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Karen ní Mheallaigh delivers Prentice lecture

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Published Date

March 14, 2023


Nowadays, you can buy “real property” on the moon. A retro website will sell you a “beautifully engraved deed on metallized silver stock,” a “satellite photograph” of your new lunar home and an “information sheet” telling you about the environs of this cosmic real estate. A different website gives you “Moon Land for FREE!”. No credit card required.

In the 2022 Prentice lecture, ‘The Moon and the Map in the Ancient World,’ Karen ní Mheallaigh, Andrew W. Mellon Professor of Classics at Johns Hopkins University, charted the long history of our fascination with the moon. Through a series of close readings of Lucian, Plutarch and other ancient thinkers, she unraveled an ancient phenomenology in which the moon was understood as an “optical prosthesis” that could supplement earthly vision and enhance the numinosity of space.

“[We now think of] the moon as a text that is less corrupted than our earth and a more faithful document, therefore, of our remote cosmic history,” she said. “In many ways that diverges from the ancient tendency to view the moon as a second order world because it is a reflection of our own.”

Over the course of an hour and a half, Professor ní Mheallaigh suggested, however, that for Hellenic thinkers, the moon did not merely reflect the world, but offered glimmers of a world beyond it. Thus, a “speculum lunae” tradition imagined the moon as an instrument or text that could divulge more than it was possible to see on earth. “The moon offers a compression of the world, where you then have command over an entire scene,” she said.

Interrogating the full implications of “selenography,” the now obsolete science of lunar geography, Professor ní Mheallaigh connected the desire for an optical prosthetics with the cartographic desire to map the world. “It’s not surprising that [selenography] coincides with a period of imperial expansion and map making, including Ptolemy’s map,” she said. “As soon as the moon becomes a mappable space, we colonize it, we go there.”

Taken together, Professor ní Mheallaigh’s lecture stitched ancient history together with questions of visual cognition, reflection, telescopy, astronomy, science, and spirituality. She suggested that the earliest veristic depiction of the moon might not belong to Leonardo da Vinci or Jan Van Eyck, but a diagram from Byzantine Scholar Demetrios Triklinios, which shows a black figure of a man that appears to reflect the map of the earth. This depiction, she argued, represents a complex connection between the world, maps, the moon and humanity, which survives in other anthropomorphic traditions surrounding the moon.

After Professor ní Mheallaigh’s lecture, students and faculty made numerous suggestions for moon references and other connections in ancient texts, reflecting the richness of the topic. A particularly memorable question from Princeton Classics Professor Johannes Haubold concerned journeys to the moon and prompted a fascinating discussion about the relationship between fiction, astronomy and flights of imagination. Outside the talk, Professor ní Mheallaigh continued the conversation with students and faculty, who were mooning about, waiting for more.