Poetikat used the delightful word doppelgänger in a wonderful haiku last week. I commented how much I liked the word and she quickly suggested I should post on the subject. After doing a bit of research, I found the word to be even more intriguing than I first thought.
Etymology: German Doppelgänger,
from doppel- double + -gänger goer
1 : a ghostly counterpart of a living person
2 a : double
2 b : alter ego
2 c : a person who has the same name as another
In the vernacular, the word doppelgänger has come to refer to any double or look-alike of a person. Well, you know, I couldn't let this pass without mentioning the Deppster and me. The jury is still out on whether we share the same Cherokee great-great-grandmother. We do, however, look quite a lot alike. I guess it's safe to say he and I, though we might not actually be cousins, we most definitely are doppelgängers.
The word is also used to describe the sensation of having glimpsed oneself in peripheral vision, in a position where there is no chance it could have been a reflection. In some traditions, a doppelgänger seen by a person's friends or relatives portends illness or danger, while seeing one's own doppelgänger is an omen of death. In Norse mythology, a vardøger is a ghostly double who precedes a living person and is seen performing their actions in advance.
Since I am a huge Lincoln buff, the story of the president seeing his own doppelgänger caught my attention. Here is an excerpt from Carl Sandburg's biography:
A dream or illusion had haunted Lincoln at times through the winter. On the evening of his election he had thrown himself on one of the haircloth sofas at home, just after the first telegrams of November 7 had told him he was elected President, and
looking into a bureau mirror across the room he saw himself full length, but with two faces.
It bothered him; he got up; the illusion vanished; but when he lay down again there in the glass again were two faces, one paler than the other. He got up again, mixed in the election
excitement, forgot about it; but it came back, and haunted him. He told his wife about it; she worried too.
A few days later he tried it once more and the illusion of the two faces again registered to his eyes. But that was the last; the ghost since then wouldn't come back, he told his wife, who said it was a sign he would be elected to a second term, and the death
pallor of one face meant he wouldn't live through his second term.
Spooky, huh? But, Lincoln was known to be superstitious, and old mirrors can be known to produce double images. Whether this Janus illusion can be counted as a doppelgänger is perhaps debatable. An alternate consideration, suggests that Lincoln suffered vertical strabismus in his left eye, a disorder which could induce visions of a vertically displaced image.
For the accounts of other famous reports of doppelgängers, including Percy Bysshe Shelley, John Donne, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, and Emilie Sagée click [HERE].