The world of Queen Elizabeth I, who ruled England from 1558 to 1603, is a gloriously weird world. On the one hand, it is an environment of “high culture” immortalized by the plays of William Shakespeare and the work of other contemporary literati. It’s the time of Cervantes in Spain, Galileo in Italy, Kepler in Germany, the world in which Portugal and Spain own global empires and other European powers, like England itself, are trying to get into this business too.
At the same time, however, Elizabeth I had in her employ a “consultant in occult matters”, the Welsh-born scholar John Dee (1527-1609). Dee, the guy who coined the expression “British Empire”, very well represents the strange mixture of a magical worldview with an interest in mathematics and the Scientific Revolution of his time. This mixture is perfectly symbolized by the fact that the “magic mirror” he claimed to use to converse with spirits is, in fact, a product of the Age of Navigation. As the title of this post says, Dee’s spells were made, in part, with an artifact from the Aztec Empire.
The detailed analysis that demonstrated the provenance of the “magic mirror” is in an article in the specialized periodical Antiquity. Coordinated by Stuart Campbell, from the University of Manchester, the work carried out a geochemical analysis of the object, which is basically a circle of obsidian (volcanic glass), measuring just under 20 centimeters in diameter. Check it out below.
The composition of the obsidian matches that extracted in the Mexican region of Pachuca, which was under Aztec control before the Spanish invasion in the 16th century. Among the indigenous people, the artifacts already had a ritual function, being associated with the god Tezcatlipoca — name which, not coincidentally, means “smoking mirror” — and used to try to look into the future.
It is not known exactly how Dee got hold of the object. But he traveled extensively in the cities dominated by the Habsburg dynasty on the European continent. It is the same imperial family of Germanic origin that ruled Spain and its colonies at the time, and which began to send all kinds of artifacts of Aztec origin to Europe, including these mirrors.
One last observation linked to pop culture: John Dee is also the name of Doctor Doom from the DC comics universe, the villain who stars in some of the scariest episodes of the “Sandman” series (which now also has its TV/streaming adaptation).
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