Mirror, Mirror: A History Of The Human Love Affair With Reflection

Mirror, Mirror: A History Of The Human Love Affair With Reflection

by Mark Pendergrast


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Of all human inventions, the mirror is perhaps the one most closely connected to our own consciousness. As our first technology for contemplation of the self, the mirror is arguably as important an invention as the wheel. Mirror Mirror is the fascinating story of the mirror's invention, refinement, and use in an astonishing range of human activities — from the fantastic mirrored rooms that wealthy Romans created for their orgies to the mirror's key role in the use and understanding of light. Pendergrast spins tales of the 2,500year mystery of whether Archimedes and his "burning mirror" really set faraway Roman ships on fire; the medieval Venetian glassmakers, who perfected the technique of making large, flat mirrors from clear glass and for whom any attempt to leave their cloistered island was punishable by death; Isaac Newton, whose experiments with sunlight on mirrors once left him blinded for three days; the artist David Hockney, who holds controversial ideas about Renaissance artists and their use of optical devices; and George Ellery Hale, the manic-depressive astronomer and telescope enthusiast who inspired (and gave his name to) the twentieth century's largest ground-based telescope. Like mirrors themselves, Mirror Mirror is a book of endless wonder and fascination.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780465054718
Publisher: Basic Books
Publication date: 08/16/2004
Pages: 448
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Mark Pendergrast was born in Atlanta and is a graduate of Harvard University. A business journalist, he has published articles and reviews in a number of magazines and newspapers, including the New York Times, the Sunday Times (London), and Financial Analyst.

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A History of the Human Love Affair with Reflection


Copyright © 2003 Mark Pendergrast
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-465-05470-6


