Doppelgängers and Dolly the Sheep

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, “How They Met Themselves,” watercolor, 1864

The first cloning of an animal by scientists was revealed on July 5, 1996 by the Roslin Institute in Scotland when DOLLY THE SHEEP was cloned from tissue taken from a 6 year old ewe’s udder.

But the idea of such a copy or perfect duplicate of a person, often known as a doppelgänger, is an ancient one in folklore and mythology. Ancient Egyptians believed that a “spirit double” could be formed by magicians and that this new entity would share all the same memories of the original. In Greek mythology, Narcissus fell in love with his own reflection and died. German and Norse folklore thought that if your double was seen, this meant that you were about to die. Discovering your double was NOT a good thing! Meeting yourself going the other direction can lead only to destruction.

Rosetti’s watercolor, How They Met Themselves, illustrates the notion that meeting yourself means that you are about to die. In the painting, a pair of lovers meet themselves and the original woman faints with shock. (In real life, the woman who posed for this character died about two years after this painting was finished.) In his later life, Rossetti filled his home with mirrors so that he and his guests were constantly encountering themselves going the other way.

In Irish folklore so popular with the pre-Raphealites, a “fetch” is a supernatural double or an apparition of a living person. Meeting a fetch is regarded as an omen, usually of impending death.

The origin of the Irish word for the duplicate person is obscure. It may derive from the verb “fetch,” as in the compound “fetch-life”, evidently referring to a psychopomp who “fetches” the souls of the dying, which is attested in Richard Stanyhurst’s 1583 translation of the Aeneid. Alternately, the word may derive from fæcce, which is glossed for mære, a spirit associated with death and nightmares.

I remember that when newspapers announced Dolly’s existence, many people claimed that the cloned sheep was a nightmare-come-to-life and was a harbinger of many other Frankenstein-like horrors about to be unleashed onto the world. Those predictions have thankfully proved false–so far!