An Introduction to Lucian of Samosata: Ancient Science Fiction?

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Long before Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin set foot on the Moon in 1969, Lucian of Samosata and a band of heroes were travelling in outer space, encountering alien life-forms, interplanetary war and artificial intelligence. Lucian’s ‘True History’, and successive writings like Kepler’s ‘Somnium’, illustrates that dreams to reach the moon and beyond have long been in the minds of humanity. Lucian calls his work ‘The True History’. He claims it to be false and yet is there some truth after all? Where have Lucian’s claims come from? Is there mythological and ideological basis behind Lucian’s imagined journey? And has this fake ‘true’ history acted in any way to inspire humanity to make their dream of moon landing a reality?

At first appearance the True History appears almost absurd. Wine flavoured fish, talking trees, horse-vultures, sun and moon inhabitants at war, Ostrich-slingers, catapulting of huge radishes, winged acorns ridden by dog headed men, pirates sailing in giant pumpkins, cloud centaurs…etc. The story is certainly a bit different. After a war between the races of the Sun and Moon, on his subsequent trip to the underworld, he is put on trial for being alive in the land of the dead, and he meets a myriad of famous characters: the most famous of these being Homer. Lucian’s account claims the ‘true’ reason why Homer wrote the Iliad and the Odyssey…basically why not?…

Lucian’s view of truth

Lucian opens his history by stating that “Men interested in athletics and in the care of their bodies think not only of condition and exercise but also of relaxation in season; in fact, they consider this the principal part of training. In like manner students…after much reading of serious works may profitably relax their minds and put them in better trim for future labour.”

Lucian’s main concern is the relationship between truths and lies. He associates lying with the poets, historians and philosophers who ‘wrote many marvellous stories’, such as Ctesias of Cnidos and Iambulus. He asserts that his own work will allude to these ‘liars’ in an approach which is mocking and amusing. Lucian from the very start confesses that he draws satirically on the fashionable tales of the past, but what is more imperceptive is the way he draws off the very truth of human character to look to certain things and ask questions as many a scholar and poet which he draws on has done previous. Lucian admits that he himself has turned to lies but defends his choice to tell them by admitting that there is nothing worth telling that has happened to him in his monotonous life. He justifies this by claiming he will be far more reasonable in his lies that the others. Lucian continues on a tradition of illustrating the human condition through fiction.

In his declaration and following introduction, Lucian parodies the preliminary works of Socrates at the commencement of his apology and Ctesias who claimed to be telling the complete and unvarnished truth. Lucian uses authorial and narratorial voices and in doing so exemplifies the way in which the truth and fiction are constantly threatening to coalesce. So Lucian is looking to show how the falsehoods can be presented as truths. But in doing so he is still presenting us with human truths which are the foundation of natural thought processes and with cultural ideologies in his context.

The journey – reasons and significance

The journey in the ‘True History’ is indicative of imaginative expressions, expressions of our desire to give shape and being to change. Lucian uses his writing to explore topics such as generic transformation, the construction of both individual and communal subjects and the contemporary sense of an ending. Augustine of Hippo explains this concept of expression and need for explanation well in his sentiment that “it is the mind that looks for things that are being looked for by the yes or any other sense of the body (since it is the mind which directs the sense of the flesh); and it is the mind that finds what is being looked for when the sense comes upon it.” Lucian is essentially displaying a sense of self and a questioning of life’s questions by developing the enquiries already laid out for him in myths and history.

The trip across the sea

Lucian’s voyage across the sea illustrates the journey, the physical portraying imaginative and inner thought. The physical outward journey of the travellers and our narrator is used by Lucian to present the inward mental journey. In doing this Lucian is presenting truth as well as fiction. It echoes the works of Homer in the Odyssey as a parody of the search for philosophical truth. McKee attests that the sea voyage embodies many of the elements of the tradition of allegorical interpretation of the Odyssey. I argue that this attestation has merit as Odysseus’ wanderings are paralleled in the major stages of the voyage in Lucian through successive episodes of peril and discovery. In Lucian however they are in the form of the moon journey, the whale and the Land of the dead.

