Copyright © 2011 by Walter J. Cooke. All rights reserved.
The shaman’s mirror is a tool used by shamanic practitioners for divination, journeying, healing work and energetic protection. This tool is a round polished disc commonly ranging from about 3cm up to 23cm in diameter. The very largest ones ever unearthed are around 40 centimeters wide. They were originally made of polished stone or bronze, later in brass and with a nickel or white steel finish. The back of the mirror has an open metal loop to which a long piece of silk cloth called a khadag (not a ‘khata’ or ‘hada’ or ‘katak’ offering-scarf) that is attached to help carry the mirror and assist in energetic transmission. Bronze mirrors were originally produced around 3,000 BC in Egypt, from where they appear to have spread throughout the Mediterranean world and then into Asia. The backs of Mongolian mirrors are often decorated with Chinese symbols of good fortune, zodiac animals, trigrams, or the domain of Rahu, the star god, a deity in charge of the planets and time.
At General Intention, we sometimes use shamanic mirrors as an aid in our healing therapies, along with other shamanic tools such as drums, rattles and body positioning techniques. For more general, non-academic information concerning mirrors, read our other General Intention article. Some shamanic mirrors from the Walter J. Cooke Collection are shown in the accompanying three photographs. The first photograph shows the back (or inward) concave side of each mirror with the attached khadag, and the second picture is the front (or outward) convex side of each mirror. The individual mirror photograph shows the central knob with attached khadag and the raised Chinese symbols of good fortune.
Today, the shamanic mirror is a mostly forgotten tool primarily found within the geographic areas of Mongolia, Siberia, and Tibet. I will devote some space to elaborating on its history and use because of the importance of the shaman’s mirror to my own shamanic work and its relative obscurity in academic literature.
In Tungus-Manchurian languages shamanic mirrors are called 'panaptu' meaning ‘soul holder,’ in Mongolia they are called 'toli', and in Tibet 'melong.' In the Buryat culture, it was believed that shaman’s mirrors were thrown to earth by smiths in the sky. The origin of polished metal mirrors predates the Liao period (Liao Dynasty 遼 - 907-1125 CE) in China. Humphrey refers to earlier work by T. M. Mikhailov indicating that the production of bronze mirrors in South Siberia dates from the second millennium BC, which pre-date the earliest finds in China (7th century BC). Chinese mirrors of later periods were widely traded across Inner Asia. Mongolian Buryats of the 20th century mostly used Chinese mirrors in shamanic ritual and also cast their own mirrors.
Even older polished stone mirrors, in many cultures and diverse areas of the world, predate metal mirrors. Polished mirrors would have originally served a cosmetic function for societies’ wealthy or privileged, and possibly by the military for signaling purposes, before mass-production in later times for the general population. Exactly how the mirror crossed over to become a shamanic and religious object is unknown, but folklore beliefs may have set the stage for their use in magical and spiritual practices. In many societies, mirrors were used as a defense against the evil eye of both human beings and spirits, because it was believed that mirrors reflected the harmful rays back at their source. Sylvia Volk further states that:
The … mirrors frightened evil spirits away. Old coffin-statues and wall paintings in Chinese tombs (Liao period, at Luan-feng) show men holding up mirrors faced outward, to frighten evil spirits away from the tombs of the dead. The … mirrors are in the style of old Han-dynasty Chinese bronze mirrors, which in the last centuries BC and the first AD were traded all over central Asia. They are smooth on one side, perhaps polished to brilliance, and the reverse side is ornamented with flower-tendrils, birds and figures.
