GODS AND ROBOTS: Myths, Machines and Ancient Dreams of Technology

Adrienne Mayor

Princeton (2018) h/b 304pp £24 (ISBN 9780691183510)

M. has gathered together a collection of texts and artefacts to demonstrate her belief that the ‘people of antiquity were fascinated, even obsessed, with tales of artificially creating life and augmenting natural powers.’ As a result, the book presents myths, poems, philosophy and art as containing examples of ‘bio-techne’ i.e. ‘life through craft.’ Some of the examples presented by M. are more persuasive than others; some classicists might find descriptions such as ‘Pandora, the evil fembot’ rather startling. However, there is much to intrigue the general reader, with enough to challenge the more academic reader. 

Chapter 1 begins with, to my mind, the most persuasive example: Talos, the bronze guardian of Crete. Constructed by Hephaestus and powered by ichor, the giant is felled when the ichor drains from his ankle. Supporting her understanding of the myth with images on coins and vases, M. makes an intriguing connection to the giant stone statues of the Nuraghic culture on Sardinia, whose faces are noticeably ‘robotic.’ Chapter 2 considers ‘Medea’s Cauldron of Rejuvenation’—arguably, the least convincing example, given that most would surely place Medea’s powers in the realm of magical witchcraft, rather than technological wizardry. Chapter 3 reviews the quest for immortality, including the myth of Eos and Tithonus (a myth that is the archetypal ‘be careful what you wish for’); M. notes that the ancient quest for the immortality that marked the carefree existence of the gods and goddesses was paralleled by a fear of ‘overliving’ and thus rendering human existence meaningless. Given contemporary society’s obsession with youthful appearance, this chapter is particularly engaging. 

Chapter 4 considers enhanced powers, from the gifts bestowed by Prometheus, through the replica cow constructed by Daedalus for Pasiphae and on to the wings that ultimately led to the death of Icarus.  Daedalus and his ‘living statues’ are the theme of Chapter 5, leading on to Pygmalion’s ‘living doll’ and Prometheus’ first humans in Chapter 6. For this reviewer, the Etruscan gemstones engraved with images of Prometheus constructing the first humans are the most engaging artistic evidence utilised by M. Prometheus is clearly depicted using a plumb line and a skeletal framework to assemble the first humans—most certainly bio-technic. 

Chapter 7 examines the creativity of the craftsman god Hephaestus; the description of his automated tripods and golden ‘servants’ in Book XVIII of the Iliad is a reminder that, whilst his construction of the marvellous armour for Achilles was envisaged using the creative tools of the human blacksmith, Hephaestus’ automata belonged to a different realm of artistry. Chapter 8 brings us to Pandora; again, M.’s arguments are ably supported by art, in this case the red-figure krater by the Niobid Painter, depicting Pandora facing her audience like a korê statue. The comparison to the evil Maria in the cult silent movie Metropolis shows startling similarities in pose and archaic smile. 

Chapter 9, entitled ‘Between Myth and History’, revisits the mythological stories in the light of ‘real automata’ of the ancient world, including the revolting torture device of the Brazen Bull of Phalaris, the miniature mechanisms of Philo and the Dionysian devices of Heron of Alexandria that dispensed wine. These intriguing stories are perhaps closer to the ‘mythological’ end of the spectrum than M. suggests; however, M. is correct to note that technological marvels were used to demonstrate despotic power as much as the craft of the artisan. 

In the epilogue, M. considers what we can learn from these classical tales of artificial life; in a summary of the over-arching themes of the book, the epilogue is entitled ‘Awe, Dread and Hope.’ Artificial Intelligence of the 21st century has done little to alleviate our concerns about where such technological advances will take us; perhaps the myth of Pandora should stand as a warning.

Cath Milnes

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