Everybody turns at the sound of breaking glass. There’s something dramatic about it, irreparable, frightening even. Broken glass is a symbol for the point of no return, a change so drastic it’s impossible to fix; that was why everybody turned at the sound of the fallen picture frame.
“Thank God it’s not a mirror,” somebody exclaimed trying to see the up side, because what’s worse than broken glass? Broken glass with a silver backing…
Superstition is a funny thing. It’s the sum of a random act with negative societal associations multiplied by the person’s fears and added to a number thought to have mystical properties. Superstition is so powerful it would make the person responsible for the break watch their every step and attribute all negative experiences between now and the next seven years to the broken glass, the one with the silver sprayed on the back of it.
People are born not knowing what they look like, which I find extremely poetic. You can form an impression from people’s descriptions, but getting to look into our own eyes is impossible without the help of a reflecting device. When I was four I used to love looking at the little girl inside my closet door so much my parents actually thought I had a narcissistic disorder. No one ever thought to ask if I understood it wasn’t somebody else.
Beyond children, to the unknowing people of the past it is understandable how an object that reflected a person’s image could be captivating. Without knowledge of light waves it’s not difficult to attach magical properties to such a thing. It’s easy for us to forget how the manufacture of plate glass was a relatively late discovery and that in order to turn that glass into a perfect reflecting surface, a currently simple, yet formerly complex chemical process is required. Imagine the excitement and the novelty of seeing your image in a plate of silvered glass as well as the terror experienced when the “magic” that held your face within it shattered to a million pieces.
Mirrors have held mystical attributes ever since antiquity and in fact, the ancient Romans believed that the mirror reflected a part of your soul. A broken mirror, presumably obsidian, signified a break in the person’s wellbeing. Some say seven years was the time it took for the soul to renew itself after the break. To some even now, a mirror’s fall from the wall means a death is imminent and in fairytales they know true beauty. In Jewish tradition mirrors are covered when someone dies in order to avoid their soul getting trapped in them or so that demons are not attracted through them by the void left by the death. And not forgetting my personal favourite of course: Vampires cannot be reflected in mirrors for they have no soul.
In 15th-16th century Venice where the science of mirror making was the most advanced in Europe at the time, mirrors were astronomically expensive. Any servants discovered to have broken a mirror were forced into indentured servitude for seven years in order to pay back the cost of the object. Add that to the centuries of awe caused by the mystical qualities of the reflected image and a powerful superstition takes shape.
What’s the most enduring fact of all? Fear of ill luck can race through the generations, fuelled only by the power of the spoken word, without a shred of proof other than what we interpret as misfortune. We can find bad luck in anything if we search hard enough or if we are looking to confirm what we think we know. As it turns out, the impact of words is more powerful than a thousand broken mirrors…