Mirrors, discs, and other things of Ancient Mesopotamia

I had an idea to write a very short post here, just to clarify one point related to my earlier large post on the mirrors of Ancient Egypt (see Mirrors’R’Suns, or Egyptian Reflections). There I was talking about a dual role these objects that we call ‘Egyptian mirrors’ could play, being not only (and may be not so much) cosmetic devices, but religious, sacred items.

Per se, it’s not a new of any sort, this is how it’s expressed in many volumes on the history and art of Ancient Egypt. What I was missing is the depiction of the second type of use. We see many ankhs, and I have shown a great deal of them too, but to treat ankhs directly as ‘mirrors’ requires a bit of a leap of faith, so to speak. Basically, we are missing the images where people would held (and use) the objects that are resembling the artifacts we find and attribute as ‘mirrors’, but clearly use them nor for  grooming, for example.

I wouldn’t know where to search for such images, though. In this domain I don’t yet have an amount of experience and expertise I have about Western art and history (and specifically about Christian art, for example) using which I could almost anticipate where to look and find the next ‘mirror’ in the painting. I had this experience of ‘pattern recognition’ with the mirror-icons, for instance,  in the Annunciation scenes (I tried to described this feeling in the earlier posting On pattern recognition in the mirrors).

It is in this context I encountered the stella above.

Here is an enlarged fragment of this picture, showing I am most interested in

A couple of preliminary notes. First, it’s not really the Egyptian artifact, the stella was found near Babylon (contemporary Iraq), during the archeological excavations of what is believed to be the Temple of Marduk. Marduk was the superior deity in ancient Mesopotamia, often depicted as either having the wings himself, or riding various winged creatures, such as dragons.

Marduk was the god of the Sun and as such, of fertility and growth, but also of wisdom and magic, and of many other useful things, too.  However, it is not him who is depicted on the bronze stella that I have shown earlier.  It is the King Esarhaddon and his Queen Mother Nakija. King Esarhaddon was an Assyrian king who ruled around 680-670-s BCE and who is often considered a re-builder of both the city and the state, whose glory was lost in the preceding wars. It is him who is also connected to the construction of the legendary Babylonian Tower (which was, as we understand it now, a real ziggurat, albeit very tall, around 100 meters or so. Among his many faces, Marduk was also a patron of the City Babylon, so it’s understandable that King Esarhaddon would want to please him by such a monumental construction.

It is in this context I would like to know what is the object hold by the Queen Nakija. I understand that when I describe it as a ‘mirror’, it could well be a wishful thinking (and in reality this could be a flower, or an orb symbolising the Queen’s power (although in the latter case this would lead to another set of questions, to the very turtles, so to speak).

Worth remembering that it is not such an old artifact – I mean, it is old, of course, but not as old as many other artifacts of the ancient Egyptian kingdoms we find. Both its ‘function’ and its iconography could well be impacted by the very ankhs, for example, and they way they’ve been depicted.

But whether I am right or not here, in this specific case, it still shows what kind of things I’d love to see: the object resembling the ancient mirrors as we know them (i.e., the real artifacts we find, such as this one:

but depicted in a very non-conventional context for conventional mirrors.


Basically, I was going to end this posting here. But then I bumped into yet another book about the Ancient Egypt’s art which I looked through this new ‘filter of perception’.  I can’t say that I found what I was looking for, but I did find a few interesting artifacts that I decided to put here too, even if for the future re-investigations.

By the way, the mirror above is pretty old, it dates around 1880-s BCE and it belonged to the Princess Sat-Hathor-Yunet, daughter of the Pharaoh Senusret II.  The handle of the mirror is believed to depict the bundle of papyrus.

Below is an assortment of various objects and artifacts that in one way or another can be seen as ‘mirrors’, or at least have some relationships to them (perhaps, only in my own mind).


This is wall painting from the pyramid of Pharaoh Thutmose IV, built around 1400 BCE. The Pharaoh is greeted by various deities each interacting with him with the use of ankhs. Two of them hold their ankhs in hands, and one, to the left, has attached it to his staff:

We saw many ankhs in the previous postings, but the majority of them were fairly inactive. They were simply hold in hands (or the Sun was beaming them to the Pharaohs), but in this case they are actively, well, handled, and I can imagine the ‘mirrors’ used in a similar way, as if for blessings.

There is another interesting detail on this fresco, the line of ‘stars’ along its upper part. This is not just a mere decoration, they are indeed aimed at depicting the starry night.  In some cases this motif is elaborated to the very max. The so called Unas pyramid built around 2375 BCE near the settlement Saqqara, is nearly destroyed by now, but archeologist found its underground burial camera fairly intact, and this is how its ceiling looks like:


We see that it’s made of the sone block covered completely by the stars.

We can only imagine how beautiful was their night sky, shining clearly without light pollution of our times. I guess, one can go to Egypt and still see a somewhat similar view of the night sky, just slightly dented by the Earthly light sources – but here in Europe we are entirely deprived of these views.

