The Tortuous Serpent: An Occult Adventure
[Ed. note: We are once again pleasedto present Brad’s musings here at Two Dudes. He has written a learned treatise on what some may consider fantasy, but others treat with the utmost seriousness. We hope everyone enjoys the two part review and learns something new about summoning demons.]
“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” So wrote the bard of Stratford-on-Avon, in his greatest play “Hamlet”. The old master wasn’t joshing, either.
Donald Tyson, author of the book here reviewed, is a practicing occultist and an expert in his chosen field. This needs to be known before we go any further. Practitioners and scholars of ritual magic are likely familiar with Tyson’s magnum opus, Three Books of Occult Philosophy (Llewellyn’s Sourcebook), his edition of Henry Cornelius Agrippa’s famous text, to which Tyson has now added The Fourth Book of Occult Philosophy: The Companion to Three Books of Occult Philosophy. These works show Tyson is a careful editor and a scholarly writer; indeed, he has made sense of some of the more abstruse writings to emanate from the high magic of the Renaissance. So it’s no great stretch for Tyson to use this knowledge and come up with a very entertaining tale of the great Elizabethan English mage John Dee and his scryer Edward Kelley, as they confront and ultimately best unspeakable evil.
Dee and Kelley are historical characters, and their names are famous among students of the occult. For those who don’t know, John Dee claimed to have contact with a series of angelic messengers, using Kelley as his medium. For whatever reason, Dee himself, though a very learned man and a great magician, was unable to communicate with the spirits he raised through his magical rituals. Edward Kelley, however, was a natural scryer. The two men established a rather dubious partnership; Dee would perform the hazardous rituals necessary to call up the spirits; Kelley would talk to them and reveal the results to Dee, who wrote everything down. Over a lengthy period, these spirit messengers revealed to Dee through Kelley a complex system known as Enochian magic. Tyson has also written about Enochian magic in several works, among them Enochian Magic for Beginners: The Original System of Angel Magic (For Beginners (Llewellyn’s)), Ritual Magic: What It Is & How To Do It (Llewellyn’s Practical Magick Series), and The New Magus: Ritual Magic as a Personal Process (Llewellyn’s High Magick). Dee’s and Kelley’s revelations have also recently been published in a handsome edition from occult scholar Joseph Peterson, entitled John Dee’s Five Books of Mystery: Original Sourcebook of Enochian Magic.
Much of what Tyson writes about in The Tortuous Serpent has a factual basis: John Dee was in reality a fixture at Queen Elizabeth I’s court. Whether as her spy, court magician, adviser, or a combination of all three, he was among the most important and well-educated of the brilliant men who found their way to the Elizabethan court; the Virginal Queen relied on Dee as she did on few others. Undoubtedly, this produced not only the usual sordid gossip but also intense jealousy at court, as the galaxy of stars circling around Good Queen Bess jockeyed and fought for positions of influence. The Queen’s patronage meant money, status, and, most of all, power over others. To say this patronage was highly coveted would be a rank understatement; behind the masques of civility and elegance lurked wickedness and constant plotting—the hand that shook yours in a gesture of friendship one moment would, moments later, plunge a dagger into your back or pour poison into your goblet of wine.
The tale opens as Dee discovers the library at his country estate of Mortlake, a library he had built up over decades, has been destroyed and ransacked by his country neighbors, ostensibly concerned that he was trafficking with infernal powers. This is an historical event, well documented in the standard biographies on John Dee, The Queen’s Conjurer: The Science and Magic of Dr. John Dee, by Benjamin Woolley (New York, 2001), and John Dee: The World of an Elizabethan Magus, by Peter French (New York, 1972). Thousands of books and manuscripts, many of them no doubt concerned with ritual magic, astrology, alchemy, and other occult doctrines, were either destroyed or stolen in the conflagration. Sadly, Dee possessed the only known copy of many of the books or writings that were destroyed or mutilated, so this historical event was truly a loss, not only to occultism but also to scholarship in general.
Continued soon in Part Two.