Throughout our lives, we spend countless hours in front of mirrors. Arguably one of our mot indispensable accessories, mirrors give us the means to supervise the often meticulous routine of fashioning ourselves before we leave the house. In some circumstances however, these everyday objects can become tools for other kinds of activities.
On Halloween for example—according to some folkloric traditions—wishful lovers can see future partners while holding a mirror as they walk backwards, eat an apple, or comb their hair. In the American urban legend of Bloody Mary, one can also perform an amateur summoning by pricking one’s finger, closing one’s eyes, and shouting Bloody Mary a number of times. In fantasy film and literature, mirrors have elucidating or even magical properties and can serve as revealers of supernatural presences (Dracula), portals to other worlds (Through the Looking Glass), and as reflectors of the desires of one’s soul (Harry Potter).
Much of the mirror lore we have probably derives in part from the historical uses of mirrors for divination and spirit evocation; practices that go all the way back to ancient times. In Greece, diviners would use bowls filled with water to enter a state of altered consciousness where they would claim to be able to see images of dead loved ones, demons, and even gods themselves. The effectiveness of dramatic procedures such as this could be improved with incense, lamps, and ritual fasting.
In the Middle Ages, various manuals provided instructions to construct personalised magical mirrors. The 11th century Arabic treatise Ghāyat al-Ḥakīm (translated into Latin in the 13th century as The Picatrix) has a section in which the owner of a specially prepared mirror is praised as having the power to control the weather and command humans and demons (pp. 210-11). The Renaissance Munich Manual of Demonic Magic, which was partially republished by Northwestern University professor Richard Kieckhefer, also includes ‘recipes’ for magical mirrors. ‘The Mirror of Floron’, one of the many types of mirrors mentioned in the grimoire, is described as being made of polished steel, inscribed with the names of angels, and anointed and fumigated with a variety of spices and oils such as balsam and frankincense. If the mirror was designed correctly, the conjuror would see a knight in armour appear on the surface who would answer all of his questions. Similarly, famed scryer, Dr. John Dee and his long-time assistant Edward Kelley used mirrors as well as crystals for a series of experiments to communicate with angels.
New scrying techniques were advocated in the 19th century by American esotericist Paschal Beverly Randolph. Randolph, who claimed that he had been contacted by various schools of enlightened initiates during his travels in Egypt and the Turkish Empire, believed that magic mirrors had to be ‘magnetically charged’ by specific bodily fluids. His system was later adopted and expanded upon by the Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor, an occult society that was a contemporary of Helena Blavatsky’s Theosophical Society. The Brotherhood unveiled its method in its Laws of Magic Mirrors. The work is probably one of the most practical guides due to its explicit and lengthy instructions on the preparation of the seer’s psychological state as well as advice on how the mirror should be cleaned and maintained. The intriguing text can be found here.
The history of mirror-gazing is as complex and bizarre as the individual histories of its proponents, and that is perhaps one of the reasons why the more peculiar aspects of the practice have been retained to a lesser degree in modern folklore and superstitions. Nevertheless, the visionary experience of trance and other meditative states are still important components of Western occultism. A famous quote in the classic esoteric novel Zanoni reads: ‘Be it so, man’s first initiation is in trance’. In this manner, mirrors—as hypnotic devices which may facilitate the imaginal embodiment of entities and characters from one’s own ego—endure as valuable instruments for spiritual and psychological insight among followers of many forms of religious philosophies.