Gods and Robots: Myths, Machines, and Ancient Dreams of Technology

Gods and Robots: Myths, Machines, and Ancient Dreams of Technology

by Adrienne Mayor


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The fascinating untold story of how the ancients imagined robots and other forms of artificial life—and even invented real automated machines

The first robot to walk the earth was a bronze giant called Talos. This wondrous machine was created not by MIT Robotics Lab, but by Hephaestus, the Greek god of invention. More than 2,500 years ago, long before medieval automata, and centuries before technology made self-moving devices possible, Greek mythology was exploring ideas about creating artificial life—and grappling with still-unresolved ethical concerns about biotechne, “life through craft.” In this compelling, richly illustrated book, Adrienne Mayor tells the fascinating story of how ancient Greek, Roman, Indian, and Chinese myths envisioned artificial life, automata, self-moving devices, and human enhancements—and how these visions relate to and reflect the ancient invention of real animated machines.

As early as Homer, Greeks were imagining robotic servants, animated statues, and even ancient versions of Artificial Intelligence, while in Indian legend, Buddha’s precious relics were defended by robot warriors copied from Greco-Roman designs for real automata. Mythic automata appear in tales about Jason and the Argonauts, Medea, Daedalus, Prometheus, and Pandora, and many of these machines are described as being built with the same materials and methods that human artisans used to make tools and statues. And, indeed, many sophisticated animated devices were actually built in antiquity, reaching a climax with the creation of a host of automata in the ancient city of learning, Alexandria, the original Silicon Valley.

A groundbreaking account of the earliest expressions of the timeless impulse to create artificial life, Gods and Robots reveals how some of today’s most advanced innovations in robotics and AI were foreshadowed in ancient myth—and how science has always been driven by imagination. This is mythology for the age of AI.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780691183510
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 11/27/2018
Pages: 304
Sales rank: 96,704
Product dimensions: 6.40(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

Adrienne Mayor is the author, most recently, of The Amazons: Lives and Legends of Warrior Women across the Ancient World and The Poison King: The Life and Legend of Mithradates, Rome’s Deadliest Enemy, which was a finalist for the National Book Award (both Princeton). She is a research scholar in classics and the history of science at Stanford University and lives in Palo Alto, California.

Read an Excerpt




THE FIRST "ROBOT" to walk the earth — in ancient Greek mythology — was a bronze giant called Talos.

Talos was an animated statue that guarded the island of Crete, one of three wondrous gifts fashioned by Hephaestus, god of the forge and patron of invention and technology. These marvels were commissioned by Zeus, for his son, Minos, the legendary first king of Crete. The other two gifts were a golden quiver of drone-like arrows that never missed their mark and Laelaps, a golden hound that always caught its prey. The bronze automaton Talos was charged with the task of defending Crete against pirates.

Talos patrolled Minos's kingdom by marching around the perimeter of the large island three times each day. As an animated metal machine in the form of a man, able to carry out complex human-like actions, Talos can be spoken of as an imagined android robot, an automaton "constructed to move on its own." Designed and built by Hephaestus to repel invasions, Talos was "programmed" to spot strangers and pick up and hurl boulders to sink any foreign vessels that approached Crete's shores. Talos possessed another capability too, modeled on a human trait. In close combat, the mechanical giant could perform a ghastly perversion of the universal gesture of human warmth, the embrace. With the ability to heat his bronze body red-hot, Talos would hug victims to his chest and roast them alive.

The automaton's most memorable appearance in mythology occurs near the end of the Argonautica, the epic poem by Apollonius of Rhodes describing the adventures of the Greek hero Jason and the Argonauts and their quest for the Golden Fleece. Today the Talos episode is familiar to many thanks to the unforgettable stop-motion animation of the bronze robot created by Ray Harryhausen for the cult film Jason and the Argonauts (1963; fig. 1.1 is a bronze cast of the original model).

