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To Walk in Someone’s Shadow


In all cultures around the world, the belief has once persisted that a man’s shadow was an integral part of himself. This belief was strengthened by the strange image that followed its owner around everywhere, copying all movements. At certain times of the day, this image grew longer, and at other times, it totally disappeared, giving rise to the belief that the strength of a warrior waxed and waned with his shadow. In the morning, when his shadow was at its longest, his strength was presumed greatest. As his shadow diminished, so his strength decreased, only to return in the afternoon as his shadow again stretched. This belief is also recorded in countries outside the tropics. The diminished shadow at noontime might have caused superstitions in Europe regarding noon as the most dreaded hour during daylight – an hour when it was advisable to stay indoors and rest.

The link between soul and shadow is found universally. In the ancient Egyptian text of Unas, the shadow is mentioned in unison with the soul of the deceased. It is evident throughout the text that to the ancient Egyptians, the shadow was inextricably linked to the soul and was believed to be always near it. The Egyptian Book of the Dead states: ‘Let not be shut in my soul, let not be fettered my shadow, let be opened the way for my soul and for my shadow, may it see the great god’164. The Egyptian Book of the Dead contains a specific chapter titled ‘Chapter of opening the tomb to the soul and to the shadow165’. With reference to the afterlife, it is clearly stated, ‘Not shut ye in my soul, not fetter ye my shade, be there open a way for my soul, and for my shade166’.

So inextricably linked are the concepts of shadow and soul that many languages have only one word to express both ‘shadow’ and ‘soul’. For example, the Zulus in Southern Africa use the word tunzi to describe a man’s shadow and his soul. Among the Algonquian Indians, the word otahchuk has the same double meaning. As the soul was thought to physically and mentally animate the body, the shadow, closely coupled to its owner’s body, was seen as containing the soul. Hence, all injury done to the shadow or the reflection of someone was thought to harm that person physically, and if anything happened to the shadow, it would be physically felt. Therefore, Australian Aborigines believed that an injury to a man’s shadow, such as stabbing, beating, or cutting, injured his person to the same degree. Hindus are expressly forbidden to urinate on anyone’s shadow lest they harm the person. The same belief was extant in ancient Rom and is referred to in Pliny’s Natural History167. Similarly, a very specific belief in places as far apart as India, ancient Greece, and Rome, was that an animal stepping on one’s shadow resulted in a loss of speech and movement168. In Germany and Italy, a notion taken very seriously in the past was that stepping on someone’s shadow stunted the person’s growth. Now, remnants of the fearful beliefs surrounding the shadow are evident in the prevalent superstition that stepping on someone’s shadow is ‘unlucky’ – customs remain, but with time, the reasons behind them change.

An old belief in England was that if anyone sold his soul to the devil, he would lose his shadow, reaffirming the universal belief that the soul was contained in the shadow. This idea lies at the root of the legends surrounding mythical heroes killing their enemies by stabbing their shadows. Moses reassured his people not to fear their enemies, the Canaanites, as these have ‘lost their shadows169’. An evil spell uttered in Turkey intones: ‘May you cease to cast a shadow’– in other words, lose your soul. 

A belief prevalent in tribal societies concerned the shadows of persons regarded as taboo in those societies170. Such restrictions applied to the shadows of enemies, warriors fresh from battle, mourners, and the shadows of mothers-in-law, menstruating women, or women in confinement. All these personages were regarded as unclean, and until ritual cleansing had taken place, their shadows were thought to endanger those on whom they fell. In some African societies, letting one’s shadow fall on the king, in other words, overshadowing him, was a crime punishable by death. Now, the term to overshadow someone, meaning to ‘render insignificant by comparison’, has lost its literal meaning, although the disparaging association remains. 

For thousands of years, humans, especially farmers and fieldworkers, used the lengthening of the shadow to indicate time. This is still general practice, just as it was in biblical times: ‘... are not his days like those of a hireling? As a servant earnestly desireth the shadow....171’.

In Europe, it was customary in places as far apart as Greece, Rumania, Bulgaria, and the British Isles to ‘bury’ someone’s shadow, once the traditional human sacrifice committed to building foundations had been abolished. A person was unwittingly enticed to a building site to let his shadow fall on the foundations. Another option was for a shadow-trader to measure a man’s shadow with a piece of string unbeknown to him, then put the string in a box and bury it under the foundation of a building, thus symbolically burying the shadow. It was thought that the man whose shadow had been buried would soon die. The shadow containing the life force or soul, once buried, was believed to equate a living sacrifice, substituting the old custom of immuring living people in the walls of buildings. 

The strength and clarity of the shadow was held to indicate physical well-being. Therefore, someone dying or close to death was thought to have a diminishing shadow, whereas a detached shadow meant death had already occurred. However, a sick person whose shadow was observed as clearly outlined and strong could expect rapid recuperation.

Not only the shadow, but any reflection of a person was thought to contain their soul. This explains why in ancient times, it was regarded as positively dangerous to see one’s reflection in water – in case the denizens of the deep, pulled the reflection and hence one’s soul into the unknown depths. Similarly, it clarifies the notion that a terrible calamity awaited the person destroying his own image by breaking a mirror. (See Chapter IV Seven Years of Bad Luck).

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