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Obsidian mirror used by Elizabeth I’s court astrologer has Aztec origins (smithsonianmag.com)
166 points by drdee 5 days ago | hide | past | favorite | 147 comments

Note that although 'Aztec' sounds super old, they were actually a civilisation from as recently as 1300 to 1550 or so, so not nearly as long ago as it sounds, and actually relatively contemporary To Elizabeth.

If Dee obtained the mirror around 1580, it had only been 60 years since the Spanish dissolved the Aztec Empire, and it's entirely possible that the Nahuas continued to make obsidian mirrors for some time after that (although the Spanish would have recognized it as a non-Christian practice to be stamped out, surely). To him, it could have been approximately as ancient as a John F. Kennedy campaign button is to us.

> although the Spanish would have recognized it as a non-Christian practice to be stamped out, surely

As an occult practice, it may have been discouraged at least, but to say "non-Christian" makes it sound like one arbitrary practice extirpating another.

Rather, the Christian view (and certainly the Catholic view) is one opposed to superstition and the occult on the grounds that superstitions are irrational and immoral and thus opposed to the good of those who engage in them[0].

It is one thing for there to exist varying customs that are more-or-less arbitrary w.r.t. the signifier (greetings, for example), but the signified is no longer arbitrary.

[0] https://www.newadvent.org/cathen/14339a.htm

The mirrors were devotional objects in the indigenous religion of the Nahuas, analogous to Christian crucifixes. They were symbols of divine power. The Catholic Church to this day ascribes supernatural power to physical objects such as the Eucharist, and 16th-century Spaniards certainly would have believed that the relics of saints conveyed divine benefits. The Church itself reaffirmed the miraculous power of relics that same century at the Council of Trent. There is really no reason to consider these Nahua religious objects "occult" except by a definition that includes an exception for Christianity.


In any case, the conquerors of New Spain did not encourage the Nahuas to reform their indigenous religion on a rational basis free of superstition. They did not train up an Aquinas for Tezcatlipoca. They suppressed the religion of their conquered subjects in favor of their own, a tale as old as written history.

> Rather, the Christian view (and certainly the Catholic view) is one opposed to superstition and the occult on the grounds that superstitions are irrational and immoral and thus opposed to the good of those who engage in them.

As a Catholic, even I recognize that essentially the entirety of Catholic practice is superstition from the perspective of anyone who doesn't either take Catholicism as a priori true on authority or (arguably equivalently) have a personal divine experience justifying Catholicism experientially.

If one is not Catholic to start with, it as easy to dismiss Catholic practice on the same argument as presented above against superstition as it is for Catholics to do so for non-Catholic superstitions.

Even if you are a non catholic Christian catholic practice seems very occult and superstitious.

Doesn't this description fit to every religion? It isn't like any of those are founded on rationality or empiric observations.

I think it's fair to say that religions spawned from an explicit desire to negate a particular aspect of the Catholic Church indeed is devoid of that particular aspect. That doesn't mean that protestantism is entirely rational, it's still a religion; but it's by definition different from catholicism in those specific ways that led to the schism. For example, I friend of mine got kicked in the butt publicly as a child by a priest because she dared to say that the host "represents" the body of Christ (while, clearly, it literally is the body of Christ, not merely represents it)

Some protestant denominations believe the host is the body of Christ, others that it only represent the body of Christ.

There are lots of religions, and lots of sects of religions, with wildly varying claims, methods and cosmologies… some of which are true, some of which are not, and possibly in ill-fitting overlap, some of which that are rational or more rational, and some of which are irrational or less rational. It would be incautious to label them all irrational while only truly considering a small number.

As opposed to putting a little box on your head and going to a wall?

Superstition is itself a term of Catholic theology and specifically targets veneration without a formal doctrinal framework, which individual Catholics certainly might be guilty of at times but Catholicism isn't.

While the foundational tenets of Catholicism are supernatural but the system that sprouts from it is highly rational, descriptive and formal. It's a religion of Roman lawyers and it shows.

As a result I have a hard time seeing anybody dismissing Catholicism as superstitious, even if they a priori dismiss the existence of God, unless they have no actual knowledge of it (which, you know, ends up being most people who feel to need to utter an opinion on the subject).

Consider the perspective of the unbeliever:

Catholicism teaches that the laying of hands can endow a person (of male biological sex) with the power to transform bread and wine into flesh and blood through the ritual utterance of certain words.

It's going to be hard sell to explain how that's not superstitious...

So 'superstition' is defined as non-doctrinal belief. That would make it impossible for Catholicism to be superstitious by definition.

I guess I see what you mean by a religion of Roman lawyers...

To the Aztecs, presumably, there was nothing superstitious about using obsidian mirrors as a shield against evil sprits, either.

The alleged miracles of all the saints are the clearest examples of confirmation bias anyone could come up with.

