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The Aztec Origins of a Mysterious Elizabethan Mirror

The Daily Beast logo The Daily Beast 10/10/2021 Candida Moss
Public Domain/Oxford University © Provided by The Daily Beast Public Domain/Oxford University

When Elizabeth I’s scientific adviser and “philosopher” John Dee died in 1609 at the age of 81 he left behind a trove of unusual artifacts. Among them was his speculum, a hand mirror made of polished obsidian (volcanic glass), that was also known as “the Devil’s Looking-Glass.” This mystical device for talking to the dead was coveted by his peers and later generations; it was acquired by politician and writer Horace Walpole before winding its way into the British Museum, where it resides today. Despite its popularity, however, the mirror’s history was shrouded in mystery. A just-published scientific study has tracked its origins to 16th century Mexico and the religious rituals of the Aztecs.

The mirror in question is part of a cluster of obsidian artefacts in the British Museum and measures about 7.2 inches in diameter and half an inch thick. Visually it resembles drawings of black mirrors that appear in the pages of codex Tepetlaoztoc, a 16th century Aztec book made by residents of Tepetlaoztoc in Central Mexico. The book depicts images of the tribute that indigenous peoples in Mesoamerica were forced to pay to the Spanish conquistadors and among jewelry and other precious objects were at least 10 obsidian mirrors. These objects were associated with the god Tezcatlipoca (literally “smoking mirror”), the authors explain, and were used for scrying, or examining the future.

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Just because the mirror resembles those in the manuscript does not mean, however, that it is the real deal. Anything of value is susceptible to forgery, and Dee moved in spiritualist circles that included known forgers like the alchemist Edward Kelly. A scientific team, led by University of Manchester professor of archaeology Stuart Campbell, analyzed the various obsidian objects at the British Museum and compared their chemical composition to various samples from regions of modern Mexico. Their findings, which were published this week in the journal Antiquity, show that the mirror is very similar to the samples from Pachuca, an area that was heavily mined for obsidian during the period that it was under Aztec control.

Though rock mirrors date to 4000 B.C. Anatolia, they were not easy to make. The Franciscan missionary and ethnographer Bernardino de Sahagún (c. 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. The obsidian was believed to have medicinal and religious properties that could protect the user from harm as well as allow them to look into the future. Though there were a variety of different kinds of spiritually useful mirrors in use in Mesoamerica, at least one important was a tool for metaphorical “self-reflection.” Contemporary mirror divination among the Huichol of Santa Catarina Cuexcomatitlan sees mirrors as “like the apprentice’s notebook” in which the diviner learns what is inscribed in the mirror. Among the Huichol, Karl Taube summarizes, the mirror “is much like a camera” and “functions similar to the sight and minds of human beings, with images recorded in the “memory” of the object.”


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Though not all mirrors work the same way—some are portals, some are introspective 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 a cross-cultural phenomenon. Similar kinds of catoptromancy (mirror-divination) took place among ancient Greeks. The travel write Pausanias describes a ritual at a Greek temple in Arcadia in which supplicants would look into a sacred mirror and “see himself very dimly or not at all, but the actual images of the gods” (8.37.7). The Romans also had religious experts who worked as scryers, called specularii (from the Latin word for mirror). Gazing into reflective surfaces was a widely practiced form of divining that involved religious specialists and training.

In Europe the association of polished surfaces with demonology became explicit in the medieval period. The 12th century writer John of Salisbury wrote that any shiny object—from the blade of a dagger to a polished fingernail—might inadvertently become a vessel for communicating with the devil. It is implicit in contemporary practices of crystal ball-gazing and forms the basis for the 2013 supernatural horror movie Oculus.

Given the history of mirror-gazing, one would expect that John Dee, who served as the queen’s philosopher during one of the most religiously contentious periods of history, was 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 categorized as an ‘occult artifact’ by the British Museum today) he was also a scientist, a philosopher, and—most surprising of all—a devoted Christian.

The reason for this is that he was, as the quip goes, a true Renaissance man who wrote on everything from astrology and alchemy. In a period in which the line between magic and religion was constantly moving and was as much about power as it was anything else, he straddled the divide. Moreover, his interest in mirror-divination must be understood against the backdrop of Renaissance mirror technology in general. In the sixteenth century, as Sabine Melchior-Bonnet writes in her beautiful history of The Mirror, technologies of mirror-making were still evolving. Mirrors were as likely to distort one’s image as to reflect it. Fifteenth century visitors to the French Chateau of Hesdin were apparently fascinated by the mirror that adorned the entrance to the gallery. The Duke of Burgundy’s financial manager reported that “one sees someone else there rather more than oneself.” All mirrors, in other words, encouraged introspection and invited commentary about the source of the images. “The goal of reflection,” notes Harvard University curator Sara Schechner, “was not mimetic but transformative.” Mirror-gazing was supposed to take you beyond the superficial.

While he was once accused of treason for casting the horoscopes of Queen Elizabeth I and Queen Mary, more recent evaluations of Dee see him as a serious book scholar, manuscript curator, and scientist. In addition to his role of court astrologer and scientist he was allegedly the first to coin 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 craftsmen and artisans who had not attended university. Investigation into the supernatural wasn’t some side hobby for Dee, however, he hypothesized that mathematical objects could serve as mediators between the human and the divine. If this sounds strange, bear in mind that mathematics, metaphysics, and divination have been intersecting ways of discovering the mysteries of the cosmos since antiquity. That a mathematician might also be a book collector, or a spiritualist is not strange. If you want to commune with the divine why not use every available technology to do so? Arguably, it’s extraordinary that we partition our ways of understanding the world into hermetically sealed streams.

For the Aztecs, the obsidian mirrors had a very particular religious and ritual usage to which specific cultural meanings were attached. When Dee acquired and used his looking-glass and used it in his rituals, said Campbell, “it gained a whole new life and a whole new set of meanings — and it’s continued to acquire those.” For British intellectuals with interests in the occult, the mirror became quasi-famous and accrued a reputation as a demonic portal. “So,” says Campbell “it now sits in the British Museum as an occult artifact. It’s got its own biography and its own impact in the world. I think, because of that, it’s a particularly fascinating object.” Just don’t stare too long—you never know who will look back.

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