MIRRORS . Object and symbol, instrument of knowledge and type of reflection or speculation (the Latin word for mirror is speculum ), means of visual perception and hallucination: there is scarcely a single culture that has not been interested in the mirror, first in its primitive form—a bowl filled with water, a sparkling stone (jade, obsidian)—then in more elaborate guise—polished metal discs (bronze, silver, or steel), a mirror of balloon-shaped mediaeval glass—and, finally, in the form of the plane mirror, clear as rock crystal. Because it reflects an image of the self that the eye is unable to see directly, because it traps light, because the effect of the reflection is to reveal an unseen "other," and because it faithfully reproduces its subject while making it seem different—that is, reversed—religions have made the mirror central to the mystical life and knowledge of self.
What is the nature of that which can be learned from a mirror? It can be used in divination, metaphor, analogy, or mimicry. In the West, meditation on the mirror image originates with Plato. Before him, the reflected image was seen as a living animate form, the double that attracted Narcissus from beneath the surface of the water. One can see this myth in its original form as expressing ancient beliefs in the existence of a double or in the idea of the soul taking shape, concepts still found in primitive cultures up until the present day. It was not until the philosophy of Classical Greece had reached a certain stage of development that the reflection came to be seen as a flimsy illusion, a snare.
Cosmic Process and Mystic Experience
Is the reflection in the mirror merely a deceitful trick? According to Plato, it has another function: by producing an immaterial form, it invites the mind to free itself from what is perceived by the senses and to ascend to the world of ideas. Although itself devoid of reality, a reflection provides access to the thing it signifies. It is not an optical illusion but a revelation of something hidden, an apparition rather than an appearance. Pausanias says that a mirror adorned the entrance of the temple of Lycosoura in Arcadia, and that anyone who looked in it before entering the sanctuary saw a reflection unlike any they had seen before. Thus they had to shed their appearance and assume a new identity.
According to the Neoplatonists, what is produced by the world of the senses comes about in the way that a mirror "creates" reflections. Plotinus (Enneads 4.3) regards the world of the senses as a mirror image emanating from the world of eternal forms, and the body as a reflection that the soul produces when it comes into contact with matter, in the same way as a human being produces a reflection when facing a polished surface: the spiritual exercise or mystical experience consists of once again ascending from the light of the body to the earlier light, without allowing oneself to be mesmerized by an illusion (like Narcissus).
Christian thinking, derived from Judaism and infused with Neoplatonist thought, has developed the concept of the symbolic double to explain the resemblance of the human being to God and the indirect knowledge of God that can thus be obtained through analogy. According to Genesis, God created man in his image and likeness. The soul is a reflection of the beauty of God, but because sin has made the mirror darken, one must look in the mirror of the Bible, a book and a mirror without blemish, to restore the likeness that has been lost. The mirror is also a model of knowledge. According to Saint Paul (1Cor. 13:12), the knowledge that mankind has of God here on Earth is like an image "seen through a glass darkly": the mirror gives no more than an indirect image of the Truth. At the end of time, however, humans will see the vision of God not through the intervening reflection, but clearly, face to face. In mystical experience, the mirror is the juncture point where the visible face sees its invisible face: "We shall be like God, because we shall see him as he is," says Saint John (1 John 3:2). Teresa of Ávila describes this union in the mirror: "My entire soul appeared before me like a clear mirror, back, top and bottom, everything was lit up. In the center appeared Jesus Christ" (Autobiography, ch. 49). Faithful and flexible, the mirror no longer indicates a different vision but the receptive nature of the person who gazes into it.
Islamic mysticism, inspired by Neoplatonism, has not ignored the reflection, that likeness by which individual essence sees itself as part of the divine being. If the body is the dark reflection in the mirror, writes the Persian poet Farīd al-Dīn ʿAṭṭār, the soul is the "clear one." According to a famous ḥadīth, the more the reflective surface of the soul is purified by asceticism, the more it will be fit to reproduce the truth faithfully, so that the believer actually becomes a mirror for another believer. As Louis Massignon and Louis Gardet point out in Mardis de Dar-el-Salam (1951), the back-to-front image of the face reflected in the mirror is a symbolic indication of one who has been straightened out, in accord with his essential reality. For Ṣūfīs, the entire universe is an array of mirrors in which the eternal essence may be gazed upon in many forms, all emanations of the One Being.
