It’s not entirely clear why the word ‘shadow’ has called into life so much sombre symbolism. Even the denomination ‘sombre’ alone is an example of that. For ‘sombre’ is ‘subambratus’, ‘where it is cast over by shadow’. But we only have to give the word a little proverbial tap and it is ‘shade’. Then it suddenly becomes all idyllic romance in the shade of a gazebo and the word takes back its meaning it once had attached to it in sunny countries: coolness and protection from merciless sunlight and scorching heat, and besides ‘the shadow of death’ we can also think of texts like ‘protect us under the shadow of your wings’. Because both one and the other meaning come from southern countries, I don’t think it’s correct to view the sombre symbolism of the shadow simply as a result of its export to northern regions. It has to be the case that the symbolism itself too, like all things, has its ‘shadow side’ and that precisely that one has become an object of reflection. And that is then not about the cool shade, but about the shadow as an image and a derived phenomenon.
Perhaps platonism, as a certain explanation or as a taking Plato’s philosophical metaphor literally, has contributed dubiously to this. In that the shadow has been detached from the things that caused it. For, according to the sombre language of summaries and overviews, the things down here on earth are but weak and perishable shadows of the real things, like they are in the heaven of ideas, eternal and immutable. In this language, in which no one would recognize Plato, the shadow is indeed an image of the thing, a silhouette, and not the thing itself. And if we were only to see the shadows of things, provided this were possible, we wouldn’t see the things themselves in the full light. But what this gloomy language leaves unsaid, is the unmistakable fact that the thing itself cannot be far removed from the shadow that it causes by its own existence. It is bound to it like a doppelganger. It therefore also doesn’t get a second’s worth of opportunity to divert to an other and higher world. The mistake that this platonistic use of language has brought into this world, seems to be that it has separated siamese twins and granted the shadow its own, separate existence in another world. A genius author like Plato would not come up with something like this. All it is is late parrots piffling. In Plato the shadow points towards the immediate proximity of the things themselves in their substance.
In antique symbolism the shadow is also the wraith of the deceased, the mirror image, the doppelganger or the silhouette that is supposed to remain when someone dies and that lives on in a subterranean realm of the shadows. The shadow, that which we see of ourselves, has become a derived and secondary ‘me’, a soul outside of us that we can’t think away because we can’t abolish our own existence and our identity. From the moment of that separation it can be localized in any random place in our imagination, above in the light or below in the dark , and it can also wander around restlessly on earth, like a fluttering butterfly, another symbol of the soul that has become detached from the body or a shadow that has been granted its own and unsatisfactory existence.