May 30, 2016

The Great Library At Alexandria

Artistic rendering, Library at Alexandria,


Alexandria's Wealth Of Knowledge

The city of Alexandria in Egypt was founded by Alexander the Great at the end of the 4th century BCE.  The Great Library of Alexandria, also known as the Royal Library of Alexandria, (the Library) became one of the city's crowning achievements.  The Library also became the most famous library in antiquity.  Established in the 3rd century BCE, during the reign of the Ptolemies, the Library - at its height - is estimated to have held over 700,000 scrolls.  These scrolls covered everything from poetry to mathematics, astronomy to medicine.  According to one article from Ohio State University, the Library housed the ancient learning of Assyria, Greece, Persia, Egypt, India, and many other nations.

In addition to its vast collection of written knowledge, the Library also housed over 100 scholars from all over the Hellenistic world.  They engaged in research, teaching, inventing, and discovering.  Among these scholars was Euclid.  He wrote his seminal work on geometry at the Library.  Eratosthenes, another mathematician, learned how to measure the Earth's circumference.  Herophilos, whom many claim was the world's first anatomist, wrote at the Library about the human body, including works on how blood flows, the phases of childbirth, and the role of the brain in human thought.

Due in large part to the presence of the Library, Alexandria became the center of scholarship and learning in the Hellenistic world.  The Library helped establish Alexandria as the period's most cosmopolitan, culturally diverse city.

Sketch, Ancient Alexandria
Sketch, Ancient Alexandria

The Library's Organizational Structure

The contents of the Library were, as noted above, works written on scrolls.  According to, these scrolls contained the work's title, author's name, editor's name, its place of origin, length (in lines), and whether the manuscript was mixed (containing more than one work) or unmixed (containing a single work).  The Greek poet and scholar, Callimachus, also created a bibliographical survey of the Library's contents, fragments of which survive today.  These fragments show that the Library was divided into subject areas, including rhetoric, law, epic, tragedy, comedy, lyric poetry, history, medicine, mathematics, natural science, and miscellaneous.

What is also known is that the Library was part of a much larger complex that housed shrines dedicated to each of the nine muses, lecture areas and living quarters, observatories, and even a zoo.

The Library's Destruction

The most commonly accepted account of the Library's destruction occurred in 48 BCE.  At that time, Julius Ceasar occupied Alexandria.  When he attempted to leave the city by boat, a fleet of Egyptian ships blocked his exit.  Ceasar ordered his men to set fire to the ships, but the conflagration raged out of control, setting fire to the Library.  This account is not entirely reliable.  While the fire set by Ceasar did destroy a part of the Library, Marc Antony subsequently gifted 200,000 volumes to Cleopatra from the library at Pergamum to make up for these losses.  This gesture indicates that the Library was still in existence after Caesar's time.  In truth, the Library appears to have succumbed slowly to neglect and the upheavals that occurred in the Roman Empire as Christianity spread to Egypt, and not from a single, destructive event.

What Was Lost?

No one knows for certain what may have been lost when the Library was destroyed.  Undoubtedly, the Library housed important works we will never know even existed.  Today, all we have are tantalizing clues that hint at the extent of humankind's loss, but those clues suggest the loss was extensive.

Biblioteca Alexandrina:  The Modern-Day Library Of Alexandria

Bibliotheca Alexandrina Aerial View
Bibliotheca Alexandrina, Aerial (Public Domain)
Officially opened in 2002, Alexandria boasts a new, culturally significant library known as the Bibliotheca Alexandrina.  According to Wikipedia, the location of the modern-day library is "close" to where the ancient Library once stood.  However, this description cannot be verified because the original location of the Library is not known with certainty.

Bibliotheca Alexandrina is a vast complex consisting of a main library with shelf space for 8 million books plus a specialized library containing all the works by Nobel laureates in literature since 1901.  There is also a specialized library for children as well as one for the blind or visually impaired.  The collections at Bibliotheca Alexandrina were donated from all over the world.

