John Dee: My favorite mystic

Guest blogger AdamS continues his stint at BCC. See previous entries here and here.

John Dee (1527-1609) has recently become one of my favorite people to read about. He was educated at Cambridge and for a time was known as “The Queen’s Philosopher”. His personal library at one time was the largest in Britain and its holdings were more extensive than any university or college library in the country. He was a well-respected and published mathematician, and in 1558 he was called upon by Queen Elizabeth to choose the appropriate day (astrologically of course!) for her coronation. Later in life he wrote spiritual/alchemical texts that have influenced a variety of esoteric movements.[1]

Like many philosophers of his day, Dee sought knowledge both from the Book of Nature and the Book of Scripture. Scripture contained the Word of God, and Nature was the word of God made manifest. Dee became frustrated that both books were nearly impossible to read because of they had been corrupted by The Fall. Language had been corrupted which made Scripture difficult to interpret, and Nature was in upheaval having suffered cataclysmic events like the Flood and earthquakes. For years, Dee looked to Kabbalah to restore the true meaning of scripture and alchemy to reveal the secrets of nature. His esoteric book, Monas Hieroglyphica, was a complex synthesis of these two pursuits in which he attempted to develop a “Kabbalah of Nature”. Using elements of alchemical symbols he developed a language that would reveal the true meaning of the natural world and give him power to control matter.

In 1581, Dee began a project that would control the rest of his life. Dissatisfied with his quest for knowledge, he began to look to angels to reveal the truths he had been seeking. Dee hired a scryer to peer through a ‘showstone’ and communicate with angels. To Dee and many of his contemporaries, this type of communication had a naturalistic explanation. The field of optics was young, and certain polished stones were seen as a way to refract heavenly/spiritual light in such a way to make it visible to human eyes. However, the accounts of these sessions are a wild trip through a complex angelology, where casts of characters would bring knowledge, direction and sometimes curses. Dee and his scryers followed the angels’ directions precisely. The revelations led him to search for alchemical treasure, swap wives with one of his associates, and make bizarre presentations to kings and heads of state. In the revelations he was called to be the mouthpiece of God to warn the people of the last days in which they were living.

Dee’s angelic conversations cemented his place in history and gave scholars and mystics a host of source material. How are we to deal with Dee’s angels? I’m sure the question – What do we do with all the other people that talk with angels? – produces rolling eyes in the bloggernacle. However, I can’t help but have Joseph Smith in the back of my mind when I read about the adventures of John Dee. While we have ways of fitting Joseph Smith’s truth-seeking within and orthodox framework, it was the radically spontaneous nature of his search for truth that prepared him and put him on a path the reveal our most sacred rituals and books of scripture. For all their differences, Joseph Smith and John Dee represent to me a relentless pursuit of wisdom and knowledge. Their storied inspire me to be adventurous in my own quest for knowledge.

1. Harkness, D.E., John Dee’s conversations with angels: Cabala, alchemy, and the end of nature. 1999, Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Comments

  1. There’s a surprising amount of literature attempting to place Smith within American spiritualism, which clearly mimics the activities of John Dee and more proximately Emmanuel Swedenborg. I have found modern spiritualist texts that invoke Moroni as evidence of our connections with the world beyond and even found one 20th century Mormon official text that suggested Swedenborg may have been inspired. Mormons have little trouble claiming Luther and other Protestant Reformers as those who prepared the way for the Restoration. I wonder whether we would be comfortable including Dee, Swedenborg, Jakob Bohme, and the assortment of other metaphysical progenitors among those who paved the way for a prophet who combined the best of biblical christianity, antebellum protestantism, and esoteric metaphysical traditions.

    Dee’s quest for perfect language is closely mirrored in the activities of Joseph Smith and William Phelps in 1830-1840 or so. Many visionaries were bothered by the clearly imperfect nature of human language. They seem to be correct to me that language in its current state is far from the divine original.

  2. Mark Ashurst-McGee compares JS to Dee in “A Pathway to Prophethood: Joseph Smith Junior as Rodsman, Village Seer, and Judeo-Christian Prophet,” (MA Thesis, Utah State University, 2000). Mark’s thesis is available through UMI, for those interested.

  3. I really like Ashurst-McGee’s treatment and Dee is a great resource in understanding the seeric tradition, though I don’t remember him touching on language at all.

