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Plutarch’s dialogue On the face of the Moon, known more conveniently by its abbreviated Latin title De facie, is the only work dedicated exclusively to the Moon to have survived from antiquity. It therefore marks a landmark in the history of selenography: a nodal point in ancient thinking about the Moon as well as (as I shall argue) between ancient and modern lunar thought. The dialogue is rooted in curiosity about the dark blotches on the lunar surface. Cultures across the world have long discerned human or animal features in the appearance of the lunar disc. Common lunar pareidolia include: a trio of a man, tree and dragon or individual figures such as a rabbit. Demetrius Triclinius, the author of a Byzantine treatise on the Moon, who certainly knew Plutarch’s De facie, provides a detailed description of the figure of a lunar man, as we shall see. But the characters of Plutarch’s dialogue saw a human face in the Moon, in a tradition that links the ancient world with the modern.
As we saw in the previous chapter, there is abundant evidence from the Archaic period onwards for the belief that the Moon was physically entangled with terrestrial phenomena such as dew and vegetation, as well as with women’s reproductive lives. In this chapter, I make a case for the Moon’s increasing entanglement in a less concrete sense: in the Greeks’ intellectual history.
As its title suggests, this chapter deals with ancient space-men: not in the sense of those early flights of fancy that took, for example, Peisetairos to Cloudcuckooland in Aristophanes’ comedy Birds, or Socrates’ imagination to the upper world where he could view the Earth as a globe in Plato’s Phaedo, though these are important predecessors (and we shall encounter them more fully in Chapter 6). I am dealing here with the motif of travel to the Moon. Among ancient writers of fictions of outer space, the best known today is probably Lucian of Samosata, who treats the Moon in two works, Icaromenippus and the rather better-known True Stories. As we shall see here, he may not in fact have been the first to put men on the Moon, but his lunar expeditions are the earliest that survive in detail. I come to Lucian last, not only because he is the latest, chronologically, of the authors I will treat here, but because his work is also the most complex, engaging with the entire preceding selenographical tradition in surprising and sophisticated ways, as well as with complex literary-critical matters in his own society. Two other lunar fantasies must be considered before we come to Lucian, both of them from fragmentary sources: Varro’s enigmatic Endymiones and Antonius Diogenes’ novel The incredible things beyond Thule, the latter of which exerted its influence, I believe, on Lucian’s work. Though slender, the threads connecting the Moon with fiction and lies in the ancient imagination are already discernible in these fragmentary works, and Lucian would weave these into a lavish cloth.
In the Introduction to the book, I promised a symphonic story of lunar thought. I hope, by now, that the reader has come to hear the interconnected harmonies of ancient selenography: how ideas about the Moon as a goddess resurface in the fantastical, querulous Moon of Lucian’s Icaromenippus; how beliefs about the Moon’s moisture and liquescence swell, in Lucian’s hands, into a world of corporeal and political viscosity; how the Moon’s ancient anthropomorphization as a goddess becomes rationalized, in Plutarch’s work, into connections with birth and death; and how the ancient ocular intensity of the Moon makes it into a site for visual science and fantasy.
Strands of ancient ritual tradition, scientific inquiry and imaginative fancy cluster thickly around the Moon. Its most ancient, probably prehistoric, role was as a celestial body whose phases measured out the months for the Greeks; indeed, Plato identified the Moon, Sun and planets with the creation of time itself, and attributed to the Moon, with its monthly cycle of phases, a formative epistemological effect by teaching us how to count.
In the previous chapter, we explored the semiotics of the lunar world in ancient fictions, especially Lucian’s works. In this chapter, we leave Earth and consider – with ancient thinkers and modern astronauts – what our reality looks like when viewed from the Moon. Selēnoskopia or the ‘view from the Moon’ became a reality for the first time in the first year of the Apollo missions in 1968, but the imaginative tradition of gazing at the Earth from outer space has a far more ancient pedigree, stretching back to the earliest Greek literature over two-and-a-half millennia ago. In Lucian’s hands, the Moon became our first extra-terrestrial viewing-platform and the focus for an extraordinary continuum of thought that links ancient imagined experience with modern reality.
In the Apollo era, photographic images revealed the lunar landscape to us for the first time. Overnight, our mysterious opaline luminary – the fanciful home of insectoid Selenites, bat-men or benevolent lunar spirits – became a rock in space, a forlorn and uninhabited outpost of our world. But the ancient Greeks and Roman did not know this yet: they did not know what the Moon was made of (fire? ice? cloud?), or what caused it to change its shape each month, and they were fascinated by it – ‘haunted by its thereness’, to paraphrase John Updike, in a poem about the mysterious lunar presence.
In several senses, Anaxagoras is one of the great landmark figures in the history of the Moon. In the previous chapter we saw how, in Parmenides’ wake, he brought to fruition a great paradigm-shift from ‘meteorological’ to ‘lithic’ astronomy (to use Graham’s terms). By doing so, he made the Moon habitable by postulating, for the first time, that it was an Earth-like world, radically different from the alien nebulous or fiery objects envisaged by his predecessors. Not only was it solid like the Earth, but it shared familiar features with the terrestrial landscape, such as mountains, gorges and caves – a theory that was shared by the atomist philosopher Democritus as well. It is probably no coincidence, therefore, that Anaxagoras is our earliest reported source for speculation about lunar life; he may well have been the first to grapple seriously with the idea. We are told that he envisaged ‘dwellings’ (oikēseis) and possibly even cities on the Moon, which presupposed habitation by lunar beings, and he may have claimed that the Nemean lion of myth originated there.
The Moon exerted a powerful influence on ancient intellectual history, as a playground for the scientific imagination. This book explores the history of the Moon in the Greco-Roman imaginary from Homer to Lucian, with special focus on those accounts of the Moon, its attributes, and its 'inhabitants' given by ancient philosophers, natural scientists and imaginative writers including Pythagoreans, Plato and the Old Academy, Varro, Plutarch and Lucian. ní Mheallaigh shows how the Moon's enigmatic presence made it a key site for thinking about the gaze (erotic, philosophical and scientific) and the relation between appearance and reality. It was also a site for hoax in antiquity as well as today. Central issues explored include the view from elsewhere (selēnoskopia), the relation of science and fiction, the interaction between the beginnings of science in the classical polis and the imperial period, and the limits of knowledge itself.