In every legend and in every myth there’s always a small grain of truth, but sometimes it might come from a reality so far away we cannot recognize or understand it. The stories we tell our children are full of magic and fantastic creatures, be they elves, dragons or pixies, and we take them as such, but for the story-tellers of long ago they must have had some meaning. Likewise, we accept the plots and such fundamental characters like the innocent princess, the valiant prince or the evil witch, although we can no longer understand the hidden references to a reality that is long gone. In this new series we will explore the meaning and origins of some well-known stories and legends, in an attempt to understand how these stories came to be.
There are no every day objects with so many superstitions attached to them as mirrors. Legends and fairy-tales are full of magical mirrors that can tell the future, kill an enemy or reveal one’s true soul. Most of the superstitions associated with mirrors stem from our distant ancestors’ bewilderment and fear of any surface that would reflect their faces. Think of the primitive men seeing their faces or the sun above them in a pool of water or a shiny stone - they had no knowledge of light, reflection, refraction. No wonder they felt there was some magic involved.
Mirrors of the gods
One of the earliest mirrors mentioned in legends are those created by the Greek god Hephaestus (Vulcan, in Roman mythology). The ugly and crippled Hephaestus was the god of volcanoes and metalworking and among the many presents for his beautiful wife, Aphrodite (Venus), goddess of love, was a magical golden mirror. The unfaithful goddess used the mirror to spy on her husband’s movements, to make sure she would not be caught with her lover, Ares (Mars), the god of war.
'Venus, Vulcan and Mars' painting by Jacopo Tintoretto
Hephaestus is also credited with forging the shield that helped Greek hero Perseus defeat the snake-haired monster Medusa. Legend has it that anyone looking upon Medusa’s terrifying face would be turned into stone. The polished shield forged by the Greek god acted as a mirror and when she saw her own reflection in Perseus’ shield she, too, turned to stone.
In Aztec mythology, Tezcatlipoca is known as the Lord of the ‘Smoking Mirror’, which he usually wore on his breastplate. The mirror allowed him the sins of his subjects and punish them. In turn, the Aztecs could communicate with the god by looking into a mirror made of polished obsidian, a shiny black rock.
Also from Greek mythology there’s the story of Narcissus who is so captivated by his own reflection in a pool of water that he ends up falling in love with himself. Christianity will letter vilify the use of mirrors, as a sign of vanity and an unhealthy preoccupation with one’s looks, which can only lead to sin.
Telling the future
In the Arthurian legend, the wizard Merlin used a magic mirror to see past and future, but also the faces of those who commit betray King Arthur, which illustrates the belief in the revealing qualities of a reflective surface.
The use of mirrors to foretell the future is called scrying and it’s a common theme in many stories.
Geoffrey Chaucer in his ‘Canterbury Tales’ tells the story of the mirror of Cambuscan, a gift from the King of Araby to the King of Tartary. Like Merlin’s mirror, the Cambuscan one alerts its owner of impending treason or any misfortune awaiting them.
This motif is exquisitely inserted in J.R.R. Tolkien’s ‘Lord of the Rings’. Galadriel’s Mirror, a silver bowl filled with water, is presented to Frodo and Sam as a tool which can predict the future.
“Things that were, and things that are, and some things that yet may be. But which it is that he sees even the wisest cannot tell.”
In Tolkien’s vision, the ancient motif gets a modern perspective, the future is no longer immutable, things shown in the mirror might or might not happen and it is up to the one who looks in the mirror to shape future events.
The same theme is further refined in J.K. Rowling’s ‘Harry Potter’, where the young orphan wizard becomes enthralled by the Mirror of Erised. The magic mirror shows what he who looks most desires - Harry sees himself together with his parents who are alive and well in the mirror. It is Dumbledore who warns Harry to keep away from the mirror, as he could waste his whole life lost in a world of his dreams.
The belief that mirrors could reveal things that could not be otherwise known or seen is rooted in the primitive perception that shiny surfaces captured things that should not be there. The primitive staring in a pool of water knows he is standing on the bank and the sun is right above him - how could they be in the water?
One of the explanations that seemed to make sense to the primitive mind was that any sort of mirror captured the soul of the looker, a superstition preserved to this day. In many cultures, it is still customary to cover any sort of mirror in a house where someone just died, otherwise the soul of the deceased could be trapped forever. In the more modern vampire tales, like Count Dracula’s story, the reason why vampires leave no reflection in a mirror is they have no soul.
The Devil's Mirror in Andersen's 'Snow Queen'
The idea that mirrors reflect not the face but the soul is common in many folk tales. In ‘Snow White’, for instance the Evil Queen uses the mirror to learn who is the fairest of them all. But, in doing so, the mirror uncovers her evil nature, for, at heart, she is the wicked witch who does not hesitate to order the murder of the princess.
Or, take the Snow Queen in Hans Christian Andersen’s tale. She poisons people’s minds when shards of her evil mirror, again a reflection of her true soul, are scattered upon the Earth. The mirror is said to be the creation of an evil troll or the devil himself, to distort reality and make the loveliest of landscapes look like ‘boiled spinach’ The story’s protagonist, little Gerda watches her sweet-natured friend Kay turn into a cold cruel boy as a small fragment of the evil mirror is lodged into his eye. He now sees the world through the eyes of the evil Snow Queen and it is only Gerda’s patient love that cures him.
Finally, one of the best known examples of magic mirrors in modern literature is that used by Lewis Carroll to transport Alice in another world. The world presented in ‘Through the Looking Glass’ is not only the reverse of the place Alice has left behind, but also full of magical creatures, because that’s what mirrors do, they show things that are not real.
Seven years of bad luck?
Reading about mirrors and old beliefs, I’m sure many of you cannot help thinking about the widespread superstition that breaking a mirror brings seven straight years of misfortune. While the superstition might be rooted in the association between mirrors and souls, the destruction of the former causing the destruction of the latter, the main reason people were mortally afraid of breaking a mirror was that until quite recently such items were frightfully expensive. It was the Romans that first created small round mirrors, of poor quality. The modern mirrors were first crafted by master glass-makers in Venice, in early Renaissance. Glass mirrors were luxury items and it is reported that in the 17th century a certain Countess of Fiesque traded a big wheat farm for one mirror and still considered it a bargain. Imagine breaking such an expensive thing, it would probably be more than seven miserable years until your mother forgave you for that.
And a final example of magic mirrors - the shiny screens we spend our time staring at. TVs, phones, laptops - we waste a lot of our time lost in a world that is not real, just as legends warned us.
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