There are more things in heaven and Earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy-Hamlet-William Shakespeare
For all his polymathic achievements and influence upon Elizabethan England and beyond, Dr John Dee is best known for the Angelic Conversations he conducted in conjuration with his scryer, the alchemist and convicted counterfeiter Edward Kelley.
These ‘actions’ as Dee called them, were made with the aid of an obsidian Aztec mirror that had come into his possession.
Mirrors were an attribution of Tezcatlipoca (Nahuatl: Smoking Mirror), the God of the Night Sky, Obsidian and Sorcery. The mirror had made its way into Europe some time after Cortes’s conquest of Mexico in 1530.
After a period of rigorous fasting, abstinence and prayer Kelley would gaze into the ‘shew-stone’ and report his visions of the spirits within the mirror while Dee dutifully recorded the conversations, some of which were in Enochian, the divine language supposedly spoken by prelapsarian humanity. For a period of many years in Dee’s house in Mortlake and later in Bohemia at the court of the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II, Dee and Kelley would converse with a myriad of spirits, mostly angelic but occasionally demonic which resulted in hundreds of recorded conversations.
The conversations came to an end soon after the infamous wife-swapping episode. At the urging of an insistent angel named Madimi, Dee and Kelley swapped their wives Jane and Joanne for one night. Afterwards Madimi reportedly appeared and said, ‘B hold you are become free: Do that which most pleaseth you.’
Among Dee’s other claims to fame is that he is the person responsible for first coining the term ‘British Empire’; he was also the inspiration behind the magician Prospero in Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Legend has it that at the behest of Queen Elizabeth I he destroyed the Spanish Armada with his magical powers, an event that decisively effected the balance of power within Europe and the New World.
Come here you, closer still,
I want you to be the first to know
That gold is all around this town
Beneath the streets & sewers,
Scattered haphazardly here there
Everywhere, enough to dazzle,
Blind the unwary with the glitter,
Shimmering dissolving glamour
When the sun shines again:
Do you have it within to dare?
To serve this magistery right?
To make the mad dream real,
Turn this place into Tenochtitlán,
Render into actuality El Dorado:
Do you possess the strength to will
Into existence all the power & glory
Of this metallic inhuman purity
The cold coalescence of stars?
After you have known, dared,
Willed these forces into being,
Now that you are experienced,
Initiated & illuminated can you
Keep a secret, will you remain silent?
My thoughts and as a consequence my dreams have been occupied by Prague lately, (a place I have never visited, incidentally), the city of Emperor Rudolf II with his court of alchemists, magicians, scientists and artists; where Dr John Dee and his medium Edward Kelley conjured up a vast array of angels in a Aztec obsidian mirror and Guiseppe Arcimboldo painted his bizarre composite portraits of visages made of fruit, branches, flowers and books. The city (fast forwarding three centuries) of Meyrink and his Golem haunting the ghetto; of Kafka and his monstrous metamorphoses, bewildering reversals and byzantine bureaucracies. The city of the incomparable Toyen.
In many respects the brilliant but baffling Dr John Dee is the archetypal Renaissance man and magus. Mathematician, astronomer, expert in navigation, advisor to Queen Elizabeth I and the man credited with coining the term ‘British Empire’, Dee was also a very serious magician and occult philosopher who devoted much of his life to the study of astrology, alchemy, divination and the summoning of angels.
In 1564 Dee published his enigmatic treatise on the Monas Hieroglyphica, a symbol of his own design meant to express the mystical unity of all creation. The text was probably devised as a brief introduction to symbolic language; after piquing the learned reader’s interest Dee would presumably then offer to provide personal tutelage on the subject.
The glyph makes an appearance in one of the founding documents of the Rosicrucians, the alchemical allegory The Chymical Wedding of Christian Rosenkreutz. Quite how it ended up there is explored in detail in Francis Yates’s fascinating The Rosicrucian Enlightenment.
Above is the frontispiece to an early edition published in Antwerp. Below are selected images of the glyph from the treatise, as well as John Coulthart’s stunning variation of the Monas Hieroglyphica.
I will leave you with concluding words of the treatise, which could really serve as the guiding maxim for all alchemical/esoteric literature.
Here the vulgar eye will see nothing but Obscurity and will despair considerably.
John Dee- Monas hieroglyphica
John Dee- Monas hieroglyphica
John Dee-Monad Hieroglyphica
John Coulthart-Variation on the Monas hieroglyphica