Ancient Origins IRAQ Tour

The Compendium of Materia Medica is a pharmaceutical text written by Li Shizhen (1518–1593 AD) during the Ming dynasty of China. This edition was published in 1593. (Public Domain)

Ancient Asian Technology: Chinese Mirrors And Forerunners Of The X-Ray

Mirrors appear in a wide range of human cultures throughout history. The idea of an image somehow floating, disembodied and separate from the person looking — shining on a piece of polished stone or metal and reflecting the person’s body — certainly is beguiling. Literary and philosophical passages discussing mirrors are found in early Greek, Roman, Chinese, and other sources. Moreover, it is fascinating to note that even centuries ago, the fact that a mirror makes a reflected image led to the concept of a penetrating image — in fact, certain early Chinese sources present devices that are labeled as ‘mirrors’, but that have the power to see inside the human body. While these may be no more than technological speculations on the part of early thinkers, it is curious to see how such technologies are described. These early texts present an imaginative and prescient conception of a device that could function something like an X-ray, illuminating the organs inside a person.

Bronze mirror, New Kingdom of Egypt, Eighteenth Dynasty, (1540–1296 BC) Cleveland Museum of Art  (CC0)

Bronze mirror, New Kingdom of Egypt, Eighteenth Dynasty, (1540–1296 BC) Cleveland Museum of Art  (CC0)

Etymology Of Mirror

Throughout human history, human beings have made reflective devices from pieces of polished metal or metal and glass, in cultures in Europe, Asia, Africa, North America, and even remote Siberia. In Western culture, the word ‘mirror’ itself has a complex history. In English it appears in the early 13th century, coming from the Old French term mireor. That term came from the Latin verb mirari, meaning to wonder at, or admire. So, already in Latin, the words for the common mirror and for something special or magical were intertwined. Moreover, Latin had the word speculum, a general term for mirror, but also related to speculatio, a term which had a range of meanings including, watching, contemplation, and speculation. In ancient Greek, the term for mirror was κάτοπτρο and in the 17th century, this led to the peculiar English term ‘catoptromancy’, meaning divination by means of a mirror.

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