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Eco: Dee’s Magic Language


Florence Estienne Méric Casaubon (1599-1671), A True and Faithful Relation of what Passed for Many Yeers between Dr. John Dee [ . . . ] and Some Spirits, London, 1659. This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or less. 

“In his Apologia compendiaria (1615) Fludd noted that the Rosicrucian brothers practiced that type of kabbalistic magic that enabled them to summon angels. This is reminiscent of the steganography of Trithemius. Yet it is no less reminiscent of the necromancy of John Dee, a man whom many authors considered the true inspirer of Rosicrucian spirituality.

In the course of one of the angelic colloquies recorded in A True and Faithful Relation of what Passed for Many Yeers between Dr. John Dee [ . . . ] and Some Spirits (1659: 92), Dee found himself in the presence of the Archangel Gabriel, who wished to reveal to him something about the nature of holy language.

When questioned, however, Gabriel simply repeated the information that the Hebrew of Adam, the language in which “every word signifieth the quiddity of the substance,” was also the primal language–a notion which, in the Renaissance, was hardly a revelation.

After this, in fact, the text continues, for page after page, to expatiate on the relations between the names of angels, numbers and secrets of the universe–to provide, in short, another example of the pseudo-Hebraic formulae which were the stock in trade of the Renaissance magus.

Yet it is perhaps significant that the 1659 Relation was published by Meric Casaubon, who was later accused of partially retrieving and editing Dee’s documents with the intention of discrediting him.

There is nothing, of course, surprising in the notion that a Renaissance magus invoked spirits; yet, in the case of John Dee, when he gave us an instance of cipher, or mystic language, he used other means.

In 1564, John Dee wrote the work upon which his contemporary fame rested–Monas hieroglyphica, where he speaks of a geometrical alphabet with no connection to Hebrew. It should be remembered that Dee, in his extraordinary library, had many of Lull’s manuscripts, and that many of his kabbalistic experiments with Hebrew characters in fact recall Lull’s use of letters in his art of combination (French 1972: 49ff).

Dee’s Monas is commonly considered a work of alchemy. Despite this, the network of alchemical references with which the book is filled seems rather intended to fulfill a larger purpose–that of explicating the cosmic implications deriving from Dee’s fundamental symbol, the Monad, based upon circles and straight lines, all generated from a single point.


John Dee (1527-1609), Monas hieroglyphica, 1564, held in the Bibliothèque nationale de France. The Monad is the symbol at the heart of the illustration labeled Figure 8.1 in Eco’s  The Search for the Perfect Language, Oxford, 1995, p. 186.

In this symbol (see figure 8.1), the main circle represented the sun that revolves around its central point, the earth, and in its upper part was intersected by a semi-circle representing the moon.

Both sun and moon were supported on an inverted cross which represented both the ternary principle–two straight lines which intersect plus their point of intersection–and the quaternary principle–the four right angles formed at the intersections of the two lines.

The sum of the ternary and quaternary principles constituted a further seven-fold principle, and Dee goes even on to squeeze an eight-fold principle from the diagram.

By adding the first four integers together, he also derives a ten-fold principle. By such a manipulatory vertigo Dee then derives the four composite elements (heat and cold, wet and dry) as well as other astrological revelations.

From here, through 24 theorems, Dee makes his image undergo a variety of rotations, decompositions, inversions and permutations, as if it were drawing anagrams from a series of Hebrew letters.

Sometimes he considers only the initial aspects of his figure, sometimes the final one, sometimes making numerological analyses, submitting his symbol to the kabbalistic techniques of notariqon, gematria, and temurah.

As a consequence, the Monas should permit–as happens with every numerological speculation–the revelation of the whole of the cosmic mysteries.

However, the Monad also generates alphabetic letters. Dee was emphatic about this in the letter of dedication with which he introduced his book. Here he asked all “grammarians” to recognize that his work “would explain the form of the letters, their position and place in the alphabetical order, and the relations between them, along with their numerological values, and many other things concerning the primary Alphabet of the three languages.”

This final reference to “the three languages” reminds us of Postel (whom Dee met personally) and of the Collège des Trois Langues at which Postel was professor. In fact, Postel, to prove that Hebrew was the primal language in his 1553 De originibus, had observed that every “demonstration of the world” comes from point, line and triangle, and that sounds themselves could be reduced to geometry.

