John Dee – the all-time master of magick, and the creator (along with Edward Kelly) of Enochian magick – may also have single-handedly created the modern world. Here’s why John Dee is one of the most important, and overlooked, figures in Western history.
Dr. John Dee (1527-1608 or 9), Queen Elizabeth I’s court astrologer, is a footnote in English history, remembered as an embarrassing relic of pre-Enlightenment science, a man deluded into thinking he had learned the language of angels.
Thanks to an academic renaissance in Dee studies, however, a very different portrait has emerged of Elizabeth’s confidant. Underneath centuries of attacks, 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.
Like the black mirrors through which John Dee sought to view the spirit realms, Dee himself is a lens through which to view the critical transition point in European intellectual history between magic and science. He straddled these two apparently divergent disciplines, seeing them as a unified quest to understand nature and God. John Dee was both deeply in line with this Hermetic tradition and also its greatest exemplar.
Alchemy, astrology, Qabalah, Hermeticism and the once-thriving field of “angel contact” were officially relegated to the position of pseudo-sciences or embarrassing mistakes of European thought by the scientific revolution that came after John Dee (a revolution that, according to the historian Francis Yates, Dee had a direct influence on initiating). Consequently, these areas of intellectual inquiry have been divorced from the Western intellectual project, surviving, if at all, in a fragmentary, sidelined “occulture,” where they serve more as signifiers of rebellion to modernity, to local religion or to the dominant cultural narrative of technological and hypercapitalist progress, rather than any kind of systematic scientific pursuit, as they were for Dee and his forebears. This means that John Dee remains, almost half a millennium later, the high-water mark in the field. The countercultural revivals of pre-scientific occultism—notably the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, Aleister Crowley’s Ordo Templi Orientis and A.’.A.’., the Church of Satan and the Temple of Set—have either incorporated or been founded on the backbone of Dee’s work, the breadth, originality and intellectual sophistication of which has never been surpassed.
John Dee existed in a deeply unique historical period—Elizabeth I’s occult-tolerant Britain—that allowed the nation’s greatest scientist to turn his mind to the study of the “otherworld” at the peak of his career. Today, this would be comparable to Stephen Hawking deciding that he had made his mark in theoretical physics, and would now be fully devoting his time to attempting psychic contact with aliens. This is simply inconceivable. However, it is not without precedent in the modern world. John Nash (1928–2015), the Nobel prize-winning American mathematician and economist who did critical work on game theory and gave us the “Nash equilibrium,” upon whom the Ron Howard film A Beautiful Mind was based, believed that he was in communication with aliens who were assisting him with higher math; Nash was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. The brilliant self-taught Indian mathematician Srinavasa Ramanujan (1887-1920) attributed his achievements in higher mathematics to his family deity, the goddess Mahalakshmi, and received visions of scrolls of mathematical equations opening before his eyes; he is quoted as saying “An equation for me has no meaning, unless it represents a thought of God”—the quote could have come from Dee himself. While Nash experienced serious mental health and career issues, including institutionalization, Ramanujan did not; his claim of visions was considered perfectly acceptable within the general cultural narrative of Hinduism, in which reports of divine inspiration or contact are routine. In a way, Dee was in a similar situation—while not generally well-regarded, magic, scrying and angel-contact were nevertheless widespread in Elizabethan England.
Carl Sagan’s novel Contact, published in 1985, also deals extensively with the idea of higher intelligences contacting humanity through the language of advanced math—as we see in the cases of Dee, Nash and Ramanujan, the idea was not unique to Sagan. Similarly, the science fiction writer Philip K. Dick, who famously recorded his “contact” experience with an intelligence he called VALIS in his final novels, also spoke of language, the logos, as a living entity and medium of transmission from a higher dimension; the reality-puncturing ferocity of the Gnostic Christ of Dick’s Exegesis and the Old Testament vitriol of the angels of Dee and Kelley’s spirit diaries are not far away from each other in tone and content.
Nor are these experiences, whatever their provenance, confined to the margins of society; they are, in fact, woven into the very fabric of world culture. Many mainstream religions have been founded on claims of contact with angels that are far less documented than John Dee’s—notably, the Revelation of John, the Prophet Mohammed’s reception of the Qu’ran from the Archangel Gabriel (a being that also appears in Dee’s spirit diaries) and Joseph Smith’s claims of receiving a buried book of golden plates from the Angel Moroni. That these “divine revelations” and claims of supernatural contact exist purely in the realm of subjectivity and faith have not, of course, impeded their ability to shape world cultures—encompassing, in the case of Revelation and the Qu’ran, billions of individuals. The Qabalistic practices of Judaism, the parent tradition of the above religions, form a tightly knit and almost impossibly complex system of mathematical interpretation of scripture and even, according to some interpretations, two-way communication with angels, making mathematical contact with spiritual entities an established, if closely guarded, religious tradition.
A sensationalistic but compelling documentary on John Dee from Channel 4’s “Masters of Darkness” series, featuring a soundtrack by Coil and an appearance by Alan Moore.
Such communication with higher intelligences via math, Qabalism and “secret languages,” of course, is a running trope in the occult subculture, particularly within groups that draw their inspiration from Dee. The resulting “channeled books” claimed by Aleister Crowley, Charles Stansfeld Jones, Jack Parsons, Margaret Ingalls, Kenneth Grant, Dr. Michael Aquino and others have become so abundant within occulture that they form both a new “outsider” literary genre and also a complex social and psychological game within occult lineages, with the reception of channeled books often following expulsions from occult groups and/or preceding the creation of new groups. Within this underground occulture, the reception of channeled documents recapitulates the end of adolescence and parent/child split within the student/teacher relationship—such channeled books, regardless of their valid provenance, are social markers allowing occult students to split with their symbolic parents (teachers) and families (occult orders) and their metaphors for reality, establish their own metaphors for reality, and thereafter “reproduce” and start their own “families” in the form of new occult groups established around the new channeled documents.