The Far East has developed a rich mythology concerning the reflective power of mirrors. According to a Chinese tradition going back to the third century bce, the divine intelligence that is symbolically identified with the sun is reflected in a mirror that is circular in shape—but the mirror is also a lunar symbol, because the moon reflects the light of the sun. Huge vats filled with water were used to attract sunlight, a method subsequently replaced by the use of bronze mirrors. The idea of a link between the mirror and the sun became widespread in Japan around about the first century ce. A well-known Japanese myth describes how the goddess Amaterasu, the Divine Light, retreated into a cave following some wrongdoing by her brother, plunging the Earth into darkness. The gods arranged a ceremony, and when the goddess was attracted by this and appeared at the entrance of the cave, she saw her image reflected in a mirror that had been set up by another god. Surprised at the existence of another similar goddess, she leaned out of the place where she had retreated far enough to be seized. The cave was sealed shut behind her and she lit up the world.
Buddhism has made "mirror knowledge" one of the four stages of the path of Awakening, along with three other kind of knowledge: of equality, of clear-sightedness, and of the task to be completed. The mirror is used metaphorically in the Mahāyāna literature to suggest that Reality contains everything in the same way that a mirror contains images. The images in the mirror are clear and distinct; although not unreal, they are nonetheless not taken as real, because they cannot be grasped. Having obtained knowledge of mirrors, the consciousness of the bodhisattva no longer involves a division of subject and object, but becomes a clear omniscient consciousness, capable of reflecting images of everything in the universe, while also being one with what it reflects. With an understanding of universal equivalence based on the recognition of the emptiness of all things, and with the achievement of clear-sightedness concerning the nature most appropriate to each thing, the bodhisattva, having achieved awareness of the mirror, the peak of the mystic life, reaches Awakening. There is no more intention, no more projection; consciousness merges with the mirror. Consciousness, according to Asaṅga, is "a mirror, because in it there appear reflected images, delights, buddha-ness and knowledge" (Mahāyānasūtrālaṃkāra 9:69).
Magic Mirrors and Divination Mirrors
The shining brilliance of the reflective surface gives rise to all kinds of hallucinations and lends itself to divination: like dreams, mirrors can reveal what is not visible. Divination by mirror (or catoptromancy), which originated in Persia, is described in many texts. In the Oneirocritica (translated as The Interpretation of Dreams ), for example, the Greek Artemidorus Daldianus (second century ce) devotes several paragraphs to the art of reading the future in mirror images. The magical use of mirrors to learn the future, namely, to know if one will have a long life, is frequently mentioned in European folklore. In central Asia, shamans practiced divination by mirror by pointing mirrors toward the sun or moon, which were themselves considered as mirrors in which was reflected everything that took place on Earth. In the Congo, soothsayers sprinkled reflective surfaces with kaolin (a fine, usually white, clay) in order to question the spirits.
The belief that reflections could reveal secrets rested in turn upon an ancient belief in the existence of a double. This mysterious spiritual double, as close as possible to the bodily self, was a representation of the idea of the soul and offered the possibility that one could deny death by splitting in two. Yet whereas the double guaranteed immortality and implied fertility, it also continually reminded a human being of the end; it was the specter of repressed death. In ancient Greece, for example, looking at one's reflection or seeing it in a dream could lead to death or be a premonition of death. An old European tradition requires that mirrors in the house of someone who has died be covered, to prevent them from absorbing the soul and forcing the deceased to remain on Earth. The fear of having one's portrait painted or photograph taken, widespread all over the world, stems from the same concern: the soul represented by its image may be imprisoned by a stranger and subjected to evil spells.