Don't Catholics believe that the bread and wine in the mass is Christ's actual body and blood, and then partake in ritual (symbolic) cannibalism?

Also, the belief that praying to someone who was executed two millennia ago would bring you eternal life in Heaven is as superstitious as you can get.

and then partake in ritual (symbolic) cannibalism?

According to doctrine, it's more than symbolic: Catholicism teaches that bread and wine 'really' turn into flesh and blood, while only 'superficially' maintaining the appearance of bread and wine (cf Aristotle's substance theory and the difference between essential and accidental properties). So under a certain point of view, the Eucharist could indeed be considered cannibalism - however, the body of Christ is divine and cannot be digested...

> Don't Catholics believe that the bread and wine in the mass is Christ's actual body and blood, and then partake in ritual (symbolic) cannibalism?

Yes, with the minor complication that a substantial number of Catholics don't actually understand how it's supposed to work (spiritually speaking) and would be absolutely dumbfounded at the basic concept of transubstantiation.

> makes it sound like one arbitrary practice extirpating another.

Yes, because that's exactly what it was. If anything they could stand to emphasise the hypocrisy a bit more, though I don't think that was particularly relevant to their actual point.

Oh the irony. Hyper superstitions people (read: beliefers) claim they are against superstition. That is almost a newspeak example.

Elizabeth I (7 September 1533 – 24 March 1603)[a] was Queen of England and Ireland from 17 November 1558 until her death in 1603. Sometimes called the Virgin Queen, Gloriana or Good Queen Bess, Elizabeth was the last of the five monarchs of the House of Tudor.


To 21st-century eyes, [court astrologer John] Dee's activities straddle magic and modern science, but the distinction would have meant nothing to him. He was invited to lecture on Euclidean geometry at the University of Paris while still in his early twenties. He was an ardent promoter of mathematics, a respected astronomer and a leading expert in navigation, who trained many who would conduct England's voyages of discovery.

Meanwhile, he immersed himself in sorcery, astrology and Hermetic philosophy. Much effort in his last 30 years went into trying to commune with angels, so as to learn the universal language of creation and achieve a pre-apocalyptic unity of mankind.


This guy is incredibly interesting! I really liked the book John Dee and the Empire of Angels: Enochian Magick and the Occult Roots of the Modern World[0] which explores his life, contributions to science, and obviously the occult side as well. It also links in Parsons, which someone downthread mentioned.

Unfortunately, the book has this to say about the mirror:

The large obsidian mirror that is often associated with Dee, an Aztec cult artifact dedicated to Tezcatlipoca brought back from the New World after the conquest of Mexico by Cortés, which has long been on display at the British Museum,54 may not have been used at all, nor has it been conclusively shown that the mirror even belonged to Dee. If the black mirror was Dee’s, it may have come into his possession at Louvain or through a Spanish courtier.55 Of the other objects in the British Museum attributed to Dee’s use, it is likely that only the three wax seals actually belonged to him; the crystal ball and gold engraving of the “Vision of the Four Castles” are probably later acquisitions by collectors from other magicians or antiquarians who reproduced them from Casaubon’s printing of A True & Faithful Relation.56

[0]: https://smile.amazon.com/John-Dee-Empire-Angels-Enochian/dp/...

If you fully believe in the Biblical God, that behaviour kind of makes sense

Sure, but didn't pretty much every English person those days?

I feel the real interesting point is that he was interested in the unknown, and back in those days they didn't have the modern distinctions between what we now consider as natural and supernatural.

Seems that if you want to make progress in human knowledge, you assume the risk of doing things that appear frivolous or just stupid in hindsight.

Reminds me of Jack Parsons, one of the most influential rocket scientists and co-founder of Jet Propulsion Labs and committed Thelemite occultist. Or John Murray Spear, a clergyman from the 1800s who campaigned for women's equality, rights for workers, abolition, and getting rid of the death penalty. He also believed he was talking to Ben Franklin's ghost and tried to build what was essentially a robot Jesus.

And Isaac Newton:

“English physicist and mathematician Isaac Newton produced works exploring chronology, and biblical interpretation (especially of the Apocalypse), and alchemy. Some of this could be considered occult. Also, Newton described himself as a ‘natural philosopher’, and his work is grounded in Aristotelian metaphysics. Newton’s scientific work may have been of lesser personal importance to him, as he placed emphasis on rediscovering the wisdom of the ancients. In this sense, some historians, including economist John Maynard Keynes, believe that any reference to a ‘Newtonian Worldview’ as being purely mechanical in nature is somewhat inaccurate.”


And Keynes himself was a eugenicist [1] and pederast [2].

[1]: https://eugenicsarchive.ca/discover/tree/5233e4365c2ec500000...

