Ctesias was a 5th Century B.C.E. Greek doctor who also fancied himself a writer. His defining work, Indica, was written under the patronage of the Persian emperor Artaxeres II, and exposed the Mediterranean (and by extension, the Western world) to the mysterious, enchanted realm that we now call India.
Not that Ctesias actually went there…
So, what, exactly, did Ctesias recount, and how did it send him to literary Hell?
Let’s start by taking a look at the Indica:
The Indica introduced Western audiences to several brand-new Mythical Creatures:
- Unicorns makes their first appearance, being assess with 27-inch horns on their heads.
- The Manticore, a Sphinx-like creature with a human head (and three rows of teeth), the body of a lion, and a scorpion like tail was present as well.
- Apparently, Indian dogs are sometimes lion sized.
- Not only are the dogs supersized, but so are the palm trees (three times their Babylonian counterparts).
So, what did Ctesias get right?
- Talking parrots, a concept foreign to the Western world at the time
- The practice of falconry, which would go on to become a staple of European privilege, is also introduced for the first time.
- India’s geographic terrain and population are for the most part realistically depicted, as well some of the local wildlife (Unicorns, Manitcores and lion sized dogs notwithstanding).
- The indigenous tribal population of middle India, described as “short, black, pygmies”, are also given mention.
But let’s get back to other things he got wrong:
- The Monosceli, a race of one-legged people.
- The Skiopolae, people with umbrella sized feet.
- Indians with tails
- Giants over 18 feet tall
So, with this heady mix of fact and fiction, what’s a comic to do?
Simple: send Ctesias to Hell:
Enter Lucian, a half millennium later…
Born in 125 C.E., Lucian inspired many generations of future writers; he’s been cited as an influence on Sir Thomas More, William Shakespeare, Christopher Marlowe, Jonathan Swift, Voltaire, Henry Fielding, Denis Diderot and David Hume.
His influence even extended to the visual arts: Botticelli took inspiration for at least two paintings (The Calumny of Apelles and Pallas and the Centaur) from Lucian.
His works satirized everyone and everything; no cow was too sacred for Lucian, including the Gods.
When not mocking Zeus as an adulterous, self-involved demigouge (Dialogue of the Gods, Zeus Catechized, Zeus Rants, and The Parliament of the Gods), he dared other waters: his Dialogue of the Courtesans is one of the oldest surviving Greek texts to make explicit references to lesbianism.
Who else better to send Ctesias to Hell?
“Eyes are better witnesses than ears” – Lucien.
I like to paraphrase the Dao Teh Ching‘s first poem in the following manor:
The Dao that can be Dao’ed ain’t the Dao.
In other words, it’s a text that starts out by telling you it’s not True, even when it’s trying to be.
Especially when it’s trying to be.
Lucien’s a True Story starts the same way: it is a Book of Lies, and it’s damn proud of it.
So, what does this second century C.E. text include?
A river of wine surrounded by trees in the shape of women…
A journey to the Moon, where an all-out war is being waged between the King of the Moon and the King of the Sun over the rights to colonize the Morning Star (Venus), with a detailed account of Lunar life, filled with all sorts of Alien lifeforms…
A giant whale, filled with hybrid fish-people, who Lucien and company subdue after a fierce battle. Travelling forth, they come across a sea of milk, an island of cheese and finely…
The Island of the Blessed.
Which also happens to be the Island of the Damned…
For his own amusement, Lucien ends his story by re-visioning the Odyssey:
Lucien delivers Calypso, the Nymph who Odysseus spent seven adulterous years with on his journey back to his family, a letter from her distant lover.
A letter of regret, for the immortality they might have shared together…
Take that, Homer.
But before his narrative ends (with a spoiler announcement of a as-of-yet unwritten sequel), he had to deal with his intellectual enemies:
Those who wrote “histories” without eye-witness accounts.
Once again, eyes are better witnesses than ears…
Homer and Herodotus were clearly suspect.
But Lucien’s rancor was clearly focused on Ctesias.
And so it goes that in one of the earliest Sci-Fi novels ever written, the Island of the Blessed has a special place for Sinners.
Dante used a similar trick to condemn his political enemies (Inferno), but Lucien’s interests were focused on thought crimes, not personal slights.
And that’s why he sent poor Ctesias to Hell, on the Island of the Blessed.
(I believe it is where Faux News commentators spend eternity…)
While I’ve considered the many Hells that might await my Pagan Soul, I must end with this conclusion:
I want to go to Ctesias’/Lucien’s Hell.
After all, it’s got Unicorns, Manticores, and lion sized dogs.
All said and done, that’s better than any of the other Hells I’ve been promised,
Plus, there I might even meet be an Alien or two…
Oops, wrong Alien….
Now, that’s better.