Oct 11, 2021 I Paul Seaburn

John Dee’s Obsidian Spirit Mirror Definitely Came from the Aztecs

Historicians often point out that 16th century English mathematician and astronomer John Dee is considered by many to have originated the term “British empire.” Fans of the occult would rather focus on Dee’s time as court astronomer and advisor of Elizabeth I, practitioner of dark magic and owner of an obsidian “spirit mirror” which he claimed allowed him to communicate with ghosts and angels. Obsidian is a volcanic glass which should make it easy to trace to its site of origin, but Dee’s mysterious obsidian mirror defied analysis … until now.

“In 1558, he became scientific advisor and astrologer to Queen Elizabeth I. Between c. 1550 and 1570, he advised on English voyages of discovery to the New World and showed great interest in accounts of the initial Spanish encounters in the region (Sherman 2006). By the 1580s, he had become increasingly involved with the supernatural and took various scryers or mediums to communicate with spirits through the use of mirrors or crystals—most notably Edward Kelley—into his service as intermediaries between himself and the angels. It is for this period of his life that he is best known in the public imagination, and it was probably also the time that the obsidian mirror discussed here came to the fore.”

John Dee Ashmolean
John Dee

As outlined in a new study published in the journal Antiquity, researchers from the University of Manchester were given access to John Dee’s spirit mirror by the British Museum, and much is known about Dee’s usage of it and various owners of the obsidian mirror from his death to it arriving at the museum. Little was known of how Dee obtained it, although his interest in the “New World” and the artifacts brought back from there led some to suspect it came from one of its volcanic regions. However, there were no records of its origin nor how Dee took ownership of it. in fact, Dee himself never wrote about the speculum – it was first linked to him by English writer Horace Walpole, who wrote it was “the black stone into which Dr. Dee used to call his spirits.” (Photo of the mirror here.)

Dee claimed that a purple crystal he possessed was given to him by the archangel Uriel along with instructions for making a philosopher's stone, so some people suspected the obsidian mirror -- polished on both sides and nearly perfectly circular at 7.2 inches (18.5 cm) in diameter and 0.5 inches (13 mm) thick – was similarly obtained. Ignoring that option, the researchers used a portable X-ray fluorescence instrument to compare its chemical fingerprint — ratios of iron, titanium and rubidium — with ratios in samples of obsidian mined from different parts of Mexico. Dee’s mirror was a close match to samples from Pachuca, a region in Mexico that was under Aztec control and a major source of the known obsidian resources for the Aztec Empire. The Aztecs were believed to wear obsidian mirrors as symbols of premonition and power, which made them attractive to the European invaders who looted the treasures and brought them back to Europe, where one in particular may have been traded until ending up in the occultish possession of one John Dee.

obsidian gc56782cde 640 570x428

“Our geochemical analysis allows us to demonstrate that all the obsidian mirrors in the British Museum are of Mexican origin. John Dee's mirror and a second mirror are similar in form and are both made of obsidian from the Pachuca source, which may prove to be typical of this type of artefact.”


“The John Dee connection has been particularly charismatic, making his mirror, and others like it, representative in the modern world of the Aztecs, of the Elizabethan renaissance and of European occult beliefs, in a constant cycle of appropriation and repurposing.”

This new research proves the connection between John Dee’s spirit mirror and the man himself. It proves that the mirror was made by Aztec artists in the Pachuca region. But perhaps the greatest and saddest discovery of this research is that, while the Europeans in the “New World” were conquering and pillaging an advanced and creative civilization with the intent of leaving it in ruins, it shows that the products of that same civilization were being admired and given supernatural powers by the “Old World” as it destroyed the makers. It’s too bad Dee’s ‘spirit mirror’ couldn’t deliver that message to him.

Or did it ... only to be ignored?

Paul Seaburn

Paul Seaburn is the editor at Mysterious Universe and its most prolific writer. He’s written for TV shows such as "The Tonight Show", "Politically Incorrect" and an award-winning children’s program. He's been published in “The New York Times" and "Huffington Post” and has co-authored numerous collections of trivia, puzzles and humor. His “What in the World!” podcast is a fun look at the latest weird and paranormal news, strange sports stories and odd trivia. Paul likes to add a bit of humor to each MU post he crafts. After all, the mysterious doesn't always have to be serious.

Join MU Plus+ and get exclusive shows and extensions & much more! Subscribe Today!