Mirrors form a huge part of popular culture, and films like Snow White or Mirror, Mirror play on their magical properties. While it’s beyond the scope of this post, mirrors also play a part in scrying. Here, a practitioner gazes into a dark mirror (often a slice of obsidian). They don’t look for reflections, but rather visions.
But we’re looking at actual reflections, not just mirrors. These reflections often reveal either the truth or the future. They can be made by any shiny or reflective surface, including glass, water, or metal.
So how are reflections important to folklore? Let’s find out! Hit ‘play’ to hear the podcast episode or keep reading.
Reflections in Love and Romance
Sometimes superstitions are intended to help followers avoid harm. But there are positive superstitions too. In terms of reflections, new couples that first spot each other in a mirror should have a happy marriage.
And you’ll no doubt have heard the old Halloween advice. On All Hallow’s Eve, young girls should eat an apple in front of the mirror. They hoped to see the reflection of the man they would marry. Apples are often associated with love magic, so it’s hardly surprising that they’d appear connected with romantic superstitions!
Newlyweds should stand in front of a mirror together after the wedding. This helps their souls find one another in the spirit realm (Weiss 2019).
On the downside, in Greek mythology, reflections didn’t go too well for Narcissus. His mother feared his death at the hands of a great love affair following a prophecy. She’d kept him away from others, until he noticed a handsome young man in the waters of a pool he gazed into. Not realising it was him, he fell in love with the image. Unwilling to tear away his gaze, he wasted away as a result.
Narcissus went on to give his name to both the daffodil and the narcissistic personality disorder!
Good Luck Reflections?
Have you ever given yourself a fright by spotting movement in a mirror, only to realise it’s your own reflection? Next time, don’t panic. It’s a sign good fortune is on the way! (Weiss 2019)
Some people hang mirrors opposite their front door. It acts as a form of watchdog, reflecting any evil spirits that try to enter. The practice comes from China, where people hung brass mirrors in temples. Evil spirits trying to enter saw their reflections and left in a hurry.
Reflections and the Soul
It’s an old custom to cover mirrors following a death to ensure the deceased’s spirit didn’t become trapped in one. This is a Jewish custom but I’ve also seen it repeated within wider lore. Others believe the mirrors should be covered so the spirit doesn’t get confused trying to leave the house.
In one belief, the mirror becomes a doorway to the afterlife. It must be covered to give the soul time to enter the afterlife so it didn’t come back to haunt the family.
This is an interesting concept because some beliefs surround the idea the mirror reflects the soul. This is why vampires lack a reflection as they lack a soul.
I’ve even heard that newborns shouldn’t look into a mirror until they’re one year old, as some believe the soul is still developing during their first year.
Perhaps the mirror becomes dangerous around the dead because the soul of the deceased is no longer tethered to a body. With nothing ‘concrete’ on the other side of the glass, the soul remains stuck in the reflection.
That said, the latter belief sees reflections turn a person’s home into a veritable house of mirrors. Here, the soul loses its ability to navigate the physical space, again while untethered to the body.
This ties into a superstition that viewing your reflection by candlelight won’t just show you your own face. It’ll also show you the otherwise invisible entities sharing your home.
It doesn’t end there.
Someone seeing their reflection in a room where someone has recently died will soon die themselves. Even looking into a mirror that belonged to someone who died recently was dangerous. In both cases, their soul will take you with them into the underworld. The mirror only becomes safe for reuse after the person’s burial or cremation.
In some cultures, the risk also exists for dreamers. Mirrors should be covered at night to prevent wandering nocturnal souls being trapped.
Some think the belief that the mirror reflects the soul dates to the Roman period (Weiss 2019). Breaking a mirror also damaged your soul. As the soul took seven years to renew itself, the breakage caused ‘damage’ for seven years.
I don’t believe this superstition since breakable mirrors are not that old. Yet Briana Jones offers an alternative. In her version, seeing your reflection in a distorted surface meant bad luck (2018). That could be the surface of a pond or lake.
