Roberto Casati (1) suggests that the shadow is the only truly two dimensional, non abstract object, it is immaterial, colourless and flat, thereby having all the attributes of something that does not exist, an illusion or a ghost. An area of darkness created by blocking out the light, existing only as an absence of light and consisting solely of that absence but, paradoxically, without shadow we would see the world as flat, without texture or depth.
Our ancestors, and most of the rest of the animal kingdom, evolved to see their world in three dimensions, they learnt to interpret the subtle variations of light on an object to determine its depth and form; so the shadow, this immaterial thing, determines how we see and understand the world around us. Even if humans have always instinctively understand shadows and constantly used them to put shape on the world they remained illusional in daylight and magical in firelight, flickering, transitory, distorted and ethereal things that danced on the cave walls. Humans have a burning desire to explain their world and when a practical explanation is unavailable we normally look to the heavens or, in the case of some cultures, to hell.
The ancient Egyptians quite logically concluded, that as the shadow (shuet or shut) was always present, it must contain part of a person’s soul whilst the ancient Greeks believed that after death a man’s shadow (skis) went to Hades, a dark and dismal shadow world, where the shadow slowly faded away to nothing. In many places round the Pacific the shadow is considered to be part of the living body and has to be protected from harm, or in the case of native Australians, something that can do harm if it falls on a sleeping person and there is a belief in China that it is dangerous to let your shadow fall across and open grave. Whilst not universal the idea that the shadow is an essential and potentially powerful part of our personality is a common thread in many cultures and one that has been picked up by stories both ancient and modern.
In Acts 5:15 the Bible includes the story that people brought their sick into the street and laid them where Saint Peter’s shadow might fall on them in the hope that they would be healed as he passed. The reprise of the idea that the shadow is an external manifestation of the soul is the subject of Masaccio’s 15th century fresco and is, in itself, an interesting study in the representation of a narrative. We can clearly see that the man currently under Peter’s shadow is still crippled, the man most recently passed is in the process of standing, the one behind him is thanking God or Peter and the one furthest away and therefore the man who was first passed appears fit and healthy but still holds his stick so we know he was originally infirm. (2)
Whereas the story of Peter promotes the idea that the shadow is invested with the power of its owner The Mahabharata (3), an Indian epic story composed sometime between 300 BC and 300 AD, (3) explores the theme that the shadow proves the reality of its owner. In one of the stories contained in this ancient epic the Princess Damayanti and the Prince Nala are to wed but four of the gods are so enamoured with her beauty that they come to the wedding having transformed themselves into perfect replicas of the bridegroom. Damayanti sees through the deception and marries the only suitor with a shadow.
In 1813 the French poet and botanist, Adelbert von Chamisso published Peter Schlemihl (4), a complex and moralistic story of a man who sells his shadow to the devil for a purse that never empties. Unfortunately for Schlemihl his lack of a shadow is quickly recognised by everyone he meets and he is shunned. According to Stoichita (2) this is a much studied text with many interpretations but Stoichita argues that it is a paradoxical tale; the shadow is is the ultimate “irremovable sign”, inseparable from its owner sot the transaction of exchanging the shadow describes it being transformed from nothing to something. The shadow has, in his view, been through two changes, firstly it has been made real (“reified”) by the devil rolling it up and placing it into his pocket and secondly it has been made valuable. Chamissio’s tale evolves into the story of how “nobody”, i.e. a man without a shadow, drives to overcome his disability to become “somebody” again.
Chamisso’s idea and the story of Princess Damayanti are at the heart of the mystery of shadows. It is immaterial, of no real substance but paradoxically confirms the existence, the solidity of a person, without one we do not exist. We recognise the shadow as confirming the reality of its owner but we remember its illusive nature with phrases like shadow boxing, shadow chancellor, a shadow of his former self or frightened of his own shadow. The shadow is an image of an object that is dependant on that body for its existence and according to Grombich (5) “stands as testament to the solidity of an object”, something that follows the laws of optics whilst remaining elusive and illusionary.
Notes on Text
(i) We tend to use the description “two dimensional” as a metaphor, for example a two dimensional character in a story would lack complexity. In science a two dimensional object has only length and breadth but no depth.
(1) Casati, Roberto (1961) Shadows: Unlocking The Secrets from Plato to Our Time (First Vintage Books Edition, 2004, translated from the Italian by Abigail Asher) New York: Vintage Books
(2) Stoichita, Victor I. ( 1997) A Short History of the Shadow. London: Reaktion
(5) Gombrich, Ernst (1995) Shadows: the Depiction of Cast Shadows in Western Art. London: National Gallery Publications.
(3) The Mahabharata (accessed at Sacred Text Archive 24.5.15) – http://www.sacred-texts.com/hin/maha/
(4) Chamisso, Adelbert von (1813) Peter Schlemihl (Guttenberg Press edition based on a 1861 translation by Sir John Bowring) – http://www.gutenberg.org/files/21943/21943-h/21943-h.htm#startoftext