Notes from Limmud 2015
John Dee, the Book of Enoch, Jewish sorcery and Elizabeth Tudor
[Standard disclaimer: All views not in square brackets are those of the speaker, not myself. Accuracy of transcription is not guaranteed.]
John Dee was Elizabeth I's astrologer/astronomer (one can't divide these in the sixteenth century, or until the very late eighteenth century: everyone believed the planets and the stars had an effect on human destiny). John Dee was a great esotericist; he was considered by some to be a warlock.
He got Elizabeth into trouble with the Protestant establishment because they thought he was a pagan. He wasn't; he called himself a practitioner of natural magick and a cabbalist. He was not, however, a Jew.
He was extremely friendly towards Jews, as we know from Elizabeth's letters to Sir Francis Walsingham, a Protestant equivalent of the inquisitor Torquemada. For the Protestants she wasn't Protestant enough; for the Catholics she's the bastard daughter of Anne Boleyn.
She and Dee had an intellectual relationship; in the letters to the Privy Council (see Bodley Library website) the two councillors that Elizabeth held in high affectionate esteem were Dee and Lord Burleigh. The ones she didn't like included Walsingham, whom she didn't have the power to get rid of: she had inherited him from her brother Edward's reign.
You can see in the British Museum Elizabeth's mirror, which was a piece of Aztec obsidian given her by Dee. Elizabeth did a Facebook slam: took all of these visual elements and slammed them in the eyes of her arch-enemy Philip II of Spain, including this mirror.
The significance of this mirror was that it was believed to be an Aztec sorceror's mirror. Cortes sent it to Spain, but it was captured by French pirates, and it was doodling around the [lacuna, sc. Carribean?] until Francis Drake [lacuna, sc: captured it for the English].
John Dee said Francis, you idiot, it's not Aztec, it's Mayan. And he was right.
This mirror is in twenty-three portraits of Elizabeth. Why was it so importants? If it were Aztec, it was thuoght Elizabeth could tell the future through it. If it were Mayan: for the Mayans, obsidian gives you a much greater power: the power to survive your own family. When Mayan shamans are ordained, the test for them is that they can survive twenty days in a cave with their family.
If you think about the dysfunctional family that Elizabeth Tudor came from, she needed to survive her family! She kept that mirror with her to the day of her death. There are two things that were always with her: the pearls Dee gave her (a symbol of purity) and her mirror.
There was something else he gave her, which she couldn't display publically because it angered Sir Francis Walsingham: A piece of parchment, also in the British Museum, though in storage, with a strange alphabet. This was partially in Hebrew, and partially in gobbledegook. This was the Alphabet of the Book of Enoch.
John Dee was primarily interested in three cultures, all of whch interested Elizabeth: Mayan, Celtic (controversial at the time), and Jewish.
Dee had a correspondence with several Jewish teachers—two rabbis and four teachers—in Prague. He introduced Elizabeth to two of them via correspondence: in Hebrew and Latin, two of her strengths.
Who was John Dee? This self-defined druid, whom Elizabeth trusted more than anyone else, had a philosophy we would now call natural magic. Even the use of the term could have got you burned. The way Dee used it, Elizabeth could accept.
He believed in the use of crystals; believing that they were the fruit of the earth and were alive. Today you'd call him a pantheist. Through crystals he could read the language of angels. Why, said Elizabeth? Because he was visited by them.
This was not so unusual for the time. Joseph Karo also claimed he was visited by an angel. Pico de Mirandola, at a slightly earlier period, also claimed that human beings and angels were of the same origin.
So what John Dee said was not that unusual. We know from another letter that Elizabeth wrote to her friend the Irish pirate queen Grace O'Malley [on whom see the speaker's earlier talk, which I didn't attend (and now regret, but there was something else on more attractive to me at the time)]: "It is a sad thing to fight over something as small as religion."
Personal visitations by angels were called heresy by what was then called the Catholic Church of England, but Elizabeth was not worried by it. Dee claims he was constantly visited by the same three angels who visited Abraham. They spoke to him through crystals. So he amassed an extraordinary collection of crystals, including obsidian, the sacred material of the Aztecs and Mayans.
