The Queen’s ‘Magician’

The Curious Story of Dr. John Dee and the Empire of Angels

Between 1582 and 1589, two men—Dr. John Dee, a mathematician and scientific adviser to Elizabeth I, and Edward Kelly, an itinerant psychic—claimed that they held regular conversations with angels.

These angels explained the true origins of humanity and delivered the original language spoken by mankind before the Fall. This language, along with a mathematically complex system for making further contact with the angels, was to be used by Dee and Kelly to advance the world toward the Apocalypse.

This was not a marginal event. Indeed, it has been central to the last five hundred years of Western civilization. Through Dee—who invented the phrase “British Empire” and worked to manifest a new Christian religion uniting all humanity in preparation for the Second Coming—we can find the genesis of not only the British Empire, but also the American, and in the utterances of the angels we can find the spiritual blueprint that has driven them both. This tremendous (albeit occulted) impact on history did not end with Dee. The influence of Dee and the angelic system he and Kelly delivered to the world can be found in an astonishing number of the major turning points of Western history since Dee’s death—in the birth of modern science; in the creation of the secret societies that liberalized Europe and gave America its spiritual calling; in the creation of the state of Israel and its subsequent centrality to American foreign policy; and even in the genesis of the United States space program.

In studying Dee and his work, we are studying the secret history of the world. John Dee was a Doctor of the sublunary world who sought to reverse the Fall of mankind and return all of nature to God—to create a new Eden by prompting the Apocalypse. His angelic system influenced the men of such movements as Rosicrucianism, Freemasonry, the Royal Society, the Golden Dawn, Aleister Crowley, and Jack Parsons—and it not only changed the world but also in many ways created the world we now inhabit. Indeed, just as the work of St. Paul is responsible for turning the ideas of a Jewish messianic sect into a Holy Roman Empire, so is the work of Dr. Dee responsible for turning those of the Protestant dissenters into a global Empire of Angels.

Born into a humble family with minor court connections in 1527, John Dee quickly distinguished himself as a brilliant student, and soon rose to the heights of European intellectual life, becoming one of the great scientific minds of Europe during the time of Copernicus, Bruno, and Tycho Brahe, and a great popularizer and teacher of mathematics. Yet Dee sought not to master one subject but the totality of the sciences then available. This, for Dee, was a spiritual quest to know the mind of God; and like many of the intellectuals of his day, he extended his studies into occult philosophy, seeking direct contact with higher spiritual beings that he hoped would continue his education.

Reviewing his case in 1967, the National Security Agency summed up “our man Dee” as “a principal adviser to most of the Tudor monarchs of England, and to certain European rulers as well, including the Emperor Rudolph II. As government consultant, he excelled in mathematics, cryptography, natural science, navigation, and library science, and above all in the really rewarding sciences of those days—astrology, alchemy, and psychic phenomena. He was, all by himself, a Rand Corporation for the Tudor government of Elizabeth.”

Because of Dee’s vast range of interests, he has remained opaque to popular history. His occult activities have long been considered an embarrassment and have been used as a cautionary tale of how even great geniuses can fall victim to their own wishful thinking. Many commentators and biographers on Dee, likely wary of undermining their own careers, bracket their writing on his angelic conversations with disdain, downplaying the importance of Dee’s occult interests to his overall work. This means that most of the assessment of Dee’s occult work has been done by occult writers, where his system of communication with angels—often dubbed “Enochian magic,” a phrase not used by Dee—is discussed on its own merits, divorced from the overall context of Dee’s life and work. Writers who downplay Dee’s occult activities make the error of assessing him from a sterilized modern viewpoint, instead of summoning the bravery to interact with Dee on his own terms. Those who focus solely on Dee’s occultism make the converse error, extracting his angelic conversations from his other work, depriving them of critical context, over-romanticizing them, or conflating them with later New Age or Theosophical ideas. Both of these compartmentalizations of Dee’s legacy do him a disservice.

Dee’s belief in the existence of a spiritual realm, inhabited by both good and evil beings, interpenetrating both daily life and history, was standard in the Elizabethan period. However, those who engaged with this spirit world outside of the official bounds of the Anglican or Roman churches—whether Hermetic “magicians” among the academic elite, street-level “cunning men” and scryers, or, indeed, non-Anglican Protestants—were often criminalized, imprisoned, or killed for their troubles. Dee is remarkable not for his occult interests but for the unprecedented level of intellectual and scientific rigor he brought to them, for the fact that a man of his social position took such remarkable personal and professional risks in pursuing them, and for the phenomenal corpus of records he left behind.

