On a certain night in the middle of the seventeenth century, in a room in the Canongate section of Edinburgh, Scotland, a beautiful Scottish noblewoman named Lady Primrose held onto the hand of a somber, monk-like man in a black silk robe while she gazed into a magic mirror.
Lady Primrose had recently been abandoned by an abusive husband. The man beside her was the Central European seer who had constructed and polished the mirror on the wall. He claimed it could conjure up images of anybody in the world, even indicating if that person was dead. Lady Primrose hoped that, in gazing into its depths, she would find out where her husband was. She hoped she would learn he was no longer alive.
As the Scottish noblewoman watched, mist rose from the surface of the mirror. She saw the mist stream away on either side to reveal the interior of a church. A wedding was taking place; a clergyman was asking the bride and groom to join hands.
Lady Primrose gasped. The bridegroom was her husband! Just then, she saw another man race up the aisle. She watched as he drew his sword and lunged at the bridegroom.
Before she could see the interloper’s face, mist enveloped the mirror. The chaotic scene blurred and vanished. The mirror had revealed all that it would.
Some months later, Lady Primrose’s brother returned from a trip to the continent. He told her that, while in Amsterdam, in the Netherlands, he had been invited to the wedding of a resident Scotsman’s daughter and a wealthy Dutch businessman. He’d arrived late at the ceremony to discover that the bridegroom was his own, bigamous, brother-in-law.The outraged brother ran up the aisle and drew his sword. The bridegroom took flight and escaped.
Is this famous old tale of magic mirrors true? Perhaps not. It was retold by Scottish novelist/poet Sir Walter Scott in a version that came to be reprinted in John H. Ingram’s The Haunted Homes and Family Traditions of Great Britain. Many such tales of magic mirrors have come down through the ages.
You might think that, in today’s ultra-technological world, the only kind of “magic” mirror still around—if it may be called that—is the Hubble Space Telescope, which orbits 360 miles above the earth, where it is entirely free of the earth’s obscuring atmosphere.
From its vantage point, the 22-year-old telescope (refurbished by NASA in May 2009) can, thanks to its 94.5-inch primary reflecting mirror, see farther out into the universe, and farther back in time, than any man-made object before it. In 2010, the Hubble Telescope glimpsed a galaxy forming 13.2 billion light-years from Earth—that is, 13.2 billion years ago, when our universe, it is believed, was a mere 480 million years old, one-twenty-first its present age.
There is one uncanny artifact, from the time when men believed reflecting surfaces could peer into man’s future, his past, and even the afterworld, that has resurfaced in our modern era. This is the psychomanteum, or “oracle of the dead,” of which there were many in ancient Greece, and which was thought to be able to summon up images of the dead. This beguiling device was brought back to life in the mid-1990’s by best-selling author and investigator into past-life recall and near-death-experiences Dr. Raymond Moody.
Before looking at Dr. Moody’s “Theater of the Mind” (as he calls it), let’s glance at the long and crowded history of magic mirrors.
It’s not surprising that an aura of the supernatural clings to mirrors even today. After all, primitive man, gazing into the waters of a lake or river and seeing his reflection, thought, or so anthropologists believe, that he was seeing the image of his soul. The idea of our reflection as having a connection with our soul persisted right up through Europe’s Middle Ages, when people believed vampires couldn’t be seen in mirrors because they had no souls.
The ancient Greeks strove to see the future and cure illness through a variety of reflecting surfaces, including mirrors, crystals, and the surface of water. Hydromancy—gazing into water, including tide waters —was practiced at the temple of Demeter in Patrae: a sick man lowered a mirror on a string from the top of the temple wall down to a fountain standing in front of the temple; when the mirror touched the water, priests peered into it to try and see— wrote second century AD Greek traveler Pausanias—“the presage of death or recovery, according as the face [of the sick man] appeared fresh and healthy, or of a ghastly aspect.” The Greeks practiced lecanomancy—dropping stones into a basin of water, oil, or wine and listening to the sounds made by the stones when they struck the water while observing the patterns formed by the ripples; these would provide the sought-after message. Another mode of divination used by the Greeks was gastromancy—filling “large-bellied” glass containers with water, lighting torches behind the containers, and instructing especially chosen youths to decipher the messages written by “demons” in the heat-agitated water.