In his De Foenicum literis, he further argued that the invention of the alphabet was almost contemporary with the spread of language (on this point see many later kabbalistic speculations over the origins of language, such as Thomas Bang, Caelum orientis, 1657: 10).

What Dee seems to have done is to take the geometrical argument to its logical conclusion. He announced in his dedicatory letter that “this alphabetic literature contains great mysteries,” continuing that “the first Mystic letters of Hebrews, Greeks, and Romans were formed by God and transmitted to mortals [ . . . ] so that all the signs used to represent them were produced by points, straight lines, and circumferences of circles arranged by an art most marvelous and wise.”

When he writes a eulogy of the geometrical properties of the Hebrew Yod, one is tempted to think of the Dantesque I; when he attempts to discover a generative matrix from which language could be derived, one thinks of the Lullian Ars.

Dee celebrates his procedure for generating letters as a “true Kabbalah [ . . . ] more divine than grammar itself.”

These points have been recently developed by Clulee (1988: 77-116), who argues that the Monas should be seen as presenting a system of writing, governed by strict rules, in which each character is associated with a thing.

In this sense, the language of Monas is superior to the kabbala, for the kabbala aims at the interpretation of things only as they are said (or written) in language, whereas the Monas aims directly at the interpretation of things as they are in themselves. Thanks to its universality, moreover, Dee can claim that his language invents or restores the language of Adam.

According to Clulee, Dee’s graphic analysis of the alphabet was suggested by the practice of Renaissance artists of designing alphabetical letters using the compass and set-square.

Thus Dee could have thought of a unique and simple device for generating both concepts and all the alphabets of the world.

Neither traditional grammarians nor kabbalists were able to explain the form of letters and their position within the alphabet; they were unable to discover the origins of signs and characters, and for this reason they were uncapable (sic) to retrieve that universal grammar that stood at the bases of Hebrew, Greek and Latin.

According to Clulee, what Dee seems to have discovered was an idea of language “as a vast, symbolic system through which meanings might be generated by the manipulation of symbols” (1988: 95).

Such an interpretation seems to be confirmed by an author absent from all the bibliographies (appearing, to the best of my knowledge, only in Leibniz’s Epistolica de historia etymologica dissertatio of 1717, which discusses him in some depth).

This author is Johannes Petrus Ericus, who, 1697, published his Anthropoglottogonia sive linguae humanae genesis, in which he tried to demonstrate that all languages, Hebrew included, were derived from Greek.

In 1686, however, he had also published a Principium philologicum in quo vocum, signorum et punctorum tum et literarum massime ac numerorum origo. Here he specifically cited Dee’s Monas Hieroglyphica to derive from that matrix the letters of all alphabets (still giving precedence to Greek) as well as all number systems.

Through a set of extremely complex procedures, Ericus broke down the first signs of the Zodiac to reconstruct them into Dee’s Monad; he assumed that Adam had named each animal by a name that reproduced the sounds that that each emitted; then he elaborated a rather credible phonological theory identifying classes of letters such as “per sibilatione per dentes,” “per tremulatione labrorum,” “per compressione labrorum,” “per contractione palati,” “per respiratione per nares.”

Ericus concluded that Adam used vowels for the names of the beasts of the fields, and mutes for the fish. This rather elementary phonetics also enabled Ericus to deduce the seven notes of the musical scale as well as the seven letters which designate them–these letters being the basic elements of the Monas.

Finally, he demonstrated how by rotating this figure, forming, as it were, visual anagrams, the letters of all other alphabets could be derived.

Thus the magic language of the Rosicrucians (if they existed, and if they were influenced by Dee) could have been a matrix able to generate–at least alphabetically–all languages, and, therefore, all the wisdom of the world.

Such a language would have been more than a universal grammar: it would have been a grammar without syntactic structures, or, as Demonet (1992: 404) suggests, a “grammar without words,” a silent communication, close to the language of angels, or similar to Kircher’s conception of hieroglyphs.

Thus, once again, this perfect language would be based upon a sort of communicative short-circuit, capable of revealing everything, but only if it remained initiatically secret.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 185-90.

