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Technology in Cross-Cultural Mythology: Western and Non-Western
Kevin LaGrandeur   Aug 17, 2013   Ethical Technology  

What is really significant when we look at technology in the ancient world is that technology is not limited to Classical mythology. Rather, its presence in those stories coincides in important ways with its appearance in other types of fictional and non-fictional accounts, and not just in Western literature, but in the literature of other cultures as well.

These other accounts include quasi-mythological tales like The Iliad, tales from ancient cultures in India and China, and non-fictional accounts of real instances of technological innovation by ancient inventors.

The devices made by ancient Greek engineers—such as the Antikythera mechanism, or the devices of Ctsebius and Hero of Alexandria, and Philon of Byzantium—are especially notable because they reflect, and are reflected by, the various fictional accounts.

Chief in importance among technological innovations that appear in all three realms (stories, myths, and reality) are automata, especially humanoid automata. Their main significance is their ability to enhance and project the power and status of their makers or owners, who were sometimes the same individuals.


[Early Draft of article later published, in different form, as “Robots, Moving Statues, and Automata in AncientTales and History,” in Critical Insights: Technology and Humanity, ed. Carol Colatrella (Salem Press, 2012)]

The ancient world was more technologically advanced than most of us realize. Their engineering skills were particularly notable, as we know from myths, literature written by ancient engineers and, in some cases, technical artifacts that have miraculously managed to survive thousands of years. The idea of creating artificial humanoids is persistent in Classical myths and tales. In turn, those stories correspond to and perhaps even derive from the achievements of real technical experts in the ancient world. This essay discusses some surprisingly old tales from various world cultures of the invention of artificial humanoids, and then considers the inventions and inventors that may have inspired the development of robots and automata.

The idea of creating an artificial human, or what we would call an android, is surprisingly old, and it appears in a number of ancient cultures. In ancient China, for instance, there is a story from the Lieh Tsu, a book most likely written in the third century B.C.E. by Lieh Yü-Khou, which tells of an ingenious artisan named Yen Shih who appeared before a king with a lifelike automaton. The king asks the artisan who it is that he has brought with him to the audience at court. A strange story unfolds from his answer:

“That, Sir,” replied Yen Shih, “is my own handiwork. He can sing and he can act.” The king stared at the figure in astonishment. It walked with rapid strides, moving its head up and down, so that anyone would have taken it for a live human being. The artificer touched its chin, and it began singing, perfectly in tune.…The artificer touched its chin and it began posturing, keeping perfect time….The king, looking on with his favourite concubine and other beauties, could hardly persuade himself that it was not real. As the performance was drawing to an end, the robot winked its eye and made advances to the ladies in attendance, whereupon the king became incensed and would have had Yen Shih executed on the spot had not the latter, in mortal fear, instantly taken the robot to pieces to let him see what it really was.

And, indeed, it turned out to be only a construction of leather, wood, glue and lacquer, variously coloured white, black, red and blue. Examining it closely, the king found all the internal organs complete—liver, gall, heart, lungs, spleen, kidneys, stomach and intestines; and over these again, muscles, bones and limbs with their joints, skin, teeth and hair, all of them artificial. Not a part but was fashioned with the utmost nicety and skill; and when it was put together again, the figure presented the same appearance as when first brought in. The king tried the effect of taking away the heart, and found that the mouth could no longer speak; he took away the liver and the eyes could no longer see; he took away the kidneys and the legs lost their power of locomotion. The king was delighted (Ronan 1:92).

A similar story from about the same time in ancient India tells of a female android. According to this account,

There was once a knowledgeable artisan in the North of India who was an ingenious woodworker. So it came to pass that he made a woman out of wood. She was a beauty without equal. With her silk clothing and sash, and her magnificent adornments she was not in any way different from a real woman; she could come and go under her own power, and could also serve wine and make eye contact with those she served. All she lacked was the power of speech.


NOTES

1 “Autrefois, dans l’Inde du nord, il y avait un artisan sachant travailler le bois avec une grand ingéniosité. C’est ainsi qu’il parvint á fabriquer une femme en cette matière. Elle était d’une beauté sans égale. Avec ses vêtements de soie, sa ceinture et ses magnifiques ornements, elle n’était point différente d’une femme réelle; elle allait et venait, pouvant aussi servir le vin et regarder ses hôtes. Seule la parole lui manquait.” (Chapuis 18-20; translation mine.)

