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Notes on John Dee’s Aztec Mirror

Ed Simon

“…this thing of darkness I / Acknowledge mine.”
Prospero, The Tempest

Dr. Dee’s Aztec obsidian mirror.

Figure 1: Dr. Dee’s Aztec obsidian mirror. London, British Museum.

[1] In the British Museum – away from the Rosetta Stone and Elgin Marbles with their legions of selfie-taking tourists – is a shiny, jet-black obsidian mirror (Figure 1). Not much bigger than any standard hand mirror, the artifact is circular with a hole-bored handle at the top. A beautiful, dark, reflective black, it was forged from volcanic Mexican obsidian which the Aztecs associated with their god Tezcatlipoca, lord of divination (among other things). This is a ritual object, and its exact provenance is unknown. The conquering Spanish brought back things like this by the boatload while they plundered Aztec gold to become the world’s first truly global empire (and in the process they imported disease, war, and slavery). The Aztecs had used obsidian stones just like this one for prophetic purposes over the course of generations. Now, spirited away from a destroyed and subjugated civilization they journeyed to a profoundly different culture where they would create new stories, and generate new prophecies. This particular mirror was owned by the eighteenth-century gothic writer, architect, and son of the former Prime Minister, Sir. Horace Walpole. He affixed a label to the mirror which simply stated “The Black Stone into which Dr Dee used to call his spirits …”

[2] Dr. John Dee has long fascinated students of the Renaissance. A sixteenth-century magus, Dee straddled the now-seemingly contrary realms of the occult and science. The great Warburg scholar Dame Frances Yates claimed that his massive library was the very mind of the Renaissance. But his was an esoteric knowledge, even during an esoteric age. Not quite at home in the classical humanism of his fellow rhetoric-minded colleagues, Dee longed to create the English equivalent of the Neo-Platonist and hermetic academies which had thrived in Florence a century before. His was a counter-Renaissance, indebted not to Erasmus and More but rather Ficino and Mirandola. And Dee’s sectarian allegiances, seemingly malleable depending on the denomination of whatever land he should happen to find himself in, was focused on a type of positivist magic. He longed for a scientific method of the occult. Dee was notorious in his own time – seemingly respected as brilliant but also chided for his lack of publication and feared for the secrets he may have divined. Yet while his name is not included among those innovators of what came to be called science – Kepler, Brahe, Copernicus, Bacon – he could include himself among their own slightly-occult circles (indeed he personally knew all of them save for Copernicus). In that shadow-land that is the emergence of modernity, Dee can count himself as being both last of the Chaldeans and one of the first of the moderns. His fortunes had a tendency to rise and fall as irregularly as fortuna’s wheel turned. He found himself imprisoned under Mary I and he begged the witch-craft obsessed James I to try him for sorcery (as that was the crime he was most often accused of) so that he could clear his name. Unique unluckiness that he had, he found himself persecuted when he didn’t want to be, and not persecuted when he did. And while some courtiers at Westminster were friendly to him, and some were not, he always had the confidence of his most beloved monarch who ruled between that frosty Catholic inquisitor Mary and the fearful Protestant literalist James: the Virgin Queen, Gloriana, Elizabeth. It was Dee who decided the day of her coronation, it was Dee who always had her confidence as astrologer, and it was Dee (perhaps looking into his black American mirror) who first christened a land for Elizabeth across the ocean as being “the British Empire.”

John Dee2

Figure 2: Title page to Dee’s Monas Hieroglyphica featuring his personal occult glyph. Wikimedia Commons

[3] Dee endures at the margins of accepted history. Two generations ago he was revived as a subject of proper academic study by Yates, but there is still something unacceptable or ghostly about him. His name appears in just too many weird books in the occult section of the suburban mega-bookstore. He may have travelled in the same circles as Francis Bacon, but Bacon gets credit for identifying and defining the contours of the burgeoning scientific revolution; Dee is associated with “Enochian magic” and speaking to angels through a crystal ball (Figure 2). There is a gulf between him and us today, and because of it he stills seems dangerous, still lacks respectability. His vision is at times shockingly contemporary, the sober advocate of calendar reform, an instrumental figure in advocating mathematics as a universal language, the proponent of new cartographic methods. But there are always those pesky angels in our peripheral vision. And while we as scholars are encouraged to not project modern day prejudices anachronistically onto the past, to not diagnose or pathologize behavior that comes from an incredibly different culture (for the past as they say is a type of foreign country) Dee can try our patience with his seeming naivety. It’s hard not to feel a bit of condescension over the man who accepted at face value his scrivening partner Edward Kelley’s news that the angels had informed him that God required them to wife swap. And then it’s hard not to feel a bit heartbroken when Dee matter-of-factly informs his silent journal that the task was achieved after initial protestations from his wife.

John Dee’s occult “Enochian” alphabet, the language he believed existed in Eden.

Figure 3: John Dee’s occult “Enochian” alphabet, the language he believed existed in Eden.

