Obsidian ‘Spirit Mirror’ Used by Elizabeth I’s Court Astrologer Has Aztec Origins

Tudor polymath John Dee used the artifact in his attempts to communicate with angels and apparitions

Obsidian spirit mirror used by John Dee
Dee may have bought the mirror in Bohemia (now part of the Czech Republic) in the 1580s. S. Campbell / Antiquity

An obsidian “spirit mirror” used by John Dee, an advisor to England’s Elizabeth I, traces its origins to Aztec culture, a new study published in the journal Antiquity suggests.

A Renaissance polymath whose interests ranged from astronomy to astrology, alchemy and math, 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 study’s lead author, University of Manchester archaeologist Stuart Campbell, tells Ashley Strickland of CNN.

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, reports Tom Metcalfe for National Geographic. Researchers had previously suspected that the artifacts originated with the Aztecs, and the new study confirms this chemically.

A page of Codex Tepetlaoztoc, showing mirrors along with other images
Aztec codices created around the time of the Spanish Conquest depict mirrors, apparently in frames. The Trustees of the British Museum

Using a portable X-ray fluorescence scanner, the team measured the proportions of titanium, iron, strontium and other substances and compared them with those found in obsidian from Mexico. The scholars determined that Dee’s mirror and one of the others originated in Pachuca, just northeast of Mexico City, while the third mirror and the slab came from Ucareo, about 150 miles west. Both regions were under Aztec control in the early 16th century.

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, “much like Alice in Through the Looking Glass,” Karl Taube, an anthropologist at the University of California, Riverside, who was not involved in the new study, tells National Geographic. “Once you deeply gaze in, you have opened up that connection.”

The Aztec god Tezcatlipoca, or “Smoking Mirror,” is frequently depicted wearing mirrors that allow him to see humans’ thoughts and actions. As Campbell tells Live Science’s Mindy Weisberger, “[T]here’s quite a specific association with these types of mirrors and that particular deity.”

Codices, or manuscripts, made by Indigenous people around the time of the Spanish Conquest depict circular mirrors in what appear to be frames, the study’s authors write. Most examples of such artifacts date to the later part of the Mesoamerican Postclassic Period, which spanned roughly 900 to 1520 C.E. Indigenous people may have continued to produce the mirrors in the early colonial era.

Forces under the command of Hernán Cortés conquered the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlán in 1521. They quickly began shipping treasures, including obsidian mirrors, back to Europe.

Portrait of John Dee
John Dee was a mathematician, astrologer, alchemist and advisor to England's Elizabeth I. Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

Exactly when Dee’s mirror arrived in Europe—and how the scholar acquired the artifact—remains unclear. But Gizmodo’s George Dvorsky notes that Dee was interested in the Spanish Conquest and had probably heard stories about obsidian mirrors. At the time, many European scholars and nobles were fascinated by objects arriving on the continent from distant cultures. 

Speaking with Gizmodo, Campbell says the research “helps us understand something of the way in which the European voyages of discovery and engagement with other parts of the world—often through disastrous conquest—was matched by new intellectual attempts to understand how the world worked.” 

According to Garry Shaw of the Art Newspaper, Dee may have bought the mirror in Bohemia (now part of the Czech Republic) in the 1580s. By that time, he was becoming increasingly interested in the occult practices of mediums who supposedly used mirrors and crystal balls to communicate with angels and other supernatural beings.

“Mirrors have a long history of use within European magical practices,” Campbell tells the Art Newspaper. “So the attraction of a mirror of a novel material, coming from an exotic culture with stories of its use for divination, and the drama of seeing dimly reflected images within it probably made it a very tempting object for [Dee] to use.”

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