Cannabis, Magick Mirrors and Renaissance Magician Dr. John Dee

CANNABIS CULTURE – Did the Elizabethian Magicians Dr. John Dee and Edward Kelly use drugs for magick and scrying?

The Elizabethian mathematician, scientist, astrologer, astute business man, and magician Dr. John Dee (1527-1609), “had a famous ‘mirror’ by which he claimed to contact all manner of angels and dead spirits” (Dyer, 2010). Dee, had a variety of magic mirrors and crystals, a particular favourite was a flat obsidian stone, that is on display at the British Museum, and his scribe John Kelly “did all his feats upon The Devil’s Looking-glass, a stone…” (Butler, 1663). Zachary Grey commented on this verse, “This Kelly was chief seer… to Dr. Dee… and bred an apothecary, and was a good proficient in chemistry, and pretended to have the grand elixir (or philosopher’s stone) … He pretended to see apparitions in a chrystal or beryl looking-glass (or a round stone like a chrystal)” (Grey, 1806). The Sloane MS 3846 copy of Sepher Raziel, has been noted for its composition in handwriting similar to that of Dr. Dee’s scryer Edward Kelly, (Karr & Skinner, 2013).

At least two 16th century Grimoires that were in use in England at the time of Dr John Dee, prescribe cannabis for mirror scrying and to see spirits, ‘Sepher Raziel: Liber Salomonis’, and ‘The Book of Magic’, recently rereleased as ‘The Book of Oberon’, and we can be near certain that Dee would have been familiar with these manuscripts…..

The third herbe is Canabus [cannabis]& it is long in shafte & clothes be made of it. The vertue of the Juse [juice]of it is to anoynt thee with it & with the juse of arthemesy & ordyne thee before a mirrour of stele [steel]& clepe thou spiritts & thou shallt see them & thou shalt haue might of binding & of loosing deuills [devils]& other things.” (Sepher Raziel, 1564).

“Anoint thee with the Joice of Canabus & the Joice of Archangell & before a mirrour of steele call spirits, & thoue shalt see them & have power to binde & to loose them” (Book of Oberon, 1577-1583)

As Whitby has commented, we “may therefore presume that there was an established method of scrying and an stablished ritual of invocation. Such instructions were probably circulated in manuscript along with other magical works” (Whitby, 2012). As cannabis and other psychoactive substances are identified in popular grimoires from the period, particularly for use with mirror scrying and invocations, this leads us to a new understanding of the actual secret practices of magicians from the era, and we can be sure this often included the use of psychoactive substances.

In Dee’s own accounts of his invocations, or “Actions” as he referred to them, there are numbers of references to smoke, indicating the possibility of some sort of fumigation, as well as references to the use of potions and ointments. “These Actions are the records of visions and angels and other spirits and the message delivered by them as seen and heard by the scryers [often Edward Kelly]with the aid of a crystal ball, and then immediately related to Dee, who though present saw and heard nothing” (Whitby, 2012). In Dee’s record of these Actions, we read how “smoke filled the place” and a invoked entity states , “I smell the smoke: procede Syr, in your purpose”* and these could indicate sufumigation . Other references indication some sort of elixir in use that clearly put a person into a drowsy state: “taste of this potion yay the savour onely of the vessel worketh most extremely agaynst the maymed drowsines of ignorance. Yf the hand be heavy, how weight and ponderous shall the whole world be? What will Ye?” (Dee/Peterson, 2003).
*(Dee/Peterson, 2003)

In one account from John Dee’s Actions With Spirits*, (1581-1583) there is a lament about the lack of drugs for an operation, and the use of ointments in their place: “I haue forgotten all my drvggs [drugs]behind me. But since I know that some of you are well stored with sufficient oyntments, I do entend to viset you onely with theyr help. you see, all my boxes are empty?—EK [Edward Kelly] he sheweth a great bundell of empty poticharie [apothecary]boxes”. This brings a response from the figure invoked “How cometh it, that you pretend to come for a favorable diuine powre and all your boxes ar empty” (Whitby, 2012). As Kelly had a reputation as a bit of a con man and swindler, one wonders wether the concern about lack of drugs, was the spirits or Kelly’s! In this regard, it should also be noted that the angel’s scryed by Kelly, also commanded that he and Dee share not only possessions in common, but also their wives! And these orders were apparently followed for at least one tryst.

