An obsidian ‘spirit mirror’ once used in the 16th Century by John Dee, a confidant of Elizabeth I, to contact otherworldly entities, has Aztec origins, a new study revealed.
The mirror, now held in the British Museum in London, has long been suspected of being made by the ancient South American empire, but the truth was lost to history.
Now, thanks to 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.
An obsidian ‘spirit mirror’ once used in the 16th Century by John Dee, a confidant of Elizabeth I, to contact otherworldly entities, has Aztec origins, a new study revealed
Among items John Dee (c. 1594, anonymous) used to ‘speak to angels’ was this mirror, crafted out of obsidian
WHO WAS JOHN DEE?
John Dee (1527 – 1608 or 1609) was an English mathematician, astronomer, astrologer, occultist, and alchemist.
During his life he was court astronomer for Elizabeth 1 and spend time speaking to otherworldly spirits.
He advocated for the founding of English colonies in the New World to form a “British Empire”, a term he is said to have first coined.
Dee eventually left Elizabeth’s service and went on a quest for additional knowledge in the deeper realms of the occult and supernatural.
Among the items he owned was a mirror made of obsidian that he is said to have used to speak to angels.
Dee was a remarkable figure, a Renaissance polymath with an interest in astronomy, alchemy and mathematics, he later developed an obsession with the occult.
Among items he used to ‘speak to angels’ was this mirror, crafted out of obsidian.
Professor Stuart Campbell, and an international team, had the opportunity to study the mirror in more detail, in the hope of confirming the long-held theory that it was among items pillaged from the Aztec empire in the 16th Century.
Their work involved a process known as geochemical analysis, which uses a bombardment of X-rays against an object until it starts emitting X-rays back.
The results allow them to measure the chemical composition and search for ‘fingerprints’ in the returned data that can be compared to other objects.
The team studied four objects in the British Museum – John Dee’s mirror, two other Aztec mirrors, and a polished rectangular obsidian slab.
This method revealed that all four of the obsidian artefacts studied were made from Mexican obsidian exploited by the Aztecs in an area near Pachuca.
This obsidian source was heavily exploited by the Aztecs, according to researchers, who have previously traced other stolen artefacts to this region.
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
The mirror, now held in the British Museum in London, has long been suspected of being made by the ancient South American empire, but the truth was lost to history
To the Aztecs, obsidian also had spiritual significance, as it was used in medicinal practices to shield against bad spirits and capture souls on its reflective surface.
One deity, Tezcatlipoca, is even named ‘smoking mirror’ and often depicted wearing circular obsidian mirrors, as symbols of premonition and power.
This symbolic value is what likely made them appealing to European collectors, such as John Deer, bringing them home after the Aztecs were conquered.
The fact that mirrors were also often viewed as magical artefacts in Europe may have served as additional motivation for the collectors.
Pictured left is an example of mirrors depicted in Aztec literature, and on the right are other obsidian objects studied by the researchers
Tezcatlipoca, lord of the smoking mirror, with circular obsidian mirrors on his temple, his chest and his foot highlighted
‘The 16th century was a period in which new exotic objects were being brought to Europe from the New World, and opening up exciting new possibilities in the intellectual world of the period,’ said Professor Campbell.
These Aztec mirrors were novel and exotic items that found a place in many early collections, the researcher explained.
Stories about the meaning of the mirrors may have travelled with them, and may have been what motivated John Dee to acquire his mirror.
The findings have been published in the journal Antiquity.
WHO WERE THE AZTECS AND WHAT DO WE KNOW ABOUT THEM?
The Mexica, later known as the Aztecs, were a migrant people from the desert north who arrived in Mesoamerica in the 1300s.
This previously nomadic tribe was not welcomed by the local inhabitants who viewed them as inferior and undeveloped.
Legend says that, as a result the Aztecs, wandered waiting for a sign to indicate where they should settle.
In 1325 AD this sign, an eagle and serpent fighting on a cactus, was seen at Lake Texcoco – prompting the Aztecs to found their capital city, Tenochtitlan.
By 1430 AD the Aztecs had assimilated aspects of the surrounding tribes and developed into a structured society.
Their military became powerful and campaigns were fought and won.
The Triple Alliance was created with the lords of Texcoco – situated on the eastern shores of Lake Texococo – and Tlacopan – sometimes referred to as Tacuba, situated on the western shores of Lake Texococo – further strengthening Aztec power.
The Aztecs went to war for two main reasons; to exact tribute and to capture prisoners.
They needed prisoners because they believed that the gods must be appeased with human blood and hearts to ensure the sun rose each day.
Conquering new regions brought the opportunity to capture slaves who were an important part of Aztec society.
Prosperity and unity within the Aztec peoples brought confidence. Under a succession of rulers armies were sent further across Mexico.
By the start of the 1500s the Aztec empire stretched from the Atlantic to the Pacific and into Guatemala and Nicaragua.
The arrival in 1521 AD of Hernan Cortés with Spanish soldiers brought about the end of the empire.
Source: The British Museum