Dee’s Bones and the Lingams of Ireland

From the Maclise Portrait-Gallery of Illustrious Literary Characters

In December of 1830 the Royal Irish Academy declared a competition. A gold medal and fifty pounds would be awarded to the best essay on the most enduring mystery of the island’s architectural patrimony. From Antrim to Kerry they had stood since time immemorial, some of them thirty metres tall under corbelled, conical stone roofs, with their doors several feet above the ground. Who built them, and to what purpose? Enter Henry O’Brien, a Trinity-educated classicist with an Enlightenment-era headful of passionate speculation. He was twenty-two years old, and had grown up in poverty by a broken tower near Cahersiveen which local peasants called the Temple of Delight. If his five-hundred-page submission, The Round Towers of Ireland, reads like its author was writing for his life, it’s not just because he saw the prize as his ticket out of penury. His was a missionary zeal to convince the world that the towers had been erected by ancient colonisers from the east — votaries of the oldest religion on the planet: phallic and fiery, stellar and solar, and ‘Budhist.’

All this put me into a reverie, and these dreams quickly began to merge with an extant project. I’d long been planning to finally walk from my West London abode to the final resting place of Doctor John Dee, and now I began to wonder what thoughts could fruitfully be pursued on such a journey. Perhaps the haunts of the Elizabethan Magus might illuminate the drowsy spells cast by the round towers. Here, it seemed, was the missing element: no longer was I merely investigating local history; now I would be engaging in the science of imaginary solutions. As a folly it seemed small and harmless enough besides O’Brien’s big ideas — or the good Doctor’s, for that matter. The notion that all this walking might grant some sort of imaginative ingress or privileged insight is nothing if not occult, but at least condign to the territory. Even in the native land of Roger Bacon and Robert Fludd, the Alchemist of Mortlake looms large, so I set out for the Church of Saint Mary the Virgin.

After all these years I find the crossings of the North End Road unbearably loud with footfall’s echo, so I make as quick an exit as possible via the great Talgarth Road to Hammersmith. One day I will limn the swirling of the West Kensington Vortex and trace the feted footsteps that contoured its concentric circles. Marcus Garvey’s ghost, haunted by a Pan-African future that has yet to be born. Mohandas Gandhi, a young law student courted by members of the Theosophical Society. Leave all this behind as I pass Colet House, where Piotr Ouspensky set up the Study Society between the wars. Today his followers continue to evangelise on Non-Duality and the Fourth Way, and as I pass by my mind rings with the opening of Burnt Norton, in which T.S. Eliot supposedly meditates upon the Russian mystic’s teachings as much as the mysteries of the Incarnation:

Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future
And time future contained in time past.

My path takes me westwards, from Hammersmith along Chiswick High Road, and I cast my mind back across the narrow sea. What was O’Brien’s proof for these prehistorical visitations from the east? That Budh in Irish means both ‘phallus’ and ‘sun.’ To this etymological link he adds a reference in some tenth-century annals to the towers as Fiadh-Nemeadh. Fiadh apparently shares a root with Budh, and Nemeadh means ‘consecrated,’ from which he concluded that the towers are huge lingams: abstract representations of the god Shiva’s castration (reminiscent of the Greek Titan Kronos), through which he embodied the generative powers of all existence, creativity, and fertility.

Against the prevailing western understanding of Buddhism as a doctrine of solar worship, O’Brien argued that it was a phallic cult, arising from a schism between the Lingajas, devotees of Shiva and his lingam, and the Yonijas, who worshipped Shiva’s spouse Parvati and her yoni. These ferocious matriarchs emerged victorious over their priapic foes, but not before both groups laid the foundations of a primordial and global system of revealed mysteries: the world’s Ur-religion, parts of which whole were glimpsed at in both the initiations at Eleusis and the Hebrews’ lapses into Canaanite phallicism.

The tower at Glendalough, in County Wicklow. Photo: Irish Times

By now, readers with even a passing interest in any of this have probably been brought to the verge of nervous collapse. This stuff bagged O’Brien the second prize of twenty pounds. He kicked up a stink of self-pity, cried foul of political bias, and self-published his work. The Round Towers of Ireland (or the Mysteries of Freemasonry, of Sabaism, and of Budhism, for the first time unveiled) went through two editions before its author died in 1835 – just after he’d dropped the subtitle.

Regarding this curious tragicomedy of learning, is it possible to feel anything but sardonic affection for so sad and admirable a character as O’Brien? As I made my turn south after a quick look inside the spacious Gunnersbury Cemetery, the purpose of the walk to Mortlake began to come into focus. It seemed that my intention was to throw this marginal and forgotten figure into high relief, to set an unhappy colonial subject beside the first man to call for the establishment of a British Empire. The Kingdom of England’s sea power would provide the reach and the muscle; the sorcerer’s tools would light the way.

