The mirror, that ordinary item we find in every house and in front of which we stand several times a day, every day, without paying much attention to it. We rarely think about what makes of it so important and yet it found its way to become a centrepiece in our lives and a recurrent motif in literature.
The history of the creation of the mirror is quite long and the purpose of this article is not to trace a life story of this precious object but to highlight its importance as a motif in literary production. However, a little background hurts no one.
The first silvered-glass mirror, the type we commonly use now, was invented by the German Justus von Liebig in 1835. Of course there were other types that have been used way before that date. The oldest mirrors were made of polished bronze, copper and even silver and were found in places like Egypt, Greece, Anatolia, Mesopotamia, and China… these mirrors are as old as 8000 years. Before the use of metals and even polished stones for the manufacture of mirrors, people used pools of still water to see their reflections and as the “need” to see oneself grew, the production became more widespread and perfected.
As soon as the mirror found its way into people’s lives it equally sneaked into their literature. The motif of looking into the mirror and having a glimpse at one’s reflection, image and even self became more and more frequent.
I cannot think of “self reflection” without thinking of Narcissus, as you yourselves would. Maybe the most widespread story of someone so obsessed with the way he looks and so in love with his own reflection is that of this miserable young man.
The myth says that Echo tried to help Zeus escape the wrath of Hera when she came to Mount Olympus trying to catch him red-handed sporting with the nymphs. As a result Hera cursed Echo not to be able to speak but the last word she hears. So, when she fell in love with Narcissus she was unable to express her love and only repeated his words. In some versions of her story, when she finally came out to meet him, he rejected her so harshly that she cursed him and wished that he would fall in love and feel the same rejection.
Narcissus then came to see his own reflection in a pool of water. Completely taken by his beauty he forgot to eat and drink until he could take it no longer. He finally reached out to embrace his image and drowned himself crying these last words “Oh marvellous boy, I loved you in vain, farewell”. He died and shortly after Echo died too.
Now we are very familiar with Narcissus love story and its interpretations, but what I want to dwell on here is a little bit different. Mirrors have been used a symbol of reflection not only the physical one, the very fact of seeing yourself, but also the spiritual one. The mirror seems to open a gate to another universe that we cannot see in reality but we can grasp in reflection and what happened to Narcissus supports this.
To go back a little bit to the story of this pretty boy. He rejected Echo in the harshest way before he saw his reflection in the pool, which means that he was “in love with himself” before being able to see his image. Narcissus was a proud and selfish young man from the beginning and did not need a mirror to develop that feeling. The mirror only reflected his reality, not only his physical beauty, but also his psychological state of egocentrism.
This idea of the mirror being a gate to the spiritual world is common in different culture. In Judaism for example, it is a habit to cover mirrors upon the death of someone. The explanations vary. Some say that it has only to do with the process of mourning and that it is inappropriate to stand in front of a mirror and groom oneself in a house where a dear one just passed. Other explanations are a little bit more spiritual than this. The Kabbalists, for example, say that when someone departs from this world they leave a void. That void attracts demons who want to creep back into the world of the living. However, we cannot see these demons directly with our eyes, but we can catch their reflection in the mirrors.
This idea of demonic entities being reflected or even entrapped in mirrors is very common in popular horror movies that enforce the capacity of a mirror to grasp the essence of existence. And as popular as it is, it is in no ways original.
Who does not know the story of Snow White and her evil stepmother? This story involves a jealous queen who condemns her poor stepdaughter to death only because she wants to be the most beautiful woman in the kingdom. The original story of course is much more gruesome than the modern adaptations as it is about child abuse, witchcraft, poisoning, murder, cannibalism, and whatnot.
Now one of the interesting characters in the story is the “magic looking-glass” who always asserts to the queen that she is “fairest of them all”, until one day the answer changed. The mirror instead of naming the queen the prettiest woman alive, names Snow White leading to a series of unfortunate events.
The mirror is nothing but the reflection of the queen’s spirit. It is an object that allows the evil queen to exteriorise her feelings of jealousy and anger. It is then a device by which negative feelings are expressed in a manner that does not make the queen fully responsible for her deeds for whatever reason that is.
Mirrors seem then to be more serious objects than we thought. They not only reflect our appearance but allow us to look into our souls too. Our relationship to them is consequently much more complicated than we want to admit. It is interesting to keep in mind that the only way for us to see our faces is through reflection making our identity a matter of perception.
Perception is not only the ability to see things it is also the faculty of understanding these things. It is then both an empirical experience since it relies on the senses to be aware of the presence of things; and a “rational” experience since it also involves understanding and interpretation.
We of course know ourselves first by recognising our reflections in the mirror. We also develop our abilities through imitating other people’s behaviours. And we integrate in societies by mirroring others’ acts and emotions. This makes the mirror, as an object and a practice, very central in our integration within the human communities.
On the other hand, we also know ourselves through our thoughts and the way we feel about ourselves and others. This inner state of mind seems to be also reflected in the mirrors. People tend to see themselves more or less beautiful depending on how they feel. Love, happiness, pride seem to have a positive impact on our appearance or at least on how we see ourselves. Negative emotions tend to have an opposite impact.
Mirrors then do not only reflect our outer image to give us information about who we are and how we look. They also allow us to catch a glimpse of our inner selves through a shadow of light, gloom or evil they throw on our appearances.