Padmasambhava may have created shamanic mirrors when he came to Tibet in the 7th Century CE, and at that time the mirrors may have been primarily used for divination and protection. It is also possible that the ceremonial use of the mirror reaches back to ancient Bon traditions that preceded the arrival of Buddhism in the Far East. Buddhist rituals of the Far East and north, especially traditional Tsam dances, depict different deities from the Bon pantheon of spirits. A shamanic mirror is prominently displayed on the chest of the Tsam dancer, as an aid to warding off evil influences during the ceremony. Photographs of the elaborate mask and garments still worn today in the Mongolian Buddhist Tsam religious dance are available on government postcards and can also be seen on the Web.(1)
One of the major symbols in Buddhist doctrine is the mirror, used as a symbol for clarity, completeness of perception, purity of consciousness, and the enlightened mind mirror reflecting phenomena placed before it without generating delusion or judgment. The quintessential application of this spiritual doctrine is Indra's Net (also called Indra's jewels or Indra's pearls), a metaphor used to illustrate the concepts of emptiness, dependent origination, and interpenetration in Buddhist philosophy.
The Function of Shamanic Tools such as the Shaman’s Mirror
A common shamanic concept, and a universally told story, is that of the healer traversing the axis mundi to bring back knowledge from other worlds of non-ordinary reality. Anyone or anything found on the axis between heaven and earth is seen as a repository of potential knowledge, and a special status accrues to the found object. Derivations of this idea are found in the Rod of Asclepius, an archetypal emblem of the medical profession, and in the caduceus. While the origin for the mirror’s usage in shamanism is unknown, perhaps, in a process of reflective abstraction, the shaman adopted (or stole) the mirror during a journey to the axis mundi so that she could have a conscious agent of Spirit providing protection and spiritual action. Other sources indicate that the shaman’s mirror is more than a simple ritual object; for Mongolian shamans, it was held as even more sacred than the shaman’s drum.
Walter Heissig’s book on The Religions of Mongolia states:
Even in cases where the rest of the ceremonial dress has already been forgotten, the ceremonial apron and mirror-hanging still play a prominent role. --- A shaman once explained to me personally that the white horse of the shamans lived in the mirrors. Often, however, mirrors are also worn on the breast and on the back. These mirrors have a multiple function. In the first place, the mirrors are meant to frighten evil powers and spirits. --- A further symbolic function of the shamanistic mirror is that it reflects everything, inside and outside, including the most secret thoughts. Through the power of this mirror the shaman acquires the status of an omniscient being. Finally, the third task of the mirror is to turn away the hostile invisible missiles of the evil powers and thus to protect the shaman from the injuries they cause.
Indigenous shamans from the Tungus region of Siberia still use the mirror today as an essential element of their shamanic attire. The photographs below show Semyon Vasilyev, one of the very last of the authentic old Tungus (Evenki) shamans, wearing his traditional shaman’s cloak with numerous metal objects attached to the back. The shamanic mirror is one such object affixed to the shaman’s cloak for energetic protection.
Photos: Siberian shaman Semyon Vasilyev with drum and Angaangaq Angakkorsuaq in sacred attire
These photographs were taken at a ceremony that I attended in July of 2009 in the Kangerlussuaq area of Greenland during the Sacred Fire Ceremony at Aajuittup Tasersua near Sermersuaq ("the Big Ice"). Angaangaq Angakkorsuaq, a Eskimo-Kalaallit Elder whose life task was to fulfill an ancient prophecy foretold by his people concerning the return of the sacred fire to Sermersuaq, organized this three-day ceremony. As such, Elders from around the world were invited to attend and assist in the various ceremonies celebrating this fulfillment of ancient prophecy.
In shamanistic practices, the shaman interacts with the spirits in non-ordinary reality and leverages this spirit energy to empower his work. This process is illustrated in the practitioner’s inventory of shamanic tools such as skin drums, rattles, feathers, plants, animal parts, and ritual objects. In an animistic sense, the shaman believes these objects are alive and imbued with healing and protective archetypal spirit energy, which the shaman calls on as needed. However, the categorization of a ritual object like the shamanic mirror tool needs more analysis, because its shamanic properties and power is unusual and does not conform to the normal categorical definition of an objective form of animism.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines animism as a philosophical, religious or spiritual idea that souls or spirits exist not only in humans but also in other animals, plants, rocks, natural phenomena such as thunder, geographic features such as mountains or rivers, and other entities of the natural environment. Animism may further attribute souls to abstract concepts such as words, true names or metaphors in mythology. Animism is particularly widely found in the religions of indigenous peoples, although it is also found in Shinto, and some forms of Hinduism and neopaganism.
