Is it a fallacy to talk about mirrors in Greek Mythology considering that mirrors were only invented about 200 years ago? Mirrors as we know them today were invented in 1835 by a German chemist, Justus von Liebig. He achieved the silvered-glass effect through a process which applied a thin layer of metallic silver to one side of a pane of clear glass.
But before that, dating as far back as the ancient times, people were able to see their fair reflections in things like polished marble, copper, silver, and bronze. In Greek mythology, clear, still water takes the place of the mirror, and we learn about the story of Narcissus who fell in love with his own image.
Narcissus was the son of the river god, Cephissus, and the nymph, Leiriope. His beauty was enchanting. Although he had many female admirers, he took no notice of them as he was so self-absorbed. It was prophesied that he would live to an old age if he never looked at his own reflection.
The beautiful mountain nymph, Echo, fell in love with Narcissus. But she had lost her voice when the goddess, Hera, deprived her of speech to punish her for some offense or other. Now her only ability of speech was to foolishly repeat the last words spoken by another. And so, when she tried to declare her love, Narcissus summarily dismissed her. Echo was so distraught by this that she withdrew from the world to waste away, and all that was left of her was a whisper.
But the whisper did not go unanswered. It was heard by the goddess, Nemesis, who in response made Narcissus catch a glimpse of his reflection in a pristine pool of water. He became so entranced with his own reflection that he stared at it in the water until he died of heartbreak and grief.
The story of Narcissus is often told as a cautionary tale about the dangers of self-obsession. However, some schools of thought point out that it might be more than just an allegory for narcissism and could also represent the power struggles between the gods and goddesses in Greek mythology.
Speaking of the power struggles between gods and goddesses, the story of how Perseus slayed Medusa must be told. This is another story that demonstrates the significance of mirrors in Greek mythology.
Perseus was born to the god, Zeus, and a mortal woman, Danae. She was the daughter of Acrisius, the king of Argos, to whom an oracle had prophesied death at the hands of his grandson. Naturally, when Perseus was born, Acrisius feared that the infant would grow up to kill him. And so, he put Perseus into a wooden chest alongside Danae, and cast them into the sea.
The chest drifted ashore the island of Seriphus, which was unfortunate, considering that the tyrannical Polydectes was king there. King Polydectes desired Danae and made her his slave. But of course, Perseus, who had by now become strong and gallant would try to save his mother. How best to get him out of the way by sending him on a quest he probably would not return from? King Polydectes sent Perseus on a quest to retrieve the head of Medusa.
Medusa was once a beautiful mortal woman. A temptress who seduced gods, she desecrated the temple of Athena by conceiving Poseidon’s child while in the temple. This angered Athena who cursed Medusa with a hideous face and turned her long flowing hair into writhing serpents. Medusa, now a mortal gorgon, retreated to a cave, and anyone who set eyes on her would be turned to stone.
Off went Perseus on his impossible quest to retrieve Medusa’s head. Along the way, nymphs gave him three important gifts – winged sandals which could make him fly; a cap of darkness which could make him invisible; and a special metallic bag for Medusa’s head. As invisible as the wind, Perseus flew over the ocean and crept inside the cave where Medusa slept. His polished bronze shield shone like a mirror. He raised it, using the reflection to locate Medusa so as not to gaze at her directly. He crept closer.
Perseus wielded his sword and brought it down hard, beheading Medusa. To his utter amazement, a soldier bearing a golden sword and a winged horse sprouted out of Medusa’s severed neck; Chrysaor and Pegasus, her two sons born of her unhallowed union with Poseidon, the god of the sea. Perseus put Medusa’s head in the metallic bag and journeyed back home.
After many adventures on his journey, Perseus returns to the Island of Seriphus where he finds that King Polydectes is about to marry his mother against her will. He enters the hall where Polydectes and his cohorts are having a feast to celebrate his upcoming nuptials, and pulls Medusa’s head out of the bag, turning them all to stone. Having finally freed his mother from King Polydectes and Seriphus Island forever, Perseus gifted Medusa’s head to Athena, who mounted it as a centrepiece on her aegis.
Some accounts describe Perseus killing Medusa with his polished shield by reflecting her own power back at her until she turned to stone. Whichever version of Perseus’ story you prefer, it is quite probable that the themes of mirrors in Greek mythology might have been influenced by beliefs in ancient Greece.
MIRRORS IN ANCIENT GREECE
In ancient Greece, mirrors were considered divine, portals that connected mortal men to other realms as well as the gods. They were associated with foresight and knowledge, qualities that were thought to be achieved only through death. Also associated with prophesy and divination, mirrors were seen as windows into the future because of their reflective properties. The act of looking into a mirror was often thought to reveal the future.
It was believed too that if one gazed into a mirror for too long their soul would be stolen. To the ancient Greeks, mirrors were like pools of water where souls could be trapped, a theme that is reflected in the story of Narcissus. While mirrors had their practical uses around the household, like spying on slaves and scaring away spirits, they were also feared objects. As a result, they were typically positioned with the reflective side facing outwards, or towards the walls.
Regardless of what mirrors were associated with in ancient Greece, I see mirrors in Greek mythology as powerful symbols. They represent truth and knowledge and are used to reflect both light and dark. As a metaphor for both deception and truth-seeking, the mirror is a medium through which the protagonist comes face to face with themselves, forcing them to reflect upon their flaws and weaknesses, which they must confront if they are to be successful in their quest. I think these are ageless themes that resonate to this day.
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History Today. (July 7, 2018). The Myth of Narcissus – A Cautionary Classical Tale of Solipsism and Self-obsession, History Today
McDowall, Carolyn. (April 8, 2014). The Mirror – Mastering Reflection or Eye Catching Deception, The Culture Concept circle
Rebus Community. (October 31, 2021). Mythology Unbound: An Online Textbook for Classical Mythology – Perseus, Rebus Community