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Mirror Superstitions and Facts
What Are They?
Mirrors are something that we take for granted in our everyday lives. They are hung in our homes, in public places, and we even look at our reflections in shop windows as we walk past! So what exactly are they and why do we use them? A mirror is a flat or curved surface usually made of glass that has had a reflective coating applied to it. We also call them looking glasses and use them to look at ourselves and check our appearance and they are routinely used for personal grooming, interior decoration and in architecture. They are also used in technology and are an important component in scientific instruments such as telescopes, industrial machinery, cameras and lasers. In the modern world there are so many different sizes and types of mirrors that you can get from small cosmetic ones through to large antique ones, lighted bathroom mirrors and mirror tiles for your walls. But where did it all start and why did we start using looking glasses?
Recognising Your Reflection?
Humans probably first started to look at their reflections in pools of water, streams and rivers. Very few animals are able to recognise their own reflections and humans share this rare ability with most of the other primates, magpies, elephants, orcas and bottlenose dolphins. If a dog or a cat catches sight of itself in a reflective surface they will treat the reflection as another animal and probably try to chase it away. Gordon Gallup JR developed the mirror test for animals in 1970 based on observations previously made by Charles Darwin, and most human infants will not pass this test and be able to recognise their own reflection until they are at least a few months old. We can only guess what these early humans felt as they caught sight of their reflections in a stretch of still water for the first time, and myths and superstitions about looking at your reflection grew up from the earliest times. It was believed that gazing at your reflection was a way of entering another world and that you could divine your future from looking at yourself. But woe betide you if the image you were gazing at was distorted as this could mean death!
The Earliest Mirrors
The earliest mirrors were made from polished stone and ones made from obsidian, a shiny black volcanic glass, have been unearthed in Turkey dating back at least 6,000 years. The Ancient Egyptians made them from polished copper, and often the round reflective surface would be adorned with the cow ears and horns of the Egyptian goddess of beauty and the cosmetic arts, Hathor. The Ancient Mesopotamians also created polished metal mirrors and polished stone ones were known in Central and South America from about 2,000 BC.They then began to be made from metal alloys, a popular one being a mixture of tin and copper called speculum metal that could be highly polished to produce a reflective surface. These metal alloy mirrors, as well as ones made of polished bronze, were manufactured in Ancient China. These mirrors made of metal alloys or precious metals were very valuable items in ancient times and they were only owned by the very rich. It wasn’t until Roman times that looking glasses made of metal-backed glass were first produced. It thought that this type was invented in Lebanon in the first century AD and the Romans themselves manufactured crude looking glasses from blown glass with lead backings. Indeed Pliny mentions glass mirrors backed with gold leaf in his Natural History.
History of Mirrors
During the period of the Renaissance in Europe, craftsmen developed a way of coating glass with a tin and mercury amalgam to create mirrors, although the toxicity of the mercury proved to be an ongoing production problem. Venice eventually became the centre of production for such looking glasses in the sixteenth century, and Venetian mirrors are still sought after today. A factory called Saint-Gobain was founded in France, but they were still expensive luxuries only affordable to the very wealthy. They slowly became much more important in the interior decoration of palaces and mansions, as their use adds light and a sense of space to a room. As ceiling heights rose, large ornamental mirrors started to be used to decorate walls and line galleries. La Galerie de Glaces designed by Mansart for Louis XIV’s palace of Versailles is probably the most spectacular example of this type of decoration. In 1835 a German chemist called Justus von Liebig invented the silvered-glass mirror where a thin layer of metallic silver is deposited onto glass by the chemical reduction of silver nitrate. The introduction of this process led to them being manufactured on a much larger scale, and for the first time in history ordinary people could afford a looking glass for their home. Nowadays they are more usually manufactured by depositing aluminium by vacuum directly onto the glass.
There are many superstitions surrounding mirrors. Breaking one seems to have been regarded as especially inauspicious and a broken mirror to this day is said to bring seven years bad luck. This is believed to go back to Roman times when they thought that seven years was the time that it took for a soul to renew itself. It was thought that you could see your soul in a mirror's reflection, so if you then accidentally broke it you would also shatter your soul into small pieces. One of the ways that you could overcome the bad luck of a smashed looking glass was to bury all the pieces very deeply in the ground or you could also fling them into a river that flows south. It is also said that a broken mirror or one falling from a wall is a sign that someone was going to die. It used to be a common practice that when somebody in a house died that all the mirrors would be covered up. This was to prevent the soul’s deceased being trapped in the glass by the devil.
There is also a superstition that if you want know who you are going to marry, you sit in front of a mirror and eat an apple. When you then start brushing your hair a picture of your future beloved will appear behind you in your reflection. If the first time that a couple locks gazes it is in the reflection of a mirror, this is supposed to be a sign that they will have a long and happy marriage. Vampires are not supposed to have a reflection. This is supposedly because when you stare into a reflective surface you are looking at your soul; vampires have no soul, hence they have no reflection! Bad luck follows if you see your reflection in a looking glass in candlelight, and actors will not look at their reflection while looking over another’s shoulder and it is believed that infant’s should not be allowed to look at themselves for the first year of their lives. Clearly a person’s reflection is something that has been regarded as mystical and magical since the earliest of times.
Mirrors in Myths, Fairy Tales and Literature
Mirrors are also used for fortune telling or scrying, where the fortune teller would gaze into a polished surface to divine the future. John Dee, the astrologer and court magician of Elizabeth I of England was reputed to be an expert scryer. The theme of mirrors and reflections has also seeped into myth, fairy tales and literature. In Greek mythology Narcissus was a youth who was exceptionally handsome. He was also vain and heartless and he spurned all the local maidens until one day he was pursued by the nymph Echo. He also cruelly pushed her away and told her to leave him alone. She pined away in the forest until all that remained of her was her voice. As a punishment, when Narcissus caught sight of his own reflection in a pool he became so deeply entranced with himself that he remained gazing at the image not realising that he was gazing at himself. When he eventually realised that he had fallen in love with himself and so could not pursue this love, he beat himself and died. The voice that was Echo found his body and took pity on him and a narcissus flower grew on the spot where he died. In the fairytale Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, the Wicked Queen gazes into a magic mirror and asks ‘Mirror, Mirror on the wall, who is the fairest of them all?’ and is decidedly not amused when a reflection that is not her own floats into view! Lewis Carroll’s ‘Through the Looking Glass’ is probably one of the more famous books to use mirrors as a central theme, but there are many novels, plays a films with ‘mirror’ in the title.
So as you look around your home and notice how many different mirrors that you have, reflect on how truly magical looking glasses are? They are the window to your soul and maybe, just maybe, you might catch a glimpse of your future one day as you gaze at your reflection!
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