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Entertaining book reflects upon man and the mirror

When scientists put full-length mirrors outside the cages of young chimps, the animals reacted the way they would to a stranger — vocalizing, threatening, acting submissive.

But after about three days, their behavior changed. It dawned on the chimps that they were looking at their own reflections. They began grooming, looking inside their mouths and checking other difficult-to-see locations.

Chimps are one of the few animals that, like people, seem to understand what they’re seeing in a mirror. Others include dolphins and elephants, Mark Pendergrast reports in a fascinating new book, “Mirror Mirror: A History of the Human Love Affair With Reflection.”

There is no way to know when the first mirror was made; it was probably a bowl of still water, Pendergrast speculates.

But the oldest artificial mirror discovered by archaeologists dates from about 6200 B.C. and was found at Catal Huyuk in central Turkey. It was made from polished obsidian, a black volcanic glass.

In ancient times, mirrors were popular in Egypt, and those in Europe were made of copper and bronze.

Shamans and theologians have looked to the mirror in every human culture, seeking ways to ward off evil spirits and preserve the soul. Indeed, fear of having the soul captured in a mirror was common, and folklore particularly warned to keep infants and ill people away from mirrors.

That’s a far cry from today’s vanity culture, where mirrors are everywhere, from the purse to the bath and bedroom, and to the clothing shop.

And they do their job in other ways, too — reflecting light in telescopes to peer into space, concentrating the beam of spotlights and warning drivers that objects behind them are closer than they appear.

In the years before World War I, Paris and Berlin became known as cities of light because of the mirror-focused floodlights trained on their public buildings. After the war, other cities joined in, with New York creating its Great White Way.

But it’s the human reflection that makes the mirror most magical and most puzzling, reversing the image and yet showing people as they are.

Pendergrast recalls groping his way through a mirror maze in a Swiss amusement park, bumping into mirrors as he tried to find his way along and occasionally glimpsing a young man also trying to navigate the pathway.

Suddenly, the two were face-to-face and the stranger reached out, touched Pendergrast’s face tentatively, and asked, “Sind sie echt?”

“Are you real?” the man had asked, a question one ponders when facing the mirror.


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