Thursday, November 22, 2012


I had barely begun working at the University of Amsterdam in 1999 when I received a recently-completed doctoral thesis by a student in linguistics, Liesbeth van Dijk, who had made a systematic syntactic and morphological analysis of the Enochian language. Her supervisor quite rightly assumed that I might be interested and sent me a copy. The Enochian language, or lingua adamica, originated (or, if one prefers, was revealed) during the late 16th and early 17th centuries through the mediumship of Edward Kelley (1555-1597), at the behest of the Elizabethan magus John Dee (1527-1608/9), and has long been an object of fascination for occultists, not to mention scholars. Van Dijk's technical linguistic analysis is hard or impossible to follow for ordinary mortals, as could be expected, but her conclusions are clear: Enochian appears to have all the characteristics of a natural language, and its syntax is quite consistent and reminiscent of early modern English, but its morphology is far from consistent or systematic. As pointed out to me by her supervisor, the analysis allowed van Dijk to actually correct Dee's original English translation in several respects!
The Enochian phenomenon might well have slipped into oblivion, had large parts of Dee's diaries not been published, in 1659, by Meric Casaubon (whose father Isaac had famously exploded the myth of the great antiquity of the Corpus Hermeticum in 1614). The irony is that Casaubon junior intended to warn the public about the evil arts of necromancy, but unwittingly ended up providing later generations with all the materials they needed to revive it and take it into new directions. The reception history of Dee's/Kelley's Enochian revelations, from Elizabethan to Victorian England and from there up to the present, has now been traced by Egil Asprem in his Arguing with Angels: Enochian Magic & Modern Occulture. It is a delightful read. Demonstrating an expert knowledge of the complex Enochian system and a sharp sense of historical criticism, not to mention a healthy dose of common sense, Asprem deconstructs the idea (promoted by some esoterically-inflected scholars) of a secret transmission of Enochiana by magicians with access to Dee's unpublished manuscripts, and continues by tracing the lines of transmission through Casaubon and William Godwin to 19th-century crystallomancy and practical occultism. Via the famous Cipher manuscript at the origin of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, Enochian materials came to be incorporated into the rituals of that order, and from there they traveled further to Aleister Crowley, various satanist currents (Anton LaVey's Church of Satan, Michael Aquino's Temple of Set), and the wider networks of contemporary occultism, online and offline.
A particularly interesting aspect of the story concerns what Asprem calls the "authenticity problem". Quite some esotericists have been taking the trouble of going back to the original manuscript sources to study the Enochian revelation at first hand, only to discover considerable discrepancies and contradictions with what the standard occultist literature had been telling them about it. The result looks like a replay of the history of Christianity. Quite like the Protestant Reformers of the 16th century, "purists" insist on the original sources of Dee and Kelley as the only legitimate foundation for Enochian occultism, thereby criticizing what Asprem calls the "perennialist" schools who, quite like the Catholics, insist on the legitimacy of their tradition as it has been handed down, regardless of whether the original sources support it. And furthermore, quite like spiritualist dissenters and other heretics caught between traditionalism and scriptural fundamentalism, there have also been occultists claiming to be the recipient of new Enochian revelations, presumably from the same or similar sources as Dee and Kelley. Thus the Appendix of Asprem's book contains the full text of Dor OS zol ma thil ("The 12 Black Hands and the Falling Seats"), said to be received through spiritual dictation by the Norwegian occultist Runar Karlsen, who considers it to be a work of "both global and galactic implications". Well, maybe so. But if we are to believe that angels are at work here, why are they doing such a poor job at making themselves understood? Karlsen's revelation consists entirely of sentences such as "The torment-snake that is neither good nor bad, sleep comes from. The regrets within 456 becomes, and is the 2nd finding ways" or "In hardening like the earths mercy-like chamber and letting the mute cry invoke the 2828 (NI NI) for the pouring of regret, the feelings of destruction are the fighters named my defaced sons". My only regret about Asprem's book is that while he reprints the text, he makes no attempt to explain what such apparent gibberish is supposed to mean, at least according to Karlsen or other occultists who take it seriously. Perhaps the translation is faulty?? It could be great fun to invite Liesbeth van Dijk to re-visit the Enochian phenomenon and apply a linguistic analysis to Karlsen's text as well. For instance, is the syntax of Dor OS zol ma thil (provided there is any!) still based on early modern English? Or - I'm just guessing - will it turn out to be an Enochian dialect closer to modern Norwegian?

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