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Spirit Mirror from the Aztec Empire

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The ‘Spirit Mirror’ once used in the 16th Century by John Dee, a scientific adviser to England’s Queen Elizabeth I has Aztec origins says a new study.

It had long been suspected that one of John Dee’s scryers, an obsidian mirror now in the British Museum, had Aztec origins. However, with no records on how he obtained it, this was impossible to prove.

Now a system that involved repeatedly firing X-rays at the object until it fired back, a team from the University of Manchester confirmed its Aztec origin.

They compared the findings of the geochemical analysis from Dee’s mirror to other obsidian objects held by the British Museum, but with a confirmed origin, and found they all shared similar signatures coming from Pachuca in Mexico.

Obsidian mirrors such as Dee’s were known from Aztec culture, but there were no records on his mirror’s origins. The geochemical analysis enabled researchers to link the mirror’s obsidian, a type of volcanic glass. To the Aztecs, obsidian also had spiritual significance. It could be used as part of medicinal practices, could act as a shield against bad spirits, and capture souls on its reflective surface.

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. These Aztec mirrors were novel and exotic items that found a place in many early collections. Stories about the meaning of the mirrors may have travelled with them, and may have been what motivated John Dee to acquire his mirror when he encountered it in Europe.

Though Dee was a scientist and mathematician, his interests also swung toward the magical and mystical, and in addition to the spirit mirror, he owned other objects related to astrology, divination, alchemy and the exploration of “demonic magic”.

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