10

Telepathy is a mainstay of modern science fiction and fantasy. Our top six tags (not counting story identification and similar) each feature telepathic characters prominently.

  • Harry Potter: Lord Voldemort can read people's minds.

  • Star Wars: Assorted Jedi and Sith can communicate mentally or read the minds of others, including, most recently, Kylo Ren and Rey.

  • Star Trek: Vulcans have telepathic powers, as do Betazoids and a great number of other species.

  • Lord of the Rings: Theoretically anyone can communicate mind-to-mind, but Ainur are particularly good at it.

  • Doctor Who: As we know, Time Lords are psychic.

  • Marvel Comics: There are telepaths aplenty, most prominently Jean Grey and Charles Xavier.

Despite the presence of so many obvious examples, the trend must have started somewhere. There's evidence of telepathic powers very early on. For example, the 1933 story The Reign of the Superman features a telepathic character, the titular Superman:

I can do four things that no one else of the planet can emulate. They are intercept interplanetary messages, read the mind of anyone I desire, by sheer mental concentration force ideas into people's heads, and throw my vision to any spot in the universe.

There are probably much earlier examples, though.

Who was the first telepathic character in fiction?

A telepathic character is defined as one who can either read thoughts, communicate mentally, or control minds by sending thoughts. Characters who use external machines to read minds don't qualify.

  • Not really a serious answer, but I suspect probably (among) the first mention of communicating mentally is Moses. – Janus Bahs Jacquet May 1 '16 at 13:22
  • @user14111 - It can be via touch. Machines don't count, since I'm looking for actual telepaths. But if the machine were a permanent part of someone's physical form (i.e. mind-reading cyborgs), that would be fine. – Adamant May 1 '16 at 22:59
  • The earliest story in the ISFDB with "telepath" in its title is "An Experience in Telepathy: In Which Clairvoyance and Spiritual Telegraphy Play a Part" from 1889. Assuming there is real telepathy in the story (I haven't checked yet), there's probably no point in looking at works later than 1889. – user14111 May 1 '16 at 23:22
  • 4
    @JanusBahsJacquet But - if you're referring to Moses communicating with God, then God was actually the telepathic character in that situation. I don't think there were instances of Moses communicating mentally with other people. – Misha R May 2 '16 at 7:28
  • 4
    @MishaRosnach - Religion's sort of disallowed, right? Beside, what a cop-out answer. "Who was the first telepath?" "God." "Who was the first shapeshifter?" "God." "Who was the first--" "God.*" – Adamant May 2 '16 at 7:57
6

Here are three examples of early stories with telepathy. The first, from 1889, is a perfect example of what we're looking for. It is antedated by Jules Verne's 1885 novel Mathias Sandorf as noted in b_jonas's answer; I mention it only in case there is some doubt as to whether there is real telepathy in Verne's novel. The second example, from 1871, is not a valid answer to the current question, because the telepaths use external devices (their staves), although some innate ability is needed to handle them; I mention it in case it may be useful to someone coming across this question in the future. The third example, from 1755, seems to be valid; however, telepathy is not a major theme, in fact is barely mentioned in this utopian story. All three examples were found with the aid of Science-Fiction: The Early Years by Everett F. Bleiler.

1889: "To Whom This May Come", a short story by Edward Bellamy, originally published in Harper's New Monthly Magazine, February 1889, which is available from the Cornell University Library; an 1898 reprint is available at Project Gutenberg. Here is Bleiler's review:

An island in the Indian Ocean. The protagonist is shipwrecked on an unknown island peopled by descendants of ancient Magi who were expelled from Asia. The unusual point about them is that they communicate by telepathy and that their vocal organs have almost completely atrophied. A few interpreters of mixed ancestry alone have partial power of speech.

Here is an excerpt from the story:

"It is you they understood, not your words," answered the interpreter. "Out speech now is gibberish to them, as unintelligible in itself as the growling of animals; but they know what we are saying because they know our thoughts. You must know that these are the islands of the mind-readers."

1871: The Coming Race (aka Vril: The Power of the Coming Race), an 1871 novel by Edward Bulwer-Lytton, available at Project Gutenberg. Plot summary from Wikipedia:

The novel centres on a young, independently wealthy traveller (the narrator), who accidentally finds his way into a subterranean world occupied by beings who seem to resemble angels and call themselves Vril-ya.