[2]: Lytton Strachey: A Critical Biography, Holroyd 1967

>tried to build what was essentially a robot Jesus

Lol! I had to look this up, and indeed it’s true: http://www.danbaines.com/blog/tag/New+Motive+Power

I don't care if it rains or freezes, I've still got my robot Jesus

Nothing ventured, nothing gained. It seems to me to tie in nicely with a discussion[1] from HN the other day, and this comment[2] in particular: (though there were many good ones)

> Nice quote, and a very concise diagnosis of what ails much of science: lots of data jockeys, few true scientists. The output of scientific endeavor is not simply truth, but true theories. Or, more accurately, theories which accurately predict (i.e. are not falsified by) the broadest set of relevant observations. The real tragedy is that genuine theoretical advances are often ignored or overlooked because everyone is too busy collecting more data to notice.

A bit too much focus on the known or what can be known is (probably) playing it too safe to make the big gains.

[1] https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=28821498

[2] https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=28823430

I see what you're saying, but I'm not sure that the Bible portrays "a pre-apocalyptic unity of mankind" as being a desirable or achievable goal.

I agree, but the recently rising "Seven Mountains Mandate" sub-section of Evangelicals think otherwise, and are convinced their job is do dominate the seven areas of human culture and "bring heaven to earth", and part of that is to unify humankind under a not-so-tolerant theocracy. A portion of them also are into dreams and visions as a means to new revelation, and are largely Q-inspired and conspiracy-minded as well.

If you fully believe in the Biblical God, then both sorcery and astrology are forbidden, IIRC.

According to the Bible witchcraft/sorcery is 1) real and 2) punishable by death: ‘Thou shalt not suffer a witch (sorceress) to live.’ Exodus 22:18.

Sorcery and astrology are certainly frowned upon: ‘The nations you will dispossess listen to those who practice sorcery or divination. But as for you, the Lord has not permitted you to do so.’ Deuteronomy 18:9-14.

Ex 22:18, as I understand specifically (in the original text not the English translations) uses a term that refers specifically to a woman who casts evil spells (which is pretty close to the common understanding of “witch” but not with the more general interpretation you have imposed on it.)

The OT, as I further understand, contains a number of different prohibitions of very specific magical practices in the source language, most of which are highly genericized in most English translations.

(There's also a specific enumeration of the parts of the Jewish law that remain in force for Christians in Acts 15, and most of the probibitions under discussion here don't fall within its scope.)

Totally agreed. I haven’t read up on the topic in awhile, but my recollection is that the entire verse was (possibly/likely) butchered in translation and it was originally written as an admonition against witchcraft practices, like cutting herbs, or some such.

Edit, to add: I initially cited to the King James-translation as that has historically been the most promulgated version of the gospels.

Whether there is an explicit biblical condemnation (I don't know, but I would be surprised if there weren't) is not relevant, at least not to a Catholic. Sola scriptura is the province of Protestants.

Add Isaiah 8:19-22 to the mix. It pretty clearly condemns consulting spiritists and mediums. (Depending on your definition of the English word "sorcery", that may count.)

And then there's Saul visiting the witch of Endor, who summons a spirit for him (which she does,) and it wasn't treated as an evil act at all.

And there's a lot of magic in the apocrypha (which, despite having been removed from canon, does reflect the diversity in Christian belief at the time) such as the angel who teaches astrology and spells to drive away demons in the Book of Tobit, or Solomon using a magic ring to control demons in the Testament of Solomon, or the wizard battle in the Acts of Peter.

> the angel who teaches astrology and spells to drive away demons in the Book of Tobit

I think we need to be careful in how we are using words like "astrology" and "spells", since it is easy to group many ideas under those umbrellas in a way that people living long ago wouldn't have.

For a start, I don't see any mention in Tobit chapter 6 of astrology[0], and the technique given for driving away a particular demon is "thou shalt take the ashes of perfume, and shalt lay upon them some of the heart and liver of the fish, and shalt make a smoke with it: And the devil shall smell it, and flee away, and never come again any more" followed by "and pray to God".

We wouldn't say that someone is casting a spell if they used cayenne pepper to keep cats away from their garden, and early readers of Tobit wouldn't have considered fish organs to be an unholy or forbidden substance. For a process to deserve the designation of a "spell", it would have to involve either a means or an ends that was forbidden by God.

[0] https://www.kingjamesbibleonline.org/Tobit-Chapter-6/

I don't read it that way at all. I read the witch of Endor as the final step in Saul's failure.

I also read it as the witch being surprised when the spirit actually shows up...

I don't see how you could have possibly come to that conclusion. At all. Superstition and the occult have always been condemned by the Church as irrational and immoral[0]. This sounds like one of those vague anti-Christian sentiments from the Enlightenment that somehow remains fashionable to this day.

In spirit, modern science is closer to the occult in the sense that mastery over nature is a major motivation for its pursuit.

