The magic mirror of shaman Queen used in ancient Japanese rituals
An experiment conduced earlier this year on a replica of an ancient bronze mirror held at Kyoto’s National Museum revealed that the original may have been used as a so-called magic mirror to conjure up images of mountain wizards and divine beasts for sun-worshipping rituals. In a magic mirror, unevenness on the polished surface—too subtle to be detected by the naked eye—reproduces patterns on the back when light reflects off the front.
The mirror, known as Himiko’s mirror, was unearthed from the Higashinomiya Tomb in Aichi, Japan, and belongs to the “sankakubuchi shinjukyo” (triangular-rimmed deity and beast mirror) category of mirrors. It is associated with Himiko, a shaman Queen who ruled the kingdom of Yamatai in the 3 rd century AD, because some of the mirrors found in the tomb and in other locations were inscribed with the year 239, which is when a Chinese emperor presented 100 bronze mirrors to the Queen’s emissary, according to a Chinese chronicle. At the time, mirrors were a valued gift between members of the court and were often used as diplomatic gifts to bind political alliances.
Oddly enough, Queen Himiko is not mention in Japanese sources, rather it is a classic Chinese historical text written in the late third century, ‘Records of the Three Kingdoms’, which gives the earliest and most complete picture of this ancient queen. The ‘Records of the Three Kingdoms’ (compiled ca. 290 AD) is considered one of the most reliable of the Chinese dynastic histories, but its record of this exchange leaves Yamatai's precise location ambiguous. Yamatai is said to have controlled some 30 other countries making up the Japanese islands, although its actual location has never been proven.
Himiko, the Shaman Queen.
Ryu Murakami, head of the museum’s curatorial board, said the discovery could provide valuable clues in studying how bronze mirrors were used in ancient Japan. “Someone apparently noticed the phenomenon and intentionally shaped mirrors in this way,” he said. “I believe they have something to do with sun worship.”
Murakami, an expert in historical materials science, used a 3D printer to produce a replica of a Sankakubuchi Shinjukyo mirror from materials used in the originals, such as copper and tin powder. Its back features a relief engraving of wizards and mythical creatures. The experiment revealed that the mirror could indeed project the images engraved on the back.
“The finding could lead to reconsideration of the role of mirrors in ancient rituals,” said Shoji Morishita, an associate professor of archaeology at Otemae University’s faculty of cultural and historical studies. “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.”
Chinese archaeologists have also shown great interest in the Wei mirrors. Although they are clearly linked stylistically to other Chinese mirrors, no similar examples have been recovered from China. This has prompted one prominent Chinese scholar to suggest that the Wei mirrors were made by Chinese artisans who had fled their homeland for asylum in Japan, and thus could not be Himiko's mirrors at all – a claim most Japanese archaeologists do not agree with.
Mirrors to Japanese History – by Walter Edwards
Himiko and Japan's Elusive Chiefdom of Yamatai – by J Edward Kidder, Jr.