Hilary Wilson on… Mirrors in Ancient Egypt

Mirrors, as we know them, did not exist in ancient Egypt, so what did the elite use to check their elaborate make-up?


For millennia, people have sought to immortalise themselves in portraits. At the distance of centuries, we cannot assess the accuracy of any likeness, especially when the artistic conventions and the purposes served by this form of art were so varied. Even the apparently lifelike statues, intended to perpetuate the Egyptians’ existence in the next world, portrayed them in stylised form, forever free from blemish and the ravages of age. We are now so familiar with recognisable images of named individuals, in the shape of painted or sculpted portraits and photography, that we forget that most people in ancient societies rarely had the opportunity to see themselves as others saw them.

Kawit, a wife of the Eleventh Dynasty pharaoh Mentuhotep II, admires her hairdresser’s handiwork with the aid of a hand-held metal mirror, in a  scene on her sarcophagus, now in the Egyptian Museum, Cairo. Image: Wellcome, CC BY 4.0, via Wikicommons
A courtesan applies make-up with the aid of a hand-held mirror. A scene in the Turin Satirical Papyrus. Image: Hilary Wilson (HW)

In ancient Egypt, the best most people could hope for was to catch a glimpse of their reflection in water. A shallow bowl of a dark-coloured stone, such as schist or basalt, filled with clean water, could serve as a primitive form of mirror, though having to keep the bowl horizontal makes this an impractical instrument. A roughly rectangular polished flake of selenite (a crystalline form of gypsum), found in a Badarian grave (c.4400-4000 BC), has been interpreted as one of the earliest Egyptian mirrors. This item, now in the British Museum, was found alongside other cosmetic equipment, including that most popular of Predynastic grave goods: a simple mudstone palette. Principally used for grinding cosmetic pigments, the smooth surface of a cosmetic palette made of slate or schist, if wetted with water, could also provide a reflective surface, however fleeting, to aid the application of eye-paint.

As Egyptian metallurgy developed from the First Intermediate Period onwards, mirrors of polished metal became regular inclusions in burials, both male and female. These prestigious objects were valuable because of the weight of metal they required. The usual shape was a flat disc, with a tang enabling the attachment of a wooden, ivory or bone handle. The finest examples have handles cast in metal, commonly in the form of a papyrus umbel.

A bronze mirror with a handle in the shape of a papyrus umbel, from the Louvre, Paris. Image: HW
A copper mirror with ebony handle inlaid with gold, from the Tomb of Reniseneb in Asasif, held by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (MMA). Image: Metropolitan Museum of Art
An Eighteenth Dynasty silver mirror with a handle in the shape of the head of the goddess Bat, from the Theban tomb of the foreign wives of Thutmose III, now in the MMA. The wood of the handle has been restored, but the gold sheathing is original. 
Image: MMA

Papyrus, symbolic of youth and renewal, was particularly associated with Hathor, goddess of love and beauty. On her sarcophagus, Mentuhotep II’s wife Kawit (of the Eleventh Dynasty) is shown holding such a mirror to view the work of her hairstylist. A copper mirror with a gold-inlaid ebony papyrus-stem handle, found in the mummy wrappings of Reniseneb, a Middle Kingdom official, could well have been a royal gift.

The Twelfth Dynasty stela of Dedu, from his Asasif tomb, now in the MMA. Dedu’s wife Satsobek holds a white/silver mirror. Image: HW

Other Hathoric emblems were used to adorn mirrors, including the head of the goddess Bat, a woman’s face with the ears and horns of a cow. The mirror from the Lahun tomb of Princess Sithathoriunet, whose name means ‘Daughter of Hathor of Dendera’, is a particularly luxurious example, with the silver disc mounted on a handle of obsidian and gold.

A mirror apparently made of silver, which would have given a truer colour reflection than copper or bronze, is shown being carried by Dedu’s wife Satsobek, on a stela now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art (MMA); another, painted yellow in imitation of gold, is under Nefertjentet’s chair on another stela in the MMA. Probably neither woman was of a status to have been able to afford a mirror of precious metal in life, but both expected the best for their afterlife.