In addition to its impressive library collections, the Bibliotheca Alexandrina has conference space, four museums (including an antiquities museum), four art galleries for temporary exhibitions, 15 permanent exhibitions, a planetarium, and a manuscript restoration laboratory.

Nov 29, 2015

In Search Of Queen Nefertiti

In 1922, Howard Carter discovered the entrance to the tomb of King Tutankhamen, the "boy king" of Egypt's 19th Dynasty. Tutankhamen - "Tut" for short - ruled Egypt for only 10 years.  He died in approximately 1324 BCE.  When Carter peered inside the tomb, his benefactor, Lord Carnarvon, asked, "Can you see anything?"  Howard famously replied, "Yes, wonderful things."

According to Egyptian officials, King Tut's tomb may not yet have given up all its secrets.  Based on infrared scans of the tomb, archaeologists confidently believe they have discovered a hidden chamber behind the north wall of Tut's burial chamber.  For reference, the map below shows the layout of King Tut's tomb.

As if the discovery of a secret chamber inside King Tut's tomb was not, by itself, tantalizing enough, Nicholas Reeves, a professor of archaeology at the University of Arizona, believes the hidden chamber is the final resting place of none other than Queen Nefertiti.

Nefertiti remains one of Egyptian history's most famous figures.  In life, Nefertiti was known not only for her striking beauty as shown by the well-known bust below, but also because she ruled alongside her controversial husband, the pharaoh Akhenaten, who regarded as the "Mistress of Upper and Lower Egypt."

In death, Nefertiti has proven to be elusive.  Despite past claims to the contrary, her remains have never been found.  If she is discovered interred in King Tut's tomb, the find would be one of the greatest archaeological discoveries of all time.

Discovering Nefertiti inside King Tut's tomb would also raise interesting and provocative questions about the tomb itself. According to am article in the New Yorker, when Howard Carter first descended the stairs into King Tut's tomb, he did not think the tomb was very kingly, despite the fact it was filled with treasure.  For example, relative to other pharaohs' burial chambers, Tut was laid out in a small room.  Moreover, the room was oriented to the right of the tomb, not to the left as was customary at the time.  Facts such as these lead some archaeologists - including Reeves - to suspect that the tomb may, in fact, have been constructed for Nefertiti, with Tut laid to rest in it as an afterthought when the "boy king" died suddenly and unexpectedly at age 19.

"If I'm wrong, I'm wrong,"  Reeves has said of his theory.  "But, if I'm right, the prospects are frankly staggering."

Others urge caution.  They point out that, even if there is a hidden chamber inside the tomb, the chamber might house another mummy, contain more treasure, or simply be empty.

For now, Reeves' theory - far more tantalizing than an empty room - has lit up the Internet and excited Egyptophiles around the globe.  You can read more about this story at the links provided below.

Nov 28, 2015

Chateau de Guedelon: Modern-Day Castle Building In France

Chateau de Guedelon, partially completed, showing building techniques
Castles occupy a special place in the hearts and minds of many, particularly those interested in medieval history. In addition to being marvelous examples of period architecture, castles bring to mind images of chivalrous knights, kings riding into battle, feasts, royal intrigue, jesters, and jousting tournaments.

Residents of Treigny, France are watching this history and architecture come to life. Beginning in 1997, a team of archaeologists and some 50 laborers started building a 13th-century castle in Treigny, called Chateau de Guedelon.  But here's the catch: they are building it using only materials and techniques that would have been available to castle builders in the 13th century.  The workers even wear period clothing.

Treigny, which is located in the Burgundy region of France, was chosen as the site because of its close proximity to the materials and resources needed to build a 13th-century castle, including the availability of a nearby stone quarry, a water source, and a forest. The map to the right shows the location of Treigny:
According to the official English language website for the project, in 2016, Chateau de Guedelon will be open for tourism from the 14th of March until the 1st of November.  The castle already draws some 300,000 visitors per year, according to the UK Telegraph's online travel magazine.

