The magical mathematician – 1

Dr John Dee

TUCKED away in a corner among the 10,000 books at Salisbury Cathedral’s library is an unprepossessing little book. It’s rather drably covered in vellum and is easily overlooked among the library’s more luxuriously bound volumes (the library isn’t open to the public but visits can be booked on the Cathedral’s website once the lockdown is over of course and the Cathedral is fully open). But concealed within its boards is the magical world of Dr John Dee and his enigmatic Monas Hieroglyphica.

The title page of Monas Hieroglyphica

It is thought that the book was donated to the library by the Bishop of Salisbury Seth Ward – himself a noted mathematician and astronomer – between 1667 and 1689. Dr Dee (1527 – 1608/9) was a mathematician and astronomer but also an astrologer, occult philosopher and advisor to Queen Elizabeth I (he once tried to explain his Monas to her but she apparently came away none the wiser, as so many have since). Much of his time was spent studying and practicing alchemy, divination and hermetic or esoteric philosophy and according to A. C. Grayling he was the ‘last major outburst of occultism as a force in European affairs’. In fact it’s probably more accurate to say that he was on the cusp between the pre-modern and modern world view.

Dee was a polymath and in his day he was one of the most pre-eminent intellectuals in Europe, what we might call today a public intellectual. His aura has continued to this day with countless books written about him or with his inclusion in fictional accounts of the day (Peter Ackroyd wrote a book called The House of Doctor Dee in 1993 and he features in Prophesy by S. J. Parris) but as we shall see in the next instalment he was a profoundly flawed person who was a terrible judge of character and was not above plagiarism. At one point he became disillusioned with what, for him, were conventional routes to wisdom and came to the conclusion that there was another way through direct consultation with the angels. But it was not until he met skryer or crystal-gazer Edward Kelly that his interest in conversing with the angels really took off between 1582 and 1587.

Skryer Edward Kelly

We should remember, however, that his interest in esoteric philosophy predates this period in his life by many years. He wrote Monas Hieroglyphica during 12 days of spiritual ecstasy in 1564 when he waged 37 and living in Antwerp nearly 20 years before his brush with angelology. The following is just a flavour of its contents, translated from the Latin: “Although the semi-circle of the Moon is placed above the circle of the Sun and would appear to be superior, nevertheless we know that the Sun is the ruler and King. We see her grandeur, which is apparent to ordinary men, yet the face, or semi-sphere of the Moon, always reflects the light of the Sun.” He believed that the ‘Spirit writes these things rapidly through me; I hope, and believe, I am merely the quill which traces these characters’.

Dee was in no doubt that his work would revolutionise astronomy, alchemy, mathematics, linguistics, optics, magic and adeptship (an Adept was particularly skilled in in the study and practice of alchemy or hermetic philosophy encompassing alchemy, astrology and theosophy. The grade of Adeptus Minor and subsequent grades Adeptus Major and Adeptus Exemptus form the Second Order of the Golden Dawn in the late 19th and early 20th centuries). He also thought it would bring power to those who understood it. He often directly addressed Maximilian II, Holy Roman Emperor from 1564 (the year the Monas was published) to 1576 and indeed it is dedicated to him. “Oh, Maximilian! May God, through this mystagogy (instruction before initiation into religious mysteries or before participation in the sacraments), make you or some scion of the House of Austria, the most powerful of all when the time comes for me to be tranquil in Christ, in order that the honour of His redoubtable name be restored within the abominable and intolerable shadows hovering above earth.” Putting this into context, we should remember that Dee was constantly seeking patronage and this may simply be another example of these never-ending efforts.

If we look more closely at the title page of the Monas (above) we know that the words at the top translate roughly as ‘if you don’t understand this then be quiet or learn’, which hardly anyone has taken any notice of because although nobody really understands it, that fact has not prevented people from talking and writing about it. The four squares at the top and bottom of each column represent the Quaternity or the four elements of fire, air, water and earth. The writing at the bottom of the glyph are words from Genesis: “From the Dew of Heaven (Mercury or quicksilver) and from the Fat of the Earth (sulphur) God gives to you.” Mercury, the king of the planets, and sulphur are the two most important elements in alchemy. The symbols contained within the egg shape (itself an important alchemical symbol) represent the Moon interlaced with the Sun, as described by Dee. In the centre is the earth, which means that this is a geocentric symbol with the Sun revolving around the Earth, rather than the heliocentric view adopted by Copernicus earlier in the 16th century, although this may also be a representation of the Lapis or Philosopher’s Stone. The linking of the Moon and Sun also doubles as the astrological sign for Taurus, the first sign of earth. Below that we have the four corners of the Quaternity again delineated this time by the Christian Cross and the footing represents Aries, another important symbol in alchemy being the first sign of the Zodiac and of fire, Mars and iron. Pythagorean numerology also plays a part here with the four stations of the cross adding up to the Unity of ten via 1+2+3+4, which, according to Dee is why the Roman numeral of ten is also a cross.

Inside the Monas Hieroglyphica

You might be wondering why at this point why Bishop Seth Ward, who supported the Copernican view of the solar system, would have wanted a book like the Monas which comes from such a different perspective. The answer is also contained in this extraordinary little book and we will investigate this in the next blog.

Some of the paraphernalia on show in the British Museum allegedly used by Edward Kelly during his conversations with the Angels.

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