Shadows occupy a somewhat privileged position in regards to the human. Long before we saw our reflections in water (and, later, glass), we saw our shadows cast across the ground. They show the existence of a thing, “for what casts a shadow must be real” (Gombrich 1995: 17). Only an object with mass can obstruct light enough to cast a shadow.
The myth of drawing explains that a young woman captured her lover’s likeness by drawing around his shadow cast on a wall. This silhouette became her keepsake when he had to go away for a time. In this myth, the shadow, and the love of a young woman, gave birth to art.
Yet shadows also act as a companion and marker of both time and location. By measuring the length and direction of a shadow on the ground, you can tell what time it is and where in the world the person is. Indeed, sundials combine sunlight and shadow to place time under our control.
Shadows have an intangible nature and eternal attachment to us. It’s hardly surprising that the shadow has accrued a range of superstitions and beliefs across time and culture. I’ll be sticking to European beliefs for this article due to space limitations.
There won’t be any philosophical discussions of the shadow in Plato’s famous shadow metaphor. I won’t be dealing with the Shadow in its psychological sense, popularised by CG Jung. Sorry if that’s why you came here! But let’s face it, this is a folklore blog, so I have to draw the line somewhere!
The Shadow as the Soul
For some, the shadow becomes the representation of the soul. It accompanies us everywhere that we go, and it’s with us from the day we’re born until the day we die. Unlike the reflection, which needs a surface in which to appear, the shadow is our faithful companion.
And unlike reflections, shadows are changeable of their own accord. They stretch and shrink throughout the day. They act as a point of regular instability in an apparently stable world. They’re also intangible. With all this in mind, what does that say about the human soul?
In 1814, Adelbert von Chamisso wrote Peter Schlemihls wundersame Geschichte (Peter Schlemihl’s Miraculous Story). In the novella, Peter Schlemihl sells his shadow to the Devil himself. Schlemihl parts with his shadow in exchange for a purse of gold that never runs out. Yet despite his newfound wealth, Schlemihl finds himself shunned by other people. Why?
“Since he casts no shadow he has lost his place in the real world” (Gombrich 1995: 17). By selling his shadow, he is no longer ‘whole’. People see him as ‘wrong’. You can sort of see their point. If a shadow is an indication that an object is real enough to block out light, then what does that say about an object with no shadow?
Schlemihl tries to buy his shadow back but the Devil tries to strike a new bargain. He will give back Schlemihl’s shadow but only if Schlemihl agrees to hand over his soul upon his death. Schlemihl refuses. Luckily for him, he finds a pair of seven-league boots and discovers new hobbies. So he lives out his days in isolation but saves his soul in the process.
Incidentally, there was also a belief that selling your soul meant you had no shadow. Perhaps people also shrank away from Schlemihl in their assumption that his lack of a shadow meant he’d sold his soul.
The Shadow as the Double
One of the reasons why this idea took hold is that the shadow emerges as the double. The double is a copy of the person, but not the literal person themselves. Reflections and fetches are both examples of doubles.
There are lots of instances of the shadow within literature. In these cases, it often acts as the ‘double’ of the person. This reflects the belief in the shadow as being either the soul itself or a guardian spirit of the soul. It is also a form of copy in the way that a photocopy is a copy. It references the original, yet it can never truly be the original. It’s a pale ‘shadow’ of the original.
In Hans Christian Andersen’s The Shadow, a scholar’s shadow frees itself and goes on to be successful in its own right. It does also convince people that the real scholar is in fact its shadow. The scholar ends up in prison, insisting he is the ‘original’. Sadly, everyone thinks he’s a deluded shadow that thinks he’s a real person.
We’re not going to dwell on the importance of the shadow to Groundhog Day. If you’re interested, you can read about it here in my post on weather lore.
But there are certainly a range of superstitions related to shadows. Margaret Baker relates the belief that “[i]n Louisiana, […] when a willow grew large enough to cast a grave-sized shadow, a family member would die” (2011: 159).
Valda Roric relates a Romanian belief that if you inflicted harm on a person’s shadow, the person would suffer the effects (2016). Adjacent to this belief is a superstition from Austria, Germany, and the Slavic regions, related by Otto Rank. He explained that people would try to cast their shadow on a wall with lamplight on Christmas Eve or New Year’s Eve. Whoever cast a headless shadow would die within the year (1925: 49).
William Holman Hunt plays with this idea in his painting, “The Shadow of Death”. Christ casts the shadow of a cross on the wall behind him, prefiguring his own death. Here, the shadow becomes an omen of doom, something that Mary (to the left) has clearly noticed.
Rank also explained that stepping on your own shadow was an omen of impending death (1925: 50).
Not all shadows were created equal. E. H. Gombrich relates to belief that St. Peter’s shadow could cure the sick (1995: 21). In the Book of Acts, people lay their sick in the street in the hope the saint’s shadow may fall on them. This echoes the stories in which touching Paul’s skin, or the hem of Jesus’s robe, had healing properties. It’s interesting that it’s Peter’s shadow that carries the healing power. Perhaps the stories are right and the shadow is an extension of the soul. For a man such as Peter, that would make the shadow very holy indeed.
