A Fistful of Shadows

I am interested in how long we humans have been talking about shadows, creating things with shadows and using shadows in art.

I’ve found it has been a very long time.

About the 4th Century BCE Plato used the ‘Allegory of the Cave’ in his work, The Republic, to highlight how a philosopher is like the man freed from a cave – he can experience actual reality instead of just watching the shadows of reality on the cave walls.

Wow –  that goes way back in time.


The light and shadow depicted  by an artist helps convey the mood or emotion of the piece to his or her audience.

Shadows appear in paintings during the 15th Century. Renaissance artists made good use of shadows to evoke mood as well as perspective.

Lorenzo di Credi ( 1459 – 1537) is just one example of a Renaissance artist who made use of shadows in his paintings.



Ludovico  Carracci (1555 – 1619) was an early Baroque painter who also made good use of shadows.


Jan van Eyck (1395 – 1441) was a Flemish painter considered one of the best Northern European painters of the 15th Century. He also used shadows in his paintings.


This piece from Honore Daumier (1808-1879) uses shadow to give the figures their shape.


Shadows have also transferred to our more modern media – TV, film and radio.

Who remembers Swing Time (1936) when Fred Astaire used Shadow dancing for the ‘Bo jangles in Harlem’ sequence?


In some instances shadows have taken on more negative connotations.

Remember the movie Nosferatu when the Vampyre is creeping up the steps in the dark of night?


And what about TV?

Who can forget the cult classic of the 1960’s-1970’s  Dark Shadows and its star, Barnabas Collins?


And Radio? Remember this? “Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men?”

The opening words of the Detective Story Hour Radio Show which began in 1930 and was reborn into the show most people remember airing from 1937-1954.


People have fun playing with shadows too. Have you ever used your hands to make shadow puppets on a wall?


Shadows are popular in modern art too.

British-born and -based artists Tim Noble and Sue Webster make incredible shadow art from junk.

Their piece, Dirty White Trash (With Gulls) is 6 months worth of refuse plus 2 dead Seagulls.


It looks like shadows will continue to be used as focal points in all forms of media.

It’s a good thing too, because I like them.


The Roman Legion, The Teutons and Gobbler’s Knob

What in the world do these things have in common?

Not a lot, you  might reply, yet oddly enough all three relate to shadows, and our fascination with them.

Gobbler’s Knob is in Pennsylvania.


Yep – right down at the bottom of Jefferson County.  Don’t worry if the name doesn’t ring a bell – it will. You see, Gobbler’s Knob is where one of the most famous shadow-chasers of all, the beloved groundhog Punxsutawney Phil Sowerby, emerges from his home and predicts how much longer winter will last.


How does he predict this? With his shadow! That’s right.

Each February 2nd, Phil emerges from his den and checks his shadow. There will be six more weeks of Winter if he sees his shadow, but if Punxsutawney Phil  does not see his shadow then Spring will come early.


All right, so what has this to do with the Roman Legion?


Legends say that the Roman Legion used the weather to look for signs of more Winter or the coming of Spring. Now the Roman Empire was a vast place and some of its myths and legends were handed down to the people they conquered, among them the Teutons (Germanic Peoples of the Jutland).


Although the Teutons were virtually wiped out at the battle of Aquae Sextiae in 102 BC, some survived and were eventually Christianized. Their culture celebrated the Christian ritual Candlemas, an early ritual of blessings by distributing and lighting candles – lights in the dark so to speak.  The Pagan Imbolc festival is very similar in nature.

There is an old German saying,

“For as the sun shines on Candlemas Day,
So far will the snow swirl until the May.”

At some point, the Germans decided that an animal would be the best way to predict the change of the seasons. I guess they looked around and decided the Hedgehog was the best predictor; If he came out  of his den and saw his shadow, there would be a second Winter. And if he didn’t see his shadow? Well then spring was coming soon!


So how do Gobbler’s Knob and Punxsutawney Phil tie into an old German tradition?

Time passed, the American continents were discovered and populated by many European cultures including Germans.

Pennsylvania  was settled by large numbers of German immigrants. I guess they wanted to continue their weather-predicting traditions and thought the Groundhog was a suitable replacement for their beloved hedgehogs.

The first modern Groundhog Day took place at Gobbler’s Knob in 1887. And if you look at Punxsutawney Phil ‘s stats,  he is correct about 39% of the time (as of Feb 2011).

And us humans? We gather at Gobbler’s Knob by the thousands to wait and see if Phil will see his shadow or not. It’s just another way we show our fascination with shadows.

Shadows, Haunts and Charles Dickens

Each Christmas I make it a point to watch A Christmas Carol to get my creepy holiday fix. I love the Dickens’ tale, especially when Scrooge’s partner Marley pays a visit and announces the three visitors Scrooge will encounter on Christmas Eve.


Late at night when I hear the wind rattling the eaves of the house and floor boards creaking unexpectedly I get to thinking about Jacob Marley and his chains and how Charles Dickens thought of such a ghostly image.


It seems as if Dickens was more than just intrigued by spirits; His collection of stories, novellas and novels show he was fascinated by ghosts, hauntings and the occult, even if he considered himself a skeptic. Within weeks of his death in 1870, spiritualists in America claimed to receive messages from him dictating the ending of his last unfinished work – The Mystery of Edwin Drood.


So what has this to do with shadows and haunts? I am always making weird connections – kind of like drawing dotted lines from one thing to another – reading between the lines. It makes me think about paranormal phenomena and Shadow people in particular. What are they? Why are they here? And why do we find them so fascinating?


I have read a lot about shadow people over the years. They usually appear in silhouette and seem to be very solid and typically black – not  reflecting light in any way. People often report glowing red eyes and human outlines. Oddly enough, Fedora hats are often associated with Shadow people.


When I think about ghosts, I envision spirits floating through the air with ethereal white  mists trailing behind them.


People who encounter shadow people often report movements that are quick and jerky – definitely not floating. Some witnesses also say they feel bad feelings or dark thoughts when they have a personal experience with a shadow person.

No one has a clear cut answer that proves exactly what shadow people are; time travelers? Negative energies? Inter-dimensional beings?  The spirits of people having out-of-body experiences? Perhaps just human imagination?

I guess the answer is still out there.

Meanwhile,I will just enjoy the holidays with Charles Dickens!


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