  4. Mark Ashurst-McGee says:

    I drafted a chapter for my thesis comparing John Dee, Emmanuel Swedenborg, Joseph Smith and contemporaneous Rochester seer Mary Lambert, and Edgar Cayce. My chair advised me to cut it and focus on Joseph Smith. Maybe someday . . . .

  5. Those pesky thesis advisors!

  6. Kevin Barney says:

    While I was in Boston this past weekend I saw a Swedenborgian church. I had never seen one before.

  7. Am I the only one who find Dee a sad and tragic figure? I guess. Give me Meister Eckhart over Dee any day.

  8. We have focused more on the Magisterial Reformation than on the Radical Reformation – I’m sure that will change someday. We don’t seem to have much outside of World Magic View, Refiner’s Fire, and other books and articles linking Joseph with Western seers, and the magic-hermetic-Kaballah-masonic tradition. I think there’s a mountain of linkages, from the restored scriptures to the temple. I also think as we proceed deeper into the last days, knowing about these spiritual gifts will help us a great deal.

  9. Wow, I never thought I’d see John Dee’s name pop up in the Mormon blogosphere. Yet another reason why BCC is the only religious blog I bother with. I was familiar with John Dee through that wonderful madman Aleister Crowley long before I really knew anything about Joseph Smith. But it was indeed Dee who came to mind repeatedly the first time I read a bio of Joseph, what with the seeing stones, the translations of “new” languages (ever heard the recordings of Crowley speaking in the Enochian language of angels?), the lasting effect their lives had on those who came after (and the many ways in which their own goals were frustrated). I’ve always found it a little sad that so many religious people remain unaware of the profound interest “occultists” had in the Bible and the Word of God. Even Crowley himself was steeped in Biblical knowledge and tradition, although he preferred to use those to tweak the religious. In fact, while my friends were reading “Occult” books to try and cast spells & summon “demons,” I was most interested in the attempts to synthesize the varieties of religions (Jewish Kabbalah, Christiantity, Buddhism, &c.) with each other and with the natural world. It seems the task proved too herculean, but it’s a fascinating subject.

  10. Three quick comments:

    1) Dee has always been fascinating to me.
    2) I never thought I would see the word “wonderful” used to describe Crowley, even in the “madman” context.
    3) If we’re looking at favorite mystics, in the Christian tradition I’d have to go with John of the Cross. His writings, particulary “Dark Night of the Soul”, are great.

  11. Banky: I’m glad you liked the post. Your comment makes me think of a PBS special I just saw about the rise and fall of muslim Spain. One of the virtues of the time was that (for a few years anyway) Muslim, Christian, and Jewish scholars worked together in peace. This period of time was the bottle neck through which much of the mystic/alchemical/gnostic/Aristotelian knowledge passed from the ancient world to feed the renaissance in Europe. I wonder if ‘mysticism’ served as the common ground that the scholars shared in spite of their religious differences.

    Cadams: I appreciate your optimism. That being said, I think he current inertia in the church is to try and make our restoration seem less radical. I hope we can make some of these radical roots more widely known, but I don’t expect it to go too far.

    I’ll have to read the Mark Ashurst-McGee thesis. I’m still figuring out how to get a copy through my institute’s library.

    larry co_ & Clark: Everyone’s entitled to their own mystic heroes, but I’ll stick with those of the alchemical variety!

  12. If you want an alchemical hero, why not Newton or Boyle?

  13. Mark: if you decide to publish your contextual seeric paper, let me know. For a side project, I accumulated a fair bit about the Swedish Prince and the American King. Unclear when I’ll be able to return to it. I do think a sympathetic and more rigorous treatment than either Quinn or Brooke offered would be quite useful in understanding early Mormonism.

    Someone should link to Crowley for the rest of us.

  14. Newton and Boyle never spoke with angels :)

  15. Well, I’m not at all convinced Dee did either.

    And I’d be somewhat cautious about what Newton did or didn’t do. (grin)

    BTW – can I say that Dee’s mystic glyph always looked too much like Cthulhu for my tastes? Elder Gods indeed.

  16. Adam: I heard about that PBS special, but I sadly missed it. I’ll have to look for a download, it definitely sounded like my cup of tea. I sorely lament the stake that the Enlightenment put through the heart of mystical thinking, leaving us with our religious vs. secular mindset.

