Jun 10, 2015

Mirror, Mirror On The Wall - A History Of Mirrors; Their Meaning In Myth, Legend, Folk Tales & Superstition

"Narcissus" by Caravaggio, image courtesy
of Wikipedia
When humankind first saw its own reflection, so began our fascination with any surface that could cast our image.  The myth of Narcissus, the youth enamored by his own beauty reflected in a pool of water, demonstrates that our fascination dates back to ancient times.

Today, we take mirrors for granted.  Mirrors are nothing more than another tool for everyday use. In earlier times, however, mirrors were scarce and expensive; how they were crafted, a jealously guarded secret.

Moreover, early peoples believed that mirrors possessed magical qualities, such as the ability to foretell the future. Consequently, mirrors figure prominently in many folk tales and superstitions.

A Brief History Of Mirrors

Mirrors In The Ancient World

In all likelihood, humankind's first mirrors were nothing more than still pools of water like the one we associate with Narcissus myth. As one article on mirror history notes, the ancient Chinese characters for mirrors - known as jian and jing - were best translated as "a [large] tub filled with water."

However, even the first "manufactured" mirrors have a long history.  Neolithic man produced mirrors made from polished obsidian, a form of volcanic glass.  Examples of obsidian mirrors have been uncovered in central Turkey dating back to 6000 BCE.

Egyptian copper mirror,
Image courtesy of
Wikimedia Commons
By Daderot (Own work) [CC0]
Later, mirrors make an appearance in both Egypt and Mesopotamia. Small, copper disc mirrors dating back to approximately 4000 to 3000 BCE have been recovered in the Tigris-Euphrates River Valley in modern-day Iraq.
From that time period onward, mirrors (typically made of bronze or copper) are depicted in the sculpture, papyrus and other artistic and religious forms of those regions.  The Egyptians, for example, closely associated mirrors with the worship of the goddesses Mut and Hathor.

Pre-Columbian mirrors also have been discovered in the Americas. In South America, mirror-making dates back to approximately 1925 BCE; while in Mexico, mirrors were made by the Olmec, Mayan and Teotihuacan people.  In most instances, these mirrors were made from non-metallic substances such as anthracite, rock crystal or polished precious stones.

Both the ancient Greeks and Romans manufactured mirrors.  The Greeks made mirrors that were either hand-held or free-standing.  According to the British Museum, ancient Greek mirrors were manufactured almost exclusively from bronze, with just a few made of silver.  Metallic mirrors of this kind were quite expensive, and in all likelihood, were owned solely by the upper classes.

Later, the Romans developed the ability to make mirrors out of glass.  Pliny the Elder's "Natural History" mentions glass mirrors as well as mirrors made using gold.  Glass mirrors dating to the first century CE have also been discovered in the tombs of Roman garrisons in Austria and Germany.   Despite achieving a fair degree of technical sophistication, however, mirror making in Roman times was not widespread, and ownership would have remained solely with the rich.

Mirrors in the Medieval & Renaissance World

Van Eyck's "Arnolfini Portrait" with convex
mirror in center; image courtesy of
When the Roman Empire collapsed, knowledge of high-quality glass making vanished.  For a time, glass mirror making disappeared.  In fact, according to Wikipedia, the first mention of a "glass" mirror would not occur again until 1180, over seven hundred years after the fall of Rome.

The first known glass mirror manufacturing facility opened in Nuremberg, Germany in 1373.  Mirrors gradually re-appear in artwork, signifying their re-introduction into society.  Jan Van Eyck's "Arnolfini Portrait," for example, appeared in 1434, featuring a wealthy, newlywed couple whose images are reflected in a wall-hung, convex mirror.  

The process of making fine, glass mirrors was eventually perfected by the Venetians, particularly by glass makers on the island of Murano, which became known as the Isle of Glass. The first known mirror produced on Murano dates to 1364.

By the mid-15th century, the mirror making process turned into a high art form when a Murano glass maker developed "cristallo," a transparent form of glass resembling rock crystal.  One hundred years later, in 1540, a Venetian invented a leveling and shining process for glass sheets that allowed glass makers to form perfectly flat, regularly shaped mirrored surfaces.  Concerted efforts were undertaken to keep such advances secret, but to no avail.  By 1665, Venetian glass makers were working in the court of France, eventually contributing to the Hall of Mirrors at the Palace of Versailles.  By 1700, the art of mirror making had spread throughout Europe.
The Hall of Mirrors/La Galerie des Glaces, Palace of Versailles

For a scholarly treatment of the ancient history of mirrors, Dr. Jay Enoch's article, "History of Mirrors Dating Back 8000 Years" is an excellent resource, and one that is highly recommended.

For a good treatment of Venetian mirror making, the article "Venetian Mirrors:  History and Origins of Mirror" is recommended.