The categorization problem of the shamanic mirror becomes even more complex once we understand that the mirrors are imbued with spirit or conscious intention that seems to exhibit very unique numinous characteristics and purposes. For example, a mirror may simply assist the shaman in healing work, or it may give him an enhanced ability to fly in shamanic journeying to the spirit world. It can teach rituals and secret knowledge to the shaman, or be used for shamanic warfare. One mirror I own seems to, experientially, do nothing more than to make one feel happy. I have another mirror that is a powerful instructor in ancient healing techniques. It can forcefully push the holder into a deep meditative trance where detailed energetic medical training takes place. I have obtained over 60 shamanic mirrors from around the world and, while most seem suited to facilitating healing work, many also seem to exhibit different ‘magical’ shamanic properties.
According to Mongolian shaman Sarangerel, the metaphor of the shamanic mirror is even used as a tool of oracular seeing by the gods themselves:
Manzan Gurme Toodei is the Buryat great goddess who is mother of all the western tenger and ancestress of all the patron spirits of shamanism. She is a daughter of supreme goddess Ekhe Ekhe Burhan, and “is possessor of the greatest power and spiritual knowledge of all the sky spirits. She possesses two great shaman mirrors in which she watches all that happens on earth and in the sky. She holds the great book of fate in which is written all that has happened, all that is happening, and all that will happen.”
Another spiritual manifestation of this shamanic tool is the Aztec god Tezcatlipoca. Tezcatlipoca was a central deity in Aztec religion, one of the four sons of Ometeotl. He is associated with a wide range of animistic concepts including spiritual control over the night sky, the night winds, hurricanes, the north, the earth, enmity, discord, divination, temptation, jaguars, sorcery, beauty, obsidian, war and strife. In the Nahuatl language his name is often translated as “Smoking Mirror.” This refers to his connection to obsidian, the material from which mirrors were made in Mesoamerica and that was used for shamanic rituals.
Whilst having similarities to totemism, animism differs in that it, according to the anthropologist Tim Ingold, focuses on individual spirit beings which help to perpetuate life, whilst totemism more typically holds that there is a primary source, such as the land itself, or the ancestors, who provide the basis to life. Certain indigenous groups such as the Australian Aborigines are more typically totemic, whilst others, like the Inuit, are more typically animistic in their worldview.
Animism forms the foundational belief system of shamanism in most indigenous groups. However, psychologist Carl Jung regarded it as normal for all humans to react to numinous phenomena (that aroused their speculations) by forming the personal idea of the soul and then extending it to objects in the external world. Jung wrote that “psyche and matter are contained in one and the same world, and moreover are in continuous contact with one another”, and that it was probable that “psyche and matter are two different aspects of one and the same thing” (Jung CW8, par. 418).
Jung’s explanation may also be interpreted as a form of panpsychism or emergentism. Panpsychism differs from emergentism. According to panpsychism, even the smallest physical particles have mental characteristics. However, emergentism claims that although individual particles are mindless, some systems formed by them, and by nothing but them, do possess mental attributes. The concept of emergence has existed for millennia, but the psychologist G. H. Lewes coined the actual term ‘emergent’ when discussing the psyche:
It is otherwise with emergents, when, instead of adding measurable motion to measurable motion, or things of one kind to other individuals of their kind, there is a co-operation of things of unlike kinds. The emergent is unlike its components insofar as these are incommensurable, and it cannot be reduced to their sum or their difference.
In the journal, Emergence, professor Jeffrey Goldstein defines emergence as: “the arising of novel and coherent structures, patterns and properties during the process of self-organization in complex systems.” He describes the qualities of emergence:
The common characteristics are: (1) radical novelty (features not previously observed in systems); (2) coherence or correlation (meaning integrated wholes that maintain themselves over some period of time); (3) A global or macro "level" (i.e. there is some property of "wholeness"); (4) it is the product of a dynamical process (it evolves); and (5) it is "ostensive" (it can be perceived).
