Graduation Year


Document Type




Degree Name

Master of Arts (M.A.)

Degree Granting Department

Humanities and Cultural Studies

Major Professor

Brendan Cook, Ph.D.

Committee Member

Daniel Belgrad, Ph.D.

Committee Member

Benjamin Goldberg, Ph.D.


arbor raritatis, early modernity, hieroglyphics, ideogram, monad, renaissance


An enormous amount of research on John Dee has materialized within the last forty years. Contrary to research published earlier in the twentieth century, such relatively recent studies have considered Dee’s idiosyncratic plurality of parallel traditions instead of trying to pigeonhole his activities into one of several discrete camps. That research (much of which is listed in the Bibliography) has been helpful hypothesizing what his Monas Hieroglyphica (1564) may mean for several fields of study in an interstitial capacity. Students of Early Modern mathematics, neoplatonism, and the histories of alchemy, chemistry, Christian kabbalah, and astronomy are among the many diverse subjects to which the Monas speaks though its obscure references.

Dee’s claim that his “sacred art of writing” can unify and even supersede the boundaries of disciplines is predicated on poesis or poetic constructive-readings of “hieroglyphics” using geometrical forms, letter shapes, and numerical values which are assigned signification in a bank of poetic spiritual meanings. Using the mathematical substructures of the Monas which carry hieroglyphic meanings (coded and compacted meanings), readers may unfold and lift anagogical readings of new relationships between animated elements in motion seen through dynamic cognitive registry, new literary and visual relationships which join with their own preconceived bank of significations to create novel unions of localized, personal meaning and poetic insight. While extant literature directly addresses the Monas’ intertextual references to alchemy, mathematics and theology among others, this paper seeks to consider a wide base of generalized semiotics of the period and its roots in the emblematic and hieroglyphics traditions of Europe. In doing so, it seeks to comment upon less well-known field-relations between “hieroglyphics” and the Monas for a wider readership in cultural studies, facilitating more specialized readings made available in the Bibliography for those interested.

The present study begins by introducing the Renaissance semiotics of “hieroglyphics” which developed in the wake of publications of Horapollo’s Hieroglyphica, a fifth-century text discovered at Andros in 1419 and taken to Florence for translation and wide publication resulting in significant cultural adoption. Next, the terms and concepts of György Szőnyi (“exaltatio”) and Håkan Håkansson (“symbolic exegesis” via James Bono) are contextualized to help frame later inquiry into the Monas’ claims of instigating “a metamorphosis.” After reviewing their related literature, a short summary and analysis of Renaissance hieroglyphics centers the theoretical framework of the Monas’ use of coded and compressed iconographies and exploitations of symbolism in cultural circulation at Dee’s time. After discussing Szőnyi and Håkansson, I observe how the Hermetic and Kabbalistic soul-ascension concepts of Marsilio Ficino and Giovanni Pico of the Neoplatonic Florentine Academy are central sources of Dee’s mystical repertoire in his “hieroglyphic construction” of the Arbor Raritatis, the Tree of Rarity depicted in the Monas’ dedicatory letter to Emperor Maximillian II. I argue that the Arbor Raritatis, a “hieroglyphic figure,” introduces the reader to Dee’s first use of the term “hieroglyphic,” a key point which this paper further argues as setting an explicit record of how he expects the reader to interpret the rest of the Monas in lights of specialized knowledge. While the rich array of research from which this paper is drawn does a fine job of exploring the Monas in relation to specialized fields, the present work offers readers unfamiliar with the Monas a basic but crucial launching point of understanding how it relates to Renaissance hieroglyphics without having to be experts in alchemy, astronomy, geometry, and the several other subjects it references. In the end, readers may garner new understandings of how Dee characterizes metaphorical insight from literary and mathematical semblances in the Monas, and how his Early Modern mind articulated its ‘aha’ and ‘eureka’ moments with the Monas as holy illuminations.