist Horace Walpole, and yet the perfectly circular jaguar-black stone, believed to have been brought to Spain from Mexico following the siege of Tenochtitlan, and from there having made its way to England, was the exact sort of device which the magician made great use of as he increasingly turned to incantatory pursuits as his political fortunes fell. Nicholas Clulee explains in John Dee’s Natural Philosophy: Between Science and Religion that his “concerns in natural philosophy became at the same time more religious, and a religious magic aimed at establishing direct communications with angelic ministers of God replaced other approaches to knowledge of the natural world.”
As far as can be ascertained, 1582 was when Dee first began to use tools like the scrying mirror in his conjuration, communication, and controlling of angelic spirits, when he called forth from the ether representatives of the celestial void who taught him an Edenic, primordial, Adamic language which was known as “Enochian.” Renaissance scholars were fascinated by the idea of a primordial tongue, a language wherein the words themselves reflected unmediated reality, so that the syntax and grammar were indicative of divine thoughts. Furthermore, it was assumed that this language was the same that would have been spoken in Eden, with all of post-Babel dialects being degenerated versions of the single perfect tongue. “Ol sonf vors g, goho lad Balt, lanish calz vonpho,” begins an invocation in the Enochian language as recorded by Dee in his diary or “almanac,” latter to be edited and published by the great German occultist Meric Casaubon in 1659 as The True & Faithful Relation of what Passed for Many Years Between Dr. John Dee and Some Spirits. “I reign over you, says the God of Justice, in power exalted above the firmaments of wrath,” as the Enochian reads when translated into English.
During antiquity and the Middle Ages, bizarre experiments were designed to try and ascertain the morphology of Eden’s language; a popular variation involved raising children in isolation, completely feral, with the assumption that the resultant grunts and screams were perhaps closer to how Eve and Adam spoke then are English, French, German, Italian, or Hebrew. A notorious version of this sort of experiment was ordered by Emperor Frederick II of the Holy Roman Empire in the thirteenth-century; he had an entire stable of infants raised without any linguistic interaction to see if they would begin to speak as if they were Eve and Adam in Eden. “The lost language of Adam,” writes Umberto Eco in Serendipities: Language and Lunacy, “was certainly the cabalistic combinatorial ability to produce or reproduce the perfect discourse of the Eternal Torah… a universal set of mystical rules.” There was the human language between Adam and Eve, and then the angelic tongue between the First Couple and God, and whosoever should recover the latter would be able to elevate themselves to the divine.
Dee’s contribution to this debate was all together more humane than locking children in a room and expecting them to sound like angels, if still as eccentric by modern standards. The magician was initially unsuccessful in his attempt to contact the angles in 1582, obsessed both with the esoteric goals of being able to envision the moment of creation, and also to suture the schism between Catholicism and Protestantism. Finally, Dee was able to make contact with angels with the assistance of a rather mysterious personage named Edward Kelley who has forever been associated with the occultist, this colleague being the scribe and amanuensis of the heavenly chorus, and first divining the 22 letters of the Enochian alphabet and the subsequent grammar, syntax, and punctuation of the astral tongue. This was the redemption of Babel, what Marina Yaguello describes in Imaginary Languages: Myths, Utopias, Fantasies, Illusions, and Linguistic Fictions as a “universal language… possession by language, which give the elect the ability to speak in the tongue of God, angels, Adam, the Holy Spirit… the inhabitants of the Sun or Moon.”
Over about half-a-decade after their meeting, Dee and Kelley were a wandering pair throughout Europe, traveling with their families, where despite a reputation for the two being quarrelsome with each other still received invitations to courts in Poland, Hungary, and Bohemia. “My head is on fire,” Kelley says to an angel in a transcription of one of his and Dee’s seances from 1582, to which the being explains that now “What thow thinkest, every word that speak.” As Kelley descended into the scrying mirror and ascended into the heavens, he courted madness, a place where language didn’t reflect existence but was rather equivalent to it. “Amchama zeuoth luthimba gaeph iamda ox oho iephad mad noxa voscaph bamgephes noschol apeth iale lod ga NA zuma datques” – the rhythm of reality, the essence of existence, the being of Being, according to the angel. By staring into the blackness of the Aztec mirror, which had once called forth for Nahuatl priests’ deities like the apocalyptic feathered serpent Quetzalcoatl and the ecstatic, lyrical, floral, hallucinogenic Xochipilli, Dee was now rather able to conjure angels like Aaoxaif and Barnabas, Edlprnaa and Galgalliel and Htmorda, Obgota Aabco and Raagiosl. And Metatron, for though his name appears not in Dee’s Enochian charts, his status as the being who used to be called by the human name of Enoch ensures that his dominion was within the black reflection of that Aztec mirror. The purpose of such rituals was simple – it was for elevation. For ascendence.