[0] https://www.newadvent.org/cathen/14339a.htm

For context, the University of Oxford was formed considerably before the Aztecs, in around 1096. (So long ago that records are not reliable.)

Random related fact, too, the oldest university in the Americas is San Marcos (Lima, Perú) which was founded in May 12, 1551; 1 year after the history books mark the end of the Aztec civilization.

Actually, that's the second oldest. Universidad Santo Tomas de Aquino (Santo Domingo, La Hispaniola) was founded by papal decree over a decade earlier, but it wasn't officially recognised by the king of Spain until 1558.


It makes more sense to compare that date with the end of the Inca Empire as the Aztecs were in Central America, not Peru. Spain founded the University of San Marco after they took over Peru from the Incas.

Time is weird. Oxford University is 200 years older than the start of the Aztec civilization.

This is a bit like saying Oxford is 800 years older than the Italian civilization. It's more confusing than it is useful.

And for 300 years, Oxford University shared the planet with the Roman Empire.

It's slightly misleading to the reader to refer to the Byzantine Empire as the Roman Empire. Sure, the people living there considered themselves Romans, but they also referred to their country as Romania, which also today is not typically used to refer to the Byzantine Empire without giving further context.

Well, if you mean Byzantine Empire (East Roman Empire with the Constantinople as a capitol) then absolutely massive amount of things shared it's time with it because it has fallen in 1453, even Columbus shared the planet with it.

But at this point, maybe incorrectly but surely, 'Roman Empire' is synonymous with antiquity so the republic and early empire, I think that even if year 495 counts here then it's borderline

As a Jewish Israeli, reading this thread is eye-opening. What many people here consider the real Roman Empire rose _after_ the fall of my ancestors. And that Roman Empire is considered ancient? We view our ancestors from that time period as contemporary as we view our present day politicians.

Sometimes is it very good to see the perspective of others. Thank you.

As a Purepecha Mexican I find it very eye-opening the other way around. Very weird to see people consider our empires ancient, we are very aware we are the new kids on the block. As an aside, I have always found it interesting when people talk about the Mayans as some mythical lost thing, have had a few beers with them, good people, but not mythical by any stretch.

Go far enough and you and me share the same ancestor. I think there was a post that statistically you don't need to go that far (just a few millenia)

We need an Assyrian to chime in here...

What does contemporary mean in this context? i.e. what's not considered 'contemporary'

I mean that we don't consider them "long gone". Their teachings are as relevant today as they were at the time of their lives.

We consider Adam, Noah ancient. But the Romans? Might as well have been last week.

Well I would consider Adam and Noah to be mythologial rather than ancient.

Even Moses, who might have lived around the 13th century bc would have been 1000 years after Sargon of Akkad.

There is a lot of history to go around, so many peoples and civilisations that we know of, and so many that we do not.

> Note that although 'Aztec' sounds super old

Does it? I always felt Columbus was pretty young history and I associate Aztecs with him. Not sure how the time period where we had guns and ships good enough to cross the great seas can be seen as super old, great civilizations had already existed thousands of years at that point.

> Not sure how the time period where we had guns and ships good enough to cross the great seas can be seen as super old, great civilizations had already existed thousands of years at that point.

I agree with the core of your post, but it should be noted that the great seas had been crossed for thousands of years at this time by Polynesian navigators (over the Pacific, not Atlantic), and had also been previously crossed by Vikings a few hundred years before.

Well that’s my point. People think it was a long time ago, but it actually wasn’t.

It feels older than it is, because it's largely prehistoric.

In what way is the Aztec empire prehistoric? You mean they feel old because they were primitive relative to Europe at the time? But that is known history, Europe were so far ahead technologically that they managed to conquer the whole world starting with Columbus and ending at WW2. We are living at the end of that era now, we still see the effects of Europe and its colonies dominating world politics but it is getting weaker.

I believe the parent comment means prehistoric as a technical term that means “before written history”.

The Aztecs had no written language equivalent to what we’re using here, and instead used ideographs. They did, however, record history cartographically!

Aztec script is a bit more complicated than simply ideographic. There's a whole bunch of syllabaric stuff we don't fully understand as well. Regardless, defining "prehistoric" around the presence of so-called complete writing (scripts that can represent any spoken statement) leads to a lot of really silly situations, especially in the new world. For instance, did the Aztecs suddenly become historic as soon as the Spanish showed up? If so, why didn't the Mayan script (which is also complete) count? If it's that the Aztecs who couldn't write simply weren't historic yet, does that suggest the vast majority of Europeans who also couldn't write were prehistoric?

Either way, it's a terrible definition. As an archaeologist, I use "prehistoric" to describe really old fossilized crap. Anything newer is historic.

I just meant "prehistoric" in the sense that their history is mostly lost.

That makes a lot of sense, thanks!

