Wednesday, October 28, 2009
John Dee's Aztec Scrying Mirror
Exhibit NEC001: John Dee's Speculum. (on loan from the British Museum).
The parent institution for the item, the British Museum, has images for perusal.
Dr. John Dee was many things, including court astrologer for Elizabeth I, scholar, bibliophile, possible intelligence agent, and most importantly for our purposes, translator of the Necronomicon, the "book of dead names" or the "book of the dead." Amongst the various items he used to aid his magical research was an obsidian mirror. Brought over from Mexico not long after the initial Spanish Conquest, Dee used the mirror to communicate with spirits.
All of this information comes from Sir Horace Walpole, 4th Early of Orford and credited as a major originator of the horror tale and the Gothic tradition. Walpole obtained the mirror in 1771, over 160 years after Dee had died.
If it was Dee's, the idea of using it for magic is not that far-fetched. Not only does the mirror have sorcerous associations in Europe, it was tied to supernaturals in Mesoamerica (the supposed source of the obsidian and the mirror). Most commonly associated with the dark Aztec sorcerer Tezcatlipoca, the mirror has deeper time depth than the Aztecs. The Classic Maya analog for Tezcatlipoca, K'awil, regularly has it associated with images of him, to the point that one way to write his name is mostly a hieroglyph of a mirror. Older mirrors are found in association with Olmec ritual deposits.
Dee's possible Aztec mirror was not the only prized item to come across the Atlantic in the sixteenth century. Aztec featherwork best survives from royal gifts that ended up in the curiosity cabinets and musems of Europe, and Cortes sent back a ballgame team to entertain the Spanish royal court. However, the infamous crystal skulls were likely 19th century hoaxes, and not examples of early transatlantic cultural transfer. We do not know how Dee would have acquired a prized magic mirror from a Spanish colony, so one might as well throw in suggestions of pirates and privateers like Sir Francis Drake. Why not?