Seven Years of Bad Luck 

The art of divining certain information from mirrors is called catoptromancy or scrying. Not only did mirrors throughout the ages fulfil the same practical role they do now, but they also played a key role in divination and religion.

In western China, mirrors made of highly polished metal were found in ancient graves dating from about 1500 BCE. The Aztecs used mirrors made of highly polished obsidian, whereas the ancient Greeks and Romans used burnished bronze and silver discs. The method of making mirrors was known in the Middle Ages, but these were rudimentary and nothing like the mirrors we have in modern times. However, glass mirrors also seem to have been used by some ancient cultures, as the Roman historian, Pliny, specifically mentions glass mirrors produced in Sidon, Syria, centuries before his time.101

Mirrors have always been held to expose and scare off demons and evil spirits. Like pools of water and lakes, mirrors have been perceived among varied cultures as entry points into another world or dimension. According to myth, the ancient Aztec god, Tezcatlipoca, whose name is interpreted as ‘smoking mirror’, had a magic looking glass in which he saw everything happening in the world. Similarly, in ancient Egypt, Hathor, the goddess of love, music, and dancing, was entrusted, not only with Ra’s sacred eye, through which she could see all things, but also a shield that reflected all creatures in their true light. This became the first magic mirror with the power to observe everything, no matter how far or how distant in the future. This theme, of course, is found in many fairy tales. We only have to think of Snow White’s evil stepmother requesting: ‘Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is the fairest of them all?’.

Universally, mirrors were believed to deflect the evil eye’s malignant rays. Therefore, during the Middle Ages, those fearful of being bewitched resorted to purchasing witch-balls, probably a corruption of ‘watch-balls’. These were small reflective glass balls, reputed to ward off evil influences by reflecting everything in miniature and keeping watch so that no witch approached. In the seventeenth century, it was customary in many European countries for men and women to wear small mirrors in their hats or clothing to avert the evil eye’s influence. In modern society, it is still common practice, especially in countries such as China, Indonesia, India, and the Middle East to use small mirrors hung in doors, windows, and cars, sewn on clothing, or carried on one’s person to deflect evil. 

From earliest times, mirrors have been linked with divination and the occult. It was believed that by dipping a mirror into water and then reading a sick person’s reflection, the severity of the malady afflicting that person could be diagnosed. Formerly, when someone was seriously ill, all mirrors in the house were covered. This was done because it was feared that the soul, thought to be temporarily separated from the body during illness, might not find its way back and, hence, become eternally trapped in the mirrored world. Another widely believed superstition intimated that any person who saw his image reflected in a mirror hanging in the same room in which a corpse lay would shortly die. This superstition’s origin is based on the belief that one’s soul is contained in one’s reflection – hence, the ghost of the deceased would be able to carry off the person’s reflection caught in the mirror, unless the mirror was covered. As the invisible world was believed to closely overlap the visible one, superstitious dread also existed at possibly seeing the spirit of the deceased in a mirror.

The superstition that breaking a mirror portends death as well as seven years of bad luck was once widely believed. The belief’s origin stems from the idea that a person’s reflection seen in the glass partly contained the soul. Breaking the mirror shattered this reflection, hence the soul would come to harm and ill luck, or the person’s early death would follow. Vampire legend substantiates this notion, as it was held that a vampire had no soul and, therefore, no reflection. Similarly, the idea of the soul contained in the reflection explains why, in ancient times it was regarded as dangerous to see one’s likeness in water – in case the denizens of the deep, the water spirits, and sprites, pulled the reflection and, hence, the soul into the unknown depths or into rapidly flowing waters. 

A more practical explanation for the various beliefs concerning the breakage of mirrors is the simple fact that in the past they were very expensive and, therefore, irreplaceable. Although crude looking glasses were available during the Middle Ages, mirrors, as we now know them, have only been manufactured since the mid-1800s. Once the making of sheet glass had been mastered during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, but at prohibitively exorbitant costs, mirrors became a symbol of wealth only afforded by royalty. Hence, every major European palace boasted a room or hall of mirrors, its size indicating the degree of prosperity and status its owners held. It was thus naturally seen as ominous to break something as valuable as a mirror. The seven years of bad luck associated with the breakage comes from the belief that the body changes its physiological make-up every seven years – a number sacred to all nations of antiquity. Thus, it was thought that only when the body had renewed itself after seven years would the ill luck incurred after breaking a mirror eventually dissipate. 

Breaking a mirror was seen to portend the loss of a family member or dear friend, and superstition contended that preserving the broken pieces would only add to the ill luck. Several antidotes, however, were proffered to solve this dilemma. One method of averting misfortune was to collect all the pieces of the broken mirror carefully and to throw them into a fast flowing stream where the water literally ‘washed away’ the ill luck. Alternatively, the broken pieces were promptly buried, thereby neutralising any evil influence, the effectiveness of which was subject to the place of burial – the more sinister the place, the more effective this neutralising effect!

Too numerous to mention are the past curious notions centred on mirrors. Probably in acknowledgement to the sin of vanity, the superstition arose that to look at oneself too long in a mirror conjured up the devil or other ‘things you did not want to see’. It was also considered unlucky to see one’s image in a mirror by candlelight, and superstition dictated that two people looking in a mirror at the same time risked a quarrel.


This is a web preview of the "Strange but True: A Historical Background to Popular Beliefs and Traditions" app. Many features only work on your mobile device. If you like what you see, we hope you will consider buying. Get the App