Photo: Encyclopaedia Britannica

Unlike O’Brien, Dee was born a timely man. Nearly a century after he drew up the horoscope which determined the date for Elizabeth I’s coronation, letters sent by Robert Boyle made reference to the members of an ‘invisible college.’ Isaac Newton was among their number, and was not in the slightest bit atypical for practicing alchemy as much as the mechanical philosophies. The founders of the Royal Society were Dee’s descendants in seeing no necessary distinction between occult revelation and systematic empiricism. With all his flamboyant inaccuracies, O’Brien could take his place in that lineage. His peculiarity and interest lie in this: he was both a solitary crank and a runner in a strange relay. He built his tower on the foundations laid in the 1780s by Richard Payne Knight, who originated the sexual theory of mythology and was naked in his preference for any kind of ancient phallic mysticism over the proscriptions of Moses and his God.

The Voltairean Enlightenment meant open season on Christian doctrine, and any even vaguely scientific account which undermined the Bible’s claim to revealed authority was a welcome addition to the shooting party. But in the English-speaking world the phallic theory flopped after O’Brien, until it was raised from the dead in the 1860s by occultists — that is, by those deliberately opposed to scientific materialism. Suddenly, the oceans so carefully charted by Dee and Mercator would be clogged with lost continents: Mu, Lemuria, Atlantis. In a certain light, O’Brien seems closer in ill-starred spirit to these antediluvian fantasies than to the search for the Northwest Passage, which Dee plotted with Sir Martin Frobisher.

Glimpse of the London Museum of Water & Steam’s standpipe tower

I paused on the Kew Bridge and swept my gaze along the bend of the river: from west to east, like the voyages the Queen took by barge from Richmond to go consult her astrologer. Camille Pissarro stayed around here and painted the Gardens and the Green at Kew in 1892, twenty years after he first came to this city to flee the Franco-Prussian War. Perhaps by walking the length of Mortlake Road and Mortlake High Street I might skirt or even traverse the spectral trace of John Dee’s lost house, where he had the largest private library in England. When Dee returned here in 1589, after six years, abroad he found the place a ruin, plundered and vandalised.

His European wanderings in the company of the freakish Edward Kelley, who claimed to speak with angels, were the subject of lurid speculation. The most fevered and calumniating of rumours were confirmed after his death, when the antiquarian Robert Cotton disinterred several manuscripts from the land around Dee’s old house. Their publication as A True & Faithful Revelation of the purported celestial intelligence furnished to the Doctor sealed his reputation. Those who didn’t dismiss him as Kelley’s fellow mountebank at least granted the sincerity of his belief: that angelic dictation could not only bring mathematical and mechanical wisdom but also heal the fissures of a disintegrating Christendom.

Dee is said to have inspired Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus and Shakespeare’s Prospero, but when paired with Kelley he becomes something like the unfortunate half of a duo dreamed up by Ben Jonson or Molière. When the angel Uriel supposedly ordered the collaborators to share all of their possessions, including their wives, Dee had little else to take but Kelley’s word for it. It was a strange and testing time to be a devout Christian, a man of science, and a committed hermeticist, but after little demurral he agreed to the pooling of assets and the swapping of wives.

Saint Mary the Virgin

After detours past the National Archive and through Mortlake Cemetery, I arrive at Saint Mary the Virgin. Its surroundings are immaculate (FINALIST in the Best-Kept Churchyard Competition 2001) yet characterful, its crooked headstones and rough-hewn entrance arch glowing in the redolent blaze of early evening. As a destination and punchline, however, it’s an absolute bust. It’s a Wednesday and the church is closed; signs in the yard give no indication of Dee’s final resting place. Is this invisibility an ignominious memorial to so ambivalent a figure, or is it somehow perfect?

Of course the walk was always going to end in anti-climax. Believing that this journey would meaningfully fuse O’Brien and Dee or clarify their luminous insanities must have been a form of craziness in itself. But that’s the hope that lies at the end of all this walking and searching. The dream is of a sense of communion with place that is almost alchemical in its promises. Like O’Brien, one yearns for a transubstantiation of place: the psychic uncovering of dimensions lost in time and distorted by memory. Like the good Doctor, one continues to seek the Northwest Passage: the route that is somehow both fastest and most interesting.

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Alexis Forss

Alexis Forss

Reader, writer, raver. Lecturer + tutor. PhD in English Literature.