Chapter One

THE MIRROR OF THE SOUL If I ask if all be right From mirror after mirror, No vanity's displayed: I'm looking for the face I had Before the world was made. WILLIAM BUTLER YEATS The scene: an African savanna after a torrential seasonal rain. Water still drips from the leaves of the scattered trees and seeps into the roots of the tall grass. In the peaceful aftermath of the storm, animals gather to drink in the temporary pools, lapping and slurping with their tongues. At one pool, however, a creature standing upright on hind legs leans over, preparing to scoop water with its hand. But it stops, furrowing its brow in curiosity. The hominid has noticed how in the still pool the baobab tree magically appears to grow down into the water. Now, he sees a fellow creature looking back at him, hand cupped, ready to drink. Is it an enemy? The hominid bares his teeth. So does the man in the pool. He grunts and hits at him, but the image disappears in a splash. He dips his hand and drinks, then sits back and contemplates the scene before him. The ripples gradually settle. He smiles at the beautiful reflection of the tree, then leans over again to see his silent fellow creature. He, too, is smiling. Perhaps he is not an enemy after all. The man frowns; so does his reflected companion in the pool. He sticks out his tongue; they both do. They touch their noses, show their teeth, pull their ears, wink simultaneously. He understands, on one level, at least. They are the same, yet they are different. Such was probably the first mirror, as humans evolved from apes and developed self-consciousness. Of course, such a fable is a simplified version of what took evolution millions of years to accomplish. According to paleontologists, our forebears stretch back some 18 million years. Homo sapiens appeared only some 200,000 years ago. Our sapient ancestors could think abstractly, use tools, create art. The magnificent paintings of deer, horses, bison, and other animals at the Chauvet cave in southern France were created 32,000 years ago. Physically and psychologically, we haven't changed much since then, despite our enormous technological progress. "Remember that the Cro-Magnon people are us-by both bodily anatomy and parietal art-not some stooped and grunting distant ancestor," observed paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould. "Large, widespread, and successful species tend to be especially stable.... Human bodily form has not altered appreciably in 100,000 years." We all know what it is like to be human, yet we do not know, and the history of the mirror is intimately tied to that questioning ambivalence. We think, and so, as René Descartes posited, we self-consciously exist. But this self-awareness leads to questions. Who is doing the thinking? Who am I? Am I that image in the mirror? How do I fit into the universe? What is beauty, and why does it move me? What is love, and why am I so obsessed with thoughts of sex? And by the way, how does my hair look? Do you think my nose is too big? We are a curious species, and so we are always turning the next corner, wondering what is over the horizon, opening Pandora's box. That same curiosity leads us to the mirror to gaze deeply into our own eyes in search of answers. It appears that only a few animals-higher apes, man, perhaps dolphins and elephants-have the mental capacity to realize that they are looking at their own reflections. That capacity for self-consciousness is apparently fundamental to the human experience, connected to self-awareness, logic, and empathy. "Come along, child, have no fear," a French educator writes in a message to students about to enter the Chauvet caves. "He who walked about here ... was your fellow creature, your brother.... He is also your mirror and your memory." The Ka in the Mirror It is impossible to pinpoint when humans first created an artificial mirror. Initially, they probably gazed into bowls of water, then made the logical connection between still waters and other flat, reflective objects. As nomadic hunter-gatherers, Stone Age people learned to work rocks into weapons, so it is not surprising that the earliest artificial mirrors archaeologists have discovered, dating from around 6200 B.C.E. at Çatal Hüyük (near Konya, Turkey), were made of polished obsidian, a natural black glass created during volcanic eruptions. Other candidates for the first man-made mirror are a slab of selenite, with traces of wood around it that may have been a mirror frame, and a disk of slate. Both were found in El-Badari in Egypt and date from around 4500 B.C.E. A reflective piece of mica pierced with a hole, presumably for suspension from a wall, was also found in Egypt from the same period. The mining and working of metals marked the European Copper, Bronze, and Iron Ages (ca. 4000 B.C.E. to 1 B.C.E.). The scientific quest-the human desire to explore, explain, and transform the world through logic and experiment-arguably began with pottery, then metallurgy. Copper was a pliable substance. Tin, too, was easily worked. At some point, someone combined the two metals, discovering that the resulting bronze alloy, using mostly copper and some tin, was stronger and less subject to corrosion. Thus with the first great civilizations and cities came the bronze sword, efficient warfare-and many more mirrors. The earliest copper mirrors were found in Iran and date from around 4000 B.C.E. Other copper mirrors, found in an Egyptian grave dating from the period of the First Dynasty of the pharaohs (ca. 2900 B.C.E.), were shaped like upside-down pears with handles. They probably came in trade from elsewhere. Because the Egyptians were so obsessed with death and the afterlife, however, and because they preserved their possessions in tombs, we know more about their mirrors than about those of other cultures. The typical ancient Egyptian mirror was essentially flat (a few were convex or concave), polished on both sides, and slightly elliptical (wider than high) with a sharp metal tang at the bottom that fit into a handle made of wood, stone, ivory, horn, metal, or clay. The highly polished surface was protected with cloth, animal hide, or woven rushes. In the tomb of Tutankhamen, there was a mirror in its own custom-fitted wooden box, embossed with sheet gold and inlaid with colored glass, carnelian, and quartz. Generally made of copper until around 2100 B.C.E., then of bronze-and sometimes gold or silver-Egyptian mirrors were both secular and religious objects. They were often used for such familiar purposes as applying makeup. The Egyptians' elaborate cosmetics probably first developed as a defense against the fierce sun, moisturizing the skin and protecting against glare. But it is clear from paintings and carvings that Egyptian men and particularly women spent a great deal of time working on their appearance, applying makeup of yellow, green, black, and red. Priests used mirrors to see while they shaved their heads; others fixed their hair or wigs. In addition, the Egyptians were susceptible to eye diseases and probably used their mirrors to examine their eyes. The mirror's primary religious connection was to Ra-the most powerful deity, the omnipresent African sun-and the mirror was his symbol brought to earth. In