BMCR 2019.08.09

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

, Gods and Robots: Myths, Machines, and Ancient Dreams of Technology. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2018. 304. ISBN 9780691183510. $29.95.


In Gods and Robots, Adrienne Mayor analyses ancient evidence for artificial life, creatures “made, not born” (2), and the art of creating them, which she terms biotechne. Mayor concentrates on Greek, Roman, and Etruscan textual and material culture, with frequent comparisons to Indian, Chinese, and Babylonian sources, among others. For example, she compares the Pygmalion myth to a Buddhist story about a mechanical woman used to seduce a painter, who retaliates by creating a tromp l’oeil of his own suicide (111).

Mayor weaves together this ancient material with stories from SF (science/speculative fiction) and the current science of artificial life to make a vigorous case for how we should interpret artificial life in ancient cultures. Rather than being “animated by magic or divine fiat,” she argues, “these special artificial beings were thought of as manufactured products of technology, designed and constructed from scratch using the same materials and methods that human artisans used” (2). This puts Mayor at odds with a number of other scholars, including myself (as she acknowledges, 22), who contend that at least the earliest automata, including the self-moving tripods and golden maids created by Hephaestus in Homer’s Iliad, were probably understood as magical.1 On Mayor’s reading, these automata are much closer to modern robots, androids, and replicants than scholars have so far recognized.

After laying out the scope and methodology of the book in the Introduction, Chapter 1 begins with Talos, the metal guardian crafted by Hephaestus and destroyed by Medea in Apollonius’ Argonautika when she pulls out a pin in his ankle. Mayor contrasts the Talos of the Argonautika with pictures of Talos on classical-period coins, vases, and a wonderful bronze mirror from Etruria, to explore how Talos was made and could therefore be killed. Chapter 2 picks up with Medea and her magic cauldron, which (falsely) promised Pelias eternal life. This extends Mayor’s inquiry into human and animal “enhancements,” many achieved through pharmaka (drugs) and other magical means. Here would have been a good place to address the relationship between magic and mechanics (on which, see below).

Chapter 3 explores human desire for immortality and eternal youth through the stories of Gilgamesh, Eos and Tithonus, and the Chinese land of “Neverdie” (49). Chapter 4 returns to Medea, who strengthens Jason with ichor she steals from Prometheus (63), then describes some of Daedalus’ devices, including the cow-suit Pasiphae wears and Icarus’ fatal wings. Chapter 5 continues Daedalus’ story with tales of statues coming to life, contrasting textual and visual depictions of Daedalus at work with what we know about the making of ancient sculpture. In chapter 6, Mayor explores representations of Prometheus creating human beings and Mary Shelley’s later reception of these stories in Frankenstein. In particular, she discusses remarkable Greek, Roman, and Etruscan gems that show Prometheus hammering together the human skeleton. This chapter raises an intriguing question, unresolved in the book: if ancient people saw the human body as a divine construction, then would they strongly distinguish Talos and similar lifeforms as artificial?

Chapter 7 returns to Hephaestus, with a focus on his Homeric creations. A disability framework, with attention to the god’s disability and his creations as prostheses, would have enriched Mayor’s discussion of ancient armor, especially anatomical armor, as an enhancement to the body (131).2 In chapter 8 we zoom in on Pandora, an artificial woman created to deceive Epimetheus and bring about evils for humankind. Mayor helpfully contrasts Pandora and Eve, then describes visual depictions of Pandora and Elpis (hope), and the strange expressions they bear.

Finally, chapter 9 describes real automata and other devices known from ancient cultures, including Ptolemaic Alexandria and New Kingdom Egypt. I hope that further work will be done on the Lokapannatti, 11-12 century accounts of the “kingdom of Rome” as the home of yantakara, “robot makers” in Mayor’s translation (205); though usually the purview of religion scholars, these stories are perfect for classical reception studies. The book is rounded off by an Epilogue and Glossary, as well as the usual backmatter.

Mayor’s masterful retelling of ancient tales and deft deployment of both scholarly research and comparative material will delight many scholars of the ancient world. As the wide review of the book indicates, Gods and Robots is also ideal reading for non-experts, the proverbial “educated reader.” The chapters are short and cohesive and clearly connected to the larger whole. I could imagine assigning selections not only to students of ancient science, but magic and religion, myth, and gender and sexuality.

At the same time, I worry that the juxtapositions of ancient and modern material overdetermine Mayor’s claim that ancient devices are like modern ones. For example, a section on “Talos in the modern world” about surface to air missiles and body armor (31-32) reinforces the idea that Apollonius’ Talos is mechanistic. More importantly, I disagree with Mayor’s understanding of ancient cognition, in particular how ancient people would have interpreted their own ignorance of technology.