You can watch this short YouTube video clip, showing just a few of the many painstaking steps involved in the project:

You can also learn more about Chateau de Guedelon from its Facebook page or Wikipedia.

Jul 14, 2015

Owls In Mythology, Folklore & Superstition

When it comes to birds, one must admit owls rank at the top of any "most fascinating" list.  Is it their wide-eyed look, giving them that all-knowing gaze?  Maybe, it is their nocturnal hunting habits, lending them a predatory reputation.  Then, of course, there is their "hoot" - a signature call among all bird species.  Without question, the owl's call has the ability to capture our imaginations while, simultaneously, sending a chill down our spines.

For whatever reason, owls have a certain air of mystery about them.  Consequently, throughout history, owls have been the subject of many beliefs.  Sometimes, these beliefs venerate the bird; others deride them.  This article looks at the different ways in which owls have been characterized in Classical mythology, folklore, and superstition.

Owls In Greek Mythology

Owls on ancient Greek pottery, 4th century BCE
According to Greek mythology, Athena favored the owl above all other birds, particularly the Little Owl (Athene noctuna) which inhabited the Acropolis.  For the ancient Greeks, the owl represented a protector, especially for Greek armies.  It was believed that, if an owl flew over an ancient Greek army during battle, the army would be victorious.  The Greeks depicted owls on coins and many other items, as shown here.

Ancient Greek coins depicting Athena on one side, the owl on the other

Owls In Roman Mythology

Although the Romans borrowed much of their culture from the Greeks, they did not embrace owls.  Sometimes the owl is depicted alongside Minerva; however, owls were generally seen as an omen of bad luck.  Romans believed witches transformed themselves into owls in order to suck the blood of babies.  To dream of an owl meant especially bad luck for travelers.  Finally, unlike the Athenians who protected the owls of the Acropolis, Romans believed that, if you nailed a dead owl to your front door, you would avert the birds' evil.

Owls In Other Legends & Folklore

The Greeks and Roman were not the only cultures to form beliefs about owls.  Owls occupy places of both reverence and revulsion across the world.  In English folklore, for example, owls - being a night bird - epitomized death and evil.  Similar to the Romans' belief, English folklore dictated that nailing a dead owl to the door of a barn warded off evil.  English poets wrote about the owl as the "bird of doom."

According to Indian mythology, however, the barn owl is associated with the Hindu goddess of wisdom, Lakshmi.  By associating the owl with wisdom, Indian mythology bears some similarity to that of ancient Greece.  In certain parts of India, however, owls were not always revered quite the way they were in ancient Greece.  In southern India, for example, the hoots of an owl could spell good fortune or ill, depending on the number of times the bird cried.

On the African continent, the owl is frequently associated with wizards or sorcerers, as seen in the Bantu and Zulu cultures.  As such, the bird has a generally bad reputation.  In Morocco, the cry of an owl is especially potent, capable of killing an infant.  Similarly, the Swahili believe that an owl can bring illness to children.

In Indonesia, the owl is thought to be very wise.  Similarly, to the Aborigines of Australia, consider the owl sacred because it is believed the souls of women become owls (men become bats, incidentally).

In the ancient cultures of the Americas, not surprisingly, one finds differing beliefs about the owl.  For the Aztecs, the owl was associated with an evil god.  However, the Incas venerated the owl.  For most Native American cultures, however, the owl symbolized death; hearing one's hoot was considered an unlucky omen.  You can learn more about many Native American legends related to owls here.

Owls In Modern Pop Culture

Much of the mythology, folklore and superstition surrounding owls continues to influence the way these marvelous birds are depicted in modern pop culture.  Like the ancient Greeks, we associate owls with wisdom.  Many remember the wise - if not somewhat cunning - "Mr. Owl" from the vintage Tootsie Pop commercial.  For those of unfamiliar with the commercial, check it out below to see how "Mr. Owl" is referred to as the "wisest" of all the animals.

"Owl" in Winnie the Pooh
Similarly, in Disney's Winnie the Pooh series, "Owl" often gives the other characters advice.  You can see him depicted at left.  According to Disney's Winnie the Pooh page, Owl "is considered a bit of a know-it-all, though his friends...always seek his advice.  Unfortunately, he often misses the mark."

