John Dee's spirit mirror


This black spirit mirror and other magical objects are thought to have been owned by John Dee (1527–1608/9), the Elizabethan magician, astrologer and mathematician. The mirror was used as a ‘shew-stone’ – one of many polished and lustrous things used by Dee to carry out his occult research into the world of spirits. Dee worked with the medium and convicted criminal, Edward Kelley, to summon visions of angels into the mirror’s reflective surface. The two men held séances in England and on the Continent between 1583 and 1589.

The mirror, made of obsidian (volcanic glass), was brought from Mexico to Europe between 1527 and 1530 after Hernando Cortés’s conquest of the region. Mirrors were used by Aztec priests to conjure visions and make prophesies. They were connected with Tezcatlipoca, god of obsidian and sorcery, whose name can be translated from the Nahuatl language as 'Smoking Mirror’.

The other magical objects connected with John Dee are:

  • a rock crystal ball
  • two wax discs engraved with magical figures and names, used by Dee when consulting his spirit mirror
  • a gold engraved disc, engraved with a complex diagram of one of Edward Kelley’s visions (Cracow, Poland, 1584)
  • an 18th-century wooden case covered in tooled leather and labelled in the handwriting of Horace Walpole

John Dee as an inspiration for Shakespeare’s Prospero

Dee is often thought to be a model for Shakespeare’s magus, Prospero. Both men raise troubling questions about the use and abuse of their Art or magical power. They present a potential conflict between their ‘secret studies’, and their pursuit of ‘worldly’ political ends (The Tempest, 1.2.77–89) and they continue to inspire debate over their involvement in ‘theurgy’ (white magic) or ‘goety’ (using magic for dark purposes).

Full title:
Dr Dee's magical mirror
14th–16th century
© Trustees of the British Museum, British Museum Standard Terms of Use
Held by
The British Museum

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