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Beyond the Reflection: Mirrors as Cultural Symbols

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, a mirror can be defined as a polished or smooth surface that forms images by reflection; or simply as something that gives us a true reflection.

Mirrors as we now know them, are an invention of the sixteenth century, where they were manufactured as luxuries for the very rich. Before then, humans sought their reflection in water, brass, metal, and polished obsidian. 

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As an object that allows you to see yourself, mirrors (and objects that project a reflection) offer unique insight, allowing you to see yourself as you truly are. In this article, we’ll cover the symbolism of mirrors, as well as how they’re used in literature, art, and folklore.

Symbolism of Mirrors

Mirror meaning symbolism

Mirrors project reflections of images and the world by reflecting light. As such, the symbolism of mirrors is greatly entwined with the symbolism of light. Below are symbolic meanings of mirrors.

1. Truth

As an object that gives us the real reflection of subjects, objects, and the environment, mirrors are an obvious representation of truth. A mirror will not lie to make you feel better. From a practical viewpoint, a mirror will tell you if you have added some extra pounds or if you have a zit. On the positive side, a mirror as the representation of truth is a good place to motivate yourself before going into the harsh world.

2. Knowledge

A mirror gives you a reflection of yourself and highlights things you were unable to see with your naked eye. As such it is seen as an object that brings knowledge about oneself.

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3. Wisdom

Closely related to the knowledge symbolism, a mirror presents a new and deeper way to see yourself and can therefore be seen as an emblem of wisdom.

4. Vanity

Mirrors are seen as an emblem of vanity when used to feed a very high and unhealthy amount of self-esteem.  This is derived from the Greek myth of Narcissus which tells the story of a beautiful boy who fell in love with his image and kept staring at his reflection in a pool until he turned into a flower.

5. Deception

Mirrors are also seen as an emblem of deception, usually used in art and literature, to indicate how someone can easily fall in love with an image of themselves that is not necessarily true.

6. Magic

Both ancient and modern folklore tell of magic held in mirrors. Mirrors are said to be capable of holding a soul hostage and also of concentrating energy. These are the reasons mirrors were covered in funerals and used as a medium of communication between realms respectively.

7. A Way To The Soul

The ancient world believed that looking at a looking glass is a way to examine your soul. This is why movies depict vampires and demons as being devoid of a reflection because ideally, these entities lack a soul. Related to this meaning, is the belief that mirrors are a pathway to the other realm. It is because of these beliefs that the Chinese, the Egyptians, the Mayans, and other cultures covered all mirrors during funerals to enable a safe passage of the soul to heaven and to prevent other entities from crossing over into the world.

8. Symbolism of Mirrors in Psychology

In psychology, mirrors are a threshold between the conscious and subconscious mind.  This is because they trigger self-awareness and introduce us to our persona. By looking into the mirror, you can look beyond your consciousness and have a glimpse of your subconsciousness.

Symbolism of Mirrors in Literature

Various works of literature depict mirrors as a symbol of truth, discovery, courage, and empowerment. There is a vast array of works of literature that stylistically uses mirrors to convey certain messages.

Mirror” a poem by Sylvia Plath, shows a woman going through a journey of self–discovery as the reflection she witnesses in the mirror gradually turns from that of a young girl to that of an old woman. In the same poem, the mirror is depicted as a four-cornered god that always tells the truth as it is.

Mirror Sylvia Plath

In the story of “Snow White,” by the Brothers Grimm, the evil queen is seen to use the mirror for two reasons. Firstly, the queen consults the mirror everyday day in search of knowledge. She wants to know who the fairest lady in the land is. Secondly, the mirror in this story is a true depiction of vanity and self-obsession. The evil queen is so obsessed with her looks and with being the most beautiful woman in the land that she has to seek confirmation every day, and when there arises a more beautiful maiden, she goes berserk.

