Monday, December 13, 2004

"Mirror, Mirror; A History of the Human Love Affair With Reflection," by Mark Pendergrast.

This book touches upon the entire history of mirrors from the earliest known polished stone mirror (6200 B.C.E., in what is now Turkey), to the enormous mirrors used for modern telescopes. The mystique of mirrors is also a theme of the book--from mirrors as a means of self-reflection...or narcissism, to mirrors as a means of scrying for the future or of creating optical illusions for fun and profit.

Egyptians made mirrors of polished copper, bronze, or sometimes gold or silver. These mirrors were used for secular purposes, such as applying cosmetics, but also had religious significance as a symbol of Ra (the sun) brought to earth. The Romans produced small convex glass mirrors by blowing a thin glass sphere, then coating the inside with molten lead. Then the sphere was broken into pieces for household use. The superstition that a broken mirror will lead to seven years bad luck is apparently of Roman origin. The earliest Chinese mirrors were made of polished jade, followed by iron, then bronze. The circular mirrors were considered emblematic of the universe, and the Chinese believed that demons avoided mirrors because they would be made visible in them. Many cultures had folk beliefs about the dangers of mirrors capturing souls in their reflective surface.

Mesoamericans made mirrors from pyrite, hematite or magnetite, anthracite, mica, obsidian, or slate. They are also believed to have used liquid mercury mirrors as well, as gourds containing mercury have been found at gravesites. The Olmec civilization (forerunners of the Maya, Zapotec, Mixtec, Toltec, and Aztec) connected mirrors with their jaguar fire-god who created the sun. They observed the keen night vision and reflective tapetum lucidum of these animals, and their shamans used mirrors to see beyond the mundane. They also used mirrors for lighting fires. The Aztecs would place "a bowl of water with a knife in it at the entrance to their homes, so that a spirit looking into the water would see its soul pierced by the knife and flee."

The Aztec god, Tezcatlipoca (Smoking Mirror), had a mirror instead of a right foot. The hearts of human sacrificial victims were offered to this god. Aztec priests used black obsidian mirrors to predict the future--including the return of Quetzacoatl, the bird-lord of healing and magical herbs. When Hernando Cortez arrived in 1519, he was taken to be the returning Quetzalcoatl, who would overthrow Tezcatlipoca and the Aztec ruler.

Among the Aztec treasure stolen by the Spanish and sent back to the old world, was a polished obsidian mirror which ended up in the possession of John Dee, scholar, mathematician, advisor to Queen Elizabeth I, as well as an alchemist and conjurer. "His story...marks a crucial moment in history, when magic and science, which had existed in uneasy alliance...split from one another." In addition to the Aztec mirror, John Dee was given a large concave mirror by Sir William Pickering, which produced extraordinary optical illusions. Queen Elizabeth once dropped in on Dee at his home, and asked to be shown the perspective mirror. She was reportedly delighted by its effect, in which "if you lunge at it with a sword or dagger, 'you shall suddenly be reason of an Image, appearing in the air' attacking you in return." Dee "was one of the last intellectuals for whom occult and scientific mirrors reflected the same light of truth."

Thomas Harriot, a young associate of Dee, took a perspective mirror and burning glasses with him on the 1585 journey to help found the "lost" Roanoke colony in Virginia.

The term for divination by mirrors is "Catoptromancy." A medium, or scryer, would stare fixedly into a reflective surface until putting themselves into a trance state. Talented scryers might be children around the age of 7 or 8, virgins, or men so imaginative and highly-strung that the "trod a tortuous course between sanity and madness." Scrying was practiced by ancient Egyptians, Sumerians, Hebrews, ancient Chinese, Vedic Indians, Persian Magi, Greeks, Romans, Aztecs, Incas, Mongolians, Siberians, Japanese, Tahitians, Roma, Australian aboriginals, Zulus, Congolese, Ethiopians, well as Europeans.

But these archeological/historical/anthropological aspects are only about the first quarter of the book. Most of the book covers the history and technology of optical telescopes, as well as inventions such as the camera obscura, the kaleidoscope, and various optical illusions produced by clever use of mirrors. The use of mirrors in art, both thematically and practically (anamorphic art, in which distorted paintings can only be "solved" by reflection in a centrally-placed cylindrical mirror). The author includes the story of John Dobson, Hindu monk and builder of telescopes, who founded the Sidewalk Astronomers. Also of particular interest to me were the experiments documenting which species of animals can or cannot recognize themselves in mirrors. Chimps can, Orangutans can, and dolphins apparently can as well. But most gorillas cannot, nor can monkeys or elephants.


Reading this book gave me inspiration and details for my story, The Knife in the Mirror" appearing in Neo-Opsis issue 15, 2008. John Dee's obsidian scrying mirror resides at the British Museum in London.