Secrets of a spirit mirror


Scientists unlock secrets of John Dee’s spooky spirit mirror.


The Elizabethan polymath John Dee (1527-1608) was, among other things, the court astronomer, and advisor to England’s ambitious voyages of discovery between the 1550s and 1570s. Queen Elizabeth’s close confident, he spent much of his time engaged in alchemy and divination. Dee owned one of the largest libraries in England and, despite being an intense Christian, was heavily involved with the occult. He was thought to talk regularly to the spirit world via scryers, notably by gazing into crystals and mirrors. One of his divination tools was an exotic circular obsidian mirror, of mysterious origin (pictured above). Though he died in poverty, Dee was regarded with awe and respect for much of his peripatetic life.


John Dee’s obsidian mirror was apparently a powerful scryer, but how he acquired it remained a question mark until recently. Experts had long suspected that it was an Aztec mirror, but, in the absence of geochemical analysis, no one knew for sure.


An international team of scientists has now bombarded Dee’s mirrors, and two others also in the British Museum, with X-rays that revealed the distinctive trace elements in the obsidian. These elements could be compared to samples from known outcrops. This method has long been used to study ancient exchange networks in Central America, in California, and in the Middle East. All three of the mirrors were fabricated from Mexican obsidian, two of them, including Dee’s, were made from obsidian found near Pachuca in Central Mexico, a source heavily used by the Aztecs. Such mirrors had powerful spiritual associations, stories of which may have travelled with them when they were taken overseas. This may be why John Dee acquired one, while at the height of his power as a royal advisor.


Image: John Dee's mirror, held by the British Museum in London.