“Recte sapere, et intelligere doceto me, (o rerum omnium Creator,) Nam Sapientia tua, totum est, quod volo: Da verbum tuum in ore meo, (o rerum omnium Creator,) et sapientiam tuam in corde meo fige.”
(Teach me to know aright and to understand (O Creator of all things) for thy wisdom is all that I desire. Give thy word in my mouth (O Creator of all things) and fix thy wisdom in my heart.) Liber Primus
People thought he was a dangerous magician. He was accused of “conjuring” and was briefly imprisoned. It was still possible to be executed for witchcraft or religious non-conformity. Dee wanted to contact angelic spirits, but (the argument went) anyone conjuring spirits was sure to encounter a devil, and never a good spirit and that furthermore; out of obedience to God’s will, and as illustrated by the experience in the Garden of Eden, none of the knowledge or power which came from the spirit world rightly belonged in the hands of any man.
People have also thought he was deluded: that he was an innocent under the spell of his spirit medium, Edward Kelley.
One has to consider Dee’s time. The existence of spirits was as unquestioned as the belief in God. They were exploring the physical world and it was time to explore the spirit world, too. Dee tried to communicate with them. And maybe he did.
John Dee was the son of a merchant in London. Like Christopher Marlowe, he went to Cambridge to study, but almost twenty years earlier than Marlowe, in 1542. He wrote that he became an insatiable student. For years afterward he traveled, studied, taught, and made connections throughout Europe, becoming one of the learned men in Europe.
He collected the largest library in England, consisting of thousands of items. He was skilled in mathematics and its applications in cartography, navigation, cryptography, alchemy and astrology.
He trained principal navigators heading off on England’s voyages of discovery to North America and the northern coasts of Europe. Martin Frobisher, Walter Raleigh, and his brothers were trained by him.
He was friendly with Elizabeth’s upper circle including spymaster Francis Walsingham, Sir Walter Raleigh and William Cecil (Elizabeth’s chief advisor); and was himself an advisor and friend to the Queen. He used astrology to set the date of Elizabeth’s coronation (15th January 1559). He proposed a national library and necessary revisions to the English calendar, He traveled through Europe and corresponded with many of the notable intellectuals of the time. He was a colleague of the famous geographer Gerardus Mercator, and lectured on Euclid in Paris.
Like Marlowe, he may have participated in Elizabeth’s espionage network. He owned a copy of the Steganographia of Trithemeous, a set of three books ostensibly about magic, but actually encoded texts on cryptography. He owned a copy of the Book of Soyga, another encrypted manuscript. His own received Angelic or Enochian language features encrypted tables, but missing the decryption key.
And like Faust, Dee felt he had reached the limits of conventional education and knowledge available in his time, and he was too aware of the enormous possibilities which lay ahead.
Possibilities and Change
His was an age of unparalleled exploration and discoveries. It was the beginning of the British Empire and the beginning of the scientific revolution. Dee had a vision of that empire. What was attempted in those days had never been done before. There was an intellectual and literal gold rush. Nascent science – including mathematics – promised to unravel the secrets of life and to provide enough alchemical gold make England enormously wealthy. Not only new information and discoveries; but new perspectives, technologies, new freedoms and new rational, systematic methodologies made everything – old and new – open for exploration.
Dee wanted God’s secret knowledge
He was also an alchemist; and at the time, nations feared that some one else’s alchemist would be the first to turn other metals into gold, changing the balance of power. So he was “of interest” to many governments.
Yet he struggled to maintain an income. He hadn’t turned any lead into gold yet, and he was more interested in learning than employment.
As Charlotte Fell Smith put it in the first biography of John Dee, in 1909 of Dee in the 1580s:
“At the present moment, he owes 300 pounds, and does not know how to pay it. He has spent forty years, and travelled thousands of miles, in incredible forcing of his wit in study, to learn, or bowel out, some good thing, yet he would willingly go up and down England in a blanket, begging his bread, for a year or more, if at the end he might be sure of attaining to godly wisdom, whereby to do God service for His glory. He was resolved either willingly to leave this world, to enjoy the fountain of all wisdom, or to pass his days on earth in the enjoyment of its blessings and mysteries.” Fell Smith (1909)
It’s true that he attempted to communicate with spirits – we have his diaries.