Eco: Hypotheses


Jakob Böhme (1575-1624), Representation through a drawing of his Cosmogony, in Vierzig Fragen von der Seele, or Forty Questions of the Soul, 1620. This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or less. 

“By the term “Rosicrucian linguistics” Ormsby-Lennon (1988) indicates a current of thought prevalent in Germany and England in the seventeenth century, whose influences could still be traced in the proposals for the invention of scientific languages by Dalgarno and Wilkins.

According to Ormsby-Lennon the Rosicrucians derived their notion of magic language from Jacob Böhme‘s theory of signatures.

Böhme, a mystic whose ideas had a great influence on later European culture, was well known in Rosicrucian circles in Germany.

From here, through a series of translations that continued into the eighteenth century, his influence passed into English theosophist culture. Webster, in his Academiarum examen of 1654, observed that the ideas of Böhme were recognized and adopted by the most enlightened confraternity of the Rosy Cross (pp. 26-7).

Böhme drew, in his turn, on Paracelsus‘ conviction that every natural element bore a sign that revealed its special occult powers, which in its turn recalls the tradition of physiognomics: powers were “signed” or marked in the forms and figures of all material things in the same way as the qualities of a man were revealed by the form of his face.

Nature had created nothing that failed to manifest its internal qualities through external signs, because the external forms of objects were, so to speak, nothing more than the result of the working of these same internal qualities.

Knowing this, humanity was on the way to discovering the essence of essences, that is to say, “the Language of Nature, in which each thing speaks of its particular properties,” (Signatura rerum, 1662, I).

In the writings of Böhme, however, the idea of signatures did not follow the previous magical tradition, but rather evolved as a mystical metaphor expressing the ideal of an unending search for the traces of the divine force which pervades the whole creation.

For Böhme, the mystic way started with a contemplation of simple, material objects which, at a certain point, might, as it were, burst into flames in an epiphany which revealed the true nature of the invisible.

His own vocation had been decided when, being still a young man, gazing at a tin pot struck by the rays of the sun, he was suddenly vouchsafed a vision that became, like Borge’s Alef, a privileged moment in which the light of God present in all things suddenly disclosed itself.

Böhme spoke of the speech of nature, or Natursprache, in his Mysterium Magnum of 1623; he described it as a “sensual speech” (“sensualische Sprache“) which was both “natural” and “essential.” It was the speech of all creation, the speech which Adam had used to name material things:

“During the time when all peoples spoke the same language, everyone naturally understood each other. When they no longer wished to use the sensual speech, however, they lost this proper understanding because they transferred the spirit of sensual speech into a crudely external form. [ . . . ]

Today, while the birds of the air and the beasts of the forests may still, each according to their own qualities, understand each other, not one of us understands the sensual speech any longer.

Let man therefore be aware of that from which he has excluded himself and that with which, moreover, one day, he will once again be born again, though no longer here on earth, but in another, spiritual world.

Spirits speak only to each other in sensual speech, and have no need for any other form of speech, because this is the Speech of Nature.” (Sämmtliche werke, Leipzig, 1922: V, 261-2).

In this passage, it is evident that, for Böhme, such Natursprache was no longer simply the language of signatures. When the spirits of the other world hold converse with one another, it is obvious that they use something more than natural signs.

It seems that the sensual speech was the same in which Adam named the animals and the same as the language given the apostles at Pentecost, an “open sensual speech” that comprehended all other languages.

Although this gift was lost in the confusion of Babel, it will, one day, return to us when the time is ripe, and we will be ready to converse with God. It seems evident that what Böhme is here describing is the language of glossolalic enthusiasm, or the so-called language of tongues.

Böhme’s notion of sensual speech seems very similar to Reuchlin‘s notion of the language of Adam alluded to in his De verbo mirifico (II, 6); this was a language manifested as a “simplex sermo purus, incorruptus, sanctus, brevis et constans [ . . . ] in quo Deus cum homine, et homines cum angelis locuti perhibentur coram, et non per interpretem, facie ad facie [ . . . ] sicut solet amicus cum amico” (“a simple and pure speech, uncorrupted, holy, brief, and constant, in which God and men, and men and angels could talk in each other’s presence, not through interpretation, but face to face, just as is usual between friends.”)

