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Me and my shadow

Katharine Earnshaw

University of Exeter

Shadows are spatial, but lack materiality. They turn space into time. This paper explores the transience of shadows in Latin literature, as designated in particular by the word umbra: as temporal markers, as companions and extensions to humans and objects, as figurative (non-)spaces. It considers their relationship to daylight and the passage of time, and offers connections between their ephemeral status and their presentation as souls, ghosts, and ideas.

The first part of the paper examines how the tethering of people to their shadows is realized in selected Latin literature of the first centuries B.C. and A.D. (mostly philosophy and poetry). It considers, in particular, Lucretius’ prompt to reflect on the simultaneous permanence and impermanence of shadows as quantities that seem to maintain shape but are comprised of dynamic air, and examines the frequent occurrence in Latin literature of shadows that play with boundaries and extend bodies into the surrounding environment (e.g. Tacitus Hist.). It presents examples of people working in tandem with their shadows (e.g. Ovid’s Perseus), and of shadows that seem to harbor affective possibilities (such as Thyestes’ tainted shadow in Ennius). The qualities of shadows are thus surveyed, in order to establish their potential as entities that encompass time, yet suggest more.

Cast shadows belong to bodies (of people or objects), yet are mutable and lacking in sensation. They are both a part of something/someone, and alien to it; entirely dependent on the fleetingness of light. Modern cognitive research indicates that they have a crucial role to play in visual perception, and, in particular, that people treat them as extensions to physical bodies, such that shadows alter space perception (Kuylen et al 2014a). Even though shadows are so insubstantial that their ability to impress themselves on any surface is minimal, they “impact how people perceive the physical reality of the world around them” (Kuylen et al 2014b). Shadows in Latin poetry contribute in a similar way to space-definition, but are also sites of temporal and generic layering. In Virgil’s Eclogues, the shade of the trees helps to figure the imagined space, and the role of humans in the landscape, in a way that would be very different were the shade absent. The shadow offers a temporal anchor as regards the time of day, even if time at a macro-level is otherwise uncertain. Famously, the shade is figurative, signifying ideas or concepts (“The Shadow of Callimachus”), especially as regards allusion (cf. Quintilian on shadows and imitatio). Taking this and comparable examples from e.g. Horace’s Odes, I explore how shadows help to structure mental space in the poems. I suggest that their figurative role disrupts the close connection between shadows and the ephemerality of daylight by shifting their usual place in the present, in order to force them to signify the past (allusion to previous texts), or the future (foreshadowing based on allusion).

I will touch briefly on the question of how the use of umbra (as of Greek σκιά) to denote both “shadow” and “ghost” allows us to think in two directions about both abstractions. On the one hand, using umbra to designate a post-mortem existence can help to inform an ancient conceptualization of mortal shadow-behavior and the relationship between shadows and humans; on the other hand, if shadows are recognized as transient, ephemeral, always on the point of extinction, then it is useful to consider whether these characteristics inform a metaphysical view of the nature of the soul. Cicero’s Tusculan Disputations is of particular importance here, but other works too use the ambiguities inherent in umbra to provoke questions over shadows/ghosts and consciousness. Though Latin literature is always responding to Greek, and especially Platonic, shadow-play, it is clear that it is able to cast new light of its own.

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Aesthetics and Ephemerality

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