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(This is a slightly revised and augmented version of my 1981 diploma dissertation [Funkhouser, 1981]. The full references for most of the papers cited here are available in the abstracts section.)
Note 1: This "history" of déjà experience is actually more of a record of "firsts" associated with the phenomenon, sprinkled here and there with a few musings. I am not a historian. What is reported here, then, is just what could be gleaned by going through the published literature and tracking down articles that were referred to. Here, too, I am only referring to western literature in the major European languages. What is known about what we call déjà vu in other cultures and literary traditions is as yet unknown to me
Note 2: There is quite a lot of overlap between what is presented here and what is available in the explanations page.
Note 3: There may well be persons among those reading this who are better qualified to give information about the period which I am here touching upon than I am. If they would care to correspond with me I would be most grateful to be able to fill in some of the more glaring holes in this account. I would be particularly appreciative for leads concerning any additional literature about déjà vu prior to 1815 and/or in other cultures.
Note 4: The bibliographic details of many of the papers cited here can be found in the bibliography and abstracts and links sections.
The Earliest Examples
According to the various [link: surveys] that have been published déjà vu is a fairly common occurrence, certainly not rare. One would be inclined to think, then, that it was every bit as usual in the past as it is today. Surprisingly, there does not appear to be much interest in the phenomenon, historically, until the early part of the 1800s. Does this imply that people had no experience of déjà vu previously, that we are witnessing the emergence of something new on the stage of human evolution? Or was it just too puzzling and too troublesome for thinkers at that time to venture observations and theories? Or could it be that it was too insignificant when compared with other issues which were more pressing?
It is my contention that, though most of the foregoing may be at least partly true, there was another factor. It could well have been something of a "hot potato", so to speak, tainted as it was with the supporting ideas of reincarnation. Thus, research and reflection about it probably tended to shy away from it, favoring less "occult" topics. This was the problem for St Augustine (354 - 430 AD) and I suspect his comments (to follow) very much stamped secular and clerical thinking for subsequent generations. In order that St Augustine's remarks can be properly understood, though, I first have to mention an incident recorded by Ovid which purports to quote a speech in the advocacy of vegetarianism given once by Pythagoras. In it are found the following words:
"Our souls are deathless, and ever. when they have left their former seat, do they live in new abodes and dwell in the bodies that have received them. I myself (for I well remember it) at the time of the Trojan war was Euphorbus, son of Panthous. Recently, in Juno's temple in Argos, Abas' city, I recognized the shield which I once wore on my left arm." (lines 158-164).
Here is found the earliest reference that I know of in western classical literature to what seems to be an incident of precognition, derived from a previous lifetime, or false recognition, depending on your persuasion. (Plato also believed in transmigration of souls). Ovid's account, if not the speech itself, must have caused quite a controversy because 5t. Augustine, 300 years after Ovid, felt called upon to offer the following rebuttal:
"For we must not acquiesce in their story, who assert the Samian Pythagoras recollected some things ... which he experienced when he was previously here in another body; and others, that they experienced something of the same sort in their minds: but it may be conjectured that these were untrue recollections, such as we commonly experience "in sleep, when we fancy we remember, as though we had done it or seen it, what we never did or saw at all; and that the minds of these persons, even though awake, were affected in this way at the suggestion of malignant and deceitful spirits, whose care it is to confirm or to sow some false belief concerning the changes of souls, in order to deceive men". (On the Trinity, Chapter XV, Book XII)
Reading carefully, one finds here what I believe to be the earliest reference to déjà vu. Given my own experiences of it, I do not find that incidences of false recognition in dreams that I have had are of the same quality as my déjà vu experiences, as he seems to believe. Nevertheless, it would seem that the experience was well enough known and widely enough experienced that he felt it necessary to make such arguments.
He has not been the only one to maintain that déjà vu might be caused by outside agencies. This is probably the best place to mention that F W H Myers (1895), one of the founding members of the British Society for Psychical Research, published a two-part, book length article on what he termed "The Subliminal Mind" (a precursor to modern ideas of the unconscious) where he remarked: " ... I ascribe some precognitions to the reasoned foresight of disembodied spirits, just as I ascribe some retrocognitions to their surviving memory" (p. 340).