John Dee’s Obsidian Mirror

chicorea

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#1
One of the items most usually associated to John Dee, the Elizabethan polymath, is an obsidian mirror, said to be used by him to skrying, with the help of at least three different psychics (Barnabas Saul, Edward Kelley and his own son Arthur Dee). Dee used the names ”shewstone” or “chrystallo” for some his scrying devices in the long process of receiving the instruction of the angels to establish the Enochian language and the magic system associated to the angelic language.

Curiously, it seems that Dee was never satisfied with the results the obsidian mirror gave to him in the process and preferred to use other “shewstones” to work with the visions “in christallo”.

https://www.bl.uk/collection-items/john-dees-spirit-mirror

This is a remarkable artefact, supposedly a powerful magical tool used by the Aztecs, more accurately, by the priests of the god Tezcatlipoca. The dark mirror was a channel between worlds, where an human could see the images revealed by the gods. It was also where somebody could see his dark self, his dark reflection, and it was an integral part of the use of the mirror to master his dark reflection and become a master of the Clear Mirror.

The fact is, Dee was in possession (and actually used) a magical tool form a completely different culture. How much Dee could know about all the legends associated with his black mirror? Had he some kind of instruction manual or was he forcing his traditional scrying techniques to a “rebel” object? It would be interesting to establish how much a meso-american artifact influenced the occult tradition that survives until the XXIth century (be it through Golden Dawn, Uncle Fest…, sorry, Uncle Crowley or even the limping deeds of Jack Parsons).

Also interesting would be tracing how this mirror came in his possession. I suppose that three possible routes can be possible. One, the most natural, would be via Drake or Raleigh, both of them Dee’s friends, as boot on one of his attacks to the Treasure Ships coming from Mexico.The problem with this hypothesis is that both their seizing of Mexican treasures and their acquaintance with Dee date from a little later than the first skrying sessions. I prefer another one : the attack of the very first Treasure Ship, sent by Cortez himself, in 1522, by Jehan Fleury, a French corsair.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jean_Fleury

The treasure seized by Fleury counted with a number of obsidian mirrors, among many other treasures. If this is the good hypothesis, this particular mirror could have arrived to Dee’s hand while he was in Paris, in 1550, as a gift from an elusive character, William Pickering , English ambassador on François I court and friend of Dee.

A third hypothesis is Dee having the mirror while he was visiting the Low Countries, during one his visits to Antwerp, for instance. Then again it could be a gift from the same Pickering , while he was, again, the English ambassador to the Low Countries. And, interestingly, the same Pickering is supposed to have “helped” Dee to find a rare copy of the Steganographia of Trithemius. The moment when Dee copied the whole book by hand (this manuscript can still be seen on the internet) is the probably his first contact with angelic magic.

https://www.llgc.org.uk/en/discover/digital-gallery/manuscripts/early-modern-period/steganographia/

I like to muse about the history behind this mirror and the many links it draws between the western occult tradition and the meso-american magical tradition. Also, I feel remarkable the amount of coincidences around William Pickering : is him a real character or is his name just borrowed to the whole Dee history?
 

chicorea

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#3
I have managed to recently buy myself an obsidian mirror and I was told it came from Mexico.

Obsidian itself seems to be found in many different places though.

http://geology.com/rocks/obsidian.shtml
I guess that the origins of Dee’s mirror were found to be Aztec not only by the material, the stone itself, but also the way it was manufactured into what seems to be a hand mirror.

It would be interesting to know if the cultures near other places where obsidian is extracted have similar myths associated to the stone.

Does your mirror come from a corsair raid or have it more mainstream provenance? Anyway, in case your Darker Self try to call you through the mirror, I hope that it is at least polite with you. :)
 

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#4
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EnolaGaia

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Without some sort of provenance / chain of custody evidence, I don't know whether there's any particular reason to assume Dee's mirror came from Mexico.