Goldstein later introduced a variation of emergence called supervenience or ‘downward causation.’ In this state, if a system can have qualities not directly traceable to the system's components, but instead the qualities are concerned with how the components interact, then it can be said that a system may ‘supervene’ on its components. In this instance of supervenience, the new emergent qualities are not reducible to the system's basic parts.
Contemporary psychological theories about intelligence may also be of use in defining the properties of shamanic mirrors. A broad definition of intelligence might view it as “the ability to solve problems or to fashion products that are valued in at least one culture or community.”
In this regard, Howard Gardner developed an evolving theory of multiple intelligences that eventually postulated eight criteria, or 'signs,' that may be used to identify intelligence. However, he also noted that these marks would not always comprise the conditions for determining intelligence exists, but only show the signs that a contender should include. He also entertained the possibility of an additional 'spiritual' intelligence but was not convinced that it could be reliably quantified. Not wanting to venture into a theological terra incognito, he included an 'existential' intelligence rather than 'spiritual' intelligence. Existential intelligence, as Gardner characterizes it, involves having the ability to appreciate and attend to the cosmological mysteries that concern people of all cultures. Gardner’s theory also unambiguously states that not all eight criteria must be completely met for an intelligence to qualify.
While shamanism, as currently defined in anthropology, embodies animistic and totemic belief systems, the use of a tool like the shamanic mirror requires a more complex explanation, perhaps such as emergence, supervenience or some other more complex definition embodying intelligence, to account for its unique agency and properties. Animistic beliefs only require that everything in the world be imbued with life or spirit in the shaman’s eyes. In the case of the shaman’s mirror, as described above, a mirror is imbued with the intelligent agency of Spirit (a supervenient, or top down action) so that the mirror can be used to teach, heal, to fly in shamanic journeys, to magnify the ecstatic experience of the ineffable, or as a protective shield for the shaman against negative energetic forces. Perhaps, using this interpretation, the concept of supervenience may hold more value as a means of defining the properties and agency at work in the shamanic mirror, rather than the more simplistic and ubiquitous animistic beliefs found in shamanism.
Sacralization and the Shamanic Mirror
The creation of ritual items for healing and interaction with the spirit world requires the mindful use of intention by the shaman in order to imbue objects with novel qualities through a process of sacralization. In sacralization an object, which might initially belong to the world of the profane, is elevated to the realm of the sacred through the use of sacrosanct ritual and intention. This allows the agency of Spirit to move through an object, such as a drum, rattle, fetish object and perhaps also the shaman’s mirror, and thus empower the work of the shaman.
The process of creating a shamanic mirror imbued with consciousness, and the resulting ‘supervenient agency’ that is created, might incorrectly be viewed as a form of hylomorphism, which as its definition requires that all or some material things can have life, or that all of life is interlocked with matter. The shaman’s mirror may possess ‘spirit’ or ‘soul’ but as a metal, inanimate object, it certainly has not been created in order to possess ‘life.’
If this is an intelligent aspect of Spirit made fully manifest as a gift from and of Spirit, or if it is coming from Spirit but manifest through the intention of human consciousness when the shaman is ‘the hollow bone,’ then it may be an example of supervenience. While it is unlikely, if the ‘mystical technologies’ come strictly from the shaman’s conscious intention, then this may merely be a result of the sacralization process. Or, it could more likely require the interlocked agency of Spirit and human consciousness working together. If this is the case and a neologism is required to describe the exquisitely unique and numinous power of the shamanic mirror, then we might say the mirror embodies the agency of supervenient sacralization through both the conscious intention inherent in the shaman’s sacred ceremony and the channeling of Spirit’s energy and intelligence during the mirror’s creation.
