A not-so-trivial trivia question: who was the astronomer whose mother was tried as a witch? And who blamed his own unpublished science-fiction story–regarded by some as the first science-fiction ever written–for getting her in trouble?
Welcome to the wonderful world of the 16th and 17th centuries, and to the troubled life of Johannes Kepler (1571-1630), who had the bad (or good?) fortune to inhabit that world.
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. It was the thrilling era when Europe awakened from what we used to imagine–with great exaggeration–as the long sleep of the Middle Ages, discovering a New World across the ocean and a potential infinity of new worlds in the sky. It was the nightmare era when religious wars ravaged the continent, and tens of thousands of women and a fair number of men were burned at the stake, often after agonizing torture, for committing what we now regard as the impossible crime of witchcraft.
As opposed to the “real” crime of heresy, such as denying or maybe asserting the bodily presence of Christ within the consecrated wafer, which could send you to the stake as well.
It’s ironic. Ask most people when the great European witch-hunts took place, and they’ll tell you, “The Middle Ages.” Not so. It wasn’t until the very end of the Middle Ages that witch-hunting got its start. The madness had its heyday in the 16th and 17th centuries. (The Salem, Massachusetts episode of 1692 was a late eruption, distinguished mostly by the Puritan judges’ honorable conduct in admitting afterward that they’d done wrong and publicly repenting.)
So it wouldn’t be quite right to say that this witch’s son–one of the Fabulous Four who created modern astronomy, the others being Copernicus, Tycho Brahe, and Galileo–had one foot in the medieval world and one in the modern. Rather, one foot was in the “modern” enlightenment of his time, the other in its “modern” darkness. As science historian Edward Rosen pointed out 50 years ago, Kepler poured his energies in his later years into getting his mother acquitted from the charges brought against her. But if he disapproved of witchcraft trials as such, he never said so.
It was this same Kepler who wrote (in Latin) a novelette called Somnium, “The Dream,” which came equipped with a set of footnotes three times as long as the story itself. About a space flight to the moon, and what we’ll find when we get there.
“It seems strange and bizarre to me,” one of the book’s first readers wrote to Galileo about it. But that’s science-fiction for you.
“The Dream” is a story within a dream within a story. The framing narrative is set in 1608: the narrator, after reading about an ancient Bohemian queen “renowned for her skill in magic” and then watching the stars and moon, falls asleep and dreams he’s reading a book. This book contains the tale of an Icelander named Duracotus, whose mother Fioxhilde is … well, a witch.
“In the earliest years of my boyhood my mother, leading me by the hand and sometimes hoisting me up on her shoulders, often used to take me up to the lower slopes of Mt. Hekla”–a volcanic mountain in Iceland, supposed to be a gathering place for witches. “These excursions were made especially around St. John’s Day [June 24], when the sun is visible all twenty-four hours, and there is no night. Gathering some herbs with many rites, she cooked them at home. She made little bags out of goatskin, which she filled and carried to a nearby port to sell to the ship captains. This is how she earned her living.” (Translated by Edward Rosen.)
One day 14-year-old Duracotus spoils one of his mother’s amulets; she retaliates by handing him over as a slave to one of the ship captains. (I’ve heard of tough-love, but this is ridiculous.) Thus he’s carried off to Denmark, where he winds up spending five years as apprentice to the astronomer Tycho Brahe–with whom, in real life, Kepler briefly worked as an assistant.
At age 19, Duracotus returns to Iceland. His mother is glad to see him, and “deliriously happy” when she finds out he’s studied astronomy. “Comparing what she had learned with my remarks, she exclaimed that now she was ready to die, since she was leaving behind a son who would inherit her knowledge, the only thing she possessed.”
“Learned,” that is, by methods unknown to Tycho Brahe’s observatory.
“At our service,” Fioxhilde tells her son, “are very wise spirits, who detest the bright light of the other lands and their noisy people. They long for our shadows, and they talk to us intimately. Among them there are nine chief spirits. Of these, one is especially well known to me. The very gentlest and most innocuous of all, he is evoked by one and twenty characters. By his help I am not infrequently whisked in an instant to other shores, whichever I mention to him. … I should like you to become my companion on a visit, particularly to that region of which he has spoken to me so often. Quite remarkable are the things which he tells me about it.”
Duracotus says, of that “region”: “The name she uttered was ‘Levania.'”
The name is Hebrew. One word for the moon–rare in the Bible, standard in post-Biblical Hebrew literature–is l’vanah. (From the root meaning “white.”) Duracotus has already told us that “my mother … used to commune with the moon constantly.” Kepler, who learned Hebrew as a theology student at Tübingen, explains in a footnote:
“‘Moon’ in Hebrew is Lebana or Levana. I could have called it ‘Selenitis'”–from Greek selene, “moon”–“but Hebrew words, being less familiar to our ears, inspire greater awe and are recommended in the occult arts.”
Like the art of astronomy?
But back to Duracotus’s story:
“It was already spring. The moon, becoming a crescent, began to shine as soon as the sun set below the horizon, and was in conjunction with the planet Saturn in the sign of the Bull. My mother went away from me to the nearest crossroads. Raising a shout, she pronounced just a few words in which she couched her request. Having completed the ceremonies, she returned. With the outstretched palm of her right hand she commanded silence, and sat down beside me. Hardly had we covered our heads (in accordance with our covenant) when the rasping of an indistinct and unclear voice became audible.”
The “daimon”–not quite a demon–is about to speak.
by David Halperin
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