Well I?m back and I have had a look around and this is certainly an
interesting topic. Unfortunately I have been unable to find anything
that meets ALL the question guidelines but have found a few things
that may be of some interest, either of their own accord, or as they
may subsequently bear fruit in other hands, so herein some odds and
ends with apologies for length.
A few notes on what has gone before.
As Myoarin has pointed out the idea of memory loss is not uncommon in
the ancient world. Being pedantic, it seems to me the reference from
Pliny, although at the time might have been considered due to memory
loss, would today probably more likely be considered to be an acquired
apraxia, specifically in this case, alexia.
Also, although it meets the DSM-IV guidelines for neither, in some
ways the Fenimore Cooper looks more like dissociative identity
disorder than dissociative amnesia as there seems to be a simple
switch from one
?personality? and memory set to another, there is no 'remembrance' of
The story of Oedipus, I agree, does not come close, his process is one
of realisation, not remembrance.
It should be no surprise that the ancients, like anyone else
fascinated by what it is that makes us tha way we are, were interested
However, what is memory and what forgetfulness?
As Pafalafa has pointed out the word amnesia is relatively uncommon
until recently although the first use recorded in the Oxford English
Dictionary E3 is from 1674, ?amnesic? only dates from 1868 and
?amnesiac? 1913. The original Greek just means forgetfulness. But as
ideas of memory, dysfunction and disease are very much a social
constructions, how might memory and its loss be considered and
reported by different and earlier cultures? The process of 'disease'
and its perceived causes might be very different to those coomly held
As stated previously, the ancient were no strangers to the loss of
memory. There are many mentions of it, including its use as pivotal
plot point. For example, in the story of Sigurd (Siegfried) in both
the Norse Volsunga Saga and German Nibelungenlied the plot turns on
the fact that Sigurd forgets his love of and betrothal to Brynhild and
wins her hand for Gunnar. This is however due to a drinking of
Grimhild?s ale of forgetfulness. The circumstances of his subsequent
remembering are also a little unclear, at least from my quick perusal
of the original texts.
This might be considered a magical cause of amnesia, which in a sense
falls short of emotional trauma but is a far better match than
physical trauma or simple intoxication. Closely related must be the
idea of a curse causing amnesia but at least and we know that in some
cases both curse and magic might be considered as part of a
biopsychosocial model of disease. A known curse especially so as it
might readily meet our requirement for psychic trauma.
In some versions of the Ramayana the immortal monkey Hanuman suffers
from an amnesia of his supernatural abilities caused by a curse placed
on him by sages he annoyed when young. On meeting Rama, the avatar of
Vishnu, his forgetfulness is swept aside, -?No sooner did Rama speak
thus than Hanuman realized that he was face to face with his Ishta -
Lord Rama. The amnesia of this birth suddenly vanished and Hanuman
could see the glorious form of his Master full of effulgence and
Similarly the Sanskrit poet Kalidasa, writing about the 4thC AD,
adapted the story of Shakuntala from the Mahabharata. He has
Shakuntala and the king Dushyanta separated as the result of a curse
by the ascetic Durvasas, which causes Dushyanta to suffer from amnesia
until he sees the ring which he had given to Shakuntula. The curse is
made against Shakuntula with Dushyanta absent at the time.
Interestingly though, in the translation by Arthur Ryder, the curse,
"Your lover shall forget you though reminded,
Or think of you as of a story told"
has the flavour of dissociated memory about it.
Theories of, and attitudes to, memory vary greatly. To some, one of
the odder sounding might be Plato?s theory of anamnesis (remembering,
or perhaps ?not forgetting? ? use of the word in English predates that
of ?amnesia? by several decades). It combines several other Platonic
ideas, that of ?forms? - where objects in the world are but imperfect
reflections or shadows of a world of perfect forms, and that of the
immortality of the soul and its transmigration. The soul, being
eternal and having participated in the world of forms is able to
recognize them and already possesses all knowledge, unfortunately
forgotten at birth (see Lethe as mentioned by Myoarin above). This
makes memory and the production of knowledge through reason by the
soul a remembrance of the pre-existing and eternal. It might be noted
the Greek word for ?truth? is
?a-lethe-ia? ? unforgotten or unconcealed.
The important role of forgetting is often ...er ...forgotten.
