16th-Century English Mystic’s ‘Magical’ Mirror Confirmed to Be of Aztec Origin

Scientists have confirmed a long-standing mystery by proving that an obsidian hand mirror, once owned John Dee, is Aztec in origin.


John Dee was quite a character. The Renaissance thinker, who was born in 1527, was fascinated in many things, including mathematics, geometry and astronomy as well as astrology, alchemy and the occult. Although this unholy mix of science and quackery seems unsavory to modern standards, Dee, as many of his contemporaries failed to recognize the difference. This was pre-Enlightenment Europe. It was a time when many ideas were accepted by thinkers. Don't be all smugastrology, it still occupies a lot of our collective headsspace (not to say all the other unfounded beliefs floating around these day), so there is still room for improvement.

Dee served as Queen Elizabeth I's scientific advisor from 1550-1570. However, his interest in the supernatural has remained constant. Dee began actively divining the future in the 1580s. He used crystals (literally a crystal ball), and several mirrors. One of these was a hand-held obsidian mirror.

Historians believe that the striking black mirror is Aztec in origin. However, no records are available to prove this. Antiquity has published new research that confirms the mirrors Aztec origin. The paper provides new insight into Renaissance culture as well as Europeans' relationship to foreign materials imported during colonial times.

Stuart Campbell, an archaeologist from the University of Manchester, along with his colleagues Yaroslav Kuzmin and Michael Glascock, determined the composition and geographic source of the artifact using a geochemical analysis that specifically uses X-ray fluorescence. The obsidian mirror was exposed to X-rays and emitted measurable amounts radiation (florescence). The team was able to determine the obsidian's chemical composition and create a chemical fingerprint.


Obsidian can only be found at very few volcanoes in the world. This means that there are only a handful of possible sources. We also know the composition of many of them. Campbell explained this in an email. It is simply a matter of matching the object's chemical profile against all possible obsidian sources.

The chemical fingerprint of the John Dee mirror closely matches the profile of Mexican obsidian. This is specifically Pachuca, a well-known source of Aztec obsidian. The team also examined two other Aztec mirrors, and a rectangular polished obsidian slab. All three were found to be from Mexico.


Campbell said that we were also able use existing studies of Aztec obsidian mirrors. As part of our research, Campbell created a new catalog of mirrors similar to those in museum collections. We currently know about 18 mirrors of this kind. Although there are variations, it is clear the John Dee mirror is part of this group.

These mirrors have attracted European attention because of their Aztec use. They were made from bat guano and were used as spiritual objects for healing, protection against evil spirits, or for capturing souls. According to an Aztec study, the Aztec deity Tezcatlipoca (whose name means "smoking mirror") is depicted wearing a circular obsidian reflection as a symbol of revelation, premonition, and power. These mirrors made an impression on European colonizers who sent them home as valuable items. Dee likely heard about these obsidian mirrors through his interest in Spanish conquest of Americas. This may have led him to desire one for himself.


Campbell claims that this research helps us understand some of the ways in which European voyages of discovery, engagement with other partsof the worldoftenthrough disastrous conquest, were matched by new intellectual efforts to understand how the world works.

Campbell said it was important to look at John Dee's thoughts in this light. Campbell said that Dee was trying to understand the world and believed he could do so through searching for hidden meanings. He was able to use the new and exotic artifacts that appeared in Europe in 16 century.


Dee's obsession with the supernatural and occult never led him to great heights. He left Elizabeth's service and traveled across Europe with Edward Kelleya medium, who claimed to have used crystal balls for communicating with spirits and angels. Dee fell into poverty after the duo performed magic before royalty. Dee returned to England to discover that his vast library of books had been vandalized, and that his scientific instruments had been stolen. He also found it harder to make a living as the English became less accepting of his occult beliefs. At the age of 81, he died in poverty. Dee is not buried in any known location, but a memorial plaque was placed inside the Church of St. Mary the Virgin of Mortlake in 2013.

The obsidian mirror was eventually given to Horace Walpole, an English politician and writer. The British Museum currently holds the relic.


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