The Sea had become a natural association with the philosophical journey by the time Lucian penned his so-called history. It had also become a standard symbol for Homer and epic poetry. Romm makes a fair analysis of the the analogy between Homer and the Oceans concluding that it was an especially popular concept in the late first and second centuries AD, when Lucian of Samosata was composing his works. Many of Lucian’s contemporaries use the image of the sea journey in their works. Longinus, On the Sublime. 35.3-4[1] and Quintilian, Inst. Orat. 10.1.46 to name but a few.[2]

Lucian’s voyage also demonstrates myth being used to parallel narrative to create symbolic readings. Lucian draws on the images and cultural understandings of myths such as the labours of Heracles to display his truths and questions. Lucian starts by travelling through the pillars of Heracles in 1.5 and arriving at the island of the Vine-women where the voyagers find an inscription recording the visit of Heracles himself in 1.7. This voyage across the sea has also been suggested as another part of the trip to the underworld imagery where the voyage across the sea is reminiscence of the river Stix. And the three-headed horse vultures in 1.11 who guard the moon are parallel to the Cerberus character of myth. The Whale episode in Lucian 2.1 when the travellers are trapped inside and escape by setting fire to the innards, killing the whale is reminiscence again of Heracles’ adventures in the rescue of Hesione by killing the sea-monster from the inside. I argue that this is a paragon of the Heraclean ideal of virtue where fighting from inside represented battling against illusion and falsehood itself. The whale episode has also been compared to a form of ‘descent for knowledge’ which is paralleled in Plato’s allegory of the Cave and Plutarch’s cave of Trophonius in de Genio Socratis 590A-592D.[3] This is a kind of journey for truth which is a search for knowledge in relation to an escape from a prison-like space of darkness where one is isolated from reality. The episode ends when knowledge has been gained and the voyagers escape back into the real world. This entrapment with eventual resolution is a recurring theme in the True History which is seen throughout Graeco-Roman epic. It illustrates how the mind searches for truth through knowledge and experience but only at the presentation of an intellectual torpor of lack of genuine original knowledge.

Lucian also parallels Plato’s use of initiatory journeys of the mind and soul which comes from a long tradition of mythical episodes. Plato’s Republic, for instance, relates the myth of Er in 614B-621D where Er recounts how his soul left his body and travelled to a place of judgement where the souls of the judged were separated between the good and the bad. The good souls went right and up and the bad went left and down (614B-E). This episode in Plato parallels Lucian’s account of the Isles of the Blessed and the Wicked in 2.29-31.

The journey to the moon

The journey to the moon illustrates the natural instinct that humans have to look up and wonder. It is a caricature of the human imagination as Kerslake puts it. Lucian’s portrayal of the moon and the sun at war partly illustrates the disagreement between the various groups of philosophers. Again Lucian presents far more truth in his fiction. The trip to the moon parodies the soul’s journey to the beyond, an idea that has obsessed the human mind since the beginning of time. It could even be related to the boarding of Charon’s boat, if indeed the idea is that the voyagers are all ready dead as some scholars have suggested. I argue that Lucian may have been echoing the journey to the afterlife but that he was doing it in the sense of the wonderings of the living and hence the voyagers are not dead. Death does not work as well with later parts of the narrative where they cannot remain on the Island of the Blessed because they still live. The war between the sun and moon peoples also satirises the wars of the Homeric tales.

Trip to the underworld

The trip to the underworld in the True History further demonstrates Lucian’s wish to find truth and the human desire to learn what comes after death. The Isles of the Blessed and the Wicked are an imaging of the afterlife as well as a way of posing questions to the dead which stayed at the forefront of the intellectual mind in the period. McKee asserts that Lucian here parallels Plato’s dialogue Phaedo which described the final hours of Socrates’ life when he tells his followers that he does not fear death because the soul of a moral person ‘departs to the place where things are like itself – invisible, divine, immortal and wise; where on its arrival, happiness awaits it, and release from uncertainty and folly, from fears and gnawing desires, and all other human evils.’ This theme of thanatology illustrates Lucian’s conscious and unconscious need to explain the hereafter. It is a theme which still overwhelms the modern consciousness. We just need to look at modern media to see that it is a part of human nature to search for such truths. For example Philip K Dick’s novel Ubik which presents the afterlife as a strange and unnerving limbo, or Logan’s Run.

