The application by English-speakers of this German word to the paranormal concept is relatively recent; Francis Grose’s Provincial Glossary of 1787 included the term fetch instead, defined as the “apparition of a person living.” A best-selling book on paranormal phenomena, Catherine Crowe’s The Night-Side of Nature (1848), helped make the German word well-known. However the concept itself, of alter egos and double spirits, has appeared in the folklore, myths, religious concepts, and traditions of many cultures throughout human history.
In Ancient Egyptian mythology, a ka was a tangible “spirit double” having the same memories and feelings as the person to whom the counterpart belongs. In one Egyptian myth entitled, The Greek Princess, an Egyptian view of the Trojan War, a ka of Helen was used to mislead Paris of Troy, helping to stop the war.
In Norse mythology, a vardøger is a ghostly double who precedes a living person and is seen performing their actions in advance. In Finnish mythology, this is called having an etiäinen, i.e., “a firstcomer”.
In Breton mythology as well as in Cornish and Norman French folklore, the doppelgänger is a version of the Ankou, a personification of death.
In Prometheus Unbound by Percy Bysshe Shelley, the concept of a doppelgänger double was described as a counterpart to the self. Edgar Allan Poe’s story “William Wilson” describes the double with sinister, demonic qualities. George Gordon Byron used doppelgänger imagery to explore the duality of human nature. Charles Williams Descent Into Hell (1939), has character Pauline Anstruther seeing her own doppelgänger all through her life. Clive Barker’s story “Human Remains” in his Books of Blood is a doppelgänger tale.
The doppelgänger motif is a staple of Gothic fiction, arguably its central expression of character.
Izaak Walton claimed that John Donne, the English metaphysical poet, saw his wife’s doppelgänger in 1612 in Paris, on the same night as the stillbirth of their daughter.
Two days after their arrival there, Mr. Donne was left alone, in that room in which Sir Robert, and he, and some other friends had dined together. To this place Sir Robert returned within half an hour; and, as he left, so he found Mr. Donne alone; but, in such ecstasy, and so altered as to his looks, as amazed Sir Robert to behold him in so much that he earnestly desired Mr. Donne to declare befallen him in the short time of his absence? to which, Mr. Donne was not able to make a present answer: but, after a long and perplext pause, did at last say, 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: this, I have seen since I saw you. To which, Sir Robert replied; Sure Sir, you have slept since I saw you; and, this is the result of some melancholy dream, which I desire you to forget, for you are now awake. To which Mr. Donnes reply was: I cannot be surer that I now live, then that I have not slept since I saw you: and am, as sure, that at her second appearing, she stopped, looked me in the face, and vanished.
This account first appears in the edition of Life of Dr. John Donne published in 1675, and is attributed to “a Person of Honour… told with such circumstances, and such asseveration, that… I verily believe he that told it me, did himself believe it to be true. “At the time Donne was indeed extremely worried about his pregnant wife, and was going through severe illness himself. However, R. C. Bald points out that Walton’s account
“is riddled with inaccuracies. He says that Donne crossed from London to Paris with the Drurys in twelve days, and that the vision occurred two days later; the servant sent to London to make inquiries found Mrs. Donne still confined to her bed in Drury House. Actually, of course, Donne did not arrive in Paris until more than three months after he left England, and his wife was not in London but in the Isle of Wight. The still-born child was buried on 24 January…. Yet as late as 14 April Donne in Paris was still ignorant of his wife’s ordeal. In January, Donne was still at Amiens. His letters do not support the story as given.
Percy Bysshe Shelley
On July 8, 1822, the English poet Percy Bysshe Shelley drowned in the Bay of Spezia near Lerici in Italy. On August 15, while staying at Pisa, Percy’s wife Mary Shelley, an author and editor, wrote a letter to Maria Gisborne in which she relayed Percy’s claims to her that he had met his own doppelgänger. A week after Mary’s nearly fatal miscarriage, in the early hours of June 23 Percy had had a nightmare about the house collapsing in a flood, and
… talking it over the next morning 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” — No very terrific words & certainly not prophetic of what has occurred. But Shelley had often seen these figures when ill; but the strangest thing is that Mrs Williams saw him. Now Jane, though a woman of sensibility, has not much imagination & is not in the slightest degree nervous — neither in dreams or otherwise. She was standing one day, the day before I was taken ill, [June 15] at a window that looked on the Terrace with Trelawny — it was day — she saw as she thought Shelley pass by the window, as he often was then, without a coat or jacket — he passed again — now as he passed both times the same way — and as from the side towards which he went each time there was no way to get back except past the window again (except over a wall twenty feet from the ground) she was struck at seeing him pass twice thus & looked out & seeing him no more she cried — “Good God can Shelley have leapt from the wall?…. Where can he be gone?” Shelley, said Trelawny — “No Shelley has past — What do you mean?” Trelawny says that she trembled exceedingly when she heard this & it proved indeed that Shelley had never been on the terrace & was far off at the time she saw him.
Percy Shelley’s drama Prometheus Unbound (1820) contains the following passage in Act I: “Ere Babylon was dust, / The Magus Zoroaster, my dead child, / Met his own image walking in the garden. / That apparition, sole of men, he saw. / For know there are two worlds of life and death: / One that which thou beholdest; but the other / Is underneath the grave, where do inhabit / The shadows of all forms that think and live / Till death unite them and they part no more….
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Near the end of Book XI of his autobiography, Dichtung und Wahrheit (“Poetry and Truth”) (1811-1833), Goethe wrote, almost in passing:
Amid all this pressure and confusion I could not forego seeing Frederica once more. Those were painful days, the memory of which has not remained with me. When I reached her my hand from my horse, the tears stood in her eyes; and I felt very uneasy. I now rode along the foot-path toward Drusenheim, and here one of the most singular forebodings took possession of me. I saw, not with the eyes of the body, but with those of the mind, my own figure coming toward me, on horseback, and on the same road, attired in a dress which I had never worn, — it was pike-gray [hecht-grau], with somewhat of gold. As soon as I shook myself out of this dream, the figure had entirely disappeared. It is strange, however, that, eight years afterward, I found myself on the very road, to pay one more visit to Frederica, in the dress of which I had dreamed, and which I wore, not from choice, but by accident. However, it may be with matters of this kind generally, this strange illusion in some measure calmed me at the moment of parting. The pain of quitting for ever noble Alsace, with all I had gained in it, was softened; and, having at last escaped the excitement of a farewell, I, on a peaceful and quiet journey, pretty well regained my self-possession.
This is an example of a doppelgänger which was perceived by the observer to be both benign and reassuring.