Starting late in 1581, when he was 54, he spoke with spirits through a mirror-like “shewstone” and other devices used by spirit medium partners, most notably Edward Kelley. He kept records of his communications, some of which survived and can be viewed online (See The Private Diary of Dr. John Dee and the John Dee Publication Project). His angelic communications with Kelley alone encompassed about six years of his life and with others, many more, though we only have diaries of the time of Kelley.
That he contacted them doesn’t seem to have surprised him. One couldn’t believe in God without believing in spirits, and he in all of England was most suited to try. Their spirit communications began in England, and continued overseas in Central Europe for several years.
Some of the angelic communications he was unable to decrypt because the angels never revealed the key. They include secrets of the original Angelic language with which God spoke to Adam, known today as Enochian (since Enoch, the father of Noah, was said to be the last to speak it).
The angels promised that all answers lay beyond one final act which would create the spiritual amalgam required – Dee and Kelley were to exchange wives – to cement their bond.
Corrosion and Corruption
Astounded that angels would propose adultery to them, Dee protested (“…thy profound wisdom in this most new and strange Doctrine (among Christians) propounded, commended and enjoyned unto us four onely, is above our humane Reason, and our Catholick Christian Profession to like of….”), but the angel-spirit replied:
” Injustum nihil quod justum est Deo.”
“Nothing is unlawful which is lawful unto God.”
The spirit acted out going to a garden, cutting branches from different trees and grafting them together. Did this mean a spiritual or a physical union? Dee assumed a spiritual union was meant, but Kelley, who was seeing the visions, thought it meant a physical union of the two couples. The meaning was not entirely clear, but the spirit affirmed it meant both.
Dee was afraid that, Faust-like, he was “pawning his soul.” In pushing Edward Kelley to be his spirit medium, he was condemning him to hell if the spirits were demonic. While Kelley has been accused of charlatanism, he claimed to neither trust nor like the spirits. Kelley refused to have anything to do with the spirits. Dee took responsibility, and the spirit addressed him:
“He that pawneth his eternal soul for me, loseth it not, and he that dyeth for me, dies to eternal life. Behold you shall both as Lambs be brought forth before men in your latter days, and be overthrown and slain, and your bodies tossed to and fro: But I will revive you again, and will be full of power: And you shall be comforted with the joy of your brethren, for I have many that secretly serve me, and when you have showed your obedience, the second day after, come here again before me; for I will lead you into the way of Knowledge and Understanding: And Judgement and Wisdom shall be upon you, and shall be restored unto you: And you shall grow every day, wise and mighty in me.” (Casaubon, Trebone Generalis, 1587. P 22.)
Some days later, the act was accomplished.
“Note and remember, That on Sunday the third of May, Ann.,1587. (by the new account) I John Dee, Edward Kelley, and our two wives covenanted with God, and subscribed the same, for indissoluble and inviolable unities, charity and friendship, keeping between us four, and all things between us to be common, as God by sundry means willed us to do. Ad Dei honorem, laudem and gloriam in fide et obediemia factum esto. Amen.” (Casaubon, True and Faithfull Relation, pt. ii. p. 21 (May 6 1587).)
Unfortunately this was the traumatic end of the partnership of Dee and Kelley. Possibly unable to reconcile their relationship, Dee and Kelley separated. Dee returned to England to find his home and magnificent library robbed and ruined by intruders. Kelley remained in Europe and rose to wealth, power and title as Sir Edward Kelley, alchemist, in the court of Rudolf II, Holy Roman Emperor. A few years later he died escaping the prison he’d finally been thrown into.
Had Dee misunderstood the spirit’s instructions, and in committing a grievous sin, been cut off from the angelic communication? Had he simply heard the creative ravings of his own and Kelley’s minds?
Or were Dee’s angelic spirits malevolent demons who cruelly toyed with him for all of those years, wasting his life on pompous nonsense and absurd promises until they finally tricked all four of them into damnation to Hell through adultery? It would have been a magnificent victory: instead of one soul, they’d trapped four, though perhaps only three.
