Archives for posts with tag: Gale E. Christianson

After a major erruption in 1107, the Helkla volcano in Iceland acquired a reputation throughout Europe as the “Gateway to Hell” and witches were said to gather there at Easter. Kepler explains in his footnotes that he chose Iceland as the setting for the early part of the Somnium because of an apparently ancient myth, recorded by Plutarch, that it was said to be the location of a gateway that allowed travel to other worlds. Fiolxhilde, the mother of Kepler’s hero Duracotus, is described gathering magical herbs on the slopes of the Hekla volcano, and reveals the secret of conversation with interplanetary daemons who can travel to the Moon.

In 1615, Johannes Kepler’s mother Katharina Kepler was arrested and accused of witchcraft, amid rumours that the descriptions in Somnium were a veiled account of the magical arts of Kepler’s mother:

 Katherine Kepler was well known for her vile temper and generally cantankerous disposition, not to mention the fact that the aunt who had cared for her as a child was burned at the stake as a witch. The stage was set, charges were leveled, and in 1615 Katherine Kepler was arrested on suspicion of practicing witchcraft.

A long, tedious, and taxing legal battle resulted: only after five years, part of which his mother spent in prison, was the old woman released; but the damage had been done. Katherine Kepler died in April of 1622 from causes directly attributable to the rigors of her imprisonment; her son had been able to do little significant work while trying to obtain his mother’s release; and the publication of the Somnium, at least for the present, was out of the question.


Lucian info and illustration at

… Kepler had purchased a copy of Lucian’s [1st Century] satirical work on lunar exploration facetiously titled, A True Story. From a scientific point of view the work made no sense: Lucian’s voyage to the moon begins in a whirlwind and concludes by poking fun at the society of his day through a chronicle of “hilarious discussions on the moon.” The flight of Duracotus and Fiolxhilde is also the result of supernatural forces that are no less mystical than the whirlwind conjured up by Lucian.

A second, and more important source of inspiration for Kepler’s moon voyage was Plutarch’s The Face on the Moon, [2nd Century] which Kepler read in 1595. It is a symposium of Greek scientific thought that includes the views of Hipparchus, Aristotle, and Aristarchus of Samos. Extensive speculation on the lunar environment as a possible home for life is presented; and Plutarch even relates the story of a mythical traveler—a Greek Duracotus—who sails to an island whose residents have knowledge of the passage to the moon. Kepler now had the classical precedent he lacked during his student days: he even hoped to publish translations both of Lucian’s and Plutarch’s work with the Somnium to show his debt to these classical writers, and hopefully blunt potential criticism of his own moon voyage. It was a task he did not complete.

Gale E. Christianson,  Kepler’s Somnium: Science Fiction and the Renaissance Scientist, Science Fiction Studies, March 1976