mirrors


mirrors
   The looking-glass is one of the handful of domestic items which have attracted more than their fair share of beliefs. Opie and Tatem identify fourteen different superstitions, and unlike those associated with the *fire, many of them can be shown to date back a long time. One of the best-known and often-quoted superstitions of the late 20th century is that breaking a mirror brings seven years bad luck, and this was the third most often reported item in our *Superstitions Survey 1998/9. The earliest known reference to this being unlucky comes from 1777, and it has been regularly reported ever since, but the 'seven years' is not mentioned until the mid-19th century (Sternberg, 1851: 172). Previous to that time, it was said to mean a death, or simply to be very unlucky. Sternberg is also the first to advise against letting a baby see itself in a mirror, which is subsequently reported from all over England - the result varying from bad luck, contracting rickets, or becoming cross-eyed. Young women especially have traditionally been warned against spending too much time looking at themselves in the mirror by stories that they will see the Devil if they do: 'Some years since I knew a very proud maid in Cambridge, an Alderman's daughter, who running to the looking-glass to view her self, as soon as ever she came home from hearing a sermon upon a Sabbath-Day she thought with her self that she saw the devil in the looking-glass, and thereupon fell distracted . . . ' (1691, quoted Opie and Tatem, 1989: 252).
   The danger of seeing something you would rather not appears to be at the root of the custom of covering mirrors in a house when someone dies. The first known reference to this is in Orkney in 1786, and most of the recorded instances in England are to the northern counties. There are also one or two references to covering mirrors in the rooms of sick people. More common is the practice of covering mirrors in a *thunderstorm, although this is not reported before 1900. In another context, however, gazing into the mirror will reveal your future spouse, if you do it correctly. First mentioned by Burton, Anatomy of Abuses (1660), this form of *love divination has been reported up into the 20th century in various versions (Burne, 1883: 381).
   More serious divination with a mirror, or other reflective surface, dates back to classical and biblical times, is mentioned in Britain since at least the 14th century, and is the basis for the modern cliche of the crystal-ball gazer. Reginald Scot (1584: book 13, chapter 19) pours scorn on the practices and illusions of those who purport to tell the future with a glass: 'But the woonderous devises, and miraculous sights and conceipts made and conteined in glasse, do farre exceed all other.' Similarly, John *Aubrey recorded the trial and execution of a witch at Salisbury, about 1649, who 'shewed people visions in a glasse, and that a maid saw the devill with her, with whom she made a contract and that she knew 'twas the devill by his cloven foot ... ' (Aubrey, 1686: 261).
   See also *glasses, drinking.
   ■ Opie and Tatem, 1989: 249-53.

A Dictionary of English folklore. . 2014.

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