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American Metaphysical Religion, Ronnie Pontiac

Thomas Harriot: A Rational Mind in an Irrational World or One Man’s Genius is Another Man’s Devil

He arrives at the end of the Renaissance with a mind so modern he was more suited for Silicon Valley than Elizabethan London.  Thomas Harriot was the first to assemble and use a telescope in England.  Months before Galileo, he was the first human being to accurately map the surface of the moon.  He was the first to make a system of binary numbers, to see the value in what would become almost five hundred years later the mathematical foundation of computer science.  He has been described as the first modern experimental scientist.  He contributed important elements to algebra, geometry and trigonometry.  He invented the symbols we still use for greater than (>) and lesser than (<).

Harriot’s Map of the Surface of the Moon

Harriot was the first Englishman to learn a native American language.  His Briefe and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia is the earliest record in English of the pristine environment and native culture, and of the moment when it was first spoiled.  He used his mathematical skills for everything from improving plumbing and refining accounting methods to finding the most efficient way to stack cannonballs on a ship, inventing what history remembers as Kepler’s Conjecture.  He began the science of dynamic stability helping design better ships.  He not only refined the navigational techniques of English sailors, he improved the quality of their navigational instruments.

But Harriot was also known for his skills as an astrologer.   He explored the mysteries of alchemy.   He proved by experiment and careful measurements how rainbows are made by refracted light.  He created an alphabet to capture the strange sounds of the native American language spoken by the Carolina Algonquins, hoping it might some day become a universal alphabet to describe all languages.  Instead, it became known as the Devil’s Alphabet.  For his efforts Harriot was imprisoned, attacked in polemic books, suspected of treason, accused of being a devil worshipper, persecuted as an atheist, and then was all but forgotten by history.  The portrait that pops up when you google him is doubtful, most historians suspect it portrays someone else.

We Have No Confirmed Portrait of Thomas Harriot

Thomas Harriot was born in 1560.  We know nothing about his early life.  History first notices him around 200 years before the birth of America when he went to study at Oxford University.   There he put on black, the color he wore all his life.  At the time only two types of Englishmen had any interest in the New World.  In summer, fishermen would land on America’s Atlantic shore to dry their ocean catches of cod and other fish.  Meanwhile, ambitious English patriots discussed the Spanish who had gained so much wealth and power from their exploitation of the New World, but who had left the northeastern part of the continent relatively unmolested.  Upon graduating from Oxford, Harriot was immediately employed by one of the latter, Sir Walter Raleigh.

Raleigh was one of the brightest stars of the court of Queen Elizabeth I.  A prolific writer, a poet, a daring sea captain and a skilled soldier, Raleigh received royal gifts of lands and titles that made him rich.  He was Captain of the Queen’s Bodyguard for a decade.  His stylish and opulent clothing was matched only by legendary arrogance made barely tolerable by his wit and charm.  On his sea voyages he carried a trunk of books so he could read undisturbed.  Of all the nobles of England none was more eager than he to colonize the New World, or as he put it: “I’m after Virginia’s maidenhead.”  Among her gifts to the man she nicknamed “Water” the Queen gave Durham House, overlooking the Thames, which would be his favorite home until her death, and the site of many mysterious and wonderful gatherings and experiments.

Sir Walter Raleigh, Lord of the Bling

Raleigh moved Harriot into Durham House where he was often found on the rooftop experimenting with tools of navigation.  We can only imagine the looks on the faces of Raleigh’s grizzled captains and navigators when confronted with the prospect of being tutored at their craft by a young pup freshly plucked from Oxford.  But Harriot made such radical improvements to the instruments and techniques of navigation that he can be partially credited for transforming the English fleet from a pack of feckless corsairs to the most fearsome marauders on the Atlantic.

In 1584 Raleigh sent two of his captains on an expedition to the New World.  They arrived in what is now North Carolina.  Scouts sent from the Roanoke, a tribe of Carolina Algonquin, approached the English with kindness.  They began gift exchanges and rituals to transform the strangers into kin.  Their chief Wingina had been badly wounded in battle with a rival tribe, so a lesser chief invited the English to visit their village on Roanoke Island.  There the rituals continued   Confident natives welcomed the nervous newcomers,  but they trembled with fear when the English demonstrated the firepower of guns.  Impressed, the natives tried to convince the English to join them in an attack on Wingina’s enemies, but the English declined to interfere with local politics.  Wingina selected two men, Manteo and Wanchese, to travel back to England, to learn the ways of their new friends.

When Raleigh introduced Manteo and Wanchese to the royal court of Elizabeth they caused a sensation among the English.  Raleigh gave them lodging in Durham House and denied the numerous curiosity seekers access.  He put Harriot to the task of learning the native language.  Manteo was a chief of the Croatoan tribe.  He was impressed by London.  He could see for himself the the level of technology enjoyed by the English.  He believed they could be a powerful ally for his tribe.  Wanchese, a Roanoke chief, was far less cooperative.  He saw the English as a mortal threat, and he was eager to go home to warn his people.