[4] In his curiosity he is intensely admirable. Dee was motivated by a faith that beneath the seeming random nature of everyday life – the tragedies, the violence, and the sadness – there was a universal order and that man could understand it and improve upon his world. We mustn’t forget that this is a belief in progress, and whether progress actually is real or not it is intensely modern a faith. But we also must acknowledge that Dee believed this wasn’t just achieved through mathematics or natural science, but through his divination, his crystal ball, his obsidian mirror. Dee was the founder of Enochian magic, he invented with Kelley (or discovered depending on your perspective) a divine Adamic language that was spoken by the angels and named after the mysterious figure Enoch who it is written of in the Bible that “And Enoch walked with God: and he was not; for God took him” (Genesis 5:22). It’s the strange language of the Hebrew Scriptures, a culture even more foreign and harder to interpret than Dee’s. There is something moving in Enoch, the father of Methuselah, and the first person to not die, to presumably ascend to heaven like Mary mother of Jesus, Christ, or Muhammad after him. Enoch “was not; for God took him.” From these few inscrutable lines an entire Apocrypha grew out of Enoch. He appears in Ethiopic scriptures, in Old Slavonic religions texts, in rabbinic Midrash. In the kabbalah it is argued that Enoch was transformed into the “lesser Yahweh,” the angel Metatron – God’s very voice. It’s this, the language of this creature’s tongue that whispers in Dee’s ear. It’s the letters of this angel’s alphabet that Dee reads in Tezcatlipoca’s mirror (Figure 3).

John Dee

Figure 4: Dr John Dee, by an unknown artist. Oxford, Ashmolean Museum. Image: wikimedia commons

[5] And yet his seemingly ungrateful fellow countrymen did not distinguish between the good angels and bad demons when it came to the supernatural communications he and Kelley supposedly received through objects like the British Museum’s mirror. One can imagine Dee’s face staring into that volcanic blackness, “the smoky mirror” (as Tezcatlipoca’s names translates from Nahutal). What we would see in that dark reflection is a man who evokes the characters he is often associated with, a cross between Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus and Shakespeare’s Prospero (Figure 4). Sunken and tired eyes, a long, prominent aquiline nose and any trace of a facial expression hidden under the costume of a pointed wizard’s beard. On his seemingly hairless head a simple academic skull-cap, around his neck the frilled collar of the Elizabethan attendant to courtiers that he was, and his clothing the austere black of the Puritans who reviled him. We do not know who had possession of the mirror between Dr. Dee and Sir Walpole, perhaps more provocatively we do not know who had possession of it between its arrival in Europe and Dee’s acquiring of it. Other than that antiquarian Walpole’s brief note, we do not even know if Dee actually owned it. Tezcatlipoca’s reputation as being a god who can only be depicted in a smoky mirror endures, for smoke obscures, confuses, stings the eyes. While a mirror is supposed to clearly reflect smoke smudges into uncertainty. Much like Dee, the mirror exists in a fundamentally mysterious zone. What does the mirror mean? Does it make any argument, or like a carnival mirror merely defer questions and answers back on themselves, providing us with no closure but with an opportunity to ruminate, to divine if you will?

[6] It is important that Dee’s possession was an object from a specific place, and that place was the Americas. And it was made by a particular people, by the Aztecs, Indians. Whether defenders or denigrators of the Indians, whether de las Casas or Cortez (or their contemporary proxies), it’s often taken as a teleological given, an inevitable outcome that the indigenous would be conquered by Europeans. And yet nothing could be further from the truth, to assume that the Indians’ defeat was a guarantee is to assault them and to do violence to their memory. Well into the eighteenth century the interior of America was well under native control. It was the Europeans of the time who saw their own march of conquest as inevitable and we’re heirs to that opinion. If any one event can be taken to have enshrined in the European imagination their promised and prophetic future dominion over the fourth part of the world it was Cortez’ destruction of the Aztec. Enhanced by Spanish and generally European propaganda in the five centuries since it happened, the mythopoeic significance of the event shouldn’t be discounted as a foundational legend on the creation of our brave new world that has such people in it. To begin with, the discovery, or rather invention of America (as the critic Edmundo O’Gorman has it) was such a profound shift in the cosmology of the western imagination that arguably even the Copernican Revolution or the Reformation itself seem insignificant in its light. To learn that an entire undiscovered hemisphere filled with unknown people lay beyond the western horizon must have been shocking to common people in a way that astronomy with its complex epicycles and its orbits couldn’t be. It was, as one Spanish explorer had it: “the greatest event since the creation of the world.” The old Trinitarian three-continent geography had been disrupted, the very literal existence of the Americas was a challenge, if not a heresy, that demanded an answer. It should not be minimized – the profound affect this land to the west had on the European consciousness. Indeed it was new in a way that could charitably only be understood as mythic. John Mandeville’s medieval voyages may have been to a constructed India, but India was always known to be real. China was known by the Romans (who traded with her). Africa may have been a “dark continent,” but it was there. And always Prester John was somewhere with the ten tribes of Israel across the boulder filled Sambation. But America was something different, something that required a new myth but could only be discussed in the language of old: Cockaigne, paradise, Eden.

