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Mirror magic, fortune telling and fulfillment of desires. Fantasy with a mirror, dark room, magical power, night view. (MiaStendal /Adobe Stock)

The Measure Of Ancient Mirrors: Planispheres, Phenakistoscopes And Telescopes

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In some early texts concerning long-distance viewing, the term ‘mirror’ is used, but not as a device for simple reflection. Instead, the mirror takes on other powers, and the term seems to serve as some kind of metaphor for a fantastical device to view scenes remotely.

Johannes Hevelius observing with one of his telescopes (1674) (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Johannes Hevelius observing with one of his telescopes (1674) ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )

Mirroring The Future

The Gesta Romanorum ( Deeds of the Romans ) is a collection of anecdotes dating from the late 13th or early 14th century. The work seems to have been written for the purpose of providing morality tales, as each anecdote or story in the text includes a heading referring to a particular moral virtue or vice — for example, de invidia . One of the tales in this book deals with the idea of viewing images at a distance in this context. A knight has married a woman who is unfaithful, but he is unaware of that fact; moreover, he is away from home, travelling in the city of Rome: “ In the meantime, while the knight was passing through the main street of Rome, a wise master met him in the way, and observing him narrowly, said, “My friend, I have a secret to communicate.” “Well, master, what would you please to say?” “This day, you are one of death’s children, unless you follow my advice: your wife is a harlot, and contrives your death.” The knight, hearing what was said of his spouse, put confidence in the speaker ”.

Gesta Romanorum, a manuscript from Upper Swabia in Germany (circa 1452) (Public Domain).

Gesta Romanorum, a manuscript from Upper Swabia in Germany (circa 1452) ( Public Domain ).

The story then turns to the device: “ Then putting into his hand a polished mirror, [the wise master] said, “Look attentively upon this, and you will see wonders.” He did so, and the meanwhile the master read to him from a book. “What see you?” he asked. “I see,” said the knight, “a certain clerk in my house .”

The story goes on to recount how the knight is able to see that this clerk has murderous intentions. When the knight returns home, his wife denies that there is anything going on, but of course, he is able to describe the events in detail, as he has seen them in the magic mirror.

Tales Of Three Brothers And A Mirror

A technical idea — however fancifully expressed it may be — is embedded in a moral narrative, a pattern that occurs a number of times in early sources that include technological devices.

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Dr Benjamin B. Olshin is a former Professor of Philosophy, the History and Philosophy of Science and Technology, and Design at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia. His areas of expertise include sociology of science and technology, design, Eastern / Western philosophy, as well as cross-cultural management. His latest book is:  Lost Knowledge: The Concept of Vanished Technologies and Other Human Histories .

Top Image : Mirror magic, fortune telling and fulfillment of desires. Fantasy with a mirror, dark room, magical power, night view. ( MiaStendal / Adobe Stock )

By   Benjamin B. Olshin

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