Fantastical Islands from a Roman Novel

Lucian of Samosata was a second-century author writing in Roman Turkey. His best-known work is A True History, a satire of ancient historians who breathlessly repeated whatever half-baked tall tales they’d been told about foreign lands. Much as it pains me to see my beloved Herodotus so ill-treated, A True History is both funny and engaging. Many of the tall tales Lucian invented for his book are about fictional islands that make great adventure sites for RPGs. Let’s take a look!

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A totally made-up ‘portrait’ of Lucian from 1711.

A True History is written in the form of an autobiography, but one explicitly stated to be fictional. As Lucian puts it, “I turned my style to publish untruths, but with an honester mind than others have done: for this one thing I confidently pronounce for a truth, that I lie.” Lucian says he and 50 stout-hearted Greek companions took a fine ship with many provisions out beyond the Strait of Gibraltar into the Atlantic Ocean. There they got caught in a terrible storm and were blown off to who-knows-where, where they stumbled upon a magical island.

This island was themed around wine. Lucian and his men found a pillar on the island carved in Greek: “Thus far traveled Hercules and Bacchus.” (The latter being the Roman god of wine, madness, debauchery, theater, etc.) There was a river of wine flowing out to sea. In places, the river was wide enough for a ship to sail up it. There were fish in the river whose flesh tasted of wine, and eating them made Lucian’s companions drunk. The source of the river was no spring but a grove of “vine-trees” whose roots flowed with booze.

But the grove hid a more dangerous wonder. Some of the trees were sexy ladies from the waist up. They had no legs and were rooted firmly in the soil, but from the hips upwards they were curvaceous and lovely. Their fingers ended in branches full of grapes. Their hair was leaves and more grapes. The ladies spoke different langauges: some Lydian, some Indian, but mostly Greek. They kissed some of Lucian’s sailors, and those sailors became instantly drunk. Some of the tree-women wanted to have sex with the Greeks, and two of the sailors gladly did so. But it was much to their sorrow, because once their dicks were in, their bodies became knit to the trees and could not be removed. Their fingers sprouted branches and vines as if they were about to bear fruit. Lucian and his remaining companions were so scared they ran back to the ship and left the two for dead.

When the ship put to sea, it was caught in a whirlwind and carried all the way to the Moon. From this, some folks argue that A True History is the first work of science fiction. Lucian’s adventures in outer space are a post unto themselves, and we’ll cover them next week. For now, we’ll skip over them and pick back up with the return of Lucian, his friends, and their ship to the terrestrial ocean.

Only three days after they got back, the ship was swallowed by a whale. But this was no ordinary whale: its insides were big enough to contain a city of 10,000 souls! There was dirt and hills in there, created (Lucian speculates) from the mud the beast inadvertently swallowed. Upon the earth grew forests and tilled fields. Beasts lived in the woods and birds nested in the branches. Exploring this new land, Lucian and company found a temple to Neptune, sepulchers, pillars, and other man-made constructions. The also found the temple’s builders: an old Cypriot named Scintharus and his son, Cinyras. Their ship had been swallowed 27 years ago, and all others of their crew were drowned.

These two Greeks were not alone. A thousand non-humans split among six nations dwelled in the belly of the whale. Five hated humans. The warlike, flesh-eating Tarychanians looked like eels with the faces of lobsters. The Carcinochirians and the Thinnocephalians were allied with one another. The Paguridians were allied with the Psettopodians, who were swift of foot and also warlike. The old man and his son lived on land claimed by the Psettopodians and had to pay an annual tribute of 500 oysters to be permitted to live. Only the sixth nation, the Tritonomendetans, didn’t mind humans. Their upper parts were like men, their lower parts like cats. 

Lucian wasn’t happy the two Greeks were so mistreated. He took his men back to the ship to take up arms and armor. The non-humans of the whale had only fish bones for both, so were sure to be no match. When the Psettopodians and Paguridians showed up to claim their yearly tribute, Lucian and company killed 170 of them. They lost only one of their own, their pilot, who was stabbed through the back with a fish’s rib. The next day, three of the other four nations came to fight. Lucian’s companions killed them all too. The harmless  Tritonomendetans they permitted to flee through the gills of the whale. (Lucian not being famous for his knowledge of comparative anatomy.)

