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Detail of ‘Himiko, Queen of Yamataikoku.’ It is said this mysterious shaman queen of Japan had magic mirrors.

Researchers in Japan Discover the Secrets Behind Magic Mirrors and a Mysterious Shaman Queen

Magic mirrors are not just objects found in fairy tales. An experiment conducted on a replica bronze mirror in Kyoto’s National Museum shows that the original may be an example of an actual magic mirror that has been linked to a mysterious Japanese shaman queen.

So-called ‘magic mirrors’ have a slight unevenness to their surface – something the naked eye cannot note – which creates patterns on the back as light reflects off of the front. In Japan, magic mirrors were believed to help their users to conjure up images of divine beasts or wizards. Ryu Murakami, head of the museum’s curatorial board, said “Someone apparently noticed the phenomenon and intentionally shaped mirrors in this way. I believe they have something to do with sun worship.” The mirror examined in the study belongs in the “sankakubuchi shinjukyo” (triangular-rimmed deity and beast mirror) category of mirrors.

The original mirror in Kyoto National Museum, thought to be that of Himiko

The original mirror in Kyoto National Museum, thought to be that of Himiko. ( Green Shinto )

This magic mirror is called Himiko’s mirror because stories say it was owned by Himiko, a shaman queen who ruled the kingdom of Yamatai in the 3rd century AD. The mirror was found in the Higashinomiya tomb in Aichi, Japan and has been associated with the queen because some of the other mirrors found in the tomb have the date 239 inscribed on them – the year a Chinese emperor supposedly presented 100 bronze mirrors to the Queen’s emissary. The gift may seem strange by today’s standards, but at the time mirrors were valued presents and were used to create or cement political alliances.

Modern mirrors used in shrines mimic the sacred bronze mirrors of old - but without the magic

Modern mirrors used in shrines mimic the sacred bronze mirrors of old - but without the magic. ( Green Shinto )

Queen Himiko is not actually mentioned in Japanese sources - her story is only known through a Chinese historical text written in the late third century. Called ‘Records of the Three Kingdoms’ and compiled around 290 AD, this text is regarded as one of the most reliable of the Chinese dynastic histories. While the existence of Queen Himiko and her kingdom of Yamatai have mostly been accepted, the exact location of this site is still ambiguous today.

Young Himiko receiving her oracle mirror.

Young Himiko receiving her oracle mirror. ( CC BY SA 4.0

Returning to the magic mirror, Murakami studied the properties of the original Himiko mirror by creating a 3D printer to produce a replica from materials used in the originals, such as copper and tin powder. It was noted that images of wizards and mythical beasts had been engraved on the back of the object. Experimenting with the replica of the artifact proved that those images could be projected. Shoji Morishita, an associate professor of archaeology at Otemae University, said, “The finding could lead to reconsideration of the role of mirrors in ancient rituals. Sometimes, dozens of mirrors are found from the same burial mound. Theoretically, it’s not hard to imagine that they were lined up to project a number of images.”

When sunlight reflects off the surface of the replica of a Sankakubuchi Shinjukyo mirror, patterns engraved on the back are projected on a wall at the Kyoto National Museum.

When sunlight reflects off the surface of the replica of a Sankakubuchi Shinjukyo mirror, patterns engraved on the back are projected on a wall at the Kyoto National Museum. ( Noboru Tomura )

Although no exact examples have been recovered from China yet, Chinese archaeologists have also shown strong interest in the Wei mirrors. Some similarities have been seen in the style of these artifacts and Chinese mirrors. A prominent Chinese scholar has even said that the likeness is strong enough to suggest Wei mirrors were actually created by Chinese artisans living in asylum in Japan – but most Japanese archaeologists disagree.

Top Image: Detail of ‘Himiko, Queen of Yamataikoku.’ It is said this mysterious shaman queen of Japan had magic mirrors. Source: CC BY SA 4.0

By April Holloway

References

Edwards, W. “Mirrors to Japanese History”. https://archive.archaeology.org/9805/newsbriefs/japan.html

J Edward Kidder, Jr. “Himiko and Japan's Elusive Chiefdom of Yamatai.” http://muse.jhu.edu/book/8226

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