Among most people we can find the belief that shadows are a representation of the soul or even being the soul itself. Darkness and chaos were believed to be the beginning of the world in many cultures and thus it was a small step for mankind to think that a shadow, as a reflection of darkness, kept life within itself.
It's not very odd that the people of the past have described so much power to shadows.
Just think back to your own childhood and the time when you first discovered your own shadow. You might remember how this black figure, which followed you around, constantly imitating your behavior, seemed like a wondrous thing.
Because it imitates 'life' many children think these shadows are actually living beings. Naturally comes the fear of going to bed, as this whole world, full of dark creatures, comes to life once the light goes out.
19th century philologist and antiquary Frederick Thomas Elworthy described several of these believes in his book; the Evil Eye. He mentioned; the Ancient Greeks believed that whomever entered the sanctuary of Zeus on Mount Lycaeus would lose his shadow and therefore was doomed to die within the year.
As shown the Greeks actually believed that the shadow contained the soul and that none could live very long once the soul was separated from the body.
In another account given by the same writer we can read how it was a custom for magicians on the Indonesian isle of Wetar “to injure a man by stabbing his shadow with a spear or hacking it with a sword.”
Here the shadow is used as some sort of witch-doll or voodoo-doll, but instead of using pins, spears or swords were used to cause the victim great pains. It is not mentioned however if the victim could die from the injuries made to his shadow. From which we might conclude that it was not possible to kill a person by injury and that the only way to kill someone was by severing the entire shadow from the body.
I wonder if the famous writer J.M. Barrie was familiar with the concept of the shadow as a manifestation of the soul when he wrote the scene in which Peter Pan lost his shadow and Wendy had to sew it back on...
Prof. Anton Herrmann makes it very clear that the shadow was used in magic also by Gypsies. As he writes: “There is a superstition among the gypsies that if the shadow of a cross on a grave falls on a woman with child she will have a miscarriage, and this seems to be peculiarly appropriate to girls who have 'anticipated the privileges of matrimony'.”
Another curious practice can be found among people in south-eastern Europe. The people of Greece sometimes use shadows as a sacrifice when the foundation of a new building is being laid. This can be done by laying the foundation-stone upon a man's shadow. The sacrifice is believed to give stability and strength to the building. The man however, whose shadow is secretly used for sacrifice, will die within a year.
The shadow used as a sacrifice is also common among Romanians and the people of the island Lesbos. Sir James George Frazer, a Scottish classicist and anthropologist even said that: “In the nineteenth century there were still shadow-traders whose business it was to provide architects with shadows necessary for securing their walls!”
Though a body could not live on when the soul was taken, it was not a problem for the soul to 'live' without his carrier. This is shown to us in many folk tales in which the soul appears as a shadow long after the person or better said, body, has died. There are many legends which describe how graveyards are haunted by grey and black shades at night. Shades which clearly have the silhouette of human beings and move around like humans as well but have no other human features.
In some cases these shadows were seen as an omen of death. The person who encountered such a shadow was thought to die within a few days or someone very close to him would die instead.
The shadow as a death sign is quite common in many cultures, hence the fear people developed for shadows.
When Christianity was brought to the people the shadow, or darkness, became a characteristic of the devil. Often the devil himself is described as 'one without a shadow', meaning he has no soul. And so we came to believe that whomever sold his soul to the devil would also lose his shadow. Which explains why vampires, witches and other so called 'damned creatures' are described in many tales as having no shadow or reflection.
At last most people stopped believing in the shadow as a representation of the soul. Only the association with the devil, as a bringer of darkness, remained as a common belief . Hence rose the belief shadows were the reflection of our darker side or in some cases represented the devil himself.
A nice example of this belief is given in a Dutch folk tale in which a couple of men are ice-skating and think they are being followed by devils or demons. They go faster and faster but the 'devils' keep chasing them. As it turns out at the end the so-called devils chasing them are their own shadows.
Still many people today don't feel comfortable amongst shadows. Though many of us don't know about these ancient beliefs concerning shadows we seem to have inherited this fear.
And so the shadows keep haunting us till death do us part........
Author: Isabella Baudelaire