The Mirror of a Japanese Shaman Queen
An ominous, magical mirror that, according to experts, once belonged to an ancient shaman who used it in countless rituals.
Objects created by people often carry, within their very essence, some part of the spirit of the person who made or owned them. Such is especially the case with Chinese and Japanese magic mirrors. As objects, they’ve fascinated the Western mind for centuries. Circular plates made of bronze, they’re between 15 and 20 centimeters in diameter, and decorated on the back with motifs of animals, plants, or deities in low relief. Their designs, strangely, are projected when a ray of light is directed to the front, the reflecting face (in appearance, a completely smooth surface). The phenomenon was scientifically explained only a relatively short time ago, but for centuries the mirrors remained within the realm of “magic.”
That magic, and the resulting optical phenomena, (the scientific explanation of which diminishes none of their marvelous qualities), accounts for the mirror known as “Himiko’s mirror” and perhaps gives it an even more astounding quality. A recent scientific experiment performed with a replica of the ancient bronze mirror in the National Museum of Kyoto revealed that the original, specifically, may have been used as a magic mirror to conjure images of mountain magicians and divine beasts during solar rituals.
The mirror was unearthed at the Higashinomiya Tomb in Aichi, Japan and belongs to a category of mirrors known as sankakubuchi shinjukyo (that is, “mirrors with triangular borders and decorated with animals”). This one is associated with the queen, Himiko, a former ruler whose shamanic powers have survived history as myths and legends. Himiko ruled the kingdom of Yamatai in the third century C.E. and this was concluded because some of the mirrors found within the tomb are inscribed with the year 239, at the time when a Chinese emperor, according to some Chinese chronicles, is said to have given 100 bronze mirrors to the shaman queen. (Such gifts were used as a medium of exchange among allied nobles.)
Strangely, Queen Himiko doesn’t appear in many Japanese historical documents. Rather, it’s in a Chinese chronicle known as the Records of the Three Kingdoms where the oldest and most complete mention of this fascinating character is to be found. The records, compiled in about 290 C.E., provide one of the most reliable historical texts about these Chinese dynasties. The account of the exchange of gifts does not, however, indicate where the kingdom of Yamatai may have been. It said to have been an empire which controlled some 30 kingdoms on what are, today, the islands of Japan.
Recent discoveries regarding this piece are deeply relevant because they allow us to rethink the very history of Japanese magic mirrors and their many uses. Among these is their possible use as objects of worship in rites dedicated to solar deities. Such precious mirrors, only recently known in the West, are frequently found within excavations carried out at ancient burial mounds and it’s believed that they were placed in rows such that they projected multiple images. Research also suggests that so-called “Wei mirrors,” a subcategory of Japanese magic mirrors in clearly Chinese styles, were made by artisans born in China and who left their country to take refuge within the Japanese archipelago.
Even knowing nothing of the history of those who made such mirrors, nor to whom they belonged, Chinese mirrors continue to fascinate us with their magic, one that surpasses the optical phenomena they produce. Himiko’s mirror embodies something else: the story of a fascinating character of whom little is known, the essence of a shaman queen who once ruled some 50 Japanese kingdoms.
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