John Dee was the 16th century's real-life Gandalf
Queen Elizabeth I’s court advisor was the foremost scientific genius of the 16th century, laying the foundation of modern science. Then teamed up with a disreputable, criminal psychic and things really got rolling.
Dr. John Dee, Queen Elizabeth I’s court astrologer, is a footnote in English history—remembered as a deluded man who believed in angels, an embarrassing relic of a pre-scientific time.
Thanks to an academic renaissance in Dee studies, however, a very different portrait has emerged of Elizabeth’s confidant. Underneath centuries of slander, initiated by the fundamentalists who took power after Elizabeth, may be one of the greatest geniuses in European intellectual history—a man responsible, it seems, for the modern world itself.
John Dee was born in 1527, in Tower Ward, London. His father was a minor courtier who sent Dee to Cambridge at 15; there, he slept only four hours a night, spending the rest of his time studying everything—geography, astronomy, astrology, optics, navigation, nautical engineering, scripture, mathematics, law, medicine, cryptography.
At the University of Louvain in the Netherlands, he also immersed himself in studying the occult—not uncommon for the era’s intelligentsia, for whom science and magic were different facets of the total quest to understand the mind of God. For the uneducated, mathematics were still considered as black of an art as spirit conjuring.
Dee did gain a reputation as a sorcerer, but it wasn’t for his occult studies — he was fond of animatronics, and a mechanical flying scarab he created for a stage production of Aristophanes’ Pax so terrified the audience that they assumed he consorted with Satan Himself. The charge stuck.
Despite this, Dee was soon considered one of the most learned men in Europe. At 24, he lectured on Euclid, packing halls and becoming the most successful lecturer on the Continent in years. (His introduction to the English translation of Euclid’s Elements introduced the public to the +, -, x and ÷ signs for the first time.) And when Elizabeth ascended to the throne, Dee went with her. He used his position as scientific and astrological advisor to accumulate the largest library in England—2,670 manuscripts, as opposed to Cambridge’s 451 and Oxford’s 379—and a network of scientists, intellectuals and courtiers throughout Europe, which he likely used for intelligence gathering (Dee, who was also instrumental in the creation of the British intelligence service, signed his letters to Elizabeth “007”).
For the next twenty-five years, he would work as England’s foremost practical and theoretical scientist, advocating heliocentrism, lifting astronomy from obscurity, teaching mathematics and, crucially, developing systems of navigation and optics that would help establish England’s naval superiority. He also made startling scientific predictions—of the telescope, of the speed of light and fourth dimension, and of uses of optics for weapons and solar power that would not be tried until the 1960s.
The Star of Empire
In 1572, a new star appeared in the heavens, which remained visible night and day for 17 months (we now know that it was a Type Ia supernova, in the constellation Cassiopeia). For the public, it could only mean immanence of the Eschaton—the end of the world. For Dee, it signaled that a new world order was to come—an English Protestant Empire, instead of a Holy Roman one.
It is in this context that Dee proposed a “British Empire,” a phrase he coined—for Dee, this would be nothing less than a restoration of the reign of Arthur, as he believed that Arthur’s original colonies were, in fact, in the New World—even that America was Atlantis itself. Dee saw Elizabeth as the living Arthur; himself, Merlin. He formed a company to colonize, convert and exploit the Americas, even to open a northeast passage to Asia, with a mind to seeking the perceived source of all occult wisdom. There is strong evidence that Dee was the intellectual force behind Francis Drake’s 1577-1580 circumnavigation of the globe. Dee himself was awarded the rights to all newly discovered land north of the 50th Parallel, which would have given him Canada—had Drake gone any further north than Oregon.
So began the Empire on which the sun never sets, or at least didn’t until the end of the 20th century. What are we to make of the fact that one of history’s most successful (and brutal) empires, which held much of the globe in its control for four hundred years, and is responsible for the modern world, was masterminded by an alchemist who spoke to angels in a crystal ball?
