John Dee, Queen Elizabeth I Astronomer-Royal’s magickal scrying mirror in the British Museum

The British Museum in London is full of all sorts of oddball items. Some of the things on the ground floor are much more in the line of the cabinet of curiosities than the themed collections upstairs. As you turn to the left after coming through the main entrance there is a  Victorian room dedicated to the Enlightenment. Although the cabinet of curiosities approach is frowned on nowadays, it appeals to the randomly curious part of me. It’s home to a small collection of John Dee’s magical items

Here we have John Dee’s obsidian scrying mirror. Obsdian is apparently a natural volcanic glass formed from solidified lava, and can be polished to a smooth dark surface. I didn’t notice from the description, but apparently this comes from Mexico via the Spanish.

John Dee’s obsidian scrying mirror

It’s the devil’s own job to get a picture of this in the dim light of the Museum, and taking a picture of a black object is never tremendous fun. John Dee entered Cambridge university at 15 and graduated two years later. He taught at various European universities before returning to England when he was 24 to teach navigation and mathematics to captains of the British Navy, playing a key role in the fight against the Spanish Navy.

Astronomy and astrology were linked disciplines at the time. Dee was imprisoned in 1553, allegedly for casting a horoscope for Elizabeth, Queen Mary’s sister and heiress to the throne. It’s easy to see how he got into hot water – the horoscope indicated Mary would die, and Dee was charged with attempting to kill Queen Mary with sorcery. He was released in 1555. Elizabeth became queen in 1558, and Dee’s fate improved.

Instead of scrivening mirrors we have computers and they operate not on unseen angels but on unseen electrons. Because of his failures Dee remains modernity’s dark and forgotten twin. We are able to live in a world that he could conceive of, but one which he could have never invented.

Ed Simon, Notes on John Dee’s Aztec mirror

Enochian Magic and Angelic contact

Dee is best known now for his work on occult phenomena and contact with the spirit world, which he began in earnest in 1581. He found this contact hard, so he starting doing this work third-hand, by employing gifted ‘scryers’ – people who could see the spirit world directly. Using scryers enabled Dee to take comprehensive notes. He first worked with one individual, Barnabas Saul, until Saul was burned out from some disturbing encounters, and Dee searched for a replacement to help him.

In 1582 he found him, in the form of the imperfect rascal Edward Kelley. Kelley was a sensitive, but also a charlatan, whose ears had been cropped for forgery, so he was difficult to use as a witness. Dee’s notes indicate that in November their spiritual research encountered the Angel Uriel, who instructed them to create a talisman that would make communication with the spirit world easier. Dee and Kelley constructed  these and other magickal tools.

John Dee’s wax tablet with Enochian script

This breakthrough led to Dee using a novel language called Enochian script, and the pair made significant progress, and their fame spread. This led to sponsorship from a Polish noble, who was dazzled by Kelley’s scrying ability when he came to England, and who funded the pair’s attempts to discover how to transmute iron into gold. When the noble’s money ran out, Dee and Kelly were sent to Prague with a letter of introduction to Emperor Rudolph II. This began auspiciously, as Rudolph was also attracted to the possibility of the Philosopher’s Stone, but naturally their experiments always remained on the verge of success without actually delivering.

Dee’s reputation as a wizard caused problems at home in England, where in 1583  a mob attacked his home in Mortlake and destroyed his books and instruments.  His fortunes started to decline when the Pope instructed Rudolph to expel Dee and Kelly, and they sought sponsorship for their work from King Stephen of Poland and another noble, Count Rosenberg, who accommodated the pair in his castle.

Kelley’s mischief meant that they parted their ways when he made some unreasonable demands of Dee, who then returned to England in some style in 1589. However, without Kelley he now relied other scryers who were even less reliable than Kelley. Dee held a few more posts before retiring in 1603. Dee died in relative poverty in 1608 – Kelley had perished in 1595 jumping from a window escaping from a Prague penitentiary.

A fascinating diversion into Elizabethan intrigue and mystical inquiry, brought on by a chance visit to the Enlightenment room. A few cabinets down is fellow Cambridge alumnus Stukeley’s romanticised picture of  A British Druid in his 1740 book “Stonehenge, A Temple Restor’d to the British Druids”

Picture from William Stukeley’s Stonehenge, A Temple Restor’d to the British Druids

which is why Druids have been associated with Stonehenge ever since. All part fo what makes the British Museum a wonderfully diverse way to pass a couple of hours in London.