The hero soon discovers that the Vril-ya are descendants of an antediluvian civilization who live in networks of subterranean caverns linked by tunnels. It is a technologically supported Utopia, chief among their tools being the "all-permeating fluid" called "Vril", a latent source of energy that its spiritually elevated hosts are able to master through training of their will, to a degree which depends upon their hereditary constitution, giving them access to an extraordinary force that can be controlled at will. The powers of the will include the ability to heal, change, and destroy beings and things; the destructive powers in particular are awesomely powerful, allowing a few young Vril-ya children to wipe out entire cities if necessary. It is also suggested that the Vril-ya are fully telepathic.

The narrator states that in time, the Vril-ya will run out of habitable spaces underground and start claiming the surface of the Earth, destroying mankind in the process, if necessary.

The uses of Vril in the novel amongst the Vril-ya vary from destruction to healing. According to Zee, the daughter of the narrator's host, Vril can be changed into the mightiest agency over all types of matter, both animate and inanimate. It can destroy like lightning or replenish life, heal, or cure. It is used to rend ways through solid matter. Its light is said to be steadier, softer and healthier than that from any flammable material. It can also be used as a power source for animating mechanisms. Vril can be harnessed by use of the Vril staff or mental concentration.

A Vril staff is an object in the shape of a wand or a staff which is used as a channel for Vril. The narrator describes it as hollow with "stops", "keys", or "springs" in which Vril can be altered, modified, or directed to either destroy or heal. The staff is about the size of a walking stick but can be lengthened or shortened according to the user's preferences. The appearance and function of the Vril staff differs according to gender, age, etc. Some staves are more potent for destruction; others, for healing. The staves of children are said to be much simpler than those of sages; in those of wives and mothers, the destructive part is removed while the healing aspects are emphasised.

1755: A Voyage to the World in the Centre of the Earth: Giving an Account of the Manners, Customs, Laws, Government, and Religion of the Inhabitants, Their Persons and Habits Described ... : In Which is Introduced, The History of an Inhabitant of the Air, an anonymous booklet published in 1755; an abridged reprint from 1802, titled Bruce's Voyage to Naples, and Journey up Mount Vesuvius, is available at Google Books. It is the tale of a visitor to a utopian civilization inhabiting a 1000-mile-diameter globe inside the Earth. From Bleiler's review:

The humans are longhaired, bearded, and to some extent can read minds and character. They live to extreme old age, two hundred years not being unusual.

From the Google Books scan, p. 11:

"Know, O son of earth! that thou art not the first, by many, that chance has thrown upon our globe, neither is it impossible for us to visit your world: that god whom we truly adore has blessed us with those gifts that you are strangers to. We can, when we please, transport ourselves to your regions; and what surpasses even that, we have the gift of knowing the thoughts of those we converse with. By this means we are much better acquainted with your earthly brethren than you are yourselves, who can judge only by appearances. Often do you clasp that man to your bosom as a friend, who at the same time is your greatest enemy, and only professes friendship, while you have wherewithal to make him welcome; but when that fails, he will not only desert you, but leave you to starve in a dungeon, and pretend he never heard your name. These things, and worse, are common in your world: I have often made an excursion thither myself; and having the gifts I before mentioned, have seen things greatly unworthy of those beings that are, like ourselves, made after the image of our creator. Perhaps at a proper time I may tell you some particulars, but for the present we will confine ourselves to what relates to the world we are now upon, and which is in the centre of your globe."

From pp. 33-34, maybe an instance of telepathy in action:

I rose the next morning as soon as it was light and strolled about the town till breakfast-time; and when I came home, my landlady perceiving the perturbation of my mind, took every method in her power to alleviate my anxiety.

4

These are just to start the bid, they're probably not the first such story.

