Tag Archives: John Dee

Thoughts on “Doctor Faustus” by Christopher Marlowe

Marlowe’s version of the Faustian legend is a cautionary tale for those who are obsessed with learning, the occult, and who suffer from pride and arrogance. “It was written sometime between 1589 and 1592, and may have been performed between 1592 and Marlowe’s death in 1593.” (Source: Wikipedia)

Early in the play, Faustus conjures the demon Mephistophilis and asks him a series of questions, including questions regarding Lucifer.

Faustus. Was not that Lucifer an angel once?

Mephistophilis. Yes, Faustus, and most dearly lov’d of God.

Faustus. How comes it, then, that he is prince of devils?

Mephistophilis. O, by aspiring pride and insolence;
For which God threw him from the face of heaven.

(Act I: scene iii)

It is important to note that Faustus also suffers from “aspiring pride and insolence,” like Lucifer. Marlowe is foreshadowing the inevitable tragic fall of Faustus.

As is often the case, it is only when Faustus is faced with his death and eternal damnation that he realizes his mistakes and suffers the pangs of remorse.

But Faustus’ offence can ne’er be pardoned:  the serpent
that tempted Eve may be saved, but not Faustus.  Ah, gentlemen,
hear me with patience, and tremble not at my speeches!  Though
my heart pants and quivers to remember that I have been a student
here these thirty years, O, would I had never seen Wittenberg,
never read book! and what wonders I have done, all Germany can
witness, yea, all the world; for which Faustus hath lost both
Germany and the world, yea, heaven itself, heaven, the seat of
God, the throne of the blessed, the kingdom of joy; and must
remain in hell for ever, hell, ah, hell, forever!  Sweet friends,
what shall become of Faustus, being in hell forever?

(Act V: scene ii)

While it is generally accepted that the legend of Doctor Faustus is based upon an historical figure, Johann Faustus, who lived in Germany from about 1480 to about 1541, I could not help wondering if there was another inspiration for Marlowe’s adaptation of the legend. My first thought was that Marlowe was using the character of Faustus to criticize John Dee, one of his contemporaries who was a well-known magician and practitioner of the occult.

John Dee (13 July 1527 – 1608 or 1609) was an English mathematician, astronomer, astrologer, teacher, occultist, and alchemist. He was the court astronomer for, and advisor to, Elizabeth I, and spent much of his time on alchemy, divination and Hermetic philosophy. As an antiquarian, he had one of the largest libraries in England at the time. As a political advisor, he advocated for the founding of English colonies in the New World to form a “British Empire”, a term he is credited with coining.

Dee eventually left Elizabeth’s service and went on a quest for additional knowledge in the deeper realms of the occult and supernatural.

(Source: Wikipedia)

While Marlowe could have been writing about John Dee, there is another possibility that I could not avoid considering, and that was that he was writing about himself. Marlowe died shortly after completing the play, and a close reading of the text demonstrates that Marlowe likely had studied occult philosophy. Did he sense that he was nearing his death, and did he harbor any remorse about things he did, or practices he might have engaged in? This is nothing but pure speculation on my part, but I feel that one could make a case.

As always, thanks for stopping by and sharing in my musings. Have a blessed day.

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Thoughts on “The Punishment of Pride” by Charles Baudelaire

In those old times wherein Theology
Flourished with greater sap and energy,
A celebrated doctor—so they say—
Having stirred many careless hearts one day
Down to their dullest depths, and having shown
Strange pathways leading to the heavenly throne—
Tracks he himself had never journeyed on
(Whereby maybe pure spirits alone had gone)—
Frenzied and swollen by the devilish pride,
Like to a man who has climbed too high, outcried:
“Ah, little Jesus, I have lifted thee!
But had I willed to assault thy dignity,
Thy shame had matched they present fame, and lo!
Thou wouldst be but a wretched embryo!”

Straightway his reason left him; that keen mind,
Sunbright before, was darkened and made blind;
All chaos whirled within that intellect
Erewhile a shrine with all fair gems bedeckt,
Beneath whose roof such pomp had shone so bright;
He was possessed by silence and thick night
As is a cellar when its key is lost . . .

Thenceforth he was a brute beast; when he crossed
The fields at times, not seeing any thing,
Knowing not if ’twere winter or green spring,
Useless, repulsive, vile, he made a mock
For infants, a mere children’s laughing-stock.

(translation by Sir John Squire)

On my first read through of this poem, my immediate question was: Who is the doctor Baudelaire is referring to? My initial thought was John Dee, but upon my second pass, I didn’t think so. Dee did not have a tragic ending such as the poem depicts. Then I thought, “Lucifer?” No, Lucifer’s pride and fall predates the time when Theology flourished. So I did a little investigation online, and it seems that Baudelaire was referring to Doctor Faustus in this poem. That made sense to me, although, I think the dominant theme of the poem is universal and could be applied to many figures, historical and fictional. Just like the myth of Icarus—if you dare fly to close to the Sun, you will inevitably fall and suffer.

While the concept of pride leading to a fall is evident on the surface of this poem, I also got a sense of a secondary caution that is less obvious, but just as important. This is a warning to those who are called to follow the mystical arts.

We are told that the doctor traveled “Strange pathways leading to the heavenly throne.” I interpret this as the practice of occult rituals, with the intention of experiencing direct contact with the divine. While I applaud those who seek to glimpse the ineffable, every guidebook for those stepping onto the paths of mysticism emphasizes the importance of remaining grounded. Once you begin on the labyrinth, it is easy to lose one’s self and suffer the anguish of mental illness.

