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9 days ago by chrisseaton

Note that although 'Aztec' sounds super old, they were actually a civilisation from as recently as 1300 to 1550 or so, so not nearly as long ago as it sounds, and actually relatively contemporary To Elizabeth.

8 days ago by djur

If Dee obtained the mirror around 1580, it had only been 60 years since the Spanish dissolved the Aztec Empire, and it's entirely possible that the Nahuas continued to make obsidian mirrors for some time after that (although the Spanish would have recognized it as a non-Christian practice to be stamped out, surely). To him, it could have been approximately as ancient as a John F. Kennedy campaign button is to us.

8 days ago by bobthechef

> although the Spanish would have recognized it as a non-Christian practice to be stamped out, surely

As an occult practice, it may have been discouraged at least, but to say "non-Christian" makes it sound like one arbitrary practice extirpating another.

Rather, the Christian view (and certainly the Catholic view) is one opposed to superstition and the occult on the grounds that superstitions are irrational and immoral and thus opposed to the good of those who engage in them[0].

It is one thing for there to exist varying customs that are more-or-less arbitrary w.r.t. the signifier (greetings, for example), but the signified is no longer arbitrary.

[0] https://www.newadvent.org/cathen/14339a.htm

8 days ago by djur

The mirrors were devotional objects in the indigenous religion of the Nahuas, analogous to Christian crucifixes. They were symbols of divine power. The Catholic Church to this day ascribes supernatural power to physical objects such as the Eucharist, and 16th-century Spaniards certainly would have believed that the relics of saints conveyed divine benefits. The Church itself reaffirmed the miraculous power of relics that same century at the Council of Trent. There is really no reason to consider these Nahua religious objects "occult" except by a definition that includes an exception for Christianity.

https://www.newadvent.org/cathen/12734a.htm

In any case, the conquerors of New Spain did not encourage the Nahuas to reform their indigenous religion on a rational basis free of superstition. They did not train up an Aquinas for Tezcatlipoca. They suppressed the religion of their conquered subjects in favor of their own, a tale as old as written history.

8 days ago by dragonwriter

> Rather, the Christian view (and certainly the Catholic view) is one opposed to superstition and the occult on the grounds that superstitions are irrational and immoral and thus opposed to the good of those who engage in them.

As a Catholic, even I recognize that essentially the entirety of Catholic practice is superstition from the perspective of anyone who doesn't either take Catholicism as a priori true on authority or (arguably equivalently) have a personal divine experience justifying Catholicism experientially.

If one is not Catholic to start with, it as easy to dismiss Catholic practice on the same argument as presented above against superstition as it is for Catholics to do so for non-Catholic superstitions.

8 days ago by shubhamkrm

Don't Catholics believe that the bread and wine in the mass is Christ's actual body and blood, and then partake in ritual (symbolic) cannibalism?

Also, the belief that praying to someone who was executed two millennia ago would bring you eternal life in Heaven is as superstitious as you can get.

8 days ago by a1369209993

> makes it sound like one arbitrary practice extirpating another.

Yes, because that's exactly what it was. If anything they could stand to emphasise the hypocrisy a bit more, though I don't think that was particularly relevant to their actual point.

8 days ago by adolph

Elizabeth I (7 September 1533 – 24 March 1603)[a] was Queen of England and Ireland from 17 November 1558 until her death in 1603. Sometimes called the Virgin Queen, Gloriana or Good Queen Bess, Elizabeth was the last of the five monarchs of the House of Tudor.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elizabeth_I

To 21st-century eyes, [court astrologer John] Dee's activities straddle magic and modern science, but the distinction would have meant nothing to him. He was invited to lecture on Euclidean geometry at the University of Paris while still in his early twenties. He was an ardent promoter of mathematics, a respected astronomer and a leading expert in navigation, who trained many who would conduct England's voyages of discovery.

