Mirrors: Superstition, Mythology, Psychology, & Sanity
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Mirrors are one of a few everyday objects responsible for fear, anxiety, and mental disorders. The small but terrifying list you may find around your home includes your own bed because it creates an "under" the bed; refrigerators at night, as that's where evil originates; dolls, particularly old ones; and, of course, mirrors. I suppose if we're talking about things around the house, we could also add the basement and attic, but those are more of locations instead of objects. Mirrors, though, carry a special kind of folklore and superstition that things like refrigerators don't. After all, no one ever said that if you break a fridge, you get seven years of bad luck.
They have been the subject of folklore, superstition, myth, and horror fiction. But what makes mirrors spooky? The history of mirrors may go back much farther than you think, and the fear surrounding them may be broader than many of us realize.
Did You Know?
Fear of mirrors has three different terms in English. In no particular order:
1. Catoptrophobia: from Greek κάτοπτρο ("catropto" or "katoptron") meaning "mirrors"
2. Spectrophobia: from Latin "spectro" meaning "ghosts"
3. Eisotrophobia: from Greek "eis" meaning "into" and ὀπτῐκός ("optikos" meaning "vision" or "optical")
The suffix "phobia" also comes from Ancient Greek: -φοβία (-phobía), from φόβος (phóbos, "fear").
The fact that there are words used to describe a fear of mirrors from roughly 2,300 to 2,800 years ago should tell you that people have been afraid of mirrors for a very long time.
Trigger Warning: if you have a fear of mirrors, you may not want to continue reading. If you think you might develop a crippling fear of mirrors, you may also not want to continue reading because this will not make it better. You have been warned.
Mirror Myths, Superstitions, & Folklore
Still with me? Awesome. Let's cover some mirror basics before stepping through the looking glass into the truly horrific.
Superstition: Seven Years of Bad Luck
This one comes from an amalgamation of two beliefs in Ancient Rome. Firstly, it was disrespectful to break a mirror, probably because they were so hard to make. Second, Ancient Romans believed every seven years, life renewed itself, and any broken parts of your life would be fixed.
Going back farther in time, 8,000 years ago, the black obsidian mirrors of Anatolia (south central modern-day Turkey) people believed that their reflection in a mirror was actually their own soul, and breaking the mirror would damage the soul.
Superstition: Cover Mirrors When Someone Dies
Is it considered a superstition if it's a religious belief? I'm not sure, actually, and I couldn't find a good answer. There is a belief among several different religions that mirrors should be covered or turned around to face the wall when someone dies so that the soul can't use it to return to the body or that the soul can't see their own dead body. Other variations of this state that the soul can become trapped inside the mirror world, unable to pass to the beyond. Interestingly, a few cultures bury their dead with mirrors to stop spirits from rising from the grave.
Superstition: Hang Mirrors to Ward Off Evil Spirits
Several cultures around the world believe that hanging mirrors around the house will help ward off evil, such as the Chinese Bagua mirror. More on the Chinese mythological take on mirrors later.
Want to learn more about Bagua mirrors?
- Bagua Mirror Feng Shui Benefits and Risks | Practical Feng Shui by Master Alex Zi
- Crafting with a Ba Gua Mirror in Traditional Asian Witchcraft by Benebell Wen
Superstition: Don't Hang a Mirror in Your Bedroom
Supposedly, a mirror in the bedroom can bounce around negative energies. It's a bit more nuanced than that, though, as this belief seems to originate in Feng Shui, which actually states that a mirror reflects your image while sleeping. That reflected energy will double in strength based on whatever type of energy you already have. So, if you have good luck, it will double, but if you have bad luck, you're screwed. Another superstition in this category is that a mirror hanging in the bedroom can cause nightmares because our soul leaves the body when we sleep, and when the soul sees itself in the mirror, it becomes frightened. Also, if the soul sees its reflection in a mirror while away from the body, it may get confused and try to enter the body in the mirror instead of the actual body, opening the opportunity to steal a soul.
Superstition: Portal for Ghosts & Demons
Any liminal space, meaning a "space between" or a location that serves as a transition between two areas. Mirrors are said to create liminal spaces. These spaces supposedly serve as entryways for spirits or demons to enter the physical plane. Unfortunately, I couldn't find an origin to this one.
Superstition: See Your Future Husband in the Mirror
Evidently, a Halloween superstition and tradition originating in the 1800s is for a girl to sit in front of a mirror by only the light of a candle, cut an apple into 9 pieces, eat eight slices, and then throw the last slice at the mirror where her future husband's reflection will catch it. Let's be honest here; that's pretty spooky. A simpler variation is for a girl to comb her hair while looking into a mirror, and she'll see her future husband. The deadly-mode variation of this is to walk down a set of stairs (or up, depending on where you've heard about this) at midnight while staring into a handheld mirror. This ritual usually resulted in one of three outcomes: 1) a horrible injury and possibly death, 2) show the face of a future husband, or 3) show a skull, which meant the woman would die before getting married. Seriously? Someone was out to kill people.