The specification that the name of the angelic tongue is Enochian happens to be pregnant with meaning, for as Dee notes in his almanac, “I have often read in thy books and records, how Enoch enjoyed thy favor and conversation… thy good angels were sent by thy disposition, to instruct them, inform them, help them, yea in worldly and domestic affairs, yea and sometimes to satisfy their desires, doubts, and questions of thy secret.” Enoch is among the most cryptic of biblical figures, this 365-year-old man seven generations after Eden who is mentioned only in a few short biblical verses, where it was written in Genesis 5:24 that the prophet “walked with God: and he was not; for God took him.” Mysterious, unsettling, disturbing, uncanny, and cryptic, for Enoch is the first figure to bodily ascend into heaven rather than dying, a coterie which includes the Virgin Mary and Muhammed, but unlike those figures’, scripture is skeletal on any detail concerning the apotheosis of this man. Why had Enoch “walked” with God? Where did the Lord take him? When the seventy Jewish scribes of Alexandria were tasked by the Pharoah Ptolemy II Philadelphus to render the Torah into the Greek Septuagint, the word “took” bore more similarity to “translate,” so that God “translated” Enoch, a not all together unapt choice considering the voluminous apocrypha that accrued around this bare figure and attributed to him the new status of being the Lord’s scribe, his secretary, his very voice. God transmuted Enoch, transformed Enoch, transfigured Enoch.
We are told in the Third Book of Enoch, an apocryphal Jewish text from the third-century of the Common Era and attributed to a “Rabbi Ishmael,” though it also bears marks of influence from Gnosticism, that this Enoch who’d once been a man – born of a mother, sustained on food and water, who urinated and defecated as we all do, who loved a wife who bore him children, who slept at night and rose in the morning, who could get sick and who could heal – was transformed into a glorious angel upon being taken by God. His ascension wasn’t merely an escape from earthly death, it was the benediction of being made into an angel, the only human of whom this can be said. “This Enoch, whose flesh was turned to flame, his veins to fire, his eye-lashes to flashes of lightning, his eye-balls to flaming torches, and whom God placed on a throne next to the throne of glory, received after this heavenly transformation the name Metatron,” reads the apocryphal text.
Etymology of the name “Metatron” remains ambiguous; some have proffered a Persian origin, others have noted that it clearly sounds Greek, though it’s possibly that it’s bastardized Hebrew, or an amalgamation of all three, or that there is some other origin entirely. Metatron himself appears nowhere in the Torah or the rest of the Hebrew Scriptures; he’s mentioned only three times in the massive Talmud, though it’s possible that some references to the controversial being were redacted over the years. Controversial because there is something unseemly in Enoch’s apotheosis, this mere man – no matter how righteous, pious, and holy – who wasn’t merely wrenched into being an angel, but that this was to be a being that sat next to the Lord, that this was a being who spoke for the Lord, that depending on the glare of the divine lights in the sacristy of heaven, this was a being who might as well have been the Lord.
What makes the elevation of Enoch miraculous – the perhaps unwilling elevation of Enoch – is that as Metatron he’s not merely an inhabitant of Paradise, but in some ways he’s heaven’s king. A mainstay of Kabbalistic apocrypha even claims that Metatron fulfills the duties of God every day of the week but the Sabbath, the better to keep the Lord unassailably distant from the machinations and deprivations of our fallen world. This is a dualistic tension deep within the core of esoteric Judaism, by far the most strictly monotheistic of the Abrahamic faiths countenancing a division within God Himself. 3 Enoch refers to Metatron as the “lesser Yahweh,” a creature elevated beyond Michael and Gabriel, Uriel and Raphael, who sits in eternity and infinity next to God, his ascension a demonstration of the principle that humanity in some regards is capable of exceeding the angels, at least in this instance. Yet the rhetoric which connects Enoch to Yahweh, even in a position of subservience, is a rhetoric that courts obvious heresy, with Gershom Scholem noting in Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism the uneasiness among more orthodox Jews about this “most exalted cognomen of Metatron, which to outsiders seemed to border on blasphemy.”
