The Hieroglyphic Monad

Written by John Dee and published in Antwerp in 1564, the Monas Hieroglyphica (‘Hieroglyphic Monad’) was conceived in 12 days, a period, so claimed the author, of Divine Revelation. It presents Dee’s unified glyph, the Monad, by way of 24 theorems, each demonstrating a variety of mathematical, geometric, cabalistic, and cosmological principles gleaned from the ancient world. Highly influential, the titular glyph was later adopted into Rosecrutianism by way of the works of Paracelcian alchemist Heinrich Khunrath, with whom Dee was acquainted.

Chiefly a work of alchemy, it is perhaps best understood as a preeminent form of ‘diagrammatic alchemy’. The inception of the Diagram, a visual representation of information to accompany text, goes back to antiquity, but saw great use thanks to the printing technology of the 15th century. Dee took this a step further, with elaborate frontispieces brimming with cryptic symbolism. In theorem 18 he states, "it is not Aesop but Oedipus who prompts me," hinting at the presence of riddles within the text (just as Oedipus was challenged by the Sphinx).

Though still a devout Christian, Dee’s thinking was heavily informed by Pythagorean, Hermetic, and Neo-Platonic traditions which each posited that the universe was comprised of linguistic and numerical laws. Thus the symbols and images of Dee’s Monas were not mere representations of processes, but the manifestation of Truth itself. As such, meditative study of this truth would work the necessary alchemical transformation upon its student.

Given closer inspection, we see the Monad is a composite of other symbols. Indeed, it was designed such that all associated symbols, be they cosmological, alchemical, metallurgical, and chiefly, numerological, could be formulated, along with their governing principles. Together they form the ‘Unit’, or Monad; a key scientific concept of the many-in-one.

John Dee's Hieroglyphic Monad


At the base we have the double crescent of Aries, the celestial fire of transformation; next the Solar Cross, the four elements, the cardinal directions, the Crucifixion, and the Hermetic mystery of the ‘quaternary in the ternary’, the ‘4 in the 3’. Dee believed in the Holy Trinity, but also that all creation was embodied in the number 4, the Trinity plus One (the One being manifest reality). Though seemingly mystical and arbitrary, the 4 in the 3 was a mathematical principle describing a Platonic solid called the Cuboctahedron, a shape made up of 8 triangles and 4 squares. This structure provides great supporting strength at little cost to weight, and was popularized in the 20th century by American architect Buckminster Fuller in the development of high-rise construction cranes as well as Geodesic Domes such as the one at Epcot, Florida.

Moving up, we have the point and the circle, two basic principles of geometry from which all others follow. Together they become the Sun with the Earth at its centre (a pre-Copernican worldview), over which we have the horned Moon. These horns combine with the circle to present the Earth sign of Taurus, as well as symbolising the alchemical wedding of the Active (Sun) and Passive (Moon). Joined with the circle and cross we find the symbol for Mercury, that the ancient Greeks called Stilbon (the God of the Wandering Star), which they considered the prime planet and metal. All seven classical planets, and the metals of the ancient world, are also revealed.

Considered as a whole, we can view the Monad as the alchemical process, with the transformative, Promethean fire of Aries at the base, and silver (the Moon) and gold (the Sun) at the top, forming the Cornucopian horns of wisdom. It also has an anthropomorphic aspect of a contemplative, kneeling figure. This finds a natural comparison in the spiritual concept of the Kundalini, the upward progression of energy points through the body, from the root through to the Divine light of revelatory experience; as well as in the Buddhist practice of meditation, in which fiery Desire fades with the awakening to our true, wise nature.

Despite Dee’s somewhat tarnished reputation as a magician and necromancer, even his critic, the pious Andrestius Babius, capitulated to recognising the Monad’s importance as a standardising tool that transcended language; a true, universal, scientific notation. That it so keenly marries Science with Spiritual wisdom presents an opportunity of revelatory understanding for those who would still take the time to study it.

Hieroglyphic Monad