"Hedwig" in the Harry Potter series
Most recently, we have seen owls appear in pop culture through the "Harry Potter" series.  In the stories, owls accompany many of the student witches and wizards attending Hogwart's.  In fact, Harry Potter, the main character, has a pet owl named "Hedwig."  Hedwig was played by the Snowy Owl (Bubo scandiacus), pictured right. 

Depicting owls as the associates - and protectors - of witches and wizards reveals a modern-day link to the beliefs of many ancient cultures.  You can read more about the owls of "Harry Potter" here.

If you are interested in the myths, folklore and superstitions about owls, you will find a wealth of information about these birds at Owl Pages.  It is a must-read site for anyone keen on learning all there is to know about owls.  For those of you interested in owls in popular culture, check out this site here.

Jul 9, 2015

Does Egypt Plan To Resurrect The Lighthouse At Alexandria?

Pharos Lighthouse Lighthouse Of Alexandria
Pharos Lighthouse, Lighthouse At Alexandria, Image courtesy of Wikipedia

History & Construction Of The Lighthouse At Alexandria

The Pharos Lighthouse, or Lighthouse At Alexandria (the Lighthouse), was built in Egypt during the reign of the Ptolemies.  The Lighthouse was the last-built of the "Seven Wonders of the Ancient World."  Completed by Sostratus of Cnidus in about 280-279 BCE, the Lighthouse towered above Pharos Island in the harbor at AlexandriaSome estimates say the Lighthouse was 350 feet high (110 meters).  Others place its height closer to 377-443 feet high (115-135 meters).  Regardless, for its time, the Lighthouse was the tallest man-made structure on Earth except for the Great Pyramid at Giza.

The Lighthouse stood for some 1,500 years, surviving the ravages of time and even a tsunami which struck the Mediterranean in 365 CE.  Unfortunately, Egypt is an area prone to earthquakes.  Over the years, tremors caused damage to the Lighthouse, requiring restoration in the 10th century.  Finally, in 1303, a massive earthquake badly damaged the Lighthouse.  Egyptian records tell us that a further and final collapse occurred in 1375.  Ruins of the Lighthouse remained at the site until 1480 when much of the stone was used to build the Medieval fortress, Citadel of Qaitbay, still standing on the site today.
Citadel of Qaitbay, Image courtesy of Wikipedia

Thanks to the detailed writings of Moorish travelers Idrisi and Yusuf Ibn al-Shaikh, however, we have a rather precise description of what the Lighthouse looked like.  For example, we know that the Lighthouse was built in three sections, more closely resembling early skyscrapers than the slim, single-column style lighthouses of today.  The first section was a stone pedestal, shaped like a massive box.  On top of the pedestal sat the second level, an octagonal-shaped tower.  Perched above the tower was a cylindrical structure reaching up to an open cupola where a fire burned, emitting light.  Finally, based on recent archaeological finds in the Mediterranean Sea, it is believed that a giant statue of Poseidon adorned the top of the Lighthouse.

Much more could be said about the extraordinary construction of the Lighthouse.  There are even legends which claim the Lighthouse was used not only to light ships' way, but also as a weapon, its giant mirror capable of setting ships ablaze.  You can read more about the history and construction of the Lighthouse in this excellent article here or this article from Wikipedia.

Resurrecting The Lighthouse At Alexandria?

Recently, Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities announced in a privately-owned, Egyptian
newspaper, Youm7, that comprehensive studies and a final building plan for the new Lighthouse project had been submitted to Alexandria's governor for approval.  At the present time, however, little is known about the details of these studies or plans.  According to one source, the new Lighthouse will be built on a parcel of land a few meters to the southwest of the original Lighthouse.

Another source - critical of the new Lighthouse project for lacking financial accountability or public transparency - reported that the project included not only the building of a new Lighthouse, but also a residency hotel for tourists as well as other structures.