Throughout the Talmud it is made clear that Metatron is a creature of God rather than His competitor; in Hagigah 15a, when Elisha ben Abuyah is granted a vision of the divine throne, in its splending luminescence he can make out both the Lord, and the figure of Metatron, not kneeling before the host, but rather sitting next to him, leading the rabbi to exclaim that “There are indeed two powers in heaven!” a fallacious conclusion that results in the angel being cursed with the Pulsa diNura, rays of fire meant to punish. In Sanhedrin 38b there is a rabbinical debate as to whether Metatron deserves to be worshiped, and even while he is conflated with the angel that led the Hebrews on their exodus, and it is acknowledged that he could dwell in the tabernacle, it is authoritatively concluded that as a lesser being he deserves no such supplication in the way that the Lord does. Within other apocryphal texts, like 1Enoch and 2Enoch, some of which are held as canonical by Oriental Christian churches, the prophet isn’t necessarily explicitly connected to Metatron as he is in 3Enoch, but the man is given certain angelic secrets regarding creation and apocalypse. While Enoch – or Metatron – is impressive, perhaps the grandest of creatures in God’s universe, it’s clear in the literature that he is no deity.
Despite such official protestations, the eleventh-century Muslim scholar Ibn Hazm claimed that the Jews devoted part of the new year celebration of Rosh Hashanah acknowledging Metatron’s holy dominion, and the tenth-century Kairite scholar Jacob Qirqisani – member of a Jewish sect descended from the priestly caste of the Sadducees who rejected the oral law of the Talmud – suggests that there had been earlier passages of that compendium of exegesis which honored the omnipotence of Metatron, but such critics are hardly impartial, even while the Talmud does evocatively gesture towards his attributes when the rabbis note that “his name is like the name of his master.” Scholem emphasizes that among the writings which concern the angel, there is “no suggestion that he is to be regarded as being one with the glory that appears on the throne… [he] remains in the position of the highest of all created beings, while the occupant of the throne… is, after all, the Creator himself.” Metatron is replete through other apocryphal texts, particularly in the Zohar, where even if not the lesser Yahweh, he is still the king of angels. An uneasy symbiosis between orthodox Judaism and its esoteric varieties as regards this uncomfortable figure, the man who nearly became a god. “No attempt is made to bridge this gulf,” writes Scholem, “what has been said of the relationship of the mystic in his ecstasy towards his God is true also of the supreme exaltation of the prince of angels himself.”
Mystics are always defined by this paradox; of such beautiful piety that they wish they could merge with the divine, but where that zeal threatens to erase the distinctions between God and man, to court an idolatry of the self. What the parable of Metatron has implicit within it, as indeed does all of Enochian magic, is that divinity is an interior quality which can be managed, that the angelic is a state of being rather than a being by itself. As Scholem writes, “every mystic must undergo this transformation, but with the difference that, being less worthy than Enoch, he is in danger of being devoured by the ‘fiery torches.’” Such was definitely a risk for Dee, who becomes a difficult man to understand after Kelley made contact with the angels speaking that celestial language which first formed in the mouth of Enoch, the voice of God. While Dee is normally interpreted as a brilliant Renaissance man of his time, even a proto-scientist according to Yates, Kelley is rightly or wrongly classified somewhere between a charlatan or a psychotic. His claim that the angel Uriel wanted him to sleep with Dee’s wife – which the latter begrudgingly assented to – would seem to perhaps place Kelley firmly in the category of huckster.
Certainly, Kelley’s reputation has made respect for Dee ambiguous in the centuries since; less than a hundred years later and their editor Casaubon (who was himself mocked by the nineteenth-century novelist George Eliot who borrowed the name for her Middlemarch) dismissively scorned Dee as a “Cabalistical man, up to his ears.” Yet even if there is something of the dupe about Dee and the confidence man about Kelley, the thousands of pages of correspondence with the angelic realm that they crafted would count as a momentous achievement in its own right, a type of early modern automatic poetry replete with complex calculations and graphs, and bizarre, ethereal, incandescent dialogues with dozens of beings who feel alien enough to almost imagine their dialogues have some kind of verisimilitude. “These ‘angelic conversations’ cover a wide range of material,” notes Donald C. Laycock in his preface to the Complete Enochian Dictionary: A Dictionary of the Angelic Language as Revealed to Dr. John Dee and Edward Kelley, “from the enumeration of every country on the (then known) face of the earth with their presiding angels, through prophecy (of varying degrees of accuracy), to the amazing collection of transcripts in the Enochian tongue.”
