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Lucian of Samosata (125–c.180) was a Greek satirist of Syrian or Assyrian extraction, and True History is perhaps his most well-known tale. In this tale, the protagonist visits the Moon, meets extraterrestrial creatures, and takes part in interplanetary warfare. This piece of fantastical fiction parodies many works such as Homer’s Odyssey, and is certainly a contender for the title of earliest science fiction story.
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A TRUE STORY
Lucian of Samosata
TRANSLATED BY A.M. HARMON
A True Story by Lucian of Samosata.
© David De Angelis 2017 [all rights reserved]
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, I think, after much reading of serious works may profitably relax their minds and put them in better trim for future labour. It would be appropriate recreation for them if they were to take up the sort of reading that, instead of affording just pure amusement based on wit and humour, also boasts a little food for thought that the Muses would not altogether spurn; and I think they will consider the present work something of the kind. They will find it enticing not only for the novelty of its subject, for the humour of its plan and because I tell all kinds of lies in a plausible and specious way, but also because everything in my story is a more or less comical parody of one or another of the poets, historians and philosophers of old, who have written much that smacks of miracles and fables. I would cite them by name, were it not that you yourself will recognise them from your reading. One of them is Ctesias, son of Ctesiochus, of Cnidos, who wrote a great deal about India and its characteristics that he had never seen himself nor heard from anyone else with a reputation for truthfulness. Iambulus also wrote much that was strange about the countries in the great sea: he made up a falsehood that is patent to everybody, but wrote a story that is not uninteresting for all that.1 Many others, with the same intent, have written about imaginary travels and journeys of theirs, telling of huge beasts, cruel men and strange ways of living. Their guide and instructor in this sort of charlatanry is Homer's Odysseus, who tells Alcinous and his court about winds in bondage, one-eyed men, cannibals and savages; also about animals with many heads, and transformations of his comrades wrought with drugs. This stuff, and much more like it, is what our friend humbugged the illiterate Phaeacians with! Well, on reading all these authors, I did not find much fault with them for their lying, as I saw that this was already a common practice even among men who profess philosophy.2 I did wonder, though, that they thought that they could write untruths and not get caught at it. Therefore, as I myself, thanks to my vanity, was eager to hand something down to posterity, that I might not be the only one excluded from the privileges of poetic licence, and as I had nothing true to tell, not having had any adventures of significance, I took to lying. But my lying is far more honest than theirs, for though I tell the truth in nothing else, I shall at least be truthful in saying that I am a liar. I think I can escape the censure of the world by my own admission that I am not telling a word of truth. Be it understood, then, that I am writing about things which I have neither seen nor had to do with nor learned from others--which, in fact, do not exist at all and, in the nature of things, cannot exist.3 Therefore my readers should on no account believe in them.
Once upon a time, setting out from the Pillars of Hercules and heading for the western ocean with a fair wind, I went a-voyaging. The motive and purpose of my journey lay in my intellectual activity and desire for adventure, and in my wish to find out what the end of the ocean was, and who the people were that lived on the other side. On this account I put aboard a good store of provisions, stowed water enough, enlisted in the venture fifty of my acquaintances who were like-minded with myself, got together also a great quantity of arms, shipped the best sailing-master to be had at a big inducement, and put my boat--she was a pinnace--in trim for a long and difficult voyage. Well, for a day and a night we sailed before the wind without making very much offing, as land was still dimly in sight; but at sunrise on the second day the wind freshened, the sea rose, darkness came on, and before we knew it we could no longer even get our canvas in. Committing ourselves to the gale and giving up, we drove for seventy-nine days. On the eightieth day, however, the sun came out suddenly and at no great distance we saw a high, wooded island ringed about with sounding surf, which, however, was not rough, as already the worst of the storm was abating.4
Putting in and going ashore, we lay on the ground for some time in consequence of our long misery, but finally we arose and told off thirty of our number to stay and guard the ship and twenty to go inland with me and look over the island. When we had gone forward through the wood about three furlongs from the sea, we saw a slab of bronze, inscribed with Greek letters, faint and obliterated, which said: "To this point came Hercules and Dionysus." There were also two footprints in the rock close by, one of which was a hundred feet long, the other less--to my thinking, the smaller one was left by Dionysus, the other by Hercules.5 We did obeisance and went on, but had not gone far when we came upon a river of wine, just as like as could be to Chian.6 The stream was large and full, so that in places it was actually navigable. Thus we could not help having much greater faith in the inscription on the slab, seeing the evidence of Dionysus' visit. I resolved to find out where the river took its rise, and went up along the stream. What I found was not a source, but a number of large grapevines, full of clusters; beside the root of each flowed a spring of clear wine, and the springs gave rise to the river. There were many fish to be seen in it, very similar to wine in colour and in taste. In fact, on catching and eating some of them, we became drunk, and when we cut into them we found them full of lees, of course. Later on, we bethought ourselves to mix with them the other kind of fish, those from the water, and so temper the strength of our edible wine.
Next, after crossing the river at a place where it was fordable, we found something wonderful in grapevines. The part which came out of the ground, the trunk itself, was stout and well-grown, but the upper part was in each case a woman, entirely perfect from the waist up. They were like our pictures of Daphne turning into a tree when Apollo is just catching her. Out of their finger-tips grew the branches, and they were full of grapes. Actually, the hair of their heads was tendrils and leaves and clusters! When we came up, they welcomed and greeted us, some of them speaking Lydian, some Indian, but the most part Greek. They even kissed us on the lips, and everyone that was kissed at once became reeling drunk. They did not suffer us, however, to gather any of the fruit, but cried out in pain when it was plucked. Some of them actually wanted us to embrace them, and two of my comrades complied, but could not get away again. They were held fast by the part which had touched them, for it had grown in and struck root. Already branches had grown from their fingers, tendrils entwined them, and they were on the point of bearing fruit like the others any minute. Leaving them in the lurch, we made off to the boat, and on getting there, told the men we had left behind about everything, including the affair of our comrades with the vines. Then, taking jars, we furnished ourselves not only with water but with wine from the river, encamped for the night on the beach close by, and at daybreak put to sea with a moderate breeze.
About noon, when the island was no longer in sight, a whirlwind suddenly arose, spun the boat about, raised her into the air about three hundred furlongs and did not let her down into the sea again; but while she was hung up aloft a wind struck her sails and drove her ahead with bellying canvas. For seven days and seven nights we sailed the air, and on the eighth day we saw a great country in it, resembling an island, bright and round and shining with a great light. Running in there and anchoring, we went ashore, and on investigating found that the land was inhabited and cultivated. By day nothing was in sight from the place, but as night came on we began to see many other islands hard by, some larger, some smaller, and they were like fire in colour. We also saw another country below, with cities in it and rivers and seas and forests and mountains. This we inferred to be our own world.
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