Or perhaps it was the same as the language of the birds, in which Adam during his sojourn in Eden could converse with (as well as name) every beast of the field, and every fowl of the air. After the Fall, the speech of birds was, once more, revealed to King Solomon, who taught it to the Queen of Sheba. It was a form of speech revealed  as well to Apollonius of Tyana (see Ormsby-Lennon 1988: 322-3).

We find a reference to this language of the birds in the chapter entitled “Histoire des oiseaux” in the Empires du Soleil of Cyrano de Bergerac (on Cyrano and language see Erba 1959: 23-5).

In this chapter, the traveller meets a marvelous bird whose tail is green, whose stomach is of an enamel blue, and whose purple head is surmounted by a golden crown. The bird addresses the traveler in a “singing speech” and he, to his amazement, finds that he is able to understand all that the bird has to say.

Nothing the perplexity on the traveler’s face, the bird explains:

“Among you humans there have been those able to speak and understand our Language. There was Apollonius of Tyana, Anaximander, and Aesop, and many others whose names I will not mention as you would not recognize them. Just so, there are to be found among the birds those who can speak and understand your own language. Thus, just as you will encounter birds that do not say a word, others that merely twitter, and others still that can speak, so you may even encounter one of the most perfect birds of all–those who can use all idioms.”

Was it then the practice of speaking in tongues that the Rosicrucians had in mind in their manifestos to the learned of Europe? Yet, if this is so, how are we to understand the allusions to a “secret writing . . . . expressed symbolically by numbers and designs?”

Why did they use the terms “characters and letters” when, in this period, these were notions associated with the search for the alphabetic characters capable of expressing the nature of things?

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 182-5.

Eco: Magic Language

speculum 01

Teophilus Schweighardt Constantiens, aka Daniel Mögling (1596-1635), Speculum Sophicum Rhodostauroticum (The Mirror of the Wisdom of the Rosy Cross), 1618. This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or less.

“In a climate of extraordinary spiritual tension, the seventeenth century awaited change–a general reform of knowledge and morals, a reawakening of religions sensibility.

The period was dominated by a belief that a new, golden century was dawning; Postel had already used the term “golden century” in the title of one of his works. This was, moreover, an expectation shared by Catholics and Protestants alike, though each in different forms.

Authors from Campanella to Andreae had drawn up projects for an ideal republic. Not only Postel but other thinkers in different countries had designed schemes for a universal monarchy.

The Thirty Years War acted as a catalyst: conflict had flared in one region after another, creating, on the one hand, confessional hatreds and nationalist rivalries, engendering the modern notion of the raison d’état, on the other producing a pleiad of mystic spirits dreaming of universal peace (cf. De Mas 1982).

It was in this climate, then, that in 1614, there appeared an anonymous tract written in German: Allgemeine und general Reformation der gantzen weiten Welt. Though this was only discovered later, the first part was largely a re-elaboration of a satire written by Traiano Boccalini and published in 1612-3, called Ragguagli di Parnaso.

The second part, however, took the form of a manifesto, entitled Fama fraternitatis R.C. In this, the mysterious confraternity of the Rosicrucians openly declared its existence, supplying details concerning its own history as well as that of its mythical founder, Christian Rosencreutz.

In the following year, 1615, the German manifesto was republished together with a second manifesto, written this time in Latin, with the title Confessio fraternitatis Roseae crucis. Ad eruditos Europae (we shall use the first English translation, The Fame and the Confession of the Fraternity of R.C., London, 1652).

The first manifesto proclaimed its wish that there should be “a Society in Europe [ . . . ] with which such as be Governors might be brought up, for to learn all that which God hath suffered Man to know” (p. 9).

Both the manifestos emphasized the secret character of the confraternity and the fact that their members were not permitted to reveal its true aims and nature. It was a call, addressed to the learned of Europe, beseeching them to make contact with the writers of the manifesto; this made the final appeal of the Fama even more ambiguous:

“And although at this time we make no mention either of our names, or meetings, yet nevertheless every ones opinion shal assuredly come to our hands, in what language so ever it be, nor any body shal fail. who so gives but his name to speak with some of us, either by word of mouth, or else if there be some lett in writing [ . . . ] Also our building (although one hundred thousand people had very near seen and beheld the same) shal for ever remain untouched, undestroyed, and hidden to the wicked world.” (pp. 31-2).