Dee said the angels only speak Hebrew. Elizabeth had no problem with that. She had studied Hebrew, despite the objections of her cousin Norfolk, who was once her tutor, who said that it would make her too close to the Judaising sect. But they speak the type of Hebrew that you can learn from the Book of Enoch. (Dee only refers to the singular Book of Enoch; this must have been 3 Enoch [as 1 Enoch was only known in Ethiopia at the time, and 2 Enoch was languishing forgotten (it would later be found in the archives of Belgrade Public Library)].)
Elizabeth was interested in how the Bible was put together: why some of the books in the Christian OT were different from the Jewish Bible: the lack of the Apocryphal books in the Jewish Bible. Elizabeth was aware that the Bible is edited. The Book of Enoch she knows is an apocryphal book which was not accepted by the Jews.
She asked Dee: would he mind speaking with the members of the Hebrew faith who lived by All Hallows Church. Dee was in favour of Elizabeth's connection with the not-so-Crypto-Jewish community in London.
The Book of Enoch elaborates the idea from Gen. 6:1-4:
It came to pass, when men began to multiply on the face of the earth, and daughters were born unto them, that the sons of God saw that human girls were fair; and they took them wives of all which they chose. The Lord said, My spirit shall not abide in humans forever, for they also are flesh: therefore their days shall be a hundred and twenty years. The nephilim were on the earth in those days; and also after that, when the sons of God came in unto the daughters of men, and they bare children to them, the same became mighty men which were of old, men of renown. וַיְהִי כִּי־הֵחֵל הָאָדָם לָרֹב עַל־פְּנֵי הָאֲדָמָה וּבָנוֹת יֻלְּדוּ לָהֶם׃ וַיִּרְאוּ בְנֵי־הָאֱלֹהִים אֶת־בְּנוֹת הָאָדָם כִּי טֹבֹת הֵנָּה וַיִּקְחוּ לָהֶם נָשִׁים מִכֹּל אֲשֶׁר בָּחָרוּ׃ וַיֹּאמֶר ה׳ לֹא־יָדוֹן רוּחִי בָאָדָם לְעֹלָם בְּשַׁגַּם הוּא בָשָׂר וְהָיוּ יָמָיו מֵאָה וְעֶשְׂרִים שָׁנָה׃ הַנְּפִלִים הָיוּ בָאָרֶץ בַּיָּמִים הָהֵם וְגַם אַחֲרֵי־כֵן אֲשֶׁר יָבֹאוּ בְּנֵי הָאֱלֹהִים אֶל־בְּנוֹת הָאָדָם וְיָלְדוּ לָהֶם הֵמָּה הַגִּבֹּרִים אֲשֶׁר מֵעוֹלָם אַנְשֵׁי הַשֵּׁם׃
Dee created an alphabet. (Watch out if you're googling this; go to JSTOR and look for it there, because there's all manner of nonsense all over the Internet about it.) He took the letters of the Hebrew alphabet and combined them with Greek and what he knew of hieroglyphics, which was very sketchy. Dee created an elaborate scheme to regale Elizabeth on winter nights: the two exchanged letters in the Enochian alphabet to get around Walsingham spying on their letters.
Walsingham tried to get Dee several times. First he accused Dee of being a secret Catholic (which was nonsense because the Catholics in Elizabeth's court were open about it), to get in Philip II's face. Then he accused him of being a secret druid, which didn't work because he admitted to being a druid. But then calling him a Jew hurt. But Elizabeth had a card with Dee that was stronger than anything Walsingham could pull: He also liked the Irish and the Welsh.
He believed—and Elizabeth believed—she was the descendant of King Arthur, and there was a lot of propaganda linking her to the line of Pendragons, for reasons to do with the War of the Roses, so the victorious Lancasters could justify their claim to the throne.
Dee told her that the one legitimate claim she had to the New World—a battle for which Elizabeth and Spain were locked in combat—was Welsh. Since her propaganda machine was spinning this out [lacuna] also Gloriana, as a single queen, kind of like Boudicca revived.
There's a very well known legend among the Welsh about Prince Madoc, supposedly a twelfth-century Welsh sovereign who sailed away to the lands in the west, and then according to a mythology invented by Elizabeth and Dee, discovered the Americas.
This idea was profoundly present in British political writing to the mid-eighteenth century, and they later claimed the Mandan Indians spoke a language very similar to Welsh. (She also believed they were the ten lost tribes.)
Why was this useful? Well, for her, if she could topple Philip II, she could set up an empire herself.