Without affirming that Dee and Kelley made some kind of contact with transcendent and eternal consciousness, reading the diary accounts of their seances does convince you that the former certainly believed that they had, and depending on the accuracy of these records themselves, there are instances recounted that glow with incandescent wonder and burn with fiery terror. Dee, and not Kelley, describes an angel that “appeared in a long purple Gowne, & on his head a triple Crowne of Gold, with a measuring Rod of gold in his hand, divided into three equall parts: in the forme of a very well proportioned man.” On another date, Dee again writes of an angel who “appeared in his red apparell: & he opened his Clothes & there did issue, mighty & most terrible gastly Flames of Fire out of his sides: which no mortall Eye could abide to looke upon any long while.” Within the Enochian corpus it’s impossible not to admit that even if we’re not “really” encountering something completely separate from the mundane experience of life, something sacred, that at least one if not two of those men involved certainly believed that they had, and in that way, there is an intimation of something mysterious, something unearthly. Impossible and unfair to measure this Prospero by the standards of our century, for as Deborah Harkness writes in John Dee’s Conversations with Angels: Cabala, Alchemy, and the End of Nature, Dee emerges as a “liminal figure between medieval and modern, magical and scientific, Protestant and Catholic.”
As to Enochian, there is something unnerving about its strange rhythms and eerie prosody, a sense that these incantations speak some kind of elemental truth, where even if they’re from a collective unconsciousness rather than heaven, or if those are even the same thing, they present an unmediated version of reality beyond the pierced veil. The second Enochian Key, of the nineteen prayers of angelic invocation recorded by Dee and Kelley:
To read Enochian aloud to oneself is an uncanny experience, the foreign texture of the words weighing like honey and parchment on the dry tongue, where whatever the origin of the language itself, there comes a moment where it feels as if they be from Eden or Heaven – regardless from someplace that’s very far from here. Completely incomprehensible, even while it’s been argued that an examination of the language itself demonstrates a semantics that’s unnervingly similar to English, with Laycock arguing that this is evidence that Enochian was not from the astral realm, but rather from the mind (or at least the unconscious) of a native English speaker, like Kelley. Despite some instances of what seem to be English cognates; “Lu cif tian,” perhaps reading like “Lucifer,” “Londoh” maybe evocative of “London,” neither of those words are actually in the translation, which reads as follows:
Immortality may be what the invocation requested, but certainly it would not be what Dee and Kelley would be graced with. Kelley remained behind on the continent, living in Bohemia, the two separating in 1589 and never again meeting, with Dee returning to England with a wife most certainly pregnant with the scryer’s child. As for Dee, he muddled on in increasingly dire economic circumstances, and with the death of his royal patroness feared persecution at the hands of the newly crowned King James I, the Scotsman infamously eager to search for presumed witches and sorcerers. By the time Dee died in 1609, a year before a Shakespeare play entitled The Tempest would premier at the Globe, and the magician was broke, having sold off most of his beloved library just to stay in lodging and food. His burial plot is unmarked, though presumably somewhere in London. Not everyone who tries to walk with God is able to be taken by him.