Plato?s theory of the transmigration of souls requires the expungement
of memory by the waters of Lethe, and cognate mechanisms can be found
in other societies holding similar beliefs.
For example in Chinese mythology, borrowing from Taoist and Buddhist
traditions, souls about to be reincarnated from the Chinese hell,
Feng-du, must drink Meng Po?s Broth of Forgetfulness, probably not a
bad thing given the kind of treatment they receive during their stay.
Despite the supposed efficacy of Lady Meng?s five herb tea (the
Chinese do love their enumeration), perhaps not surprisingly, there
are many tales of (often partial) remembrance of past lives in Chinese
lore. It seems to me in some ways these are a very good model of what
we are looking for. Here?s an example I though particularly useful
from a Google cache:
?Gu Kuang had a son who died very young. To express his grief, Gu
Kuang wrote a poem commemorating his son. The poem says, ?An old man
cried for his lost child from dawn until sunset; he cried ?til his
eyes bled. His heart was broken; all traces his son had left in this
world were gone. The old man was already in his 70s and he would leave
the world soon.?
Although Gu Kuang?s son died, his soul still lingered around his
house. Every time he heard his father?s crying, he too suffered. He
swore that if he was reincarnated as a human in his next life, he
wanted to be the son of his father again.
One day the soul of Gu Kuang?s son was brought before a heavenly
official. This official, who looked like a county commissioner,
decided that this soul would reincarnate into Gu?s family again. Then
the soul lost consciousness. After a while he came around and opened
his eyes. He saw the household items from his old house and his old
siblings; all his old relatives were standing around him. He felt
sorry that he could not speak. He knew that he had been born again.
Beyond that he could not remember.
On one occasion, when he was seven, his older brother beat him up when
they were fooling around. Suddenly, he said, ?I was your older
brother. Why do you beat me up?? The whole family was shocked. Then he
told them everything about his previous life, and every detail was
exactly true. He still remembered the childhood names of his siblings.
He went on to become a famous poet in the Tang Dynasty named Gu
Note: Gu Kuang (806 CE? a.k.a. Buwong) was born in Haiyan, Zhejiang
province. In the era of Suzong in the Tang Dynasty? He was skilled at
poetry and Chinese painting.
Gu Feixiong was Gu Kuang?s son. He published one collection of his
poems during the Tang Dynasty. ?
Translated from http://www.zhengjian.org/zj/articles/2003/5/16/21621p.html
Given the similarities between recovered/repressed memory therapy and
past lives therapy I don?t know whether to consider this similarity
interesting or ironic.
This Chinese concept of reincarnation was utilized by Kim Stanley
Robinson in his alternate history novel The Years of Rice and Salt.
In it a set of closely linked characters were continuously
reincarnated through a long period of history in proximity to each
other. From my memory of reading it several years ago, in one
reincarnation some of the characters managed to (partially?) escape
the Broth of Oblivion to painful consequence in the following
incarnation. I wonder if this was based on an extant story.
It would be particularly nice to find to find a case where the
tortures of Feng-du were remembered by a reincarnated soul as that
would provide us with a very pertinent trauma-amnesia-recollection
Straying further from our original path, despite much writing to the
contrary, the idea of forgetting as a good thing also exists in some
strands of Judaism, especially within the Hasidic tradition, which
also subscribes to reincarnation.
?The Midrash teaches us that Hashem [God] gave Adam and Chava (Eve) a
blessing, as they were about to leave the Garden of Eden. He said, ?I
give you the gift of forgetfulness.?? http://simcha.ilovetorah.com
?The Gift of Forgetfulness.
A true knowledge of all this is received mostly through the great
Tzadik who has already attained great perfection. Therefore, it was
Rabbi Nachman who once said: "Most people think of forgetting as a
defect. However, I consider that, at times it is very beneficial.
If you did not forget, it would be utterly impossible to serve G'd.
You would remember your entire past, and these memories would drag you
down -- now allowing you to raise yourself to G'd. Whatever you did
would be constantly disturbed by your memories of the past.
Therefore, G'd has given you the power to forget and disregard the
past. The past is gone forever and never need be brought back to mind.
