18

If we go back sufficiently far in human history we will most likely see that any descriptions of (supposed) "aliens" are described solely in religious terms.

So in the distant past, any weird or "unexplainable" (considering the level of knowledge or willingness to search for answers in religion) events were probably more often (or always?) attributed to Gods or "spirit beings" (of one sort or another).

Anyway, somewhere along the (history)line the human mentality changed and the concept of space aliens started to be used for some of these events.

What is the earliest mention of space aliens (as non-religious beings) in literature?

  • 6
    It's an interesting question, but obviously one that requires a lot of qualifications. What do you make of these ancient references to extraterrestrial life? – two sheds Mar 6 '15 at 0:25
  • Eric Von Däniken is your man, just kidding :) – CsBalazsHungary Mar 7 '15 at 6:17
  • @twosheds I'm sure they'll be saying the same thing about War of the Worlds in a few hundred years. – corsiKa Mar 9 '15 at 15:01
26

The main storyline to Lucian's Αληθή διηγήματα (2nd century CE) is the war between the people of the Sun and the people of the Moon over colonization of the Morning Star. As you can probably imagine from the satire's topic, several alien life forms are mentioned.

Here's a quote describing the narrator's encounter with Endymion, King of the Moon:

We were intending to continue our voyage, when we were discovered and detained by the Horse-vultures, as they are called. These are men mounted on huge vultures, which they ride like horses; the great birds have ordinarily three heads. It will give you some idea of their size if I state that each of their quill-feathers is longer and thicker than the mast of a large merchantman. This corps is charged with the duty of patrolling the land, and bringing any strangers it may find to the king; this was what was now done with us. The king surveyed us, and, forming his conclusions from our dress, 'Strangers,' said he, 'you are Greeks, are you not?' we assented. 'And how did you traverse this vast space of air?' In answer we gave a full account of ourselves, to which he at once replied with his own history. It seemed he too was a mortal, named Endymion, who had been conveyed up from our Earth in his sleep, and after his arrival had become king of the country; this was, he told us, what we knew on our Earth as the moon. He bade us be of good cheer and entertain no apprehensions; all our needs should be supplied.

Source: Sacred Texts

9

I would say, Voltaire, Micromegas (1752). It describes a creature from one of the planets orbiting Sirius, who visits Solar system, befriends some guy from Saturn, and they both visit Earth.

Of course it is always difficult to prove that something was the first, so let someone give an earlier reference.

9

I believe Cyrano de Bergerac's Comical History of the States and Empires of the Moon and The States and Empires of the Sum, both published posthumously in 1657 and 1662 respectively, precede both Swift's Gulliver's Travels (published 1726, amended 1735) and Voltaire's Micromegas of 1752.

Arthur C. Clarke credits Cyrano' books with:

being the first example of a rocket-powered space flight, and for inventing the ramjet

In the story:

Cyrano narrates the book in the first person, as if relating his own travels. In it, he uses "firecrackers" to propel himself to the moon, where he meets inhabitants who have four legs, musical voices, and amazing weapons that cook game for a meal while it's being shot.

6

Cosmic pluralism (many inhabited worlds) is an idea which goes back to the Ancient Greeks. Also this is one of the beliefs that folk wisdom has that Giordarno Bruno was condemned and burned for (1600).

4

(This answer isn't very historically rigorous, as I wrote it thinking I was on Worldbuilding.Stackexchange where citations and rigorous detailing aren't expected, but I think it is worthwhile here because it adds a different perspective which I would say is valid overall, and seems needed to me to relate the question to historical cosmologies instead of only looking from modern cosmology.)

I think the nature of the shift in relationship towards the universe is slightly different than you describe. One very rough but interesting perspective is that pre-empire cultures (before pantheons which had a dominant head god such as the sun god the Aryans had showed up) tended to relate to the world rather inclusively. We were part of the whole universe and everything in it was all a big cycle of death and rebirth.

The religious, ethnic and imperial conflicts that then arose, and the Aryans and other sun god worshippers, tended instead to cast their male sun god as superior to others, and humans as separate from the world and from spirit. This shift carried through into Judeo-Christianity and Islam, where we have these religious texts telling us what to believe, what's right and wrong, about how separate we are from spirit and how death is permanent etc., and a lot of that basic separateness of identity carried on into scientific thinking.

So people before all that history would tend to see an actual space alien as just part of the universe they hadn't met before, and would be interested but wouldn't necessarily think of it as other than of their universe and akin to themselves somehow.

Even in, say, ancient Egyptian or bronze/iron-age Greco-Roman cosmology (and probably many other pre-"Enlightenment" cultures), the underworld and the planets and so on were semi-metaphorical and unfamiliar from direct experience, but weren't conceived of as weird bizarre ooh from outer-space kind of things, because there was no such distinction in their cosmologies. They had plenty of imagination of other worlds and dimensions and the creatures in them. The ancient Egyptian underworld was far out, complex, and full of all sorts of interesting creatures etc.

The concept of "space aliens" as we now use it requires a cosmology akin to what we have now, and the expectations of strangeness or sameness that go along with it, which means you need to go to like 18th Century Europe at least before that's going to make any sense. Even so, it takes a long time before popular thinking or even sci fi writers are getting very "alien" in their thinking. e.g. Star Trek and Doctor Who are still full of "space aliens" who are Earth-like humanoids behaving more like Westerners than anything else.

So I think it's pretty hard to define and accept or reject any story as being space alien or not without some definitions, so it becomes fairly arbitrary depending on what you really want to know.

2

Technically speaking, aren't gods extraterrestrial too? Especially the ones that were supposed to create the earth, they must have come from somewhere. And they hang out in alternative planes (Asgard) or on top of stuff (Olympus). The ones with animal heads or multiple arms are pretty alien.

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    Thanks RedSonja, you are correct in that about gods in general. But in this question I specifically wanted to exclude beings that were being viewed as gods. The reason is, I wanted to see if there was a point when humans could conceive of other beings that maybe had other abilities than humans themselves but did not need to be revered. – coderworks Mar 6 '15 at 14:05
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    They are still viewed the same (outsiders, all-powerful), they just got renamed. There are people around who revere aliens too. – RedSonja Mar 6 '15 at 14:19
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    Yes, and the planes of some gods are even more far-out than many science fiction alien worlds. I can also think of at least one goddess whose body actually is the Earth. So I think that from one point of view, pre-literate cultures all effectively have aliens, and from a different point of view, there are no space aliens before humans start thinking about the universe as other worlds being known to be very different from our own, which in some sense is a 17th-20th Century perspective, and the definition depends on how you define "space alien". – Dronz Mar 9 '15 at 3:47
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    @coderworks " The reason is, I wanted to see if there was a point when humans could conceive of other beings that maybe had other abilities than humans themselves but did not need to be revered." - well in that case I would say that unknown creatures from far countries were imagined more often. – Anixx Mar 9 '15 at 4:02
  • Thanks folks, but in any case this question asked for references to SPACE aliens but to specifically exclude any creatures that were worshiped. – coderworks Mar 9 '15 at 4:41
2

Satires have the problem that they are meant to be a little silly, not convincing. I always hold out for the first scifi story being Kepler's Somnium which was an attempt to draw a convincing inhabited moon. (In circulation as a manuscript by 1611.)

The earliest not-sacred non-humans might be the scorpion-men in The Epic of Gilgamesh. (2100 BC)

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