For the traditional Maya, broken mirrors were a way into the world beyond

Some people fear that breaking a mirror can result in seven years of misfortune. The history of this superstition may return to the traditional Greeks and Romans, who attributed mysterious powers to the reflected images.

As a Scholar of the indigenous religions of the AmericasI do know that the traditional Maya had a distinct view of broken mirrors. In the primary millennium AD, the Maya used such mirrors – in cities from southern Mexico to western Honduras – as conduits for supernatural communication and never as a cosmetic accessory.

Mirrors and magic

Most ancient Mayan mirrors weren’t fabricated from glass, but moderately dark pieces of polished iron ore glued to a chunk of slate or wood in mosaics. Mayan nobles carried mirrors on their backs, displayed them on thrones, and placed them in graves.

Using hallucinogens, these nobles stared at their reflections and sought mystical experiences. The cracks between the pieces resulted in fractured, distorted reflections – this was believed to be something humans could do Speak to divine beings. The nobles hoped to search out wisdom within the lands beyond the mirrors they connected with Gods, ancestors and other spirits.

Artists often depicted these spirits as fantastical beasts and chimeras Paintings and sculptures. Sometimes they depicted nobles talking to the chimeras; at other times they represented these beings as brokers for conversations with ancestors and gods.

These conversations took place in dreams, trances and hallucinations, often between two beings using mirrors. Maya artists depicted these conversations as wondrous and frightening—and even bizarre.

The Yaxchilan Falls

The most detailed interactions between gods and mortals are depicted in sculptures at Yaxchilan within the Mexican state of Chiapas.

Inscriptions show that their ruler consecrated a constructing with three entrance doors within the eighth century. Instead of the picket beams – lintels – attached to the highest of every door, there have been stone ones. These falls formed a triptych depicting various events within the lives of the king and his wife, including an audience with their patron god.

This constructing in Mexico, now often called Structure 23, was unfortunately stripped of its original sculptures. The first two – lintels 24 and 25 – are on display within the British Museum; the third – Lintel 26 – is situated within the Museo Nacional de Antropología in Mexico City. The lintels hang on the wall in each museums. However, within the classical period they’d have been seen from below.

A carved limestone lintel depicting a bloodletting ritual in which a man holds a burning torch over a woman pulling a rope through her tongue.
A ceremony on Yaxchilan Lintel 24.
© The Trustees of the British Museum, CC BY-NC-SA


Words and pictures on lintels 24 and 26 describe what probably happened before and after an audience with a god. The images on lintel 24 show the ruler holding a burning torch while his wife performs a painful rite: she pulls a skinny rope studded with obsidian through her tongue. These fragments are believed to be cooled lava spiritually charged In the religions of ancient Mexico, this could have resulted within the loss of huge amounts of blood – depicted on lintel 24 in the shape of droplets round her face.

Her blood also drips right into a bowl full of paper, destined to be set on fire from the king. Lintel 26 shows the aftermath, with the king and queen standing together. Still bleeding, the queen presents her husband with a ceremonial helmet and prepares him for battle.

Although visually arresting, the actions on these falls happen throughout the confines of the on a regular basis world. However, the motion on Lintel 25 takes place elsewhere. Texts on this lintel describe a series of summoning events that led to the looks of the Guardian god Out of town.

An engraving depicting a snake in a bowl with smoke surrounding it.
The engravings on lintel 25.
© The Trustees of the British Museum, CC BY-NC-SA

Visually, Lintel 25 pushes the boundaries between the actual and the unbelievable. The images show smoke rising from a bowl and throughout the smoke a big skeletal snake appears. The snake has two heads through which the god travels – from his kingdom to that of the queen. Maybe once he was an actual person, mummified after his death, but here he’s a deified warrior god emerging from the mouth of a serpent. Lintel 25 shows him removing his mask while the Queen balances a skull on her arm. She points into the smoke and appears up.

Like many incantations, Lintel 25 implies that it was her on the lookout for guidance from the dead – however the sculpture doesn’t reveal what was said. However, there may be one other surprise: a lot of the text on Lintel 25 is written backwards and might be intended for viewing with a mirror ancient Mayan magicians, fortune tellers or oracles.

Part of the text would have been architectural outside the doorstep. This part is written from left to right, as was common in ancient Maya inscriptions. But as soon as a visitor crossed the brink and looked up, the whole lot would change.

The words and pictures were backwards since it was believed that the visitor had passed from the human world into the human world supernatural space.

Interactive stories

Lintel 25 is one in all just a few mirror-image inscriptions designed as interactive experiences for ancient visitors travel in a figurative sense to the land beyond the mirror.

Standing under Lintel 25 with a mirror would improve the travel experience: visitors could concurrently see what gods saw (the reverse inscription) and what humans saw (the conventional inscription).

By looking into their broken mirrors, visitors could cross the road between humanity and divinity.

Ironically, despite our modern emphasis on interactivity, mirror-image inscriptions and other Mayan sculptures are actually presented more like Renaissance paintings – statues on the wall – than like doors to other worlds, which a few of them were.

Visitors cannot see the wondrous, terrifying and bizarre world of the supernatural as the traditional Maya intended. If they did, perhaps a broken mirror would encourage wonder moderately than fear.

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