Egyptian sculpture and painting there is always a round sun-mirror atop Ra's falcon head. Even the mirror's elliptical shape imitated the rising or setting sun, stretched sideways as it refracted through the atmosphere. Egyptian mirrors also were associated with Hathor, the goddess of love, fertility, beauty, and dance. Hathor was usually represented as cow-headed, her horns enclosing a sun-mirror-disk, and she was identified as the eye of the sun god. Perhaps this is why some Egyptian mirror representations have magical eyes painted in their center. Mirror handles sometimes show Hathor as a lithe nude, and dancers depicted in tomb paintings frequently hold mirrors. In the "Erotic Papyrus" (ca. 1300 B.C.E.), a naked woman with splayed legs masturbates atop a pointed cone while looking into a mirror to apply makeup. The ankh, the Egyptian symbol of life, looks like a mirror-it is egg-shaped, with a T-handle attached at the small end. The long name for mirror is ankh-en-maa-her, meaning something like "life-force for seeing the face," and was shortened to "see-face." On a typical coffin lid, the goddess Hathor (this time with a lovely human face rather than a cow's head) holds ankhs that look very much like mirrors. In addition to their "see-face" names, Egyptian mirrors were also given religious titles such as "the divine," "that which is in eternity," or "the truth." The Egyptians believed that each person had a double called a Ka, which represented a person's essential genius, energy, and identity, as well as a Ba, the soul or consciousness, usually shown as a bird. The elaborate mummification of the body and other funeral practices were designed to preserve both Ka and Ba. The Ka, like its former body, required food for energy, which is why the Egyptians brought food and drink regularly to the tombs. The Ba flew off to heaven during the day, but at night it reunited with the mummified body. The deceased thus became identical to the sun-god, who rose each day and, like Osiris, died every night only to be reborn at dawn. Mirrors were an essential element in tombs. In her book Ancient Egyptian Mirrors, Christine Lilyquist describes a tomb scene at Thebes where a girl presents ointments and a mirror to the deceased with the statement: "To thy Ka. It has made thee, namely the House of Morning, thou being living ... vigorous like Ra every day." The Egyptians may have believed that the mirror helped preserve the Ka, the double discovered in the mirror's depths, and allowed it to make a transition to another life. Thus mirrors are frequently depicted on the wall paintings directly before the face of the deceased, or in his hand, beneath his chair, or in his coffin. Although they were more elaborate in noble burial sites, mirrors are also found in very simple graves, even with children-some of these cheaper "mirrors" are made of painted wood. The Egyptians also understood some scientific uses of mirrors, redirecting sunlight down into pyramids to provide light for workmen in the dark tombs. One papyrus even relates how a magician replaced a severed head during a seance, apparently using a mirror to create an optical illusion. Thus the Egyptians employed all the main themes associated with mirrors-religion, cosmology, vanity, beauty, sex, death, magic, and science. Golden Reflections for the Lady of Uruk Another ancient civilization flourished in the Fertile Crescent, which nestled between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers as both wend their way to the Persian Gulf. Around 4500 B.C.E., at Tell al-Ubaid on the Euphrates, a tribe settled and created an agricultural community. The Ubaidians knew how to make clay bricks, plaster walls, mosaic decorations, turquoise beads, and copper mirrors. The Ubaidians left no written records, but their descendants, the Sumerians (3000 B.C.E. and later), who invented cuneiform writing, left clay tablets and archaeological evidence. We know from these that they were practical traders who valued the art of metalworking and supported a thriving trade in tin, which came over mountain passes from inner Asia or by sea. The cuneiform archives contain a number of recipes giving the amounts of copper and tin to be used for bronze. by 2000 B.C.E., the tibira, or metallurgist, was a prized specialist in the cities of Uruk and Ur. "The list of metals used in the foundry of the smith," observes historian Samuel Noah Kramer, "includes almost all those known at the time: gold, silver, tin, lead, copper, bronze." The cuneiform texts frequently mention mirrors, mostly of copper and bronze. One tablet refers to repairs to a golden mirror belonging the "the Lady of Uruk." Sexually explicit Sumerian myths featured mirror metaphors for excellence or beauty. In an exchange between Inanna, the goddess of love, and her hairy husband, Dumuzi, she cries in passion, "Rub it against our breast, my sweet! ... My one worked on by a skilled metal worker!" He cries out, "May you be a shining mirror! ... Come with the sun, stay with the sun!" The Sumerians wanted to understand the world in which they found themselves. How could such joy and life coexist with suffering and inevitable death? They created numerous gods, and through various methods of divination they sought ways to learn (and sway) the future. Along with examining animal entrails and studying the heavens, they looked into a kind of mirror-a bowl of water, usually with floating oil-to see visions. One God, Many Mirrors To the west of Sumer lay the Syrian Desert and the Arabian Peninsula, home to Semitic nomads even in the time of the Ubaidians. For thousands of years, the Semitic tribes periodically infiltrated, conquered, assimilated somewhat, then departed Mesopotamia again for the desert. Around 1850 B.C.E., a Semite named Abraham, apparently fed up with the soft lifestyle and belief in multiple gods, left Ur with his wife, Sarah. The patriarch of a tribe that came to be known as the Hebrews or Jews, Abraham was typical of the nomads who provided a key link between the civilizations of ancient Egypt and Sumeria. Abraham's great-grandson Joseph, sold into slavery by his half-brothers, eventually wound up in Egypt around 1700 B.C.E. There, because of direct access to his singular God, he could correctly interpret dreams, locate stolen goods, and see the future in the water reflections of his magic silver goblet. As a result, he thrived as the right-hand man of a grateful Semitic Hyksos pharaoh. Some 450 years later, however, the Hyksos no longer ruled. According to the Bible, the resident Jews had been reduced to brick-making slaves when their leader, Moses-another magician with strong ties to God-inflicted various plagues on Pharaoh (probably Rameses II), who finally let the Jews go, along with "articles of silver and gold [and] whatever they asked for." Apparently among the goods they requested were mirrors (or perhaps, as some scholars have conjectured, they were expert mirror-makers). In Exodus 38:8 we read: "The bronze laver, with its bronze base, was made from the mirrors of the women who served at the entrance of the meeting tent." (Continues...)

Excerpted from MIRROR MIRROR by MARK PENDERGRAST Copyright © 2003 by Mark Pendergrast
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