Containing both the potential for harm and beneficent power, the mirror is regarded ambivalently in every culture. Small children are stopped from looking into the glass in case the sight of their reflection brings them bad luck; pretty girls who look at themselves see the devil suddenly appear; anyone looking at themselves at night risks losing their reflection, and anyone losing their reflection loses their creative force. In the Christian West, the mirror of God could become the mirror of the devil—something produced by the fear of death. Like all magicians, those who practiced magic with mirrors were persecuted by the Inquisition: in 1326 Pope John XXII excommunicated "those who have made a pact with Hell, manufacturing a mirror to secure demons." Daoists believe a mirror reveals evil influences and that one may protect oneself by placing a mirror over the door of a house. In the Middle Ages, Christian pilgrims sewed small mirrors into their hats in order to absorb grace from relics that were exposed during processions. Because of what water and mirrors have in common, the Bambara people use mirror fragments or cups of water to make rain fall. In China, a mirror is a sign of harmony and fertility, but a broken mirror means that a separation will occur, particularly in marriage. The mirror has an important place in marriage ceremonies: in modern India, the couple, instead of looking at each other directly, exchange looks in a mirror hung at the far end of the room and see their faces looking up, as they will be in eternal life.
Mirror and Self-Knowledge
From the start of the common era onward, mythological tradition concerning the mirror has given rise to philosophical commentaries, focused not so much on revealing a universal process as on describing a moral and spiritual condition: the disorder in the minds of those who allow themselves to be bewitched by their own reflections. The misfortune of Narcissus lies in his inability to love someone else. A later myth, in a version by Olympiodorus, recounts that the child Dionysus, fascinated by his reflection, let himself be cut into pieces by the Titans, who scattered the pieces all over the world. Commentators see in this the fate of a mind so seduced by its own reflection that it lets itself be torn to pieces by its passions. A number of such collective motifs still remain current today, along with their accompanying taboos, and modern psychology suggests new interpretations of them. The demon that appears in the mirror is the projection of repressed images. The death of Narcissus signifies the failure to transfer youthful libido to another person and fixation upon oneself in a process of autoerotic regression.
As for the double (shadow or reflection), nineteenth-century writers (Alfred de Musset, E. T. A. Hoffmann, Edgar Allan Poe, Guy de Maupassant, Rainer Maria Rilke) spent much effort exploring its deadly significance and the regions of the unconscious mind: the image in the mirror is no longer seen as a visual effect, but as a real alter ego. Psychiatry has described the defense mechanisms by which a pathologically self-centered subject seeks to create a double by expelling a part of himself that is associated with his shameful desires, so that the double, having become a rival, both assuages his anxiety and threatens him with a powerful feeling of guilt.
The importance of the reflection in the mirror in the inception of the ego has been stressed for more than a century in the work of a number of neuropsychiatrists and psychoanalysts, including Henri Wallon, Geza Roheim, and Paul Schilder. In 1938 Jacques Lacan made the "mirror stage" an essential part of his theories on the psychological development of the infant. The infant in front of the mirror moves from awareness of his body in pieces to perceiving his reflection as a single being, and thus acquires a new grasp of symbolic function at the same time that he or she comes to understand the difference between the body and its reflection. The process of visual perception is the reverse of what befell Dionysus, because by looking at themselves infants avoid dismemberment. Françoise Dolto considered this emphasis on visual perception misleading, and preferred the idea of the "unconscious image of the body" created by all the senses. Later, Lacan introduced into his outline the necessary presence of a symbolic third party, the mother whose approval and smile validate the task of recognition. The infant thus returns to the adult: he tests the formative image that the reflection in the mirror has shown him, but he also tests, in turning back to the other, everything which is absent there, the absence of desire. It is indeed this absence, this hidden part, this "other" that the human being continues to seek by questioning the mirror.
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Schimmel, Annemarie. The Triumphal Sun: A Study of the Works of Jalaloddin Rumi. London, 1978.
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Wayman, Alex. "The Mirror as a Pan-Buddhist Metaphor-Simile." History of Religions 13 (1974): 251–269.
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Sabine Melchior-Bonnet (2005)
Translated from French by Paul Ellis
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