Superstition: Newlyweds, Smash a Mirror for Good Luck
Wait a minute. It's supposedly bad luck to break a mirror unless you are a newlywed, and for this superstition you're supposed to break a mirror with your brand new spouse? Specifically, look into a mirror with your spouse just after you've wed, and both of you smash it. Gazing into a mirror with your spouse is supposed to create an alternate universe where your two souls can live together forever. Breaking the mirror will show how many years you will be happy together based on the number of pieces the glass breaks into. 🤨 I don't know about you, but I'm starting to think that an evil version of someone escaped from the mirror dimension and is spreading mirror myths around to confuse things.
Superstition: Vampires Have No Reflection
Going back to the idea of a mirror showing the soul, this piece of superstition essentially says that vampires have no soul and therefore have no reflection. Vampires out there, please let me know if this is true or not so I can accurately reflect your thoughts on it. The root of this superstition goes very far back and spans several cultures, but one of the most well-known works to call out that vampires have no reflection was Bram Stoker's Dracula from 1897. It entered into vampire lore, and the notion is quite widespread now. This is precisely what vampires would want if this is untrue because they can "prove" they aren't vampires by simply standing in front of a mirror. 🧐
Superstition: Never Own a Broken or Old Mirror
Some say that a broken mirror will attract the dead or evil in general, so having a broken mirror in your house is like leaving a flashing neon "COME KILL ME" sign on your front door. The same superstition applies to previously owned mirrors, especially antiques; they've somehow captured the essence of the previous owner(s) and are all malevolent. Kind of strange, considering not everyone who owns a mirror is evil...unless you believe the Chinese mythological take on mirrors; detailed below.
Superstition: Bloody Mary
No way was I going to forget Bloody Mary. There are slight variations on this, but essentially you go into your bathroom, turn off the lights, close the door (sometimes with a lit candle), stare at your reflection, and keep saying "Bloody Mary." A horrible supernatural killer named Bloody Mary will then crawl through your mirror and kill you while you stand there wondering why the hell you took random advice to do this off the internet.
I had a few friends growing up that were terrified of going into the bathroom, looking at themselves in the mirror, and saying "Bloody Mary" three (or thirteen?) times. But you know what? I did. And I made myself a new best friend.
Try it out at home, and let me know how it goes.
Any mirror superstitions I missed?
If you know of any superstitions I missed, let me know, so I can polish this entire text.
Psychomanteum, Catoptromancy, & Scrying (Oh My!)
Speaking of Bloody Mary, Bloody Mary, Bloody Mary—the practice has roots in rituals used to communicate with the dead that were performed using a "psychomanteum."
The ancient Greeks consulted a ‘psychomanteum’ (oracle of the dead), such as that mentioned in Homer’s Odyssey where Odysseus, gazing into a pit filled with the blood of sacrificial sheep, is reassured by his dead mother that her passing was not violent or painful. In the 1950s, an actual psychomanteum was excavated at Ephyra in the western Greek province of Epiros, a subterranean complex where fragments of a giant bronze cauldron were found, possibly used as a reflective surface both from its polished exterior and from liquid it contained.
A near-death researcher named Raymond Moody modified the Greek version of a psychomanteum and created a type used today, a small, enclosed area with dim lighting and a mirror to reflect only darkness. The same type of setup is used for divination with mirrors.
Divination using mirrors is called "captromancy" or "enoptromancy" and goes back to at least Ancient Greece and Rome.
All of these types of techniques using mirrors are a form of scrying. Scrying is the practice of gazing into a medium like a mirror, crystal ball, glowing coals, water, or even your darkened smartphone screen (and many others) to detect a significant message.
If this idea is pinging something in the back of your brain from childhood, you might be thinking of Snow White and the Evil Queen scene with her Magic Mirror. The Magic Mirror in Snow White allowed the Evil Queen to communicate with an intelligent, evil being instead of simply divining the future from imagery.
Whenever you look into a mirror, if you narrow your eyes at your mirror-self and wonder if that's really you or not, then this next piece of folklore is precisely what you need to keep you up at night.
Terrifying Chinese Mirror Mythology
According to author Jorge Luis Borges, the Ancient Chinese didn't think it was such a crazy idea. Borges published a book in 1957 titled "Manual de zoología fantástica," which tells a tale from Ancient Chinese mythology.
