Google explores humanity's fascination with twins
By: Nizar Ahmed
Fri, Feb. 2, 2018
CAIRO – 28 January 2018: Jonathan Openshaw of Google's online Arts and Culture Institute has written an enlightening article titled "Seeing Double: How History Became Obsessed With Twins", providing a unique look at how twins have been perceived in various cultures across time.
Twins are a relatively rare occurrence, with Openshaw stating that they only account for 3 percent of all natural births. Yet, they've left behind a large cultural impact in ancient human cultures, seen as either a gift from the gods (or gods themselves) to cursed examples of witchcraft or other bad omens.
Going back to the oldest of cultures, such as Zoroastrian or Greek mythology, Openshaw points out that twins were flesh-and-blood embodiments of duality inherent to the universe, such as in the battle for good and evil. Consider how often one sees examples of the "Evil Twin" as a cliché in fiction for example.
The founding myth of Rome features some of the most famous twins in ancient history, "Romulus and Remus", who were nursed by a wolf and founded the city of Rome together.
Looking to the East, Openshaw brings up how positively twins are viewed in China, particularly in Taoism, which features the The Hehe Erxian 'laughing twins', who represent harmony and joy. Now symbols of good luck, these twins are still frequently present as symbols during weddings and other celebrations.
Openshaw states that certain scholars speculate that these twins may have been actual historical figures from the Tang Dynasty, who have since been deified into immortal mythical figures across the ages.
West Africa features the highest rate of twins in the world, at four times the global average. In Nigeria, the Yoruba people view twins as 'spirit children', who are believed to share a powerful, supernatural bond. This connection to the other world ensured that twins could be either seen as a gift from God or even a curse.
The twin delivered first is called 'Taiwo', which translates to 'having the first taste of the world', while the second twin is called 'Kehnide', meaning 'arriving after the other.' If a family lost a twin, they would receive special "Ere Ibeji statuettes" as a means of ensuring their spirits would be appeased.
Europe's relationship with twins has proven to be more complicated. Shakespeare and other playwrights used them to give comedic effect, hatching up plots of mistaken identity in stories such as 1601's "Twelfth Night". For contrast, Openshaw also uses the example of John Webster's 1614 play "The Duchess of Malfi", which explores the deadly sibling power rivalry between a duke and his twin sister.
The most grotesque example of twins in culture comes from the morbid fascination of the 'conjoined-twin' phenomenon, a rare occurrence in which twins are born sharing a body. These deformities were used as signs of witchcraft and devil's work in medieval England, dubbed as "monstrous births", though nowadays the synonym of 'Siamese Twins' is more commonly used. This refers to the most famous case of conjoined twins, Chang and Eng Bunker, who were born in 1811 to a small Thai fishing village (At that time, Thai was known as Siam).
Chang and Eng were rare examples of conjoined twins who survived birth, and they became known as a popular sideshow act in America.
With the turn of the 19th century, advancements in genetics allowed for a more in-depth understanding of human development, leading to a better knowledge into the nature of twins.
The debate on "nature vs nurture" had begun, and twins were instrumental into understanding the factors that would influence how personality forms. With the coming of WWII, Nazi Germany had taken an interest into studying selective breeding, and 3,000 European twins were sent to Auschwitz to undergo hideous experiments, with almost no survivors.
Openshaw concludes with a look at the prevalence of twins in popular culture today. While the spiritual aspects of their natures have been overshadowed by an enlightened understanding of human genetics, they continue to fascinate the imagination.