When Elizabeth I’s scientific adviser and “philosopher” John Dee died in 1609 at the age of 81, he left behind a treasure trove of unusual artifacts. Among them was his speculum, a hand mirror made of polished obsidian (volcanic glass), which was also known as “the mirror of the devil”. This mystical device for speaking to the dead was coveted by his peers and subsequent generations; it was acquired by politician and writer Horace Walpole before making its way to the British Museum, where it resides today. Despite its popularity, however, the history of the mirror was shrouded in mystery. A recently published scientific study traced its origins to 16th-century Mexico and the religious rituals of the Aztecs.
The mirror in question is one of a group of obsidian objects from the British Museum and measures approximately 7.2 inches in diameter and half an inch thick. Visually, it looks like drawings of black mirrors that appear in the pages of the Tepetlaoztoc Codex, a 16th-century Aztec book written by residents of Tepetlaoztoc in central Mexico. The book depicts images of the tribute that the indigenous peoples of Mesoamerica were forced to pay to the Spanish conquistadors and among the jewelry and other valuable items were at least 10 obsidian mirrors. These objects were associated with the god Tezcatlipoca (literally “smoking mirror”), the authors Explain, and were used for divination, or to examine the future.
Just because the mirror looks like the ones in the manuscript doesn’t mean that it is the real deal. Anything of value is susceptible to tampering, and Dee evolved in spiritualist circles that included known counterfeiters like the alchemist Edward Kelly. A scientific team, led by University of Manchester archeology professor Stuart Campbell, analyzed the various obsidian objects in the British Museum and compared their chemical composition to various samples from parts of modern Mexico. Their findings, which were published this week in the journal antiquity, show that the mirror is very similar to the samples of Pachuca, an area that was heavily mined for obsidian during the time it was under Aztec control.
Although rock mirrors date back to 4000 BC in Anatolia, they were not easy to make. The Franciscan missionary and ethnographer Bernardino de Sahagun (vs. 1499-1590) writes that the mirrors were made by specialists, who polished the stone using abrasive sand and a fine cane to make it shiny. Obsidian was believed to have medicinal and religious properties that could protect the user from harm and allow them to project themselves into the future. While there were a variety of different types of spiritually useful mirrors in use in Mesoamerica, at least one important one was a metaphorical “self-reflection” tool. Contemporary divinatory mirror among the Huichols of Santa Catarina Cuexcomatitlan sees mirrors like “like the apprentice’s notebook” in which the diviner learns what is written in the mirror. Among the Huichols, Karl Taube abstract, the mirror “looks a lot like a camera” and “works the same as the sight and mind of human beings, with images stored in the” memory “of the object”.
Although not all mirrors work the same – some are portals, some are introspection devices, others are predictors of the future, some are combined with hydromancy (water divination) and others are recording devices – the idea that the mirror is a conduit to deities of one kind of another is an intercultural phenomenon. Similar types of catoptromancy (mirror divination) took place among the ancient Greeks. The Written Journey Pausanias describe a ritual in a Greek temple in Arcadia in which supplicants looked at themselves in a sacred mirror and “saw themselves very faintly or not at all, but the actual images of the gods” (8.37.7). The Romans also had religious experts who worked as diviners, called specular (from the Latin word for mirror). Contemplating reflective surfaces was a widely practiced form of divination that involved religious specialists and training.
In Europe, the association of polished surfaces with demonology became explicit in medieval times. 12th century writer John of Salisbury wrote that any shiny object – from the blade of a dagger to a polished fingernail – could inadvertently become a vessel for communicating with the devil. It is implicit in contemporary crystal ball viewing practices and forms the basis of the 2013 supernatural horror film. Oculus.
Given the history of mirror-watching, one would expect John Dee, who was the Queen’s philosopher during one of the most religiously controversial periods in history, or a secret occultist. This would only be partly correct, however, as there was nothing secret about it. While Dee was, in many ways, an occultist (his mirror is now classified as an “occult artifact” by the British Museum), he was also a scientist, a philosopher and, most surprising of all, a devoted Christian.
The reason is that he was, as they say, a true Renaissance man who wrote on everything from astrology to alchemy. In a time when the line between magic and religion was constantly shifting and was as much about power as anything else, he straddled the divide. Moreover, his interest in mirror divination must be understood in the context of Renaissance mirror technology in general. In the 16th century, as Sabine Melchior-Bonnet writes in her beautiful story of The mirror, mirror manufacturing technologies were still evolving. Mirrors were as likely to distort the image as they were to reflect it. 15th century visitors to the French Hesdin Castle were apparently fascinated by the mirror that adorned the entrance to the gallery. The financial director of the Duke of Burgundy reported that “we see someone else rather than ourselves”. All mirrors, in other words, encouraged introspection and invited commentary on the source of the images. “The goal of reflection” Remarks Harvard University curator Sara Schechner “was not mimetic but transformative.” Looking in a mirror was meant to take you beyond the superficial.
While he has previously been charged with treason for disseminating the horoscopes of Queen Elizabeth I and Queen Mary, more recent reviews of Dee see him as a serious librarian, manuscript curator and scientist. In addition to his role as astrologer and court scientist, he was said to have pioneered the phrase “British Empire” (a questionable achievement) and contributed to developments in navigation and cartography. His commitment to the importance of mathematics led him to write a “Mathematical Preface” for artisans and craftsmen who have not attended university. Investigating the supernatural was not a side hobby for Dee, however, he speculated that mathematical objects could mediate between the human and the divine. If that sounds odd, keep in mind that math, metaphysics, and fortune telling intersect ways to uncover the mysteries of the cosmos since ancient times. That a mathematician is also a collector of books, or a spiritualist is not strange. If you want to commune with the divine, why not use all the technologies available to do so? No doubt, it is extraordinary that we divide our ways of understanding the world into hermetically sealed streams.
For the Aztecs, obsidian mirrors had a very particular religious and ritual use with specific cultural meanings attached. When Dee acquired and used her mirror and used it in her rituals, noted Campbell, “he gained a whole new life and a whole new set of meanings – and he continued to acquire them.” For British intellectuals interested in the occult, the mirror has become near-famous and has gained a reputation as a demonic portal. “So,” said Campbell, “it is now in the British Museum as an occult artifact. He has his own biography and his own impact in the world. I think because of this, it is a particularly fascinating object. Don’t look too long, you never know who will be looking back.