The Angelic Reformation
Having set into place the technology and ideological framework necessary for British dominance of the globe, Dee turned his attention to conquering another world.
For years, Dee had attempted to apply his knowledge of optics to scrying, or conjuring spirits into a crystal, a common Elizabethan preoccupation. His experiments with various scryers (Dee himself could not see spirits, and instead relied on professional psychics) were unimpressive—in 1569, after supplicating the Archangel Michael to no response, Dee had contemplated suicide.
All that changed forever in 1581, when a singularly bizarre character arrived in Dee’s life: Edward Kelley, a 26-year-old, alcoholic, overweight “cunning man” and scryer with a reputation for sorcery. That his ears had been cropped from his head for counterfeiting coins could not have helped his image. Dee’s wife Jane loathed him. But Dee, believing Kelley had the knack, brought him on.
Over the next ten years, the pair delved headlong into contacting angels—and either Kelley ran a decade-long confidence game on Dee, or they indeed made contact with “something.” Either way, the spirit diaries that survive—dug up in a field ten years after Dee’s death—contain not only prose that rivals Shakespeare and Joyce, but a completely new language, with its own grammar and syntax.
Dee would perform ritual invocations of the angels, and Kelley would stare into a scrying mirror or crystal ball, wherein a series of angels appeared, transmitting prophecies, instructions and furious pronouncements on the spiritual nature of mankind. The angels were not charitable. Raging at the fallen state of humanity, who have only become progressively worse since being sent East of Eden, they consistently liken humans to “harlots”—not in the sexual sense, but in the sense that they weakly allow their attentions to be captivated by literally anything except God. Over years of Actions, the angels described the ordering of the cosmos; a series of instructions for ritual invocations; predictions of apocalypse and events to come in European politics; and, finally, the Angelic or “Enochian” language, which they explained was the ur-language of humanity, spoken before the Fall of Adam.
For Dee, this was not magic, but religion—he supplicated himself to the angels totally. Kelley, though, was terrified of the spirits, considering them demons and constantly begging Dee to cease the sessions. Dee insisted on pushing ahead, overworking Kelley to exhaustion and keeping him virtually prisoner at Mortlake. The angels, for their part, detested Kelley, clocking immediately that he had previously engaged in demonic grimoire magic, and quickly became exasperated with both Dee and Kelley. Though Dee may have been the smartest member of the species, he was still perceived as an inconsequential gnat by the angelic hyperintelligences—particularly when Dee and Kelley began begging them for money (Kelley even asked if the angels could loan him money!). But for all of Dee and Kelley’s embarrassing lack of evolution, they would have to do, because the angels had a plan, and Dee and Kelley were on the hook.
Put simply, the angels wanted nothing less than a New World Order, run by divine principles, and proposed what must be one of the most dangerous ideas in Western history: A world religion, based on love and unity—a supra-Christianity or Terminal Monotheism which would not only reunite Catholicism and Protestantism but even Judaism and Islam into a fused whole; all made possible, of course, by the technology the angels had provided for direct individual contact with the spiritual agents of God instead of relying on terrestrial authority or scripture. Combined with the foundation Dee had already laid for a temporal New World Order under Elizabeth, this new religion would unite the souls of the entire globe, fusing all humanity into one State, and one Church, all directed by the angels themselves—the New Jerusalem.
So fervent were the angels that they commanded Dee and Kelley to present themselves to the court of Rudolf II, the Holy Roman Emperor, tell him he was possessed by demons, and command him to heed the angelic message. This was a death sentence—but Dee and Kelley, shockingly, made good on it. Rudolf ignored them, but the Papal nuncio did not, and plotted their destruction. The Church, it seems, took Dee and Kelley’s claims seriously—perhaps as a threat to their very existence. Humans talking to God without scriptural or institutional mediation was not on the menu.
The Daughter of Fortitude
Dee and Kelley’s failed efforts on the Continent were followed by a completely unprecedented new approach by the angels in working with the pair: A shocking eruption of eroticism.
