EDITORIAL FEATURE

Seeing Double: How History Became Obsessed With Twins

Jonathan Openshaw traces our obsession with twins throughout the ages

Twins may only account for around 3% of natural births, but they’ve had a huge impact on human culture. Often seen as existing partway between this world and the next, they’ve been worshiped as gods and persecuted as witches. Artists, writers, philosophers and scientists have obsessed over the true nature of these dual-beings, meaning that twins have left their mark on everything from ancient myth to modern genetics. So is it double-trouble or twice as nice? Here, we take a look at some different representations of twins throughout the ages.

An Ancient Obsession

Twin deities and mythological heroes constantly crop up in cultural traditions throughout the ancient world. They were often thought to embody the dualistic nature of the universe and the battle between good and evil. In Greek mythology, the twin gods Apollo and Artemis governed the sun and moon, whilst Zoroastrian tradition tells tales of the good spirit Spenta Mainyu locked in battle with his destructive twin Angra Mainyu. Perhaps the most famous siblings in classical myth are Romulus and Remus; the twin brothers who were raised by a she-wolf and went on to found the Roman state.

Romulus and Remus Statue, 1919, Creator Unknown (From the collection of The President Woodrow Wilson House)

Double Happiness

The Hehe Erxian ‘laughing twins’ are Taoist Immortals who have come to symbolise harmony and joy. They still play a significant role at many Chinese weddings and celebrations, where they’re thought to bring good luck. Their origin is shrouded in mystery, but the poet-monks may have been actual historical figures from the Tang dynasty who were later deified as Immortals by a Qing emperor. Unsurprisingly, a double-motif is popular throughout Chinese wedding celebrations, where you will also see the ‘Double Happiness’ character of shuāngxǐ printed on everything from bunting to table napkins.

Pair of Statuettes, 1736-1795, from China, Qing dynasty, end of Qialong era (Ch'en-Lung) (From the collection of Museo Poldi Pezzoli)

Spirit Children

The birthrate of twins in West Africa is around four times the global average, meaning that they play a particularly powerful role in many cultures there. For the Yoruba people of Nigeria, twins are ‘spirit children’ that have an unusual closeness to the supernatural world and can bring great good or great evil to their families. The firstborn twin is called Taiwo (meaning ‘having first taste of the world’) whilst the second is called Kehinde (‘arriving after the other’) and they are seen as sharing a supernatural bond. If a twin dies, the family would commission Ere Ibeji statuettes like the ones below to appease these semi-divine beings.

Male Twin Figures, Early 20th century (From the collection of The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art)

A Dramatic Device

In Early Modern Europe, artists and playwrights tended to exploit twins for their dramatic potential. For Shakespeare, they were figures of comedy and misrule, allowing him to introduce moments of mistaken identity into works such as the ‘Twelfth Night’ (1601). For his contemporary John Webster things take a far darker turn however, with ‘The Duchess of Malfi’ (1614) ending in tragedy when Duke Ferdinand attempts to dominate his twin sister. Although the exact relationship of the two women in the below painting of ‘The Cholmondeley Ladies’ (around 1600) is unknown, the artist clearly emphasises the visual impact of seeing double.

The Cholmondeley Ladies, ca. 1600, British School (From the collection of Tate Britain)

Joined at Birth

Although rare in humans and animals, conjoined twins have tended to cause quite a stir. Often described as ‘monstrous births’ in Medieval Europe, they were seen as signs of the devil and an evil omen sent to expose some sin or witchcraft in the community. This fear of the unknown combined with complications in delivery meant that few conjoined twins survived infancy before the dawn of modern medicine. Chang and Eng Bunker were exceptions to that rule. Born in a small Thai fishing village in 1811, the twins refused to let their conjoined torsos limit their lives and travelled to America as a theatre act. Their popularity gave rise to the phrase ‘Siamese Twins’ (Siam being the name for Thailand at that time) and they both went on to marry and have 21 children between them.

Sarah Yates (1822-1892) and Adelaide Yates (1823-1917) with husbands Eng and Chang Bunker (1811-1874) and sons (From the collection of Meserve-Kunhardt Foundation)

Born this way?

The scientific breakthroughs of the 19th century lead to a greater interest in studying twins in order to understand the impact of nature versus nurture on human development. In 1875, the early geneticist (and relative of Charles Darwin) Francis Galton published an influential paper called ‘The History of Twins’ that explored the factors influencing physical and psychological development, whilst the forefather of psychoanalysis Sigmund Freud would later write about this sibling bond. People were beginning to understand that the origins of personality were incredibly complex, as you can see in the below painting by John Pearson of his twin daughters (1917). At first glance they look the same, but as you read the subtle variations in posture, gaze and gesture, you begin to see them as the artist did: as unique individuals.

The Twins: Virginia and Jane, 1917, Joseph T. Pearson, Jr. (From the collection of James A. Michener Art Museum)

The Darkest Days

This interest in genetics evolved into the early 20th century European preoccupation with eugenics, the so-called ‘scientific improvement’ of human populations through selective breeding. This practice reached its darkest days during Hitler’s Third Reich, where it’s estimated that 3,000 European twins were sent to Auschwitz to be subjected to barbaric experiments at the hands of Josef Mengele. Very few of these twins survived. The interview below from the archive of Yad Vashem in Jerusalem tells the story of Iudit Barnea and Lia Huber (nées Tchengar), two Holocaust survivors born in Transylvania in 1937.

Twins Today

Our spiritual, psychological and biological obsession with twins has now been replaced by a more nuanced understanding of them as individuals, no different from the rest of us. They continue to play a prominent role in our collective culture, however, from the creepy twins in Kubrick's The Shining, to American entrepreneurs Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen, to the irrepressible British X-Factor act Jedward.

Twins are represented in visual art by the likes of the Singh Twins or Mike and Doug Starn, whilst artists such as Yeondoo Jung continue to find potency in the visual impact that twins can create. Looking at his below work ‘Princess Twins’ (2004), it’s clear that twins haven’t completely lost their ability to bridge reality and fantasy.

Princes Twins, 2004, Jung, Yeon Doo (From the collection of the Korean Art Museum Association)
Words by Jonathan Openshaw
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