When he composed his epic poem Argonautica in the third century BC, Apollonius drew on much older oral and written versions of the myths of Jason, Medea, and Talos, stories that were already well known to his audience. An antiquarian writing in a deliberately archaic style, at one point Apollonius casts Talos as a survivor or relict from the "Age of Bronze Men." This was an ornate allusion to a conceit in a figurative passage about the deep past taken from the poet Hesiod's Works and Days (750–650 BC). In the Argonautica and other versions of the myth, however, Talos was described as a technological production, envisioned as a bronze automaton constructed by Hephaestus and placed on Crete to do a job. Talos's abilities were powered by an internal system of divine ichor, the "blood" of the immortal gods. This raises questions: Was Talos immortal? Was he a soulless machine or a sentient being? These uncertainties would prove crucial to the Argonauts, although the answers remain ambiguous.

* * *

In the final book of the Argonautica, Jason and the Argonauts are homeward bound with the precious Golden Fleece. But their ship, the Argo, has been becalmed. With no winds to fill their sails, exhausted from days of rowing, the Argonauts make their way into a sheltered bay between two high cliffs on Crete. Immediately Talos spots them. The great bronze warrior begins breaking off rocks from the cliff and heaves them at the ship. How could the Argonauts escape the clutches of this monstrous android? Quaking in fear, the sailors desperately attempt to flee the terrifying colossus astride the rocky harbor.

It is the sorceress Medea who comes to their rescue.

A beautiful princess from the kingdom of Colchis on the Black Sea, the land of the Golden Fleece, Medea was a bewitching femme fatale with her own set of mythic adventures. She possessed the keys to youth and age, life and death. She could hypnotize man and beast, and she could cast spells and brew powerful potions. Medea understood how to defend against flames, and she knew the secrets of the unquenchable "liquid fire" known as "Medea's oil," a reference to volatile naphtha from natural petroleum wells around the Caspian Sea. In Seneca's tragedy Medea (lines 820–30, written in the first century AD), the sorceress keeps this "magical fire" in an airtight golden casket and claims that the fire-bringer Prometheus himself taught her how to store its powers.

Before their landfall in Crete, Medea had already helped Jason on his expedition to win the Golden Fleece. Medea's father, King Aeetes, promised to give Jason the Fleece if he could complete an impossible, deadly task. Aeetes owned a pair of hulking bronze bulls created by Hephaestus. Aeetes ordered Jason to yoke the fire-breathing bronze beasts and plow a field while sowing the earth with dragon's teeth that would sprout an instant army of android soldiers. Medea decided to save the handsome hero from certain death, and she and Jason became lovers (for the full story of how Jason dealt with the robo-bulls and the dragon-teeth army, see chapter 4).

The lovers had to flee the enraged King Aeetes. Medea — whose own golden chariot was drawn by a pair of tame dragons — guided Jason to the lair of the dreadful dragon that guarded the Golden Fleece. With her shrewd psychological insight, powerful pharmaka (drugs), and technai (devices), Medea overcame the dragon. Murmuring incantations, dipping into her store of exotic herbs and rare substances gathered from remote crags and meadows high in the Caucasus Mountains, Medea lulled the dragon into a deep sleep and seized the Golden Fleece for Jason. Medea and Jason absconded with the prize to the Argo, and she accompanied the Argonauts on their homeward voyage.

Now, facing the threat of the looming bronze automaton blocking their way, Medea takes charge again. Wait! she commands Jason's fearful sailors. Talos's body may be bronze, but we don't know whether he is immortal. I think I can defeat him.

Medea (from medeia, "cunning," related to medos, "plan, devise") prepares to destroy Talos. In the Argonautica, Medea uses mind control and her special knowledge of the robot's physiology. She knows that the blacksmith god Hephaestus constructed Talos with a single internal artery or tube through which ichor, the ethereal life-fluid of the gods, pulsed from his head to his feet. Talos's biomimetic "vivisystem" was sealed by a bronze nail or bolt at his ankle. Medea realizes that the robot's ankle is his point of physical vulnerability. Apollonius describes Jason and the Argonauts standing back in awe, to watch the epic duel between the powerful witch and the terrible robot. Muttering mystical words to summon malevolent spirits, gnashing her teeth with fury, Medea fixes her penetrating gaze on Talos's eyes. The witch beams a kind of baleful "telepathy" that disorients the giant. Talos stumbles as he picks up another boulder to throw. A sharp rock nicks his ankle, opening the robot's single vein. As his life force bleeds away "like melted lead," Talos sways like a great pine tree chopped at the base of its trunk. With a thunderous crash, the mighty bronze giant topples onto the beach.

