"Spirit Mirror" Used By Tudor Occultist Has Origins In Aztec Volcano

Elizabeth Healey, study author, stares into John Dee's obsidian mirror. Image credit: S Campbell

The origins of a mysterious “spirit mirror” used to connect the courts of English queens to the world of the occult has been traced back to volcanoes of Mesoamerica. As per the new study, the volcanic-black mirror was crafted by the Aztecs some 500 years ago, shipped across the Atlantic soon after the Spanish colonial conquest, and ended up in the hands of Elizabeth I’s close confidants. 

The incredible story of this otherworldly object was recently reported in the journal Antiquity

The mirror was known to be owned by John Dee, an English mathematician, astronomer, occultist, and alchemist who served as an advisor to Queen Elizabeth I (1533 –1603). Though primarily known as the court astronomer for Elizabeth I, he became increasingly immersed in magic, the supernatural, and the occult in his later years, like a half-wizard, half-Renaissance polymath. The object, which is little more than a slightly shiny black paddle, was believed to act as a tool to communicate with spiritual entities. Fashioned out of obsidian, a black volcanic glass, people would gaze deeply at the reflective paddle and claim to see faint glimmers of the spirit world. 

"John Dee probably used several different objects to try to communicate with spirits or as he tended to term them ‘angels’ – he reconciled his interest in the supernatural with Christian piety," Professor Stuart Campbell, lead study author and archeologists from the University of Manchester, told IFLScience.

John Dee
A portrait of John Dee circa 1594 by an anonymous artist.) Image credit: Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

"The obsidian mirror was probably one of several mirrors or crystal balls that were used to call the spirits. John Dee didn’t do this himself but by using mediums, who claimed to be able to communicate with the spirits or angels – while the mediums were of very dubious honesty, John Dee himself seems to have completely believed in this process," explained Professor Campbell. "I’d assume that the rather dim reflections in the obsidian mirror lent themselves to dramatic claims that hidden things could be seen within it."

Centuries after John Dee's death, a rumor persisted that the object was fashioned by Aztecs in the Americas – after all, this culture also used obsidian mirrors for spiritual purposes and traditional rituals. However, there was no hard evidence that explained how John Dee got his hands on the object. 

In a new study, an international team of scientists has solved the mystery of the mirror’s origins using geochemical analysis. They closely analyzed John Dee’s mirror, two other Aztec mirrors, and a polished rectangular obsidian slab also held at the British Museum. Their work strongly suggests that all four of the artifacts were made from Mexican obsidian, which was heavily exploited by the Aztecs. John Dee’s mirror specifically appears to be created from obsidian sourced near Pachuca.

"It was most probably looted or provided as forcible ‘tribute,’” added Professor Stuart Campbell.

Spirit mirrors.
Another shot of John Dee's obsidian mirror. Image credit: S Campbell

Widespread trade between the so-called "New World" and the "Old World" opened up following the European colonization of the Americas in the 15th and 16th centuries. Based on this new study, we can safely assume that John Dee's mystical mirror was just one of many objects swept up in this monumental exchange of goods, ideas, and diseases. 

“The mirror was certainly sent back to Europe by the Spanish conquerors of the Aztec Empire around 1521 or in the decades after that – we know that very large quantities of exotic artifacts were shipped back at this time and several similar mirrors that are now in major European museums almost certainly were brought to Europe at that time," Campbell concluded.  

"We know that Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés sometimes commissioned items from [Aztec] craftsmen so he could send them back to the Spanish court. So, it is even possible that some of these mirrors were specially made at the time of the conquest of the Aztec Empire to send back to Europe," he added.

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