Because of your ability to forget, you are no longer disturbed by the
past. This is very important to consider when serving G'd. Most people
are distressed by past events, especially during prayer. When a person
recites his prayers, his thoughts are constantly disturbed by memories
of the past. He may think about his business or household affairs,
worrying whether he might have done something wrong or forgotten
something important. While attempting to serve G'd through prayer or
study, he might become troubled by his many sins and shortcomings.
This is a universal problem and each person knows his own
The best advice for this is simply to forget. As soon as an event is
over with, forget it completely and never think about it again.
Understand this well, for it is a very important concept." [Sichos
HaRan (Rabbi Nachman's Wisdom) 26]
A Hasidic reincarnation story, but only from around the time of Fenimore Cooper:
?...The next morning when Reb Shlomo awoke, he was able to see the
destinies of all human beings on earth. He knew their past lives,
their present accomplishments, and all the repairs they needed to make
for their souls. It was indeed an awesome spiritual gift!
That very same day, a messenger brought Reb Sholom a kvittel - a
written prayer request - along with a great sum of money as a
donation. The sender was a prosperous merchant, whom we shall call Mr.
Geltman. He lay dying and wanted the Rebbe to make a miracle and save
No sooner had Reb Shlomo read the kvittel from Mr. Geltman, than a
second messenger arrived with another prayer request, this time from
the woman who supervised the homeless shelter near the edge of town.
She had come on behalf of a pregnant woman, whom we shall call Mrs.
Bettler, who was staying at the shelter. Mrs. Bettler had been
laboring in childbirth for several days, but was unable to deliver her
child. The midwife could do nothing for her. Could the Rebbe help?
With his newly-acquired mystical insight, Reb Shlomo immediately saw
that the soul of the dying Mr. Geltman was destined to be re-born into
the body of Mrs. Bettler's unborn child. Alas, the poor child could
not be born until the rich man had died!
"So be it," sighed the new Rebbe. "May the will of God be done."
Within moments, word of the rich man's death and the beggar child's
birth arrived, one upon the heels of the other.
The next day, Reb Shlomo also heard through the grapevine that there
was no firewood left at the homeless shelter, and the young mother and
her newborn son were in danger of freezing to death. So Reb Shlomo
took some of the donation money that Mr. Geltman had sent and used it
to buy more firewood. "It really is the boy's own money after all," he
said to himself. "So he deserves to benefit from it." Not long after
that, he gave the rest of the money to Mrs. Bettler, to be used for
the boy's care.
When the boy and his mother were strong enough to travel, they went on
their way with the other beggars, going from town to town. Six years
later, the Bettlers happened to be passing through Karlin again. At
the homeless shelter they heard that one of the sons of the deceased
Mr. Geltman would be celebrating his son's bar mitzvah. As was the
custom, the poor were all invited to the feast. So Mrs. Bettler and
her son went along with the others.
As soon as they arrived at the Geltman house, the six-year-old boy's
whole manner began to change completely. He took on an air of
importance, and refused to sit at the pauper's table with the rest of
the beggars. In a loud, arrogant voice, he demanded to be seated at
the head of the guest table in a place of honor. The child made such a
great disturbance that Reb Shlomo stepped in and said, "Let's just
humor the boy, so we can continue the celebration in peace."
But the rabbi knew there was more to it, because he had recognized the
boy as the reincarnated soul of Mr. Geltman. "He is really the master
of the house, and those are his sons," thought Reb Shlomo to himself.
"All he is doing is asking for his due."
When the meal was served, the same thing happened; the Bettler boy
refused to take the plain foods offered to the poor, and insisted upon
getting the best cuts of meat and the choicest morsels from the head
table. Once again, Reb Shlomo said, "Let him have his way, so he
doesn't disturb the feast."
But the other guests were getting upset with the boy. How dare he, a
mere beggar's son, insult the Geltman brothers like that? So they
asked his mother, "Does your son always behave like this?"
"Why no," replied Mrs. Bettler, as puzzled as they were. "He's always
been such a good boy, very quiet and well-mannered. He's never done
anything like this before - I just don't know what's gotten into him!"
At the end of the feast, after Reb Shlomo had already gone home, the
Geltman brothers distributed money among the poor, as was the custom.
When the Bettler boy's turn came, he looked disdainfully at the small
coins and shouted, "How dare you offer me coppers!? Bring me gold from
the treasure chest!"
