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Smoking mirrors!

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Everyone is fascinated by the black obsidian mirror in the Mexico gallery of the British Museum. The Spanish conquistadors loved them as much as the Aztecs. Why?
Mirrors in general were in use in ancient Mexico for centuries before the Spanish arrived, made of iron pyrite (‘fool’s gold’). They had holes in the back, and were probably worn as pendants.
They were also used for divination - working out your fate. Their smooth, reflective surfaces, like water in bowls, made them great for peering into other worlds...! The Aztecs also threw maize kernels onto mats to ‘read’ the future. Look...
A valuable volcanic glass that comes from cooled lava, the Aztecs also called obsidian ‘the talking stone’. And a ’smoking’ mirror passed on messages from gods to humans. Smoke was the breath of the gods - the symbol for smoke looks like a speech scroll...!
Obsidian mirrors represented wisdom, knowledge and power. Only rulers owned them; they were the symbol of one of the most powerful gods, Tezcatlipoca - ‘Lord Smoking Mirror’, who used them to reveal your secrets and your fate. He’s often shown with a smoking mirror instead of his left foot...
A black mirror was at the centre of one of the famous omens said to have been seen by Moctezuma before the Spanish arrived. Some fishermen brought him a strange bird found with a mirror on its head: in it Mocte saw hordes of warriors on horses approaching in the night sky. Bad news...!
emoticon Q. Which modern blockbuster film was inspired by Aztec obsidian mirrors?
A. ‘BLACK to the Future’!

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Article unlikely to be of interest to younger children Aztec obsidian mirror in the British Museum

See and Be Seen: (‘Smoking’) Mirrors

The obsidian mirror in the Mexico gallery of the British Museum (right) never fails to fascinate visitors, and the name of the god with which the mirror is commonly associated - Tezcatlipoca - never fails to fascinate those who study the Mexica (Aztecs), for it means ‘Smoking Mirror’. The Conquistadors - as well as the Aztecs - prized obsidian mirrors highly. What was so special about them? And did they really ‘smoke’? (Written/compiled by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore)

Pic 1: Pyrite mirror, Xochicalco, AD 700–900. Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford
Pic 1: Pyrite mirror, Xochicalco, AD 700–900. Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford (Click on image to enlarge)

The use of mirrors in general is ancient in Mesoamerica. Prior to obsidian, the material most commonly used was (iron) pyrite (see pic 1), sometimes formed into mosaics with a slate backing; unfortunately, iron pyrite rusts easily and most of the dozen or so still kept today in museums have poorly preserved surfaces. Even older (metallic stone Olmec) mirrors had finely polished concave surfaces; found with holes in the back (as in pic 1), it’s most likely they were worn as pendants, perhaps by priests. Examples of the more common pyrite mirrors have been found throughout the heart of the continent, from SW United States down to Central America. Whilst the more ancient mirrors could well have produced fire, obsidian mirrors, easier to make, didn’t have this ability, didn’t become common until the ‘Late Postclassic’ period (around the time of the Aztecs), and have been found in fewer places - Michoacán, Mexico’s central valley, and Oaxaca.

Pic 2: The original divine couple, Cipactonal and Oxomoco, casting maize kernels. Florentine Codex Book 4
Pic 2: The original divine couple, Cipactonal and Oxomoco, casting maize kernels. Florentine Codex Book 4 (Click on image to enlarge)

Mirrors had been used for centuries in ancient Mexico - not just among the Aztecs - as a medium for divination. Their smooth, reflective surfaces, similar to water contained in gourd bowls or small pools, lent themselves to looking into past, present and future worlds. Indeed, the Aztecs had inherited several means of divination prior to the use of (obsidian) mirrors and sacred almanacs: peering into containers of water, tying and untying knots in pieces of cloth, and throwing kernels of maize onto mats (pic 2). Tellingly, the Aztec tonalpouhqui (‘interpreter of destinies’) would refer to his tonalamatl (‘book of fates’) as a mirror and would greet his customers with the words ‘You have come to see yourself in the mirror; you have come to consult the book’.

