Tag: John Dee

Atlas Obscura but Not So Accurata

Atlas Obscura seems to have reached a point that it no longer can describe itself as, well, obscura. The website enjoys more than 300,000 pageviews each day and has produced a book, which is currently the “#1 Best Seller in General Travel Reference” and #293 overall at Amazon. While individual entries might be, physically, off the “beaten path,” they are smack in the center of the virtual beaten path. Given Atlas Obscura’s place in popular culture, and our current anxieties about misinformation, it would be nice if Atlas Obscura tried to ensure it provided accurate information. Regrettably, the one entry I happened to check, the “Rosicrucian Pyramids of Bucks County,” seems to be a hodgepodge of misunderstood and misreported information, historical errors, and factually incorrect statements.

Atlas Obscura’s popup promises to escape the beaten path.
When Atlas Obscura promises to “escape the beaten path,” does that also mean the beaten path of facts?

By looking at two paragraphs from the post—one that purports to provide historical information and one that purports to describe observable facts—we see an author who doesn’t try very hard to distinguish fact from fiction and a website that doesn’t care enough to factcheck its posts.

First, a paragraph drawn from history:

Inspired by the idea of a secret society of learned men, astronomers such as Johannes Kepler, Georg Joachim Rheticus, John Dee and Tycho Brahe formed an actual society, known as the Invisible College, to acquire knowledge through experimental investigation. It would eventually become the Royal Society.

Well, no. Insofar as “the Invisible College” existed, it was an informal network of scholars in the latter 1640s, long after Rheticus, Brahe, Kepler, and Dee had all died. Its connection to the Royal Society is a myth, as Charles Webster pointed out four decades ago.[1] More recently, Lauren Kassell has stated unambiguously:[2]

The once common but erroneous identification of the Invisible College as an antecedent of the Royal Society derives from Boyle’s eighteenth-century editor Thomas Birch. There is now thought to be no link between Boyle’s ‘college’ and the philosophical society …. It is this group, with which Boyle became associated during the 1650s, that is regarded as the precursor to the Royal Society….

If the author of the Atlas Obscura post had looked at the Wikipedia entry on the Invisible College, which cites Lauren Kassell’s entry, perhaps we wouldn’t be reading this myth yet again.

Some of the problems in this paragraph that described the pyramids.

Second, the description of what can be found on the property is riddled with problems:

…the Fraternitas Rosae Crucis … settled in Pennsylvania, and today owns land in Bucks County on which three Rosicrucian pyramids sit. The headquarters of the Fraternitas Rosae Crucis, besides the three temples, it includes a number of normal buildings and “The Beverly Hall,” a large stone building named after the fraternities founder Paschel Beverly Randolph.
Surrounded by “No Trespassing” signs, the pyramids are aligned smallest to largest and covered in Rosicrucian symbolism inside and out, including images of a winged world crowned by a skull and crossbones, and the infamous pyramid with floating eye…

Um… no. There are four pyramids, not three. Only one is large enough to enter and could be mistaken for a temple, though it seems more likely a mausoleum or similar memorial. Two resemble garden fountains that stand 4–5 feet tall (when I visited only one was functioning). The smallest pyramid seems to be a pedestal type decoration. As of a year ago, there were no “No Trespassing” signs (there weren’t any the first time I visited either).[3] Finally, the pyramids are all but unadorned. They certainly are not “covered in Rosicrucian symbolism inside and out.” The largest, the mausoleum (?), has some brass plaques on the outside that list names of deceased members, and you can see a few decorative plaques inside that do have some Rosicrucian symbols on them.

Much of this paragraph seems to be an exaggerated and enthusiastic mélange drawn from Weird Pennsylvania, pp. 55–56. Other parts of the post weave together fictions from history, on the one hand, and fanciful Rosicrucian mythologies, on the other. Disentangling the history from the mythologies of the Fraternitas Rosæ Crucis is a challenge—clearly too much work for the author of the Atlas Obscura post. But it shouldn’t be too difficult for the author get the easily verifiable history correct or to stop short of making things up. For a brief post on the local Rosicrucians and some photos of these pyramids, see “Pyramids of the Fraternitas Rosæ Crucis.”

Perhaps this entry on the Rosicrucian pyramids is aberrant. Perhaps all the other posts are accurate. Or, perhaps, Atlas Obscura should be rebranded Atlas Obscura but Not So Accurata.

  1. Even Frances Yates, who was particularly adept at finding Rosicrucians, did not link Rheticus or Brahe to Rosicrucians or invisible colleges. Dee, to be sure, figured large in her discussion of Rosicrucians. And Kepler was an odd case, whom she called “a heretic from Rosicrucianism” (F. Yates, The Rosicrucian Enlightenment, p. 223). More typically, Samuel Hartlib, Jan Comenius, and Robert Boyle are associated with the Invisible College. Yates devotes a chapter to the relationship between the invisible college and the Royal Society. Charles Webster refutes this Rosicrucian association. He finds, instead, a network that includes Boyle as well as other lesser known physicians and Baconian-minded experimentalists. The role of “the Invisible College” has all but disappeared from recent histories of early modern science, e.g., Wootton’s The Invention of Science all but omits it (I found only a passing reference on page 341 to “an ‘invisible college’” as a correspondence network).  ↩

  2. See Lauren Kassell’s entry “Invisible College” for the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (paywall).  ↩

  3. I suppose it’s possible that they’ve surrounded the place with “No Trespassing” signs, but given the other factual problems with this post, I’ve no confidence the author happened to get this right.  ↩

John Dee in Rudolfine Prague

Patrick Leigh Fermor’s evocative account of his walk from Rotterdam to Hungary.

In his A Time of Gifts Patrick Leigh Fermor conjures up a melancholic image of Rudolfine Prague and its fascination with the occult. Emperor Rudolf II: “Moody and unbalanced, he lived in an atmosphere of neo-platonic magic, astrology and alchemy. His addiction to arcane practices certainly darkened his scientific bent.”

Johannes Kepler nourished Rudolf’s and later Wallenstein’s interest in astrology “with an ironic shrug.”

John Dee, charlatan, mathematician, and wizard, fled to the city where he basked in the attention and support of a credulous emperor and aristocracy:

As well as astrology, an addiction to alchemy had sprung up, and an interest in the Kabala. The town became a magnet for charlatans. The flowing robes and long white beard of John Dee, the English mathematician and wizard, created a great impression in Central Europe. He made the rounds of credulous Bohemian and Polish noblemen and raised spirits by incantation in castle after castle. He arrived in Central Europe after being stripped of his fellowship at Cambridge.*

*The cause of his downfall was a public demonstration of the device by which Trygaeus, the hero of The Peace of Aristophanes, flew to the crest of Olympus to beg the Gods to end the Peloponnesian War. As this vehicle was a giant dung-beetle from Mount Etna which the protagonist refuelled with his own droppings on the long ascent, the exhibition may well have caused a stir. I would like to have seen it.