Obsidian mirrors from Anatolian archaeological sites have been dated as far back as 6000 BCE. Polished stone mirrors were widespread, though I'm not sure how widespread obsidian ones were in the Old World.
 

chicorea

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#6
Without some sort of provenance / chain of custody evidence, I don't know whether there's any particular reason to assume Dee's mirror came from Mexico.

Obsidian mirrors from Anatolian archaeological sites have been dated as far back as 6000 BCE. Polished stone mirrors were widespread, though I'm not sure how widespread obsidian ones were in the Old World.
That the mirror could come from somewhere other than Mexico it's an hypothesis that opens some interesting possibilities.

But what about the British Museum verdict, is it based solely on the way the original collection was classified? Have they any reasonable proof that the mirror is Aztec in its origin?
 

chicorea

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#7
What about the use of the mirror ? Was it a magical tool working (or not at all, as the story suggests) out of its original context? Was Dee playing the baby, hammering a square piece into a round socket? It seems that Dee was a little bit more sophisticated than that. Was he aware that he was trying a cross-culture magical operation? If so, what was he expecting to reach as result?
 

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#8
... But what about the British Museum verdict, is it based solely on the way the original collection was classified? Have they any reasonable proof that the mirror is Aztec in its origin?
I don't know. Its Mexican origin was alluded to in the note attached to it when the museum received it, but I've found nothing more substantive than this post hoc attribution and general lore to suggest, much less confirm, Dee's mirror actually came from Mexico.

I suppose it's possible that isotopic analysis of the mirror's material might allow attribution of its geographical source. Archaeologists trace obsidian sources, but I believe they do so mostly on the basis of visible characteristics rather than hardcore chemical analysis.
 

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#9
The only non-destructive geochemical analysis method I've located is X-ray fluorescence (aka XRF). However, its applicability and relative accuracy depend on the artifact's shape and size.

Neutron Activation Analysis (NAA) is more accurate, but is far more expensive and involved. It is destructive in the sense the neutron application renders the target area on / within the artifact radioactive.
 

Min Bannister

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#10
I guess that the origins of Dee’s mirror were found to be Aztec not only by the material, the stone itself, but also the way it was manufactured into what seems to be a hand mirror.

It would be interesting to know if the cultures near other places where obsidian is extracted have similar myths associated to the stone.
Yes, I would be very interested to know that! It is obtainable in Scotland but of all the things traditionally used for seeing into the future here, I have not heard of obsidian. I would also be interested to know how the Aztecs actually used it - in terms of which rituals etc.
Does your mirror come from a corsair raid or have it more mainstream provenance? Anyway, in case your Darker Self try to call you through the mirror, I hope that it is at least polite with you. :)
Hopefully it won't. :pop:

Mine came from the rather less interesting source of a crystal shop in Cardiff. Whether they got it during a corsair raid I am not sure. "pdunno:
 

MrRING

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#11
This website has a few interesting bits:
http://www.britishmuseum.org/resear...29&partId=1&searchText=obsidian+mirror&page=1

Curator's comments
Associated dates : 16thC(late). Colin McEwan of the BM notes that: Michael E. Smith who specialises in Aztec archaeology (The Aztecs - Blackwell Publishing) has an essay in progress on obsidian mirrors in museum collections for an edited volume of essays on Tezcatlipoca to be published by Univ of Colorado Press. Also published by Univ of Colorado Press in 2003 is a book by Guilhem Olivier on Tezcatlipoca.

For recent bibliography on Dee see 'John Dee: Interdisciplinary Studies in English Renaissance Thought', Stephen Clucas (ed.), Dordrecht: Springer (2006).

The mirror is also illustrated on p.81 of 'Miscellanea Graphica' (Thomas Wright 1856) as part of the Londesborough collection.

