Ghosts, Gospels, And Batman: A Brief History Of Life On The Moon

Those aren't Neil Armstrong's footprints. They're Batman's. Image credit: Elena11/Shutterstock.com

Few things have captured human imagination throughout the ages quite like the Moon. It’s inspired by great romance, thrilling works of literature and film, and at least one pizza-pie-focused love song.

But perhaps more than anything, our nearest neighbor and honorary other half have led people throughout history to gaze up at the night sky and think to themselves: “I bet there’s some really cool stuff up there.”

Lucky for us, some of them decided to write it down.

The Moon In Ancient Times Was Covered In Ghosts

The Moon of antiquity was, to put it mildly, kind of spooky. Around AD 75, the historian and philosopher Plutarch wrote an essay called De facie quae in orbe lunae apparet (“Concerning the face which appears in the orb of the moon”) in which he described it as the home of the souls of the dead. Specifically, the souls of the dead wearing fancy hats and sparkling like a vampire in a teen romance.

“All soul, whether without mind or with it, when it has issued from the body is destined to wander in the region between earth and moon but not for an equal time,” Plutarch explains in what is otherwise a pretty respectable work of scientific analysis. “Unjust and licentious souls pay penalties for their offences; but the good souls … go about like victors crowned with wreaths of feathers … [and] in appearance resembling a ray of light.”

Medieval scholars understood some things about the moon, but it remained mysterious and mythic to them as well. Bibliothèque nationale de France, Département des manuscrits, Paris,in public domain.

The Renaissance Moon Was Hella Religious

The Renaissance was an odd time. On the one hand, we see some of the very first realistic representations of various cosmological phenomena and sophisticated observational knowledge of the moon. On the other, we have Dante spending two books agonizing over whether or not the man in the moon is actually Cain, the “first murderer” of Christian mythology.

But that wasn’t the only biblical main character people figured a lunar traveler might meet. Ludovico Ariosto’s epic poem Orlando Furioso (that’s Raging Roland for the anglophones in the audience) placed John of “Matthew, Mark, Luke and John” fame on the moon, while the 17th-century novel The Man in the Moone; or, A Discourse of a Voyage thither describes moon inhabitants as a race of tall, "lunar"-colored people who feel no hatred, love Jesus and enjoy a cigarette or two.

Batman On The Moon?

The 19th century was an age in which science flourished, and while chemistry and physics leaped forward on Earth, astronomers once again turned to the sky in the hopes of finding lunar life.

They didn’t have to wait long. In 1835, it was reported in the New York Sun that the highly respected astronomer John Herschel had found blue "manbats" on the Moon – along with sheep, pygmy zebras, and (of course) unicorns. These manbats apparently had quite a sophisticated society: Herschel had seen them building temples and there were mutterings that whole towns had been seen on the lunar surface.

Of course, there are no blue manbat civilizations on the moon, and John Herschel had seen no such thing. The “Great Moon Hoax” was dismissed within a few weeks – but many astronomers of the day remained convinced that there was life on the moon. Three years after the hoax, pop-astronomy writer Thomas Dick wrote that "the Moon is … more or less covered with vegetation not dissimilar to our own Earth …[and] great artificial works … erected by the lunarians," while textbooks of the time took it as fact that the moon was inhabited.

Not quite the caped crusader, but he captured the imagination of the public nevertheless. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, in public domain.

The Modern Moon

Humans finally made it to the moon in 1969, and our hopes of meeting lunar civilizations were mostly dashed. But you might be surprised to learn that even at this late stage, NASA was taking the idea of life on the moon quite seriously, enlisting scientific luminaries such as Carl Sagan and Isaac Asimov to advise them on what might be waiting for lunar explorers. In fact, NASA’s quarantine procedures were partly shaped by the belief that returning astronauts might have organic moon material still on them from the trip.

And, perhaps ironically, there may be life on the moon after all. In 2019 an Israeli spacecraft malfunctioned and crashed into the moon’s surface, spilling cargo across the lunar landscape. Among that cargo was thousands of tiny tardigrades – some of the hardiest organisms on Earth. According to scientists, they’re probably still up there.

“I would imagine [the tardigrades] would survive for some time,” astrobiologist Philippe Reekie told The Guardian a few months after the crash. “The main problem with the moon is the vacuum and the high radiation, but tardigrades are proven to survive those conditions.”


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