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).

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