Today is the birthday of Doctor Dee, court magician and mathemetician to Queen Elizabeth the I. My ambivalent fascination with Doctor Dee can be traced back to a single object– his scrying mirror in the cabinet of curiousities that is the Enlightenment Hall of the British Museum. During my monthly pilgrimages to the British Museum, I would always pay a visit to this most seductive of objects, desplayed beside a crystal ball and a pair of Enochian tablets– tools to decode the angelic language dee and Edward Kelley thought would be the key to communing with angels.
His angelic conversations were always conducted with Christian piety, perhaps sparing him from the witch trials rampant at the time. He had hoped the angels could help heal the very real spiritual rift left from the dissolution of the Catholic church and the new Church of England.
We are left to wonder just what kind of magician was Dr. Dee? The newly revealed circle of skulls at his feet in the painting above– and that they were once painted over– speaks to this ambivalence. He was perhaps foremost a librarian– his library was the largest in England. After six years abroad, advising monarchs in Central Europe, Dee returned to London to find his home and library vandalised and ransacked. He was an imperialist, one of the early architects of the colonisation of America. Perhaps its no wonder that this power object, his “devil’s mirror” was Aztec obsidian imported to England in the early 1500s. The coloniser and colonised are wedded in the deepest ways, but I digress.
Was the mirror even Dee’s? We only have Horace Walpole’s word on this. Fiction is often closer to the truth, and the stories we have inherited have already given shape to a shifting past. In the iconic portrait of Dr. Dee, he seems to be contained in a round wonder cabinet, his black cap resembling his “devil’s mirror”, a black nimbus framing his head. His pointed beard, like the finger of a planchette aimed into the dark, asks us to decipher some secret at his heart.
Terry Pratchett, that true bard of the English soul, got it right– here we have a wizard of the Unseen University– and I a Granny Weatherwax wanna be, staring into the dark glass.