Recently I finished reading a children’s book called “The Night of the Solstice” by Lisa Smith, which contained the idea of mirrors being used as gateways to another world. So this got me thinking about magic mirrors and how they have featured in legends and fiction over the ages.
In ancient times mirrors could be used as magical devices. In ancient Greece, for example, ‘catoptromancy’ involved lowering a small mirror over a bowl of water. The reflections of the mirror and the water on each other were then used to foretell the future. Mirrors were also used in many cultures for ‘scrying’. It was believed that a person who knew this secret could use a mirror to spy on someone. This may be the oldest use of mirror magic, as it is known to have been used in China 3000 years ago.
The Brothers Grimm version of Snow White appeared in the nineteenth century, and made use of a magic mirror, which appeared to be inhabited by a spirit. It could be summoned by the witch and questioned (though one has to wonder about the level of narcissism in someone with a tool like that whose only question seems to be an incessant need for validation of her looks.)
Why should breaking a mirror give you seven years of bad luck? Well apparently this dates back to the Romans, who believed that breaking a mirror would damage the soul it was reflecting at the time of the break. They believed that life renewed itself every seven years, so that is why the bad luck would last for this length of time. There were various remedies that were supposed to lift this curse, such as burying all the pieces, or grinding them to powder.
Some ancient cultures believed that a mirror image contained the true nature of a person, or their soul. Building on this idea, Bram Stoker in his novel ‘Dracula’ invented the idea that vampires cast no reflection because they have no soul. It also leads to the practice in many cultures of covering mirrors when a person dies, for fear the departing soul will become trapped in a mirror and not be able to move on to the afterlife.
In Roman mythology, the god Vulcan invented a mirror where he could see the future. He made a second mirror and gave it to his wife Venus. She promptly used it to ensure her affair with Mars was never discovered by her husband.
In Aztec mythology the god Tezcatlipoca was known as ‘God of the smoking mirror’. Mirrors were made out of obsidian, and the god could see the people with his own obsidian mirror and punish any bad behaviour.
The mirrors as gateways idea also has its basis in legend. Apparently looking into a mirror in the dark holding just a candle will show you not only your own reflection but that or any ‘entities’ that may be haunting your home, having entered it through the mirror. Having done this many times during blackouts, I can safely say I’ve never seen any reflection other than my own, (Or maybe the spooks just know to keep out of the bathroom?)
The rather silly urban legend of ‘Bloody Mary’ involves a person going into a bathroom in the dark, standing in front of a mirror, and calling out to ‘Bloody Mary’. The number of times to call out may vary, though thirteen times if a popular one. This entity is then supposed to appear. She may be benevolent or evil, may harm the invoker, kill them etc. This idea has turned up in horror films on more than one occasion – ‘Candyman’ is the best known example.
Literature has many references to magic mirrors. ‘Through the looking glass’, Lewis Carroll’s sequel to ‘Alice in Wonderland’, involves Alice travelling to another land by means of a mirror, serving as a portal in this instance. Because it is a mirror world, events occur in a backwards manner, with effect before cause.
In ‘Lord of the Rings’, Tolkien uses the idea of a mirror as a way to see the future. The ‘mirror of Galadriel’ is actually a bowl of water, but in it Frodo and Sam see visions of possible futures. Galadriel explains that the future is not black and white, so they can’t be certain of what they are seeing and what might happen if they tried to change the outcome. The idea that one might cause the unwanted future by trying to change it turns up in time-travel films a lot, so it’s surprising to see the concept in Tolkien’s work.
The Harry Potter series gives us the ‘mirror of Erised’ which shows you your deepest wish. The danger is that you can get addicted to this sight, staying in front of the mirror until you waste away.
Stephen Donaldson’s series ‘Mordant’s Need’ makes good use of the portal idea. The inhabitants of this world were very puzzled by the idea of a mirror simply being a reflection. Every mirror in their world was a gateway to somewhere else. It’s the only example I’ve read where mirrors had no function as reflection and I thought that was an interesting and unique concept.
‘Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell’, by Susanna Clarke, also extensively uses the idea of mirrors as portals. For the magical, by entering a mirror one enters onto the Kings Roads and can travel anywhere, if you know the way. It is easy to get lost, however, and then you might end up trapped with no way out.
Of course films have also featured magical mirrors many times, usually sinister or outright evil. In ‘Dead of Night’ (1945) a woman buys her fiance an antique mirror. Naturally it is haunted by a very jealous man who killed his wife. This has a detrimental effect on the fiance. ‘From Beyond the Grave’ (1974) also contains a haunted mirror. Do not hold seances near this mirror, if you want to live. ‘Prince of Darkness’ (1987) contains a portal mirror … to hell. And so on.
So essentially, mirrors are magical, and spooky, and potentially out to get you. Mind you, considering their annoying insistence on reminding us of the passage of time, there may be some truth in this.
I would love to hear about any stories or legends concerning mirrors that you know. Please feel free to comment.