Self portrait in John Dee’s magic mirror.

Just a reflection of a reflection

of a reflection of a reflection of a reflection.

Will I see you on the other side?

Arcade Fire, “Reflektor”

I’ve been slowly making may way through the first volume of Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa’s De occulta philosophia libri tres, savoring throwaway references to optical illusions (including a Pepper’s Ghost!), the spatial limitations of his telepathic communications with Johannes Trithemius, ancient fire retardants (the Alexander Gates in the Caucasus were supposedly painted with the same “bitumen” Amazons (again, supposedly) smeared on themselves before battle – as protection against what isn’t clear; perhaps the sort of Boetian flamethrower Socrates and his fellow hoplites faced at the battle of Delium, insofar as the Agrippa may have just gotten his hands on a copy of Lorenzo Valla’s Thucydides), and so forth, in the context of his elaboration of a material world downstream of celestial and super-celestial ones that occasionally reads like a Neoplatonist account of stellar nucleosynthesis.

Anyhow, I got to wondering how he paid his bills (when he paid them – there was at least one short stint for debt in a Bruxellois hoosegow). Long story short: in 1528 he accepted the office of Archivist and Imperial Historiographer at the court of Margaret of Austria, daughter of Maximillian I, and permanent regent of the Netherlands, which she governed for her nephew, Charles V. As if the mere fact of Agrippa becoming archivist for the Holy Roman Empire weren’t sufficiently wonderful, consider the timing.

The years he served in the role (1528-30) correspond almost exactly with Pizarro’s conquest of Peru, the subdual of Mexico beyond the Aztec sphere of direct control, and the first big pulse of exhibitions of artifacts (magical and otherwise) that had flowed from the Americas to Europe. Margaret was one of the principle early collectors of such objects. Hernán Cortés would present Charles V with pilfered treasures, Charles would keep the precious metals and stones, and ship Margaret the ethnographic remainders – which she strategically displayed throughout her palace in rooms as public as the library and private as her personal study and even bedchambers. Among these items, according to a detailed 1523-24 inventory of the palace, was a set of ceremonial costumes Cortés took from Moctezuma, “used to impersonate four Aztec gods”. In her fine article, “Collecting a New World: The Ethnographic Collections of Margaret of Austria” (requires JSTOR access), Deanna MacDonald informs us that these included: “silver leg guards, sandals, and a mirror” (emphasis mine).

While it isn’t made clear which gods the four costumes were meant to represent, I have an hypothesis about one of them.

As I have written here previously, Tezcatlipoca – “Smoking Mirror”, the divine antagonist; jaguar-cloaked god of the night wind, of discord and autocracy, beauty and sacrifice, divination, temptation, sorcery – brought about the fall of Quetzalcoatl through the use of magical obsidian mirrors. And although MacDonald doesn’t specify that the mirror was black, I’d bet good money that it was.

No later than the 1580s, John Dee, the original 007, came into possession of one of these mirrors*, which he used for purposes of communicating with what he called angels speaking Enochian, but which might just as easily have been sorcerous Nahuatl-speaking radio operators on the other end, humping it through the Selva Lacandona trying to call in airstrikes from Tezcatlipoca down on the invaders.

In any case (and I don’t want to push on this coincidence too hard, but), it has not escaped our attention that Agrippa would have probably worked – at least part of the time – in the same library the ceremonial costumes were displayed in. It may have even been his job to curate the displays. As Margaret’s archivist and historiographer, he would have certainly had access to other, undisplayed treasures (including at least one other mirror, according that same palace inventory, which may or may not have been made of obsidian).

I mention these things because I love the idea that Agrippa – the only known magician on the scene at the time – might have been the first European to identify the function of the black mirror and either smuggle one out of Margaret’s storerooms after she died in 1530 or else simply communicate about it through his personal network: beta that Dee eventually made use of in acquiring one (if not that particular one – although that’s possible too, inasmuch as Margaret’s proto-Kunstkammer was redistributed among the Hapsburgs, any one of whom might have ended up with the curiosity and chosen to sell it to Elizabeth’s advisor) decades later.

More generally, I love the idea that, in his role, Agrippa might have acted as an esoteric first filter for debris flowing east on xenoepistemological currents across the Atlantic; and, in so doing, have both helped trigger the Northern Renaissance and co-found an Invisible College that would later reveal itself – at least in part – in the form of the Royal Society.

*The British Library contends on its website – without explanation – that Dee’s mirror originally made its way into Europe between 1527 and 1530. I suspect this dating has to do with the recent geochemical and x-ray spectroscopic analyses confirming that the mirror is, in fact, as has been believed for centuries, of Mesoamerican origin – and most likely from the region of Pachuca, which the Spaniards didn’t conquer until 1527/28. If so, a gentle reminder that Pachuca was well within the sphere of Aztec force projection – had, in fact, been stomped by the Aztec triple alliance a century earlier – and could easily have had its obsidian mirrors pulled across the event horizon into the maw of Tenochtitlan for Cortés to eventually plunder in the first phase of his conquest.

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