This was clearly the case in Crowley’s reception of the Book of the Law upon his split from the Golden Dawn, Jones’ revelations of the “Aeon of Ma’at” and Parsons’ received Book of Babalon upon their respective splits from Crowley and the OTO, Aquino’s reception of The Book of Coming Forth by Night upon his split from Anton LaVey and the Church of Satan, and so on. Many of these documents were generated by individuals exploring the systems left by Dee and Kelley—Parsons is of particular interest as, like Dee, he straddled the “occultural” discourse and that of mainstream science, working by day in experimental rocketry and at night as a practicing “magician” and leader of the California branch of Crowley’s Ordo Templi Orientis; Parsons founded NASA’s Jet Propulsion Labs and is responsible for the solid-state rocket fuel that got the United States to the moon, as instrumental in the push into space exploration in his day as Dee was for the push towards the colonization of the New World in his. Parsons experimented extensively with Dee’s Enochian system in Pasadena and the Mojave Desert, claiming to have incarnated an Enochian “elemental” in the form of the artist Marjorie Cameron, later a major figure in the California counterculture. (It should also be noticed that the discovery of received texts or “termas” by specialized adepts called “tertöns” has been a tradition of “continual revelation” in Tibetan Buddhism since the 8th century.)
Because of their high social value in occult circles, even their perceived necessity for full individuation, these “received” documents are problematic. The generation of received texts is so wrapped up in the psychological transference and recapitulated adolescence that occurs in the teacher/student relationship that claims of divine or extraterrestrial provenance begin to look muddied at best.
For Crowley, however, whose mathematically enciphered Book of the Law and other “channeled” documents are perhaps the most convincing works of this genre, such communications, whether real or imagined, are the entire point of occult practice—Crowley remarked near the end of a life spent immersed in the study of the Hebrew Qabalah and Dee’s Enochian “magick” that “My observation of the Universe convinces me that there are beings of intelligence and power of a far higher quality than anything we can conceive of as human; that they are not necessarily based on the cerebral and nervous structures that we know; and that the one and only chance for mankind to advance as a whole is for individuals to make contact with such Beings.” Whether such contact is valid is another question—as is whether the contacts experienced by Dee, Kelley, Nash, Ramanujan, John, Mohammed, Smith, Crowley, Parsons, et. al. are valid as anything other than records of altered states of consciousness or even cult-induced psychopathology.
These claims of “contact” experiences—not through physical alien abductions or spirit mediumship but via higher mathematics and/or language—have, to my knowledge, never been studied as an overarching genre, though an assessment of such documents in terms of their transformative cultural impact, rather than “interdimensional” validity, could open a much needed discussion on this aspect of psychohistory.
These questions of “contact” haunted Dee in life and dogged him in death. Because he explored this dangerous liminal territory between objective science and subjective magic, Dee’s name was defaced and scratched from the record by the religious and scientific reformers that followed him. Because operative magic holds the unique position of offending the watchdogs of both religion and science and, on the other hand, being largely incomprehensible to anybody who does not speak the “twilight language” of occult theory and symbolism, it of necessity occupies a place in the very marginalia of history.
In his life, Dee stood at the crossroads between magic and science, between the medieval and the modern, between Protestantism and Catholicism and, finally, between the Terrestrial and Celestial worlds themselves. This is the inscrutable work of the Magus, whose work may move cultures wholesale even if the individual themself is forgotten.
Derek Jarman’s sublime 1977 film Jubilee, in which Dee and Elizabeth conjure an angel who shows them a dystopian future in which English punks spread anarchy in the wreckage of civilization.
Dee’s many biographers have largely sought either to focus on Dee’s scientific and political work or on the Angelic Conversations themselves. I will here seek provide an introductory overview of Dee’s complex life and intellectual achievements, and tentatively portray his work as a coherent whole, suggesting that they are different phases of a total project—nothing short of the Great Work, that of advancing the evolution of humanity in total.
This book began as a short article for the Web site Boing Boing; researching my subject, however, I became enthralled, giddy, even obsessive the more I immersed myself in his world and thinking, quickly finding my research expanding outside the bounds of an article. The man I discovered was so much more than the caricature painted by Crowley and other occultural sources: Here was a man who was satisfied with nothing less than understanding the limits of the cosmos itself, and who grounded his knowledge into the physical world, who catalyzed both the Age of Imperialism and the Age of Reason. In seeking to more fully understand John Dee, I found myself coming to a radically new, overarching understanding not just of Hermeticism but of the very architecture of history and the world around me. Dee’s vision was indescribably broad, his ambition Faustian, but when you are able to ascend at last to the heights from which he saw the world, the overall vision becomes indescribably simple and breathtakingly elegant—a Hieroglyphic Monad.
Dee’s England was a country of high adventure, high magic, high seas exploration and piracy, Shakespearean high culture—though desperately poor, Elizabeth’s England is etched into the imagination of the world as a halcyon era. It has been my privilege to spend this time with John Dee, Elizabeth and their world, and I am equally indebted to the many fine recent biographies of Dee, in particular those of Deborah Harkness, Glyn Parry and Benjamin Wooley, and to the work on Dee’s original papers done by Stephen Skinner, for opening an exciting new view into Dee’s work for me, which I now hope to open for you.