The Mirror in Legend & Superstition

Mirrors are the subject of many legends and superstitions.  Just about everyone has heard the superstition that, if you break a mirror, seven years' bad luck will follow. The "broken mirror/bad luck" superstition dates back to ancient Roman times.  The Romans believed that mirrors reflected the soul, so breaking one brought great misfortune, if not death.  Furthermore, the Romans believed that the soul renewed itself every seven years, so after this span of time, the curse of the broken mirror would, itself, be undone.

A similar "broken mirror" superstition says that, if a mirror falls off the wall by itself and breaks, someone in the house will die.

Dr. John Dee's scrying tools, including
obsidian mirror, British Museum
Beginning in the 16th century, mirrors were used in various occult rituals.  Queen Elizabeth's astrologer, Dr. John Dee, famously used an obsidian mirror for "scrying," a form of divination.  He also used a crystal ball. Today, both objects are housed in the British Musem.

Another well-known superstition about mirrors involves vampires. As the superstition goes, a vampire casts no reflection in a mirror.  This is due, again, to the long-standing notion that a mirror reflects the soul. Having no soul, vampires cast no reflection.

One of the most famous urban legends, the legend of "Bloody Mary," typically involves teenagers uttering a chant of some sort in front of a bathroom mirror to summon "Bloody Mary."

Finally, many cultures advocate covering up mirrors whenever someone dies or when people are in mourning.  This belief has roots in Victorian, Jewish, African and Jamaican custom; it can even be found in certain regions of the U.S., such as the Appalachian and Southern regions.

In most - though not all - instances, the custom of covering mirrors when someone dies stems from a belief that the deceased person's soul can become trapped in a mirror.  These superstitions argue that the trapped soul will be stolen by the Devil or will be unable to complete its journey to the next life.

Jewish tradition offers a different rationale, however.  Mirrors are covered when a person dies so that survivors focus on God and the process of mourning rather than their own physicality, appearance or vanity.

You can read about many more superstitions related to mirrors in this article from The Committee for Skeptical Inquiry.  Another good resource is the EHow article, "Why Cover Mirrors When Someone Dies?"

The Mirror In Myth, Folk Tales & Other Literature

Mirrors, both as magical tools and symbolic objects, appear frequently in myth, folk tales, and other literature. In addition to the myth of Narcissus, the Greek myth of Perseus & Medusa tells how young Perseus slew Medusa by looking at her reflection in his magic shield, thereby avoiding her infamous, stone-turning gaze.  In the Shinto religion of Japan, the myth of Amaterasu explains how a mirror was used in an effort to coax the goddess of the sun out of a cave.

1916 illustration of the Evil Queen from "Snow White,"
Europa's Fairy Book, image courtesy of Wikipedia
In folk tales, the mirror is probably most closely associated with the tale of "Snow White," published in Grimm 's Fairy Tales in 1812. Depending on the version of the story, the mirror - representing unbridled vanity and self-absorption - is either hand-held, stands upright or hangs on the wall.

In the Grimm's version, the evil queen speaks to her "magic mirror," saying:   "Mirror, mirror in my hand, who is the fairest in the land?"

(Note:  The above version of the "Snow White" tale is not to be confused with the more well-known Disney mantra, depicted in the video below)

In both versions, the mirror - which tells no lies - replies that the evil queen is the fairest; that is, until Snow White comes of age, whereupon the evil queen seeks to destroy Snow White out of envy.

In addition to the many re-tellings of "Snow White," "magic mirrors" appear in other tales, both old and new.  Consider these examples:
  • Edmund Spenser's epic poem, The Faerie Queene (1590, 1596), where a young and beautiful, female knight falls in love with a man after first seeing his reflection in her father's magic mirror.
  • Alfred Lord Tennyson's poem, "The Lady of Shalott" (1833), features the Lady who is under a curse to weave in front of a mirror, never truly knowing the world outside her castle walls.  The mirror "cracks from side to side" when the Lady dares to look out the window towards Camelot.
  • Hans Christian Andersen's "Snow Queen" (1844) - an evil troll, called "the devil," crafts a magic mirror that reflects a distorted reality, only reflecting the ugly aspects of things.
  • Lewis Carroll's Through The Looking Glass, and What Alice Found There (1871), the sequel to Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1865), where Alice travels again to an alternative world through a magic mirror.
  • Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891).  Although not technically about a mirror, the painting is a "mirror image" of Dorian's soul.
  • In the 1991 Disney version of "Beauty and the Beast," the Beast has an enchanted mirror that allows the user to see anything he or she wishes to see.
  • A similar enchanted mirror also makes an appearance in 2001, in Harry Potter & The Sorcerer's Stone, where Harry discovers the "Mirror of Erised," which allows its user to see that which they desire.  A short video clip from the movie is shown below:

As this article demonstrates, mirrors have a long and fascinating history.  More than just mere tools to serve our vanity, mirrors occupy an important place in our mythologies, legends and tales, both past and present.

Can you think of other mirror examples from myth, legend or folklore?  Other modern-day examples?  If so, please feel free to list them in the comments section.

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