Saturday 22 April 2017

Through a Glass Darkly: Mirrors, Myths and Magic by Catherine Hokin

I am a bit obsessed with mirrors at the moment. That's not an unusual state for many women as we oscillate between avoiding or checking our appearance depending on how hopeful/fearful we are feeling on any given day especially if, like me, your approach to dressing may be on the 'eclectic' side. An American acquaintance recently commented that she 'was interested in' the way I flaunted the look in the mirror, remove one item adjunct by adding three more. I digress (which may also be my clothing issue): my mirror obsession is currently centred on their mythical properties.

 Roman lead mirror, faces missing
Superstition is one of the many threads that connect us to our ancestors and many have ancient roots. Walking under a leaning ladder, for example, may have connections to the Ancient Egyptians and their belief that the triangle was a sacred shape. You might not be a salt thrower and you may place new shoes on the table without a care but I bet few of us break a mirror without a shiver. The belief that seven years bad luck would result comes from Ancient Rome and is linked to the 7 years the Romans believed it took for a soul to renew itself. If you do have a disaster, simply popping the pieces in the bin is not enough to reverse the misfortune: you can bury the pieces, immerse them in south-flowing water for several hours or grind them to a fine powder so the pieces no longer reflect an image. Or do all three while flinging salt and turning in a circle three times. Best to be safe in these strange times.

The idea of reflection, seeing an image that may otherwise be hidden or differs from what the watcher expects, has always fascinated, whether the source be water, metal or glass. We look for our identity in them, for good or ill: Socrates advised young men to look at their faces and, if the reflection was a handsome one, to focus their life on keeping their souls pure. Some ancient cultures believed the reflection was the true self, 'the shadow soul', hence the myth that vampires and evil spirits have no reflection. In some cultures, the images go beyond the individual: in ancient Chinese mythology, there is the story of the Mirror Kingdom in which creatures who will one day rise up to battle humans are caught in a magic sleep; the flickers we sometimes see in the corners of our eyes as we look into a mirror are the creatures' first stirrings. Other superstitions spanning cultures include not looking into them at candlelight when spirits of the dead might appear and covering mirrors when someone in the house dies so that the soul does not become trapped. The deep-seated hold these superstitions have on the popular imagination is reflected in stories as far apart as Narcissus, Snow White and Candyman. We look but we do not always believe or trust what we see.

 Ancient Egypt c. 1479 BC
That mirrors have grown up surrounded by myths is understandable: not only could they show us new aspects of ourselves and our world, in their earliest incarnations they were rare and expensive. Mirrors made from polished stone (obsidian) have been found in use in Turkey from 6000 BCE and also in South and Central America from 2000 BCE. Polished bronze discs with handles of ivory, wood or metal are seen in Egypt as early as 2900 BCE and in China from around 2000 BCE. By 465 BCE, some Greek mirrors were large enough to reflect a whole figure but most remained small enough to be portable and were highly ornamented, often with figures of the gods. All were recorded as being highly valuable: "For a single one of these mirrors of chiseled silver or gold, inlaid with gems, women are capable of spending an amount equal to the dowry the State once offered to poor generals’ daughters!” (Seneca). However, the reflected image purchased at such cost was not an accurate one: stone and bronze were both dark, metal scratched and tarnished easily and the very few glass mirrors that have been found were curved and therefore distorting - a problem which continued well into the sixteenth century and goes some way to explain the distrust around the reflected image.

 Pictish mirror symbol
Superstition and magic, mirrors have long been associated with both. The idea of reflecting things that were previously hidden or unseen is a short step from looking at mirrors as a method of divination: seeing not just what is there but what might be. One of the most common symbols carved onto Pictish stones in Scotland is a mirror, usually accompanied by a comb. There are a number of theories around the symbol's meaning, including a link to a matriarchal culture but another possibility is an association with astrology and using a mirror to read the heavens. Turning a mirror to the stars to divine messages about the future is seen in ancient Persia, by Shamans in Asia and is even attributed to Pythagoras who, according to legend, tipped a mirror at the moon to read the future. This practice, known as catoptromancy or scrying, is described in a number of ancient Greek texts and sometimes involves mirrors being lowered into water on a thread to provide a double reflection. It appears to have had a number of uses including predicting the future, medical diagnoses and communicating with people not physically present. Practitioners would burn herbs, chant 'prayers' and wait for answers and messages to reveal themselves in surfaces sometimes viewed as a portal between worlds. The practice is recorded well into the middle ages.

 15th century woman and mirror
During the mid to late medieval period, mirrors had rather mixed fortunes. Their role in divination made them a target for the Church and divination itself, associated as it was with demons and evil spirits, was banned. In The Book of the Knight of the Tower, an advice manual written in 1372 by Geoffrey de la Tour Landry for his daughters who are about to attend court, the dangers of sitting in front of the mirror rather than attending church are clearly spelled out:“Will this lady never be done combing herself! Staring at herself in the mirror? And as it pleased God to make an example of her, even as she stared into the mirror she perceived the enemy, who bared his behind, so ugly and horrible that the woman lost her reason, as if possessed by the devil.” However, mirrors also start to appear as a means of guarding against evil and excess: in Dit du Miroir by Jean de Cande, a man asks for a double mirror so he can look at himself inside and out. As mirrors became more common, it seems people were trying to find better ways to accommodate their presence.

The process by which mirrors were made gradually became more sophisticated: the process for making flat glass began in Germany and was perfected in sixteenth century Venice and new coating methods were discovered which improved reflectivity. At the same time, Johannes Kepler was working on a better understanding of the way light is received and focused by the eye. Distorted reflections and magic associations gradually became a thing of the past. Well logically they did but I'm not convinced humans are really that logical when you scratch the surface. For every child who listens to Snow White and then tries the magic mirror refrain out in their bedroom or reads Harry Potter and wants to buy scrying implements in Diagon Alley, there's a teenager giggling with their mates into a candle-lit glass on Halloween and an adult fixing a new mirror on the wall with very great care. Don't believe me? Go drop a mirror, I dare you...


Sue Bursztynski said...

Of all the dangers of looking in the mirror, being mooned by demons is not one I have ever considered ;-)

A fascinating post. I hadn't realised the ladder thing was Egyptian - I had heard it was to do with the Holy Trinity? Can't remember where. Live and learn!

Thanks for sharing.

Caroline Lawrence said...

Yes, a fascinating post, Catherine!

Can you give me the reference for Romans believing it took a soul seven years to renew itself? I thought most Greeks (from Pythagoras on) and most Romans (apart from the Epicureans) believed the soul to be immortal.

Unknown said...

Hi, could you let me know where you found Jean de Cande? That point of view on mirrors is very interesting but I can't find any reference to either him or a poem called Dit du Miroir. Any lead would be so helpful!