Pic 3: Aztec obsidian mirrors in European museums: in modern wooden frame, Museo de la Américas, Madrid (L), British Museum (including Dr. John Dee’s, top) (R)
Pic 3: Aztec obsidian mirrors in European museums: in modern wooden frame, Museo de la Américas, Madrid (L), British Museum (including Dr. John Dee’s, top) (R) (Click on image to enlarge)

Obsidian (itztli in Náhuatl) - a naturally occurring volcanic glass formed from its parent material, cooled lava - quickly proved to be a valuable resource to the Mexica, used for making tools, decorative artefacts, weapon blades... and mirrors. Polished with abrasive sand, glued together with bat’s poo, framed in wood, and decorated with feathers, obsidian mirrors were fine works of art, owned and used by rulers, and they became sought-after, exotic objects among the aristocracy of Europe. One found its way into the hands of Dr. John Dee, astrologer, mathematician, consultant to Elizabeth I - and, significantly, magician - and is now on view, with the case he made for it, in the British Museum (pic 3, top right).

Pic 4: The symbols of mirror and water couldn’t be more closely linked: part of Tezcatlipoca’s apparel, detail from Codex Borgia, fol 17
Pic 4: The symbols of mirror and water couldn’t be more closely linked: part of Tezcatlipoca’s apparel, detail from Codex Borgia, fol 17 (Click on image to enlarge)

Its bright reflective power and its paradoxical ability to allow its user to gaze into ‘other’ worlds but not to pass through them, endowed the obsidian mirror with strong associations with a fiery hearth, the sun, the human eye, a cave (long seen as an entrance to the underworld), and with the surface of still water (pic 4). In this context, at least one Aztec chronicler symbolically refers to both mythical place of Aztec origin (Aztlan) and Mexica capital city (Tenochtitlan) in terms of ‘the great water mirror that surrounds the great city’.

Pic 5: Speech, music or smoke scrolls? Details from: painting of Tezcatlipoca, National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City (top L); Codex Borbonicus, fol 26 (bottom L) & 5 (top R); Codex Mendoza fol 16 (bottom R)
Pic 5: Speech, music or smoke scrolls? Details from: painting of Tezcatlipoca, National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City (top L); Codex Borbonicus, fol 26 (bottom L) & 5 (top R); Codex Mendoza fol 16 (bottom R) (Click on image to enlarge)

All Aztec diviners called the tools of their trade - book, maize kernel, piece of cloth - a tezcatl or mirror, and the word in Náhuatl for ‘to predict’ (itzpopolhuia) is formed from two words, itztli (obsidian) and popolhuia (to cast a spell). Little wonder, then, that the Mexica referred to obsidian as ‘the talking stone’. An obsidian mirror could reflect images and fates, and a smoking obsidian mirror, with its extended associations with flames, luminosity, divine breath and in turn music and speech (note the similarity between the glyphs for speech/singing and smoke: pic 5) could communicate sacred messages to human beings. Just as sound can be cast back and announced audibly in the form of echo, images could be cast back and reflected visibly in the form of smoke and mirrors.

Pic 6: A sacred bundle carried by a Mexica deity-bearer contains a smoking mirror; the four small balls surrounding the mirror are balls of eagle down, symbols of sacrifice. Codex Azcatitlan, fol 7b
Pic 6: A sacred bundle carried by a Mexica deity-bearer contains a smoking mirror; the four small balls surrounding the mirror are balls of eagle down, symbols of sacrifice. Codex Azcatitlan, fol 7b (Click on image to enlarge)

Mirrors represented wisdom, knowledge and power. A wise man and elder was ‘a large mirror, a mirror pierced on both sides’. Parents and ancestors were often compared with mirrors (and torches). Each Aztec ruler (‘Great Speaker’) owned a mirror with which to observe his subjects - and their transgressions or sins. In this sense he acted on behalf of one of the greatest deities of all, the patron of sorcerers and magicians, the giver of life and death, of all fates good and bad, Lord Smoking Mirror, Tezcatlipoca. Just as the Mexica had been guided on their legendary travels from Aztlan by a smoking mirror (carried in a sacred bundle by a ‘deity-bearer’ - pic 6), Tezcatlipoca guided the tlatoani on the right path, that of his predecessors. He above all others had the duty, in Guilhem Olivier’s words, ‘to perpetuate the community’s heritage’, and the mirror was a powerful symbol of this...

