Adrienne Mayor


On her book Gods and Robots: Myths, Machines, and Ancient Dreams of Technology

Cover Interview of September 04, 2019

In a nutshell

Who first imagined robots?

Most historians believe that automatons were first developed in the Middle Ages. Some philosophers of science claim that it was impossible for anyone in ancient times to imagine technologies beyond what already existed. Other scholars assume that all animated beings in mythology were inert matter brought to life by gods or magic, like Adam or Pygmalion’s ivory statue. But I wondered, Was it possible that the concepts of robots could have been imagined in classical antiquity?

I found that people were describing imaginary automatons as early as Homer, more than 2,500 years ago. A remarkable group of Greek myths envisioned ways of replicating nature by bio-techne, “life through craft.” Robots, synthetic beings, and self-moving devices appear in myths about Odysseus, Jason and the Argonauts, the sorceress Medea, the bronze automaton Talos, the brilliant craftsman Daedalus, the fire-bringer Prometheus, and Pandora, the female android fabricated by Hephaestus, god of invention. Hephaestus, Homer tells us, made many wonders: automatic gates to the heavens, “smart” bellows for his forge, driverless carts to serve ambrosia at celestial banquets, and a staff of Golden Maidens endowed with movement, mind, and all the knowledge of the gods.

Ancient poets described Talos, Pandora, and other lifelike artificial entities as “made, not born.” This crucial phrase calls out their technological, non-biological origins. And it distinguishes them from things magically given life. These marvels were constructed using the same tools, materials, and methods that human artisans used, but with awesome results. Hesiod (ca 700 BC) even detailed the inner workings and power source of the bronze Talos, fulfilling modern definitions of “robot.”

So, thousands of years before medieval and early modern machines, and even centuries before technological innovations of antiquity made self-moving devices possible, ideas about creating artificial life were being explored in Greek myth. These imaginative tales were ancient thought experiments, set in an alternate world where technology was marvelously advanced. Gods and Robots is the first book to survey the ancient origins of the desire to create artificial life, drawing on narratives and art from the age of mythology to the proliferation of real automatons in the Hellenistic era (fourth century to first century BC).

Of course, it’s important to keep in mind that much of ancient literature and art has vanished or is incomplete. This sad fact determines one’s path of discovery and interpretation. We travel across a landscape ravaged by time—something like the “mosaic effect” after devastating wildfires. In other words, readers should not expect a simple linear route in these chapters. Instead, like Theseus following a thread to navigate the Labyrinth designed by Daedalus—and like Daedalus’s little ant making its way through a convoluted seashell to its reward of honey—we follow a meandering, backtracking, braided trail of stories and images. One can dip into the chapters in any order. Mythology is a great tapestry with myriad threads, interwoven and looping back to familiar characters and stories. We are bound to accumulate new insights as we go.