Mishkan ha-Echad

Wednesday 23 December 2015

The Provenance of John Dee's Obsidian Mirror

Image Copyright: British Museum

It is widely believed today that the Obsidian Mirror on display in the British Museum was used by Dee and Kelley, a matter that is largely taken for granted, thanks to it being in the same display cabinet as other items linked with Dee, and its attribution to the Elizabethan magician by museum staff.

This Mirror is of Aztec origin, leading some to suggest a possible Aztec link to the Enochian workings. Yet this is all based on the assumption that this device was, in fact, Dee's, whereas there is no real evidence that this is actually the case.

This assumption is primarily based on a claim by Horace Walpole, who received this item in 1771. The note pasted to the accompanying case, believed to be written in Walpole's handwriting and initialled by him, reads: “The Black Stone into which Dr Dee used to call his Spirits.” It was not acquired by the British Museum until 1966, where it continues to be labelled as Dee's “Magical Mirror” or “Magical Speculum,” based solely on Walpole's unverified claim.

Some even believe this was the object that mysteriously appeared by the window during one of Dee and Kelley's workings, but this has no basis. The stone that Dee found was described by Kelley as being “as big as an egg: most bright, clear and glorious,” while Dee said it was “roundish, and less than the palm of my hand.”[1] Given that the Mirror in the British Museum has a height of 22cm (including the small handle) and a diameter of 18.4cm, this clearly cannot be the same object that fit in Dee's hand. Indeed, it is almost as large as the Sigillum Dei Aemeth itself. While Dee later described the stone as being half an inch in thickness, which the Mirror roughly is, the other dimensions simply do not match. I would also argue that Dee's description of the object he found being “roundish,” and the numerous references to it being a “stone” (and not a “glass”) suggest it was spherical, not to mention Kelley's description of it being “bright” and “clear”—in other words, a classic crystal ball, not a black mirror.

Of course, Dee had several objects in his possession for skrying, so it could be argued that the Obsidian Mirror was one of these. However, I have yet to find a single reference to this object in any of Dee's diaries, whereas there are numerous mentions of his various shewstones. One would think that if this Mirror was “used to call his Spirits,” there would be mention of it somewhere, particularly given Dee's meticulous record-keeping, not to mention its origin in the New World.

The authenticity of this object has also been challenged by several scholars, including Christopher Whitby, who wrote about it at length, stating finally “the evidence connecting the mirror with Dee is very circumstantial.”[2]

Further, in an article on the provenance of the items associated with Dee in the British Museum, written by Silke Ackermann, a former curator of the British Museum, and Louise Devoy, curator of the Royal Observatory, they noted that “at the present time, and without further evidence, any suggestion of a direct link between the obsidian mirror and John Dee remains conjectural.”[3]

They also categorically denied a link between the Golden Talisman and Dee, stating, “we have established that the engraving of the Vision of the Four Castles is based upon Casaubon’s erroneous diagram of 1659, and can therefore state that the disc certainly did not belong to Dee, nor was it made during his lifetime.”[4] While they noted a lack of definitive evidence linking the wax seals with Dee, they recognised that the internal evidence (of how closely they match the instructions and diagram in Dee’s diaries) offers “the strongest potential link to Dee.”[5]

Indeed, even the provenance of the crystal ball on display in the British Museum is questionable, and it was not originally associated with Dee by museum staff. It is only one of several devices that have been attributed to Dee over the years. 

For example, there is another crystal ball in the Science Museum in South Kensington, which Nicholas Culpeper claimed was given to him by Dee's son Arthur. Culpeper apparently used this stone, which is of a purplish hue and is contained within a metal frame upon a small chain, until 1651, when he said he encountered within it a lewd and depraved entity. It is difficult to say if this object was genuinely possessed by Dee.

There is also a convex Claude glass in a circular case in the Science Museum that is attributed to Dee and his spirit workings, but this is more likely to be the one that Dee used to display optical illusions to people,[6] including Queen Elizabeth I, if indeed it is Dee's at all.

