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.

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Euripides’ Hipploytus, 732-75: Mortal Wishes

On Wednesday I was lucky enough to see a brilliant adaptation of Euripides’ Hippolytus by Antic Face at the V&A museum. It is one of my favourite tragedies, mostly because of its memorable female characters, proud but wretched Phaedra and the terrifying goddesses Aphrodite and Artemis. I had not originally planned to put any tragedy on this blog, however this chorus song is one of my favourite moments in Greek poetry. It is a dream of a divine escape from earth, a fantasy of the lands they would reach. However the imagery eventually leads the chorus back down to earth, and the beauty and prosperity of the first strophe are distorted in the portrayal of Phaedra’s wedding and the destruction it will cause.

The tragedy acts out the myth of Hippolytus, son of Theseus. Hippolytus is a virgin and exclusively worships Diana, goddess of virginity, spurning Aphrodite, goddess of love and lust. This infuriates Aphrodite and she has her revenge by forcing Phaedra, Theseus’ husband and Hippolytus’ stepmother, to fall in love with him. Phaedra tries to hide her love, but eventually reveals her secret to her nurse. The nurse then tells Hippolytus who is enraged and rails against Phaedra and womankind as a whole. Phaedra is overwhelmed by grief and shame and determines to kill herself. It is at this point that the chorus song begins.

In Greek tragedy a chorus is a group of singers and dancers who collectively comment on the dramatic action of the play in their songs. Here they build up the sense of impending doom and horror of what is happening offstage with their idyllic fantasies, a sense that is heightened as the imagery is distorted and the chorus are relentlessly dragged back down to earth.

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