The family I’m currently staying with has an autistic son. He’s grown now, but one of his favourite activities is his water play, a love for his whole life. He has many containers, which he fills and pours out, fills and pours out. He used both the sink and bathtub, often filling the bathtub as well. When he was younger, he flooded the bathroom enough times that they had to remodel the bathroom to fix the water damage. He now knows what it okay and what isn’t, water wise, so no longer floods anything. In the remodel process, they replaced the spout in the sink with one that is wide, creating a waterfall-like effect.
Another of his loves in mirrors. He can’t pass a mirror without stopping to look in it, and loves staring into them, watching himself. He has a ball, the type used for exercise and as office chairs sometimes. He sits for hours in the hall, bouncing in front of the hall mirror.
He also loves photos, loves looking at them, loves pointing out people. He uses them, along with speech, and along with printing out names or words if he thinks you don’t get it, to tell people he wants someone, or wants something. He likes to have Velcro on the back and stick them to things, arranging them.
What do all these things have in common? Among many things, water reflects, creating images of things. Mirrors reflect, creating images of things. Photos are images of things. Images.
This is of course why I find a mirror to be the best tool in relation to elemental water. If there is light as all, water reflects, looked at from the right angle. The surface is a mirror. It’s interesting to note that a mirror is a single surface, whether is be metal or glass or stone. It’s a smooth continuous surface that reflects light. Water is the same. Water forms surface tension because of the hydrogen bonds, creating a complete smooth continuous surface between its edges, unless some outside force or object breaks that surface. In very real ways, water is a mirror. And there evidence that wells and other pools formed the first mirrors used in ritual, the inspiration of copper mirrors once copper could be worked.
We can note the importance of mirrors and images in religions around the world. Judaism, for instance, contains a verse in the Torah, the first mention of man:
וַיִּבְרָא אֱלֹהִים אֶת-הָאָדָם בְּצַלְמוֹ בְּצֶלֶם אֱלֹהִים בָּרָא אֹתו זָכָר וּנְקֵבָה בָּרָא אֹתָם
And God created man in His own image, in the image of God created He him; male and female created He them.
In Christianity, we have a verse in First Corinthians:
βλεπομεν γαρ αρτι δι εσοπτρου εν αινιγματι τοτε δε προσωπον προς προσωπον αρτι γινωσκω εκ μερους τοτε δε επιγνωσομαι καθως και επεγνωσθην
For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.
In Greek myth, we have the story of Narcissus, who was cursed to gaze at his own reflection in a pool, and withered away staring at his reflection. We also see Perseus using a shield as a mirror to kill Medusa without meeting her direct gaze, and the story of Archimedes designing an array of mirrors to set ships on fire to protect Syracuse from the Romans.
In Egypt, Qetesh, a goddess of love and beauty, is usually shown with a mirror.
Buddhist contains a myth of Prabhavati, the dakini of light, giving a prefect, clear mirror to the Buddha. Mirrors are the tool of choice in Tibet, Mongolia, and Siberia for divination, usually metal mirrors, copper, bronze, or silver.
Mirrors of course show up later as well. There’s story in Medieval Europe of a knight using a mirror to turn the gaze of a basilisk back on itself to turn it to stone instead of being turned into stone, a motif stemming from the Medusa myth and appearing in a lot of later literature. There’s Alice in Through the Looking Glass passing through a mirror to the mirror world where everything is backwards, and is different from ours once you get beyond the view of the mirror. We have the belief that a mirror (or a painting or camera) captures the soul of a person, stemming from the Narcissus myth and appearing in the superstition about breaking a mirror, and in the Portrait of Dorian Grey. To name a few.
Three main motifs show up in myth, in superstition, and also in magical practices. First we have the basic reflection, that a mirror send back, used for Archimedes’ flames and used in mirror spells to send an attack or curse back at the sender. Second, we have the portal or gateway, appearing in Alice’s story, and in divination by scrying, whether through a mirror or on water. Third, we have the trap ala Narcissus and the seven years’ bad luck from breaking a mirror, and in spells where a mirror once gazed into is used to trap the person, and doing things to the mirror translating to them, and to spells done with the picture of someone.
All three of these apply equally to mirrors and to water. Water reflects. Water is a gateway (remember that there are many stories of journeys beneath the waves, not to mention the very physical journeys across them, often to fantastic lands; also remember that wells and springs are often sacred, and often connected with pathways to the underworld, from they flow up from there; and also remember that mirrors and water are used similarly in scrying). Water is a trap (most obvious in the Narcissus tale, but appearing other places as well, where people are drug down or sink and are trapped in the water).
Back to the water play at the beginning, the autistic boy, now autistic man, interacts with water on a very physical and basic level. His pouring of water and watching it run, watching the light reflect, and his gazing at his reflection in a mirror or at an image in a photo are also very physical and basic interactions. He doesn’t need theory and symbols and complex rituals, he understands elemental water on an initiative level.
As we can, if we pause and step back from the texts and theories and symbols for a moment and just experience water itself at it’s most basic level. If we stop trying to be mystical and mysterious for a short time, and jut observe and play, as we did as children, we may just learn something mystical and mysterious. We don’t need complex formulas and ceremonies and exercises, we just need simple rites of water.