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: