Join 3,372 readers in helping fund MetaFilter (Hide)


Visionary of the British Empire
July 14, 2010 10:03 AM   Subscribe

Yesterday was the birthday of Dr. John Dee (1527-1609) (wiki). This extraordinary and brilliant man was a mathematician, astrologer, astronomer, navigator, map maker, alchemist, hermetic philosopher, and adviser in matters practical and arcane to Queen Elizabeth 1st. History has sometimes been unkind to him because he embraced science and mysticism together (previously), believing both to be facets of the same universal thing. His unfortunate experiments in conjuring angels with the alchemist Edward Kelley are probably to blame. Kelley asserted that the angel Uriel had instructed him to swap or share wives with Dr. Dee. This, unsurprisingly, led to the end of their association. 16th century celestial wife-swapping was going too far. However, Dr. Dee was a true Renaissance man and a gifted scholar. You can visit his black obsidian magic Aztec mirror at the British Museum.
posted by infini (50 comments total) 58 users marked this as a favorite

 
Dr. Dee's Black Obsidian Aztec Shew Stone for Spirit Coalescing is a fantastic product. Two doses of laudanum and a session with the Shew Stone put my humours right back in balance.
posted by Babblesort at 10:06 AM on July 14, 2010 [5 favorites]


Dancing with Mr D
posted by philip-random at 10:12 AM on July 14, 2010


I have "The Queen's Conjurer" on my bookshelf awaiting some free time. This will make some nice background reading as a prelude.
posted by CheeseDigestsAll at 10:12 AM on July 14, 2010


Cool! I learned a lot about John Dee when playing around with the Voynich Manuscript; various theories have Dee and Kelley either owning the manuscript at one time, or maybe forging it. Amazing time when one man could be expert in everything scientific.
posted by Nelson at 10:17 AM on July 14, 2010


And an interesting alter ego as well...
posted by widdershins at 10:19 AM on July 14, 2010


I've been re-reading John Crowley's Aegypt series, in which Dr. Dee is a character. Very timely post, and really well-constructed too. Thanks!
posted by MrVisible at 10:19 AM on July 14, 2010


He is fascinating. A true Renaissance man, indeed.
posted by New England Cultist at 10:22 AM on July 14, 2010


Dr. Dee also features frequently in the mythical bibliographies of Lovecraft.
posted by absalom at 10:23 AM on July 14, 2010 [1 favorite]


Nice post. I read some about Dee years ago when I went through a phase of reading about Alchemy. The Queen's Conjurer was on my to read list, but I never got around to it, and had completely forgotten about it until now.
posted by dortmunder at 10:25 AM on July 14, 2010


Dee also makes an appearance in Promethea.
posted by Halloween Jack at 10:25 AM on July 14, 2010


This is an awesome post. :)
posted by zarq at 10:34 AM on July 14, 2010


I love me some stories about historical folks like, blending the mystical and the scientific. My other fave is the Count Saint-Germaine, who deserves his own posting.

Thanks for the post!
posted by elendil71 at 10:37 AM on July 14, 2010


Dee also makes an appearance in Promethea.

In many ways the Alan Moore of his time...

Great post.
posted by Artw at 10:38 AM on July 14, 2010


zarq: thanks :)

Btw, I wonder if its interesting that there's a mythical Judge Dee from China as well...
posted by infini at 10:39 AM on July 14, 2010


And since it's mentioned in several of your links, but you left it out of your post, I'll go ahead and link to an article talking about the possibility of him being a spy and the further possibility of his cipher being the basis of the "007" used by Ian Fleming for James Bond.

Neat character.
posted by 1f2frfbf at 10:42 AM on July 14, 2010 [1 favorite]


I read (somewhere) that Dee turned to "conversations with angels" because he basically knew everything there was to know in European science and the useful arts. Which is possibly the best reason for falling into quackery and wife-swapping that I have ever heard.
posted by GenjiandProust at 10:42 AM on July 14, 2010


In many ways the Alan Moore of his time

ah, now this link I found makes sense

moore's doing an opera on dee with gorillaz (translate that for me please?)
posted by infini at 10:42 AM on July 14, 2010


1f2frfbf - yes, I found it in the Bacon link (not that kind, you lot) but had already constructed the post and couldn't find a way to bring it in without adding another couple of lines to the FPP. It was either that or ending up with a "the original bond and wife swapper" type of post which didn't feel right to me ... so yes :) thank you
posted by infini at 10:45 AM on July 14, 2010


moore's doing an opera on dee with gorillaz

Sadly that project fell apart.

I'd have liked to see him do something with Hewlett at least.
posted by Artw at 10:46 AM on July 14, 2010


Alan Moore is not writing an opera with Gorillaz. Boo!
posted by Artw at 10:48 AM on July 14, 2010


Some folks also think Dee was connected with peddling the Voynich manuscript to Emperor Rudolph II, or even helping fabricate the mysterious document.
posted by aught at 10:55 AM on July 14, 2010


When he died, he was at the gates of heaven and God was all like, "Way to not wife-swap, Jackass." And in his wrath God hit him in the head with a coconut.
posted by "Elbows" O'Donoghue at 11:15 AM on July 14, 2010 [2 favorites]


History has sometimes been unkind to him because he embraced science and mysticism together (previously), believing both to be facets of the same universal thing.

Heaven forbid.

Fascinating post -- thank you.
posted by blucevalo at 11:29 AM on July 14, 2010


History has sometimes been unkind to him because he embraced science and mysticism together (previously), believing both to be facets of the same universal thing.

What? You mean he was part of the same conspiracy as Plato, Newton, and virtually every important figure in quantum mechanics?
posted by namasaya at 11:39 AM on July 14, 2010


infini: 16th century celestial wife-swapping was going too far.

Wow, I really thought I was the only one who'd lost a relationship that way. Who knew?

(Great post -- fascinating indeed. Thanks.)
posted by MCMikeNamara at 11:47 AM on July 14, 2010


Oh wow...

"On 28 May 1555 Dee was arrested and charged with "calculating". At this time mathematics in England was considered to be equivalent to the possession of magical powers..."

I had no idea.
posted by MrVisible at 11:50 AM on July 14, 2010


probably why the term "he's a calculating bastard" or closest equivalent exists...
posted by infini at 11:59 AM on July 14, 2010


I've read a bit about Dee but don't think I ever saw a picture of the obsidian mirror (or these items) before: very interesting - thanks, infini.
posted by misteraitch at 12:01 PM on July 14, 2010


"On 28 May 1555 Dee was arrested and charged with "calculating". At this time mathematics in England was considered to be equivalent to the possession of magical powers..."

That's not really accurate. Dee was specifically jailed for calculating the positions of the stars at the time the queen was born so that he could perform an astrological reading on her. As astrology was held to be true at the time, this was specifically banned as spying on her royal highness. He wasn't jailed as a mathematician, but as a spy.

Dee is one of those men who were active and working at a time when epistemology was in a terrible state and a lot of what people believed to be true was either taken for granted because it was church doctrine or because it had traditionally been held to be true and had never been investigated. For those of you praising his mystical work, ask yourself what truths he uncovered that have endured. Ask yourselves what great mystical discoveries he made. Ask yourselves how the world has benefited from his conjuring and his astrological calculations.

Then ask yourself what he might have accomplished with an epistemology that allowed him to sort the meaningful from the meaningless at more than a rudimentary level.
posted by Pope Guilty at 12:16 PM on July 14, 2010 [6 favorites]


Also, if you're interested in more information about John Dee, the biography The Queen's Conjurer: the Science and Magic of Dr. John Dee, Advisor to Queen Elizabeth I is a very compelling read.
posted by Pope Guilty at 12:18 PM on July 14, 2010 [1 favorite]


What? You mean he was part of the same conspiracy as Plato, Newton, and virtually every important figure in quantum mechanics?

No matter what he tells you, Deepak Chopra is not a quantum physicist. Quantum mechanics has no connection to mysticism beyond the books of profiteers and airheads who heard the phrase "spooky action at a distance" and saw dollar signs flashing in their eyes.
posted by Pope Guilty at 12:20 PM on July 14, 2010 [1 favorite]


Nice post infini. Coincidence; I have just finished reading The Bones of Avalon a sort of Tudor cloak and dagger story with a factual basis. Fun read. The private library of Manuscripts owned by Dee was extraordinary. He was a contemporary of Nostradamus, conciller and physicial to the Catholic French Court. I wonder if they ever met and scryed together.
posted by adamvasco at 12:29 PM on July 14, 2010 [1 favorite]


counsellor and physician - get off my keyboard cat!
posted by adamvasco at 12:31 PM on July 14, 2010


Quantum mechanics has no connection to mysticism beyond the books of profiteers and airheads who heard the phrase "spooky action at a distance" and saw dollar signs flashing in their eyes.

Hey, if only Dr. Leon Lenderman had chosen a different nickname, we wouldn't be having this problem. ;)
posted by zarq at 12:31 PM on July 14, 2010


counsellor and physician - get off my keyboard cat!

You get your own keyboard cat off, sicko.
posted by Pope Guilty at 12:33 PM on July 14, 2010 [1 favorite]


Hey, if only Dr. Leon Lenderman had chosen a different nickname, we wouldn't be having this problem. ;)"

Physics pickiness: Lederman.
posted by psyche7 at 12:52 PM on July 14, 2010


Cursed Overly Large Fingers On Tiny, Tiny Keyboard
posted by zarq at 1:06 PM on July 14, 2010


face it, none of you can type
posted by infini at 1:23 PM on July 14, 2010


We can still stereotype though, right? Right?!
posted by zarq at 1:48 PM on July 14, 2010


I popped in here to see if there was more news about the Moore/Gorillaz (or not) collaboration about Dee and sadly there isn't, but hey, at least there are two new books for my growing to-read pile. Excellent topic and I look forward to exploring the links.
posted by immlass at 2:16 PM on July 14, 2010


Great post. Thanks!
posted by homunculus at 2:53 PM on July 14, 2010


I only hope the links are worthy of the audience and their anticipation. That was my biggest concern whilst sifting through the vastness of the vessel that is google.
posted by infini at 1:55 AM on July 15, 2010


Dee's mirror and objects are fairly prominently displayed at the British Museum but you will rarely see anybody stopping to look at them. It is one example of how the Museum just has too much stuff. Here's my own photo of the objects in situ, with my wife reflected in Dee's magic mirror.

I have been working off and on on my own personal guide to the most fascinating objects in the British museum. I should get back to work on it actually...
posted by vacapinta at 3:12 AM on July 15, 2010 [2 favorites]


And since it's mentioned in several of your links, but you left it out of your post, I'll go ahead and link to an article talking about the possibility of him being a spy and the further possibility of his cipher being the basis of the "007" used by Ian Fleming for James Bond.

You know, it's only a short leap from that to suggesting that Bond is Dee, serving the Crown down through the centuries, using his alchemy to stay young, 007 his True Name in numerals. Too awesome.
posted by Amanojaku at 1:34 PM on July 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


I would totally watch movies based on that premise.
posted by Pope Guilty at 2:18 PM on July 15, 2010


I would totally watch movies based on that premise.

I would too. Are you listening, Hollywood? I'll take payment in having the movie not suck. It's not like Regular Bond is gonna get made any time soon. C'mon: "Goldfinger" even takes on a whole new meaning in an alchemical context -- damn thing practically writes itself.
posted by Amanojaku at 5:06 PM on July 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


Quantum mechanics has no connection to mysticism beyond the books of profiteers and airheads who heard the phrase "spooky action at a distance"

That's worth a whole post on its own (when I have the time).

A preview: you'll find you're wrong. I'm not talking about the standard couple of quotations from Einstein new agers like to misinterpret, or suggesting that quantum mechanics either equals or proves mysticism. That's fluff.

The surprise is that most of the key figures in quantum mechanics were mystics, and said so. They said it in ways better scientists will enjoy very much, and those who mistake scientism for science will find quite uncomfortable.
posted by namasaya at 9:03 AM on July 16, 2010


Then make the post or provide the links instead of smugly arguing by assertion.
posted by Pope Guilty at 9:23 AM on July 16, 2010


Not something you'd ever do, Pope (-who-is-frequently-) Guilty?

The fact that what I say doesn't match your preferred preconceptions doesn't mean it's any less supported by the physicists' philosophical essays I have here.

(Or make my day any less busy.)
posted by namasaya at 12:38 PM on July 16, 2010


Was Dr. Dee a Freemason? - John Dee and the Secret Societies.
posted by adamvasco at 2:22 PM on July 17, 2010


« Older During the past 4 days, the Cockrell Butterfly Cen...  |  Last week, Gizmodo asked their... Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments