Time travel has always been a fascinating topic that’s been largely explored in a multitude of written works of science fiction and countless sci-fi films for many, many years. But what’s even more interesting is that tales of time travel go much further back in our history, with some ancient texts that have existed for hundreds or thousands of years mentioning or describing cases of people traveling forward in time.
With the existence of a variety of ancient legends and myths from different parts of the world which seem to be literary interpretations of what could be actual examples of time traveling, some of us just can’t help but ask: Did certain ancient civilizations possess some knowledge of time travel?
Well, though we can’t answer this definitively just yet, for now, let us look into some of the ancient texts which mention tales of people who have supposedly defied all laws of logic, space and time.
1. Story of the Seven Sleepers
The story of the Seven Sleepers of Ephesus is a tale that is quite significant in both the Christian and Islamic tradition. The Christian interpretation of the story goes like this:
During the persecutions overseen by the Roman emperor Decius sometime in 250 AD, seven young men were accused of being worshippers of Christianity. These individuals were given some time to renounce their faith, but instead, they chose to surrender their material possessions by giving them to the poor and retiring to a mountain cave. Inside this cave, the seven young men prayed and eventually fell asleep. When they awoke, they thought they had only slept for a day, but when they wandered into the city to buy food, they were astounded to find buildings with the crosses of Christianity attached to them. And so, they came to the stunning realization that they had not slept for just one night, but for two hundred years, and they had awakened at a time when Christianity had already spread across the vast expanse of the Roman Empire.
A similar tale about these sleepers can be found in Surah 18 of the Qur’an. Referred to as the story of the Companions of the Cave, it tells almost the same story as the Christian version; only the Qur’an does not provide the exact number of the People of the Cave who had miraculously been transported a couple of centuries into the future.
2. Bible – The Book of Baruch – Disappearance of Jeremiah
There are also several examples of time travel found in the Bible, and one of them is a story about the disappearance of Jeremiah as told in the deuterocanonical Book of Baruch.
In the first part of this book, Jeremiah is told by God that Jerusalem will be destroyed and that he has to bury and protect the vestments of the temple. After that, he is to go into exile with his people until the day comes that God would allow them to return. But before the destruction of Jerusalem, Jeremiah instructed Abimelech, a eunuch, to bring back figs from the orchard of Agrippa. Abimelech, however, ends up falling asleep in the orchard. And when he woke up, he was told by an old man that he had slept miraculously for the last 66 years.
3. Mahabharata – Story of King Raivata Kakudmi
One of the very first stories that describe time travel can be found in the Hindu epic, Mahabharata – an ancient text which is believed to have been written no later than 400 BCE. This tale in that text follows a king, his daughter, and their quest to find her the most suitable husband.
Revati was the only daughter of King Raivata Kakudmi, a monarch who ruled the prosperous kingdom of Kusasthali. Because the king thought her daughter was so beautiful and accomplished that no could prove good enough to marry her, Kakudmi took Revati to Brahmaloka, the home of the creator Brahma, to seek the powerful god’s help in finding his previous daughter the perfect suitor.
When they arrived, Brahma was listening to a musical performance so they had to patiently wait until the performance was completed before Kakudmi could pay his respects and make his request to the god. However, once he did so, Brahma only laughed at the foolishness of the king. The God revealed that during the time they had waited in Brahmaloka, 108 yugas had already passed on Earth, with each yuga representing around 4 million years.
With Kakudmi and Revati completely astonished over how so much time had passed on Earth during their short stay in Brahma’s domain, Brahma had to explain to them that time runs differently in different places of existence, which is interestingly similar to how modern physicists and astronomers conceptualize space-time today.
4. Buddhist Text – Pali Canon – Heaven of the 30 Devas
Another ancient text that we will be discussing is the Buddhist text of Pali Canon, which, like the previous stories, also mentions the relativity of time.
It is written in this collection of scriptures in the Theravadan Buddhist tradition that in the heaven of the thirty Devas, or the place of the Gods, “time passes at a different pace, and people live much longer.” For example, one hundred years on Earth is equivalent to just a single day passing in the heaven of the Gods.
5. Japan – Legend of Urashima Taro
Urashima Taro is the protagonist of the legend about a fisherman who rescued a turtle from harm, who turned out to be the daughter of the Emperor of the Sea, Ryujin. To personally thank him and reward him for his actions, Taro was brought to the bottom of the sea to visit the Palace of the Dragon God where she met the Emperor and Princess Otohime.
Taro stayed in the underwater palace for three days, but he eventually decided to go back home to his village where his aging mother lived. And so, he asked the princess’s permission to leave, and before he left, she gave him a mysterious box that will supposedly protect him from danger so long as he never opens it.
However, when he reached land, he discovered that 300 years had already passed since he had left the village and traveled to the bottom of the sea. In grief of all that he had lost, he opened the box the princess gave him, which let out a cloud of white smoke. Suddenly, Taro aged rapidly, and from the sea, he heard the voice of the princess reveal that kept inside the special box she gave him was actually his old age.
All the stories and texts I have just mentioned all paint the idea of time travel in the same way that modern science has theorized it today: that time is relative and not absolute; and that the past, present, and future all exist simultaneously. And while these myths and legends may just be stories concocted from the brilliant imagination of their writers, they have opened an avenue of discourse that compels us to contemplate what it could mean for humanity if there are those among us who have the means to travel through time as well as the power to modify our history.