Don’t Come A Knockin’ When Durham House Does Algonquin

Harriot had already tried to adapt the Hebrew alphabet for universal usage as the alphabet of all languages.  Now he devised his own: 36 characters, a combination of Greek and Roman letters, algebraic symbols and invented cyphers.  The vocabulary he compiled was destroyed in the Great Fire of London in 1666, but his alphabet survived.

Manteo explained to Harriot the native concept of montoac, a sacred power of divine origin to be appreciated in the mysterious wonder of any excellence.  An especially beautiful butterfly or a bear of rare power were examples of montoac.  An act of outstanding courage by a warrior was praised as montoac. English technology: ships, clocks, compasses, mirrors, and books were montoac.  Manteo confided to Harriot that some among the natives thought the English gods, or believed they had been taught by gods.  Because only English men came to the New World, and they made no advances toward the native women, some wondered if they were an old race of half gods not even born from women.

They Were Modest in Food and Drink But Not Sitting

Manteo described the native’s war tactics.  Chiefs were only as powerful as the number of warriors they could deploy.  Sneak attacks and guerilla strikes at break of day or by moonlight were the most common methods of war.  Head on battle was only risked where there were trees for the warriors to duck behind after firing their arrows.  Harriot was reassured that the witch hazel bows and stone tipped arrows of the natives would be no threat to the armor of the colonists.

In 1585 Harriot was sent to America, while Raleigh sailed in search of the golden city of El Dorado in Guyana.  Harriot fresh from his study of native culture with Manteo may have prevailed upon his patron to treat the natives of Guyana very differently than had the Spanish, who were accustomed to taking whatever they wanted, even out of graves and homes, including forcing native men into servitude, and raping the women.  Raleigh ordered every object taken to be paid for, guides and others who served the English were paid, and native women were left unmolested.

Under the command of Raleigh’s cousin Sir Richard Grenville and of Sir Ralph Lane, seven ships sailed for the New World.  Lane’s complaints about Grenville’s obnoxious arrogance weren’t exaggerated since a contemporary account of Grenville described him downing three or four glasses of wine then crunching the glass with his teeth and swallowing the shards.  Though blood ran from his mouth Grenville didn’t seem any the worse for it.  On a ship named Tiger, Harriot and a picked crew including John White, a skilled painter, and Joachim Gans, an expert in metallurgy, joined Manteo and Wanchese for their voyage home.  Harriot’s superior navigational techniques enabled them to reach warm Caribbean waters in only three weeks.

Wingina and his tribe welcomed the colonists and traded for what they could get of their technology.  A small house was built for Harriot that he would fill with the paperwork of his notes and the specimens he gathered.  He worked with Gans at what was America’s first alchemical laboratory.  Gans was the son of David Gans, the Jewish astrologer, historian and mathematician of Prague, who had worked with Kepler and Tycho Brahe on their astronomical observations.  In 1849 a visitor claimed to have found hermetically sealed glass globes full of quicksilver (mercury) at the site of of the lab where Harriot and Gans practiced their arts.  At the same spot in 1994 archeologists recovered metallic antimony (used in the separation of silver and copper), slag (the byproduct of smelting), clinkers (the incombustible residue of burned coal), and traces of molten materials.   A brass apothecary’s weight was found in a ditch alongside glass shards from vessels used by assayers of that time, and badly burned fragments of native clay pots.  Seeds and nuts from leaf pine and shagbark hickory suggest tests for medicinal properties.

Algonquin Cul De Sac by John White

As Harriot gathered specimens, John White painted hauntingly beautiful watercolors of the natives, their native villages and ceremonies, as well as butterflies, fish, animals, and plants.  Together they collected a treasure trove of information.  Among the most marvelous of their specimens was tobacco.  English sailors who visited American shores had already taken up smoking tobacco, and there is evidence of shops in London at the time fashioning pipes for that purpose, but it took Harriot and Raleigh to make tobacco all the rage at the English court.

In Briefe and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia Harriot wrote: “There is an herb which is sowed by itself and is called by the inhabitants Vppówoc.  In the West Indies it has diverse names, according to the several places and countries where it grows and is used. The Spaniards generally call it Tobacco. The leaves thereof being dried and brought into powder they use to take the fume or smoke thereof by sucking it through pipes made of clay into their stomach and head from whence it purges superfluous phlegm and other gross humors, opens all the pores and passages of the body, by which means the use thereof, not only preserves the body from obstructions but also if any be, so that they have not been of too long continuance, in short time breaks them up, whereby their bodies are notably preserved in health and know not many grievous diseases with which we in England are oftentimes afflicted.  The Vppówoc is of so precious estimation amongst them that they think their gods are marvelously delighted therewith. Whereupon sometimes they make hallowed fires and cast some of the powder therein for a sacrifice. Being in a storm upon the waters, to pacify their gods, they cast some up into the air and into the water.  So a weir for fish being newly set up, they cast some therein and into the air.  Also after an escape from danger, they cast some into the air likewise, but all done with strange gestures, stamping, sometimes dancing, clapping of hands, holding up of hands, and staring up into the heavens, chattering strange words and noises.”

