In this age of globalism, it’s become kind of a thing for people to run into someone who looks exactly like them. We see our lookalikes at airports, on social media, or maybe when our sister’s boyfriend’s uncle gets into a fender bender with our “doppelgänger” – because, you know, there are 7 people out there walking around with your exact face (or so they say).
It might surprise you to learn, then, that someone who looks exactly like you isn’t a doppelgänger at all.
A true doppelgänger isn’t like you – it is you. Or, perhaps, an astral projection of you, but you all the same. In fact, the word (in German) means “double-goer”.
The legend has existed since pretty much the beginning of people, with the concept of seeing oneself, or one’s spirit self, dating back at least to Ancient Egypt and continuing into the modern world, though it shows up more often today in contemporary science fiction (Fringe, anyone?).
In Egypt, the doppelgänger was essentially the ka – an aspect of the soul that showed up as a spirit. In the European Middle Ages, people were terrified of changelings: identical children left in place of the real children by elves or fairies or other supernatural beings, depending on the locale. There’s also a Norse legend about a vardøger, the ghostly double of a person who would arrive early to events and convince others the person had already arrived.
As we move into the 18th and 19th centuries, though, the lore surrounding the doppelgänger began to solidify – seeing an apparition of oneself almost always came to be associated with imminent death.
There are even got some famous historical examples. First up, the 17th century poet John Donne, who claimed to see his wife while away in Paris.
“I have seen a dreadful vision since I saw you: I have seen my dear wife pass twice by me through this room, with her hair hanging about her shoulders, and a dead child in her arms. I cannot be surer that I now live than that I have not slept since I saw you: and am as sure that at her second appearing she stopped and looked me in the face, and vanished.”
When a messenger was sent to check on his wife, she was found in very poor health after the loss of their child.
Next up, it is said that servants would see Catherine the Great – or rather, her double – seated on the throne while she slept. Mere weeks after the empress ordered the double to be shot, she died of a stroke.
Mary Shelley’s husband Percy claimed to have seen his doppelgänger before his death in 1822. She later penned a letter to her friend Maria Gisborne, confessing, “He told me that he had had many visions lately; he had seen the figure of himself which met him as he walked on the terrace and said to him, ‘How long do you mean to be content?'”
Our own Abraham Lincoln reportedly saw a double of himself in the mirror soon after his election in 1860. In fact, the phenomenon was fairly common in the American South. An 1884 issue of the Sunny South tells the tale of a county clerk from Cahawba who, suffering from malaria and unable to sleep, glimpsed his own face looking down on his sickbed. It occurred a second night, and two of his friends arrived in time to corroborate the story.
On the third night, he died.
There are also instances in literature, typically used as a device to explore the darker side of human nature. Doppelgängers appear in Hans Christian Anderson’s Skyggen, in which a man’s shadow separates from him and walks around as his double – but with the exact opposite moral traits – before replacing him entirely. Examples can also be found in Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Double and Poe’s William Wilson, and the appearance of one’s double never turns out well for the protagonist, I’m afraid.
As Catherine Crow, the author of The Night-Side of Nature, or, Ghosts and Ghost-Seers, observes, “The doppelgänger is often said to appear as one sleeps or falls ill. This had led to a belief that when our bodies can no longer hold on so tightly, our spirits may be free to wander.” (If you’re in search of a deeper rabbit hole, go ahead and search ‘astral projection’ or ‘many worlds theory’ or both).
So the next time you see someone who looks a little bit (or a lot) like someone you know, make sure to take a closer look. Because now that you know what it means to see a true doppelgänger, you’ll maybe want to handle the situation differently.
At least, I will.
h/t: Atlas Obscura
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