The underworld instalment includes the Isle of the Blessed, where the travellers are told that they cannot remain because they still live. Thus they can only stay seven months before they must leave and later be judged for their life’s actions upon their actual death. The episode shows what is termed by Holliday as, the ‘journey of the soul.’  This subsidiary journey of knowledge also includes the meeting of Homer and many of the philosophers whose writing’s and ideals Lucian is parodying in the True History. Ctesias and Herodotus also appear suffering punishments on the Isle of the Wicked because of their habit of lying so seen by Lucian.

The journey to discover the truth of life and death is continued in the concluding shipwreck episode of the True History. At the beginning of the narrative, Lucian tells us that the voyage’s goal is to reach the telos of the sea. Telos has many meanings in the Greek language but is also associated strongly with death and finality. The shipwreck episode has this sense of finality the equivalent of death and signifies the ending of the voyage and thus the end of this particular search for truth and knowledge.

Significance

We see that Lucian of Samosata was influenced by sources which he used to portray the ideas of truth and falsehood but have Lucian’s narratives stemmed from a deeper ideology and influenced later ones. We can see why many scholars have previously focused on how close Lucian’s True History is to modern day science fiction as science fiction is both symptomatic of cultural disruption and an expression of our desire for advancement and knowledge, using the future and the surreal to comment of the present and familiar as Lucian does.

The True History is also significant as it continues a theme very close to Lucian’s personal values. This theme is vastly seen in his earliest pieces such as his ‘Instructions for writing history’ where he bade the historian first to get sure facts, then tell them in due order, simply and without exaggeration or toil after fine writing. Lucian’s quest for the truth continues as he advises that the historian should aim not less at an enduring grace given by Nature to the Art that does not stray from her, and simply speaks the highest truth it knows. The dialogues of Lucian also aim at protecting against false opinions by bringing the satire of the likes of Aristophanes and the sarcasm of Menippus into disputations that sought to dispel false idols before setting upon discovering the truth.

You can see why it isn’t generally mentioned among the classics. The ‘True History’ seems a bit far-fetched for any audience. But if you want to read something different, written way back in the second century before the advent of Stargate, Mars Attacks and Independence Day, then I suggest you give it a look. And as we have seen, there is much truth behind Lucian’s fantasy. The basic structure of the True History deals with the concept of separate worlds between the living and the dead which is analogous with religious ideals. Parody and allusion are used constantly to create Utopian visions combining history and myth to answer questions of the mind and soul.[4][5] The True History is a means of commenting on the existing or potential conditions of Lucian’s field and society in fantastical settings. This is not so far removed from the political and social criticism of modern Science Fiction, for, in the ancient context especially; philosophy incorporates not only metaphysical, but also political and scientific concerns.


[1] Therefore even the whole world is not wide enough for the soaring range of human thought, but man’s mind often overleaps the very bounds of space. When we survey the whole circle of life, and see it abounding everywhere in what is elegant, grand, and beautiful, we learn at once what is the true end of man’s being. 4 And this is why nature prompts us to admire, not the clearness and usefulness of a little stream, but the Nile, the Danube, the Rhine, and far beyond all the Ocean.

[2] I shall, I think, be right in following the principle laid down by Aratus in the line, “With Jove let us begin,” and in beginning with Homer. He is like his own conception of Ocean,which he describes as the source of every stream and river; for he has given us a model and an inspiration for every department of eloquence.

[3] “He said that on descending into the oracular crypt his first experience was of profound darkness; next, after a prayer, he lay a long time not clearly aware whether he was awake or dreaming. It did seem to him, however, that at the same moment he heard a crash and was struck on the head, and that the sutures parted and released his soul. As it withdrew and mingled joyfully with air that was translucent and pure, it felt in the first place that now, after long being cramped it had again found relief, and was growing larger than before, spreading out like a sail; and next that it faintly caught the whir of something revolving overhead with a pleasant sound.  When he lifted his eyes the earth was nowhere to be seen; but he saw islands illuminated by one another with soft fire, taking on now one colour, now another, like a dye, as the light kept varying with their mutations.

