Wizards of the Coast


On History

John Dee and the occult in California.


Antonio de Pareda, The Knight’s Dream, 1655, Real Academia de San Fernando, Madrid.

Working summers at a Northern California health food co-op brings you into a constellation of eccentrics. The one that stands out in my memory, at a remove of more than a decade, is the old man who dressed as a wizard. His was not some flimsy Halloween affectation—it was a lifestyle, with accessories to match: thick robes of purple velvet stitched with golden stars, a silvery beard, and a hefty wand topped with a crescent moon. In our sole interaction that summer, he entered the co-op around closing and cornered me as I struggled to replace a roll of receipt paper. Peering out from under his pointed hat, he hit me with an intense stare and asked, “You ever done DMT, kid?”

Dimethyltryptamine, you might recall, is a highly potent, short-acting psychedelic alkaloid. It’s the stuff in the bitter Amazonian brew known as ayahuasca, and it’s the reason people lick the backs of Mexican toads to get high. The question surprised me at the time, but it shouldn’t have. Wizards have been asking questions like this for about four hundred years now.

Merlin has long occupied point position in pop culture as our archetypal sorcerer. But John Dee of England, born in 1527, the astrologer to Queen Elizabeth and advisor to Sir Walter Raleigh, was the true founder of the wizardly iconography and mythos. A skilled mathematician, geographer, and inventor, Dee also delved into grimoires, kabbalah, alchemy, and Biblical prophecy. He believed he’d been chosen by God to receive a new divine revelation—angels were sending him a new set of Biblical texts from heaven. And he had a sidekick: Dee believed the ultimate conduit was not himself but his servant, a mysterious ex-con named Edward Kelley, who spoke with the angels through a glass orb that the two called a “shew-stone,” or crystal ball.

Dee’s beliefs gained currency among notables including Sir Walter Raleigh and the poet Philip Sidney. Yet the Dee-Kelley enterprise ended badly, with professional failures and a surprisingly salacious personal dispute—Kelley claimed that the angels required the two men to keep everything “in common,” including Dee’s much younger wife, Jane, who was nonplussed by the idea. Kelley died young, dashing out his brains in a botched escape from a Czech castle where the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II had imprisoned him for claiming to transmute mercury into gold. But Dee and his mythos lived on, resurfacing throughout the seventeenth century in publications with such eye-catching titles as A True & Faithful Relation of what Passed for Many Yeers Between Dr. John Dee and Some Spirits; according to Frances Yates, Dee inspired the character of Prospero in The Tempest.


A portrait of Dee from the frontispiece engraving of A True & Faithful Relation of what Passed for Many Yeers Between Dr. John Dee and Some Spirits (1659), which portrayed Dee as a dangerous dabbler in dark arts and likened him to Muhammad and Paracelsus.

By the time, centuries later, that Umberto Eco had dramatized Dee’s saga from the perspective of a disgruntled Edward Kelley in Foucault’s Pendulum, a cottage industry had grown up around Dee and his angelic dialogues, which later followers would label “Enochian magic.” Today, initiates in Enochian magic can choose from dozens of magical guides, manuals, and Web sites; they can even listen to a book on tape sonorously dictated by a Los Angeles–based chiropractor, Jungian psychiatrist, and Aleister Crowley acolyte named Israel Regardie. “His way of pronouncing The Divine Names is at a vibratory level that one literally feels,” raves one initiate in a five-star Amazon review.

The Fairfax, California, co-op where I worked as a teenager was a haven for this sort of thing, and I have no doubt that my wizardly interlocutor—the DMT guy—was a Dee fan of some kind. But the connection goes deeper than this. Dee was also, in an oblique way, a fan of California.

* * *

On September 10, 1579, John Dee had a nightmare. He was naked, his entire body tattooed “with crosses blew and red” that recalled the pseudo-oriental textile patterns favored by Tudor nobles. The ominous Latin phrase sine me nihil potestis facere (“without me you can do nothing”) was inscribed on his right arm. And watching him with cautious, hooded eyes was Sir Francis Walsingham, Queen Elizabeth’s spymaster and “the father of modern espionage,” as a recent history of invisible ink puts it.

