In the 15th century there was little difference between science and the occult. Astronomy went hand in hand with astrology, and chemistry was synonymous with alchemy. It was an exciting time, when conjuring demonic forces seemed as possible as long division.
Enter Dr. John Dee. Born in 1527 to a family of Welsh immigrants to London, Dee raced to the top of England’s academic world, training in mathematics, astronomy, and navigation. Dee graduated from Cambridge at age 18, and became one of the founding fellows of Trinity College just a year later. It was at Trinity where Dee won the moniker that would define his strange and industrious life. While working on the set design for a production of Aristophanes’ Pax, Dee built an animatronic scarab that flew above the stage, terrifying the audience and earning him the label of sorcerer—a role he would embrace to its fullest.
After his time at Trinity, Dee traveled Europe, lecturing on Euclid’s mathematics, working with the cartographer Gerardus Mercator, inventor of the Mercator projection, and attempting to invent a perpetual motion machine with the Italian physicist Gerolamo Cardano.
But Dee’s biggest break came in 1558, when Elisabeth the 1st named the 31-year-old academic her advisor on all things scientific. For the next 25 years, Dee taught mathematics, supported the fledgling Copernican model of the solar system, and designed the navigation systems that allowed Frances Drake to circumnavigate the world. In 1556, Dee proposed the creation of a national library, and when he failed to win support for the plan, he compiled his own library of 2670 manuscripts, the largest collection in the country.
Dee had always leaned toward the esoteric, even publishing his own book on sigils, the Monas Hieroglyphica. But when Dee met a young con man named Edward Kelley his life took a turn for the weird. Kelley cut an ugly figure, an alcoholic whose ears had been cut off in punishment for counterfeiting, but among Kelly’s many talents was scrying, the art of contacting spirits and transmitting their messages from the aetheric realms.
It was through Kelley, staring into an obsidian mirror, that Dee met the angels. Ferocious, angry beings, the angels ranted against mankind’s fickle nature in a pre-human language dubbed “Enochian.” It may be that Dee was being played for a fool, but we know from his journals that Kelley hated these rituals, and was terrified of the beings they contacted, warning Dee that the spirits were no angels, they were demons. A fact that may explain why the angels eventually recommended that Dee and Kelley swap wives in order to summon The Scarlet Woman. Exciting times.
Perhaps Dee uncovered too many secrets, or perhaps the occult simply fell out of vogue. With the death of Elisabeth the 1st, Dee lost his patronage. He'd made enemies during her reign it seems, and his home and library at Mortlake was ransacked and his books stolen. As the Christian church locked down investigations into Hermetic thought, there was little room left for the court wizard. Dee consulted the angels—would his name and work be remembered? They told him, yes.
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Reed Enger, "John Dee, The man who summoned angels," in Obelisk Art History, Published April 05, 2017; last modified September 25, 2022, http://arthistoryproject.com/artists/john-dee/.
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