Meanwhile, he immersed himself in sorcery, astrology and Hermetic philosophy. Much effort in his last 30 years went into trying to commune with angels, so as to learn the universal language of creation and achieve a pre-apocalyptic unity of mankind.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Dee

8 days ago by ctoth

This guy is incredibly interesting! I really liked the book John Dee and the Empire of Angels: Enochian Magick and the Occult Roots of the Modern World[0] which explores his life, contributions to science, and obviously the occult side as well. It also links in Parsons, which someone downthread mentioned.

Unfortunately, the book has this to say about the mirror:

The large obsidian mirror that is often associated with Dee, an Aztec cult artifact dedicated to Tezcatlipoca brought back from the New World after the conquest of Mexico by Cortés, which has long been on display at the British Museum,54 may not have been used at all, nor has it been conclusively shown that the mirror even belonged to Dee. If the black mirror was Dee’s, it may have come into his possession at Louvain or through a Spanish courtier.55 Of the other objects in the British Museum attributed to Dee’s use, it is likely that only the three wax seals actually belonged to him; the crystal ball and gold engraving of the “Vision of the Four Castles” are probably later acquisitions by collectors from other magicians or antiquarians who reproduced them from Casaubon’s printing of A True & Faithful Relation.56

[0]: https://smile.amazon.com/John-Dee-Empire-Angels-Enochian/dp/...

8 days ago by FredPret

If you fully believe in the Biblical God, that behaviour kind of makes sense

8 days ago by as300

Sure, but didn't pretty much every English person those days?

I feel the real interesting point is that he was interested in the unknown, and back in those days they didn't have the modern distinctions between what we now consider as natural and supernatural.

Seems that if you want to make progress in human knowledge, you assume the risk of doing things that appear frivolous or just stupid in hindsight.

8 days ago by dane-pgp

I see what you're saying, but I'm not sure that the Bible portrays "a pre-apocalyptic unity of mankind" as being a desirable or achievable goal.

8 days ago by AnimalMuppet

If you fully believe in the Biblical God, then both sorcery and astrology are forbidden, IIRC.

8 days ago by bobthechef

I don't see how you could have possibly come to that conclusion. At all. Superstition and the occult have always been condemned by the Church as irrational and immoral[0]. This sounds like one of those vague anti-Christian sentiments from the Enlightenment that somehow remains fashionable to this day.

In spirit, modern science is closer to the occult in the sense that mastery over nature is a major motivation for its pursuit.

[0] https://www.newadvent.org/cathen/14339a.htm

8 days ago by LeoPanthera

For context, the University of Oxford was formed considerably before the Aztecs, in around 1096. (So long ago that records are not reliable.)

8 days ago by rburhum

Random related fact, too, the oldest university in the Americas is San Marcos (Lima, Perú) which was founded in May 12, 1551; 1 year after the history books mark the end of the Aztec civilization.

8 days ago by ecedeno

Actually, that's the second oldest. Universidad Santo Tomas de Aquino (Santo Domingo, La Hispaniola) was founded by papal decree over a decade earlier, but it wasn't officially recognised by the king of Spain until 1558.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Universidad_Santo_Tomás_de_Aqu...

8 days ago by rockinghigh

It makes more sense to compare that date with the end of the Inca Empire as the Aztecs were in Central America, not Peru. Spain founded the University of San Marco after they took over Peru from the Incas.

8 days ago by Mizza

Time is weird. Oxford University is 200 years older than the start of the Aztec civilization.

8 days ago by Jensson

> Note that although 'Aztec' sounds super old

Does it? I always felt Columbus was pretty young history and I associate Aztecs with him. Not sure how the time period where we had guns and ships good enough to cross the great seas can be seen as super old, great civilizations had already existed thousands of years at that point.

8 days ago by tsimionescu

> Not sure how the time period where we had guns and ships good enough to cross the great seas can be seen as super old, great civilizations had already existed thousands of years at that point.

I agree with the core of your post, but it should be noted that the great seas had been crossed for thousands of years at this time by Polynesian navigators (over the Pacific, not Atlantic), and had also been previously crossed by Vikings a few hundred years before.