The Gayest Algonquin in Recorded History

Harriot also learned about native spiritual beliefs.  He says they worshipped many gods but only one great god who has been from all eternity and who had made the others to assist in creating and maintaining the world.  The sun, moon, and stars were lesser gods that served the higher order.  Harriot must have recognized the resemblance to Platonism.  The native genesis like ancient Egyptian and biblical creation stories began with the waters out of which the gods made the world, but the first human being was a woman.  They had no idea how long ago this had been.  They kept only oral traditions.  Harriot reports that they believed in the immortality of the soul.  When they died good people went to live with the gods in eternal bliss, while those who lived badly would burn forever in a pit where the sun set.  However these testimonies are suspect.  Harriot wanted to present the natives as ready for their Protestant makeovers so he exaggerated resemblances to European beliefs.  The natives had probably already heard some Christian doctrine from the European fishermen they had interacted with for generations.  They may have been telling Harriot what he wanted to hear.

The Algonquins Kickin’ It Old School

Harriot shared two tales of recent near death experiences he heard from the natives.  One man was buried but came back to life to report he had been sent to burn but saved by a god who told him to live again and warn others to live good lives so they could avoid the place of terrible torment.  Another who woke up in a grave that was fortunately only soil and not a wooden box reported though his body lay dead his soul lived and traveled far to a place of delicate trees with splendid fruits, and then to a beautiful encampment where he saw his father who told him to go back so he could tell his friends the good they were to enjoy forever if they lived well.

The natives believed their gods had human forms so they represented them with carved images they placed in houses and temples.  Prayer, worship, singing, and offerings were centered around these figures.  Harriot makes the point that only the most ignorant among the natives believed the carvings themselves were actual gods.  Most understood them to be symbols.  Their great chiefs were mummified and kept in a temple guarded by a life-size carving of a god.

Mummified Algonquin Chiefs.  Who Needs Pyramids?

Harriot also described the activities of what he called conjurors but we would call shamans.  They stared up at the heavens in trance.  They danced wildly and uttered mysterious declarations.  Their strange gestures, herbal concoctions and rituals were not only used for healing but for remotely viewing the activities of prey and of the enemy.  Harriot added that these predictions “often times they find to be true.”  In one of his less rational moments, or perhaps in an effort to appease public opinion back home, Harriot credited their success to the devil.  His descriptions of the activities of these shamans must have reminded some among the English of their own cunning men and women, who were consulted for similar reasons and who used comparable techniques.  In both cultures witchcraft and eclipses were fearsome threats.

Modern studies of Algonquin religious beliefs reveal some similarities to Harriot’s descriptions but some crucial differences.  The great god of goodness was not the creator of the other gods.  The god who presided over the winter, over the dark, over the pit of suffering was also the patron of the shamans.  After all, when suffering was inflicted by a divine being, one had to learn a way around it, a way to appease, one had to acquire the knowledge that could heal and restore order.  Every morning Algonquin mothers would ask their children if they had dreamed.  Not all dreams were important.  But certain dreams contained vivid messages.  Dreams could reveal ways to heal sickness.  They could tell where prey, or the enemy, could be found.  They could teach a hunter a new technique.  A wife could remotely view her husband arriving late from the hunt.  And by paying close attention to dreams, by taking them seriously, the Algonquins believed the quality of the messages would improve, providing guidance through communication with a greater consciousness.

Algonquin Shaman Models A Lovely Frock and Do

But Harriot was not content with learning the spiritual beliefs of the natives.  He wanted to share his own.  As for the Bible, the natives were “glad to touch it, to hold it to their breasts and heads, and stroke over all their body with it to show their hungry desire of that knowledge.”  He read to them from it and translated the passages into Algonquin.  The natives added the God of the Book to their pantheon but showed no signs of embracing monotheism.

Wingina must have been pleased when the English colonists burned a rival tribe’s crops and village after the failure of a local chief to return a stolen silver cup.  But then a terrible drought killed many crops and the diseases brought by the Europeans began to take their toll.  The natives sickened and died but the English remained healthy.  Some natives thought that the English controlled the disease, which they described as invisible bullets, a secret weapon supplied by the English god.  When their shamans could not stop the spreading epidemic some Roanokes, including Wingina, adopted English rituals. They prayed with the English, they sang their psalms, worshipping their God, but to no avail.  English montoac was not only marvelous but malevolent. Many began to believe that Harriot and the others had been sent to exterminate the natives and that more whites would follow to take their lands.  Their arrival had roughly coincided with eclipses and a comet.  For the natives these were omens of doom.  As an astrologer Harriot concurred, venturing that Providence had made the natives sicken and die for the benefit of the Christian colonists, who would thereby suffer less opposition.  As Harriot wrote: “There could at no time happen any strange sickness, losses, hurts, or any other cross unto them, but that they would impute to us the cause or means thereof for offending or not pleasing us.”