For Walpole's interest in Dee see Alicia Weisberg Roberts in Snodin 2009 pp. 95-100This obsidian mirror featured in the British Museum exhibition 'Moctezuma: Aztec Ruler' (24 September 2009 - 24 January 2010). Further details can be found in the exhibition catalogue for entries 71 and 103 (Colin McEwan and Leonardo López Luján (eds.), Moctezuma: Aztec ruler, London: British Museum Press (2009)).The obsidian mirror and other objects associated with John Dee have attracted considerable attention from novelists. One such recent example is Jennifer Lee Carrell's 'The Shakespeare Curse' (2010), where the theft of the mirror from the British Museum together with the murder of its curator, the subsequent consecration of the mirror through human blood, and its ultimate safe return to the Museum are described in haunting detail. It should be pointed out that these events are entirely fictitious.
 

chicorea

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#12
Yes, I would be very interested to know that! It is obtainable in Scotland but of all the things traditionally used for seeing into the future here, I have not heard of obsidian. I would also be interested to know how the Aztecs actually used it - in terms of which rituals etc.
About the use of the obsidian mirrors in Aztec rituals :

http://www.ancient.eu/Tezcatlipoca/

http://www.famsi.org/reports/98056/98056Saunders01.pdf

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mirrors_in_Mesoamerican_culture
(this link, in particular, traces the comparsions that are used to legitimize Dee's mirror as Aztec)

It can be an interesting addition to the discussion : spanish painters like Murillo and, occasionally, Velazques, used black mirrors as support for paintings, most of them with Christian themes. Imagine this, a Christian icon painted over an Aztec magical artifact. Here, a Nativity painted by Murillo over a black mirror :

https://fr.pinterest.com/pin/21532904451498523/

Obsidian mirrors from Anatolian archaeological sites have been dated as far back as 6000 BCE. Polished stone mirrors were widespread, though I'm not sure how widespread obsidian ones were in the Old World.
Here we have the use of obsidian by the civilization around Catal Huyuk :

http://www.telesterion.com/catal2.htm

Obsidian mirrors have been found in Pompeii too.

So, yes, other cultures developed art and mythology around obsidian. It seems that the use of black mirrors by the Aztecs was made popular in culture BECAUSE of the Dee's use of them.
 

chicorea

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#13
I don't know. Its Mexican origin was alluded to in the note attached to it when the museum received it, but I've found nothing more substantive than this post hoc attribution and general lore to suggest, much less confirm, Dee's mirror actually came from Mexico.
So, actually, the Aztec origin was a conclusion reached by the comparsion between mexican artifacts and Dee's mirror, as this link suggests :

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mirrors_in_Mesoamerican_culture

Aztec mirrors were originally held in wooden frames and were decorated with perishable ornaments such as feathers. Mirrors were among the gifts that Hernán Cortés sent back to the royal court in Spain and they became widely collected among the European aristocracy.[75] One such mirror was acquired by Elizabeth I's court astrologer John Dee and is now in the collection of the British Museum.
 

UnknownUnknown

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#14

chicorea

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#15
As well as a magic mirror, Dee also scryed with a dark Claude glass. It's now in the archive of the Science Museum, interestingly. http://www.sciencemuseum.org.uk/broughttolife/objects/display?id=10722

I've posted here before about the amazing collection of the Boscastle Museum of Witchcraft and Magic. Here are their scrying mirrors. There are some beauties! http://museumofwitchcraftandmagic.co.uk/?s=mirror&types=object
Wonderful find! Claude mirror is supposed to derive from Cloud or Clouded mirror, another Aztec reference.

Black mirrors were used as a tool to help on landscape painting. I'll try to find a reference on this pratice.
 

UnknownUnknown

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I've never heard them described as cloud mirrors. That's an interesting link - do you have a source?

The origin I've heard is that they're named for the 17th century landscape painter Claude Lorrain, who used a reduced palette of colours. Amateurs could use a Claude glass to provide them with an almost monochromatic image from which to copy. It's the 18th century equivalent of using an Instagram photo filter on your phone, I guess.