Lucian, his companions, and the two shipwrecked Cypriots lived a life of leisure inside the whale for a further year and a half. They planted vineyards, gathered fruit, hunted, and exercised. Eventually though, even this most pleasant prison became intolerable. When the whale opened its mouth, they could see the outside world: sometimes mountains, sometimes sky, sometimes islands no one recognized. So they hatched a plan to escape.

The Greeks set a fire in the whale’s tail. It burned for thirteen days before it killed the whale. Before the beast died, they took a big timber and propped its mouth open. That way they’d not be trapped inside the enormous corpse. With the whale dead, they wrapped cables about its teeth, winched their boat out into the sea, and left for parts unknown.

In their further adventures, Lucian and his friends met all sorts of cool ocean-going people. There were pirates who rode on dolphins. They traveled in bands of some 20-odd corsairs. Their dolphins neighed like horses. When these pirates attacked Lucian’s ship, they broke into two columns, one on each side of the vessel. They hurled dried cuttlefish and crab eyes at the Greeks, who returned fire with bows and arrows. The pirates couldn’t withstand the Greeks’ superior firepower and retreated to their private island.

Another band of seafarers were the penis-sail men. They lay on their backs in the water and got real big erections, to which they affixed a sail. Each man held in his hands the ropes that controlled his sail and off he went, scudding across the waves under wind-and-penis power.

Then there were the dolphin charioteers. The charioteer stood upon a little bed of floating cork, to which they hitched two dolphins. Unlike the dolphin-riding pirates, the charioteers never offered any violence to Lucian’s ship, nor did they avoid the Greeks. They viewed the ship as a marvel and passed by on every side to get a better look.

Finally, there were the cork-foot men. They came from a city that floated on a great and round cork, and their feet were made entirely of the stuff. To get from place to place, these Greek-speakers walked and ran atop the water, never foundering. 

One island Lucian came to was a bird’s nest two and a half miles across, floating on the sea. The bird that sat upon it was almost as large as her nest. When she departed – making winds almost strong enough to capsize the ship – Lucian and his crew boarded the nest and found it full of enormous eggs. They cut one open with their axes and found in it a bird ready to hatch. They cut it up, ate it, and left. But soon they began to witness omens that suggested they had done wrong and would be punished. A carved goose that ornamented the stern of the ship sprouted feathers and cried. Scintharus, the old man from the whale, sprouted hair all over his body. The ship itself grew branches. Atop the mast, it sprouted unripe fruit: figs and grapes. The crew begged the gods to take away whatever wicked fate they’d been given and the omens stopped.

The last fantastical island I’ll mention was a floating forest with no land beneath it. These pine and cypress trees were planted with their roots in the water above a bottomless sea. They grew together so tightly that the boat could not get through. And the forest was so large that sailing around it would take forever. So instead Lucian tied cables to the branches and winched the ship up into the treetops, and sailed through the foliage to the other side.

The story ends with Lucian and his friends shipwrecked on an unknown continent. He promises his next book will describe their adventures there. As far as we know, he never wrote such a book. Perhaps Lucian’s promise of a sequel was the greatest lie of all.

At your table, what we’ve got here are a collection of fantastic locales and peoples to populate them. Mix and match! Put the cork-foot men in the floating forest and the harmless Tritonomendetans on the wine island. Let the dolphin pirates use the belly of the whale as a floating base from which to raid. Use the bits that will be fun at your table and discard the rest!

Next week we’re going to look at Lucian’s adventures in outer space: his visits to the Moon and Venus, the great space battles he participated in, and all the weird fantasy aliens he met. Am I timing next week’s post to coincide with the release of a new edition of Spelljammer in the vain hope that the r/DnD subreddit sends me some traffic? You betcha! But regardless of my self-promotion schemes, it’s a very silly post and should be a lot of fun – so make sure you come on back!

Check out Shanty Hunters, my award-winning RPG about collecting magical sea shanties in the year 1880!

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