It’s rare to have insight into the dreams of someone who lived four hundred years ago, but I’d wager that the unexpected appearance of Walsingham in Dee’s nightmare—chronicled in a diary entry about what he called “my dream of being naked”—has something to do with the search for a Northwest Passage. Virtually every navigator and statesman of any ambition sought this elusive quarry, from the era of Columbus to that of Commodore Parry; more than a few lost their lives in the attempt. Around the time of his naked dream, Dee, Walsingham, and Sir Walter Raleigh had discussed a proposed voyage in search of a northern passage from the Atlantic to the Pacific and, with it, a speedy route to China. Most seventeenth-century maps speculated that the mythical passage would exist somewhere southwest of Hudson Bay and north of the lands of New Spain. In other words: Northern California.

One map from the 1650s combined the “Island of California,” a famous cartographical error, with an imagined inland strait that would have carried mariners southwest from the icy north of Canada, through a Mer Glaciale (Icy Sea) and past the mythical cities of Cibola and what it called the Apaches Vaqueros (“cowboy Apaches”) of New Mexico. This hypothetical passage ends in the relatively balmy, sea otter–friendly waters off Point Reyes and Cape Mendocino, near Humboldt County.


Nicolas Sanson, “Amerique Septentrionale,” circa 1650. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

The commercial advantages of such a route were obvious from the beginning, but for Dee, as usual, things ran deeper. He was searching not only for trade with China but for the ultimate alchemical object: the Philosopher’s Stone. In 1582, Dee speculated in his angelic diaries that the stone might be “hid in the secret of the depths, in the uttermost part” of the King of Spain’s dominions. The Pacific-facing lands stretching far to the west of British North America, Dee hoped, might shelter the Philosopher’s Stone as well as the Northwest Passage.

Dee never made it to California, nor did he really know it as a distinct geographical place—but that didn’t stop him from dreaming about it.

* * *

Three hundred years later, Aleister Crowley, the late Victorian mystic whom English newspapers labeled “the most evil man in the world,” was running a thriving global organization based on the magical beliefs of Dee and Kelley. Crowley repackaged Dee’s angelic dialogues and expanded them into what he called the Enochian system of magic. Most of his glosses are so cryptic as to be unreadable. “[Dee] symbolized the Fourth-Dimensional Universe in two dimensions as a square surrounded by 30 concentric circles (the 30 Aethyrs or Aires),” Crowley explains in a representative passage.

But Crowley’s magic was never about writing. It was about performance. His religious group, the Ordo Templi Orientis, offered up a beguiling mixture of bohemianism, eastern mysticism, and Catholic-inspired ceremony. And although the order began its life in the occult circles of Yatesian London, it found unexpected success in the palm-lined streets of Golden Age Hollywood.

In his engaging book Strange Angel, the journalist George Pendle excavates the back-stabbing office politics of the Southern California branch of Crowley’s occult organization during the thirties and forties. By World War II, a magnetically handsome Cal Tech rocket scientist named Jack Parsons had seized control of the Los Angeles–area branch of the Ordo Templi Orientis. Parsons’s Pasadena mansion became a center for a nascent brand of distinctively West Coast New Age mysticism, with stagy ceremonies involving sexualized versions of the Catholic Mass that often devolved into raucous, drink-fueled backyard parties. Parsons ultimately blew up both his house and himself in 1952, a casualty of his attempts to manufacture explosives for Hollywood films out of his garage.

Meanwhile, back in London, Crowley fumed in letters to friends that the Californians’ fascination with “sex magic” would give his magical system “the reputation of being that slimy abomination, ‘a love cult.’” He had a point. But in retrospect, Crowley should have been more worried about a red-haired new recruit fresh out of service in the Navy. “Although he has no formal training in Magick,” Parsons wrote excitedly to Crowley, “he has an extraordinary amount of experience and understanding in the field.” The man’s name was L. Ron Hubbard.

Today, the Church of Scientology—founded by Hubbard in the year that Parsons died, 1952—is famous, or infamous. The Ordo Templi Orientalis, by contrast, contents itself with a few outposts clustered around places like Los Angeles and Austin. Like Scientology, the OTO offers would-be spiritual initiates a pre-charted pathway complete with cool-sounding rankings, from the beginner-level “Master Magician” to the more advanced “Prince of the Royal Secret” and “Epopt of the Illuminati.” But the esoteric orders that have followed in Dee’s wizardly footsteps seem content with life in the shadows. They practice but don’t publicize, occupying the blank spots and uncharted coasts of our cultural maps. They thrive in what Dee called “the secret of the depths.”

Benjamin Breen is a PhD candidate in history at the University of Texas at Austin and the editor-in-chief of The Appendix, a new journal of narrative and experimental history. His writings have appeared in Aeon, The Atlantic, The Public Domain Review, and The Journal of Early Modern History. He is currently writing a book on the origins of the global drug trade and is on Twitter.