Immediately, from almost every corner of Europe, responses to the Rosicrucian appeal were written. No one claimed to be a Rosicrucian. Almost no one claimed even to know who the Rosicrucians were. Yet almost everyone tried to claim that his own programme was synonymous with that of the Rosicrucian brotherhood.

Some authors professed an extreme humility. In his Themis aurea (1618), for example, Michael Maier insisted that though the brotherhood really existed, he was too humble an individual to be admitted as a member.

Yet, as Yates observed, this was typical of the behavior of Rosicrucian authors: not only did they deny being Rosicrucians, they claimed never to have encountered a single member of the confraternity.

Thus when, in 1623, a set of –naturally anonymous–manifestos appeared in Paris, announcing the arrival of the Rosicrucians, a furious polemic ensued in which the common opinion emerged that the Rosicrucians were worshippers of Satan.

It was said of Descartes that, in the course of a trip to Germany, he had tried (unsuccessfully of course) to make contact with the brotherhood. On his return to Paris, he even fell under suspicion of being a member.

He readily found a logical argument to exculpate himself, however; since it was well known that the Rosicrucians were invisible, Descartes showed up (making himself visible) in public places and on public occasions (see A. Baillet, Vie de Monsieur Descartes, 1693).

In 1623, a certain Neuhaus published, first in German and then in French, an Advertissiment pieux et utile des frères de la Rosee-Croix, in which he asked whether or not they existed, and if so, who they were and what was the origin of their name.

Neuhaus proved their existence by means of a rather startling argument: “By the very fact that they change and alter their name and that they mask their age, and that, by their own confession, they come and go without making themselves known, there is no Logician that could deny the necessity that they exist” (p. 5).

It would be tedious to recount here the entire story of books and tracts contradicting each other in an endeavor to reveal the truth about the Rosicrucians (it has sometimes been claimed, for instance, that the same author, using two different pseudonyms, was responsible for two or more tracts pro- and anti-Rosicrucians: see Arnold 1955; Edighoffer 1982).

It means that, when conditions are ripe, it takes but one spark–be it an obscure and ambiguous appeal for the spiritual reform of all humanity–to set off unexpected reactions. It almost seemed that everyone had been waiting for the Rosicrucian manifesto to appear as the missing piece in a polemic in which all sides–Catholic and Protestant–were waiting to join.

Thus, although the Jesuits were soon in the forefront of the battle against the Rosicrucians, there were not lacking those who insinuated that behind the Rosicrucians was the Society of Jesus itself, seeking to smuggle Catholic dogma into the Protestant world (see Rosa jesuitica, 1620).

The most intriguing aspect of the whole story was that the people immediately suspected of being the authors of the manifestos–Johann Valentin Andreae and his circle of friends in Tubingen–spent the rest of their lives either denying their involvement, or minimizing it as nothing more than a literary exercise.

As one might expect, given the spirit of the time, it was impossible to offer to the people of all lands a new philosophy without also offering them a perfect language in which to express it.

The manifestos, of course, spoke of this language; yet its perfection was mirrored by its secrecy (Fama, 287). According to the Confessio, the four founders of the brotherhood had “created the magic language and writing:”

“…and thenceforth our Trumpet shall publiquely sound with a loud sound, and great noise, when namely the fame (which at this present is shewed by few, and is secretly, as thing to come, declared in Figures and Pictures) shall be free, and publiquely proclaimed, and the whole World be filled withall [ . . . ]

So, the secret hid Writings and Characters are most necessary for all such things which are found out by Men: Although that great Book of Nature stand open to all Men, yet there are but few that can read and understand the same [ . . . ]

The Characters and Letters, as God hath here and there incorporated them in the Holy Scripture the Bible, so hath he imprinted them most apparently into the wonderful Creation of Heaven and Earth, yea in all Beasts [ . . . ]

From the which Characters and Letters we have borrowed our Magick writing, and have found out, and made a new Language for our selves, in the which withall is expressed and declared the Nature of all Things; so that it is no wonder that we are not so eloquent in other Languages, the which we know that they are altogether disagreeing to the Language of our forefathers, Adam and Enoch, and were through the Babylonical Confusion wholly hidden.” (pp. 43, 47, 48).

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 178-82.

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