John Dee’s Mirror

February 8, 2013

John_Dee_AshmoleanMade from obsidian and used by him for what he called “angelic communications”, John Dee’s mirror did no small amount of damage to the reputation of a man who, in his day, was celebrated across Europe for his scientific knowledge.

Said to have been the inspiration for Shakespeare’s Prospero and JK Rowling’s Professor Dumbledore, English scientist John Dee’s (1527-1609) work was actually instrumental in moving science away from its magical associations. His belief that everything in the universe is connected, governed by invisible forces, foreshadowed Newton’s work on gravity, the discovery of electricity and even today’s quest for a ‘Theory of Everything.’

Prominent in the court of Queen Elizabeth I (he signed his communications to her ‘007’), Dee’s reputation as a mathematician and astronomer saw him touring Europe, where he lectured on algebra, astronomy and navigation. Tycho Brahe introduced him to the work of Copernicus – which Dee later applied to calendar reform in England. He also worked with closely with Gerard Mercator on developing more accurate maps and navigational instruments.

DeeDee’s application of Euclidian geometry to navigation made him a leading force in the developments that underpinned European overseas expansion – indeed, Dee is credited with coining the term ‘British Empire’* and was a keen advocated of the colonisation of North America. Dee’s collection of astronomical instruments, maps and globes was legendary, as was his personal library, which numbered more than 4,000 volumes. He introduced Euclid’s Elements to England in 1570 and some argue that it was he who gave the Voynich Manuscript to Rudolph II (a theory for which there is little evidence, although Dee did own a copy of the coded Book of Soyga).

John_Dee's_Aztec_Scrying_MirrorDee’s obsidian mirror was of Aztec origin, and said to have been taken by Cortes. Whatever its history, Dee believed he could use it to communicate – or ‘scry’ – with the spirit world, and began attempting to do so following the death of his mother in 1578. His ally in these endeavours, one Edward Kelley (a known fraudster and counterfeiter, who claimed to be able to turn base metal into gold), did little to enhance Dee’s reputation. The pair travelled around Europe together where, somewhere along the way, they parted company – Kelley died attempting to escape from prison in 1597/8 (his patrons having finally run out of patience with his promises of gold). Dee, for unknown reasons, had meanwhile been banished from the region and returned to England, where he died in 1609.

The mirror, which was subsequently owned by antiquarian and politician Horace Walpole. Today, you can see it in the British Museum.


*Humphrey Llwyd is said to have beaten Dee to this by 8 years.



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