8 days ago by chrisseaton

Well that’s my point. People think it was a long time ago, but it actually wasn’t.

8 days ago by BurningFrog

It feels older than it is, because it's largely prehistoric.

8 days ago by Jensson

In what way is the Aztec empire prehistoric? You mean they feel old because they were primitive relative to Europe at the time? But that is known history, Europe were so far ahead technologically that they managed to conquer the whole world starting with Columbus and ending at WW2. We are living at the end of that era now, we still see the effects of Europe and its colonies dominating world politics but it is getting weaker.

8 days ago by dboreham

Reading the article, I don't think they have established that the _mirror_ was Aztec, only that the raw material came from a place then under Aztec control. E.g. it could have been from a chunk of obsidian someone picked up in meso-America, or that was otherwise traded and transported to Europe.

8 days ago by AlotOfReading

The way it's stated is by far the most likely story. Finished obsidian goods were typically produced relatively close to the mines because stone is heavy and even the best artisans frequently screw up obsidian pieces. Working with it also takes years to master. It's unlikely that a European artisan would have been replicating the style that early.

8 days ago by elefanten

Obsidian is found everywhere, it wouldn’t be an unknown substance. Also damage in transit can’t be fixed -> incentive to carve at destination.

8 days ago by AlotOfReading

At some point we have to invoke the principle of parsimony. Europe did not have a tradition of obsidian mirrors in the late middle ages/early modern, much less ones carved in mesoamerican styles.

Yes, it's not impossible that it could have been produced in Europe, but it's far more likely that it was produced like the numerous other similar mirrors dated before contact and documented as produced by American artisans in early writings. This is all the more likely given the known supply chain for such objects, specialists in Aztec mirror production are specifically known to have used material from the two sources identified, and that Spaniards documented shipping such mirrors back to Europe as gifts.

8 days ago by Igelau

Obsidian is not found everywhere. England has no volcanoes. I highly doubt they had much familiarity with working it into finely crafted items.

8 days ago by undefined

[deleted]

8 days ago by ctoth

Not only this, but it wasn't even his, according to John Dee and the Empire of Angels:

The large obsidian mirror that is often associated with Dee, an Aztec cult artifact dedicated to Tezcatlipoca brought back from the New World after the conquest of Mexico by Cortés, which has long been on display at the British Museum,54 may not have been used at all, nor has it been conclusively shown that the mirror even belonged to Dee. If the black mirror was Dee’s, it may have come into his possession at Louvain or through a Spanish courtier.55 Of the other objects in the British Museum attributed to Dee’s use, it is likely that only the three wax seals actually belonged to him; the crystal ball and gold engraving of the “Vision of the Four Castles” are probably later acquisitions by collectors from other magicians or antiquarians who reproduced them from Casaubon’s printing of A True & Faithful Relation.56

8 days ago by jd3

for those unfamiliar, here's a fun dinner party factoid about a Glindoni painting depicting Dee performing magick at court

> X-ray imaging of the stately Victorian artwork has revealed that Dee was originally surrounded by human skulls before the ghoulish image was painted over, probably because it was too odd for the buyer. But curators of an exhibition opening on Monday believe it sums up the conundrum of Dee: should we remember him as brilliant pioneering scientist, or as an occultist who thought he could talk to angels?

https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2016/jan/17/john-de...

https://wellcomecollection.org/works/nydjbrr7

https://iiif.wellcomecollection.org/image/L0081435/full/full...

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:John_Dee_performing_...

8 days ago by ncmncm

It's one thing to talk to angels, another thing to get answers.

Can somebody explain why it is interesting that Dee had a polished piece of Mexican obsidian, probably plundered from some Spanish galleon some privateer raided? I guess it is interesting that modern lab analysis can identify the mine a piece came from, but it is not as if Dee ever actually got any inforation out of it. Do we even have any idea which privateer, or which galleon?