Pic 7: Just two guises of Tezcatlipoca: as jaguar and as turkey - both noble animals: it’s likely that both were associated with meting out punishments to sinners; drawn from the Codex Borbonicus (spot the smoking mirrors!)
Pic 7: Just two guises of Tezcatlipoca: as jaguar and as turkey - both noble animals: it’s likely that both were associated with meting out punishments to sinners; drawn from the Codex Borbonicus (spot the smoking mirrors!) (Click on image to enlarge)

Both for the Maya and the Mexica the very word ‘mirror’ was synonymous with ‘ruler’. And the mirror - ‘pierced on both sides’ - had two faces and hence two functions: to reveal Tezcatlipoca’s will to the people, and to reveal to Tezcatlipoca the (mis)doings of the Aztec people. It was very much both a receiver and a communicator of divine force, a means - similar to a human eye - with which to see and to be seen. In order to reveal fates, Tezcatlipoca had to make his (smoking) mirror shine, and with its magical power Tezcatlipoca could play tricks, confusing young with old, guilty with innocent (in this way he deceived his younger brother Quetzalcóatl at Tula), dark with light... If (Black, male) Tezcatlipoca represented darkness, the night wind, the jaguar, the waning and night sun, it was in his brighter guise, as Tezcatlanextia (‘The Mirror That Shines’), representing the day sun, that the deity could ‘make appear’, ie reveal, the sins and fates of human beings. If we tell you that Tezcatlipoca had around 130 different names and guises, you get some idea of how complicated it can be to fathom this ‘Trickster’ deity out...!

Pic 8: The glyph for smoking mirror, drawn (L) by Abel Mendoza from the Codex Borgia (folio 17, detail, R)
Pic 8: The glyph for smoking mirror, drawn (L) by Abel Mendoza from the Codex Borgia (folio 17, detail, R) (Click on image to enlarge)

In Picture 7 you can see the smoking mirror glyph in Tezcatlipoca’s headgear in all its glory (and even clearer in Picture 8), though there are differences (can you spot them?) Though the number of eagle feather down balls surrounding the mirrors varies (from two to seven - interesting, because we find exactly the same range of player numbers in the ritual ballgame!), down balls are always present when one of Tezcatlipoca’s animal doubles is being depicted - such as jaguar (T’s favourite, also known as Tepeyollotl or ‘Mountain Heart’). In the centre of some versions of the smoking mirror glyph, and forming the axis, is a dead man’s bone; Laurette Séjourné suggests that ‘the starry volutes representing Venus symbolize the spiritual life engendered by the sacrifice of perishable matter [the bone]’, and that this reference, redolent with the doctrine of life-giver Quetzalcóatl, ‘points once again to Tezcatlipoca as being the representative of the human race.’

Pic 9: Smoking mirror glyphs: on Tezcatlipoca’s head (L) and the date 1-Flint (R) - neither shows the end of the human bone visible in Pic 8
Pic 9: Smoking mirror glyphs: on Tezcatlipoca’s head (L) and the date 1-Flint (R) - neither shows the end of the human bone visible in Pic 8 (Click on image to enlarge)

The splendid mask of Tezcatlipoca held at Dumbarton Oaks Research Library in Washington (USA) (pic 9, left) is one example of the smoking mirror symbol appearing on the deity’s temple, but without the end of the human bone showing in the centre. The same applies to the date sign 1-Flint (pic 9, right) - also visible in the great Aztec Sunstone, beside the glyph for the first world era or Sun, ruled by Tezcatlipoca. (Calendar signs 1-Flint and 1-Death were sometimes shown with smoking mirror symbols attached). Much more well known, when it comes to ‘bits missing’, however, is the frequent - but not universal - depiction of Tezcatlipoca with a smoking mirror replacing his left foot (see pic 10). Much has been written of this by scholars, suggesting that it forms part of an ‘astronomic code’, that it is symbolic of T’s past sins, that it relates to mythical connections between the foot and the creation of fire (via lightning)...

Pic 10: Tezcatlipoca bearing all twenty calendar signs, and with a smoking mirror in place of one foot; painting, National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City
Pic 10: Tezcatlipoca bearing all twenty calendar signs, and with a smoking mirror in place of one foot; painting, National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City (Click on image to enlarge)

The Mexica conceived of a black mirror placed in the middle of the sky, attracting, reflecting back - and positively contributing to - the weakening rays of the setting sun in the afternoon, directing the celestial body and its light/heat down to the earth. This downward, nocturnal energy force - so clearly visible in the power of lightning (fire-serpents), but also represented by the torn foot, and by the presence of flint knives penetrating the earth’s surface - symbolized the impregnation of the earth, the ‘procreative fire’ central to the nature of Tezcatlipoca.

