'Magic' mirror in Elizabethan court has mystical Aztec origin

A black mirror used by Queen Elizabeth I advisor John Dee to 'speak' with angels was originally a prophetic Mesoamerican artefact, new research reveals.

By Tom Metcalfe
Published 8 Oct 2021, 10:19 BST
An obsidian mirror allegedly used by an occultist and advisor to the 16th-century court of Queen Elizabeth I has Aztec origins, researchers have determined.
Photograph by S. Campbell

A “spirit mirror” believed to have been used by Queen Elizabeth I’s famed political advisor John Dee was crafted in Aztec Mexico almost 500 years ago, researchers have discovered. The find, recently published in the journal Antiquity, strengthens the idea that the mirror was used by the Elizabethan occultist in his attempts to communicate with angels.

Dee was an advisor in the court of the 16th-century queen, as well as an accomplished alchemist, astrologer, cartographer and mathematician. It’s thought he may have been the model for Prospero, the magician in Shakespeare’s The Tempest.

A portrait of John Dee (1527-1608). “Dee initially straddled the fine line between natural ‘magic’, which was considered a science, and demonic magic, which was considered a perversion of religion – but the one into which he eventually crossed,” the researchers write.
Courtesy Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

Tales abound of Dee’s occult exploits, including his practice of skrying, or conjuring angels and spirits through clairvoyant tools such as crystals and mirrors. This particular “spirit mirror,” attested in the 1650s as part of John Dee’s skyring collection, was eventually purchased in the 1700s by the writer Horace Walpole, who believed it belonged to the English Renaissance polymath and was used by him in magical rituals.

The mirror was purchased by the British Museum in the late 1800s and is currently on display in museum’s Enlightenment Gallery.

Researchers used a portable x-ray fluorescence scanner to examine John Dee’s mirror, as well as three other obsidian objects—two almost-identical circular mirrors and a polished rectangular slab—acquired by the British Museum from collectors in Mexico in the 1800s.

Because chemical elements glow differently under x-rays, the scanner was able to determine a geochemical “fingerprint” for each obsidian object based on the proportions of titanium, iron, strontium, and other substances each contained. The results show the obsidian in John Dee’s mirror and one of the other mirrors could only have come from the Pachuca region of central Mexico. The other mirror and the obsidian slab, likely a portable altar, came from the Ucareo region, about 150 miles farther west.

Aztec codices, like the 16th-century Codex Tepetlaoztoc shown here, depict obsidian mirrors. Ancient Mesoamericans believed such mirrors could serve as portals to spiritual worlds.
Courtesy The Trustees of the British Museum

Both regions were ruled by the Aztecs, who had a tradition of making obsidian mirrors for magical purposes, says archaeologist Stuart Campbell of the University of Manchester, the lead author of the new study. Circular obsidian mirrors are depicted in Aztec codices written soon after the time of the Spanish conquest in the early 16th century, and in depictions of the deity Tezcatlipoca (“Smoking Mirror”) who had powers of divination. The Aztecs believed the mirrors could show smoke, which would then clear to reveal a distant time or place.

Ancient Mesoamericans believed mirrors were spirit doorways to alternate worlds, “much like Alice in Through the Looking Glass,” anthropologist Karl Taube of the University of California Riverside writes in an email. “Once you deeply gaze in, you have opened up that connection.” Taube has studied Aztec mirrors but was not involved in the new research.

The finding that the British Museum “spirit mirror” is of Aztec origin reinforces the theory that Dee used it as a skryer to conjure angels and spirits, Campbell says. It’s likely that Dee, who was very interested in the exploration of the New World, knew about the mirror’s reputed magical properties when he acquired it, probably during his travels around Europe in the late 1500s. Records show that several Aztec mirrors were shipped from Mexico to Europe soon after Hernán Cortés and his troops took the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan in 1521. And like the Aztec, Europeans of the period also believed in the magical powers of mirrors, a belief that may have led Dee to try to communicate with angels through the spirit mirror.

Dee’s reputation as an Elizabethan proto-scientist remains strong in the United Kingdom (he’s the subject of an opera composed by Blur frontman Damon Albarn, for example). And his presence persists in a variety of historical accounts from the time.

“You can be reading something where you don’t expect to see him, and John Dee’s name suddenly pops up,” Campbell says. “He was involved in so many areas, and in the early stages of so many different approaches to the natural world.”


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