The Evil Queen: “Magic mirror on the wall, who is the fairest one of all?”Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)
The Mirror, as every surface that returns an image, has always had a strong symbolic meaning in the history of humanity.
Closely connected with magic and esotericism since ancient times, in Ancient Egypt it was a fundamental element in the cult of the goddess Hathor: she was the lady of the sky and, together with Osiris, she welcomed the deceased into the underworld.
In addition, the Ankh (key of life) can be interpreted as a mirror in certain contexts.
Even in Ancient Greece, the Mirror was rich in mystical meanings: according to a legend, Pythagoras was able to project writings on the moon through a mirror of flawless craftsmanship.
In Ancient Rome, it was already used as a divination instrument (speculum) and the practice of cattrotomancy has remained very popular even in modern mysticism.
In Italy, we call it SPECCHIO (like the latin speculum) and it derives from the latin verb
specio, -is; spexi, spectum, specere. It means “to observe”.
The term MIRROR also derives from a latin verb that means “to observe” and it is
miro, -as; miravi; miratum; mirare.
The etymological origin underlines the connection with the act of watching and, therefore, with the unveiling of the external and inner world. A knowledge that takes place through the eyes, which not only introject what belongs to the external world, but also project what belongs to the inner world.
Hence the saying: the eyes are the mirror of the soul.
The Mirror reflects the exact copy of the observer and allows us to know ourselves, promoting introspection. This makes the connection with the Soul, the most intimate part of an individual, even closer.
The belief that the reflection in a mirror was connected to the soul led to the spreading of various superstitions in the Medieval and the Renaissance Europe, such as:
– babies could not approach a mirror because of the supposed fragility of their soul;
– it was customary to cover the mirrors of the room where there was a deceased man;
– breaking a mirror brings seven years of bad luck, since this is equivalent to breaking the soul;
In reality, the true origin of the superstition on the broken mirrors derives from the fact that, in ancient times, they were extremely expensive objects and their break caused a considerable economic damage to those who owned them.
However, the close connection with the soul also entails a series of property traditionally conferred on mirrors to recognize evil.
Creatures believed to be soulless, like vampires, could not see their own image reflected in a mirror; while demons, faced with their reflections, revealed the hideous nature of their monstrous soul. In addition, other demonic creatures, such as basilisk, died instantly if they saw their reflection in a mirror.
The Mirror is also identified as an instrument of the Devil, the master of deception, because a mirror can be deforming and return a false image of reality.
It is also linked to the myth of Narciso and Eco and, because of that, it is the symbol of VANITAS par excellence: many mirrors were burned by Girolamo Savonarola and his followers in the Bonfire of Vanity which was held on February 7, 1497. In fact, vanity is the manifestation of the worst of the seven sins: PRIDE
However, the Mirror doesn’t have only a negative value. Tradition also attributes extremely positive connotations to it.
The Mirror is linked to the representation of VERITAS and PRUDENTIA, the Cardinal Virtue of the Christian tradition. In this case, it is a warning to see ourselves as we actually are and to become aware that the world is completely reflected in God, but that the things of the world can never reflect God. It’s a way to highlight the importance of humility.
A recurrent theme about the Mirror is its function as DOOR/PASSAGE to another dymension. A heterotropic space. The concept of heterotropic space was created by Michel Foucault with which he, generally, indicates a space that opens to other spaces: intrinsically connected with them, but in which the rules that characterize it appear inverted, neutralized, suspended. So, the reflection produced by a mirror is an unreal space connected with reality, but where everything appears inverted. This aspect has been very used in art and literature, starting from the Baroque, up to Narrative and Science Fiction.
Considering that man is the only living being able to recognize himself in his own reflected image, the Mirror becames an opportunity to speak about the theme of DOUBLE and DUALISM, which has always been present in the human sciences. The mirror connects us with the other part of ourselves and can also allow us to converse with a doppelganger (The strange case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Robert Louis Stevenson), or with a plurality of identities that we assume in relations with others (Uno, nessuno e centomila, Luigi Pirandello).
This leads to an important theme in Psychology, developed especially in the Mirror Stage theorized by Lacan; in external reality, particularly in relationships, we find valuable informations about ourselves, by attributing to others the characteristics (positive and negative) that actually belong to us through the projecting defense. Observing the others helps us to understand ourselves.
So, the Mirror, despite having become an object of daily use, is not a sterile reflecting surface. It takes on all the different roles we talked about in this post: they are intertwined in a kaleidoscope of continuously evolving meanings.
by Alice Colombo
Images from web