    Larryco – Perhaps I got carried away with the John Dee love. I wouldn’t expect this crowd to associate “Crowley” and “wonderful.” Certainly his lifestyle is about as far from WoW-inspired living as one could hope to get, but I should reemphasize my point that the worst of what you imagine about Crowley was virtually all propaganda – much of it encouraged by the “Great Beast” himself. For example, he never really denied the accusations of child sacrifice that were frequently leveled against him, using his own writings as evidence. Of course, the rituals which called for what people thought was child sacrifice actually involve masturbation – typical of Crowley’s sense of humor, and almost pathological need to upset the devoutly religious. (The joke, of course, is rooted in the Catholic teaching on the Sin of Onan, which I always thought was particularly clever on his part.)

    I was going to drop a ton of links for the curious, but apparently I can only rock three. So, people wanting more information are encouraged to search Wikipedia for John Dee, his infamous charlatan/seer sidekick Edward Kelley, and the language of Angels known as “Enochian” (because Enoch was believed to be the last to speak it). Enochian was alleged to be the Adamic language, which also appears in the Book of Moses, and you can download audio clips of Crowley speaking in Enochian here (bottom of the page). I will provide link action for Mr. Crowley, courtesy of his still extant occult society, the Ordo Templi Orientis (check out the rest of their site, if you’re curious), which uses initiation rituals that bear more than a passing resemblance to the Temple and the Masonic initiations (neither of which I was going to link, for obvious reasons).

    And in the course of assembling those links, I stumbled across this fascinating site: Mormon Magus. I don’t know quite what to make of that one!

  17. Well, I had a big long post here, but I somehow managed to lose it. Bummer. A quick recap from memory:

    Adam – I missed that PBS special, much to my dismay. I’ll have a look and see if I can find a rebroadcast or a download. I had heard about it, and it’s right up my alley. I think we’re long overdue for a revision of our understanding of pre-Enlightenment thinking. Most people to this very day – even many academics, I’d wager – have no idea that Newton was heavily into alchemy (and eschatology, for that matter). There was a time when Science was not divorced from Faith, and what most people think of as the Occult was often deeply rooted in the Scriptures.

    Larryco – Aleister Crowley has always fascinated me; indeed, he’s something of a hero of mine. While his lifestyle was no doubt about as far from WoW-style living as one could get, he was a brilliant thinker with a wicked sense of humor. Any of the recent biographies of him are well worth reading. The worst rumors and gossip about him are largely exaggerations, often circulated by Crowley himself. (For example, he never refuted the idea that he used child sacrifice in his rituals. The “child sacrifice,” however, was in fact the Sin of Onan. He loved tweaking the devoutly religious that way.)

    I see that I can’t post more than three links in a comment, so I’ll just suggest that those seeking linkage search Wikipedia for John Dee, his charlatan/seer sidekick Edward Kelley, their Adamic “language of angels” Enochian (I believe the Prophet was interested in the Adamic language too, no?). You can find clips of the wax cylinder recordings of Crowley reciting in Enochian out there on the interwebs. Further recommended reading can be found on the oto-usa.org site – the O.T.O. being Crowley’s mystical organization, Ordo Templi Orientis, whose ritual initiations share much in common with both the Temple and the Masonic rituals.

    Oh, and here’s a very strange link I came across while poking around: Mormon Magus. Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law, folks!

  18. Frankly, it’s disturbing for me to see so many people holding up Dee and even Crowley as figures to be admired. Can’t you see that their occult activities were a one-way ticket to the demonic? Their immoral activities should be all the evidence you need to figure this out. Also, the debasing of the word “mystic” continues… stick to real mystics like St. John of the Cross.

  19. Well, cassianus…John Dee was attempting, like so many before him, to find God. Since the Church had yet to be Restored, what exactly would you have had him do? Join the Catholics? You’re exhibiting exactly the kind of attitude I was lamenting above – judging knowledgeable and devout (in their own way) people of the past by contemporary standards. (Let’s set aside Crowley for the moment, I certainly don’t expect to redeem him in this particular company!) Do the revelations of Issac Newton’s work in alchemy and other occult arts mean that we should no longer hold him up? Pshaw.

  20. John Dee was an interesting point, and one that I think set a foundation.

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