I have shown these stars also because I see their appearance in some other artifacts, too.  This is an example of another wall pairing, from the shrine of the Goddess Hathor in Dier el-Bahari, built around 1425 BCE:


Again, we see many ankhs (and I would love to see what all these texts mean, I never encountered the translations of these multiple frescos, neither in the book nor in the museums; but to be honest, I also didn’t search too actively, as yet).

But we also see a number of other mirror-like objects here:

To the left we see an elongated disc (?) on a stick that reflects(?) a star. It is mounted on another disc, with yet another one in its proximity.  On the right one, apart of two ankhs we see a ball (?) of some sort with a loop, and another disc almost attached to a handle.

As I said, all these objects may have no connection to any mirrors whatsoever, and could be instead legitimate letters (=hieroglyphs). My point is at least to gather them here (and may be made a note or two, for example, about how meticulously they are shown as non-transparent objects (i.e., more resembling a mirror than a twisted rod).

The theme I missed entirely last time was the Animals; of all sorts! Let’s start from beetles, including The famous Scarabaeus viettei, who elsewhere would be a common dung beetle, but in Ancient Egypt became one of the most revered deity, Khepri (or at least they were somehow affiliated, the Scarab and this man-like creature with the head in form of a beetle).

The Scarab was often depicted with the disc (symbolising his dung ball he was eternally pushing, but also the Sun). In this particular pendant from the tomb of Tutankhamun the beetle is not only holding an ark (or a boat) that in turn carry the Eye of Horus, but also a join Sum/Moon symbol, with yet another group of deities…

… but also grasps two other discs, and the bundles of papyrus. As you see, this creature is even more complex than a beetle, it merges with another symbolically important animal, an eagle.

[One day after I finished this posting, I have read that the team of researchers has apparently solved the puzzle of the precious stone used to make the body of this beetle. It was long believed that the stone is chalcedony, a variety of quartz. Another hypothesis was that it is made of silica deposits on the bottom of a (now dry) lake in the Libyan desert. However, more recent research has revealed that the material that his beetle is made of is a tektite, sand molten by the impact of a meteorite that once fallen in the desert. The greenish stone is one of the droplets that was formed by this meteorite and found by people later on – read more about this studies here – Evidence for comet impact in the Sahara Desert].

I mentioned the Eye of Horus, otherwise also known as the eye of the goddess Wadjet (or Wedjat, Udjat), another very important symbol, and also strongly linked to my theme, of the mirrors –  thus inevitably of the gazing, seeing, and reflecting. Again, I would love to know more about the view of Egyptians on (visual) perception.

Below is not the picture from the book, but an image I found elsewhere. This artifact, a jewellery box of Princess Shepenupet II (around 670 BCE) depicts not one, but two such Eyes, that together form a face-looking shape, where they made its ‘nose’ out of the object resembling a mirror. The box is now in Louvre.


The eagle, or a falcon that we saw earlier blended with the scarab, was also an important deity on its own, it was one of the reincarnations of the God Ra, often also depicted with the Sun-disc on his head. The pendant below shows him also holding two discs – and two ankhs, too – in his clutches:

The pendant is also from the pyramid of Tutankhamun (i.e., its around 1335 BCE).

Yet another interesting animal is the goddess Taweret often depicted as she-hyppo:

In Ancient Egypt Taweret (also known under many other similar names – Taurt, Tuat, Taouris, and so on) was the goddess of fertility, and specifically, of child-birth, and a patron of pregnant women and newborns. In this small figurine she is holding an object that also resembles a mirror (and in fact similar to the hieroglyph ‘sa’ that meant ‘defence’ and ‘protection’).

This is the panel from the throne of Pharaoh Thutmose IV, who lived around 1400 BCE. Here we find few interesting things – for example, the same eagle who is now carrying a disc(-Sun). But the most interesting is this anthropomorphised ankh that holds in this ‘hands’ a large papyrus fan. In principle, they could also use the bar of the ankh itself to depict these hands, but no, the designers preferred to add more ‘hands’ but make sure that the ankh will be unmistakably seen as such:


Speaking about thrones, I have already shown this panel, also from the tomb of the Pharaoh Tutankhamun, where I suspect something mirror-like, this disc on the right side:

But I didn’t know, and was not mentioned in the previous book that it is in fact also part of his throne. Not sure that it adds much to the understanding of this disc, and its function and meaning, but you never know. Knowing of more context never hurts.


As I said, all these examples are not the ‘mirrors’ I am looking for, the ones that would be clearly seen as such, yet their application would be different from purely cosmetic purposes. But I decided to start piling them up, in the hope that one day this will all help me to obtain a clear picture about mirrors of Ancient Egypt.

And perhaps not only of Egypt. Egyptian civilisation was evolving for thousands and thousands of years, and in many ways impacted both Greeks and Romans, among other, that in turn made a colossal, form-giving impact European (Christian) civilisation of the last two thousand years, and on indirectly on our own world, too. Worth understanding it a bit better.

Above is not Madonna with Child. It’s a goddess Isis feeding young Horus. Circa 330 BCE.



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