Yet another form of Greek divination was onycomancy—coating the fingernails of “pure” children with a mixture of oil and soot, and then, when the mixture dried, holding the childrens’ fingers up to the sunlight to read, reflected in the shining fingernails, the prophecies of the gods.
In ancient India, priests believed the future was spelled out by the gods in the glitter of leaves on a wall. They shared with the priests of ancient Greece the practice of catoptromancy—moistening with castor oil ashes of incense, rubbing the mixture into the hands of “child seers,” and gazing into the images reflected on the palms.
The ancient Chinese fastened bits of polished concave glass to their doors so that prowling malevolent spirits would be frightened away by their own reflection.
The divination practices of ancient times are still carried out in parts of the world today. In Polynesia, when someone is robbed, a priest digs a hole in the floor of the victim’s hut and fills it with water. The appropriate god is asked to manifest an image of the thief above the water so that it can be seen reflected on the surface. Native American medicine men peer into crystals to find lost or stolen goods, or tell their patients to gaze into water to discover what kinds of food and medicine they need. Such practices still persist among the seers of Syria, Iran, Egypt, Greece, Rome, China, Japan and India, and among Africa’s Zulus, New Zealand’s Maoris, Australia’s aborigines, and Siberia’s shamans.
“Scrying” (from “descrying”)—crystal-gazing—survived in Europe up into the Renaissance, even though the Roman Catholic Church believed evil spirits were behind the images appearing in crystal balls. The Church regarded the practitioners of this “black art”—they called them specularii—as heretics and punished them accordingly.
The most powerful European rulers of the time often disregarded the dictates of the Church. England’s famed Queen Elizabeth I (1533-1603) had access to a type of magic mirror: the “shew-stone” of the Elizabethan polymath Dr. John Dee. This “stone that shows”—it can be seen in the British Museum in London to this day—was an egg-shaped crystal ball that Dee said the “child-angel Uriel” had given him in a vision. Dee wasn’t psychic; he recruited the services of the disreputable but clairvoyant Edward Kelley, who had had his ears chopped off for thievery. Kelley claimed he could see and hear myriads of angelic spirit guides swimming inside the shew-stone and milling around outside it. Dee was Elizabeth I’s personal astrologer and probably spoke to these “angels,” via Kelley, on her behalf; but there’s no evidence Elizabeth used the advice of the shew-stone for help in guiding England. The tradition of British monarchs’ using magic mirrors goes back to King Ryence of North Wales, long-time foe of King Arthur; Merlin the magician was said to have given Ryence an enchanted, all-seeing mirror that was “round and hollow, and . . . like a great globe of glass.”
Not long before the reign of Elizabeth I, France’s King Francis I (1494-1547), according to legend, captured Milan through the agency of a magic mirror that provided him with remote viewing of everything happening in and around the Italian city. Francis I’s mirror was powered up by exposure to moonlight, as prescribed by the ancient Greek philosopher-seer Pythagoras. The machiavellian Catherine de Medicis (1519-1589), Queen Consort to Francis I’s son Henry II, was said to own a magic mirror that allowed her to monitor everything in France concerning her personally. Catherine’s mirror was supposedly adorned with star-like jewels that made it especially potent. Henri IV (15531610), one of France’s greatest kings, reputedly owned a mirror enabling him to eavesdrop on any plots being hatched against him in European courts. The mirror was said to have been given to him by Father Pierre Coton, his Roman Catholic confessor. Its possession didn’t save King Henry from being stabbed to death by a lone assassin during a street procession. Apparently, the magic mirrors of royalty can’t eavesdrop on lone assassins! (The assassination of Henri IV, strangely resembling that of U.S. President John F. Kennedy in 1963, generated its own conspiracy theory, which was only refuted, by Voltaire, 150 years later.)
The art of scrying made a dramatic comeback in 1992 with the publication of Raymond Moody’s Coming Back, a bestseller that refreshed the memory of the world regarding the mysterious powers of crystal balls.
Moody makes extensive use of Ernest Schal’s Crystal Gazing, published in 1905. The Austrian researcher revealed the ancient Egyptian practice of using crystal balls to see the future and locate persons and objects. Schal claimed these practices were preserved by generation after generation of gypsies (“gypsy” comes from “Egyptian”), who, up through the Renaissance, roamed from city to city asking a small fee for practicing divination in the same way as had the high priests of the Pharaohs of ancient Egypt.