With the current unrest between Egypt and the Islamic State, coupled with Egypt's own internal economic and political challenges, it will be interesting to see if this new Lighthouse project actually gets underway.  For it to succeed, Egypt will need to attract substantial investment.  This may not be easy to pull off given Egypt's current circumstances.

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Jul 6, 2015

Great Serpent Mound Damaged By Vandalism Over Fourth Of July Weekend

English: Serpent mound - a Native American bur...
Serpent mound - a Native American burial ground. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Great Serpent Mound, located in Adams County, Ohio, USA, is one of the world's most unusual effigy mounds.  In length, the Serpent Mound is 1,348 feet long, but only 3 feet in height.  Shaped like a snake with a curled tail, the Serpent Mound is a U.S. National Historic Landmark.  It is also on the U.S. National Register of Historical Places.

The Serpent Mound is one of three burial mounds located in the Adams County, Ohio park.  The identity of the builders who built the Serpent Mound remains a topic of some debate.  However, scholars generally attribute its construction to one of three ancient cultures that resided in the area:  the Adena culture, the Hopewell culture, or the Fort Ancient culture.

Tire track damage on the Serpent Mound (photo by Colin Ryan)

Sadly, over this Fourth of July weekend, the Serpent Mound was damaged by vandalism.   According to a local news report, the damage occurred sometime between the hours of 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, July 4 and 8:45 a.m. on Sunday, July 5.

Someone drove a vehicle, possibly a truck, onto the mound, as if "joy-riding," according to the park manager.  The manager added that there was no permanent damage to the site, and officials are hopeful they will apprehend the vandal(s) thanks to security cameras recently installed in the park.

Editor's Note:  This story is a reminder that we should not take ancient heritage sites for granted.  In fact, they are under assault as never before.  Recently, we have watched as members of the Islamic State destroy priceless, ancient artifacts at sites like Palmyra, in Iraq, and elsewhere.  Here, we have an outrageous act of vandalism defacing yet another sacred site, thankfully not permanently.  Steps must be taken to ensure that sites like these are protected to the best of our ability, and that they are preserved for all of humanity.

Jun 10, 2015

Mirror, Mirror On The Wall - A History Of Mirrors; Their Meaning In Myth, Legend, Folk Tales & Superstition

"Narcissus" by Caravaggio, image courtesy
of Wikipedia
When humankind first saw its own reflection, so began our fascination with any surface that could cast our image.  The myth of Narcissus, the youth enamored by his own beauty reflected in a pool of water, demonstrates that our fascination dates back to ancient times.

Today, we take mirrors for granted.  Mirrors are nothing more than another tool for everyday use. In earlier times, however, mirrors were scarce and expensive; how they were crafted, a jealously guarded secret.

Moreover, early peoples believed that mirrors possessed magical qualities, such as the ability to foretell the future. Consequently, mirrors figure prominently in many folk tales and superstitions.

A Brief History Of Mirrors

Mirrors In The Ancient World

In all likelihood, humankind's first mirrors were nothing more than still pools of water like the one we associate with Narcissus myth. As one article on mirror history notes, the ancient Chinese characters for mirrors - known as jian and jing - were best translated as "a [large] tub filled with water."

However, even the first "manufactured" mirrors have a long history.  Neolithic man produced mirrors made from polished obsidian, a form of volcanic glass.  Examples of obsidian mirrors have been uncovered in central Turkey dating back to 6000 BCE.

Egyptian copper mirror,
Image courtesy of
Wikimedia Commons
By Daderot (Own work) [CC0]
Later, mirrors make an appearance in both Egypt and Mesopotamia. Small, copper disc mirrors dating back to approximately 4000 to 3000 BCE have been recovered in the Tigris-Euphrates River Valley in modern-day Iraq.
From that time period onward, mirrors (typically made of bronze or copper) are depicted in the sculpture, papyrus and other artistic and religious forms of those regions.  The Egyptians, for example, closely associated mirrors with the worship of the goddesses Mut and Hathor.

