The Spirit Mirror

A renaissance polymath whose interests ranged from astronomy to astrology, alchemy and math, John Dee advised the queen from the start of her reign in 1558 to the 1570s. As court astrologer and scientific advisor, he advocated for overseas exploration and the establishment of colonies.

Later he became involved in divination and the occult, seeking to talk to angels through the use of scryers (those who divine the future), who used artifacts—like mirrors and crystals.

The spirit mirror
‘Spirit mirror’ used by 16th-century occultist John Dee.

Today, the British Museum owns the mirror, which is on display in London alongside two similar circular obsidian mirrors and a rectangular obsidian slab that may be a portable altar. 

A new analysis of Dee’s infamous mirror has finally traced its origins — not to the spirit world, but to the Aztec Empire.

Aztec codices created around the time of the Spanish Conquest depict mirrors, apparently in frames.

Obsidian mirrors, such as Dee’s, were known from Aztec culture, but there were no records on his mirror’s origins. However, geochemical analysis enabled researchers to link the mirror’s obsidian — a type of volcanic glass — to Pachuca, Mexico, a popular source of obsidian for Aztec people. This finding indicated that the artifact was Aztec and not a copy made from European obsidian, and Dee likely acquired the mirror after it was brought to Europe from Mexico, according to a new study.

The Aztecs used obsidian for medicinal purposes and viewed its reflective surface as a shield against bad spirits. The volcanic glass was also associated with death, the underworld, and capturing the image and soul of a person. Like other Mesoamericans, the Aztecs saw mirrors as doorways to other worlds.

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