Madock, said Dee, was guided by the same angels as were guiding him.
So a Celtic prince guided by three Jewish angels to the New World, gives her a legal claim to the Americas. (Yeah, right.)
In 1588, Dee was almost imprisoned. Again the militant Protestant faction came to the fore, when the Armada came. At that point Elizabeth came out of the closet on the Jewish question and confronted her Privy Council about giving her protection to the Jewish community.
Dee was blamed for her sympathies.
Walsingham at this point switched from accusing of judaising to Jews. He hated the Jews as much as the Spanish did.
At the first public celebration after the defeat of the Amrada, Walsingham declared it was a Protestant victory. Elizabeth says she slapped him and told him to shut his mouth, and said it was not a Protestant victory but an English victory: An important moment in terms of religious pluralism in England: the open collaboration of the Austrian Catholic Hapsburgs (who were of Philip's family but hated his guts) with the English. Also, some of the English Catholics, such as the composer John Downland, she did not want to alienate.
Walsingham asked to see Elizabeth's correspondence with the Jews of Prague. She defended it on the grounds that they had knowledge which would let the English defeat Spain. Walsingham backed off.
Dee experiences a period of efflorescence and flowering he would never experience again, because Elizabeth's opposition was for a period completely silenced.
As an example of being into natural magic, Dee compared himself to King Solomon, whom he calls a great Jewish king—not Israelite. This is interesting, because it's close to the same period (a little earlier) when The Merchant of Venice was written. He says Solomon was the first practitioner of natural magic, citing the seal of Solomon—the Sephardic term for the Star of David.
Why was this proof that Solomon had been practicising magic? According to Sephardi folklore, he enslaved the, of which one of the most powerful was Ashmedai. The only thing which would enslave Ashmedai was the six-pointed star.
This was not a Jewish symbol at that time; it first shows up in Jewish tradition about 300 BCE, but it stuck, and in later Sephardi tradition bcame associated with mysticism and control over the natural forces.
Dee said Solomon used this ring to enslave Ashmedai and with God's blessing: that is natural magic. This is the earliest use the speaker knows of the term "natural magic".
Dee says if God authorised King Solomon to use natural magic, this is a force we can use for the betterment of the kingdom. Supposedly (says Walsingham) he gave Elizabeth a ring with this six-pointed star, but there's no evidence for it.
What is significant is that Elizabeth protects Dee in the face of an antisemitic onslaught. (At one point, an originally Jewish physician at Elizabeth's court, Maldonado de López, had been burned alive; but he was not burned for being a Jew: he was Catholic and a Spanish spy.)
We have to be extremely careful about making generalisations about Jewish history in this period. We know Elizabeth's mother and father were both very antisemitic. We know that neither Henry VIII nor Martin Luther set out to create Protestant [mistyped word, sc. religion]. Do not jump to the conclusion that at the time when Catholic Spain was burning Jews, the Protestant [lacuna: countries would be their friends].
There was in the Catholic world [lacuna, sc.: a number of instances of philosemitic rulers]. Francis I of France was married to the sister of the queen of Spain. Both were Catholic but friendly towards Jews; both let in Jews who were fleeing Spain. Also the sister of Carlos V, who was himself a raving antisemite. So you cannot generalise even within the same family.
Because they let him in [lacuna] Michelle Rémy, of Jewish ancestry, was born: better known as Nostradamus.
We should distance ourselves from applying anachronistic labels; draw back from the Hollywoodising tendency, as Cecil Roth puts it.
John Dee was called pagan; this is what Walsingham called him. He called him a druid, but what we know of the druids is only what the Romans wrote of them. For them being polytheistic would have been nothing wrong. We also have be very careful about terming people pro-Jewish or anti-Jewish.
What about Elizabeth I? She was probably confused. She probably harboured some anti-Jewish feelings: everyone did. But she was also a thinker and could grow. We see this in the Irish question, when she received Grace O'Malley at court and ordered her lands to be returned to her.
We see this in the Catholic question, where she became tolerant of them. But if she was confused, that confusion was precious, because from that confusion, we come.—Originally posted on Dreamwidth, where there are comments. Please comment there using OpenID or a DreamWidth account (which you no longer need an invite code to create). Though I am leaving comments enabled on LiveJournal for a bit, please don't comment here if you can do so there instead.