Have you ever met your doppelganger? If you have you may wish that you hadn’t. Abraham Lincoln met his and we all know how things ended for him. Seeing your doppelganger was traditionally understood as a bad omen, but commonly the word, which comes from the German for double-goer or double-walker, is used to refer to any twin or look-alike, the sinister implications being generally set aside.

1864. watercolour, 27.9 x 24.1cm
“How They Met Themselves” Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1864

According to Merriam-Webster “doppelganger” first appeared in print as an English borrowed word in 1851 1 However the concept was popularized by Catherine Crowes best selling compendium of supernatural phenomena The Nightside of Nature which was published in 1848. The idea of the ghostly double of a living person goes back at least to Ancient Egypt with the concept of the ka. The ka was an aspect of the multiple soul constituents that the Egyptians believed made up the individual. The ka was understood to be the intangible double of an individual which followed the body like a shadow in life but survived after mortal death; in other words a ghost.

The doppleganger is found in Norse legends as the vardøger 2 a phantom double  who could be seen undertaking the actions of a living person before they happened. Described as déjà vu in in reverse, “where a spirit with the subject’s footsteps, voice, scent, or appearance and overall demeanor precedes them in a location or activity, resulting in witnesses believing they’ve seen or heard the actual person before the person physically arrives 3” A similar idea appears in Finnish mythology, with the etiäinen or “firstcomer”. In Breton, Cornish and Norman French folklore, the doppelgänger is a version of the Ankou, a personification of death (Grim Reaper). In Ireland there is the fetch,  ghost or spirit of a still living person identical to the German doppelganger.

The Haunted Man and the Ghost's Bargain,
The Haunted Man and the Ghost’s Bargain , from a novella by Charles Dickens

The idea of the doppelganger also appears throughout literature as in Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Prometheus Unbound” (1820) where a double is described as a counterpart to the self. In Edgar Allan Poe’s story “William Wilson” (1849) a man encounters his sinister double (which was inspired by a Washington Irving story wherein a man kills his double. In “The Double” (1846), by Fyodor Dostoyevsky a clerk encounters his double who succeeds in everything at which he has failed. The clerk’s double eventually replaces the original. The 1956 film “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” also plays with the notion of the  evil double who replaces a person, but in this case the doubles are the products of an alien invasion, and grown in pods like plants.

Anecdotes concerning encounters with doppelgangers can be found throughout history: John Donne, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Goethe, Catherine The Great, Queen Elizabeth I, Abraham Lincoln, and Guy de Maupassant all were said to have had encounters met their ghostly doubles 4

In psychiatry and neurology, heautoscopy 5 is described as for the hallucination of “seeing one’s own body at a distance” and can occur as a symptom in schizophrenia and epilepsy.

Niamh Gearney and Karen Branigan of Ireland discovered each other through Facebook in 2015.
Niamh Gearney and Karen Branigan of Ireland discovered each other through Facebook in 2015.

The idea that we have a double out their somewhere in the world continues to intrigue people as evidenced by the current the Twin Stranger project which uses social media to connect people with their look-a-likes. “Devon born journalist Sophie Robehmed was fascinated by the idea that there might be someone out there in the world who looked exactly like her and – a few years ago – began searching for her Twin Stranger or doppleganger. What began as an experiment using social media quickly grew into a mission and gained Sophie plenty of attention and interest, but in the end it was actually through a friend that she found her closest match.” 6

Should you encounter your doppelganger would you be shocked, thrilled or disturbed? Has a stranger ever mistaken you for someone else? Maybe you are born with a twin?  Share your thoughts and experiences of doubles in the comments section below.

References and Resources