Watercolor by John White Believed to Be Chief Wingina

Wingina abandoned Roanoke Island, moving away his people.  He changed his name to Pemisapan.  Sir Ralph Lane was told by enemies of the Roanoke that Pemisapan was planning an attack to destroy the English settlement.  Lane was convinced by what was probably a ruse.  He called for a parlay with Pemispan.  As they talked peace Lane suddenly ordered an attack.  The chief was beheaded.  Less than two weeks later, the colony abandoned Roanoke Island, fleeing a powerful storm, amid fears of native reprisals.  No gold had been found and there were rumors that the Spanish were on their way to take what they claimed was theirs.  In the rush to leave, many of Harriot’s specimens were lost at sea, including a necklace intended for Queen Elizabeth, selected from 5000 pearls, about which Harriot wrote, “the likeness and uniformity in roundness…and many excellent colors…were very fair and rare.”  Most of his precious notes were dropped into the ocean, a priceless record of America’s dawn was lost there as the ink bled away.

This murder of a chief doomed Raleigh’s Roanoke venture.  Grenville and company, including Harriot, returned to England leaving only a small group to hold the colony.  Wanchese, whose suspicions about the English had proven true, led a raid by his followers wiping out the remaining English in the summer of 1586.  John White was declared governor and returned with a larger party of colonists in 1587.  They had been there only briefly when White found one of his lieutenants dead, arrows stuck all over his body like quills on a porcupine, his head bashed in.  When White called for a peaceful meeting only natives maimed in the attack on Pemispan’s camp showed up to remind him of English brutality.  White retaliated for the killing of his lieutenant but he stupidly killed the only natives still willing to speak with him, Manteo’s kinsmen of the Croatoan tribe.

Harriot published his Briefe and True Report on the New Found Land of Virginia in 1588, the year the Spanish armada threatened to conquer England.  Raleigh was busy leading the British Navy.  Only seven copies of the book are known to have survived.  It reads like a business plan for prospective investors, an executive summary for potential timeshare owners, but also a legal brief in defense of Raleigh’s plans for colonization.  Other reports had described the terrible dangers of the new world, the scarcity of food, and the hostility of the natives.  Harriot dismissed these as the complaints of travelers too accustomed to soft English beds.  He did not tell how the colonists had to rely on the natives to avoid starvation in the winter, robbing them of their own meager stores of corn.  He downplayed the incidents of poisonous water and food he observed.  He mentioned that the violence he witnessed may have been too fierce, but dismissed it as over eagerness caused by the English desire to instill fear and obedience so that future colonists might have an easier time civilizing the natives.

Algonquin Lawn Ornament

The Spanish since at least 1505 had been publishing sensationalized accounts of cannibalism among the natives of South America to legitimize their own brutality with lurid stories of naked native women waylaying explorers only to hit them from behind to carve them up for a feast.  Harriot portrayed the natives as sober in drink and diet, intelligent within the limits of their primitive technology.  He praised their farming methods for preserving the fertility of the soil and increasing its productivity.  Rather than separating crops, in their fields bean plants climbed corn stalks while melons on the ground preserved moisture.  He pointed out that the chiefs punished theft, adultery and other misbehavior with beatings or death depending on the severity of the crime.  He suggested they would probably welcome the friendship of the English, and he expected they would embrace the true Protestant religion.

Part one of Briefe and True Report cataloged profitable products.  It began with silk (from grass and worms), hemp, and grapes as wines.  He listed sixty plants native to the region or sown by the colonists, nearly forty animals and a dozen minerals. Two dozen plants were identified only by their indigenous names because they were entirely unfamiliar.  Milkweed was given as the antidote for the native’s poisoned arrows.  Harriot was only interested in edible animals.  “We have taken and eaten” was a common refrain applied to porpoises, squirrels, swans, turtles (sea and land), oysters, crabs, lobsters, jellyfish, herring, sturgeon, trout, mussels, scallops, partridges, passenger pigeons, cranes, geese, rabbits, muskrats, bears, wolves, deer, and wild turkeys so docile the English could shoot one and the others would not fright.   Eight water fowl unknown to Europeans were mentioned, and seventeen unknown land fowl.  It’s both comical and tragic to read his descriptions of every manner of fish, animals, and birds.  He never describes them in any detail.  He only pauses to note whether they made good eating or not.  Harriot listed varieties of trees and the commercial uses of them.  Now that the vast wealth of species and the great forests are long gone, it’s hard to miss the irony that the first person to report about them viewed the lush splendor of the New World as nothing more than a massive product aisle.