This is not to suggest that all of Dee’s workings with Kelly were based purely on acts of fraud perpetuated by the latter on the former. It seems likely “that Kelly both genuinely went into a trance like state and consciously fabricated visions and revelations to maintain his credibility in the eyes of Dee” (Whitby, 2012). Even if we are to discount the actual invocation of angelic entities, along with the assumption of actual trickery, it is “arguable that many of the visions may have arisen from Kelly’s subconscious, perhaps after concentration in the crystal (he frequently saw nothing for the first fifteen minutes) had induced in him some mild state of trance” (Whitby, 2012). The actions and effectiveness of drugs in this respect, can not be downplayed, nor the delay of time before the visions, or rather drugs, kicked in. A manuscript from Ashmole, (MS. 204, art. 18) is a “List of drugs probably written by Dee”(French, 2013). Unfortunately this manuscript does not seems to have been reprinted anywhere, and although a photographed reproduction of the actual ms is available online I was unable to make sense of Dee’s handwriting so I was could not to consult its contents.

 

In the classic play The Alchemist, by Ben Johnson (1572-1637) , a satire based in part on the personalities of John Dee and his scribe Edward Kelly, there are allusions to the use of drugs, and they do seem to be tied with the compounds and extracts of alchemists and apothecaries. As has been noted,  such preparations were in use by alchemists at this time, and available in apothecaries.

Johnson’s play describes a main character, “Abel Drugger”, shortened too ‘Drug’, as “One whose name is Dee, in a rug gown, there’s D and rug, that’s drug”. “This is evidently levelled at the celebrated Dr. John Dee… a great pretender to astrology, alchemy and magic” (Gifford, 1875). This character is also described in the play as being “busy with his spirits”, and his shop’s “alchemical magic will draw clients… who will pay for drugs and potions that, like the elixir of life, hold the promise of restorative effects, for consumption by the ounce or the jarful” (Julian & Ostovich, 2013). Other references in The Alchemist, indicate the actual use of such drugs: “drug money us’d to make your compound”; “indian drug”; A ship from Ormus (a place in Persia) containing a “commodity of drugs”, and lines like “This is true physic, this your sacred medicine: No talk of opiates to this great elixir… this will work some strange effect, if he but feel it” and other references to “elixirs”. In regards to the references to elixirs in the play, there is also a clear alchemical association made: “your elixir, your lapis minerals, and your lunary”; “Your elixir, your lac virginis, your stone, your medicine and your chryosperm”. Ashmole, and Lilly*, who had access to Dee’s works, agreed “he certainly had the elixir” (Gifford, 1875). As truth often comes through jest, we may take these references as indications, that the idea, at least, that Dee and Kelly, along with other Alchemists and magicians, were using psychoactive substances in their magic, was not uncommonly held, and allusions towards that, were recognizable to a 17th century audience of a popular comedy.
*William Lilly, his Christian Astrology, (1647), listed cannabis under the power of Saturn.

Although Johnson’s work is a mockery of Dee and Kelly, it is a fact that Kelly was well known for his knowledge of alchemy, and treatise he wrote on the subject have survived, as well, he had worked as an apothecary’s apprentice prior to joining forces with Dr. Dee. With known references to cannabis and other drugs in the works of prior alchemists, such as Paracelsus, Cardano and Avicienna, we can be sure as with the references to such substances in magic, Dee and Kelly likely shared awareness to these alchemical recipes as well.

For more on the role of Cannabis and other plants in the occult tradition, check out Liber 420: Cannabis, Magickal Herbs and the Occult.

Chris Bennett
Chris Bennett

Chris Bennett has been researching the historical role of cannabis in magic and religion for over a quarter century, his books include 'Green Gold the tree of Life: Marijuana in Magic and Religion' (1995); 'Sex, Drugs, Violence and the Bible' (2001); 'Cannabis and the Soma Solution' (2010. He Currently resides in Vancouver, BC, Canada, where he runs his ethnobotanical shop The Urban Shaman.