The earliest Egyptian mirrors were highly polished copper disks with a short stem that probably served to provide better anchorage for the handle. They appeared in the region of Memphis during the Early Dynastic period. Some writers have suggested that other materials (stone, mica) or other methods (water in a handheld container) were used to reflect an image during the prehistoric era, but there is hardly any evidence to substantiate this. A number of Egyptian mines, particularly in Sinai, provided the copper used in the making of these mirrors from prehistory until the end of the Middle Kingdom. Metal was more frequently imported from the Near East and Cyprus during the New Kingdom. Copper working is delicate because it becomes fragile when beaten, and it was superseded around the twelfth dynasty by bronze, which was probably introduced into Egypt through the trading port of Byblos. It is difficult to explain why this metal, an alloy of copper and tin, should have arrived so late in Egypt, whereas in Asia it had been discovered by around 3500–3200 BCE. It is unlikely that the mirror disks or bronze handles are earlier than the Middle Kingdom.

Copper disks of the Early Dynastic period are cordiform (heart-shaped); whereas throughout the Old Kingdom, an elliptical outline soon became the norm. Lotiform disks are rarer; bronze examples were discovered at Abydos. Disks no more than a millimeter thick were simply beaten into shape, but thicker ones were cast, then beaten and polished. The reflecting quality could be enhanced by a patina of gold or silver. From the optical point of view, the disks were concave, convex, or a combination of both. A very few plated bronze disks have been recorded.

Handles.

No mirror handles of the Early Dynastic period have been discovered, but this is perhaps an accidental absence. Mirrors from the Old Kingdom might have a wooden handle in the form of papyrus, into which the stem of the metal disk slid, to be fixed to the handle by a rivet. The papyriform column becomes the commonest decoration for mirror handles. The depiction of a complete mirror in the tomb of Kagemni at Saqqara prove the existence of the outline only at the beginning of the sixth dynasty. Other representations at Deir el-Gebrawi and at Thebes date from the late seventh dynasty. Disks mounted on standards, often decorated with wḏʒt, also appear in the Old Kingdom in Saqqara and Mendes. The first handles representating human heads—believed to be of Hathor—date from the beginning of the Middle Kingdom; they soon develop the cow's ears typical of Hathor and are combined with a papyriform capital. During this period the papyriform column increases in size and carries a falcon or leopard head, and exceptionally that of an ibex or serpent. A very pure form, that of the hieroglyph hm, serves as the handle of a wooden model and is often found on walls of tombs and temples.

At the end of the Middle Kingdom, materials used for handles become completely diversified: handles in ivory, stone, glazed clay, and earthenware, as well as bronze, silver, gold, and silver-plated bronze. Handles are often inlaid with metal, earthenware, or stone, or plated with gold or silver. Disks and handles in bronze may have varying proportions of tin. The bronze handles are either solid or hollow, cast by the lost wax process, which imparts a unique quality to each piece and leads to the development of more elaborate outlines. In certain cases, bronze handles are made in several pieces joined together, as can be seen in New Kingdom statuettes: the arms are sometimes cast separately, then attached by a mortise-and-tenon joint.

Feminine statuette handles constitute an outstanding innovation of the New Kingdom. About a hundred mirrors of this kind have been recorded. To these should be added many handles of the same type in wood and ivory (sometimes in bone) that have now lost their disks. These maidens carry a simple or enlarged papyrus flower capital, or more rarely a palm or a “fleur-de-lys” emblem. These elements are integrated through arm positions and graceful attitudes, especially when the maiden holds the end of the papyrus umbels with both hands. These statuettes give precious sociological and chronological information, especially concerning the hairstyles worn by young girls. Some of the maidens carry a bird, cat, or child, which should be taken into account as symbolic objects. Even though these statuette mirrors are found in Egypt, Palestine, and Nubia, they were all produced in Egyptian workshops. The quality of their workmanship can vary a great deal; some mirrors are made with care and finely engraved, while others are more roughly finished. Handle statuettes of the god Bes were also produced in the New Kingdom, along with a fretwork-type handle, which shows great mastery of technique, being made up of a group of royal figurines surrounded by snakes and various significant hieroglyphs.

From the twenty-fifth to the twenty-sixth dynasty, a new type of mirror emerged. The handle, either flat or column-shaped, was surmounted by the head of Hathor, sometimes combined with a moon crescent that surrounds the circumference of the disk. The latter is engraved with an offering scene made by a semsyet mut to a feminine divinity seated under a canopy. This ritual presentation gives the subject a votive character. The flat papyriform-handled mirror used in this engraved ritual is equipped with a transversal bar at the base; actual objects of this kind have not yet been discovered. Hieroglyphic ḥm-type mirrors, sometimes surmounted by the head of Hathor, must have existed during the Ptolemaic period for cult use.

Inscriptional Evidence for the Word for “Mirror.”.

No word for “mirror” has come to light before the end of the Old Kingdom, and no reference occurs in the Pyramid Texts. In the Middle Kingdom, the first periphrase (ʿnkh mʒʒ ḥr) is found that refers to this object; this evolves into ʿnkh n mʒʒ ḥr, accompanied by a determinative indicating the material and color. On sarcophagus friezes, the papyrus column and, more frequently, the mirrors on standards often occur in pairs or fours. In this context, the inscriptions imy ḏ.t, nṯry, Iwny and mʒʿtj are found, plainly indicating a reference to the sun god Re, clearly present in the disk shape. These religious or symbolic terms were closely related to the funereal function of the object, which was generally placed in tombs near the deceased. In the New Kingdom and during the Ptolemaic period, the term ʿnkh, which also stood for “mirror,” is accompanied by the determinative ḥm. In the Saite era, the expression wn-ḥr, wnwj-ḥr appears; it is also to be found, with spelling variations, in the Ptolemaic period. Finally, itn followed by the determinative already referred to, or simply by a circle, also designates “mirror” in this era. The expression ʿnk pr or ʿnkh m pr.f, as well as a large number of portrayals of objects found in the excavations, shows that the Egyptians carefully protected the mirrors with leather or woven fiber covers or even kept them in boxes or carrying cases.