Much later in history, mirrors were used in western cultural practices such as the spiritual initiation rites of women as recorded in the frescos on the temple wall at the Pompeii Villa of Mysteries. The mirror is seen in fresco number four of the Villa of Mysteries, where an initiate peers into a mirror held by a Dionysian figure and, in an act of divination, perceives the apparition of his own future death over his shoulder. In the fresco, the apparition is a severed head, perhaps symbolically representing the death of childhood and innocence.(2)
The inferred psychological and spiritual influence of the mirror in the process of self knowledge was important enough to have Swiss Jungian psychologist Marie-Louise von Franz (a colleague of Carl Jung and founder of the C. G. Jung Institute in Zurich) include the Pompeii fresco of the mirror, reflecting the shadow self, on the cover of her seminal book concerning projection and re-collection in Jungian psychology. Here, the mirror is used to help our conscious and subconscious awareness reflectively see and recollect the projected, more mystical or hidden properties of the Self which are displayed to the watcher. From this example we can see that, as the general sophistication of humanity’s culture has advanced over time, the symbolic power and psychological meaning attached to objects such as the mirror have also evolved.
A supervenient consciousness within matter, or emergent sentience created within a material but non-living object through sacralization – in this case the shamanic mirror being a sacred material container for Spirit – should be further classified and put into context before being accepted and used in shamanic work. To do this, I documented some of the unique characteristics embodied within a number of the shamanic mirrors I own. I did this over time by using several mirrors to assist in the shamanic journeying and healing work being performed by a number of shamanic healing practitioners. A synopsis of collected data indicates that a shamanic mirror may exhibit one or more of the following attributes. The mirror:
- May hold a ‘data bank’ of esoteric knowledge;
- Is aware and responds with autonomous action (consciousness);
- Holds/retains energy and resources useful as tools for the shaman;
- Can be ‘programmed’ with the shaman’s conscious intention;
- Has attributes that can be perceived meditatively or may be ‘gifted’ by the mirror;
- Has an inherent network to communicate with other mirrors;
- May have the agency of healing when applied to biology and psyche;
- May have the agency of protection or force when used for warfare; and
- Can act as an instrument of amplification or enrichment.
A review of the collected information leads me to believe that the agency behind the mirror’s ‘mystical technologies’ may indeed be properly defined as supervenient sacralization.
In my MA thesis I have contrasted some of the major distinctions between the archaic and indigenous practices of shamanism and its modern equivalent, core shamanism. I have shown there is a major distinction between the indigenous shaman’s mind and the mind of the modern core shamanic practitioner, a distinction that likely cannot be easily bridged or understood without the use of a language that does not fragment perception and thought into subject and object. Other obscure elements in shamanism such as communication with animistic sources of knowledge and the use of healing tools such as shamanic mirrors, and medicinal plant and animal spirits, are agencies that have no apparent modern counterpart in core shamanic practices. Additional research and thought has been devoted to the agency behind, and the defining properties of, shamanic mirrors. Because of its unique importance as a particularly rare and ancient shamanic tool of supervenient agency and conscious intention, more detailed research should be carried out on shamanic mirrors.
This article is an updated section of work taken from the MA thesis of Walter J. Cooke completed for the fulfillment of the requirements for the Master of Arts degree at Union Institute & University, September 2010. The full thesis is available for review in the Resource Files section of the General Intention web site.
(1) Photographs of the Tsam religious dance can be seen on the Web at:
“The ancient religious mask dance, or Tsam, reflects Buddhist teachings and older shamanistic practices. Tsam is a theatrical art performed by skilled dancers wearing magnificently ornamented costumes, representing characters of holy figures, devils, animals, and people. Tsam was first introduced to Mongolia in the 8th century, when the Indian Saint Lovon Badamjunai was invited to Mongolia to sanctify Samya, the first Tibetan Buddhist temple. Eventually, more than 500 Mongolian monasteries had their own local variations of the ceremony. Banned by the Communist Government in the 1930s, the Tsam has found new life. In 1998 Gankhuyag and his team of artisans at the Union of Mongolian Artists began their work on a complete set of Tsam dance masks and costume.”
(2) Photographs of the frescos at the Pompeii Villa of Mysteries are on the Web at: