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Why breaking a mirror signifies misfortune

CLAUDIA DAUT/Reuters

Mirror, mirror on the wall, whose column is the best of all? What?! Margaret Wente's? Why, you … !

THE QUESTION: Toronto's Jackie Phillips wants to know why, if you break a mirror, you're supposed to have bad luck for seven years.

THE ANSWER: The ancient Romans, who were the first to create glass mirrors, originated this superstition, writes Kate Soles of Victoria.

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According to the website Wisegeek.com, she says, "the Romans believed that a mirror reflected one's soul as well as one's appearance. Thus, if someone broke a mirror, his or her soul would be trapped inside the parallel, reflected world of the mirror." Therefore, a broken mirror created a broken soul unable to ward off spiritual evils and unfortunate events. But the Romans also believed a person's physical body renewed itself every seven years, so after that amount of time, the mirror-breaker's soul would be healed.

She adds that a number of rituals were said to counteract the calamity of breaking a mirror. Since the broken looking-glass could still reflect the fractured soul, one way to put things right was to grind the mirror into dust.

Other remedies, she says, included burying the mirror's pieces under a tree during a full moon or putting them in a river flowing south.

THE QUESTION: Considering that a declaration of war between two countries is usually done in the name of the head of state, writes Ted Dilkens of Windsor, Ont., would it be legally possible for one Commonwealth country to declare war on another when the head of state is the same person, namely the Queen?

THE ANSWER: In fact, there is precedent for our sovereign being at war with herself, writes Ian Holloway, professor and dean of law at the University of Western Ontario.

"In 1948," he writes, "when India and Pakistan first went to war over the status of Kashmir, both were dominions whose head of state was King George VI. And to make it more surreal, both countries' armies were still commanded by British officers." This oddity notwithstanding, he says, the legal answer is that since the Imperial Conference of 1926, it has been accepted that the Crown is "divisible." In other words, he writes, the Queen of Canada has a different legal personality than, say, the Queen of Australia or New Zealand or Britain. "So yes, the Queen could theoretically declare war on herself."

HELP WANTED

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  • Why is the main drive on hard disks in Microsoft computers always designated with the letter C? Kumari Wickremasinghe of Vancouver wants to know.
  • Frank Durante of Edmonton says his daughter would like to know if there's a hierarchy attached to the coloured hard hats worn by road construction crews, whose members wear orange, red, white, green and blue hats.
  • Why do opera singers say "toi, toi, toi" to each other before going on stage? asks Nancy Coates of Guelph, Ont. She assumes it's the equivalent of actors saying "break a leg," but what's the expression's origin and meaning?

Send your questions and answers to wisdom@globeandmail.com. Include your name, location and a daytime phone number.

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