Though the term doppelganger - translated as “double walker” - first saw print in Jean Paul’s German Romantic novel, Siebenkas, in 1796, the motif of the evil twin as externalized self draws upon millennia of world mythology. Ancient legends of Roman, Indian, Norse, Native American, Egyptian and Greek origin all recount the consequences of tumultuous twins – one good, one evil and often unaware of one others existence, until a fateful and ontologically devastating meeting. The philosopher Aristotle contributes the earliest recorded firsthand account of such an encounter to the historical record.
German folklore, in particular, regarded the doppelganger as a physical reality and believed that anyone visited by their literal “personal double” was marked for impending death. From there, the phenomenon would go on to become a popular occurrence the greater European Romantic movement, but not only the page. In the eleventh volume of his autobiography, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe tells of spying his doppelganger - exact in every detail, but dressed in gold-trimmed suit - approaching from the opposite direction on the road. Eight years later, the writer found him self traveling the same path as the stranger and realized that he was, in fact, wearing the very same gold-trimmed suit. Unlike most doppelganger tales, Goethe tells of it being a calming and peaceful occurrence; most others would find the experience to be just as, if not more, foreboding than folktales on which they were predicated.
English poet Percy Blythe Shelley, while visiting the Italian city of Pisa, encountered a hooded doppelganger, who upon revealing his face, Pisa said but two words: “Siete soddisfatto (Are you satisfied)?” Shelley would go on to drown in the Mediterranean shortly before his 30th birthday. French novelist Guy de Maupassant wrote about meeting doppelganger “face-to-face.” While writing his story, “The Horla,” Maupassant’s double entered his study, casually sat itself and began to dictate the contents of his freshly written page as if from memory.
Such accounts certainly make for entertaining reading and fiction writers too began to parlay the concept into a string of memorable successes. Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Dostoevsky’s The Double (A Petersburg Poem), Twain’s Pudd’nhead
|Wilson, Poe’s short story “William Wilson” and multiple works by Kafka all include doppelgangers as a reality altering, terror inducing plot devices. James George Frazer, in his 1890 benchmark study of comparative mythology, The Golden Bough, defined the phenomenon as “a physical manifestation, or result, of an inner being existing without” - proof that even as the 20th century approached, encounters with these externalized alter-egos – whether hallucinatory, embellished or genuinely supernatural experiences – continued to tap the unconscious fears and foibles of the human psyche.|
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