So the cautionary message Baudelaire is conveying to the seeker is two-fold. Remain humble in your accomplishments and in the light of divine majesty; and remain balanced and grounded, not allowing your spiritual quest to consume you to the point where you neglect and lose touch with earthly experience.

Thanks for sharing in my thoughts, and as always, if you have anything to add, feel free to do so in the comments section.

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Occult References in “Promethea: Book 4” by Alan Moore

promethea_4

As with the first three books in this series, this volume is also steeped in occult mysticism and symbols. The text and artwork are so rich that it would be too much to cover in a single blog post, so I will just touch on some of the key passages that stood out for me.

The first passage I want to discuss is the conversation between Sophia and John Dee.

Dee: Know, child, that here is understanding. That was all of what we sought, and so we crave no higher place. For my part, I communed with angels told of in the Book of Enoch, Hebrew adept sacred to this third domain. In this third realm, form becomes possible. The number one suggests a single point. With two points, we may describe a line. With three points, we may enclose a space in two dimensions. We plot a triangle. Seen thus, the triangle is symbol to the element of water. It is here are Binah that all water, all compassion, has its origin. At Binah is the cup that overfloweth.

Sophia: You mentioned the biblical Book of Enoch, and he angels it speaks of. Did they truly teach you their language? The Enochian language?

Dee: Aye. It was dictated by the spirits in my scrying glass, as too were shewn the tables that map all existence. Boards of twelve squares by thirteen, being all together one hundred and fifty six, and on each square were symbols. Viewed from o’erhead, each square appeareth like unto a ziggurat with flattened summit, all arrayed in rows, a mighty township.

The conversation takes place in the sephirot of Binah, as Sophia is exploring the kabbalistic tree. The scene draws from kabbalah, as well as from John Dee’s conversations with spirits, in which he details the Enochian language. This is all very arcane and if you are interested I encourage you to study it more on your own (to download a free copy of John Dee’s book that is referenced, go to Archive.org).

As they continue to explore Binah, the group encounters the Shekinah, which simply put is the divine feminine aspect of the godhead. At this point, the dual aspect of the divine feminine is revealed.

Am I Marie. Girded with clouds and covered with the firmament am I made Queen of heaven… In my compassion have I not stooped low, so that my aspect is cast down? Behold, I am the Shekinah, I am the Bride, and on the World’s streets ragged go I, and reviled. In me there is descended the Sophia, that is Wisdom’s female face… That understanding is poured out like unto blood from me. Like noble wine, Mine essence runneth down into the Earth, and therein is degraded and made bitter. Yet it giveth succor to all things. Mother am I, that sways the great dark cradle of the night. Then am I Isis, am I Hecate, am I Selene. Black am I, like to the hidden Moon, or as a Womb. I taketh in, and I receive.

Finally, Sophia and Barbara make it to Kether, the crown of the kabbalistic tree of life. It is here that they encounter the unity of god, the divine one as the all and source of all existence.

Sophia: Here we are again.

Barbara: Something from nothing. One from none.

Sophia: One… Just the idea of one, of something, for that to even exist… where there was only nothing. This is God.

Barbara: Yes, and God… is one…

Sophia: And all, God is all. One is all. One perfect moment.

As heady as the text is, the artwork that accompanies it is stunning, beautiful, and full of graphic symbolism that adds infinite depth to the story. I highly recommend reading the text slowly and spending time exploring the visual panels that are such an integral part of this book.

There is one more volume left in the series. I plan on reading it soon, so check back.

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“Shadow of Night” by Deborah Harkness

Shadow of Night by Deborah Harkness is the second book in the All Souls Trilogy. I read the first book, A Discovery of Witches, a while back and loved it (click here to read my review of that book), so when this book came out, I immediately bought it. I did, though, have to wait for my wife to read it first.

The book is set in Elizabethan England where the two protagonists, a witch and a vampire, have traveled back in time to locate a mysterious book. Since Harkness is a history professor at the University of Southern California, she is able to weave in historical events and descriptions of the period in a way that really brings the tale to life. As a historian, she focuses on details that I would not have considered important; for example, she explains that the characters in the story wrote personal records and journals in shorthand as a way to conserve paper and ink, which were scarce and expensive during that time. As a result, historians pored over these records trying to piece together fragments of history (p. 41). I found facts like this fascinating.

The tale itself is steeped in magic and the occult. Many of the characters are historical figures from that time who were magicians, witches, alchemists, and so forth. These characters include John Dee, Christopher Marlowe, Edward Kelly, and many others. Harkness asserts that there is a parallel between magic and history: “the practice of magic was not unlike the practice of history. The trick to both wasn’t finding the correct answers but formulating better questions” (p. 340).

The story changes narrative voice throughout the book, which keeps it interesting. The majority of the narrative, though, is presented as first person through Diana. Diana is an accomplished, strong, and self-reliant woman in current times, but when she finds herself in Elizabethan England, she must act in the subservient manner which was expected of a woman. This creates a great dynamic. There is a line that succinctly expresses how it must have been for women in that period: “We women own nothing absolutely, save what lies between our ears” (p. 271).

Books are strange things. Often, when I am going through something in my life or contemplating an issue, the right information will make itself known through a book I am reading. This happened to me while reading Shadow of Night. I had been discussing empathy with some friends in the wake of the recent election and then came upon this passage: “Empathy is the secret to most things in life–including magic” (p. 530). This resonated with me on such a deep level that it almost seemed magical that the words were presented to me at the time.

I could easily write more about this book, because it is really that good. But, since I hate to put spoilers into my posts, I’ll stop here. I will say that I highly recommend this book (and the first one in the series). I am already itching for the third book. When it comes out, I’ll be sure to read it before my wife gets a hold of it.

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