I meant that very little of Aztec history is recorded in a way that survives today.

My understanding - which may be wrong - is that it's at the level of much older high civilization. And I think that makes them "feel" as old as those civilizations, because we know so little.

I'm not sure the Aztecs were that technologically behind. The main reason they and all the other New World peoples lost was their less robust immune system. Typically, 80-90% of the population died of European diseases as soon as - or often even before - the Europeans arrived.

This was 300 years before germ theory, so no one on either side knew what was happening.

> 'Aztec' sounds super old

It rather sounds super primitive and savage. With human sacrifices and stuff. And yes, that stone mirror was polished by slaves.

Oh, those columbus day inspired pages...

oxford university is older than aztec civilization.

Reading the article, I don't think they have established that the _mirror_ was Aztec, only that the raw material came from a place then under Aztec control. E.g. it could have been from a chunk of obsidian someone picked up in meso-America, or that was otherwise traded and transported to Europe.

The way it's stated is by far the most likely story. Finished obsidian goods were typically produced relatively close to the mines because stone is heavy and even the best artisans frequently screw up obsidian pieces. Working with it also takes years to master. It's unlikely that a European artisan would have been replicating the style that early.

Obsidian is found everywhere, it wouldn’t be an unknown substance. Also damage in transit can’t be fixed -> incentive to carve at destination.

At some point we have to invoke the principle of parsimony. Europe did not have a tradition of obsidian mirrors in the late middle ages/early modern, much less ones carved in mesoamerican styles.

Yes, it's not impossible that it could have been produced in Europe, but it's far more likely that it was produced like the numerous other similar mirrors dated before contact and documented as produced by American artisans in early writings. This is all the more likely given the known supply chain for such objects, specialists in Aztec mirror production are specifically known to have used material from the two sources identified, and that Spaniards documented shipping such mirrors back to Europe as gifts.

Obsidian is not found everywhere. England has no volcanoes. I highly doubt they had much familiarity with working it into finely crafted items.

There was actually a moderate amount of worked obsidian produced in the British isles during the neolithic. The only major source I'm aware of for it was Arran. So-called Arran pitchstone is pretty ugly though. Not relevant to the objections, just a fun fact.

Not only this, but it wasn't even his, according to John Dee and the Empire of Angels:

The large obsidian mirror that is often associated with Dee, an Aztec cult artifact dedicated to Tezcatlipoca brought back from the New World after the conquest of Mexico by Cortés, which has long been on display at the British Museum,54 may not have been used at all, nor has it been conclusively shown that the mirror even belonged to Dee. If the black mirror was Dee’s, it may have come into his possession at Louvain or through a Spanish courtier.55 Of the other objects in the British Museum attributed to Dee’s use, it is likely that only the three wax seals actually belonged to him; the crystal ball and gold engraving of the “Vision of the Four Castles” are probably later acquisitions by collectors from other magicians or antiquarians who reproduced them from Casaubon’s printing of A True & Faithful Relation.56

for those unfamiliar, here's a fun dinner party factoid about a Glindoni painting depicting Dee performing magick at court

> X-ray imaging of the stately Victorian artwork has revealed that Dee was originally surrounded by human skulls before the ghoulish image was painted over, probably because it was too odd for the buyer. But curators of an exhibition opening on Monday believe it sums up the conundrum of Dee: should we remember him as brilliant pioneering scientist, or as an occultist who thought he could talk to angels?





It's one thing to talk to angels, another thing to get answers.

Can somebody explain why it is interesting that Dee had a polished piece of Mexican obsidian, probably plundered from some Spanish galleon some privateer raided? I guess it is interesting that modern lab analysis can identify the mine a piece came from, but it is not as if Dee ever actually got any inforation out of it. Do we even have any idea which privateer, or which galleon?

The obvious connection would probably be Drake. The reason that is interesting is that the Aztecs preserved a lot of history, like the Mayan Calendar. It would mean then that Dee was trying to invoke something tied into that Epoch of history, which is Enoch--hence his developed system of Enochian.

- “I can call spirits from the vasty deep.” - “Why, so can I, or so can any man; But will they come when you do call for them?”

Henry IV Part 1

We might wonder if Shakespeare was needling John Dee, here.

Those were the days. It is alas impossible for us today to experience the world view and internal mental states of these early polymaths. They were swimming in (and pressumably got very excited from) a sense of explainable and actionable magic where a combination of rational thinking and the use of various artifacts revealed the inner workings of the universe. That mix of the scientific and magical lasted quite a bit longer (famously Newton was an alchemist).

Today the extreme specialization and sophistication of scientific silos means the excitement of "probing the universe" has become very remote. When looking around we assume (and it is generally true) that practically anything that happens fits in a neat scientific bucket that somebody is on top of.

