UPDATE: Dan Harms has responded with an analysis of the place of the Book of Enoch in the renaissance and suggests that, yes, there was a place for this literature.
UPDATE: Egil Asprem has responded to Harms’ post and suggests that while the material was not unknown to Dee, it was one of many sources in his system.
Egil Asprem’s book Arguing With Angels has sparked some interesting discussion about the role of Biblical mythology in early modern magical practice. Asprem’s book is the first book to academically look at the Enochian magical system of John Dee. While I have not read it yet (Sorry, Egil! Damnit,
Brill SUNY Press!), one criticism is that it overlooks the influence of Biblical Enoch.
Asprem has responded to the charge thusly:
[Dan] Harms would have liked to see a proper discussion on the Enoch figure, which could “have helped the reader with regard to the Biblical roots of Dee’s project”…However, the most fascinating material about Enoch was simply not available to Dee: the Book of Enoch did not survive in the West, and only became available to European scholars in 1773, when Scottish adventurer James Bruce returned with three copies translated into Ethiopian that he had presumably plundered from a monastery in Abyssinia. (Asprem, On Enoch, Metal and Lonely Girls)
While I am far from being an expert in either Enochian Magic or apocalyptic biblical traditions. I think there are a few important things to add to this discussion.
First, Asprem makes a very good point that one can only work with what they’ve got. If Dee didn’t have access to Biblical Enochian material, then it can’t be considered relevant to the inquiry at hand. Certainly, one can look for parallels in hindsight, but I think this imputes the source material with a relevance that is lacking when considered in historical context.
The second is that, having had a cursory look at the Biblical Enochian texts through the Dead Sea Scrolls and Hekhalot literature, I find it difficult to place anything more than an “inspired by” label on any pre-modern tradition.
So let’s start filling in these holes.
Asprem has a nice and succinct summary of the Enoch myth:
The Biblical figure of Enoch, the patriarch in the seventh generation after Adam, who according to Genesis was taken to heaven and “walked with God”, and according to the apocryphal Book of Enoch acted as a mediator between God and the fallen angels, and, who according to certain Jewish mystical traditions was apotheosised by transforming into the archangel Metatron, does indeed constitute a context for Enochian magic. (Asprem, On Enoch, Metal and Lonely Girls)
The first point to keep in mind is that the Book of Enoch, and related Enoch texts are apocryphal (except in the Ethiopian church). This means that, over time, these books were taken out of the official cannon. In other words, they would not be on the “hit list” of a renaissance-era Christian. As Asprem points out, it wasn’t until 1773 that these texts were brought to Europe, by which time Dee would have been dead for nearly 200 years.
This seems like a good argument.
However, this doesn’t mean the “Enoch myth” was unknown in the West. According to Edward Cook, Biblical Enochian material did circulate amongst early Christians. Furthermore, the writings of Iraneus and Tertullian discuss Enochian themes (Wise, et al 280). So while Dee may not have had access to the Book of Enoch per se, it is possible that he may have encountered the myth vis-à-vis the writings of the Christian church fathers. As I do not know of Dee’s familiarity with these authors, this is only speculation, but it is a potential avenue of acquaintance.
Still, whether or not Dee knew about Biblical Enoch doesn’t address to what extent, if any, it might have influenced his own work. To that we need to turn to the texts themselves.
The Book of Enoch certainly talks about magic and fallen angels, but gives no explicit reference as to how to utilize them in a practical system. Here’s what we get from the Qumran Book of Enoch:
Asael taught humankind to make swords of iron and armor of copper…Shemihaza taught spells..magic and sorcery and tricks…spells of the stars…Aratakoph taught spells of the earth…Shamshiel taught spells of the sun…(4Q202 Frag. 1 Col.2-4)
We get a list of angels (fallen ones!) and which skills they taught (evil ones!). The fallen angels, also known as The Watchers, are responsible for everything from weaponry to astrology to magic to other bad stuff like wearing make-up. Also probably high heels and American politics, but I’m free-styling now.
But that’s about it. There’s no “How to use astrology to snag a mate” or “Using earth spells to ensure a bountiful harvest.” Not at all. Far from begin a how-to magic manual, the Book of Enoch is a simple narrative. In fact, the angels listed don’t even match up the Dee’s version. This makes me less inclined to show any sort of direct influence between Biblical Enoch and Enochian magic.
So what is the story of Enoch? As it goes, Enoch is just a really good guy who happened to witness the fall of the angels, the bad stuff which ensued, and the subsequent redemption of humanity (Wise et al. 278-295, 339). Enoch’s story is one of ascent to and communication with the heavenly realms for an apocalyptic purpose: to cleanse the earth of evil once and for all (Schäfer 78-82).
Peter Schäfer has this to say about Enoch’s experience:
Enoch, a human being but elevated among the angels, becomes the mediator between the (fallen) angels and God. To fulfill this task, he must be brought up into heaven and enter the “sanctuary” (hekhal) of the heavenly Temple so as to look through the door of the “Holy of Holies” (qodesh ha-qodashim), God’s throne chamber, and be instructed by the words of God.” (Schäfer 62-63)
Still, not so much with the magic.
Of course, being biblical literature, one does not expect it to be rife with occult tips. For that we have to turn to the body of Jewish mystical work known as the Hekhalot literature, which depict in closer detail the ascent experience of Enoch in 3 Enoch.
In an unexpected twist, the protagonist of 3 Enoch is Ishmael, who ascends through the different palaces with the aid of Metatron, the chief angel who also happens to be Enoch in his heavenly form (Schäfer 317). Whereas other similar accounts of ascent involve the mystic rattling off divine names and passing tests for admittance to higher levels, 3 Enoch lacks this component.
Despite containing a sizable repository of magical information (Divine names! The letters of creation! Seventy—Seventy!—ways to call on Metatron!), the message of the text is, like the earlier Book of Enoch, apocalyptic (Schafer 316-318). Ishmael isn’t given this information to impress his friends with awesome feats of magic and accurately guess their rising sign at parties. Nuh-uh. Ishmael is supposed to go back to mankind and talk about how wonderful God is and enact the redemption of the human race.
What texts like Enoch show is not a how-to guide for magic, but rather the messianic role of the visionary in joining the human world to the will of God to restore humanity to a time of purity. Any thamaturgical uses of the Enochian literature—including Dee’s system—would have to be extrapolated form the source text’s core meaning: that of spreading the word of God and delivering humans from sin.
I do agree with Dan Harms that knowing the Biblical reference is important. Knowing the “myth behind the myth” provides one with new perspectives and new ideas with which to understand their modern variants. However, I am also inclined to agree with Asprem that the biblical stories of Enoch are only tangentially related to Dee’s “Enochian” magic. It is hard for me to see any congruence between the systems—the angelic names don’t match up, the palaces of ascent (of which there are seven) don’t seem to correspond to the thirty aethyrs of Dee’s system, and the desired outcome doesn’t seem to be the same, either. One seeks magical power for the practitioner, the other seeks to invigorate a messianic figure to save humanity.
Schäfer, Peter. 2009. The Origins of Jewish Mysticism. Princeton University Press.
Abegg, Martin Jr., Edward Cook and Michael Wise. The Dead Sea Scrolls: A New Translation. 2005. Harper One.
Asprem, Egil. “On Enoch, Metal and Lonely Girls: A response to Dan Harms’ review of Arguing With Angels.” http://heterodoxology.com/2012/07/14/on-enoch-metal-and-lonely-girls-a-response-to-dan-harms-review-of-arguing-with-angels/
Photo by Scott Smith.