According to Borges, folklore from Ancient China says that the reflections of ourselves in mirrors aren't reflections at all but instead are another species that mimic us so they can learn our ways. Eventually, after enough mimicry, they'd emerge from the mirror to take our place. When they came out of the mirror, we no longer had a "reflection."
In the year 2,697 BC, during the reign of the Yellow Emperor (Huangdi, Chinese: 黃帝), the creatures from the mirrors sprang forth and launched a full-scale invasion against humanity, devouring thousands and taking their places. Huangdi somehow managed to lure the invaders back into their mirror world and trapped them there—temporarily.
Borges called the creatures the Fauna of Mirrors and said that the world beyond looked like ours in reflections but, in fact, was nothing at all like ours. The other side had ranks of demons, and the lowest of them were the ones mimicking us. Above the mimicking types were others that could shapeshift and wage war on humanity in ways we couldn't possibly imagine. The leader of the demons was a tiger that tried to impersonate one of Huangdi's pet tigers, but Huangdi discovered the ruse and locked the demon leader into the form of a pet tiger, then lured all of the demons into a trap and imprisoned them. But Huangdi knew the prison wouldn't hold the demons forever, and they would return for another invasion one day.
The legend told by Borges also said that another type of creature from within the mirror was a type of fish that we sometimes see as a flash of light in the corner of our eyes when we turn toward or away from a mirror, and that the fish are gatekeepers between the worlds. Huangdi left us with a warning that when we stop seeing the fish, the return of the Fauna of Mirrors is imminent.
I don't know about you, but that story is something straight out of nightmares. Demons in the mirror that mimic us, devour us, and take our places?
As usual, I did some more digging on this and discovered that the only references I could find to this Ancient Chinese legend either cited nothing at all or pointed back to the story from Jorge Luis Borges in his 1957 book "Manual de zoología fantástica"—translated to English as "Book of Imaginary Beings."
Borges has an interesting history of blending fact, fiction, mythology, and his own imagination in his works. He was also an admirer and scholar of Asian culture, including Ancient Chinese history. Still, I've found no evidence so far that the tale of the Fauna of Mirrors is actually from Chinese mythology.
Never one to back down from a good research challenge, I bought a copy of the English translation of "Manual de zoología fantástica" to see how far I could get.
The "Animals That Live in the Mirror" story in this book refers to "Lettres edifantes et curieuses" from Paris sometime in the first half of the eighteenth century by a man named Father Zallinger who recorded a legend from the times of the Yellow Emperor in China. One thing I did find that's very odd is that Borges's Fauna of Mirrors story, in the original edition, references a "Father Fontecchio," but later versions have changed it to "Father Zallinger." I honestly have no idea why this would be, but it is puzzling. It also seems that the story from Borges doesn't have much detail, and people have added more and more to it somewhere along the line.
I found copies of the complete works of Herbert Allen Giles, digitized and searchable, and there's no mention of Fontecchio, Zallinger, or anything having to do with creatures from mirrors. Giles does briefly mention the Yellow Emperor, but there's nothing I can find that connects his writings to any of this. I also found two archives with copies "Lettres édifiantes et curieuses" available. I brushed up on my French and pored over them, looking for any indication anywhere relating to the Borges myth of the Yellow Emperor. Sadly, I didn't find anything. I'm also not the only person looking. Folklorist Daniel Peretti, who works at the Memorial University of Newfoundland, seems to have taken on the challenge in his own time and discovered at least some of Borges's sources in The Book of Imaginary Beings are genuine. I'll keep digging, but I don't expect to find anything. If I do, I'll certainly report back.
I've asked several Chinese histories and folklore experts, but no one seems to have heard of it outside the context of Borges's book. So, if you're reading this and you know of anything from Chinese mythology that holds any similarities to the story told by Borges, let me know.
The closest thing I've found so far is that there is a verifiable piece of Chinese mythology about a mirror called the Nieh-ching-t'ai (Chinese: 孽鏡臺), which resides in the "Diyu" (Chinese: 地獄) —the underworld. The mirror's name roughly translates to Mirror of the Wicked, the Mirror of Retribution, or the Mirror of Past Existences. Souls are made to stand in front of the mirror and see the appearance they had in former lives and see the events of their past existences, including crimes, before the Yama (Chinese: 閻魔/閻摩), the King of Hell, passes judgment on them.
November 7, 2022: Update on Missionaries in China
I had a reader reach out and send me something really interesting!
Turns out, there's a 1755 edition of curious letters from missionaries in China available online, and in volume eight, someone mentions a porcelain dish crafted in such a way that it appears normal, but when liquid is placed inside, a fish appears. Check out the PDF here for yourself if you speak 1755 missionary Spanish. The little snippet starts on page 89 of the text (102 of the PDF). Just remember that the "s" characters in these old texts look a lot like the character "f."
