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No Place Like Home: Narratorial Participation in Lucian’s True Histories

Bryant Kirkland

Lucian’s True Histories (VH) is well-studied for its allusive and fantastic ethnographies (Georgiadou & Larmour 1998; von Möllendorff 2000).  In this paper, I focus on a topic less well explored, which I call “narratorial participation.”  While scholars have studied the VH’s philosophical receptions, especially of Plato (Laird 2003; ní Mheallaigh 2005) and, more recently, differences between “Lucian” and the narrator (ní Mheallaigh 2010; Whitmarsh 2006 & 2013), I turn our attention to the VH’s historiographic aspects, building on Georgiadou & Larmour 1994 and Saïd 1994.  I argue that the narrator’s engagements with certain societies reconfigures Herodotean-style autopsy by collapsing the putative distance between narrator and subject.  Focusing on two scenes, I show how narratorial participation reshapes the historiographic strategy of identifying likeness and likelihood, ultimately blurring the control (Greek) and variable (non-Greek) operative throughout much Herodotean ethnography. Utterances of likeness and likelihood (represented by cognates of εἰκάζω) evoke Herodotean narrative technique, but they are voiced by a mercurial narrator whose participations problematize the ethnographer’s role as a discernible entity against which foreignness is assessed.

I analyze narratorial participation in two scenes, the visits to the moon (1.10-28) and the whale (1.30-2.2), with reference to Herodotean remarks on likelihood in his account of Egypt.  First, I note how Lucian describes lunar exotica through comparison (e.g., clouds reddened by blood are likened to sunsets, 1.17).  Cognates of εἰκάζω, however, establish not only the moon’s oddities; they also establish the narrator’s consciousness of physical and cultural disorientation: he “supposes” he sees his home (1.10) and later must reinterpret an authorial “supposition” behind an Iliad passage (1.17). The narrator’s temporarily joining (κοινωνεῖν, 1.21) this land of novelty and paradox allows for moments of subjectivity that  both mimic and reframe the Herodotean persona.  Comparison with Herodotus 2.68-69 and 2.22 (an account of crocodiles and a discussion of the Nile, respectively) reveals Lucian’s subtle manipulation: Herodotus’ visit to Egypt permits him to note differences while maintaining the critical distance to posit Egyptian life as strange but still explicable (see, e.g., Histories 2.27, 56, 93, 125 for οἰκός suppositions). Lucian’s narrator, by contrast, does ethnography through participation in Selenite life, rendering his “encounter” with earth, as mediated through a mirror, a mere “as if” (ὥσπερ, 1.26).

Turning to the VH’s whale section, I show how Lucian counteracts the moon’s disorienting effects by creating a simulacrum of Greekness. The narrator establishes, through supposition, the whale community’s credentials as Hellenic (e.g., the whale’s teeth are like phalloi, 1.30).  The potentially exotic is rendered native, as when men in the whale are presumed to be experiencing the same emotions as the narrator's own (ὡς τὸ εἰκὸς παθόντες, 1.32).  Not unlike the narrator among the Selenites, the men in the whale claim to have lost perspective (1.33), “supposing” themselves dead.  The narrator mitigates their alienation by joining the whale community.  Comparison with Herodotus’ persona in Egypt again shows Lucian’s slight alteration. For instance, at Histories 2.143, Herodotus acknowledges Egyptian genealogical reckoning, which Hecataeus could not.  Herodotus accepts Egyptian knowledge though it may differ from Greek reckoning.  Lucian, however, uses signifiers of Hellenic culture within the whale to domesticate the seemingly foreign rather than accepting it on its own terms. 

By way of conclusion, I suggest how me might expand Whitmarsh 2006’s contention that the overriding joke of the VH is its false invitation to meaning.  The VH removes the contrastive distance between narrator and ethnographic subject.  It thereby challenges assumptions about the historiographer’s creation of meaning through likeness and comparison.  The joke of outlandish peoples conceals more profound evasions of the narrator’s own outlandishness.  His mobility allows him to participate in “imaginary ethnographies” (Schwab 2012), in which he surmounts his own apparent role as outsider.  My paper’s focus on the narrator’s subjective experience in ethnographic scenes thus widens the perspective on questions of the narrator’s identity in the True Histories.

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Truth and Untruth

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