She also makes the point that the Roman belief was about the renewable nature of the soul. Perhaps later commentators added this to the ‘seven years’ bad luck’ idea attached to the mirror.
Reflections and Photography
Ghosts reflecting in mirrors reappear in horror films. The Conjuring (2013) used it to good effect, with the dead boy Rory only being seen in the mirror of the music box. The youngest child effectively ‘summons’ him while looking into the mirror. That said, the gently rotating spiral on the mirror implies a somewhat suggestive state while using the music box.
But the interesting part of the film is the use of spirit photography. Cameras capture Rory’s appearance during a night of supernatural activity. And it isn’t really surprising. After all, up until the invention of the mirror-less DSLR, cameras used mirrors in order to create an image.
There’s an old belief that mirrors stored whatever they reflected for later use (BBC 2017). It feels like cameras literalise this belief by preserving what these mirrors looked at.
Photography feeds into the idea of capturing the soul. If mirrors reflect the soul, then photographs preserve them.
I couldn’t write about reflections and not include Bloody Mary! While she’s more of an urban legend, I do think she’s a part of ‘contemporary folklore’. This is part of the thing with folklore. At what point does it cross into urban legends?
While the extent of the legends is too numerous to fully explore here, the basic gist is the same; a dare requires a young person (it’s nearly always a pre-teen or a teenager) to go into a bathroom. They must close the door and switch the light off while chanting some variation of “Bloody Mary”.
The chant varies in content, as well as repetitions, but in effect, Bloody Mary should appear in the mirror. Elizabeth Tucker relates a version involving Mary Wolf, or Mary Worth. This “mirror witch” will scratch you if you see her. For Tucker, this turns Bloody Mary into a form of initiation ceremony. You trust the rhyme will work, putting yourself in harm’s way if it does. For the believers, they’re rewarded with a glimpse (2005: 187).
Here’s the Bloody Mary scene from the Paranormal Activity 3 trailer. (Which also means you don’t need to waste time watching the rest of the movie!)
According to Kristyn Clarke, “Bloody Mary is a soul trapped in a mirror, looking to cause harm to those who invoke her. She’s been harmed herself and looking to bring that pain to others” (2015).
Over time, she’s involved into a whole range of figures. A witch, a spurned lover, a vengeful older woman: she seemingly becomes whatever we need her to be.
But if mirrors reflect our true nature, then what does this say about our inner Bloody Mary?
Over to you! Do you know any superstitions about reflections?
Mirrors have long since fascinated me, particularly the idea that a shadow world might exist on the other side, the reverse of our own. It even inspired the tale ‘The Mirror Phase’, which you can find in my free collection, Checkmate: Tales of Speculative Fiction.
BBC (2017), ‘On reflection: Eight mysterious facts about mirrors’, BBC Radio 4, , https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/articles/4jZWt1t6v0DV33pLWD0KcT/on-reflection-eight-mysterious-facts-about-mirrors.
Clarke, Kristyn (2015), ‘The Folklore & Legends Of Mirrors’, World of Pop Culture, http://worldofpopculture.com/2015/09/the-folklore-of-mirrors/.
Jones, Briana (2018), ‘The Surprising Stories Behind Seven Of The Most Common Superstitions’, All That’s Interesting, https://allthatsinteresting.com/common-superstitions/4.
Sanofsky, Josh (2012), ‘A Time for Reflection: The Meaning of Mirrors in Folklore and Superstition’, Week in Weird, http://weekinweird.com/2012/08/27/time-reflection-mirrors-folklore-superstition/.
Tucker, Elizabeth (2005), ‘Ghosts in Mirrors: Reflections of the Self’, The Journal of American Folklore, 118: 468, pp. 186-203.
Weiss, Sarah-Beth (2019), ‘Weird mirror superstitions from around the world’, History 101, https://www.history101.com/weird-mirror-superstitions-from-around-the-world/.
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