From a scrying point of view, I'm interested in the difference between the two objects. Dee's obsidian mirror is like a hand mirror. Designed to reflect the holder's face. In this sense it is 'inward' looking and somewhat interior. A Claude glass is designed to reflect a whole landscape, and so is much more exterior in its scale or viewpoint. Would that make a difference to what kind of image a scryer receives from the glass?

Lastly, if using a Claude glass conventionally, you stand with your back to the view you want to paint, looking into the glass. I'm sure this ring a bell with regards to practices of witchcraft - backwards looking being significant somehow. I will take a look and post if I find anything. Great thread Chicorea!
 

chicorea

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#17
I've never heard them described as cloud mirrors. That's an interesting link - do you have a source?

The origin I've heard is that they're named for the 17th century landscape painter Claude Lorrain, who used a reduced palette of colours. Amateurs could use a Claude glass to provide them with an almost monochromatic image from which to copy. It's the 18th century equivalent of using an Instagram photo filter on your phone, I guess.

From a scrying point of view, I'm interested in the difference between the two objects. Dee's obsidian mirror is like a hand mirror. Designed to reflect the holder's face. In this sense it is 'inward' looking and somewhat interior. A Claude glass is designed to reflect a whole landscape, and so is much more exterior in its scale or viewpoint. Would that make a difference to what kind of image a scryer receives from the glass?

Lastly, if using a Claude glass conventionally, you stand with your back to the view you want to paint, looking into the glass. I'm sure this ring a bell with regards to practices of witchcraft - backwards looking being significant somehow. I will take a look and post if I find anything. Great thread Chicorea!
There’s something interesting about M. Claude Gellée, dit « Le Lorrain » : different sources say that there is no proof that Le Lorrain ever used on his paintings or even knew the black mirrors that have were associated with his name. Strange…

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Claude_Lorrain

I confess that I failed to find where, on internet, I have seen the term “cloud mirror” associated to obsidian mirrors or Tezcatlipoca. Maybe I have made a mistake and mixed Mixcoatl, the Cloud Serpent. It's true that the cult of both gods is sometimes mixed and Mixcoatl is seen as an aspect of Tezcatlipoca, but I can’t see the mention of a Cloud Mirror anywhere.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mixcoatl

Another intriguing detail : Dee’s obsidian mirror was not necessarily a hand mirror, not as we conceive today. It was designed to be hanging, and was attached, as it seems, to handle. Tezcatlipoca, for instance, used black mirrors as head ornaments or to replace his severed left foot.

As suggested tentatively by @EnolaGaia, other cultures used mirrors of the same format, with the same apparent function as the Dee’s mirror.

http://www.generalintention.com/res...mirror-ancient-animism-tool-of-shamanism.html

I have tried sometimes to “see” on dark surfaces (not obsidian, it must be clarified), with some interesting effects. I guess the effect of “dissolution” of your own image, replaced by other… masks, is really interesting and a little disturbing. I confess that I never succeeded to fix the dark surface without blinking for too long.

And, by the way, I'm glad that the thread interested you. :)
 

UnknownUnknown

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#18
Quite right; Claude Lorrain died in 1682, and it was roughly 100 years later that the Claude glass became popular. It was designed to imitate Lorrain's aesthetic and make a similar look achievable for the great many hobbyists who were painting at the time. I doubt that Claude Lorrain himself would have ever come across such a device.
 

UnknownUnknown

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image.jpg Here's a pic of the obsidian mirror, as it appears on the British Museum website.
http://www.britishmuseum.org/system...px?assetId=32721001&objectId=3340529&partId=1

Thanks for the clarification C, I did think it was a hand mirror so that's interesting.

I have tried scrying with black ink in a white saucer. The results are interesting, not least because of course the surface is not static. Breathing or any other vibrations disrupt the surface very easily. I'd love to have a go with an obsidian mirror if anyone has a spare one!
 

Min Bannister

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#20
Reading up on how to use mine, it does seem as if you are meant to angle it so you DON'T see you own face ( or in fact anything else) while you are scrying so it fits.
 
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