As we are dealing a lot with antique mirrors, accidents can happen and sometimes a mirror does break! During transport or just an unlucky fall. And then? Doe we really experience seven years of bad luck? One of this accidents recently started our research. Where does this idea actually come from?
The mirror in myth and folklore
One object in particular that seems to have been the focus of much folklore and myth over the years is the mirror. This superstition appears to be between 2,000 and 2,700 years old: breaking a mirror brings seven years of bad luck.
In the past mirrors were used for all kinds of ‘magical’ purposes, from telling the future to performing magic tricks. So it’s perhaps not surprising that the mirror was once seen to be greatly symbolic and mystical. While investigating the history of this now everyday object, we found that the origins behind the various myths and superstitions regarding mirrors are really quite interesting.
7 years bad luck
If you’ve ever broken a mirror, did you worry about the sudden onslaught of bad luck you might have to face? Throughout history the connotations of breaking a mirror have divided many cultures and religions.
Every human culture has superstitions. In some Asian societies people believe that sweeping a floor after sunset brings bad luck, and that it’s a curse to leave chopsticks standing in a bowl of rice. In the U.S., some people panic if they accidentally walk under a ladder or see a black cat cross their path. Also, many tall buildings don’t label their 13th floors as such because of that number’s association with bad luck.
The origins of many superstitions are unknown. It was the ancient Romans who first suggested the idea of a broken mirror bringing seven years bad luck. Reflected images were thought to have mysterious powers. It is likely in one of these times and places that the broken mirror superstition began its rise in popularity.
The Greeks believed that one’s reflection on the surface of a pool of water revealed one’s soul. But it was Roman artisans who actually learned to manufacture mirrors from polished metal surfaces, and believed their gods observed souls through these devices. To damage a mirror was considered so disrespectful that people thought it compelled the gods to rain bad luck on anyone so careless.
A fresco showing a woman looking in a mirror as she dresses (or undresses) her hair. From the Villa of Arianna at Stabiae (Castellammare di Stabia). 1st century CE. Naples National Archaeological Museum.
Around the third century mirrors were being made from glass, and breakage became a lot more commonplace. But the Romans did not believe that the ensuing bad luck would last forever. They believed that the body renewed itself every seven years. The belief that good luck would eventually return was surely comforting.
A window to the soul?
Fragments of highly polished obsidian found in Turkey have been dated back to 6000BC and are believed to be some of the first examples of man-made mirrors. Back then, if a person glimpsed their reflection, they believed that they were actually seeing their soul staring back at them. To cause any damage to the reflection, then, would be to damage the soul.
Some religions and cultures took the suggestion that the mirror was linked with the soul quite seriously, and still do today. In Judaism, if someone dies, all of the mirrors in their house are covered throughout the mourning period to prevent the spirit of the body getting trapped inside and not reaching the afterlife.
It’s not all doom and gloom though, some old wives tales tell of mirrors actually bringing good luck. In ancient China, mirrors were powerful talismans used to ward off evil spirits, and other cultures believed that they could bring love and prosperity. If a couple first saw each other reflected through a mirror, for example, then then they were destined for a long and happy relationship.