The obsidian “spirit mirror” used by Elizabeth I’s advisor has Aztec origins
The obsidian mirror with the Elizabeth I connection belonged to John Dee, one of her advisers since she became Queen in 1558 and until the 1570s. Dee was the Queen’s astrologer and also has consulted on science. This included Dee acting “as an advocate for discovery voyages, establishing settlements and improving navigation,” said Stuart Campbell, study author and professor at the University of Manchester.
“John Dee is a remarkable historical figure, a great thinker of the Renaissance – interested in astronomy, alchemy and mathematics – and confidant of Elizabeth I,” Campbell wrote in an email. “He later became involved in divination and the occult, seeking to speak to angels using diviners (those who guess the future), who used artifacts – like mirrors and crystals.”
While it had previously been suspected that the mirror was made by Aztec culture, there was no documentation accompanying the object to show how it came into Dee’s possession.
A team of researchers used geochemical analysis to target the four obsidian objects with X-rays. This in turn caused the objects to emit X-rays, helping scientists determine their composition by revealing the elements of obsidian. In addition to Dee’s mirror, they
Analysis showed that all four were made using Mexican obsidian. Dee’s mirror and a mirror of a similar design were made from obsidian from Pachuca, a city that is a source of obsidian used by the Aztecs. The third mirror and the slab are made of obsidian from the town of Uscareo, another obsidian site in Mexico.
Researchers estimate Dee’s mirror to be around 500 years old, likely made in the last decades before the Spanish conquest of Mexico in 1521, Campbell said.
“We know that the Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés sometimes ordered items from Aztec artisans so that he could return them to the Spanish court,” Campbell said. “So it is even possible that some of the circular mirrors like John Dee’s were specially made by Aztec artisans at the time of the conquest of the Aztec Empire to be returned to Europe.”
Although researchers were unable to determine the intended use of obsidian mirrors in Aztec culture, there are still representations showing circular obsidian mirrors made during this time.
“They are shown especially in the drawings of the god Tezcatlipoca, in place of a missing foot, or attached to his chest or head,” Campbell said. “The mirrors that have survived may well have been attached to statues of the god. Tezcatlipoca was the god of divination and providence, among many other things, and obsidian mirrors were probably much more than mere symbols of power. – they also seem likely to have been used for divinatory purposes.
The name of Tezcatlipoca also means “smoking mirror”.
The Aztecs believed that obsidian had spiritual significance and was used in their medicinal practices, as well as a way to ward off evil spirits or even capture souls using the reflective nature of volcanic glass.
Objects of such importance to the Aztecs would have intrigued Europeans exploring Mexico.
“The 16th century was a time when new exotic objects were brought to Europe from the New World, and opened up exciting new possibilities in the intellectual world of the day,” said Campbell.
Dee, the first person known to use the term “British Empire,” would have been fascinated by the idea of mirrors if he had heard stories of how the Aztecs used them, Campbell said. Dee became interested in the occult very early on, and once he obtained the Obsidian Mirror, he used it to try and communicate with spirits, according to the study.
Understanding the origins of the obsidian mirror can help researchers trace the paths of these objects to a time when appropriation frequently occurred.
“For me, it helps us understand something of how European journeys of discovery and engagement with other parts of the world, often through disastrous conquests, have been accompanied by intellectual attempts to understand how the world is was working, ”Campbell said. “New artefacts brought back from the Americas to Europe entered the collections of nobles and intellectuals, and were used and appropriated in the efforts of people who, like John Dee, considered themselves scientists, to understand the world of a new way. “
While he was Elizabeth’s confidante and counselor, she visited him several times at his home, Campbell said. Dee was considered one of the reigning intellectuals of this period; it had the largest library in England and one of the largest in Europe, Campbell said.
“The surviving records of (the library) are actually of major importance to understanding the intellectual thought of the 16th and early 17th centuries,” Campbell said.
For Dee, the supernatural was indistinguishable from science. “Perhaps it was his growing interest in these fields of study that gradually undermined his role at court in the late 1570s,” Campbell said.