Sea Turtle by John White, They Took It and Ate It

They Ate These, Too.

Butterfly by John White, Too Chalky, Not Filling

Raleigh’s colony disappeared completely.   In 1587 Governor John White had left among others, his own granddaughter Virginia Dare, the first English European born in America, while he returned to England for supplies.  The Spanish war delayed his return until 1590.  He found only empty buildings and no signs of fire or battle.  The only clues left behind were the mysterious Roanoke carvings.  Croatoan carved on a post of the fort and Cro carved on a tree.  Historians speculate that the survivors may have been absorbed by the Croatoan tribe, but suspect they were killed off by diseases and attacks.

I Could Swear I Left Those Colonists Right Here – The Roanoke Carvings

In 1590 Harriot back home in England was lending books to the notorious English magus John Dee.  By then Harriot was voraciously reading his way through the three finest libraries in England, those of John Dee, Sir Walter Raleigh, and Raleigh’s friend Henry Percy, Ninth Earl of Northumberland, known as the Wizard Earl.  The Earl owned many alchemical painted manuscripts and books.  He had the largest collection in England of the books of Giordano Bruno who was arguing for a great restoration of knowledge through the blending of Neoplatonic paganism, scientific inquiry and Christian tradition.

Professor Frances Yates put Harriot at the center of a Pythagorean Hermetic circle, some believe Shakespeare referred to as “The School of Night” in his play Love’s Labor’s Lost where the bard clearly lampoons Raleigh’s poetry.  Modern scholars suspect Yates was seeing Rosicrucians where there were only Protestants.  Harriot appears to have been a basically sound and God fearing Englishman.  He showed no enthusiasm for grand projects of reform, preferring to pursue his own interests and the interests of his patrons.

Raleigh was a hero to the British people after the defeat of the Spanish armada.  The Queen was not the only one at court who became jealous of his popularity.  Her favor to him sharply diminished.  Then in 1592 Raleigh had an affair with Elizabeth Throckmorton, one of the Queen’s Ladies in Waiting, who became pregnant.  They wed in secret.  The Queen was furious at this impertinence.  She had Raleigh called back from his exploration of Panama and upon his return she locked up Sir Walter and his wife in the Tower of London.  Raleigh was released only a month later, but Lady Raleigh was left there to taste the harsh cold of December before her release.  Husband and wife were devoted throughout their lives together, and in a certain morbid way thereafter that will be told near the end of our tale.

With Raleigh in the Tower, the Wizard Earl took over as Harriot’s patron.  The Earl was a friend of John Dee with whom he shared a keen interest in astrology and book collecting.  But the Earl was a wizard by reputation only.  Like Dee himself he had discretely gone to the continent to sample Catholic sacraments, and it was no secret that he sympathized with the Pope.  Because he was born of hard of hearing and with a slight speech impediment he was not comfortable at the royal court, so he moved Harriot to his country estate Syon House.

The Wizard Earl, Please Don’t Mention His Cousin Tom

Raleigh had kept Harriot busy with practical matters but the Earl allowed him to follow his most esoteric scientific pursuits, treating him like a member of the family, often engaging in deep conversations over dinner, and sometimes joining him in alchemical and other experiments.  Harriot designed improvements for Earl’s plumbing and while doing so developed mathematical formulas for the velocity and volume of water.  His studies of the parabola not only related to projectile weapons, he was interested in creating a parabolic burning mirror.  Harriot was one of only two people to see Chapman’s The Iliad, the first complete English translation of Homer, eighteen years before it was published.  One can only imagine the horror Harriot and the Earl felt when their idyllic intellectual life was disturbed in 1600 by the news that Giordano Bruno had been burned at the stake as a dangerous heretic.

When the Queen died in 1603 Raleigh’s fortunes fell further.  He was arrested that year, accused of plotting against the new king.  He was immediately sentenced to death and suffered a mock execution, or a true execution was halted at the last possible moment.  Many plots were hatched against James, from both Catholic and Protestant extremists, but it’s highly doubtful that Raleigh was actually involved in any conspiracy.  He was probably singled out for being the brightest star in the legend of Elizabeth’s Court, and perhaps the most hated Englishman among the Spanish whom James was attempting to placate.  But Sir Henry Percy the Ninth Earl of Northumberland had signed the document legitimizing James as King and he rode at the King’s right hand when James took his throne.  For the moment Harriot was safe.