John Dee is also the original 007 for those who have James Bond on the brain (the movie was underwhelming imho). One of the more recent developments was of a painting of him in her court, when scanned it was revealed there had been a circle of skulls around him in the painting that had been painted over.

Theres all kinds of interesting factoids about him. He started collecting books and at the time had what was probably one of the largest personal libraries in existence, and the list goes on.

John Dee sounds like the perfect character for Alan Moore to use in one of his historical fictions, such as League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. I went looking to see if he used John Dee anywhere, and it turns out he has an unpublished work devoted to him [0].

[0]: https://nationalcentreforwriting.org.uk/article/alan-moore-a...

About his possible activities as a spy travelling around Europe, there's an interesting speculation in the book, The Rosicrucian Enlightenment, by Frances Yates.

The theory is that he played a significant role in the (literal) conspiracy to bring Princess Elizabeth and Frederick V of the Palatinate to become the new Queen and King of Bohemia, and rule Protestant Europe.

Um, in what way was he the original 007? I presume he did not literally have that number in that service...

He would actually sign his letters "007"

"The zeroes represented eyes, and the seven was thought to be a lucky number that offered protection"


Dee was an interesting guy. For context as to the results of his, um, experiments:


In 1581, Dee mentioned in his personal journals that God had sent "good angels" to communicate directly with prophets. In 1582, Dee teamed up with the seer Edward Kelley, although Dee had used several other seers previously.[6] With Kelley's help as a scryer, Dee set out to establish lasting contact with the angels.

I consider this the most accessible text on the subject:


Did it really belong to John Dee? Wikipedia casts doubt:

Dee's Speculum or Mirror (an obsidian Aztec cult object in the shape of a hand-mirror, brought to Europe in the late 1520s), which was subsequently owned by Horace Walpole.[68] This was first attributed to Dee by Walpole. Lord Frederick Campbell had brought "a round piece of shining black marble in a leathern case" to Walpole in an attempt to ascertain its provenance. Walpole said he responded saying, "Oh, Lord, I am the only man in England that can tell you! It is Dr. Dee's black stone". However, there is no explicit reference to the mirror in any of Dee's surviving writings.


As a side note, to those interested in learning more about John Dee and occultism in the Renaissance I would like to recommend Frances Yates' "The Occult Philosophy in the Elizabethan Age".

Yates is a very serious scholar in a field that is often marked by not so rigorous "believer" types.

The book itself covers Dee in detail, as well as the general intellectual environment at a time when modern science was just starting to catch shape.

There are also examples of obsidian from a cliff in Yellowstone showing up as artifacts in the mid-west.

John Dee is a fascinating character from a fascinating age: the early enlightenment. It was a time (in Europe) when early science, both orthodox and heretical Christian theology, occultism, medieval grimoires and folk magic, imported ideas from the East, and loads and loads of other things were swirling together in this crazy brew. It's the primordial soup from which modernity and the industrial revolution emerged.

Oversimplified "pop" narratives of the enlightenment often taught in school tend to edit out all the wild-ass spooky shit. The reality is that the enlightenment was not a linear transition from medievalism to modernism but a period of extreme experimentation and "counterculture" similar in character to say 1920s Germany or 1960-1970s California.

I've come to believe that this is what periods of extreme creativity look like. They are not "pure" in any way. They're not linear movements toward something. They are chaotic soups of wild and often contradictory ideas merging and fracturing and fighting and being synthesized together.

In a learning sense we would say that they are not stuck at a local maximum; they are exploring state space. When new local maxima are found you get convergence there. That's when things get once again more stable, but less creative.

Here's a BBC documentary that goes into some of Isaac Newton's other interests:


More for others who love this history:


There is way more if you tug on this string.

Astrologers were needed by the powerful to get whatever slight advantage they thought was possible in the many conflicts of the day. Astronomers and scientists would use astrology to pay the bills for real research. If digging into the occult helped Dee get the ear of the queen to promote real exploration and discovery, we owe more to the occult than we realize.

I wouldn't view the occult as lesser than "real" science or research. Just because something is not well understood doesn't mean it's false.

Science is great, and I love science, but it paradoxically has a way of limiting our understanding. Things that the scientific method cannot be successfully applied to are immediately written off.

The rejection of anything not deemed scientific is a dogmatizing and close-minded approach to understanding the universe.

That's all fine and dandy, but there's not much place for the occult in any rational way left. Attempts at proving supernatural phenomena have not brought any convincing evidence. There comes a point where you have to wonder if it's more likely that there's something out there which we can't measure or observe, but which we can "feel" in some way, or that it's superstition.

Or in more practical terms: I wouldn't bet on a spell or the advice of long dead ancestors.

This reminds me of a game I used to play as a child: Broken Sword. It was a series of point and click games. Broken Sword II: The Smoking Mirror is all about the main character George Stobart, who finds an obsidian stone and soon discovers he must find two other stones to lock up Tezcatlipoca.


Such a cool game.


I was just about to write about the game, too. What a brilliant game it was.

I just made the connection between the title of the second game (Smoking mirror) and the plot when reading the article. I remember that I found the name of the game a bit odd. No wonder, when I did not realize that this is actually the name of the Aztec god Tezcatlipoca.

In Germany this game was called "Baphomet's Fluch" (Baphomet's Curse). The PS1 demo of this were George is surviving an explosion in a Parisian Café is one of my nostalgic gaming memories.

It sounds plausible that he bought it in Bohemia, in 1580 Prague was the seat of Rudolph II, HRE, who loved collecting trinkets like this one. And being a Hapsburg he had an obvious connection to Spain and spanish conquests

If you're interested in John Dee, consider John Crowley's Ægypt books[0]. Crowley is a fantastic writer, a true craftsman, writing dense, detailed, and somewhat slow fantasy. John Dee and other Elizabethan occultists feature prominently in the books.

0. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ægypt

Also, Armin Shimmerman (Quark) wrote a couple books with John Dee as a protagonist - the Illyria “trilogy”.

They’re both very good. He’s a very big Shakespeare buff.

Yes, John Crowley is great, "Engine Summer" is one of my favorite futuristic novels.

Considering the Spanish were plundering Latin America and English privateers were plundering the Spanish, it’s not too surprising a political insider would have a pretty Aztec bauble.

There's a 15 minute BBC radio programme based around this object here:


This is the subject of Blue Öyster Cult's song _Magna of Illusion_.

This is the second time in recent memory that I've seen a headline on HN that reminded me of one of my favorite musical artists... glad to see that one of the other 7 people that knows Imaginos by heart saw this too :-P

Me too. Imaginos is a brilliant album

This is rather off topic, but maybe you BÖC fans are interested in the Albert Bouchard Demo of Imaginos. At least I was :-)


That instantly popped in my mind when I read the post title.

In general, Elizabeth I is solid food for all kinds of folk legends, conspiracies, fantasy pastisches etc. Employed John Dee, after all.

You can make your own "scrying mirror"..


the first time i heard about scrying mirrors was from these wonderful games.


“often through disastrous conquest”

interesting to see the subtle apologizing narrative, as if there were conquests that weren’t disastrous (to those defeated).

While what you say is true, some conquests were considerably more disastrous than others.

Compare the impacts of the conquest of the Americas by Europeans and the conquest of Central Asia/Middle East by the Mongols vs the European conquest of Egypt. The conquest of Egypt, while colonialism, seems almost benign in comparison to the destruction brought about the former two examples.

That’s one opinion. The dead think it’s all disastrous. To say one is more or less disastrous is to make a subjective judgement call as to which is/was a preferable outcome.

This is absurd absolutism. As if killing 1 person is as bad as killing 1 billion - sure, to the one person that died it's as bad as it gets, but that doesn't mean we should equivocate to this level.

You might be engaging in a straw-man argument by comparing 1 person being killed with a billion deaths.

So it does depend on numbers?

The conquest of the Americas killed more than 90% of the population of the Americas. The conquest of Egypt mentioned before maybe killed 1% of the population. Are they the same thing or not?

It depends on both the numbers and the point of view. If you feel a part of the winning battle, your conquest was great, if you lost, the conquest was a disaster. When you integrate these feelings and points of view, you could quantify the amount of disaster or conquest felt.

In any regard, the last century has been the greatest disaster of conquests in terms of absolute numbers/victims/weapons used/etc.

Note the Americas already had civil and external wars long before the Spanish arrived.

When you know the full history of the Conquistadors and their relationship with the local population, things are not so clear.

For example, the Spanish:

- didn't teach locals to do mass ritual sacrifice and throw the bodies down the steps of the temples

- didn't tell one of the local kings to burn his empire's library to erase any history before his reign

- didn't force their "local allies" to march on the capitals of the empires.

The American Civil War?

Like tinted glass?

Both tinted glass and obsidian are amorphous solids, made primarily out of silicon dioxide, and colored by metals or metallic compounds. Obsidian is distinguished by being volcanic in origin, but otherwise it's the same stuff.

So how does this 'magic mirror' work if it's just tinted glass? The world doesn't look much different if you wear sunglasses.

I'm not sure, but I believe they're just flat enough that you can sort-of-see your reflection on them. I don't think they're silvered like a modern mirror would be.

Why does everyone think it's a mirror? It looks like a frying pan to me.

Physically I don't think they would function well as frying pans; they don't have raised lips, the 'handles' are too short, and I suspect they might crack from thermal expansion if you actually tried to cook with one. Some of them were embedded in statues or otherwise ornamented in a way that seems to preclude such practical use. Furthermore not all of the mirrors were obsidian, some were made of gold, pyrite, or water.

