Today marks the arrival of Marvel’s premier magic user, Doctor Strange, but you don’t need to look into the pages of a comic book to find examples of wizardry and magic. No, in fact one of the most famous sorcerers is a man you may have never heard of, and unlike the newest Marvel hero to be played by Benedict Eggs Cumberland Batch, this strange doctor actually existed. So join us as we delve into the wild, weird -and historical- world of John Dee, the royal magician of England.
An Ancient One
Dr. John Dee was born on July 13, 1527, and lived for 81 years. During that time he was a mathematician, a cartographer, a physician, an astronomer, and a philosopher, but he was also a man who dabbled heavily in astrology, alchemy, divination, and all matters of the occult. It has been speculated that Dee was the inspiration for Faust, the magician that made a deal with the devil, and even Shakespeare’s Prospero from The Tempest. Both tell of a man who sought occult knowledge and power at all personal costs, and though that is not a totally accurate assessment of John Dee, it is also not a completely unfair one either.
Firstly, the 16th century was generally not a great time to be a scientist to begin with and Dee was above all a scientist. It was a time of transition when the Catholic church still viewed things like math and science as possible heresy. So for Dee, dabbling in alchemy was just as dangerous as dabbling in algebra. In 1555, Dee was tapped to cast horoscopes for Queen Mary and her -then imprisoned- half-sister Elizabeth… because there was no psychic hotline back then. Dee predicted that Elizabeth would take the throne and have a long reign and Mary… not so much. As you might imagine the sitting queen at the time was not too pleased with that prognostication and had Dee immediately thrown in jail. He did eventually exonerate himself to the royal court and to the Catholic church, even earning a close friendship with the priest who administered his “religious examination,” which sounds worse that the SAT’s. In 1556, he even presented Queen Mary with a plan for a national library in order to preserve books. That plan was rejected, because… We don’t know why. Either way, he instead focused his attention on massing a personal library, which became the largest in England at the time.
In 1558, Queen Mary died and Elizabeth took the throne as Dee predicted. One of the new queen’s first acts was to name Dee the Royal Astrologer and basically gave him a royal pardon to conduct and work any sort of magic/science he might want to. Basically, anything he did was labeled as “white” magic and was considered sanctioned by the crown. In return, Dee became one of her most trusted advisors. His knowledge of cartography and navigation laid the groundwork for English voyages of expansion, and it is said he even coined the term, the “British Empire.” Dee became a celebrity scientist, -the Neil deGrasse Tyson of his day- a man whom everyone believed had all the knowledge of how the world and the cosmos worked. Only one person disagree, Dee himself, and it drove him further into the practices of witchcraft.
The Orb of Agamotto
It is speculated Dee became frustrated with his failure to grasp all the “secrets of nature,” and the definitive mechanisms of how the world and the universe worked. So he turned to a tome called the Steganographia, which is an infamous 15th century “black” magic manuscript that promised to help him finally accomplish his goals. Dee spent several years unsuccessfully trying to contact angels through a practice know as “scyring.” -Where he got to look at the top cards of his library, and then put any number of them on the bottom of his library and the rest on top in any order… Oh wait, that’s the wrong type of Magic– Eventually, he claimed that the angel Uriel appeared to him and gave him a crystal ball, which he could use to directly contact angelic beings, but doing so left him drained and unable to remember the conversations he had with the heavenly creatures. So he brought in another scryer who had greatly impressed him, Edward Kelley.
By all accounts Kelley was practiced at the art of conducting seances and other spiritual contacts. He was also a known counterfeiter, and very possibly a conman, but in a very short time he became Dee’s closest advisor and companion. Thus, Kelley would commune with the angels, while Dee recorded the sessions and the words that were spoken. Many of which were written in the “Enochian” language, which Dee claimed was an angelic language. Dee described hundreds of conversations with biblical angels, monstrous creatures, and divine women of grace and beauty. The scrying sessions became an obsession for Dee. He believed that with Kelley’s help he was unlocking the secrets of the universe for the betterment of mankind. Unfortunately, Jane, Dee’s wife believed that Kelley’s intentions were not as pure.