While prior magicians had warned that no good spirits ever appeared female, the angels had assured Dee and Kelley that nothing could be more false; the angels often appeared female or androgynous. While consulting with the angel Madimi, who had previously shown herself as a playful and concisely informative young girl, Kelley saw a grown Madimi disrobe totally, before telling Kelley and Dee to “share all things in common.”
The command was clear: Dee and Kelley were to swap wives. Scholars have taken this as clear evidence that Kelley, who hated his own wife, was manipulating Dee. Jane Dee, who couldn’t stand Kelley, cried and wept uncontrollably when told of the plan, which Dee found revolting but apparently saw as a true command—so disturbed were Dee and, apparently, Kelley, that they summoned Uriel in protest; Uriel confirmed the command was valid. Dee was then sixty years old; after much worry, he turned to the Augustinian doctrine of “Love, and do what thou wilt” to assure himself his soul was not damned—St. Augustine’s phrase, of course, would be echoed four centuries later as Aleister Crowley’s “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law.”
The wife-swapping, it seems, was carried out after the four parties drew up a contract. “Behold,” the angels told them after it was done, “you are free.”
Two days later, a new presence appeared—the Scarlet Woman, called BABALON in Enochian, and the Whore of Babylon in Revelations. Dee and Kelley were terrified—the pair parted ways and the sessions ceased. 1588 dawned, and the apocalypse the angels promised failed to manifest. Kelley wandered Bohemia, gaining significant wealth and social standing in Rudolf’s court by convincing the emperor he could make gold—before Rudolf had him locked up for failing to produce. He died of injuries sustained trying to escape out of a window.
Mortlake had been ransacked while Dee sojourned on the Continent; shortly after he returned, plague swept London, for which he was blamed. The plague also took Jane Dee and five of Dee’s eight children, leaving him a broken man. When Elizabeth also died, Dee lost his patronage, as well as his ability to defend himself from his many political and religious enemies. James I, her successor, was a fundamentalist maniac, personally overseeing the torture of women accused of witchcraft. The Christian extremist counter-attack James waged against Elizabeth’s age of High Culture and High Magick succeeded in burying Dee, and Hermeticism itself, to our present day.
Once considered the most learned man in the world, Dee now spent his days selling his books, casting charts and writing public apologies. He was a man out of time, without patrons, without a family, without Elizabeth, without even Kelley—and still adhering to post-Reformation eschatologies that were long past their sell-by date. He consulted with the angels for comfort; they told him his name and memory would be preserved for the ages. They were correct.
The Archangel Raphael told Dee of a coming “long journey to friends beyond the sea.” Some time around March 1609, Dee took that journey.
The Rosicrucian Underground
While scholars would systematically soil Dee’s memory over the coming centuries, he became an underground legend—the archetypal cartoon image we inherit of the “wizard,” wearing a pointy hat and robe and wielding a crystal ball, is a survival of folk images of Dee. The eminent historian Francis Yates suggests that Dee’s actions on the Continent and writings are responsible for the Rosicrucian occult revolution in Europe that formed the cradle of the Enlightenment and modern science—and that, in a sense, Dee tricked Europe into having a scientific revolution. The Enochian scholar Stephen Skinner suggests a secret tradition in British high society kept the angelic magic alive—and Dee’s papers in the British Library are well documented as the catalyzing information behind the 19th and 20th century occult revival.
When this guiding influence on the birth of a worldwide underground “occulture” is combined with Dee’s efforts in initiating the Age of Reason and the Age of Imperialism, Dee looks less like an outsider and more like a primary architect of our present reality. Since the 1980s, academia has worked hard at resurrecting Dee studies as a bustling field—long overdue—and reincorporating Dee’s magical pursuits into the study of his overall intellectual project. I suspect that in the process we may not only regain one of European history’s greatest intellects—but a new understanding of history and, perhaps, our very place in the universe.
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