8 days ago by jbschirt

The obvious connection would probably be Drake. The reason that is interesting is that the Aztecs preserved a lot of history, like the Mayan Calendar. It would mean then that Dee was trying to invoke something tied into that Epoch of history, which is Enoch--hence his developed system of Enochian.

8 days ago by ncmncm

- “I can call spirits from the vasty deep.” - “Why, so can I, or so can any man; But will they come when you do call for them?”

Henry IV Part 1

We might wonder if Shakespeare was needling John Dee, here.

8 days ago by streamofdigits

Those were the days. It is alas impossible for us today to experience the world view and internal mental states of these early polymaths. They were swimming in (and pressumably got very excited from) a sense of explainable and actionable magic where a combination of rational thinking and the use of various artifacts revealed the inner workings of the universe. That mix of the scientific and magical lasted quite a bit longer (famously Newton was an alchemist).

Today the extreme specialization and sophistication of scientific silos means the excitement of "probing the universe" has become very remote. When looking around we assume (and it is generally true) that practically anything that happens fits in a neat scientific bucket that somebody is on top of.

8 days ago by arminiusreturns

John Dee is also the original 007 for those who have James Bond on the brain (the movie was underwhelming imho). One of the more recent developments was of a painting of him in her court, when scanned it was revealed there had been a circle of skulls around him in the painting that had been painted over.

Theres all kinds of interesting factoids about him. He started collecting books and at the time had what was probably one of the largest personal libraries in existence, and the list goes on.

8 days ago by lapetitejort

John Dee sounds like the perfect character for Alan Moore to use in one of his historical fictions, such as League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. I went looking to see if he used John Dee anywhere, and it turns out he has an unpublished work devoted to him [0].

[0]: https://nationalcentreforwriting.org.uk/article/alan-moore-a...

8 days ago by lioeters

About his possible activities as a spy travelling around Europe, there's an interesting speculation in the book, The Rosicrucian Enlightenment, by Frances Yates.

The theory is that he played a significant role in the (literal) conspiracy to bring Princess Elizabeth and Frederick V of the Palatinate to become the new Queen and King of Bohemia, and rule Protestant Europe.

8 days ago by AnimalMuppet

Um, in what way was he the original 007? I presume he did not literally have that number in that service...

8 days ago by shaunxcode

He would actually sign his letters "007"

"The zeroes represented eyes, and the seven was thought to be a lucky number that offered protection"

https://blog.bookstellyouwhy.com/bid/274528/the-first-james-...

8 days ago by talentedcoin

Dee was an interesting guy. For context as to the results of his, um, experiments:

https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Enochian

In 1581, Dee mentioned in his personal journals that God had sent "good angels" to communicate directly with prophets. In 1582, Dee teamed up with the seer Edward Kelley, although Dee had used several other seers previously.[6] With Kelley's help as a scryer, Dee set out to establish lasting contact with the angels.

8 days ago by post_from_work

I consider this the most accessible text on the subject:

https://www.amazon.com/Enochian-Vision-Magick-Introduction-P...

8 days ago by canjobear

Did it really belong to John Dee? Wikipedia casts doubt:

Dee's Speculum or Mirror (an obsidian Aztec cult object in the shape of a hand-mirror, brought to Europe in the late 1520s), which was subsequently owned by Horace Walpole.[68] This was first attributed to Dee by Walpole. Lord Frederick Campbell had brought "a round piece of shining black marble in a leathern case" to Walpole in an attempt to ascertain its provenance. Walpole said he responded saying, "Oh, Lord, I am the only man in England that can tell you! It is Dr. Dee's black stone". However, there is no explicit reference to the mirror in any of Dee's surviving writings.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Dee#Artefacts

8 days ago by leto_ii

As a side note, to those interested in learning more about John Dee and occultism in the Renaissance I would like to recommend Frances Yates' "The Occult Philosophy in the Elizabethan Age".

Yates is a very serious scholar in a field that is often marked by not so rigorous "believer" types.

The book itself covers Dee in detail, as well as the general intellectual environment at a time when modern science was just starting to catch shape.

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