Folk-Lore/Volume 1/Re How They Met Themselves

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To the Editor of Folk-Lore.

Sir,—In the very interesting paper, by M. Auguste Barth, in Folk-Lore, No. II, entitled “How They Met Themselves”, he states that he could never find among the most intimate friends of Dante Gabriel Rossetti anyone who could explain the subject of the picture by the poet-artist representing a couple meeting their own facsimiles.

I think that I can indicate the possible source of the subject in question. About twenty years ago I saw, in the studio of a picture-cleaner, the late Mr. Merritt, a very beautiful work by Carpaccio, representing two nuns walking in a garden. As Mr. Merritt proceeded in his uncovering, he was astonished to find that there were really four nuns, two of whom had been painted over. When all was perfectly restored (which was done with extraordinary skill and love), it was apparent that the restored nuns were duplicates of the other pair, but evidently of a spiritual nature, as the trees, or other portions of the landscape, were visible through their dresses as through a mist. When Mr. Merritt asked me what I thought it meant, I replied, in the words cited by Mr. Darmstetter:—

"It shall be told, ere Babylon was dust,
The Magus Zoroaster, my great child,
Met his own image walking in the garden."

There was no old Italian artist more congenial to Rossetti than Carpaccio, and the picture to which I refer, as regards rich golden orange sunset light, pre-Raphaelite details of peacocks and flowers, and a peculiar dreamy expression as of the olden time, surpassed anything which I ever beheld. I have seen many Carpaccios in Venice and Florence, but none which were so märchenhaft, as Germans express it. Rossetti could hardly have been ignorant of it.

It may be worth observing in this connection that the belief in an alter ego, fetch, wraith, or double, is one of the few conceptions which may be set down as sporadic, or occurring spontaneously to man independently of tradition. The sight of one’s own image in silent water, shining weapons, or mirrors, suggests that of a spirit taking our own likeness. When I was a very little boy, seeing my reflection in a well—this was at Holliston, Massachusetts—I was told that it was the face of another little boy who lived down in the water. The same story is told to children in South Slavonian lands, among the Hungarian Saxons and gipsies, with this difference, that it is a lady who appears to them.

As the reflection in a mirror is evidently due to natural causes, it is, to make it appear supernatural, moved further on, so to speak, to a new phenomenon. The late Abraham Lincoln, one night when looking at himself in a hand-glass opposite a mirror, saw his own face double in the former. Mrs. Lincoln explained this as a presage of approaching death, and he was actually murdered very soon afterwards. When I read this I at once went to a looking-glass with a hand-mirror, and succeeded in producing the same appearance.

There is good reason for believing that most of the Tuscan Florentine beliefs are old Etruscan. I have found nearly all of the charms and spells of Marcellus Burdigalensis current in the Toscana Romagna. And as the Etruscans were extremely superstitious, and, moreover, made great use of mirrors, it is possible that they carried the idea of the Doppeltganger to a great extent.