Anyway, there's nothing to that whole idea of our mirror-self being another sentient being...right?
There's a type of delusion called "mirror-self misidentification," and it has been studied quite a bit.
Mirrored-self misidentification is the delusional belief that one's reflection in the mirror is another person – typically a younger or second version of one's self, a stranger, or a relative. This delusion occurs most frequently in patients with dementia and an affected patient maintains the ability to recognize others' reflections in the mirror. It is caused by right hemisphere cranial dysfunction that results from traumatic brain injury, stroke, or general neurological illness. It is an example of a monothematic delusion, a condition in which all abnormal beliefs have one common theme, as opposed to a polythematic delusion, in which a variety of unrelated delusional beliefs exist. This delusion is also classified as one of the delusional misidentification syndromes (DMS). A patient with a DMS condition consistently misidentifies places, objects, persons, or events. DMS patients are not aware of their psychological condition, are resistant to correction and their conditions are associated with brain disease – particularly right hemisphere brain damage and dysfunction.
— Straight off Wikipedia
That entire Wiki page is worth a read, especially if you've decided you never want the ability to look at a mirror ever again. I challenge you to dive into the comorbidities section and get a good night's sleep. There are a shocking number of interrelated ones that all point back to mirror doubles replacing humans.
Something I find incredibly fascinating is that mirrored-self misidentification, as stated above, is a condition in which a person has a delusion about only that one thing—nothing else. Typical antipsychotics used to treat delusions seem to have limited success with mirrored-self misidentification. Not only that, but hypnosis is a method used to study and treat it. Hypnosis—which itself is still highly controversial.
On the topic of delusions, how exactly do we know what is and what is not a delusion? Why is it considered a delusion to claim aliens speak to you, but it's not a delusion to claim God speaks to you?
How exactly do doctors differentiate between sane and insane?
Well, let me introduce you to the Rosenhan Experiment, where you can see just how much trouble doctors have in determining who is sane and who is insane.
The Rosenhan Experiment - Infographics about the Psychiatric Study
Trust me, you will not want to skip that link. It's a video about 10-minutes long that explains the whole thing much better than I can summarize. The experiment by Rosenhan called into question the entire system of psychological care. As you might imagine, psychologists were...upset. So, they threw down a challenge at Rosenhan to prove their own legitimacy, and he made them look like fools again without even trying. And then the excuses began. Really, check out that video.
"The president of the United States has claimed, on more than one occasion, to be in dialogue with God. If he said that he was talking to God through his hairdryer, this would precipitate a national emergency. I fail to see how the addition of a hairdryer makes the claim more ridiculous or offensive."
― Sam Harris, Letter to a Christian Nation
I realize I just quoted a fairly controversial author, but regardless of what you think of Sam Harris, the quote is fitting.
So, it turns out that what is considered "crazy" has more to do with culture and less to do with hard facts. So, how does anyone know that Borges's idea about mirrors isn't true?
Relevant & Related
- Learn more about mirror development and technology throughout the ages over at The History of Mirror: Through A Glass, Darkly.
- There's a film from 2006 titled Bloody Mary.
- A short article about selling a real haunted mirror.
- Taiwanese black metal band Chthonic released an album in 2009 titled Mirror of Retribution—a concept album based on the Mirror of Retribution from the Chinese mythological underworld, referencing the 228 massacre in Taiwan. Check out CHTHONIC - 49 Theurgy Chains Official Video | 閃靈 - 鬼縛 MV.
- In July 2022, a rare Chinese "magic mirror" was discovered at the Cincinnati Art Museum. They had it for decades before realizing what it was.
- And you can watch how those magic mirrors are made today, using ancient methods.
- David Carrasco, a Mexican American historian at the Harvard Department of Anthropology, talked about Aztec mirror mythology. Even more on Aztec mirrors at the Smithsonian magazine: Obsidian' Spirit Mirror' Used by Elizabeth I's Court Astrologer Has Aztec Origins
- Learn a little about mirrors and Shinto: In the Presence of the Goddess: Bowing Before the Mirror in Shinto.
- Horror movie fans? I got you covered. 10 Scariest Horror Movie Mirror Scenes, and Evil movie mirrors, ranked by how evil those mirrors get, and 25 Evil Movie Mirrors (NeverEnding Story, anyone?), and of course, Oculus, released in 2014 with director Mike Flanagan. I met the star of Oculus, Karen Gillan, at a convention back in 2015. Great actress, super nice person.
- And a while back, I posted a flash fiction piece dealing with mirrors called Pep Talks.
I could go on forever, like gazing into an infinity mirror.