[7] And in the construction of that myth various beliefs were projected onto this “new” world, which declared it both paradise and fallen world. But that such lands existed was challenging enough, to find a civilization as the Aztecs with its triumphant city of Tenochtitlan must have strained the cognitive abilities of the Spanish who came upon it. Central to the myth of Spanish dominance has been the old chestnut of Cortez being mistaken as the god Quetzalcoatl by Montezuma. But our evidence for the actuality of this is from second-hand sources, Dominicans and Franciscans recording the syncretic beliefs of a subjugated people a generation later. That this white skinned eastern god journeying from the east should seem so messianic is not hard to understand. The Aztecs story has never been told in a western tongue, it is just as blank as their obsidian mirror. And as that mirror reflects back what its viewers wish to see the Spanish read their triumphant victory over the indigenous as providential proof of the white-man’s inevitable dominion over this new world. That this was accomplished not by a few hundred starving conquistadors but indeed thousands of Indian troops rebelling against Tenochtitlan, and of course with the hidden microbes that would seem like “magic bullets” (to borrow Greenblatt’s phrase) to both Cortez and Montezuma is not part of our myth. But it was there, in a land west of More’s Utopia (which Vasco de Quinoa would try and make a reality in Mexico the very year More lay his head on the block) where contingencies and mistakes of history happen. It was first here that the Spanish and then the rest of Europe would first fully create an imaginary land they christened America.

[8] It seems prescient that Dee’s vision was potentially so shaped by an object from the New World, from America. Dee’s historical mirror-image, his oppositional twin Francis Bacon, imagined a perfect society named Bensalem in his proto-novel New Atlantis. The citizens of Bensalem – which lay to the west off the coast of Peru – like so many others Bacon envisions utopia as American – are ruled by the empirical discoveries of the scientists who labor in a university known as Salomon’s House. In Bensalem the structuring system is one of scientific positivism. Decisions are rationally made by recourse to a combination of both deduction and induction. Theories are formulated, tested experimentally and observationally, discarded if proven wrong and accepted if the evidence is in favor of them. Bacon was a Christian of course, so his Bensalemites are as well (and a profoundly multicultural group to boot), though almost incidentally and the story of their conversion is secondary, if not borderline comical. It’s clear that what rules Bensalem is a form of science. But for Bacon, for whom knowledge was power, this is not a neutral or disinterested science, but a system that exists to utilize the natural world for the benefit of man. Perhaps more than even a scientific utopia it is a technocratic utopia. Bacon makes clear that his imaginary American “New Atlantis” is predictive of where he thinks technology designed through empirical science could lead humanity. So what does Bacon’s America look like, what does his future look like? A Bensalemite explains to their visitors that what is possible are “high towers,” and “the producing also of new artificial metals,” to make fruit that is “greater and sweeter, and of differing taste, smell, color, and figure.” There are “heats, in imitation of the suns,” that in New Atlantis it is possible to “represent and imitate all articulate sounds,” that there is “flying in the air,” and “ships and boats for going under water.” Most tellingly there are “houses of deceits of the senses, where we represent all manner of feats of juggling, false apparitions, impostures and illusions.” America has oft-been represented as that land of continual, almost garish progress, a technologically addicted society ruled by a never-ending desire for novelty. For a contemporary reader it is eerie to read of Bacon’s society with its skyscrapers, its synthetic materials, seeming nuclear power, recorded sound, airplanes, submarines and most telling of all movie theaters (or TV, or computers…..).

[9] But it’s only a mistake of historical perspective that has us seeing Dee as so different from Bacon. After all, Dee believed that the universe was orderly and understandable, that mathematics could describe it, explain it, and predict it, that tools could be developed that changed and improved life. What was his obsidian mirror but a calculating machine, a computer? It was after all a type of technology, a black mirror as enigmatic as the computer screen turned off reflecting our own distorted faces back at ourselves. But Dee, for all of his professional silence, was too outspoken in his private writings. Bacon had the good sense to have faith in future generations to solve these problems and to invent these technologies, Dee’s arrogance was such that his system was already complete. Instead of scrivening mirrors we have computers and they operate not on unseen angels but on unseen electrons. Because of his failures Dee remains modernity’s dark and forgotten twin. We are able to live in a world that he could conceive of, but one which he could have never invented.

Lehigh University, April 2015

About the author

Ed Simon is a PhD Candidate in the English department of Lehigh University. His research focuses on religion and literature in the seventeenth and eighteenth-century Atlantic world. He has been previously published in The Revealer, the Journal of the Northern Renaissance, and the Public Domain Review among others. Currently he is the assistant editor of the Journal of Heresy Studies, and one of the founding members of the International Society for Heresy Studies. He can be followed on Twitter @WithEdSimon.

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  1. Kevin Walker January 2, 2017

    At last a well-researched, well-written scholarly article on Dee, with insightful links to congruent and contemporary issues – thank you for this.

  2. Margaret Smith April 13, 2019

    Thank you for your article. It is also my understanding that Dee decribed 4th dimensional space, hypercubes and such. What an amazing mind.
    I had not thought about the idea of America first coming into consciosness. Interesting. Thank you.

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