Sir Walter Raleigh was accused of running a “School of Atheism” where hell and godhead were laughed at.  Harriot’s name came up repeatedly in the accusations first printed in polemic Catholic books, then in evidence given in court cases like that against English dramatist and poet Christopher Marlowe, thought to be a member of the School of Night.  Dinner conversations, rumors and hearsay were the insubstantial substance of most of the accusations against Raleigh.  He and friends were said to have believed the native Americans had artifacts and oral history proving the world was older than Adam.  Harriot was accused of denying the resurrection of the body, and eternal reward and eternal punishment.  Raleigh was said to have dismissed Moses as a “juggler” and to have declared that Harriot could do better.  Another member of Raleigh’s circle was accused of tearing out pages of the Bible to use for drying tobacco.  Harriot’s own book was used against him.  If the natives thought Harriot and the other strangers from across the ocean gods then perhaps Harriot had deliberately misled them.

Harriot was accused of being worse than an atheist.   He was accused of devil worship.   Didn’t he create the Devil’s Alphabet?  He was reading books on astrology, but also books against astrology.  He was reading the pagan hymns of the Neoplatonic Emperor Julian, who had hoped to suppress Christianity and restore paganism, whose description of the sun as literally a god must have reminded Harriot of the gods of the Carolina Algonquins.  But he was also reading the Catholic Fathers.  He wrote about the power of the atom, at the time a theory considered atheism.  But was he an atheist?

The Devil’s Alphabet, as Morons Called It

One of the accusations against Harriot was that he denied the Biblical creation myth.  His notes made plain his preoccupation with the idea that nothing comes out of nothing, that things are not nothing, and therefore how could they have been created by nothing.  Harriot was accused of arguing that atoms are infinite, that the creation has always existed and did not suddenly appear a few thousand years ago.  But later, partially influenced by his reading of the great Neoplatonist Proclus, Harriot questioned whether less or more are terms that can be applied to the infinite.  Contemplating the indivisible he wondered whether “all things are made of nothing” and “out of nothing nothing is made” are really contradictions after all.  Here he came close to the metaphysics of Hinduism and Buddhism where true reality is nothing to our deluded senses and what we consider reality is nothing but maya or illusion.

In a Sotheby’s catalog of 1986 appeared a manuscript dated 1594 purporting to be notes from discussions with Thomas Harriot on theological subjects.  If this was Harriot’s conversation, he questioned why an all powerful God would create a war between good and bad angels, and why he would create such an imperfect world and inflict eternal doom on his own ignorant creations.  He doubted the miracles of the Bible since no one bears witness to them but the writers of the Bible themselves, and none have occurred in recent history.  He wondered why God would allow the Turks to flourish while Christians suffered plague every summer.  Since this was the period of Harriot’s friendship with Dee, it’s tempting to think these are truly notes of a conversation between them.  The manuscript included questions about how angels and spirits could see and hear when they lacked the organs for doing so.  How could human and angelic intelligences resemble each other?  How could one angelic intelligence be evil and another good, on what basis could such assumptions be made?  He decided human beings must be incapable of knowing anything about such beings since we can have no experience of them given our limited senses.

When King James anonymously published a book in 1604 everyone knew he wrote attacking the now widespread use of tobacco he included a veiled swipe at Raleigh and Harriot for introducing it to English society.  The monarch complained about second hand smoke, he called it passive smoke, and warned of dangers to the lungs, calling the odor hateful to the nose.  Harriot must have been mortified to be singled out.  He was still a heavy smoker, as was Raleigh, who used a long silver pipe in the Tower to help him pass the time.

His Royal Thetruth.com

At first the threats against Harriot were mere gossip.  But then in 1605 the Earl and Harriot had a guest for dinner: Thomas Percy, a distant relative of the Earl.  That night, November 4th, a rider appeared for a secret meeting with Thomas Percy in the Earl’s garden; his name was Guy Fawkes.  The very next day Fawkes would be arrested strolling out of his hiding place where the explosives he set were ready to blow Parliament and King James sky high.  The movie inspired by the ill fated plot gave the symbol of a Guy Fawkes mask to the anonymous movement four centuries later; an ironic twist since “Guido” as he liked to be called was trying to give England back to that ultimate authoritarian the Pope.  But the immediate aftermath for Harriot and the Earl was imprisonment.  Most likely they had nothing to do with the plot but the visit from Guy Fawkes was just too suspicious for King James.  After all, the Wizard Earl’s father and uncle, the two prior Earls, had been implicated in plots against their monarchs.

James became frightened that Harriot may have cast his horoscope and the horoscopes of his children.  Apparently, for James, a horoscope wasn’t only evidence that the Earl and Harriot had tried to foretell the end of his reign.  The act of casting a horoscope took on the quality of black magic, not just peering into forbidden secrets but somehow binding the monarch and his family to a particular strand of fate.  We still have the list of the King’s questions about Harriot’s horoscopes; and we still have a letter of true pathos from poor Harriot who spent several weeks in a less pleasant jail than his patrons, and who grew deathly ill there.  He wanted to be allowed to quietly pursue his studies; he promised to continue praying every day for the health and glory of King James and the royal family.  Soon after, he was released, possibly because Sir Francis Bacon was seeking scholars for his “renewal of the sciences.”

