*Includes excerpts of contemporary accounts
*Includes a bibliography for further reading
“Who does not understand should either learn, or be silent.” – John Dee
With the golden glow of the candlelight kissing his cheeks, he hovered over a spirit mirror, a flat, exquisitely lustrous “shew-stone” fashioned out of raven-black obsidian. Gazing intently upon his reflection in the dark volcanic glass, he chanted in hushed tones as he ran his fingers across the engravings on the oat-colored wax wheel next to him, the Sigilla iEmeth, which featured a septogram and runic carvings and symbols in minuscule print. Contrary to what one might expect, it was not a phantom, hobgoblin, or demon that he sought, but rather, the seraphic voice, and perhaps even the face of an angel – the one bridge between mankind and their Creator, one who holds the key to all of life’s unanswerable questions.
Was this man delusional? Perhaps so, but perhaps not. But there was no question among those on hand that this was not an ignorant, philistine, unlettered buffoon of a man who readily boarded the train of groundless superstition. Far from it, this was a man who held not only a master’s degree, but a doctorate, and his simultaneously stimulating and mesmerizing lectures drew crowds of royals and nobles from near and far. This was a man who was well-versed in a host of academic fields, and he would go on to serve as one of his queen’s foremost personal advisers. He was also a prolific author whose revolutionary ideas helped charted the path for the burgeoning British Empire.
The man in question is none other than John Dee, one of the greatest scientific minds of his time, but also one of the most controversial. He was a learned man in fields as varied as mathematics and astronomy, centuries before they became formalized fields of study, but he is better remembered for performing magic and alchemy. Instead of astronomy, he became renowned across England for astrology, and he was one of the country’s most notorious occult writers during his life.
Given the variety that the Elizabethan Era had to offer, it should come as little surprise that some eccentric characters with seemingly unique skills pushed to the forefront and became lauded members of society. Over the course of her long reign, Queen Elizabeth I became one of England’s most famous and influential rulers, and it was an age when the arts, commerce, and trade flourished. It was the epoch of gallantry and great, enduring literature. It was also an age of wars and military conflicts in which men were the primary drivers and women often were pawns.
John Dee himself has been credited with coming up with the name “British Empire” in the first place. As all of this suggests, to say that John Dee was a storied man would be a grave understatement, to say the least. His multifaceted reputation preceded him, and his name became synonymous with both brilliance and disconcerting eccentricity. By all means, he certainly looked the part – the occultist towered over his peers, his wiry frame cloaked in a charcoal-black “artist’s gown” with a ruffled white collar, his veined hands peeking out of his flared sleeves. He bore a pasty, pallid complexion, which seemed almost ghostly, paired with a magnificent beard that was “as white as milk.”
Chilling rumors about his immeasurable magical abilities have kept his name alive for centuries. Legend has it that this was a man who singlehandedly cast a crippling curse on the Spanish Armada as the fleet sailed towards England, conjuring up the merciless storms and violent waves that threatened to swallow the ill-starred convoy whole, and left them with no choice but to turn back. This was a man who was once branded “the greatest rogue in the neighborhood of London.”
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