Adrienne Mayor


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

Cover Interview of September 04, 2019

A close-up

I picture someone in a bookstore becoming intrigued by the 75 illustrations, especially the 14 color plates showing the stunning skills of fifth-century BC artists. Ancient coins depict the bronze guardian Talos defending Crete from invaders, hurling rocks to sink ships. On a bronze mirror, he hugs victims against his red-hot chest. In vase paintings, Talos reels back and collapses as Medea and Jason destroy him. One vase painter humanized the dying Talos by dabbing a teardrop on his bronze cheek. Another scene shows Jason using a tool to remove the crucial bolt that seals the killer robot’s power source. His vital fluid, ichor, flowed out like molten lead.

Other vase paintings show the gods preparing the replicant maiden Pandora for her baleful mission on earth. She stands stiffly like a wind-up doll with an eerily vacuous smile. Paging through the chapter “Pandora: Beautiful, Artificial, Evil,” one quickly learns that the sentimental fairytale version of Pandora has nothing to do with the original Greek myth. A vengeful Zeus ordered Hephaestus to make an “evil trap disguised as beauty”—in the form of a ravishing young woman—to punish humankind for accepting the gift of stolen fire. Pandora was created to carry out one task. She opened the jar of misfortune and suffering that would plague mortals forever.

Also eye-catching are the images of Prometheus using tools to build the first human from scratch, starting with the skeleton, carved in exquisite detail on tiny gems. Prometheus fabricating the first human, ancient carnelian gem. Courtesy of Claudia Wagner.

Another browser’s attention might be captured by Homer’s description of a fantastic fleet of self-navigating ships in the Odyssey. Visiting the Phaeacians, a mysteriously advanced city ruled by King Alcinous, Odysseus explains his heart’s desire to return to his home island after ten years of wandering. The king offers a voyage on one of his ships. The vessels sail on their own, with no captain and no rowers. Endowed with navigation maps of the known world, they need only to hear the destination to plot the route. Sailing to Ithaca, Odysseus marvels at the ship’s cruising speed of falcons, cutting through all weather and sea conditions. The imaginary Phaeacian ships, with access to vast data archives and charts, prefigure advanced GPS systems.

From time to time, I include references to modern sci-fi films that resonate with the classical myths, such as Metropolis (1927), Frankenstein (1931), Jason and the Argonauts (1963), Blade Runner (1982 and 2017) and TV shows such as Westworld. The mythic tales are certainly cinematic! The age-old myths and modern movies about imagined technology are cultural dreams. Both show the power of imagination, allowing humans to think about how artificial life might be created—if only one possessed sublime technology and genius. And like our futuristic, often dystopic tales, the myths warn of the consequences of creating artificial life.