The Earl adjusted to life in the Tower, where Harriot became known as one of the Wizard Earl’s “three magi.”  Harriot was given a house connected to the Tower.  Not only did the Earl enjoy tobacco and scientific discussions with Raleigh, Harriot and other friends, he also took over all of Martin Tower, and had an outdoor bowling alley with a roof built.  Together they all conducted alchemical experiments.  But the privileges the Earl and Raleigh enjoyed were a ploy intended to get their confessions.  When the ruse failed the privileges were removed one by one.

Harriot created comparative tables of Bible translations for Raleigh, to be used in his defense as his case slowly worked its way through the English courts.  Raleigh worked on his History of the World focusing on what makes kings good or bad.  (Later King James would try to suppress the book he condemned as “saucy” but Raleigh was too smart for him, releasing it anonymously through several publishers directly to the people).  Harriot contributed to the sections on geography and chronology of the development of mathematics, but by then he was deeply involved in his experiments in refraction that helped explain rainbows.  His theory drew the attention of Kepler who corresponded with him for several years starting in 1606. When Kepler wrote Harriot about the refraction of light and his doubts about the theory of atoms because of his belief that some mysterious power, perhaps soul, infuses all matter, Harriot invited Kepler to ponder the interior of the atom where mass and motion, soul and energy unveil an infinity not of boundless cosmos but an interior infinity.

Harriot’s Diagram of Sun Spots

Kepler and Halley’s Comet in 1607 turned Harriot’s attention to astronomy.  In 1609 he bought his first telescope, an invention only a year old.  He drew a map of the moon the summer of 1609 months before Galileo did the same, and in winter 1610 he diagramed sun spot patterns.  He and Galileo were the first human beings to see the moons of Jupiter.  Harriot was somehow restored to favor at court and he became one of the principle tutors of Prince Henry.  In the third installment of this three part look at the impact of Europeans on the earliest history of America we’ll examine more deeply this royal who became for a short time the hope of all Protestants and other enemies of the Catholic Church, and the culture of hope for worldwide reform that grew up around him and his sister the Princess Elizabeth.  Their tragedies unleashed thirty years of war in Europe.  But for now Prince Henry was the darling of those who longed for the glories of the golden age of Queen Elizabeth, and his little sister was considered her potential second coming.  About Sir Walter Raleigh locked up in the Tower, Prince Henry famously observed “Only my father could keep such a bird in a cage.”  Prince Henry died in 1612 at the age of eighteen.  Raleigh, Harriot and Shakespeare found common ground in their grief.

Three years later in 1615 Harriot noticed a small red speck on his nose.  At first he didn’t trouble about it, but it concerned him as it slowly grew.  He continued visiting Raleigh and the Earl, sharing his research with them, and helping Raleigh develop his plans for regaining his freedom.  Somehow in 1617 Raleigh convinced the cash strapped King to let him go back to Guyana for another crack at discovering El Dorado.  After twenty years absence Raleigh found that the memory of him among the natives was so positive they wanted to make him their king.   But the City of Gold was never found, and the expedition was considered a failure.  Worse, he could not resist attacking Spanish ships on his way home.  Upon his return to England he was sent back to the Tower and his death sentence was reaffirmed.

Raleigh’s Room in the Tower of London – No Cushions for You, Walter

In October 1618 Raleigh was beheaded.  When he saw the axe that would behead him,  Raleigh commented: “This is a sharp medicine, but it is a physician for all diseases and miseries.” Thomas Harriot was there to watch his old patron die.  He took cryptic notes on a slip of paper which has survived.    Since Harriot wore black all his life Raleigh left him his own black finery.  Raleigh’s head was mummified and Lady Raleigh carried it with her for the rest of her life, not so different after all from the Algonquins and their temple of mummified chiefs.

By then the speck on Harriot’s nose had become a serious and painful condition.  Still supported by the imprisoned Earl he augmented his income by constructing and selling telescopes.  His doctor had been part of a circle studying Hermetic philosophy in Paris, a student of the doctrines of Paracelsus, who became the most renowned physician in England and Europe, doctor to two Kings of England, but he could not heal Harriot’s affliction.  As he grew more ill and death approached Harriot read ravenously books of theology modern and ancient including Libanius’ defense of the Emperor Julian and St. Augustine’s refutation of Julian’s arguments against Christianity.  He read the works of Rosicrucian apologists and critics, and the latest scientific volumes.  His friends urged him to publish so his discoveries would not be forgotten or claimed by others.  But Harriot had suffered too much persecution.

Only one reference to any family associated with Harriot remains, in a list of accounts associated with the expenses of the Earl, but historians believe this may have been a convenient reference to Harriot’s servants and assistants since no record remains of his ever having a wife or children.