[4] Utopian visions – utopian philosophical schemes, such as Plato, may also have been an important source for Lucian; these are parodied most extensively in the visit to the Isle of the Blessed, but some of the details of the life of the moonmen seem to be drawn from utopian visions – (ferguson (1975), Doyne Dawson (1992)

[5] Swanson (1975) suggests that Lucian’s VH ‘exposes philosophy, ostensibly a mode of inquiry into truth, as being patently effective, once it has come to a terminus in belief, only to the degree that it serves falsehood’ and proposes that the narrative can best be categorized as “philosophical science fiction”. P.230-231

 


 [A1]The man in the moone – Page 135

  books.google.com.auFrancis Godwin, William Poole – 2009 – 176 pages – Preview

Appendix B: From Lucian of Samosata, The True History [The ironist Lucian of Samosata (c. 125-c. But it is in Lucian’s True History that the moon is properly explored. The translation excerpted below is that of Francis Hickes,

Collected Ancient Greek Novels – Page 619

  books.google.com.auB. P. Reardon – 2008 – 827 pages – Preview

LUCIAN A TRUE STORY TRANSLATED BY BP REARDON Introduction The name of Lucian is well enough known, but usually one thinks of him not as a writer of romance but as a satirist. He did, however, write some works that we should characterize

Lucian and the Latins: humor and humanism in the early Renaissance – Page 187

  books.google.com.auDavid Marsh – 1998 – 232 pages – Preview

Lucian, True History. 1.3. For the Odyssey as “lying” model for Lucian. see Dane 1988, 70-73, “The Traveler’s Tale and the Lie”; for the Odyssey as the primordial hypertext of Western literature, see Genette 1982, 200-201. 20.

Lucian‘s True history

  books.google.com.auLucian (of Samosata.) – 1902 – 117 pages – Snippet view

LUCIAN: HIS TRUE HISTORY. EVEN as champions and wrestlers and such as practise the strength and agility of body are not only careful to retain a sound constitution of health, and to hold on their ordinary course of exercise,

Homosexuality in Greece and Rome: a sourcebook of basic documents – Page 471

  books.google.com.auThomas K. Hubbard – 2003 – 558 pages – Preview

10.11 Lucian, True History 1.22 The True History was a kind of science fiction novella, based on fantastic voyages to faraway places populated by strange races with unique customs. I should like to describe the novel and unusual things

Trips to the Moon – Page 33

  books.google.com.auLucian of Samosata – 2007 – 100 pages – Preview

Lucian’s True History, therefore, like the Duke of Buckingham’s Rehearsal, cannot be half so agreeable as when it was first written; there is, however, enough remaining to secure it from contempt. The vein of rich fancy, and wildness of

Utopian thought in the Western World – Page 103

  books.google.com.auFrank Edward Manuel, Fritzie Prigohzy Manuel – 1979 – 896 pages – Preview

Virtually all the major Utopian themes of the novelistic Greek Utopias are parodied in the True Story of Lucian. This second-century rhetorician and satirist had served as an administrator for the Romans in Egypt, and in the spirit of

The library of wit and humor, prose and poetry: selected from the …: Volume 4

  books.google.com.auAinsworth Rand Spofford, Rufus Edmonds Shapley – 1894 – Snippet view

THE TRUE HISTORY. (Translated by W. Tooke.) [LcciAN, a classic satirist and humorist of the first merit, Lucian was one of that class of men who do not readily embrace any form of religion — men whose sharp critical eyes see too

Lucian‘s science fiction novel, True histories: interpretation and … – Page 5

  books.google.com.auAristoula Georgiadou, David Henry James Larmour – 1998 – 254 pages – Preview

Allegory was well-established as a literary and philosophical technique before Lucian’s day and was current at the aim is to propagandize social change, imaginary voyages like Lucian’s The True History, Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels.

 

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