During this time Dee and Kelley fell into favor with a Polish nobleman, Albert Laski, who was invited to sit in on some of these scrying sessions. This, unfortunately, also meant that the Elizabethan court began to suspect Dee of conspiring against the crown and dabbling in things that were unnatural. He was almost certainly being spied on by agents of Elizabeth. Laski, however, persuaded the pair of magicians to come to Poland. Dee was dubious of the trip, but through some “prompting” from the angels and Kelley, eventually convinced him to go. Unfortunately, what Laski had failed to mention was that he was broke and out of favor with the Polish court. There was no warm welcome for them in Poland and in 1583, Dee, Kelley, and their families began a nomadic life of traveling around Europe giving audiences and seances to various nobility, including the Holy Roman Emperor. However, Dee was never fully trusted by the aristocracy of Europe, especially the Pope who labeled him as a heretic. Others just believed -as some still do today- that Dee was a spy for Queen Elizabeth and thus the families were never truly welcome in any one place.
Return to the Sanctum Sanctorum
John Dee should have listened to the warnings of his young wife. In 1587, while in Bohemia, Kelley had a sudden “revelation” from one of the angels that proclaimed that Dee and Kelley needed to share all possessions, most importantly their wives. At this point Kelley, was the more trusted of the by the courts of Europe, especially by the Holy Roman Emperor. He had gained renown as a alchemist of some talent and worth and claimed to have the secret to the Philosopher’s Stone -or Sorcerers Stone as Rowling calls it for American audiences. Dee, on the other hand, was blinded by his belief in the scrying sessions and his overwhelming desire to gain the knowledge of the angels. He agreed almost without question to an act that -at the time- was an extreme form of sin and black occultism. Almost, intermediately after the wife-sharing incident Dee broke off his association with Kelley and returned to England, but nine months later a son was born. It was very likely the progeny of Edward Kelley and Jane Dee.
Things only got worse upon returning to England. There, Dee found his home of Mortlake in disarray. The estate was vandalized, his famous library was ruined, and most of his valuable scientific instruments were destroyed or stolen. Kelley continued on in Europe as an alchemist gaining further favor and fame in the Holy Roman Empire -and he was eventually made a Baron… before being imprisoned and executed some years later. Dee, however, found little fame, fortune, or even a quick death in England. Due to his occultism London and the royal court were no longer a hospitable place. Perhaps in recognition of all he did to help her secure her throne and establish the British Empire, Elizabeth did appoint Dee Warden of Christ’s College in Manchester, but he had little control or real renown in that position. After Elizabeth died, James I took over the throne and treated Dee with even more contempt and less support. Dee spent his last few years penniless and broke. He died in Mortlake in 1608.
Dr. Strange Tales
Dr. Stephen Strange, is the most powerful sorcerer in the Marvel Universe. He often consults occult books, spiritual powers, and casts all manner of spells that would have gotten him imprisoned or worse in 16th century England. In some ways he is the foil of Dr. John Dee. Strange’s hubris and lust for knowledge took him from a egotistical surgeon to the protector of the world. Dee’s journey for knowledge did nothing but pave his path to hell with golden intentions.
In our world the life of a historical magic user is often less glamorous and less magical than a comic book character, but Dr. John Dee was a scientist without limits. His study of the occult was not so much occultism as it was about furthering his scientific interests and inquires. He did not see himself as practicing magic, but conducting research into the science of angels, astrology, and alchemy. Over the centuries, since his death, John Dee has become somewhat of a legendary figure in the occult circles of modern life and writers from Marlowe to Shakespeare have taken his example to use as cautionary tales of great men who seek unsafe knowledge. Yet, the life of John Dee was more than an allegory of power. He was a brilliant man, a scientist, and one of the chief architects of the Elizabethan era. But then again, who knows?
By the Mystic Moons of Munnopor, maybe out there in the multiverse John Dee still exists and laughs from his hallowed sanctuary as some sort of real-world Sorcerer Supreme.