John Dee (1527 - ca. 1609)


John Dee (1527 - ca. 1609) was an eminent mathematician and astronomer who became a consultant to Queen Elizabeth I of England. An expert in algebra and navigation, he was influenced by Platonic and Pythagorean philosophy, Hermeticism, and the rise of the occult during the Renaissance. In this way, following the ideas surrounding mathematics as the origin and stability of the world, and uniting them with the idea that man contains within himself a part of the divine potential, he became interested in astrology, Kabbalah, divination and alchemy, all based on a numerological analysis, coming together in an idea of ​​universalist religion based on the possibilities of knowledge - although it must be taken into account that at that time the struggles between Catholics and Protestants were at their peak.

Dee, apart from a model magician for the modern mind, with his austere appearance and long white beard, as well as his erudition, is a magnificent example of how religion, science and magic intermingled during the Renaissance, and how it was not negligible nor despicable that a man of science was a devotee or believer in supernatural acts. Likewise, it also serves to see how this belief was something so common that people considered possible deceptions in the face of clear evidence, but not necessarily in the first instance.

Despite his interest in the occult, throughout his life Dee was a fervent Christian, he did not see magic as an enemy, rather as a tool to learn the secrets of Creation, hence the invocation among his texts and practices of spirits and angels. Regardless of his vast knowledge in such varied fields, it is said that it was his stage contribution in a theatrical performance of Aristophanes' The Peace, that earned him a reputation as a magician for life. This fame, together with the fact that he really jealously guarded his esoteric investigations, led to various accusations, of a political and religious nature, but also great admiration, becoming an adviser to Queen Elizabeth I and coining, at least in writing, the term "British Empire", as he firmly believed in British strength at sea, based on his extensive knowledge of navigation. Having traveled to different corners of Europe, he assembled in England one of the largest libraries on the continent at the time. The work Monas Hieroglypha, published in 1564, is a treatise on hermetic philosophy with influences from Kabbalah and mysticism, where the famous Dee glyph, a symbol of universal unity, is found. Several European courts took an interest in this and other treaties, but the texts themselves are difficult to interpret outside of the very context in which Dee included them, which further enhanced his hidden image. His magical work, so to speak, begins at the moment when Dee himself considers his scientific studies decadent and insufficient. He went from analysis to praxis, trying to invoke angels and spirits through geometric seals and crystal balls, some of which are kept in the British Museum. One of the most common methods of divination at the time was scrying, the act of staring at a reflective surface (mirrors, crystals) until you visualize what you want. He considered that he was unsuccessful until he ran into Edward Talbot, better known as Edward Kelly (1555-1597), in 1582.

Talbot used the Kelly name throughout his life as a forger and con man. A former apothecary and clerk, at some point he began to present himself as a medium, when in fact, it seems, he was an impressively skilled ventriloquist. Dee took him on as an assistant and began a series of experiments and conversations with spirits and angels from whom they "received instructions". From these conversations the Enochian language emerged, in which they supposedly communicated -based on the biblical character of Enoch- and which the angels had agreed to manifest openly so that humanity could contact the Other Side. Dee's work grew parallel to Kelly's, but their methods were very different: while Dee prepared his sessions by praying, fasting and purifying himself, in preparation for what he considered an act of divine cutting from which superior knowledge could be extracted With which to help humanity, Kelly, who presented himself as a student of the occult, did not carry out care with the same rigor or devotion. In his own works, very distant points of view can be seen: Kelly's purely expository, and Dee's intricate and profound, who was indeed looking for a hidden truth.

Kelly also developed magical studies and alchemy with Dee, and they traveled to various parts of Europe, holding multiple spiritual conferences where they exposed their angelic knowledge. They settled in Prague, in the homes of the Hajeck nobles, a doctor, astronomer and alchemist to King Rudolf II, and together with the Rozmberk family. But in one of the alleged angelic contacts, the archangel Uriel requested that Dee and Kelley share their wives. The origin of this request can be found in the ambition of Kelly, who, by focusing less on the spiritual and more on the alchemical part, was gaining a reputation and interest from the courts, and through this request he found a way for Dee that get away from him. From that moment on, conferences ceased to be held and Dee separated completely from Kelly, who remained alone in Prague, stalked by the nobles who sought with great interest his supposed alchemical knowledge about the elixir of immortality and the philosopher's stone.

But these interests would be expensive. King Rudolf II introduced him to court for his alchemical gift, performing a mercury-to-gold transmutation test on him, which Kelly more than passed, using some strange red metamorphosing powders, making a place for himself near the king. The news of his success spread like wildfire and soon Queen Elizabeth I of England demanded that knowledge from her subject. Coincidentally shortly after he was imprisoned in the castle of Krivoklat, with different accusations not entirely clarified. The most probable is that King Rudolf II, frightened by the claims of other courts, wanted the alchemical secret only for himself and that, either Kelly refused to reveal it, or his fraud was discovered, together with his long career. The possibility is also being considered that other noble families, such as the Poppels, in conflict with the Rozmberks, who had protected Kelly, would incite the accusations so that they would lose influence in court. Kelly tried to escape from prison by hanging out of the window with a rope made from the fabric of her sheets, falling to his death.

Dee was apparently luckier. He returned to England to find his library abandoned and ransacked. He asked Queen Elizabeth for help, who made him director of Christ' College, Manchester, a Protestant institution that had previously been a school for priests. There he moved what was left of his library, and although he received criticism and requests about his magical knowledge, he ended up returning to London once Elizabeth died and his successor, James I, had no interest in anything spiritual. Cared for by his daughter Katherine, he gradually sold his possessions in order to survive until his death in 1609.

Much of his belongings and books ended up in an unknown whereabouts. Some of his pieces are preserved in the British Museum, such as a black obsidian mirror and a crystal ball, used in divination, and three angelic seals for their meetings. Some of these were saved by antique dealers, especially Robert Cotton (1571-1631) while others have been gradually acquired by the Museum administration, such as a gold record with an engraving of a supposed vision of Dee kr, bought in the middle of the 20th century.

As for his writings, it was the son of the antiquarian Cotton who handed over his manuscripts to Méric Casaubon, who published them giving his own, uneasy view of Dee's lectures, in 1659 under the title of True and Faithful realtion of what passed for many years between Dr. John Dee and some spirits. Curious that in it Dee is branded as gullible, ignorant and a blind fanatic, when at the same time it is specified that he was being deceived by evil spirits posing as angels. Although in several sources, with a typically legendary air, it is said that Dee was asked for a translation of the Voynich Manuscript, what is certain is that in his library there was a copy of the Book of Soyga, an encrypted treatise on magic from the 18th century. XVI, written in Latin with a modified Hebrew alphabet and other alchemical and magical symbols. What has been deciphered deals with natural and elemental, cabalistic, numerological and astrological issues, nothing new, on the other hand, to everything that moved in the magical environment of the Renaissance.

Pietro Viktor Carracedo Ahumada - pietrocarracedo@gmail.com


-Dee. J. La mónada jeroglífica (Notas de Luis. R. Munt). Ediciones Obelisco, Barcelona (1992)

-Sherman, W. John Dee, La política de la lectura y escritura del Renacimiento Inglés. Universidad de Massachussets (1995)

-Woolley, B.. Conjurador de la Reina: la ciencia y la magia del Dr. John Dee, el consejero de la reina Isabel I. NY (2001)

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>Magicology (IV). Magical mentality.
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