Late last year, I became obsessed with visiting a certain item in the British Museum. Deliberately choosing to work in or near Bloomsbury, I would often wander into the building in between working, making my way straight to one of the room’s (on the right of the building) with a confidence and determination that clearly unnerved my various tourist companions. I would stride into the room – a delicious room that creates a strong mental shift through the changes between the new architecture of the main foyer and the traditional designs of its wall – and walk straight up to the cabinet in which the object sits. If someone was standing in the spot that gives the best view of this object, I would hover unnervingly until they moved off. One tourist in particular tried to hold out but failed as I stared at the object from just over their shoulder. This object is a mirror, though not a normal mirror. It is an obsidian mirror and it belonged to Elizabeth I’s alchemist, Dr. John Dee.
The mirror is designed for “scrying”, a form of communication with the dead and otherworldly creatures. Dee is supposed to have even claimed that the mirror was given to him by Angels, providing a handy connection to the poet, William Blake, who saw many such visions in London a few hundred years later. In spite of the material being black, it gives a surprisingly clear reflection in the correct light; not one that reveals features of a face but a defined outline. The desire to stare into it comes from this aspect as the eye adjusts in order to try and find the viewer’s reflection. In Dee’s history, this is where the visions arose (though perhaps not the voices) that gave him his own sacred language – the Enochian language – and promised many secrets of magic and science. I’m not particularly interested in the debate surrounding the accuracy or reality of Dee’s magic. Instead I find the object’s draw to be both wordless and in-part down to its sheer aesthetic ability to lure me into its gaze.
The mirror was donated to the museum from the collection of Horace Walpole’s and it sits alongside its little bag. I adore the idea that Dee carried the mirror around with him, just in case the opportunity arose for a brief session of scrying whilst journeying around London or Europe. There’s something beautifully domestic in this idea and generally in the adoption of the obsidian mirror as a whole. The practice dates back to the Aztec era and the image it conjures is one of great ceremony and an aid to a far more powerful divination; polished objects amassing a great deal of folklore and belief around their ability to reflect. How typically post-Enlightenment to reduce such a practice to a curiosity but in such an enjoyably domestic sense. It’s the same domestication of the esoteric and the occult that I’ve recently written about extensively in my Folk Horror book. The chief argument being that, in spite of the obvious leaning to rural and vast landscapes for pulp recreations of occult practice and the like, it is far more effective and entertaining when it finds its way into a domestic scenario.
Though I harbour a far more personal and rather fantastical obsession with the object, I can’t pretend that it doesn’t give me the same feeling as watching any number of films or television series; Dee’s obsidian mirror and its bag sits happily alongside Night Of The Eagle (1962) and the novels of Dennis Wheatley in the effect it produces. As it sits rather inconspicuously among the other more daunting objects of that particular room at the British Museum, it has a quiet draw that cuts through the noise of echoing feet and snapping cameras. The only way to describe it is to liken my walk towards it as following a very strict line; I do not move for anyone in the way of this path, I do not alter my speed or pace until standing at exactly the point in which the outline of my head is perceivable in the small mirror. It may remind of the pulp pleasures of cult cinema and the like but I simply cannot deny the power it seems to hold over me whenever I am even vaguely near the old squares of Bloomsbury.
Darkness shines through the portal where my face used to be.
I try in vain to find my features, hidden within the outline of my being.
Instead, I see further behind, the British Museum room in facsimile, in shadow form.
For a brief moment, I am lost.
Wandering the shadow room, with angel guides at my side.
We glide through the rooms, drifting through people who notice not.
I touch the Saxon mask before the angel pushes my body back through the floors,
Through to the room where my body stands lifeless.
My eyes focus out, a vision tracking back.
I am in body once more, eager for another trip into the shadow museum’s rooms.
“Another time” calls the voice.
It guides my feet out of the room, to Bloomsbury streets equally reflective in February rain.
I shall visit again soon.