In our own time, the doors to the intoxicating and hallucinatory world of magic and alchemy have long since been closed by science; and the experimental techniques once used by men like Dee, Bruno, and Newton to investigate the subtleties of the human spirit have been left to wither in the twilight of the New Age. This makes the active exploration of the invisible world as unacceptable today as it was in Dee’s time—with the main advance being that those who breach such taboo territory are economically and socially marginalized, rather than imprisoned or killed.

Yet stories like Dee’s are not without precedent in the modern world—especially among mathematicians (like Dee), some of whom have recorded similar experiences. John Nash, for instance, the Nobel Prize-winning American mathematician and economist who did critical work on game theory in the 1940s and ’50s and gave us the Nash equilibrium, believed that he had been recruited by aliens to save the world, that they were assisting him by sending him mathematical equations, and that they later acted to end his career; when asked how he could believe in such an outlandish scenario, Nash replied, “Because the ideas I had about supernatural beings came to me the same way that my mathematical ideas did. So I took them seriously.”

The brilliant, self-taught Indian mathematician Srinavasa Ramanujan attributed his early twentieth century achievements in higher mathematics to his family deity, the goddess Mahalakshmi, and received visions of scrolls of mathematical equations opening before his eyes; he is quoted as saying, “An equation has no meaning to me, unless it expresses a thought of God”—the quote could have come from Dee himself.

Carl Sagan’s 1985 novel Contact also assesses the idea of higher intelligences contacting humanity through the language of advanced math. The science fiction writer Philip K. Dick, who famously recorded his contact experience with an intelligence he called VALIS in his final novels, also spoke of language, the logos, as a living entity and medium of transmission from a higher dimension; the reality-puncturing ferocity of the Gnostic Christ of Dick’s Exegesis and the apocalyptic vitriol of the angels of Dee and Kelly’s spirit diaries are not far away in tone and content.

Nash was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, institutionalized, and experienced severe career issues as a result; Philip K. Dick also contextualized his experience as traumatic, profoundly alienating him from those around him. Ramanujan, on the other hand, experienced no such friction. While the seriousness of particularly Nash’s illness should not be downplayed or trivialized, it is also worth noting that Ramanujan differed from Nash in that his claim of visions was considered acceptable within the general cultural narrative of Hinduism, in which reports of divine inspiration or contact are routine.

This reading of Nash, Dick, Ramanujan, and even Dee and Kelly’s differing experiences is supported by an interview-based study conducted by Stanford anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann in 2014 that suggested that the voices heard by individuals with serious psychotic disorder are shaped by culture. Luhrmann found that Americans reported violent, warlike, demonic, and overwhelmingly negative voices occasionally punctuated by the voice of God, which were perceived as traumatic and pathological. Individuals from India and Africa, on the other hand, reported experiencing voices as helpful spirits or family relationships and felt them to be generally positive and to conform with cultural expectations about reality. Luhrmann’s description of the voices heard by Americans closely fits the angelic apparitions reported by Dee’s unstable English scryer Edward Kelly, and perhaps can tell us something about the cultural context of Protestant Christianity. However, like Ramanujan, and unlike modern Westerners, Dee and Kelly existed in a cultural context that supported the validity of their experiences; while not generally well regarded, magic, scrying, and angel contact were nevertheless widespread in Elizabethan England.

These contact experiences, whatever their provenance, are not confined to the margins of society; they are, in fact, woven into the very fabric of world culture. Many mainstream religions incorporate or are even founded on claims of contact with angels that are far less documented than Dee’s—with notable examples being the Revelation of John and the Prophet Muhammad’s reception of the Qu’ran from the archangel Gabriel, a being that also appears in Dee’s spirit diaries. The Kabbalistic practices of Judaism, the parent tradition of Christianity and Islam, form a tightly knit system of mathematical interpretation of scripture and even, according to some readings, two-way communication with angels, making mathematical contact with spiritual entities an established, if closely guarded, religious tradition. That these claims of supernatural contact exist purely in the realm of subjectivity and faith has not, of course, impeded their ability to shape world cultures.

