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|
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|
|Pictish mirror symbol|
|15th century woman and mirror|
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...