Hairy comets and their inhabitants, or why we should all read Lucian.

I would make them all learn English: and then I would let the clever ones learn Latin as an honour, and Greek as a treat’ – Winston Churchill. How about Homer as an honour, and Lucian as a treat? Lucian is rarely found on any syllabus, but this second century AD author has plenty to recommend him, as I recently discovered with a group of summer school students.



He wrote many interesting works including Dialogues of the gods and Dialogues of the dead, but it is the True Histories where we find some of the most wonderful ideas. In this article I want to give you a taste of a couple of stories and suggest why we should read more of them.

In his True Histories Lucian plays with words, pictures and ideas, amusing us but also making us think. The Greek for stomach is gaster. So why is the Greek for calf gastroknemia? Clearly this is because there was once a kind of creature who gave birth by cutting out babies from their calves. This sounds ridiculous, but, in the context of the whole work, makes sense. He begins the text with a trip to a land where Dionysus has made rivers of wine. We need to be thinking about drunken madness, but also about Dionysus. This episode reminds me of the way in which Dionysus is born from Zeus’ thigh. This story also features in his Dialogues of the gods, so it is a fair comparison.

He then describes a marvellous being known to the moon men for living on comets. Comets are, according to Lucian, linked with hair. The Greek for comet, komes, and for long-haired, kometes, look remarkably similar, in fact identical in some parts. Obviously this is because comets are the long-haired bits of the sky. Obviously. Is this an attempt at a comic derivation, or a clever perception of the tail of a comet? If you look at a text such as Plato’s Cratylus, which tries to give much more ‘serious’ derivations of words, you will find things that might not be that much less strange-sounding. Lucian was a master of word-play and would, I think, delight us even today with his puns.

The comet man has a beard down to just above his knees. He has no toe-nails, but just one giant toe. There’s a giant cabbage just above his bottom. He drips honey from his nose and sweats milk which turns into cheese. There are olive-oil producing onions and water-bearing grapes around. Rich people wear clothes woven of glass, poor people of bronze. This made me think of the bronze-clad Greeks in Homer. We know that they can’t really be wearing bronze tunics, that is has to refer to armour, but it still sounds strange. Lucian’s picked that up and made us rethink it.

At this point he says ‘I hesitate to tell you... in case you think I’m lying because my account is so incredible’. Can things get any more strange? Definitely. If Lucian says it’s true, then it probably isn’t.

They have removable eyes which are made of different materials depending on how rich you are (and which the rich people store up); when people lose their eyes after taking them out, they have to borrow them. Lucian has effectively satirised a whole range of stories about the Cyclops (with one eye) and the Fates sharing an eye, to give us a comical picture of a society where class and appearance matter, even in a fantasy world.

When the young comet men are assaulted by the elements, they crawl into their parents’ shaggy, hairy pouches to keep comfortable. What an imagination! Should we try to rationalise this? How did he know about marsupials, when they only inhabit Australasia and the Americas? Does he need to have known that there were such things as marsupials in order to have created his moon man? Surely not. The joy of Lucian is that he’s prepared to be witty and ridiculous, funny in every way possible, creating a fantasy world which lets us reflect on our own. His visions warn us against plundering ancient texts for facts, for assuming they’re inevitably serious.

In Lucian’s topsy-turvy world anything can happen, but there are some interesting overall features which make us reflect on what we do as Classicists. My class suggested that Lucian should be on the syllabus because then more people would want to take Greek. I say, go and read him by yourself. He’s great fun, and if you can make any sense of him in Greek or English, not only will you have enjoyed yourself, but you’ll have learned to pay close attention to words and phrases that would otherwise boggle your mind. Education and enjoyment are two sides of the same coin (remember that ludus is the Latin for both game and school after all). A descent to the underworld, dialogues of the dead, a tragedy of Zeus and some marvellous pieces ‘on loving lies’... Lucian plays with our ideas of truth and is all the more worth reading for this. Can you write any better?

These pictures were created by students at the Bryanston summer school 2011