July 18 1621, after sixteen years in the Tower, the Wizard Earl was at last released.  He had grown so comfortable there they had a hard time dislodging him.   Harriot had died sixteen days earlier in London.  His patron’s final gift was a plaque honoring his excellence in mathematics, philosophy and theology.  His grave is forgotten ground somewhere underneath the Bank of England.

Harriot was considered the most demonic of Raleigh’s circle, but no records remain to confirm his alleged heresies, only hearsay.  Hostile gossips accused him of scoffing at the idea that something could come from nothing and pointed at the red speck that grew to kill him as an example it could, and a sign of divine justice inflicted on a man who was sticking his nose where it didn’t belong.  Harriot left 7000 pages of notes as unorganized today as the day he died. His manuscript on algebra, Artis Analyticae Praxis, was published in latin ten years after his death by editors who removed whatever they didn’t understand: the best parts.

Harriot’s influence was subtle.  He inspired the metaphors of astronomy in the plays of Christopher Marlowe, especially Faustus.  He influenced the theories of Descartes.  Dodgson (better known as Lewis Carroll of the Alice in Wonderland books) studied hermeticism and Harriot.  Until thirty years ago Harriot was all but forgotten by historians and mathematicians.  Since then scholars have begun to reveal his genius, and that melancholy yet marvelous moment he inhabited, at the end of the Renaissance, at the birth of the modern world, at the beginning of the American experiment.

Dedicated to the Adventurers

This is part one of a three part series.  Part two When First They Met will look at the native culture the Europeans found in America and the impact of first contact made by the Spanish, the Dutch, the French and the English.  Part three America’s Forgotten Spiritual Heritage will consider the zeal for a new world away from the dark ages of domination by the Catholic Church launched by the Rosicrucian manifestos and other visionary reformers of Europe, and the devastation of their aspirations at the Battle of White Mountain, which left America as their only hope for a brighter future.


A Republic of Mind and Spirit
A Cultural History of American Metaphysical Religion by Catherine L. Albanese
Yale University Press, 2007

Thomas Harriot’s Doctrine of Triangular Numbers: the `Magisteria Magna’
Janet Beery and Jacqueline Stedall
European Mathematical Society 2008

The School of Night
M.C. Bradbook
Cambridge University Press, 1936

European Visions American Voices
Thomas Harriot’s A brief and true report: knowledge-making and the Roanoke Voyage
Stephan Clucas
The Trustees of the British Museum 2009

Astrology in Harriot’s Time
Richard Dunn
The Durham Thomas Harriot Seminar #14
History Education Project, 1994

Thomas Harriot
An Elizabethan Man of Science
Edited by Robert Fox
Ashgate, 2000

The Natural Philosophy of Thomas Harriot
H. Gatti
Oxford University Press, 1993

Indians and English: Facing Off in Early America
Karen Kupperman
Cornell University Press, 2000

Settling with the Indians:
The Meeting of English and Indian Cultures in America 1580-1640
Karen Kupperman
Rowman and Littlefield 1980

Big Chief Elizabeth
Giles Milton
Picador, 2001

Investigating Gunpowder Plot
Mark Nichols
Manchester University Press, 1991

European Visions American Voices
Lost Colonists and Lost Tribes
Michael Leroy Oberg
The Trustees of the British Museum 2009

Don’t Eat, Don’t Touch: Roanoke Colonists, Natural Knowledge, and Dangerous Plants of North America
Karen Reeds
The Trustees of the British Museum 2009

European Visions American Voices
Thomas Harriot’s A brief and true report: knowledge-making and the Roanoke Voyage
Joan-Pau Rubiés
The Trustees of the British Museum 2009

A Sourcebook for the Study of Thomas Harriot
James W. Shirley
Arno Press, 1981

Thomas Harriot: A Biography
James W. Shirley
Oxford University Press 1983

Thomas Harriot
Renaissance Scientist
Edited by John W. Shirley
Oxford University Press, 1974

Life of Thomas Hariot
and Hariot’s brief and true Report of Virginia
Henry Stevens
Chiswick Press, 1900

John Dee’s Occultism
Magical Exaltation Through Powerful Signs
Gyorgy Szonyi
State University of New York Press, 2004

Religion and the Decline of Magic
Keith Thomas
Penguin University Books, 1973

Article by Ronnie Pontiac

Newtopia staff writer RONNIE PONTIAC is a founding member and primary guitarist of Lucid Nation, executive producer of the documentaries Rap is War, Exile Nation, and the award winning animated short Cohen on the Bridge.  He associate produced The Gits documentary, and was art editor, then poet in residence for Newtopia Magazine in its former incarnation . He’s a published author of works on obscure topics such as ancient Greek religion and the history of alchemy. Follow him on Twitter @AmerMysteries.


4 thoughts on “Thomas Harriot: A Rational Mind in an Irrational World or One Man’s Genius is Another Man’s Devil

  1. Beautiful piece. I love it!

    Posted by Adam Parfrey | December 23, 2011, 9:19 pm


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