Mirrors and Superstitions: Reflections of Cultural Beliefs

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In the United States, many mirror superstitions have been carried over from Europe and other parts of the world, creating a rich tapestry of beliefs surrounding these reflective surfaces. Mirrors, with their gleaming surfaces and the ability to reflect our likeness, have long fascinated humanity. Ancient beliefs lie at the root of many of our modern mirror superstitions.  These beliefs, woven into the fabric of various cultures, have shaped the way people perceive mirrors.

The Seven Years of Bad Luck

One of the most well-known superstitions involving mirrors is the belief that breaking a mirror will result in seven years of bad luck or else a misfortune of a particular kind, like the loss of a close friend, or a death in the house. Primitive peoples believed that when a man saw his image in a pool, or any other reflecting surface, what he saw was not a mere reflection, but his soul looking back at him. The notion that the soul could be separated from the body without causing death and that it was sometimes visible as a reflection or a shadow, existed all over the world in early times, and appears in many well-known folk tales.

This superstition has its roots in ancient Roman times when mirrors were thought to be tools of the gods. The Romans believed that a mirror not only reflected one’s physical appearance but also captured a piece of the soul. Breaking a mirror, therefore, was considered a shattering of the soul, leading to misfortune. The number seven comes from the Roman belief that life renewed itself every seven years, meaning it would take seven years for the soul to heal and the bad luck to dissipate.

Covering Mirrors in a House of Mourning

Another common practice is the covering of mirrors in a house where someone has died. This superstition has Jewish origins, where it is customary to cover mirrors during the mourning period, known as Shiva. The belief is that mirrors are distractions and that mourners should focus on their loss and their prayers rather than on their appearance.

Many women will not allow a baby to see itself in a looking glass before it is twelve months old because they believe that, if it does so, it will not thrive, its growth will be stunted, or it will die young. The custom of veiling mirrors after death is partly due to the idea that whoever sees his reflection will die soon after or, if not he, then someone else in the house.

The worst of all mirror omens (fortunately found more often in legend than in fact) is for someone to look into one and see no reflection of himself. Death is certain then, and very near, for the soul has already departed. Basutos today believe that crocodiles can kill a man by snapping at his reflection in water; and amongst Zulus, it is thought dangerous for anyone to look into a dark pool, lest the spirit that dwells within it should seize the reflection and so bear away the soul.

There is also a more mystical explanation: some believe that mirrors can trap the soul of the deceased, preventing it from moving on to the afterlife. Covering the mirrors ensures the soul’s safe passage.

Mirrors as Portals to Other Worlds

Mirrors have often been associated with the supernatural, acting as portals to other worlds or dimensions. This belief is reflected in various cultural practices and stories. For instance, the practice of “scrying,” or gazing into a mirror to see visions of the future, has been used by many cultures.

A very common form of divination was practiced on Halloween, and sometimes on other significant dates. The girl went at night to her bedroom and lit two candles on her dressing table. Then, standing in silence before her mirror, she brushed her hair and ate an apple. The ghost of her future husband would be seen in the glass, looking over her shoulder.

In some folklore, mirrors are seen as gateways through which spirits can enter our world. This idea has permeated popular culture, with countless horror movies and stories featuring mirrors as conduits for ghosts and other supernatural entities.

The Use of Mirrors in Feng Shui

In Feng Shui, the ancient Chinese art of placement, mirrors are believed to have powerful effects on the energy of a space. According to Feng Shui principles, mirrors can be used to attract positive energy, deflect negative energy, and create a sense of balance and harmony. For example, placing a mirror opposite a dining table is thought to double the abundance and prosperity of a household.

Mirrors were formerly used in divination, in much the same way as scryers use a crystal ball. The diviner looked into the glass after the performance of certain ceremonies and saw the answer to his questions reflected therein. However, mirrors should be placed carefully, as placing them in the wrong spot can lead to undesirable effects, such as restlessness or confusion.

The Mirror and Vanity

The mirror has also been a symbol of vanity and self-reflection. The story of Narcissus from Greek mythology, who fell in love with his reflection in a pool of water, serves as a cautionary tale about the dangers of excessive self-admiration. In Christian tradition, mirrors have been associated with the sin of pride. This connection between mirrors and vanity has persisted through the ages, influencing cultural attitudes toward self-reflection and appearance.

Thessalian magicians in antiquity held up a glass to the moon before reading the future in it, and so did English girls in the nineteenth century who wanted to know how many years must pass before they married.  Addy tells us that the method used was for the girl to stand upon a stone on which she had never stood before, with her back to the Full Moon, and a mirror in her hand. She would see the moon’s reflection in the glass, and also several smaller ‘moons’, one for each year before her wedding.

The Protective Power of Mirrors

Despite their association with bad luck and the supernatural, mirrors are also believed to have protective properties. In some cultures, mirrors are used to ward off evil spirits. It is thought that a mirror placed near the front door of a home will reflect negative energy and prevent it from entering. Similarly, small mirrors have been sewn into clothing or worn as amulets to protect against the evil eye.

Brides, too, are usually warned not to look at themselves in their wedding clothes, lest something should happen to prevent the marriage. On the other hand, once the ceremony is safely over, it is considered lucky for the married pair to stand side by side before a mirror. An actor will not usually look into a mirror over the shoulder of another so that the two reflections are seen together. To do this brings certain misfortune to the one overlooked.

Conclusion

Mirrors, simple yet profound in their function, have captured human imagination for centuries. The superstitions surrounding them reflect our deep-seated fears, hopes, and beliefs. In the United States, these superstitions serve as a reminder of our diverse cultural heritage and the enduring power of myths in shaping our perceptions of the world. Whether viewed as tools of vanity, portals to other realms, or protectors against evil, mirrors continue to hold a unique and mystical place in our lives.

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