Shadows as Protectors
Roric also relates an idea that the shadow is actually the guardian of the soul, not the soul itself (2016). Here, when Death comes to claim the soul, the shadow has to give its permission first. No permission? Death can’t take the soul.
E.H. Gombrich riffs on this theme, explaining that “[i]t was believed by the ancient Greeks that when we take leave of the real world we survive only as shades among shades” (1995: 17).
In fact, far from being evil, the shadow becomes a force for good. Roric discusses Frederik Ruysch’s work, Opera omnia anatomico-medico (2016). In it, he explains that demons even fear shadows. Apparently, those humans protected by shadows are safe from demons. This does of course imply that some people don’t have shadows.
By this logic, even vampires fear shadows, since shadows have the power to do them real harm. In some stories, vampires don’t cast shadows as they have no soul, which echoes their lack of a reflection. Though it doesn’t explain the famous shot from F. W. Murnau’s 1922 classic, Nosferatu.
In these stories, protective shadows sit in the region between good and evil. It gets a little confusing since shadows can’t enter the afterlife (only the soul can). So it’s not immediately clear what a shadow does when a person dies. In some sources, the shadow hangs around waiting to attach itself to the next person who needs it.
This also puts a new twist on Peter Pan. His shadow behaves independently of him until Wendy can stitch it in place. Is his shadow his double, his soul, or his protector? Veronica Schanoes explains that Pan becomes the protector of dead children on their journey to the afterlife. Here, he represents both “eternal youth and the threat of premature death” (2011). Wendy’s restoration of his shadow helps to neutralise the sting of death.
The Shadow People
And speaking of shadows as potential guardians, we have to discuss the Shadow People. You may occasionally get the sense of seeing movement out of the corner of your eye. If you look up, you see a shadowy shape, much like a person, that quickly disappears. Far from this being simple shadow folklore, it’s gained other connotations. It’s gave rise to the idea of the Shadow People.
What are they? Stories differ, with some people seeing red eyes, others able to discern vague details, and yet more feeling a sense of foreboding or malice. Other people report less malevolence, and sense neutrality from the figures.
No one knows for sure what causes the phenomenon. Among other things, I found ‘explanations’ including:
- the embodiment of our psychological Shadows,
- time travellers passing through our timeline,
- astral travellers,
- and a figment of your imagination.
After all, the peripheral vision is designed to detect movement, and it does it very well. What it doesn’t do very well is details, explaining the hazy nature of the reports. Skeptics take the lack of detail to mean a lot of people are just seeing things. That said, if you’re home alone and not expecting to see movement? It’s a little less likely that your brain will project a person into an otherwise empty room.
There are hundreds of tales about the Shadow People. They’re also apparently increasing in number. True, there is an argument that we’re just better at collecting reports in the Internet Age. But that doesn’t mean there weren’t stories before the internet. We just don’t have records of them.
My Own Research
I asked the followers of my Facebook Page and got some interesting responses. One respondent said she felt the beings were curious more than malevolent. They seem to have a tendency to peer into rooms or stare at things that may seem ‘novel’ to them. A few respondents noted ‘catching’ one of them standing over something, like they were curious as to what it was.
Another respondent explained they appear to be more present during periods of stress. She noted that she would feel threatened, and compelled to look in a particular direction. One respondent found her pets would react to the figures, displaying defensive or protective behaviours. Less psychically sensitive individuals in the room would notice nothing amiss, except the strong reaction of the animal.
A couple of the stories involved electronic equipment, such as radios or paranormal investigation gear. In the stories involving the radio, one radio even turned off when the Shadow reached it. I’d be fascinated to know if anyone else has had Shadow People experiences around radios or televisions etc.
Before you dismiss them too far out of hand, they figures have appeared during broad daylight.
It’s beyond the scope of this article to say exactly what they are. After all, many have tried to do so with far more evidence to hand. Yet it’s interesting that beings would take the form of shadows and not, say, reflections.
For if a shadow represents an object obscuring a light source, then what does that say about a shadow in an empty room?
Have you seen any Shadow People? Let me know in the comments below!
Baker, Margaret (2011) Discovering the Folklore of Plants, 3rd edition, Oxford: Shire Classics.
Gombrich, E. H. (1995), Shadows: The Depiction of Cast Shadows in Western Art, London: National Gallery Publications.
Rank, Otto (1925), The Double: A Psychoanalytic Study, trans. Harry Tucker Jnr, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.
Roric, Valda (2016), ‘Bringing the Secret Story of Shadows to Light’, Ancient Origins, https://www.ancient-origins.net/myths-legends/bringing-secret-story-shadows-light-005997.
Schanoes, Veronica (2011), ‘The Deathly Shadows in Our Lives’, Fantasy Magazine, http://www.fantasy-magazine.com/new/new-nonfiction/the-deathly-shadows-in-our-lives/.
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