Possibly coined by the Yorkshire Tradesman M A Denham, the doppelgänger, from the German for “Double Walker”, is one of horror’s creepiest figures. The book Walking Haunted London, one of the first books I bought when I started enjoying ghost walks, gives the fantastic story of Robert Percival, cousin to the Prime Minister Spencer Percival.
His story is the typically chilling tale of the supernatural: Robert was a student at Lincoln’s Inn, one of the most beautiful of the four Inns of Court. Unlike his cousin he fell into a decadent lifestyle of gambling, drinking and whoring. One night while studying alone (because his hedonistic lifestyle had severely damaged his studies) he became strangely spooked as the clock struck midnight.
Feeling the typical ghostly chill, Percival saw that a hooded, robed figure had somehow entered his room. Demanding to know the intruder’s identity, Percival took up his sword and lunged at the silent figure, only to have the blade pass right through it. Terrified, he attacked the spectre, managing to uncover its face: his own face.
As it pulled back its robes, Percival saw that not only was he looking at himself, but the doppelgänger had terrible wounds on its face and chest. Frightened, he attempted to reapply himself to his studies, but lapsed.
Totally dissolute, Percival ran up huge gambling debts, so much that the shady characters he was borrowing from eventually lost their tempers and he was found dead in a gutter: bearing exactly the same wounds as the phantom.
Doppelgänger as Spirit Double
Whether in the Scandinavian idea of the Hamir, Cenorius’ idea of the Genius or Augustine’s idea of the body and soul (or body, soul and spirit), many European and non-European cultures have an idea of a spirit double that can act independently.
Claude Lecouteux, Professor of Medieval Literature at the Sorbonne, suggests that the double represents a survival of the Ancient Scandinavian concept of the Hamir, the shamanistic spirit double that can leave the mystic’s body and journey in the otherworld, even transmitting injury to the body when it returns (in the ***Perlevaus*** we see Cahus dreaming that he enters a chapel and steals a golden candelabra; when a hideous black figure appear and wounds him, he dies in real life).
And spirit doubles could often be quite innocent. Lecouteux writes about an account in Ernest Bozzano’s book where a woman sees her maid taking down some laundry hanging in the yard. When she mentions this to the maid, the girl denies that she did any such thing but admits that she went home and spent most of the night tormenting herself about not having brought the laundry in before retiring.
Doubles could even be beneficial. When Father Gudmund Arason falls asleep while saying his prayers over a sick man, his friend Snorri is saved from a giantess by a “man in a church cloak… with the aspergillum in his hand…” who then leads him back to his farm.
Finally, seeing yourself could symbolise the final departure of the Fylgia, the tutelary spirit who provides mystical guidance. This ‘higher’ self appears to Hallfred the Difficult Skad, who falls sick. It tells him that they are separate now,and he is destined to die.
Another doppelgänger used heavily in medieval art and poetry is the motif of the ‘Three Living and Three Dead’, where three nobles meet three corpses claiming to be their future selves and urging them to repent. The earliest appearance of this motif, which is similar to Robert Percival’s story, is in the poems of Baudoin de Condé and Nicolas de Margival, and in paintingMaster of the Book of Reason’s, painted at the end of the 15th century, which shows the three terrified noblemen surrounded by their equally terrified hounds. Again, we have a spirit double, warning them of their fate.
Doppelgänger as Impersonation
The Doppelgänger could also be an external impersonator. By medieval folklore this was frequently a devil or other demonic force using a borrowed shape for no good. In one of Walter Map’s stories he writes of a knight who, every year for three years, has lost his newborn son, found strangled the day after its birth.
Desperate to preserve his fourth son, he encircles the baby in fire and light, asking a pilgrim to help with the vigil:
“Soon after midnight, all having fallen asleep, the pilgrim alone stayed awake and suddenly saw a respectable old woman approach the cradle and start the task of strangling the little baby. He promptly sprung forward and forcefully held the old woman until everyone woke and surrounded them. Many recognised the woman, and all those who did declared that she was the most dignified of the village matrons… asked her name, she gave no answer. The father of the child and many other people attributed her silence to the shame of having been caught…”
The pilgrim is asked to let her go, but refuses, insisting that she is a demon, “he seized the poker from a nearby fire, marked her face with the sign of evil, and ordered that the woman whom they thought she was be brought to the scene. The matron arrived, and, while he kept hold of the woman he’d surprised, all marvelled that she was the same as the prisoner, except the burn to her face.”
And not only can doppelgängers use a stolen shape for crime, but they be used to save others from shame. In the Gesta Romanorum, a book of sermon exempla (engaging stories designed to pep up boring sermons), we see the story of a knight whose wife and her confessor leave on a journey together, packing provisions for the trip.
When he hears that his wife has taken to the road with a monk, the knight chases after her with his men, and finding them at an inn, he locks them in a set of stocks. As the knight rides away to complain to the abbot, the monk and his (possible) mistress pray the the blessed Virgin, thanking her that they have been kept from sin.
Finally, the blessed Virgin spirits them home, replacing them in the stocks with a pair of devils. When the knight drags the disbelieving abbot back to the barn the devils are revealed, tearing the roof off the barn as they depart.
So, there we have the doppelgänger, possibly a survival of Scandinavian mysticism, and certainly common in one way and another to various European traditions. A teacher, a warning, an saviour or an omen of death – even a disguised interloper. All I know is this: be careful who you greet on a lonely road at midnight, it might be yourself…
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