By now, the Geltman brothers had had enough of his insolence, and Reb
Shlomo was not there to intervene. So the Geltmans told their servants
to throw him out of the house. And they did.
When Rabbi Shlomo later learned how the Geltman brothers had
unknowingly mistreated their reincarnated father, he was deeply
saddened. He could not bear the thought of spending his life watching
such tragic scenes, so he begged heaven to take away his miraculous
Jewish Tales of Reincarnation by Rabbi Yonassan Gershom
?and to prove simultaneously both the Law of Small Numbers and that
the Chinese aren?t the only ones fond of enumeration:
?Five things cause forgetfulness: - Partaking of what has been gnawed
by a mouse or a cat, eating bullock's heart, habitual use of olives,
drinking water that has been washed in, and placing the feet one upon
the other while bathing. Horayoth, fol. 13, col. 2.?
And in an interesting parallel to Plato?s anamnesis (noting also the
association of a physical trauma and amnesia);
?R. Simlai delivered the following discourse: What does an embryo
resemble when it is in the bowels of its mother? Folded writing
tablets? A light burns above its head and it looks and sees from one
end of the world to the other, as it is said, then his lamp shined
above my head, and by His light I walked through darkness? It is also
taught all the Torah from beginning to end? As soon as it, sees the
light an angel approaches, slaps it on its mouth and causes it to
forget all the Torah completely?
Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Niddah, Folio 30b
?The Talmud (Niddah 30b) teaches that before each of us is born, while
we are still in our mother's womb, "A lamp shines over our heads with
which we learn the entire Torah and see from one end of the universe
to the other." The light over our heads is held by an angel, a being
of light. This being teaches us who we are, what is expected of us,
what our purpose and our mission is. In this sense, learning the
entire Torah means the entire blueprint of our lives (Rabbi Yitzchak
Isaac Chaver, Pitchey Shearim, Netiv Partzuf Zer Anpin, Part II, pp.
23a-23b). But it is no less true that we are taught the entire Torah,
or at least allowed to perceive, in this embryonic prophetic state, a
glimpse of the infinite vastness and magnitude of the Supernal Torah.
For in the womb, no effort is involved. The light merely shines "over
our heads." It is for this reason that we can "see from one end of the
universe to the other" [which, according to Kabbalah, does not only
mean "from east to west and north to south," but from the highest poin
the spiritual dimension down to the lowest point in our physical world
(space), and from the beginning of time to the end (time)]. Since, in
the womb, we exist in a bodiless state in which our minds are not yet
limited by our physical brains, we are not subject to the normal
limitations of time and space.
But, of course, no one leaves the womb without being struck on the
upper lip by the same angel. As the Maharal of Prague explains:
While the child is still in the womb, its soul is detached from its
body. Consequently, the soul is still completely spiritual and is able
to know and remember the entire Torah. When the time comes to depart
the womb, the soul now enters into and bonds with the body. At this
point, the soul is now limited by the physical [capacity of the
brain]. As a result, it immediately forgets the Torah it learned...
This is the meaning of the angel's slap on the mouth of the child. It
signals the completion of the soul's bonding with the body... For the
mouth is the organ of speech... As long as the child is in the womb,
it has no power of speech. Only when it is time to be born does it
receive a slap on the mouth in order to signal that the spiritual soul
has completed its bonding to the physical body... (Gevurot Hashem 28).
The angel's little slap on our mouths puts us into a state of amnesia.
Now, when we try to learn Torah, it is hard. It is faintly familiar;
it is good, sweet. But it is only with tremendous effort that even the
tiniest ray of light begins to penetrate our little minds... In
effect, we spend the rest of our lives remembering a tiny portion of
the infinite Torah we learned in the womb. The Tikuney Zohar thus
states, "If one struggles in it [the Torah], he will recall all that
he was taught in his mother's womb" (Tikun 70, Gra edition, p. 160b;
Margoliot edition, p. 136b). Similarly, it is stated, "Whoever
immerses himself completely in Torah [during the day] merits to have
his Neshamah taken up Above while he is fast asleep. There they [the
angels] teach him the deepest secrets of the Torah. When he speaks
Torah the next day, it is based on what he learned the previous night"
(Zohar Chadash ).?
In my memory, too, are all the events that I remember, whether they
are things that have happened to me or things that I have heard from
St Augustine, Confessions