Pre-Columbian mirrors also have been discovered in the Americas. In South America, mirror-making dates back to approximately 1925 BCE; while in Mexico, mirrors were made by the Olmec, Mayan and Teotihuacan people.  In most instances, these mirrors were made from non-metallic substances such as anthracite, rock crystal or polished precious stones.

Both the ancient Greeks and Romans manufactured mirrors.  The Greeks made mirrors that were either hand-held or free-standing.  According to the British Museum, ancient Greek mirrors were manufactured almost exclusively from bronze, with just a few made of silver.  Metallic mirrors of this kind were quite expensive, and in all likelihood, were owned solely by the upper classes.

Later, the Romans developed the ability to make mirrors out of glass.  Pliny the Elder's "Natural History" mentions glass mirrors as well as mirrors made using gold.  Glass mirrors dating to the first century CE have also been discovered in the tombs of Roman garrisons in Austria and Germany.   Despite achieving a fair degree of technical sophistication, however, mirror making in Roman times was not widespread, and ownership would have remained solely with the rich.

Mirrors in the Medieval & Renaissance World

Van Eyck's "Arnolfini Portrait" with convex
mirror in center; image courtesy of
When the Roman Empire collapsed, knowledge of high-quality glass making vanished.  For a time, glass mirror making disappeared.  In fact, according to Wikipedia, the first mention of a "glass" mirror would not occur again until 1180, over seven hundred years after the fall of Rome.

The first known glass mirror manufacturing facility opened in Nuremberg, Germany in 1373.  Mirrors gradually re-appear in artwork, signifying their re-introduction into society.  Jan Van Eyck's "Arnolfini Portrait," for example, appeared in 1434, featuring a wealthy, newlywed couple whose images are reflected in a wall-hung, convex mirror.  

The process of making fine, glass mirrors was eventually perfected by the Venetians, particularly by glass makers on the island of Murano, which became known as the Isle of Glass. The first known mirror produced on Murano dates to 1364.

By the mid-15th century, the mirror making process turned into a high art form when a Murano glass maker developed "cristallo," a transparent form of glass resembling rock crystal.  One hundred years later, in 1540, a Venetian invented a leveling and shining process for glass sheets that allowed glass makers to form perfectly flat, regularly shaped mirrored surfaces.  Concerted efforts were undertaken to keep such advances secret, but to no avail.  By 1665, Venetian glass makers were working in the court of France, eventually contributing to the Hall of Mirrors at the Palace of Versailles.  By 1700, the art of mirror making had spread throughout Europe.
The Hall of Mirrors/La Galerie des Glaces, Palace of Versailles

For a scholarly treatment of the ancient history of mirrors, Dr. Jay Enoch's article, "History of Mirrors Dating Back 8000 Years" is an excellent resource, and one that is highly recommended.

For a good treatment of Venetian mirror making, the article "Venetian Mirrors:  History and Origins of Mirror" is recommended.

The Mirror in Legend & Superstition

Mirrors are the subject of many legends and superstitions.  Just about everyone has heard the superstition that, if you break a mirror, seven years' bad luck will follow. The "broken mirror/bad luck" superstition dates back to ancient Roman times.  The Romans believed that mirrors reflected the soul, so breaking one brought great misfortune, if not death.  Furthermore, the Romans believed that the soul renewed itself every seven years, so after this span of time, the curse of the broken mirror would, itself, be undone.

A similar "broken mirror" superstition says that, if a mirror falls off the wall by itself and breaks, someone in the house will die.

Dr. John Dee's scrying tools, including
obsidian mirror, British Museum
Beginning in the 16th century, mirrors were used in various occult rituals.  Queen Elizabeth's astrologer, Dr. John Dee, famously used an obsidian mirror for "scrying," a form of divination.  He also used a crystal ball. Today, both objects are housed in the British Musem.

Another well-known superstition about mirrors involves vampires. As the superstition goes, a vampire casts no reflection in a mirror.  This is due, again, to the long-standing notion that a mirror reflects the soul. Having no soul, vampires cast no reflection.