Pic 11: The seventh omen, Florentine Codex Book 8
Pic 11: The seventh omen, Florentine Codex Book 8 (Click on image to enlarge)

It’s been suggested that at midday the sun itself ‘returns home’, and it is its reflection in the mirror, a kind of ‘fake’ sun, a lunar or nocturnal sun, which descends to the earth as it sets, presaging (announcing) its eventual disappearance; and it is precisely this idea of the black mirror heralding, predicting, foreseeing, in the form of an omen, a fateful end (to the day) that has been closely linked to one of the notorious omens said to have been witnessed by the Aztecs shortly before the arrival of the Spanish in 1519. According to the Florentine Codex (see pic 11), Moctezuma II was shocked one day to see, brought to him by some fishermen, a strange crane-like bird with a mirror on its head showing the sky and stars - even though it was midday. Moctezuma saw reflected in the mirror large numbers of warriors astride giant deer, approaching from a distance. Just as the deeply troubled emperor consulted his astrologers regarding the meaning, the bird and the vision vanished...

Pic 12: Illustration by Keith Henderson, from ‘The Conquest of Mexico’ by W.H. Prescott; note the smoking mirror in Moctezuma’s headgear, symbol of rulership and power...
Pic 12: Illustration by Keith Henderson, from ‘The Conquest of Mexico’ by W.H. Prescott; note the smoking mirror in Moctezuma’s headgear, symbol of rulership and power... (Click on image to enlarge)

Superstitious to the core, the Mexica believed that different types of bird could reveal their fates to whoever captured them. Not surprisingly, Moctezuma saw in this sign the end of the Aztec world at the hands of the advancing Spanish. In a vain attempt to turn them back, he sent to meet Cortés, at San Juan de Ulua, a ‘lookalike’, Quintalbor, who even the Spanish admitted ‘resembled Cortés’. Mindful of the way Tezcatlipoca had deceived Quetzalcóatl with a mirror at Tula, Moctezuma perhaps hoped that, by seeing his image reflected in this ‘human mirror’, Cortés would take flight (and fright), imagining himself somehow diminished (like a waning sun) by the vision. Sadly, some would say, Cortés didn’t get the message...
Ironically, as Guilhem Olivier so eloquently puts it, ‘the night abruptly appearing at noon in Motecuhzoma’s mirror, on the head of the bird, presages the fall of his empire and counterbalances the light that appeared at midnight in the east, a representation of the nascent sun of the Spaniards...’ And the rest, of course, is history.

Pic 13: A father and daughter visit the Templo Mayor Museum in Mexico City; note the obsidian mirror!
Pic 13: A father and daughter visit the Templo Mayor Museum in Mexico City; note the obsidian mirror! (Click on image to enlarge)

Sources (special thanks to Guilhem Olivier):-
• Olivier, G. (2003): Mockeries and Metamorphoses of an Aztec God - Tezcatlipoca, “Lord of the Smoking Mirror”, University Press of Colorado, Boulder, USA
• Séjourné, L. (1957): Burning Water: Thought and Religion in Ancient Mexico, Thames & Hudson, London
• McEwan, C. and López Luján, L. (Eds.) (2009): Moctezuma, Aztec Ruler, The British Museum Press, London
• Pasztory, E. (1983): Aztec Art, Harry N. Abrams, New York
• Miller, M. and Taube, K. (1993): The Gods and Symbols of Ancient Mexico and the Maya, Thames & Hudson, London.

Picture sources:-
• Main picture: photo courtesy The Trustees of the British Museum
• Pic 1: photo courtesy The Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford
• Pix 2 & 11: images from the Florentine Codex (original in the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, Florence) scanned from our own copy of the Club Internacional del Libro 3-volume facsimile edition, Madrid, 1994
• Pic 3: photo L, from Wikipedia; photos R by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore
• Pix 4 & 8 R: images from the Codex Borgia scanned from our own copy of the 1976 ADEVA facsimile edition, Graz, Austria
• Pic 5: top L: photo by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore; bottom L & top R: images from the Codex Borbonicus scanned from our own copy of the ADEVA facsimile edition, Graz, Austria, 1974; bottom R: image from the Codex Mendoza (original in the Bodleian Library, Oxford) - image scanned from our own copy of the James Cooper Clark 1938 facsimile edition, London
• Pic 6: image from the Codex Azcatitlan - public domain
• Pix 7 & 8 L: illustrations by Abel Mendoza, scanned from our own copy of Burning Water (see above)
• Pic 9 L: photo courtesy of and © Dumbarton Oaks, Pre-Columbian Collection, Washington, DC, USA; R: photo by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore
• Pic 10 & 13: photos by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore
• Pic 12: image scanned from our own copy of The Conquest of Mexico by W. H. Prescott (vol. 2), London, Chatto & Windus, 1922.

emoticon Q. Which modern blockbuster film was inspired by Aztec obsidian mirrors?
A. ‘Black to the Future’!

Learn more about Tezcatlipoca...

‘Mirrors in Mesoamerican Culture’ (Wikipedia)

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