It is interesting to speculate about this death scene of Talos as it was depicted in the Argonautica. Was the vivid image influenced by the sensational collapse of a real monumental bronze statue? Scholars have suggested that Apollonius, who spent time in Rhodes, had in mind the magnificent Colossus of Rhodes, built in 280 BC with sophisticated engineering techniques involving a complex internal structure and external bronze cladding. One of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, it stood about 108 feet tall, roughly the size of the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor. Unlike the mythical Talos, who spent his days in constant motion, the immense figure of Helios ("Sun") did not have moving parts but served as a lighthouse and gateway to the island. The Colossus was demolished by a powerful earthquake during Apollonius's lifetime, in 226 BC. The massive bronze statue broke off at the knees and crashed into the sea.

Other models were also at hand. Apollonius was writing in the third century BC, when an array of self-moving machines and automata were being made and displayed in Alexandria, Egypt, a lively center for engineering innovations. A native of Alexandria, Apollodorus served as head of the great library there (P. Oxy. 12.41). Apollodorus's descriptions of the automaton Talos (and a drone-like eagle, chapter 6) suggest his familiarity with Alexandria's famous automated statues and mechanical devices (chapter 9).

* * *

In older versions of the Talos story, technology and psychology are even more prominent — and ambiguous. Does his metallurgic origin make Talos completely inhuman? Notably, the question of whether Talos has agency or feelings is never fully resolved in the myths. Even though he was "made, not born," Talos seems somehow tragically human, even heroic, cut down by a ruse while carrying out his assigned duties. In the other, more complex descriptions of his downfall, Medea subdues the bronze giant with her spellbinding pharmaka, then uses her powers of suggestion, compelling Talos to hallucinate a nightmare vision of his own violent death. Next, Medea plays on the automaton's "emotions." In these versions, Talos is portrayed as susceptible to human fears and hopes, with a kind of volition and intelligence. Medea convinces Talos that she can make him immortal — but only by removing the bronze rivet in his ankle. Talos agrees. When this essential seal on his ankle is dislodged, the ichor flows out like molten lead, and his "life" ebbs away.

For readers today, the robot's slow demise might call to mind the iconic scene in Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). As the doomed computer HAL's memory banks fade and blink out, HAL begins to recite the story of his "birth." But HAL was made, not born, and his "birth" is a fiction implanted by his manufacturers, much as eidetic, emotional memories are manufactured and implanted in the replicants in the Blade Runner films (1982, 2017). Recent studies in human-robot interactions show that people tend to anthropomorphize robots and Artificial Intelligence if the entities "act like" humans and have a name and a personal "story." Robots are not sentient, and have no subjective feelings, yet we endow self-moving objects that mimic human behavior with emotions and the ability to suffer, and we feel pangs of empathy for them when they are damaged or destroyed. In the film Jason and the Argonauts, despite the expressionless face of the monolithic bronze automaton, Harryhausen's astonishing animation sequence suggests glimmers of personality and intellect in Talos. In the poignant "death" scene, as his life-fluid bleeds out, the great robot struggles to breathe and gestures helplessly at his throat while his bronze body cracks and crumbles. The modern audience feels pity for "the helpless giant and regrets that he was taken in unfairly" by Medea's trick.

In the fifth century BC, Talos was featured in a Greek tragedy by Sophocles (497–406 BC). Unfortunately, that play is lost, but it is easy to imagine that the fate of Talos might have evoked similar pathos in antiquity. One can appreciate how oral retellings and tragic dramas would have elicited compassion for Talos, especially since he behaved in a human-like way and his name and backstory were well known. Indeed, there is ample evidence that ancient vase painters humanized Talos in illustrations of his death.

* * *

We have only fragments of the many stories about the Cretan robot that circulated in antiquity, and some versions are lost to us. Illustrations on vases and coins help to fill out the picture, and some artistic images of Talos contain details unknown in surviving literature. The coins of the city of Phaistos, one of the three great Minoan cities of Bronze Age Crete, are an example. Phaistos commemorated King Minos's bronze guardian Talos on silver coins from about 350 to 280 BC. The coins show a menacing Talos facing forward or in profile, hurling stones. No surviving ancient source says Talos had wings or flew, but on the Phaistos coins Talos has wings. The wings could be a symbolic motif that signaled his nonhuman status or they might suggest his superhuman speed as he circled the island (this would entail traveling more than 150 miles per hour by some calculations). On the reverse of some of the Phaistos coins Talos is accompanied by the Golden Hound Laelaps, one of the three engineering marvels made by Hephaestus for King Minos. The wonder-dog has its own body of ancient folklore (chapter 7).

