A Voyage to the Moon: Science Fiction in Ancient Greece

Lucian is a second century AD Syrian writer. His True Histories is generally viewed as the first science fiction novel, and its bizarre, playful narrative can be viewed as a precursor to writers such as Douglas Adams. Setting out on a voyage, the narrator is caught up in a storm that propels him through the sky, and his ship ends up landing on the moon.

Lucian builds on the Greek idea that the moon is a mirror world to our own. Pythagorean philosophers had a lot of interesting theories about the moon. They thought of it as a sort of reverse parallel of the earth, populated by earth-like beings of great beauty. These creatures do not have messy bodily functions, they lay eggs and do not produce excrement. They are therefore purer and ‘cleaner’ than humans, detached from our worldly selves. One theory held that Helen of Troy, who according to myth was born from an egg, was a moon-woman. Many believed that the moon reflected the sun’s light, and Anaxagoras, a fifth century BC philosopher, called the moon a ‘star of false light’.

And so the moon was associated with lies and distorted realities. This created scope to explore the relationship between truth and fiction, and how the artificial reality of stories can appear to truthfully reflect our own world.

Lucian playfully describes his observations of the Moon-men. In a ridiculous and bawdy passage he describes the strange sexual practices of the Moon-men:

In the interval, while I was living on the moon, I observed some strange and wonderful things that I wish to speak of. In the first place there is the fact that they are not born of women but of men: they marry men and do not even know the word woman at all! Up to the age of twenty-five each is a wife, and thereafter a husband. They carry their children in the calf of the leg instead of the belly. When conception takes place the calf begins to swell. In course of time they cut it open and deliver the child dead, and then they bring it to life by putting it in the wind with its mouth open.

He then describes another race called the Arboreals, who essentially grow from penises that are planted in the ground:

But I will tell you something else, still more wonderful. They have a kind of men whom they call the Arboreals, who are brought into the world as follows: Exsecting a man’s right genital gland, they plant it in the ground. From it grows a very large tree of flesh, resembling the emblem of Priapus: it has branches and leaves, and its fruit is acorns a cubit thick. When these ripen, they harvest them and shell out the men.

The emblem of Priapus, by the way, is a giant phallus.

Like the Pythagorean Moon-men these men are ‘purer’ than Earthlings, and share none of our less pleasant bodily functions:

When a man grows old, he does not die, but is dissolved like smoke and turns into air. They all eat the same food; they light a fire and cook frogs on the coals–they have quantities of frogs, that fly about in the air–and while they are cooking, they sit about them as if at table, snuff up the rising smoke and gorge themselves. This is the food they eat, and their drink is air, which is squeezed into a cup and yields a liquid like dew. They are not subject to calls of nature, which, in fact, they have no means of answering.

However perhaps the most interesting part of his description comes when Lucian describes a large mirror that lies at the bottom of a well:

In the royal purlieus I saw another marvel. A large looking-glass is fixed above a well, which is not very deep. If a man goes down into the well, he hears everything that is said among us on earth, and if he looks into the looking-glass he sees every city and every country just as if he were standing over it. When I tried it I saw my family and my whole native land, but I cannot go further and say for certain whether they also saw me. Anyone who does not believe this is so will find, if ever he gets there himself, that I am telling the truth.

A Voyage to the Moon by Gustave Doré (c. 1868)

A Voyage to the Moon by Gustave Doré (c. 1868)

The mirror inscribes and encloses the real world inside the artificial realm of the narrative, an act that is powerfully symbolic of fiction’s ability to encroach into reality, and to invent, fabricate and falsify beyond the limits of its own world.

From the moon’s perspective our world is the mirror world. If the Moon represents the false realities of fiction then what does it mean when it turns its gaze towards us? Lucian raises the questions of how clearly we can draw the line between fiction and reality, especially if the worlds and people we build in our stories start to watch us back.


All of the ideas for this entry have been taken from Karen Ni-Mheallaigh’s brilliant book Reading Fiction with Lucian (2014).

Featured image is a still from the film Le Voyage dans la Lune.
Translation is by A.M. Harman 


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