The First Intermediate Period stela of Tetu, now in the MMA. Beneath the chair of his wife, Nefertjentet, is a hand mirror painted yellow in imitation of gold. Image: HW

As the Eye of Ra, Hathor was also intimately associated with the sun god and a mirror’s circular shape, and the golden image reflected from its coppery surface, made it an ideal symbol of the sun. Middle Kingdom practice was to place the body on its side, facing the east, to greet the sunrise and so join in Ra’s journey across the sky. As an additional aid to resurrection, in Wah’s Asasif tomb, a mirror was placed in the coffin in front of the deceased’s face.

A feature of the interior decoration of Middle Kingdom wooden coffins was the ‘frieze of objects’, an elaborate depiction of funerary goods. Among the clothing, furniture, weapons, and other essential supplies, all carefully labelled, were mirrors.

The frieze of objects from the coffin of Djehutynakht, el-Bersha (now in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston), includes three free-standing mirrors labelled as copper, silver, and gold, and a hand mirror in a papyrus case, described as ‘for seeing the face’. Image: HW

On the coffin of Djehutynakht from el-Bersha, in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, three free-standing mirrors are shown. Each is a metal disc set on a pole, like a divine standard, which is decorated with the Eye of Ra, and the hieroglyphic labels confirm that the mirrors are of gold, silver, and copper, as indicated by the different paint colours. The word used for mirror is ankh, with the metal determinative, a recognition of the mirror’s property of reflecting a living, moving image. Also from el-Bersha and now in the British Museum, Djehutynakht’s hand mirror (like the mirror on Gua’s coffin) is described as anx mAA Hr, ‘for seeing the face’. Is it possible that this, rather than the later Latin mirare (‘to look at’), is the origin of the word ‘mirror’?

To protect surfaces from scratches and corrosion, hand mirrors were kept in slip-cases of animal hide (as depicted on a Middle Kingdom coffin in the Brooklyn Museum) or woven papyrus (as shown on Djehutynakht’s coffin). A cased mirror can be seen under the chair of Intef’s wife Keku, on his stela in Leiden, and another, shown among a selection of metal items on Sen’s coffin in the British Museum, is described as being m pr=f, ‘in its house’.

A panel from the late Middle Kingdom coffin of an unnamed woman, now in the Brooklyn Museum of Art, showing a hand mirror in its hide case, labelled as ‘an ankh [mirror] of white gold [silver]’. Image:HW

The fourth figure in the model of Djehutynakht’s offering-bearers is a woman carrying a cosmetic box and a mirror in its case, hanging from her shoulder, and on Ity’s stela in the British Museum, Ity’s daughters are shown carrying small, cased mirrors like stylish handbags.

The el-Bersha procession: model offering-bearers from Djehutynakht’s tomb, now in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. The woman at the rear carries a hide-cased mirror slung on her shoulder. Image: Marcus Cyron, CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons
The Twelfth Dynasty stela of Ity, in the British Museum. Ity’s daughters carry small, cased mirrors like handbags. Images: HW

The ankh-shaped mirror box from Tutankhamun’s tomb. Image HW

The most precious mirrors were kept in purpose-made boxes, the best-known being the ankh-shaped mirror-case from Tutankhamun’s tomb. Sadly, when it was found, the box was empty. The solid metal mirror was a valuable and eminently portable prize, and had been taken by ancient tomb robbers. We will never know if Tutankhamun’s mirror was of gold, silver or bronze, nor how it was decorated.

Nowadays, our eyes are constantly assaulted by photographic images of ourselves through print and electronic media, as well as reflections, bouncing off glass or metal surfaces or wet pavements. Unlike the ancient Egyptians, we take the existence of mirrors for granted.

Hilary Wilson is a retired maths teacher and Chairman of the Southampton Ancient Egypt Society. She is now a freelance lecturer and writer, and the author of several Egyptological books and articles, as well as the previous Per Mesut series in Ancient Egypt magazine. Under the name Hilary Cawston, she writes fiction with an Egyptian theme.