It seems that the human obsession with the stars, sun and moon spreads far and wide throughout history. And it is because of human creativity and curiousity that we are fortunate to have some of the most interesting and slightly wacky works that we have today that represent the other side of the serious scholar in the historical corpus. With Lucian of Samosata we received his True History including his famous trip to the Moon! From the seventeenth century we have received yet another strange and fascinating moon based work, Kepler’s Somnium, Latin for ‘The Dream’.
Kepler was an astronomer and a mathematician who clearly was looking for an alternative form of output in his Somnium which parallels Lucian in its obscurity and science fiction like nature and characters. Who would have thought that such a serious astronomer would write this! Daemons? Magical potions? Islands in the sky? People living on the moon?! Come on thats all fantastical! Especially in the 17th century! It must be worth the read! And it certainly is…
Let me begin by relating some of the key events and chapters in the Somnium:
The poor icelandic boy Duracotis is cruelly sold by his mother (a herbalist and magic worker) to a sailor who he travels with to Denmark to deliver a message to the Dane Tycho Brahe. Duracotis stays with Brahe for many years and learns to read the star and the moon. He then decides to return to the mother who sold him who oddly enough greets him with open arms and who wishes to impart her knowledge of the heavens and acquaintances with spirits. It is here that we are introduced to the Daemon from Levania (aka. THE MOON!). Levania being an island 50 thousand miles up in the sky and yet only a four hour trip (If only it took that long in reality!) Kepler goes on to reccount the lives of the peoples of the two hemispheres of the moon: The Privolvans and the Subvolvans.
It does strike one that despite Kepler’s wild imagination there are points quite close to the truth which understandably make ones view of Kepler a bit higher. This was clearly a man of logic and knowledge. For instance, Kepler relates that in order to travel the ‘four hours’ to the moon one must be shot aloft by gun powder. From a 17th century standpoint thats not far from the truth. He also relates that while in transit one can not breath and would experience extreme cold. A simplistic description but again true to what we now know about space. In fact Kepler goes into many astronomical features of the moon in some detail throughout his record of the life of the imagined inhabitants. Such as that the dark side of the moon would be of extreme cold while the light side would be more temperate.
Its an interesting combination of theoretical 17th century astronomical knowledge and the preludes to todays science fiction movies. Actually I think they should make this into a movie, much better than some of the scripts we get on our screens these days. And so I raise my glass to the slightly peculiar Kepler and his dream of moon people, space travel and magical beings. His work is certainly unique to the period and a very interesting read. Who would have thought it with a work originally in Latin by some astronomy nerd in a 17th century back room.
Its a shame its so hard to find this book. So here it is for you:
People are always saying that Classical texts are BOOORING! But frankly it just isn’t always the case. Most scholars would probably use Homer to illustrate this point but let me introduce you to another far more insane and far less known text: THE TRUE HISTORY (Cough) of Lucian of Samosata.
This text only came to my attention recently and I am yet to find another person who has actually bothered reading it but it is definitely going on my recommended reading list. It has been called the first science fiction and this is really not a bad description yet i would rather describe it as Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds on…well…Lucy on the Sky with Diamonds.
Lucian starts this wonderful story by claiming that it is ‘the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth’ and that all other stories of history are cock-and-bull. Yet well let me summarise it a bit for you:
Wine flavoured fish, talking trees, horse-vultures, sun and moon inhabitants who are at war, Ostrich-slingers, catapulting of huge radishes, winged acorns riden by dog headed men, pirates sailing in giant pumpkins, cloud centaurs…etc etc. The story is certainly unique. Particularly interesting is the war between the moonites and the sunnites; Lucian claiming of course that he was in fact the first man to travel to the moon! Very science fiction i do say. On his subsiquent trip to the underworld where he is put on trial for being alive in the land of the dead he meets a miriad of famous characters. The most famous of these possibly being Homer. It is from Lucian’s accounts that we learn the ‘true’ reason why this man wrote the Iliad and the Odyssey…basically he was bored…
But i won’t spoil anymore because it is a story that you really must read for yourself!
I can see why it isn’t mentioned among the classics. The ‘True History’ just seems too far fetched for any audience. But if you want to read something different that will make you think and definitely make you laugh, written by a little man way back in the second century before the advent of Stargate, Mars Attacks and Independence Day, then this is a tale for you. One could spend much time analysing the text but seriously its too wacky a story to take in any one way so I will let you read it and think for yourself. And thus I give you Lucian of Samosata’s ‘True History’!
P.S. Watch out for flying acorns…i mean pigs…
Lucian of Samosata Vol.2 – PDF - Includes the ‘True History’
Lucian of Samosata Vol.2 – Kindle Edition