Archaeological Context.

Most of the disks or mirrors were placed in tombs as close as possible to the deceased—man, woman or child. Only a few mirrors have been found in a religious context. Likewise, few mirrors have been discovered in civil buildings, probably because of the lack of urban excavations. Sometimes the owners of these mirrors had their name and title engraved on the disk near the stem; the titles ḥm ntr ht-ḥr and S̆ms̀jt Mwt are women's, while those indicating various positions in the hierarchy of the state (ʒtjʿ, mr ḥm-ntr) are men's.

Depictions of Mirrors.

Mirror are represented in various situations, not always strictly related to real-life cosmetic activities. In a scene concerning metalcraft in the tomb of Wr-iri.n.i (sixth dynasty), a disk is shown together with vases and tools. In the tomb of Itti/Sdw at Deshasheh (sixth dynasty) is a mirror with a cover that leaves the handle exposed, placed next to a pair of finished sandals in a basketry workshop. The tomb of Kagemni at Saqqara, dated at the beginning of the sixth dynasty, shows the oldest depiction of a mirror with handle—the papyrus column type.

On stelae, as in certain scenes on tomb wall paintings, the mirror is found in funereal contexts. It is placed near the deceased, man or woman, under his seat or nearby with other objects. It is also found among offerings to the deceased.

At Thebes, in the tomb of Intefiqer and his wife, a Hathor priestess is inscribed with a caption referring to an unusual offering scene. A mirror is presented together with a vase to the deceased, who inhales the perfume of a lotus flower. The accompanying text refers to the “tent of purification,” confirming the funereal context, since this is a reference to the ritual of rebirth. This emphasizes the symbolic importance of the object. (It should be noted that mirrors were also used in the interpretation of dreams, especially in foretelling the sex of a child.)

In the mastaba of Mererwykai (Mrr-wi-kʒi), a mirror with a papyriform handle depicts a dance the meaning of which is not yet understood. The name of the deity Hathor associated with this dance indicates that it was reserved for her. The ritual nature of this dance to Hathor suggests that some mirrors were strictly for this function. The expression ink m hrt hwr leads us to believe that certain objects were specially designed for these activities. No other text confirms this, unless the owner's inscription ḥem neter Hathor (ḥm nṯr Ḥ.t ḥr) emblazoned on certain mirrors, mentioning the use, indicates a ritual character.

On sarcophagi of the Middle Kingdom, disk and papyrus mirrors, with or without cases, as well as disks on standards, are illustrated singly, in pairs, or in fours on friezes. An eye is often engraved on the disk. The material used in the reflecting surface is indicated by the colors white, yellow, red-brown, or pink, and an accompanying text confirms it is made of gold, silver, electrum, or copper.

In the New Kingdom tomb of Kenamun (Kn-Imn), mirrors are presented as offerings to King Amenhotpe II at the New Year celebration. This seems to refer to an annual presentation by the royal workshops, as opposed to the productions of temple or personal workshops. According to a custom documented in Middle Kingdom funereal monuments, on many of the stelae and tomb walls of private individuals a mirror was painted or carved near the deceased or his wife, for whom the monument was intended.

An anonymous stela found at Abydos, dated about 700 BCE, shows a woman offering a mirror to the sun god Re-Horakhty. Two other stelae bear an identical scene: on the first a smsjt Mwt offers a mirror to Re-Horakhty, and on the second, Mut and the goddess of the Nile are the recipients. Finally, the fish goddess Mehit of Thinis receives the offering of a mirror on a bronze plate. These documents are related to votive mirrors dated between 700 and 500 BCE, on the disks of which a ritual offering of the mirror to the goddess Mut is engraved. This gift is made by a woman, bearing the title S̆ms̀jt Mwt, to the deity seated on a highly decorated canopied dais supported by hathoric columns. Apotropaic symbols such as udjat (wḍʒt) are found on certain earlier mirrors, including the face of the god Bes or an ibis. The allusions to heavenly bodies, sun-disk and moon-crescent, and heads of Hathor and Horus which are parts of the handles as well as of the engraving on the disks, are all elements found in Egyptian sun symbolism. This ritual, known to have been founded in the Saite era, develops on temple walls from the reign of Ptolemy II until the reign of the Roman emperor Caracalla. The sacred gestures involving two mirrors are presented by the king himself to Hathor or Isis, as well as to all the goddesses assimilated with Hathor and their hypostases. The two mirrors represent shining heavenly bodies, the sun and moon being the “luminaries” (hʒty.ty) offered to bring exultation to the goddess; the one that is the eye of Re is intended to calm and contribute to the keeping of the force of light. The goddess returns this light to the king, thus ensuring his supremacy over the universe. The gesture associates the king with the disk. The roots of the ritual are very ancient, as can be observed in the development of scenes where the mirror is represented; it may have originated in Memphis. The god Ptah, the creator, was considered to be the original caster of mirrors.

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Claire Derriks