Since these angelic revelations are at the root of the three primary monotheist religions in the world, as of 2010 they made up the lived mythology of 2.17 billion Christians, 1.6 billion Muslims, and 13.9 million Jews. This means that over half of the world’s population—54.8 percent—draws their model of the world from what they believe to be messages from angels. Due in part to the rapid growth of Islam, that figure will rise to 61.1 percent of the world’s 9.3 billion population by 2050. Of course, the “big three” are not the only religions that claim to rest on direct revelation—only the largest ones that claim descent from angels (as a specific class of mythological being).

Such communication between individuals and higher intelligences via math, Qabalism, and secret languages is also a running trope in the occult subculture, notably within groups that draw their inspiration from Dee. The occult occupies a treacherous liminal zone between the competing discourses of science and religion, both of which reject it. It is tiny, decentralized, largely overlooked by modern culture, not policed by the processes of licensing or peer review, and concerned with entirely subjective aspects of the human experience, making it a no-man’s land where scientists, if not angels, fear to tread. Partly because he explored this perilous territory between objective science and subjective magic, Dee’s name was occluded from history by the religious and scientific reformers that followed him.

However, Dee’s magic has as little to do with modern notions of the occult as it does with modern notions of science; rather than grimoire sorcery or woolly New Age mysticism, Dee and Kelly’s scrying sessions were an outgrowth of Christian piety and the scriptural tradition of received wisdom granted to worthy individuals by angelic beings. Likewise, the protoscience of Dee’s time was fundamentally different from what we think of as science today. While modern science is forward-looking, seeking to continually test and refine what we know about the universe through experiment, the protoscience that existed before the scientific revolution was backward looking. Europe was still crawling out of the Dark Ages and deeply concerned with recovering the knowledge it had lost. After the sack of Constantinople by the Ottoman Turks in 1453, Orthodox priests had fled to the Italian city-states, bringing with them Greek and Latin manuscripts that Western Europe had lacked access to, which scholars quickly seized upon. This meant that the prevailing intellectual climate during Dee’s life was humanism, the study of the classics. Western Europe had lost so much during the long night between the fall of Rome and the Renaissance that its scholars and early scientists saw their task as the recovery of the lost knowledge of antiquity—Greek and Roman philosophy and the Bible itself.

While the narrative of progress now leads us to think of humanity’s knowledge increasing as history advances, Renaissance thinkers believed that knowledge was naturally degrading over time and had to be recovered and preserved. The ultimate source of knowledge was not in the future, but in following the trail of history back through the ancient world—even toward rediscovering what humanity had known before the fall of the Tower of Babel and the Fall from Eden itself. The true source of knowledge, wisdom, and understanding was God, and God had progressively distanced himself from human affairs—therefore, the enterprising scientist or magician was tasked with chasing him backward through time. This quest to restore mankind’s knowledge, and even its original pre-Fall spiritual condition, was the primary goal of many of Europe’s intellectual elite during Dee’s time, and Dee’s work is the high-water mark.

To make sense of Dee’s work, we must not only make the difficult leap of taking on the Renaissance worldview, but also juggle two narratives and intersecting levels of reality. One is the story of England’s growth, its split from the Catholic Church, and its subsequent transition into a global empire. The second is the spiritual narrative of Christianity itself, beginning with the Fall and ending with the Apocalypse and Second Coming of Christ. Modern readers should easily be able to compartmentalize these stories as facets of European history. This was not at all the case for Dee or his contemporaries, for whom these mythic narratives were indistinguishable, forming the fabric of Elizabethan reality.

Just as Dee sought to restore the fallen world by divine aid, I have attempted, in my new book, to restore and reconstitute Dee’s life, work, and ongoing historical impact as a coherent narrative, and to tell the story of one of the most improbable and quietly influential figures in European history, who stood at the crossroads of the Renaissance and Enlightenment and, perhaps with the aid of the host of heaven, delivered the blueprint for humanity’s final days.


The above is from the introduction to the author’s new book, John Dee and the Empire of Angels (Inner Traditons, 2018), reprinted here with the permission of the publisher.


CAPTION: John Dee performing an experiment before Elizabeth I (Henry Gillard Glindoni, late nineteenth or early twentieth century. Courtesy of Wellcome Images)

By Jason Louv