Moody found that when he gazed into a crystal ball vivid, uncanny images soon appeared. “In one sense, it was obvious they were coming from within myself,” he writes, “and yet these images were plainly projected into the crystal ball in color and three dimensions. It was like a holographic television set.”
Moody saw a Chinese woman and recognized her as the same woman he had seen when undergoing past-life regression therapy; he thought this must be a previous incarnation of himself. His wife gazed into the same crystal ball and reported “many images, some vivid re-creations of her childhood, and others from mysterious sources.” Moody conducted a “group viewing,” using four crystal balls, with the forty members of a class he taught. Half the students saw people in the ball. Twice, two students, gazing into the same crystal ball, saw the same image, the first one a dark-robed hooded figure, the second a ballerina dancing in time to the background music being played in class.
Moody’s researches into crystal-ball gazing were only a part of far more compelling discoveries he was making at the time. In Reunions: Visionary Encounters with Departed Loved Ones (1994), he describes occult establishments known as psychomantea, or “oracles of the dead,” that, flourishing in ancient Greece, are described in Homer’s Iliad and the plays of Aristophanes among other ancient writings. Men and women of the ancient world journeyed to these psychomantea to see and consult with the spirits of their deceased relatives and friends. In 1957, Greek classical archaeologist Sotirios Dakaris excavated one of the most famous of these psychomantea: the Oracle of the Dead at Ephyra, on the Archeron River in Epirus.
Moody traveled to Greece to personally investigate the ruins of the psychomanteum at Ephyra, one of hundreds that had been partially destroyed during the Roman conquest of Greece. He writes in Reunions that this elaborate oracular construction, when fully excavated, “turned out to be an enormous subterranean complex, a maze of passageways and chambers that opened at last into a lengthy and cavernous hallway in which the apparitions were seen.” In the center of the psychomanteum stood a bronze cauldron on whose sides, Moody surmised, the oracle seekers must have believed they were catching glimpses of, and messages from, their departed loved ones.
To test his hypothesis that psychomantea were thought to have the power of conjuring up images of the dead— and, perhaps, of evoking from them revelations about the future—Moody had a modern-day psychomanteum (also called an “apparition chamber”) constructed on his property in Anniston, Alabama. In the heart of this small room is a mirror, four feet tall and three-and-a-half feet wide, that is mounted in such a way that the reflection of the viewer can’t be seen in the mirror.
Moody and his assistants have escorted scores of people through this room, which he calls the Theatre of the Mind. Often, meditating beforehand on someone they’ve lost and remaining alone in the chamber for awhile, these modern-day oracle seekers have been able to see and talk to apparitions of their departed loved ones.
Surprised at the apparent success of his device, Moody determined to test it himself. Entering the apparition chamber, he gazed into the mirror and sought to conjure up a vision of his own deceased, much-beloved, grandmother. To the researcher’s amazement, an apparition of his other, deceased, grandmother—the one with whom he’d had a difficult relationship in life—appeared in the mirror. The two talked; and the conversation brought peace of mind to Moody and, somehow, a new and loving relationship with this grandmother.
In December 2009, on his website “PSYCHOMANTEUM: The Portal,” Dr. Moody summed up the results over a period of fifteen years of his adventures into the uncanny world of the psychomanteum:
“Thus far, well over a hundred subjects have been guided through this procedure at the Theatre of the Mind with the result that over 50% of them experienced vivid visionary encounters with departed loved ones. There were a number of highly surprising features of these results: Thus far, all subjects have taken the reunions to be real events and not as fantasies or daydreams. Approximately 25% of the subjects encountered some other departed loved one than the one they had prepared to see. Approximately 25% of the subjects experiencing apparitions reported some further encounter with the departed after they returned to their own homes. Almost every subject said in one way or another that the reunion had helped them resolve unfinished business with the deceased.”
Dr. Moody says that at least ten other investigators, working independently of him, have constructed their own Theatres of the Mind, reporting results similar to his.
It seems that, despite the powerful influence of modern science and technology, the millennial-long era of magic mirrors has not yet come to an end—even though modern researchers still do not understand just how mind, imagination, memory, and desire can interact with a reflecting surface to bring forth the uncanny apparitions still seen in crystal balls and “magic” mirrors.