Some people say that Dee could have been a model for Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus. Doctor Faustus, written about 1587, is closely based on the German Faustbook which had just been translated into English. Marlowe was junior member or hanger-on of Dee’s social circle (Walsingham, Raleigh), but there is no evidence the two ever met. Marlowe could have met Dee (in England) when Marlowe was still a student at Cambridge, but Dee was out of the country between 1583 and 1589, doing alchemy in Europe – close in fact to the geographical hotbed of the Faust Legend. The Faust story is thought to have been written between 1568 and 1581: perhaps Dee contributed to the German Faust story!
John Dee’s Faustian act was to attempt to communicate with spirits for knowledge. But he was a devout Christian who was careful to communicate only with angelic spirits. His other great sin – assuming the spirits weren’t demonic – which precipitated the end of his contacts was adultery, however reluctantly committed at the urging of the “angels” he contacted.
Goethe’s Mephistopheles said the devil will always turn up to waylay a person who would do great things. You don’t need spells to lure the Devil: you need bait. John Dee was the bait, and when we call Dee a ‘Faust,’ we look for his Mephistopheles. We find him in Kelley.
Four hundred years of attempting to contact spirits have added nothing more to the record of spiritual contacts. In the cold light of day, Kelley was more likely a conman, a spy, or deranged.
Kelley appeared out of nowhere under a false name – as “Talbot” – as Dee was looking for a skryer. They say he had a criminal past, and always wore a cap to cover his ears which were cut off by the justices. Almost everything strange and incredible came through Kelley, whether it was alchemical powders, magic books, strange events, or the spirits themselves. A cynic would say he used took advantage of Dee to escape to Europe (as he said the spirits directed) and advanced himself through Dee’s valuable contacts until he didn’t need him anymore.
Dee failed in his quests for greater knowledge through spirit contact and alchemy. Like so many others, he had grasped for spirits and caught nothing but air.
He died about 1609 at his home at Mortlake, age 81, in poverty, cared for in his old age by his daughter. He had lived for a little more than 24 years since his first attempts with Kelley. We are all-forgiving and compassionate, and would forgive such a good and gentle man for his deeds, but God may have felt differently – unless Dee’s salvation was predestined. John Dee was responsible for the souls of the wives and Edward Kelley, though we suppose Edward Kelley returned straight to Hell.
Dee didn’t exactly fail. His writings inspired others and advanced that third, hidden, strong current of Western civilization which is neither Christianity nor rationalism: the occult world of esoterica: Rosicrucianism, Theosophy, Freemasonry – and ever more Fausts following in his footsteps.
References and External links
- Casaubon, M. (1659, repr. 1992) A True and Faithful Relation of What Passed for many Yeers Between Dr. John Dee…. New York: Magickal Childe. ISBN 0-939708-01-9.
- Dee, John Quinti Libri Mysteriorum. British Library, MS Sloane 3188. Also available in a fair copy by Elias Ashmole, MS Sloane 3677.
- Fell Smith, Charlotte (1909). John Dee: 1527 – 1608. London: Constable and Company. Available online.
- French, Peter J. (1972). John Dee: The World of an Elizabethan Magus. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.
- Woolley, Benjamin (2001). The Queen’s Conjuror: The Science and Magic of Dr. John Dee, Adviser to Queen Elizabeth I. New York: Henry Holt and Company.
- John Dee reports of Dee and Kelley’s conversations with Angels edited in PDF by Clay Holden:
Monas hieroglyphica Ioannis Dee, Londinensis, ad Maximilianvm, Dei gratia Romanorvm, Bohemiae et Hvngariae regem sapientissimvm. By Dee, John, 1527-1608. Published 1591 from Archive.Org
- The J.W. Hamilton-Jones translation of Monas Hieroglyphica from Twilit Grotto: Archives of Western Esoterica
- The Book of Soyga.
- Did John Dee really sell the Voynich MS to Rudolf II? by Rafał T. Prinke.
- A biography of John Dee from the University of St Andrews School of Mathematics and Statistics.
- The Private Diary of Dr. John Dee, and the Catalog of His Library of Manuscripts.
- The Mathematicall Praeface to Elements of Geometrie of Euclid of Megara by John Dee.
- A true & faithful relation of what passed for many yeers between Dr. John Dee … and some spirits.
- A true & faithful relation of what passed for many yeers between Dr. John Dee … and some spirits.