2 The animated model of Hero’s automatic temple doors is at the following Web address: http://www.realschule.bayern.de/lehrer/dokumente/untmat/ph/heron/heron_erkl.htm (accessed 18 May 2006).

WORKS CITED

Antikythera Mechanism Research Project. The National Hellenic Research Foundation. n.d.

Web. 4 April 2011. http://www.antikythera-mechanism.gr/ .

Aristotle. The Complete Works. Ed. Jonathan Barnes. 2 vols. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1995.

Print.

Apollodorus. Bibliotheke (The Library). Trans. James George Frazer. Theoi, E-Texts Library.

Aaron Atsma. 2007. Web. 4 April 2011.

< http://www.theoi.com/Text/Apollodorus1.html#8 >.

Apollonius of Rhodes. Argonautica. Trans. R. C. Seaton. Theoi, E-Texts Library.

Aaron Atsma. 2007. Web. 4 April 2011.

< http://www.theoi.com/Text/ApolloniusRhodius4.html >


This android’s maker decides to test his creation by playing a joke on a fellow artist. He invites the painter to his house for dinner and has his lovely artificial woman serve them wine. The painter is immediately stricken with desire for what he thinks is a beautiful maiden. When she remains behind with him in the room where he is to spend the night, he is thrilled. But when he tries to hold her hand, he realizes with great alarm that she is made of wood. Enraged at the joke that has been played on him, he tries to take revenge on his friend by painting a realistic portrait of himself lying murdered on his bed. After trading such tricks back and forth, the two men decide that the entire world is deceitful, and they swear off worldly pursuits to become monks.

These two tales most likely derive from older Greek and Egyptian accounts of living statues and artificial humans, probably transmitted via trade with the Far East during the Hellenistic period (Needham 157; Chapuis 18). Indeed, there are many Greek stories of androids that predate the above noted Chinese and Indian stories. The Iliad, dating from about one thousand years before the earliest Chinese account, contains the most ancient literary reference to the creation of artificial humans. Homer tells us in Book 18 of artificial serving girls forged by Hephaistos from solid gold. These maidens are no mere mechanical devices, for “In them is understanding in their hearts, and in them speech and strength, and they know cunning handiwork by gift of the immortal gods” (lines 419-421).

They are intelligent, can speak, and do “handiwork.” And their strength is considerable, because one of their common duties is to help support the god Hephaistos when he walks, because he has a bad leg. When Thetis visits him, he takes up his staff to walk across the hall to sit with her, and his maids “busily moved to support their lord, and he, limping nigh to where Thetis was, sat him down upon a shining chair” (lines 422-423). This part of The Iliad is a precursor not only to the Indian and Chinese tales related above, but it is also reflected in a later report of similar Indian androids by the Greek traveler and philosopher Apollonius of Tyana, who lived in the first century C.E. Philostratus recounts that Apollonius of Tyana attended a feast in India where he saw “cup-bearers of dark bronze resembling the figures of Ganymede or of Pelops among the Greeks” who “mixed wine and water in due proportion, and carried the goblets about as at a wine party” (78-81).

The devices described in Philostratus’ report about Apollonius’ journeys strongly resemble those in other Greek stories that predate the above mentioned stories from the far East. Daedalus, for example, who famously made wings for himself and his son in order to escape their imprisonment on the island of Crete, was also widely believed by the ancient Athenians to have made not only the Labyrinth that held the half-man, half-bull creature called the Minotaur, but also self-moving human statues. Aristotle and Plato both mention these moving statues in various works of theirs. Aristotle’s reference is the most specific; he notes that Daedalus’ self-moving wooden statue of Aphrodite was purportedly animated by mercury (which was thought to be a living substance because of its strange properties) (On the Soul 406b, ll. 19-20). Aristotle also refers to Daedalus’ moving statues in his Politics (1253b). In Plato’s Meno, Socrates mentions that Daedalus’ statues would “run away” unless they were fastened to the ground (97d) and in Euthyphro (11b-d) Plato has Socrates make an implicit comparison between these statues and the way his opponent’s arguments wander.

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IEET Fellow Kevin LaGrandeur is a Faculty Member at the New York Institute of Technology. He specializes in the areas of technology and culture, digital culture, philosophy and literature.



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