One of the most famous urban legends, the legend of "Bloody Mary," typically involves teenagers uttering a chant of some sort in front of a bathroom mirror to summon "Bloody Mary."

Finally, many cultures advocate covering up mirrors whenever someone dies or when people are in mourning.  This belief has roots in Victorian, Jewish, African and Jamaican custom; it can even be found in certain regions of the U.S., such as the Appalachian and Southern regions.

In most - though not all - instances, the custom of covering mirrors when someone dies stems from a belief that the deceased person's soul can become trapped in a mirror.  These superstitions argue that the trapped soul will be stolen by the Devil or will be unable to complete its journey to the next life.

Jewish tradition offers a different rationale, however.  Mirrors are covered when a person dies so that survivors focus on God and the process of mourning rather than their own physicality, appearance or vanity.

You can read about many more superstitions related to mirrors in this article from The Committee for Skeptical Inquiry.  Another good resource is the EHow article, "Why Cover Mirrors When Someone Dies?"

The Mirror In Myth, Folk Tales & Other Literature

Mirrors, both as magical tools and symbolic objects, appear frequently in myth, folk tales, and other literature. In addition to the myth of Narcissus, the Greek myth of Perseus & Medusa tells how young Perseus slew Medusa by looking at her reflection in his magic shield, thereby avoiding her infamous, stone-turning gaze.  In the Shinto religion of Japan, the myth of Amaterasu explains how a mirror was used in an effort to coax the goddess of the sun out of a cave.

1916 illustration of the Evil Queen from "Snow White,"
Europa's Fairy Book, image courtesy of Wikipedia
In folk tales, the mirror is probably most closely associated with the tale of "Snow White," published in Grimm 's Fairy Tales in 1812. Depending on the version of the story, the mirror - representing unbridled vanity and self-absorption - is either hand-held, stands upright or hangs on the wall.

In the Grimm's version, the evil queen speaks to her "magic mirror," saying:   "Mirror, mirror in my hand, who is the fairest in the land?"

(Note:  The above version of the "Snow White" tale is not to be confused with the more well-known Disney mantra, depicted in the video below)

In both versions, the mirror - which tells no lies - replies that the evil queen is the fairest; that is, until Snow White comes of age, whereupon the evil queen seeks to destroy Snow White out of envy.

In addition to the many re-tellings of "Snow White," "magic mirrors" appear in other tales, both old and new.  Consider these examples:
  • Edmund Spenser's epic poem, The Faerie Queene (1590, 1596), where a young and beautiful, female knight falls in love with a man after first seeing his reflection in her father's magic mirror.
  • Alfred Lord Tennyson's poem, "The Lady of Shalott" (1833), features the Lady who is under a curse to weave in front of a mirror, never truly knowing the world outside her castle walls.  The mirror "cracks from side to side" when the Lady dares to look out the window towards Camelot.
  • Hans Christian Andersen's "Snow Queen" (1844) - an evil troll, called "the devil," crafts a magic mirror that reflects a distorted reality, only reflecting the ugly aspects of things.
  • Lewis Carroll's Through The Looking Glass, and What Alice Found There (1871), the sequel to Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1865), where Alice travels again to an alternative world through a magic mirror.
  • Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891).  Although not technically about a mirror, the painting is a "mirror image" of Dorian's soul.
  • In the 1991 Disney version of "Beauty and the Beast," the Beast has an enchanted mirror that allows the user to see anything he or she wishes to see.
  • A similar enchanted mirror also makes an appearance in 2001, in Harry Potter & The Sorcerer's Stone, where Harry discovers the "Mirror of Erised," which allows its user to see that which they desire.  A short video clip from the movie is shown below:

As this article demonstrates, mirrors have a long and fascinating history.  More than just mere tools to serve our vanity, mirrors occupy an important place in our mythologies, legends and tales, both past and present.

Can you think of other mirror examples from myth, legend or folklore?  Other modern-day examples?  If so, please feel free to list them in the comments section.