We see, therefore, that many people have claimed to have received one of Dee's magical devices over the years. Indeed, Francis Barrett noted in 1801 that there were as many as seven people purporting to have one of these illustrious heirlooms:

“Although Dee's manuscripts, and his Magic Chrystal, are to be seen at the Museum, there are six or seven individuals in London who assert they have the stone in their possession; thereby wishing to deceive the credulous, and to tempt them to a purchase at an enormous price.”[7]

Given Dee's popularity (or notoriety), it is not surprising why people would make such claims, but it does considerably muddy the water in terms of scholarship, not to mention leading to unsupported (though evidently very popular) beliefs like that of Dee's alleged Obsidian Mirror.

This is important in a practical sense, because there are many people attempting to recreate the process used by Dee and Kelley, employing a similar black mirror instead of the more traditional shewstone. While there is nothing stopping anyone from using any object they desire in their own personal spirit workings, it seems very unlikely that they would actually be emulating Dee in this regard.

Extracted from Enochian Magic in Practice by Frater Yechidah


1 Joseph H. Peterson, ed. John Dee's Five Books of Mystery, p. 253. 

2 Christopher Whitby, John Dee's Actions With Spirits, p. 141. 

3 Silke Ackermann, Louise Devoy, ‘The Lord of the smoking mirror’: Objects associated with John Dee in the British Museum; Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part A, Volume 43, Issue 3, September 2012, p. 543.

4 Ibid., p. 548.

5 Ibid., p. 547.

6 See Dee's The Mathematical Preface to Elements of Geometry of Euclid of Megara, where he describes this object. 

7 Francis Barrett, The Magus, Book II, p. 196 (footnote).

Tuesday 22 December 2015

The Horns of Metatron and Sandalphon

It may seem strange at first when some people encounter the diagram of the Kerubim and the Flaming Sword in the 1=10 Grade, which shows on either side of the Flaming Sword the heads (and only the heads) of the two Great Angels Metatron and Sandalphon, both of whom have horns.

These same angels are also drawn with horns on the Great Seal that is found on the Obligation and Membership Scroll of the Second Order.

Generally when we think of horned entities we think of devils and demons, not angels, so this can be quite a surprise to many, and may even lead some to question the nature of these depictions.

This view of horned beings was not always the case, however. For example, Moses was often depicted with horns, based on a translation of Exodus 34:29 in the Vulgate, where the Hebrew קרן (qaran) became the Latin cornuta (meaning "horned"). The Hebrew word can also be translated as "to display horns" (or, more simply, "horned"), based on its root word qeren (also spelled קרן, but with different pointing), which means "a horn."

This led to many popular renditions of a horned Moses, such as the well-known statue carved by Michelangelo around 1515, as shown below:

In fact, the concept of a horned Moses was very popular, and was replicated time and time again in paintings and statues.

However, there is an alternate (and more popular today) translation of the word qaran as "to send out rays" (or "rayed" or "shining," sometimes taken to mean "glorified"), and this tends to be supported by the Biblical verse itself, where Moses had just spoken with God and received the two tablets on Mount Sinai.

This conception is also depicted in artwork, such as this fresco by Andrea da Firenze:

Here we see the horns have become rays of light, which is a form that many may find easier to accept. Yet these could also be said to be horns of light.

This form of Moses was also tied to some stories about Metatron, where, for example, the angel appeared as a horned youth (see p. 424 of The Faces of the Chariot: Early Jewish Responses to Ezekiel's Vision by David J. Halperin).

Another depiction of the horned Metatron can be found on the First Pentacle of the Sun in The Key of Solomon the King, translated by Mathers.

This design is essentially identical to how this Great Angel is shown in the diagram displayed in the 1=10 Grade, down to the shape of the horns. A similar, feminine form is given for Sandalphon on the other side.

Of course, the above is only scratching the surface when it comes to these "Bovine Horns," but it does show that horns have been used for many centuries to depict holy people or beings.

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