About two centuries before Apollonius wrote the Argonautica, Talos appeared on red-figure Greek vase paintings of about 430 to 400 BC. The details on some of the vases show that Talos's internal "biostructure," the ichor-filled artery system sealed by a bolt at his ankle, was already a familiar part of the story as early as the fifth century BC. The similarities and style of the scenes suggest that the vase paintings might be miniature copies of large public wall murals painted by Polygnotus and Mikon, renowned artists of Athens in the fifth century BC. The ancient Greek travel writer Pausanias (8.11.3) tells us that Mikon painted episodes from the epic saga of Jason and the Golden Fleece in the Temple of Castor and Pollux (the Dioscuri twins were honored in the Anakeion, chapter 2).

Those murals admired by Pausanias in the second century AD are now lost, but surviving images on vases reveal how Talos was imagined in the classical era. The artists show Talos as part machine, part human, whose destruction required technology. The paintings also convey a sense of pathos in his destruction. For example, the dramatic scene on the extraordinary "Talos vase," a large wine vessel made in Athens in about 410–400 BC, shows Medea mesmerizing the large man of bronze (figs. 1.3 and 1.4, plate 1).

Cradling her bowl of drugs, Medea gazes intently as Talos swoons into the arms of Castor and Pollux. In Greek myth, the Dioscuri twins had joined the Argonauts, but no surviving stories include them in the death of Talos, so this image points to a lost tale. The Talos Painter depicts Talos with a robust metal body like that of a bronze statue; his torso looks like the realistic, heavily muscled bronze chest armor worn by Greek warriors (chapter 7, fig. 7.3). Employing the same technique used for images of warriors wearing bronze "muscle armor," the artist painted Talos's entire body yellowish-white to distinguish his bronze plating from human flesh. But despite his metallic form, Talos's posture and his face are humanized to evoke empathy. One classical scholar even detects "a teardrop ... falling from Talos' right eye," although this line might represent metallic molding or seams, like the other reddish outlines defining the robot's anatomy.

An earlier (440–430 BC) vase painting on an Attic krater found in southern Italy shows Talos as a tall bearded figure reeling off balance, again struggling against Castor and Pollux (figs. 1.5, 1.6, plate 2). This scene includes several striking details confirming the technological character of Talos's vivisystem and destruction. We see Jason kneeling next to the robot's right foot, applying a tool to the small round bolt on Talos's ankle. Leaning over Jason, Medea is holding her bowl of drugs. A small winged figure of Thanatos (Death) grasps and steadies Talos's foot. Death's stance, posed on one foot with the other bent back, appears to replicate the death throes of Talos.

A similar scene showing the use of a tool appears on an Attic vase fragment of about 400 BC found in Spina, an Etruscan port on the Adriatic Sea. Talos is again seized by Castor and Pollux. At Talos's feet, Medea holds a box on her lap and a blade in her right hand, ready to remove the nail on his ankle. Another tiny winged figure of Death points at Talos's legs, heightening the suspense of the vignette.


Excerpted from "Gods and Robots"
by .
Copyright © 2018 Adrienne Mayor.
Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations xi

Acknowledgments xv

Introduction. Made, Not Born 1

1 The Robot and the Witch: Talos and Medea 7

2 Medea's Cauldron of Rejuvenation 33

3 The Quest for Immortality and Eternal Youth 45

4 Beyond Nature: Enhanced Powers Borrowed from Gods and Animals 61

5 Daedalus and the Living Statues 85

6 Pygmalion's Living Doll and Prometheus's First Humans 105

7 Hephaestus: Divine Devices and Automata 129

8 Pandora: Beautiful, Artificial, Evil 156

9 Between Myth and History: Real Automata and Lifelike Artifices in the Ancient World 179

Epilogue. Awe, Dread, Hope: Deep Learning and Ancient Stories 213

Glossary 219

Notes 223

Bibliography 251

Index 265

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