Research to investigate links between Ancient Greeks and modern science fiction

2000 and half just before a Space Odyssey
Science Fiction in its infancy. Photo (cc) coba

A post-mortem of my paper yes­ter­day will fol­low, but I’m a little tired and want to think a bit more about it. On the whole I thought it went sur­pris­ingly well.

Instead I’ll share a press release I got today.

New research into the Ancient Greeks shows their know­ledge of travel inspired early forms of fantasy and sci­ence fic­tion writ­ing

New research into the Ancient Greeks shows their know­ledge of travel inspired early forms of fantasy and sci­ence fic­tion writing.

There is a long tra­di­tion of fantasy in Greek lit­er­at­ure that begins with Odysseus’ fant­astic travels in Homer’s Odyssey. Dr Karen Ni-Mheallaigh, at the University of Liverpool’s School of Archaeology, Classics and Egyptology, is explor­ing fantasy in ancient lit­er­at­ure, examin­ing the­or­ies of mod­ern sci­ence fic­tion writ­ing and how these can be applied to texts from the ancient world.

Dr Ni-Mheallaigh is look­ing at the work of 2nd cen­tury AD writer, Lucian of Samosata, who wrote True Histories, a travel nar­rat­ive that includes an account of a trip to the moon and inter­stel­lar war­fare. Antihanes of Berge — who wrote about his travels in the far north of Europe, where it was so cold that con­ver­sa­tions ‘froze in the air,’ — will also be examined, as well as the writer Herodotus who wrote about ‘fly­ing snakes; and ‘giant gold-digging ants’ in India.

Dr Ni-Mheallaigh explains: “Fantasy writ­ing in the ancient world is still rel­at­ively unex­plored from a lit­er­ary per­spect­ive. What is so inter­est­ing about these fant­ast­ical jour­neys is that many of them are writ­ten in the form of truth­ful travel logs and his­tor­ical texts. The Greeks had a fas­cin­a­tion with the exotic and other worlds and some writers trav­elled to the north and Far East to sat­isfy their intrigue. The cul­tures they found there were so dif­fer­ent from their own that they were inspired to fan­tas­ize and spec­u­late about even more remote and exotic worlds.

The Greeks seemed to have had an anxi­ety about writ­ing pure fic­tion, and so writers who were notori­ous for their ‘tall’ tales – such as Ctesias, Antiphanes and Megathenes — would write about their adven­tures in the form of travel logs, or back up their find­ings with pseudo-documentary evid­ence, such as ‘redis­covered’ texts or inven­ted inscriptions.

It was Lucian who was the first to admit that everything he wrote was untrue and could never occur. His writing-style is how­ever cal­cu­lated to con­vince his reader that all his adven­tures are in fact true. His writ­ing plays a very clever game with the reader’s mind, and, like all sci­ence fic­tion and fantasy writ­ing today, allows the reader to pon­der, what if…?


Dr Ni-Mheallaigh’s find­ings will be pub­lished in 2006.

It’s inter­est­ing stuff and Lucian’s Vera Historia (True History) is an inter­est­ing read. I also think the par­al­lels are worth invest­ig­at­ing. You don’t have to be an Arthur C Clarke fan­atic to draw the con­nec­tion between SF and the Odyssey. I’m just a bit baffled that it’s a press release now.

They are among us
Probably not an example of ancient Greek sci­ence fiction


When he's not tired, fixing his car or caught in train delays, Alun Salt works part-time for the Annals of Botany weblog. His PhD was in ancient science at the University of Leicester, but he doesn't know Richard III.