July 4, 2014

Mirrors, Liminal and Interstitial

I have been, for as long as I can remember, fascinated with in-between places. With doors and windows and elevators, with foothills and beaches. Crossroads. Corners. Thresholds. Gaps. Cracks. Magic, of course, is always bound up with these things, with the liminal and the interstitial. And Hekate, of course, is a goddess of these things. Hekate of the Three Ways, Hekate of the Threshold, Hekate Who Stands In the Gate.

My fiction reading lately has been stirring up some of this. First it was The Uncertain Places by Lisa Goldstein, which is laced with fairytales and doorways and unused rooms, with spiders and enchanted sleep, and with magic hills. It never uses the term “liminal”, but this is precisely what the title refers to. Child of a Rainless Year, by Jane Linskold, uses the term liberally, in ways taken from mythology, psychology, magic, art theory, and more. It discusses both the concept and the practicality more directly. The magic in it makes much uses of mirrors, too.

I keep sort of… brushing past mirror magic. Flirting with it, glancing off it, doing some research and then backing away, buying mirrors and then leaving them in their boxes. It’s complicated for me. As a woman, I’ve been told my whole life to care greatly about my looks, and to be incredibly critical of them, and as a fat woman I’ve been told to hate my body. When I decided I didn’t want to do these things, my reflection became something I avoided, since it tended to trigger a relapse into self-criticism. I lost track of what my own face looked like. Later, I would force myself to look in mirrors, to really see my face and body, to understand them, to find things I liked. I was fascinated with mirrors as objects, but had trouble with them because of my own reflection, which always got in the way.

When I moved into this house, the first house I owned, I bought a lot of mirrors, whatever appealed to me. I wanted to hang them all in the bedroom, make a wall of mirrors, in different shapes and sizes, with and without frames. I bought an antique dressing table with a triple mirror, and an old freestanding full-length mirror, both in dark woods. Most of the mirrors, though, stayed in boxes or bubble wrap, and none of them were ever hung. One, a large round mirror framed in driftwood, is now the centerpiece of my Dionysos altar, although it remains draped unless I’m actually working with it, because it’s not meant for casual gazing, and not meant to be seen by others.

Actually, most of the mirrors — the standing mirror and the ones on the vanity especially — that aren’t in the bathrooms are usually draped, as if in a house where there’s been a death. My wife dislikes looking in mirrors more than I ever did, and doesn’t want to catch one unexpectedly. I have no problem with that. She feels what she feels, and I am, of course, going to respect that. It turns out to be a good thing I never put up all those mirrors. I doubt I could ever have convinced her to spend time in my bedroom (before it was ours) if they were there.

There’s power in an exposed looking glass, an eye on the world, showing us what’s there, making us look at reality by showing it to us backwards. Standing as a window, a doorway, to other places, too, showing the house where Alice went, where she found the Garden of Living Flowers and the Chessboard. Giving spirits a glimpse of the mortal world, letting them look out at us. That’s where the tradition of covering mirrors when there’s a death comes from, you know: a newly-dead shade, looking for the way to the next life, can be trapped there, too caught up in watching their loved ones to move on. Covered mirrors have power too; secrets, hidden worlds, an implication that the dead visit here. Our mirrors are not covered with intent, and the mirrors left uncovered break that symbolism, but they stand to remind me. But the act of covering and uncovering my altar mirror does have intent and meaning, stands for a mystery I have seen, allows me to touch on it again.

I think now of necromantic mirrors — necromancy in the Greek sense, divination by communication with the dead — of transformative mirrors in triplicate, to stand between, and find the change I want among my many reflections, and bring it forth; of mirrors of illusion. I have a mirror for truth and a black mirror for scrying already, though I use them rarely. Child of a Rainless Year suggested ways to use mirrors I had never considered before, and gave me a word I didn’t know before: teleidoscope. A device like a kaleidoscope, with a set of mirrors inside a casing, but instead of an object chamber, it has at the end a lens, for looking out on the world. Where “kaleidoscope” means a device for looking for the beauty of form or the beautiful shape, “teleidoscope” meaning one for looking for shapes in the distance. It shows us patterns built from what is in front of us. Many fascinating possibilities in that. The “cabalistic”, which really rely on planetary symbolism, set of kaleidoscopes, each with its proper day and a set of specific things it scries for. Not my thing, but an interesting idea. Still, there might be a use for me for mirrors that create patterns out of the random motion of small things. I particularly like the idea of a liquid-filled object chamber, or of one that can be opened so that I can choose what I use each time I look. So many fascinating magical uses for mirrors.

I look, too, though my books for ancient Hellenic mirrors, in magic or ritual or myths. There’s less than I would like, but much of it is expected: mirrors for divination, as symbols of various figures (usually female), mirrors in temples of goddesses like Aphrodite, mirrors on headdresses. Athena’s shield when used by Perseus, of course. Nothing hugely useful. Of course, at the time, mirrors were small and made of polished bronze, very expensive. Not readily available for use in folk magic, and those who did own them — women — were unlikely to have their private magical or ritual uses written about.

A bronze mirror cannot crack, but a glass one can. And the symbolism of the cracked mirror is deep and wide.

A mirror is a gateway, its reflecting surface a threshold unto itself, between our world and its reverse, our world and that of the spirits. It is liminality in a shining plane of light.