In the riveting 2015 film The Witch, set in New England in 1630, it's difficult to tell what is real and what is not. But there does come a time when beings who may or may not be witches speak a strange language. It is otherworldly.
The film's director, Robert Eggers, has said that the language spoken in that section is Enochian. Which means that the work of two men born in the 16th century, John Dee and Edward Kelley, found its way into a 21st century film. In the Enochian language, script is written right to left, with a 21-letter alphabet, and was, the Tudor-era men insisted, revealed to them by angels in occult sessions.
John Dee is a famous man, a scholar and seer who advised Elizabeth I and built one of the greatest libraries of the century. Edward Kelley is a darker figure, and one more directly responsible for the Enochian texts.
Here is his story:
The Life of a Necromancer
It was Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II who commanded that Edward Kelley be held in this castle, which began functioning as a prison a few decades earlier. Kelley had a decision to make. He was no doubt forbidden to avail himself of the castle chapel while mulling his choice. But if he had, those winged angels might have carried special significance to him. Perhaps they would have comforted him.
Or perhaps not.
|Edward Kelly, from a 19th c drawing|
Why did this bounty rain down on Kelly? Because Rudolf, an emotionally erratic Hapsburg obsessed with art, philosophy and magic, was convinced that Kelley possessed a secret of alchemy. There had been tantalizing glimpses of his power. However, Kelly had not come through as yet with what the emperor sought. He'd been arrested for dueling. But it was believed the true reason for his imprisonment was to force him to produce what Prague wanted to see.
While deciding what to do, Kelley reflected. This is only speculation--but might not these be the turning points that flitted through his mind:
March 1582: John Dee, scholar, astrologer, mathematician, physician, and philosopher, was in residence at his house, Mortlake, when a knock at the door produced a young man who called himself Edward Talbot, in the company of a Dee friend, Mr. Clerkson. Talbot was a name used by Edward Kelley.
As for "Talbot," he was born in St. Swithin's, Worcester on August 1, 1555, according to a discovered astrological chart. Kelley may or may not have attended Oxford. He always wore his hair long or donned a monk's cowl or cap with hanging flaps to conceal the fact that his ears were missing. It was said he had been pilloried for "coining" (forging or adulterating coins) and lost his ears as punishment.
|Elizabeth I, Dee's patron|
Kelley was hired.
1583: A boat sailed from England, carrying Dee, Kelley and their respective families. Destination: Poland. Dee had a much younger wife named Jane and small children; Kelley had recently married a widow with children. The trip was paid for by Albert Laski, a Polish count who came to England as an envoy to Elizabeth and was introduced to Dee and Kelley by Robert Dudley, earl of Leicester. Laski was a known dabbler in the occult, and soon spent much of his time at Mortlake.
Dee and Kelley had been focusing a tremendous amount of time on their "conferences" with angels. Kelley acted as medium, and Dee pondered the communications, which had to be decoded. The language that the various angels--Uriel was joined by Michael as well as other celestials--used was "Enochian." These were the pure words God spoke to Adam, before the Fall. Dee sought to decode the entire language and capture the wisdom of the angels in a book.
In recent weeks, the angels, through Kelley as medium, had begun to urge Dee to leave England, at the same time that Laski was making his offer. Dee was also worried that Elizabeth's support of his work was wavering. Rumors abounded that Dee and Kelley were practicing necromancy, which was communication with the dead. Dee did not want to clarify to anyone that it was actually angels they spoke to. Not yet. So it was time to leave England.
|Dee & Kelley, raising the dead?|
The last four years had been difficult ones. Laski ran out of money almost the instant they arrived in Poland, and the two men and their families wandered through Central Europe, conducting their "actions" with the angels as they sought aristocratic sponsors.
Dee acquitted himself well under questioning by Bishop Malaspina, professing himself a pious man who would never cause religious discord in Prague or traffic in the black arts. Then it was Kelley's turn to speak. What he chose to say was astounding:
"It seems to me that, if one looks for counsel or remedy that might bring about a reformation in the whole church, the following will be good and obvious. While there are some shepards and ministers of the Christian flock who, in their faith and in their works, excel all others, there are also those who seem devoid of the true faith and idle in their good works. Their life is so odious to the people and sets so pernicious an example that by their own bad life they cause more destruction in the Church of God than they could ever repair by their most elaborate, most long and most frequent discourses. And for that reason their words do not carry the necessary conviction and are wanting in profitable authority."The papal representative remained calm. But he said later, privately, that he had wanted to "throw Kelley from a window"--a common way to resolve conflict in Prague. For a time Kelley and Dee were able to evade arrest or formal censure. But eventually the emperor turned on them. The order came to leave Prague within six days.
Kelley had brought with him from England a mysterious red powder he said he'd discovered buried in the ground. As a demonstration before dignitaries visiting the laboratory, Kelley dropped a speck of it into mercury held in a crucible. To all who witnessed it, shimmering gold appeared. Soon the news spread across Prague, Europe and even back to England: Kelley had discovered the Philosopher's Stone and could produce gold.
Now the balance of power between Dee and Kelley shifted. Dee wanted Kelley to communicate with the angels and obtain the wisdom of the universe. But his skryer wanted to focus on the alchemy experiments that were earning him fame. This was the time, when the angels communicated something new and shocking: Dee and Kelley must share wives.
With great reluctance, Dee's young wife slept with Kelley. Nine months later, Theodorus Dee was born. In 1589, the Dees returned to England. Kelley would never see them again.
|Emperor Rudolf II|
One aspect of Rudolf's personality was fear of death. Alchemy's ultimate promise was immortality. He threw money, property and titles at Kelley, but there was a catch. The Englishman must deliver. He must turn base metal into gold. Despite his tantalizing experiments, Kelley could not prove his abilities to the emperor's satisfaction.
And so Kelley was imprisoned in Hrad Krivoklat. After his release, he was again given a chance to perform successful alchemic experiments. He failed. Kelley tried to flee Prague, but was captured and jailed in another imperial castle.
One day, faced with the demand that he prove his powers, he made his decision.
It is said that Edward Kelley died in 1598 after he crawled out of a Bohemian prison window and fell to the ground. Other reports say he survived to see 1600, but maintained a low profile.
He is considered a charlatan today, someone who was able to convince wise and astute people of mystical abilities ... until his tricks ran out.
But that is incorrect. Edward Kelley did perform an act of alchemy. It was on himself.
Nancy Bilyeau is the author of a trilogy of Tudor mysteries, published by Simon & Schuster and nine foreign countries: The Crown, The Chalice and The Tapestry.