Mayor’s touchstone for discussing knowledge and ignorance of technology is the “black box,” a machine or object whose inner workings are unknown. The concept of the black box is common in many fields of science and technology, where systems that remain mysterious (like the human brain) can still be examined at a distance. A car mechanic, for example, might test a car engine without taking it apart, and I myself can tell whether a car is working, even though I am unable to fix it. When my car breaks down, I don’t assume that the car is a magical object beyond anyone’s understanding.

Yet in the ancient world, as today, sometimes ignorance is attributed not to one’s own lack of knowledge but to the supernatural. The brain, for example, is a black box to most scientists but a divine mystery to many others. The question, then, is whether ancient artificial lifeforms were black boxes to ancient people, governed by knowledge that could be acquired, or instead attributed to powers beyond even their imagination. Talos, whose breakdown reveals how he is made (27-28), is Mayor’s strongest piece of evidence that ancient people would have assumed artificial lifeforms could be known.3 But in many cases, as Mayor admits, the inner workings of devices like Talos are “left to our imagination” (3). And it is very difficult to know what ancient people imagined.

The fact that some artificial lifeforms, like Talos, were represented with constituent parts did convince me that ancient people could have interpreted other objects, like Hephaestus’ automatic tripods, as mechanical, blackboxed for them but known to others.4 But Hephaestus was, at least sometimes, understood as a magician, which suggests that “magical” explanations played some role in ancient thinking about artificial life.5 Mayor’s intervention reinvigorates, rather than settles, debates about how ancient magic relates to other crafts.

If Mayor presses for a science fiction rather than fantasy lens on how we understand ancient artificial life, then by the end of the book I was left imagining something in between, a world more like the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), where genres and their different modes of explanation blend together. In Thor’s stand-alone MCU movies, he is a thunder god of Asgard who wields the magical hammer Mjolnir. But in Avengers: Infinity War (2018), Thor’s new hammer, Stormbreaker, is forged in front of our eyes. The magical properties of Stormbreaker are never revealed to us, including its boomerang-like ability to return to Thor on command, but we see it in action alongside automated weapons made by Tony Stark, a human scientist whose only special ability is his very large brain (and ego). In this context, the differences between Mjolnir, Stormbreaker, and Tony Stark’s automata begins to blur. We do not know how any of them work and we do not know how much of an expert Thor himself is in his weapons. From the audience’s perspective, magic and advanced science really are indistinguishable.6

So too in ancient cultures, I suspect that artificial lifeforms were interpreted differently in different contexts. When Medea removes the pin from Talos’ ankle, she triggers readers’ knowledge of mechanics, and Talos seems like a work of advanced human engineering. Greek readers couldn’t build Talos, but they could imagine how he might be built. But when Medea uses pharmaka to bewitch the dragon guarding the golden fleece, readers may assume that her drugs and spells are beyond anyone’s comprehension. On the other hand, the ancient Mediterranean, like the MCU, is a place where both magic and mechanics have their practitioners, and this must have affected how different readers interpreted the same devices. Since Mayor has staked out a mechanical interpretation of ancient artificial lifeforms, intervening in the typical narrative of these creatures as magical, it is now up to other scholars to explore the nuances of this dynamic in particular objects, texts, and contexts of readership and performance.


1. For an important counterpoint, see Martin Devecka, “Did the Greeks Believe in their Robots” CCJ (2013), 52-69.

2. For armor as prosthesis, see: Alex Purves, “Ajax and Other Objects: Homer’s Vibrant Materialism” in S. Lindheim & H. Morales, eds., New Essays in Homer: Language, Violence, and Agency (Ramus Special Issue) (2015), 75-94. For prostheses, see Jane Draycott, Prostheses in Antiquity Routledge: 2018. For an introduction to ancient disability, see Christian Laes (ed.), Disability in Antiquity. Routledge: 2017. BMCR 2017.06.53; and ICS 43.2 (2018).

3. As Latour points out, black box technology often reveals itself in breaking down. Bruno Latour, Pandora’s Hope. Harvard: 1999 (183-185).

4. Nevertheless, the lateness of the Argonautika still seems significant to me. I discuss how earlier, Homeric automata might have been reinterpreted in the light of later technological change in “The Religious Life of Greek Automata,” Archiv für Religionsgeschichte 17.1 (2016), 123-136.

5. Christopher Faraone, “Hephaestus the Magician and Near Eastern Parallels for Alcinous’ Watchdogs,” GRBS 28 (1987), 257-280.

6. To paraphrase Arthur C. Clarke, quoted by both Mayor (3) and Jane Foster in Thor (2011). In Age of Ultron (2015), Tony Stark tries (and fails) to lift Mjolnir with one of his devices, saying that doing so is a simple case of “physics.” Thor has a different explanation: “You’re not worthy.” In this scene, magic and science are distinguished rather than conflated.