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Dee, John

by James Dilworth

John Dee was born in London on July 13, 1527. His father was a vintner and a man of high repute in the court of Henry VIII, with some affluence, allowing him to give his son a decent education. John Dee went to St. John¹s College in Cambridge at the age of 15 in 1542, where he studied math and astronomy, receiving his Bachelor of Arts degree two years later. After receiving his first degree, he traveled to Holland meeting with many scholars. When he returned to England, he brought with him the first astronomer¹s staff of brass along with two brass gloves constructed by Gerard Mercator, a famous cartographer of that time. After his return he received a Master of the Arts degree but was soon forced to leave England after being accused of being a conjurer thanks to a machine he built. During his first sojourn away from England, he first went to Louvain, France then spent some time in Paris, giving lectures on Euclid¹s Elements and the basics of Geometry at the Sorbonne. Dee was offered a permanent post there, but he declined the post to return to England where he had been recommended for the post of Rector of Severn-upon-Severn by Edward VI, the son of Henry VII.

While performing the duties of Rector, with the assurance of a home and steady income, Dee exclusively devoted himself to astrological studies. However, upon the accession of Queen Mary, also known as Bloody Mary in 1553 he was accused of ³using enchantments against the queen¹s life² and imprisoned at Hampton Court. Such accusations of witchcraft and sorcery plagued Dee all his life, despite his many scientific achievements. Dee said in his translation of Euclid¹s Elements in English that he was regarded as ³a companion of the helhounds (sic), a caller and a conjurer of wicked and damned spirits². In 1555 Dee was freed by an act of the Privy Council and he took his liberty. Dee¹s fortunes began to rise upon the accession of Elizabeth I, due to the fact that Lord Morely, one of the queen¹s favorites, asked Dee to pick a ³propitious day² for her coronation. Elizabeth met Dee and was so impressed with him that she had him give her lessons in astrology. Soon after, Dee again went to the Continent for several years, traveling throughout Europe. In 1571, Dee purchased a mansion at Mortlake on the Thames river where he began a collection of curious books and manuscripts and objects, most of which were later destroyed by mobs that thought Dee was familiar with the Devil and was confiscated by the Queen after 1583. The collection included 4000 rare books and 700 choice manuscripts, many of which are to be found in the British Museum. He also became well known as an astronomer, as well as an astrologer with many people coming to consult his advice. Dee practiced astrology for his living, but he studied the Talmud, Rosicrucian theories and practiced alchemy in hopes of finding the elixir of life and the
Philosopher's Stone¹.

In 1581 Dee began to experiment with
crystalomancy or crystal gazing, a mode of divination using a globe, a clear pool of water (the method that Nostradamus used to collect his quatrains) or any transparent object. According to his diary on May 25, 1581 Dee first saw spirits while crystal gazing, and during the following year, he saw a vision of the angel Uriel, who gave him a convex piece of crystal that would allow communication with the spirit world. After using the crystal many times, Dee discovered that he was only able to use the crystal by concentrating his entire mental faculties on the crystal. Concentration of this kind can lead to powerful delusions, that can lead to insanity and it is generally thought that Dee didn¹t see anything, only deluding himself. Dee found he was able to use it for such communications, but he could not write down what he would see during his visions. It became necessary for Dee to have an assistant write down what he saw and heard, and Dee found him in Edward Kelly.

Edward Kelly was born in 1555 in the county of Lancashire. Nothing is known about his early life, but after being convicted of counterfeiting, he was sentenced to the pillory at Lancaster where he lost his ears. Then he moved to Worcester, becoming an apothecary and an
alchemist, gaining a reputation for being a sensualist. While Dee sought knowledge for knowledge¹s sake, Kelly only was interested how it could make him rich. Kelly was famous for claiming to have discovered the Philosopher¹s stone, and a deep knowledge of necromancy. He was also well known as a con man, having duped many people. Upon meeting Dee, Kelly looked into the convex crystal and nearly every time he did so, he seemed to have wondrous visions. Although Dee was very intelligent and learned, he was also too trusting. Kelly not only saw visions of angels, but also of devils whose task was to destroy the two men. Dee was so convinced of the truth of these visions that he transcribed them verbatim and they can be found in the book: ³A True and Faithful Relation of what passed between Dr. Dee and some Spirits². Now, Dee claimed to have finally found the elixir vitæ in the ruins of Glastonberry Abbey, and with the elixir and the spirits, Dee¹s fame spread throughout Europe attracting many curious visitors, including Albert Laski, a Polish nobleman. Laski invited the two men, along with their wives and children to return with him to Poland, so they all went.

For several years after 1583 Dr. John Dee and Edward Kelly lived in Trebona in Poland, the home town of Albert Laski, who sponsored their alchemical researches. In about a year, Laski¹s fortune was spent, and the men began to travel about Poland and Bohemia, from city to city finding new people to dupe. These travels went on until 1587, when in Prague Dr. Dee¹s health began to fail and when Kelly and Dee had a falling out because of Kelly's new explorations of a book called The Necronomicon, that frightened both Dee and his family. Dee is said to have found a copy of the Necronomicon, given to him by the alchemist Jacob Eliezer known as the "Black Rabbi" (this book does exist and was the basis of Kelly and Dee¹s Endochian magic, Crowley¹s The Book of the Law and H.P Lovecraft¹s Cthulthu Mythos). Shortly after that Dee returned to England along with his family. As for the final fate of Kelly, he continued to attempt to dupe people in Germany, claiming that he had the philosopher¹s stone and the elixir vitæ as before, but not finding as much interest as before. Eventually he was arrested as a heretic and a sorcerer in Prague, and again in southern Germany. But, after the second imprisonment he attempted to escape from his prison, only managing to fall and brake two of his ribs and both legs. He died in 1593 due to his injuries.

Dee returned to England, welcomed by Elizabeth and the court then went back to his home in Mortlake, continuing his search for the philosopher¹s stone, that always had eluded him. His experiments yielded nothing except to impoverish Dee. Seeing his plight, Elizabeth gave him first the position of chancellor of St. Paul¹s Cathedral in London and then the wardenship of Manchester College that he held until 1603 when he finally retired to his home for good. While he was warden of Manchester College Dee translated his copy of the Necronomicon into English and was never printed. After Dee¹s death the book went into the collection of Elias Ashmole then into the Bodleian Library in Oxford until it was stolen in 1934 Back at Mortlake for good, Dee was a fortune-teller which gave him the reputation of being a wizard. Dee petitioned James I in 1604 for protection against such accusation. Replying to them by saying ³that none of all the great number of the very strange and frivolous fables or histories reported and told of him were true². Dee died at the age of 81 in 1608, in extreme poverty.

Dr. John Dee, despite his apparent delusions, was one of the keenest minds of his time. He his credited for making the calculations that would enable England to use the Gregorian calendar, he championed the preservation and the collection of historic documents and he was very well known for being a great astronomer and mathematician. It could be said that Dr. Dee was the one of the first modern scientists, although he was one of the last serious alchemists, necromancers and crystal gazers.

Sources Quoted:

Barrett, Francis The Magus Reprint of the 1801 edition Secausus, NJ Citadel Press 1967

Encyclopædia Brittanica 9th edition vol 7 Edinburgh 1887

Encyclopædia Brittanica 11th edition vol 7 New York 1911

Low, Collin The Necronomicon Anti-FAQ 1995

Spence, Lewis The Encyclopedia of Occultism New York University Books 1959

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