Besides that, there are apparently written records and native lore from Mesoamerican cultures that them as mirrors.


Just a mirror with so involved ornament on it? And the ornament clearly has occult nature: it's not just random artistic drawing. I doubt it's literally a frying pan, but it looks very suitable for certain unholy rituals that the late Aztec empire was famous for.

Now this has vaguely reminded me of some comic book I read as a kid in the 1990s (it could have been older than that) with some mystery revolving around a magical obsidian mirror.

I can't recall if it was some detective Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck or frankly Tintin.... and I'd love to re-read it, damn it!

How did an artifact for communicating with other worldly beings that was an ancient and sacred artifact, which originated from the Aztecs, who lived on the other side of the planet, get all the way through Spain to not just anyone, but the head Astrologer to the Queen of England? You have to ask the question, could the connection be that the go-between for the Aztec empire and the Queen of England was brokered, even indirectly, by extra-terrestrials? Ancient astronaut theorists say yes.

I would say, no, it was by boat. But Smithsonian just giving up and mixing archeology and the occult may signal a defeat, where they were like, "the only way we're going to get young people into the field is if we address this stuff, because that's what they're interested in. Post that Queen's astrologer and Aztec magic portal thing, and let's A/B it."

You're kind of freaking me out here man, did we actually read different articles? The article I read says flat out that the mirror was transported by ship and suggests no doubt whatsoever about that.

It also contains some speculation about why it might be that European occultists considered this obsidian mirror an artifact of occult merit, and offers a perfectly natural (not supernatural) explanations for why that might be: it was exotic, European occultists had a history of liking mirrors, and these particular European occultists may have heard stories about these mirrors being related to Aztec occult practices.

I'm saying treating British occultism as a co-ordinate for serious inquiry into the function of an Aztec artifact wandered into Ancient Aliens territory. I presented it in the form of that theatrical style of questioning to illustrate that. But I am not an archeologist, I just watch Ancient Aliens sometimes because it's like eating mental cookie dough, in so many ways.

But the news here isn't "the Aztecs had obsidian mirrors they used for ritual purposes", it's "several obsidian mirrors found in Europe, one purportedly belonging to John Dee, have been authenticated as being of Aztec make by analyzing the chemical makeup of the material". It could have been a contemporary knockoff or later forgery; now there's a strong case for its authenticity.

> treating British occultism as a co-ordinate for serious inquiry into the function of an Aztec artifact

I don't think the article did that. The article suggests the occult significance of obsidian mirrors to Aztecs is known through the relationship of those mirrors to the god Tezcatlipoca:

>The Aztec god Tezcatlipoca, or “Smoking Mirror,” is frequently depicted wearing mirrors that allow him to see humans’ thoughts and actions. As Campbell tells Live Science’s Mindy Weisberger, “[T]here’s quite a specific association with these types of mirrors and that particular deity.”

Of this god, wikipedia says:

> His name in the Nahuatl language is often translated as "Smoking Mirror"[3] and alludes to his connection to obsidian, the material from which mirrors were made in Mesoamerica and which were used for shamanic rituals and prophecy.[4] Another talisman related to Tezcatlipoca was a disc worn as a chest pectoral. This talisman was carved out of abalone shell and depicted on the chest of both Huitzilopochtli and Tezcatlipoca in codex illustrations.[5][6]

As is said, you are what you eat.

You can't read too far into GPT-3, it's a mashup of many different textual sources that doesn't always hit the mark.

Maybe they are A/B testing something because the article I get when I view this link is not about aliens or the occult. Perhaps I’m in the control cell.

I have no idea what pathways short-circuited in my brain, but I didn't remember what A/B stood for and my brain said "Aztec/Britain". And I was like, wait, we have a term for Aztec to Britain testing, how in the hell did that happen?

Then suddenly, my brain started working properly again and I remembered the concept of A/B testing.

I too don't see any occult references, neither any suggestion that this object was very unique. We know about it because he used it and it ended in the British museum.

The article says:

> [The Spanish] quickly began shipping treasures, including obsidian mirrors, back to Europe... Dee was interested in the Spanish Conquest and had probably heard stories about obsidian mirrors... Dee may have bought the mirror in Bohemia (now part of the Czech Republic) in the 1580s...

Not seeing any suggestion of magic portals or ETs here. It is of historical interest that we've been able to verify the Mesoamerican origin of these mirrors, and the connection to an interesting figure like Dee makes a good headline. This isn't an earthshaking revelation, and I don't think it's being treated as such.

Huh? Where does the article say anything like that?

I'm also puzzling over GPs comment. You can't describe the mirror without saying how it was used. Nowhere does the article say that it's the product of occult or extra-terrestrial activities.

You think that’s bonkers wait until you hear about Datura metel.

Could also have been Dr. Who

Time Lords are extra-terrestrial.

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