The Maya believed there were multiple worlds in addition to the human world: an upperworld, underworld, primordial sea, and Xibalba. Portals connected these worlds and allowed active engagement between the Maya and their gods, which was fundamental to their belief system. Evidence suggests they believed that reflective surfaces (mirrors) were portals to spiritual worlds.
Ancient mirrors have been found from Peru up to the southern United States. The archaeological records show that most ancient Mesoamerican groups made and used mirrors. However, for some unexplained reason, records of them are relatively uncommon.
Archaeologists have explored the religion, mythology, and the daily lives of the ancient Maya in depth, such as the interactions between the ‘earthly’ world and the ‘spiritual’ worlds, how they cross into each other and communicate, and how important that door is to the functionality of the worldview.
Did the elite and royalty use mirrors and their relationship with the gods as a source of power?
Did mirrors function as two-way portals, an essential gateway between humans and the gods, the earthly and spiritual worlds?
What does the etymology say?
There are two modern spoken Mayan words which mean mirror. Lem is used in Eastern dialects, where Belize is today, while nen is used in Western and Central regions, spanning from Guatemala to Honduras as we know them now. Nen is most commonly linked to mirror hieroglyphs. However, lem may be closer to what the ancient Maya used.
The many meanings associated with nen and lem can be tied together when viewed with spiritual symbolism. Nen and lem can be used in relation to cognition. In this context, they mean to imagine, meditate, think, and know.
These definitions can also be the titles for people with supernatural powers, such as diviners or seers.
This image has three seated male figures. The principal figure is on the right with his body facing out and his head turned to the left. He is making a hand gesture that may indicate he is listening. He is also looking into a mirror held by the figure to the left. This figure is facing right.
The mirror stone is black with white front protrusions and has a lipped ceramic and fabric backing.
There is a ceramic vessel between the principal figure and the mirror. The third figure is seated behind the mirror bearer facing right. He has his hands to his mouth and a bundle in front of him. This could be a representation of a seer using a mirror to communicate with the gods.
In this image, there are three male figures, but it is difficult to tell if one is the principal figure. One is kneeling on higher ground facing the back of the mirror. There is a figure standing behind him on lower ground facing right and another in front of him standing on lower ground facing left. This figure is standing in front of an empty throne.
The mirror is on the throne.
Though he is the only figure who could possibly see the face of the mirror, he has the simplest costume and is likely an attendant. The mirror stone is black and has a wide round frame that resembles a flower. There is a hollow circular stand holding it up, and there are bundles under the table that are probably offerings.
This could be another representation of the ceremonies mirrors were used in. Their spiritual importance is clear by their numerous depictions in Mayan art.
This one has three standing male figures and a kneeling dwarf. The largest is the principal figure who is facing left with the dwarf kneeling right behind him also facing left. In front of him are two standing figures facing right towards him; the one directly in front is holding the mirror.
The mirror stone is black with front protrusions and looks like it has a ceramic backing.
The figures are elaborately dressed. They are wearing animal headdresses; one is a bird, the other may be a wolf, and the principal figure might be a bear. The principal figure and the attendant not holding the mirror are holding staves.
The Kerr Database (2019) labels this scene as a ruler dressing for war. The ruler is holding a ceremonial staff. These were often used in period endings and may represent the sky being held by the ruler. In fact, the mirror is aimed more at the ceremonial bar than at the rulers’ face.
The staff appears to be a serpent with two faces on the ends, which is typical of ceremonial staves. If so, it may also be a portal, in which case there are two portals facing each other.
This image has four male figures. Two are seated on the left facing right, one is standing on the right facing left, and the principal figure is seated on a throne in between, facing left.
The principal figure is smoking while looking at the mirror. The mirror stone is black with a lipped ceramic backing and a hollow circular stand.
The figure sitting on the other side of the mirror is also smoking. There is a curtain across the top. The Kerr Database (2019) says there are offerings of cloth and food beneath the rulers’ throne.
In this one there is a typical style of Twin Heros’ scene where they are seated on thrones in two ‘rooms’. The twin on the right is holding a box, probably a ceramic vessel, and looking into a mirror. The mirror has a lipped ceramic backing and is leaning against a wall. The stand appears to be two small pebbles.
The twin on the left is looking at a bowl in his hands that is perhaps a mirror bowl filled with still, reflective water. There are markings on the bowl, and this twin has a bundle under the throne.
This image has three elaborately dressed standing figures. Two figures on the right are facing left towards the third figure who is dancing. These two are labeled as musicians in the database (Kerr 2019).
The mirror is on the ground in front of the two musicians aimed at the dancer. The mirror is the typical lipped shape with a circular stand. The dancer would be reflected in the mirror, but his head is turned away.
Here there are two figures: Itzamna and a figure with the head of a bird.
“Itzamna was the lord of the heavens, and also lord of the day and night. He was represented as a kindly old man with toothless jaws, sunken cheeks, and a pronounced nose. A cultural hero, too, he invented writing and books, established religious ceremonies, and ‘divided the land’.”Oxford Reference
The bird is on the left facing right, kneeling in front of a throne. He is holding a bundle of white fabric. On the throne is Itzamna. He is seated with his body facing forward and his head turned to the left. There is a mirror in front of him on the edge of the throne. It is white with protrusions at the front and a circular stand.
This image is a palace scene with four male figures. On the right is a large seated figure facing left holding a lidded ceramic vessel. In front of him is a standing figure facing left with their arms crossed.
Next is a figure seated facing left on a throne with something, possibly breath, coming out of his nose. There is a figure seated on the ground facing right towards the figure on the throne with his hand out towards him.
The database says:
“A ruler sits on throne receiving a bundle, but his mirror is not facing him, and his right hand is in the position of fealty. An attendant and dwarf AJ k’u-HUN who holds what may be a vessel topped with a conch shell (Kerr 2019).”
This description is not consistent with what can be seen in this image. None of the figures are obviously a dwarf and the mirror does appear to be facing the ruler, as the white protrusions are facing him.
This image is similar to the two-roomed throne scene with two seated figures. However, in the left room there is an additional figure on one knee in front of the throne holding the mirror. The mirror has a black stone with a thin lipped ceramic backing.
The principal figure in this image is seated on the throne facing left towards a mirror. He is holding a tube that could be for smoking, writing, or is a wand (Kerr, 2019). The mirror is awkwardly rendered and is not firmly positioned on the throne. The mirror stone is black with a lipped ceramic back which is extraordinarily deep compared to other mirrors. There is a circular stand that is also much larger than usual. There are two seated figures in front of the throne facing it with their arms crossed. There is a seated figure behind the throne, also facing the throne.
These are one of many artworks and images available to show how the Maya used mirrors in religious and ceremonial contexts. Mirrors were portals to other worlds for them and were used frequently by those in power, as many portraits depict well dressed figures on thrones using them. However, mirrors aren’t prevalent in archaeological records, and research is notably lacking in key domains, as even the Kerr Database uses speculative language and makes assumptions. Why is this the case? Why are these artifacts uncommon?
Kerr, Justin. 2019. Maya Vase Database. http://research.mayavase.com/kerrmaya.html
Penn Museum in Guatemala
University of Central Florida