  • Mathias Sandorf, the 1885 novel of Jules Verne, has a hero who may or may not be telepathic depending on the answer to my question Can Dr. Antekirtt give hypnotic commands to Carpena from afar?
  • “Liar!”, a short story by Isaac Asimov published in 1941, first anthologized in I, Robot in 1950, has a telepathic robot as the antagonist.
  • “The Mule”, Isaac Asimov's story from 1945, which was later made a chapter of the 1952 novel Foundation and Empire, also reveals that the Mule was telepathic.
2

John W. Campbell Jr has several instances of telephatic races - the Venusians in on of the stories from "The Black Star passes" (1930, I think the story is "Solarite") and the dog-descended people from "Invaders from the Infinite" (which was published as a book only in the 1960, but appeared first as in serialized form in 1932). I try and supply more details if and when I manage to dig out the books.

However the concept (and I if recall correctly even the word "telepathy") is used in the story like something that should be immediately familiar to the readers, so I don't think this is the first example.

According to Wikipedia Cthulhu is telephatic, so I suspect there will be other examples from Lovecrafts works (and Wikipedia has a list of fictional telepaths, so there might be earlier examples among them, altough I'm not sure if you want to include examples like Count Dracula or Dr Mabuse's "hypnotic telepathy, which does not exactly conform to the usual description of PSI powers in SF).

If "fiction" includes fairytales and folklore this will push back the first instance a few millenia (e.g. the Wikipedia article of the Merlin myth mentions that "Niviane will use Merlin's own powers against him, forcing him to do her bidding" which might be covered by your definition) and I bet you a beer the eventual answer will be some hindu guy from the Bhagavad Gita.

1

Not the first time, but telepathy was evidently a familiar sf concept by 1928 at latest.

The heroes of EE Smith's The Skylark of Space encounter a disembodied being who dismisses them as primitives because they "don't even understand telepathy - -". No explanation is given as to what telepathy is, so presumably Doc Smith took it for granted that his readers would recognise the word.

-1

The oldest stories I know of that appear to be telepathy are in the Gospel of John. Jesus has several instances where he knows the depths of someone after asking them to do something. For example, the woman at the well in John 4.

16 He told her, “Go, call your husband and come back.”

17 “I have no husband,” she replied.

Jesus said to her, “You are right when you say you have no husband. 18 The fact is, you have had five husbands, and the man you now have is not your husband. What you have just said is quite true.”

19 “Sir,” the woman said, “I can see that you are a prophet.

Why is this telepathy and not supernatural knowledge of her? If he had known, he should have asked her to go fetch her husbands and her lover... instead, he triggers her to think about husbands, and then shows the knowledge of what she knows.

Later, that same chapter,

46 Once more he visited Cana in Galilee, where he had turned the water into wine. And there was a certain royal official whose son lay sick at Capernaum.

47 When this man heard that Jesus had arrived in Galilee from Judea, he went to him and begged him to come and heal his son, who was close to death.

48 “Unless you people see signs and wonders,” Jesus told him, “you will never believe.”

Again, he reads the situation, and then reveals what he has seen.

In John 6...

67 “You do not want to leave too, do you?” Jesus asked the Twelve.

68 Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. 69 We have come to believe and to know that you are the Holy One of God.”

70 Then Jesus replied, “Have I not chosen you, the Twelve? Yet one of you is a devil!” 71 (He meant Judas, the son of Simon Iscariot, who, though one of the Twelve, was later to betray him.)

Jesus would know of the intent to betray already if his knowledge was complete; by bringing fidelity to the minds of the 12, Judas' intent to breach that fidelity, already arranged, would come to the fore.

If one looks at the Gospel of John, the incarnate Jesus seems to be reading the minds, by the classic sci-fi/fantasy dodge of making them think of something so that it can be read.

This interpretation of the gospel of John is unorthodox (in many senses), but as a work of literature, and when considered alone, it seems consistent with the reading of surface thoughts on at least three occasions.

Note that the Gospel of John is thought to have been written between 125 and 150 AD, and is written as a firsthand account. In general, few consider the bible fantasy, but a growing subset do.

Bible verses from the NIV, as presented at https://www.biblegateway.com/

  • 2
    In the first passage, Jesus may have known all along and was just testing the woman to see if she would honestly answer. In the second passage, He could have simply been speaking generally. Most people would need the evidence of their own eyes to believe the miracles Jesus was said to perform. Finally, Jesus could have figured out Judas would betray Him any number of ways. Perhaps He could see into the future. He certainly seemed to know how He would end up. I don't see clear evidence of telepathy here. – John Sensebe May 2 '16 at 14:26

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.