There is a Jewish parable about the dangerous of the sort of mystical contemplation that Dee made the focus of his life, and which appears in several different sources, including the Talmud and the Zohar, but where the basic thrust remains the same. Four sages ascend together to Pardes, which is the Persian word for “garden” or “orchard” and is the root for the term “Paradise.” While in this heaven, each man is allowed to gaze upon God, and each rabbi has a different reaction to this grace. The Babylonian Talmud records that “Four entered the pardes – Ben Azzai, Ben Zoma, another, and Rabbi Akiva. One looked and died; one looked and went mad; one looked and apostatized; and one entered in peace and departed in peace.” The great second-century Rabbi Akiva was the only one of stern and stable enough constitution to be initiated into those secrets and to leave relatively unscathed, yet he was no more esteemed than any of those other men. Going respectively in the order of what was supposed to have happened to each of them, we’re to believe that the brilliant legalist Simeon ben Azzai instantly died when looking upon the infinite, veins around his heart exploding, vessels in his brain imploding. Simeon ben Zoma, perhaps the great exegete of the second-century, with a mind both subtle and vigorous, completely lost those senses when he gazed upon the Lord. As for the apostate, translated into the anonymous with the dismissive designation of simply being “another,” tradition has held that he was Elisha ben Abuyah, the heretical epikoros granted vision of the one true God, but who rather saw two. The purpose of the narrative seems clear enough; that even the most brilliant and holy of men can suffer from the intensity of the sacred, in fact that most of them will, but that if you’re to imitate any of the quartet, pray that it is Akiva.
Perhaps that’s what the lesson of pardes is, but that’s to place priority on the narrative rather than the individual experience. Each one of the rabbis respectively confronted the nothingness of death, the cacophony of insanity, the sacrilege of blasphemy, and the holiness of the truth. Except that despite all of occultism’s arcana and complexity, Kabbalah’s difficulty and baroqueness, mysticism’s certainties and difficulty, this sense that there are definitive answers to the absolute, as with Dionysius it’s more accurate to think of all of these names and letters, these diagrams and incantations as lyricism and not science, as poetry gesturing towards an ultimate, directions for a garden that you can never enter on your human feet. Which is to say that perhaps the four rabbis each passed through the gate of the orchard, and maybe the first lost his life, the second lost his mind, the third lost his faith, and the fourth was able to leave, but that doesn’t mean that they didn’t all witness the same thing.
Less dangerous is to live so that your days aren’t focused on contemplation of these absolute things, the secrets that exist between words and the hidden things that dwell in the spaces that separate atoms. Better to live a prosaic life of work and family, of pragmatism and respectability. That was not was Elisha ben Abuyah did, or Dee, or Kelley, or Enoch for that matter, but only one of them was allowed to stay with the Lord. Magic is a dangerous vocation; more dangerous still is yearning for God. Better to stay your eyes towards the ground and to cultivate your garden here rather than desiring for some celestial orchard, for so few are ever allowed to stay. The Renaissance – occult, magical, esoteric – was the age of Metatron because what so often underlaid the humanistic inquiry and the beginnings of scientific thinking was a quixotic, utopian dream of angelic ascension, of not just understanding the divine, but becoming it. If every epoch is defined by the insurmountable gap between its stated values and its results, then this bloody age of religious war and sectarian strife must be counted as a particularly ironic one.
Appropriately enough, the great German painter and engraver Albrecht Dürer captured the operative emotion of this period in a 1514 lithograph composed at the moment that the optimism of men like Ficino shifted into the pessimism of a Luther, with the conflicted occult Protestant Dee left to later disentangle these threads. The title for Dürer’s picture was Melancolia I, and it depicts a glorious, winged angel sitting with head in hand, surrounded by the tools of the occultist and geometer’s arts – a millstone, a balance, a sundial, an hourglass, a compass, a balance. A large Platonic solid, a perfect geometrical polyhedron rests, as if from the world of forms. Mathematical codes and puzzles are hidden throughout the stark black-and-white composition; behind the angel a magic square, a matrix of numbers four across and four long, with the sum of the numerals horizontally, vertically, and diagonally always equaling 34 for some reason. Melancholia I’s mysteries are like all occult mysteries – on the verge of being comprehensible, but forever deferred for those who are not initiated. The engraving is a beautiful encapsulation of failure, the final wage of most esoteric arts, the angel in the painting estranged from heaven, unlike Enoch no longer sitting at the side of God, but rather she is upon the dust and clay of the fallen earth. During the Renaissance, men like Dee and Kelley wanted not just to meet the messenger, or even to understand them, but to rather become the message itself. They wished to speak as if Adam and Eve had never been expelled from Eden, as if Lucifer had never fallen from Heaven, and if they came close, they still couldn’t become fluent. To try and ascend to the Empyrion as Enoch did may be a beautiful, utopian, and occult vision of elevation, but it’s an experience of failure. In the contrast of light and dark, Dürer captures such melancholy with touching grace and empathy. Traditionally, the identity of this beautiful and sad failed angel has been taken to be Metatron.