The History of Mirrors

Prehistoric to c 10,000 BC The very first “mirrors” were probably ponds or pools of still, dark water, then water collected in a primitive vessel. They thought what they saw in their reflection, was not themselves, but a glimpse, into another world — of their souls.

I wonder what the very first person to catch a glimpse of themselves thought? Something like “Hey! What’s that? Hmm, if I move this way it moves this way too and if I move that way…. OMG!!! (or the prehistoric equivalent) I can see my SOUL!!! Hey everybody!

A Prehistoric Man Contemplates His Own Reflected Soul

NEOLITHIC c 10,000 to 3,000 BC – The first actual mirrors to be made by man were crafted from the dense black volcanic glass, Obsidian; it had to be laboriously ground with abrasive sand and then polished. The earliest examples were found in a Neolithic Settlement, based in caves at Çatalhöyük in southern Turkey around 6000 BC.

The occupants were incredibly urbane, even by modern-day standards — it has been referred to as the first city.

Image Courtesy of Google Maps

Map Of Turkey Showing Catalhoyuk

Map Courtesy of Google Maps

The various homes, within the complex series of caves, had smoothly-plastered walls and were scrupulously clean, with virtually no rubbish in them — there were specially made receptacles outside for it. This reconstruction, made on-site at Çatalhöyük, could almost be an advert for a Holiday Let in a present-day glossy magazine.

Image Courtesy of Wikipedia

There is a mural in the Shrine of the Hunters at Catalhoyuk, showing a mighty Bull, complete with big horns, a hairy tail, an open mouth with his tongue hanging out and cloven hooves. The spotless homes, together with the sophisticated movement of the running figures, the man who has leapt onto the Bull’s back, the pregnant lady underneath the animal, complete with pointy breasts, in the wall-painting all testify to a level of civilization unsuspected by many of us.

Image Courtesy of Art As Media As Media and Miss Raymonde EnderleLudovic, who made the drawing.

See how the Running Neolithic Hunter, his Leopard-Skin Loincloth flying off in the chase, captures the feeling of running hell-for-leather, every bit as much as the piece of present-day clipart of a Businessman, with a similar sense of urgency, also charging along at full tilt. Both, in a very real sense, are “bringing home the bacon” — putting a meal before their Families.
They are both giving it everything they’ve got, but the first one was created without the benefit of the History of Painting having happened yet, Egyptian, Greek & Roman murals, Celtic decorated manuscripts, Giotto. Michelangelo, Rembrandt, Picasso, David Hockney, et al, yet it still encapsulates the feeling of running as though their lives (almost anyway) depend on it.

Is it surprising, then, that these highly-developed people would want to gaze at their reflections and contemplate their own souls?

We have made much progress over the Millenia since Catalhoyuk’s heyday, gradually shrugging off beliefs that gave us the right to push for bribes to safeguard others from a hellish after-life to treating others as chattels and slaves, to discriminating on the basis of gender, skin colour and sexuality — we have indeed come a long,long, way yet we really do have so much in common with our distant forebears.

Something to ponder, perhaps, as you gaze into your soul in your SMS mirror.

A Person Reflected in an Obsidian Mirror from Çatalhöyük
Image Courtesy of The Antiquated Antiquarian

In some Central & South American Civilizations, such as the Aztecs, Mayans, and Incas, (also known as Mesoamericans) from c 7,000 BC until the Spanish Conquest in the early 1520’s,

they also had polished Obsidian mirrors, similar to the one found at Çatalhöyük and they too believed that what they saw in the mirror was not themselves, but their actual Soul.

Image Courtesy of The British Museum

This particular polished Obsidian Aztec Mirror was brought to England after the Conquest of Mexico and was obtained by a Dr John Dee during the 1590’s.

He used for ‘scrying’ (‘spying’ or ‘peeping’) –– a way of foretelling the future by gazing at shapes, in the flames of a fire, in passing clouds, or in this case the dark reflections in an obsidian mirrors, thought to have magic powers — and interpreting the shapes you see.

It was commonly believed that all mirrors, whether a reflection in a vessel of water, or in polished stone, were portals to another dimension, that could be glimpsed, but not entered.

Polished Obsidian Mirrors were thought of as captured water, held still

Earlier mirrors had been made iron pyrites —- but they quickly rusted, which led to many of the early finds being thought of as artist’s paint palettes amongst other things.

Mirrors and eyes were somewhat interchangeable for these early Central American peoples –‘Tezcactl’ was a Nahuatl word that was used for both mirrors and eyes. They really thought that the eyes and mirrors were how you see your Soul.

In this stone relief carving of the Aztec supreme Rain God Tlaloc at Teotihuacan, his eye is made of polished Obsidian

Image Courtesy of WOW

Tlaloc, whose name means ‘He Who Makes Things Sprout’ was a top god, bringing Fertility and Sustenance, but he was also feared because of his inclination to bring Thunder, Lightning, Storms and Floods on occasion.
Obsidian Mirrors were so important to the Aztecs that they had their very own god, Tezcatlipoca whose name means ‘Smoking Mirror’

Image Courtesy of Richard Balthazar

a reference to obsidian, from which the mirrors were made, the ‘smoking’ part refers to the mirrors ability to reflect the sun’s rays and (if made concave) to indeed focus them to produce smoke and even fire.
Note the depiction of the smoking mirror on his shield (centre left) and also his right foot (bottom right) which he is said to have lost when fighting with the Earth Monster.

And here is Homer Simpson in an earlier incarnation as Mictlantecuhtli, the Aztec god of death.

Images Courtesy of The Top Ten Cartoon Characters & John McDonald