The song “Mirror Mirror” by Diamond Rio uses the mirror as the object that personifies the cause of the subject of ridicule. In the lyrics, the writer is seeking the source of his misfortune and the mirror is there to remind him that he is the cause of his own troubles. In this case, the mirror is imparting wisdom.

In the song “Mirror” by Justin Timberlake, the mirror is used as a reflection of the soul. Justin sings, “It’s like you are in my mirror, my mirror staring back at me…It’s clear that we are making two reflections into one.” The mirror in this song reflects the soul of the singer’s mate. The singer looks at his significant other and in her, he sees the other half of his soul reflected to him as though in a mirror.

The song “Mirror” by Lil’ Wayne and Bruno Mars uses the mirror as the threshold between the conscious and the subconscious. A part of the song says, “Look at me when I’m talking to you, you looking at me but I’m looking through you…I see you are not satisfied, and I don’t see nobody else, I see myself I’m looking at the mirror on the wall…” According to the lyrics, the singers’ persona is having a conversation with their subconscious as reflected in the mirror.

In the movie “Mirrors 2” by Matt Venne, mirrors are seen to entrap the soul of a wronged young woman who wants to exert revenge on her rapist and killer before crossing over to the other side. Using mirrors, the soul haunts a man who has had a near-death experience forcing him to help her exert the said revenge. This storyline clearly brings out the aspect of mirrors as a medium between worlds.

Symbolism of Mirrors in Art

The use of mirrors in art is paradoxical as it depicts both truth and vanity. The former is used to tell us that in mirrors lies the deeper truth about us, while the latter is used in art to bring out the sin of pride and the sin of lust.

Rokeby Venus
Rokeby Venus by Diego Valazquez. Public Domain.

One of the most well known mirrors in art is in the Rokeby Venus by Diego Valazquez that depicts Cupid holding a mirror in front of Venus so that she can enjoy her own beauty. This painting brings out the aspect of self-discovery and empowerment, but also came to be associated with lust and vanity.

The Allegory of Prudence by Simon Vouet depicts a woman, Prudence, holding a snake in one hand and a mirror in the other. This painting is known as an allegory of wisdom.

Simon Vouet - Allegory of Prudence
Simon Vouet – Allegory of Prudence, public domain

In the Allegory of Truth and Time by Annibale Carracci, when Truth is retrieved from a well by her father, Time, she comes out holding a mirror radiating light, and tramples under her feet, the two-faced Deceit. This painting shows that the mirror is a depiction of truth.

An Allegory of Truth and Time (1584–85) by Annibale Carracci
An Allegory of Truth and Time (1584–85) by Annibale Carracci

Mirror Myths and Superstitions

There are many myths and superstitions surrounding not only the mirror but also others objects that project a reflection.

As earlier stated, several cultures believed that mirrors can trap a recently departed soul and thus covered all the mirrors in the house to protect their dearly departed from this terrible fate. Interestingly, when Abraham Lincoln died, all the mirrors in the white house were covered for this same purpose.

The covering of mirrors was not only practiced to protect the dead but also to protect the living from dark entities, because it was believed that demons are attracted to homes that have been recently struck by tragedy and that mirrors are a passageway between worlds.

Ancient Germans and Dutch believed that seeing a reflection of yourself after losing a loved one meant you were next in line.

Ancient Romans believed that if you broke a mirror your soul would suffer bad luck for seven years until it regenerated seven years later.

Wrapping up

Mirrors carry both good and bad connotations. It is undeniable, however, that they project a reflection of who we are. As such whatever reflection you choose to see is determined by the attitude with which you glance at the looking glass. In a world where everyone looks out for themselves, it doesn’t hurt to tell that wonderful person in your mirror that you’ve got their back. 

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Rose Mulu
Rose Mulu

With a keen interest in understanding why life was and is as it is, Rose has been studying religion, culture, and history for over fifteen years. She has a Bachelor of Arts degree in Mass Communication and uses this, together with her knack for literature, to share her knowledge and insight with the world.