Thursday, October 20, 2011

Mirror, Mirror…

The earliest mirrors were most likely pools of dark water, or water in a bowl or vessel of some sort. Around 2000 BC people in Anatolia, or present day Turkey began polishing obsidian for mirrors, and as the centuries passed, mirrors of polished copper or bronze turned up in Mesopotamia and Egypt. The silvered-glass examples that we are familiar with today were first made in 1835 by a German. But where did the idea of broken mirrors and bad luck spring from?

From way back, mirrors have been called a reflection of the soul, and able to reflect only the truth. From this perspective, seeing something in a mirror that should not be there is a bad omen. Many years ago in the southern US, families covered the mirrors in a house where the wake of a deceased person was being held. This was done out of a fear that the deceased’s soul would be trapped in a mirror left uncovered. More common today is the idea of a broken mirror bringing seven years of bad luck. Tracing the superstition back a couple of thousand years reveals that the belief arose out of a combination of religious and economic factors.

In the sixth century BC the Greeks practiced a kind of divination using bowls filled with water. Like the crystal ball used by gypsies, a face reflected in water was thought to reveal the future of the person reflected. As did happen from time to time, the bowl of water sometimes slipped and broke. The seer read this in one of two ways. Either the person looking into the bowl when it fell and broke had no future, meaning death was imminent, or the future held such abysmal promise that the gods were sparing the heartache of revealing it.

The Romans later adopted this idea of bad luck and mirrors, but added a twist of their own. In the Roman view a person’s health changed in cycles—in cycles of seven years. A mirror reflects the face, the outward health and always tells the truth. It followed that a broken mirror presaged seven years of ill health and misfortune.

The economic ingredient to the superstition didn’t come along until the fifteenth century, in Italy. Breakable sheet-glass mirrors with silver backing were a luxury being manufactured in Venice. Extremely costly, the mirrors had to be handled with the greatest of care and servants were warned that any movement or cleaning that resulted in breakage invited seven years of a fate worse than death. The warning was well-heeded and over time the bad luck belief intensified, influencing generations of Europeans. It was the mid-1600s before England and France began producing inexpensive mirrors, but by then the broken mirror superstition had become tradition.

1 comment:

  1. And the belief in seven years of bad luck follows strongly to this day. Even children learn to heed the warnings that come with mirror breakage. And it is strangely disquieting to view one's image in a cracked mirror, the face lining up at odd angles as if separate parts of a person have been disjoined in a funhouse effect.


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Oak Hill, Florida, United States
A longtime expat relearning the footwork of life in America