The strenuous regiment lent itself extremely well to Dee’s prolific pace: in his lifetime, he penned seventy-nine full-length manuscripts, one of which exceeded the page count of the Bible. While many concerned the dark arts, which Dee would later become indelibly linked with – magic, astrology and the hermetic philosophy – not all were fixated on matters of the occult. In one treatise, for instance, he lobbied for a 1582 papal bull on calendar reform that would later be adopted by the British in 1752; in another, he proposed accumulating knowledge in a royal library – a goal later realized upon the founding of the British Museum in 1753.
Dee made his name while traveling Europe in the service of various monarchs. Along the way, he acquired a vast collect of occult literature, some three thousand volumes of which still exist today in archives of both the Ashmolean Museum at Oxford and the British Museum. Today, it is thought that his travels and tastes were the primary inspiration for the popular medieval conception of the bearded court magician.
And that’s not hard to believe, given the many popularized accounts of Dee’s life and times that survive today. After returning to England, he found himself imprisoned by Queen Mary in 1555 on charges of being “a companion of the hellhounds and a caller and conjurer of wicked and damned spirits,” following horoscope reading gone awry. He was later acquitted of the charges and, along the way, endeared himself to the (then) Princess Elizabeth – a friendship that would later gain him permanent entrance to the royal court.
Magician Edward Kelly in the Act of invoking the spirit of a deceased personFollowing Elizabeth’s ascension to the throne, Dee spent the next twenty years as royal authority on matters of both astrology and science for the Queen– then viewed as intertwined fields – and even provided advice on exploration of the New World, coining the term, “the British Empire,” in the process. It’s even said that Elizabeth chose her 1559 coronation date on the advice of her personal mystic.
In 1581, Dee met one Edward Kelley (Kelly), a so-called necromancer (but most likely con man) who was trying to get spirits to reveal hidden treasure. Their relationship would later become infamous, as the two sent out on travels across the Continent with Kelley convincing Dee to continuously swap wives with him, on the advice of supposed “spirit” that they had contacted. The partnership later led to the founding of the Enochian system of magic, which Dee claimed to have received through direct dictation from the Angelic Host. The duo would go on to claim that the angelic language and characters they recorded were the direct forbearers of both the Hebrew and Arabic spoken tongues.
True to form, Kelly died in 1597, following a failed prison escape. Dee would go on to speak of him at length in a memoir, A True & Faithful Relation of What Passed for Many Yeers between Dr. John Dee and Some Spirits, published posthumously in 1659. Dee died in 1608, outliving even Queen Elizabeth herself and leaving behind a body of work that is still puzzled over today.
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