In Engelsberg Ideas, folklorist Adrienne Mayor has a new piece discussing the Greek myth of Talos as the original version of the “A.I. dilemma,” expanding on ideas from here 2018 book Gods and Robots. Artificial intelligence is all the rage this year thanks to the rapid emergence of A.I.-powered chatbots and image generators. I’ve always had a little bit of a problem with the effort to find in the story of Talos a precedent for robotics and A.I., mostly because the idea of Talos as a robot probably wasn’t original to the myth and likely developed gradually and incidentally.
There were, of course, ancient myths are were explicitly about androids and robots, such as the Chinese story of Yen Shih and his artificial human, which dates back at least to the fourth century BCE. I do not disagree with the concept that the ancients thought about robots. I disagree, though, with the idea that Talos was originally or primarily conceptualized as a robot in the modern sense.
As Mayor describes it, Talos was basically an A.I.-powered robot, a vision of the future two and a half millennia too soon:
. . . Talos actually fits the definition of a robot. Talos was self-moving, with inner workings (an internal ‘artery’) and a power source (ichor, life-fluid of immortal gods). This vivisystem was sealed with a bolt on his ankle. Half-machine, half-human, Talos marched around the island at high speed three times a day, on the lookout for strangers. ‘Programmed’ with something like Artificial Intelligence, Talos was able to interpret and interact with his surroundings. When he spotted invaders approaching by sea, he hurled boulders to sink the ships. At close range, Talos heated his bronze body red-hot and crushed men to his chest, roasting them alive.
Mayor traces the story to Homer and suggests that the story of Talos represents Greek ideas about A.I.-powered robots dating back to the Archaic Period. While I can’t argue that over time Talos came to be seen as an artificial being, many of the traits associated with him have nothing to do with contemplating artificial intelligence or robotics, as a history of the Talos myth will show.
The place to start is with Hesiod’s Works and Days, where the poet describes the various ages of man (lines 109-201), passing from the golden age to the silver age, bronze age, and the age of demigods, and the iron age, i.e. us. Hesiod saw this as a process of decay, except for the demigods, who were better than the men of bronze, the very worst that ever were. The men of bronze were almost unspeakably bad: “Their armour was of bronze, and their houses of bronze, and of bronze were their implements: there was no black iron. These were destroyed by their own hands and passed to the dank house of chill Hades, and left no name: terrible though they were, black Death seized them, and they left the bright light of the sun” (trans. Hugh G. Evelyn-White).
The idea of a “Bronze Age” confused the ancients greatly, and they had trouble deciding whether the men of the Bronze Age were literally made of bronze or whether Hesiod meant the metal as a figurative mark of quality. Thus, in the story of Talos, we find different versions, as Apollodorus records: the last man from the Bronze Age, a bronze automaton forged by Hephaestus, or a brazen bull representing the sun (“talos” was the Cretan word for “sun”) (Library 1.9.26). This ambiguity was never fully resolved, though Plato, whom Mayor cites in support of the robot argument, said the opposite regarding the men of metal: “I suppose that he [Hesiod] means by the golden men, not men literally made of gold, but good and noble; and I am convinced of this, because he further says that we are the iron race” (Cratylus 397e, trans. Benjamin Jowett). Indeed, while Mayor cites Plato’s Minos 320c in her piece, but in that passage Plato literally says Talos was a real human who was nicknamed a man of bronze because he carried bronze tablets everywhere.
To the best of my knowledge, Homer doesn’t mention Talos at all. This is a new claim Mayor made that does not appear in her 2018 book Gods and Robots. As far as I am aware, the oldest references to Talos are fifth-century artistic depictions of the giant being killed; while Martin Nilsson and others have argued that he must derive from a pre-Greek solar myth from Crete, there is no consensus on what his earliest form might have looked like. What we do know is that the oldest poets did not see him as a robot. Simonides, a Cretan poet who flourished in the early fifth century BCE, identified Talos with the Carthaginian Baal Hammon (known to the Greeks as Kronos), the fiery bronze statue they used to burn human sacrifices. Cinaethon of Sparta, a legendary poet who may predate even Homer (or maybe never existed), sang in an ancient poetic fragment remembered in Pausanias (Description 8.53.5), Talos is the son of Cres (i.e. the divine Crete) and the father of Hephaestus—not his creation.
The weight of evidence suggests that the bronze automaton of later storytelling was the result of confusion, taking the men of the Bronze Age literally as bronze men and conflating Crete’s divine guardian with Hephaestus’s miraculous moving statues in the Odyssey and Carthage’s flaming bronze statue. Under this conflation, storytellers translated the original solar god’s divine blood—his ichor (see Homer, Iliad 5.339-342)—into an animating fluid locked inside his metal case. A. B. Cook first proposed influence from the lost-wax casting technique, with the ancients by the Hellenistic period envisioning the bronze man as a cast bronze statue that moved. By this time, there were actual clockwork figures that moved, so this is no surprise. That this revision must be relatively late can be seen from the placement of the hole in Talos’s ankle, his vulnerable spot. It’s a close copy of Achilles’ heel, a story which likely influenced the Hellenistic revision of the Talos myth.
However, while Mayor interpolates that Talos had been “programmed” to perform certain duties and developed “rudimentary consciousness,” there is no indication in any Greek source of programming in the modern sense. The sources treat Talos as a sentient being.
Interestingly, Mayor prefers the version of Talos’s death given in Apollodorus over the more famous one given in Apollonius’s Argonautica. In Apollonius (4.1638-1693), Medea puts Talos under a spell and torments him with death-spirits until he grazes his ankle, thus dislodging the nail and letting his divine ichor run out. Apollodorus, however, has Medea pull out the nail plugging up the hole in his ankle vein. The collapse of Talos in Apollonius seems clearly influenced by the remains of the Colossus of Rhodes, whose fragments Apollonius saw firsthand. Apollonius’s version sounds magical, while Apollodorus’s can more easily be grafted on to a technological narrative. As should be obvious, a sentient being might be hypnotized and driven mad by ghosts; a programmed robot would not.
I think it goes without saying that much of the modern discussion of Talos is mediated through the 1963 Jason and the Argonauts movie, in which Ray Harryhausen depicted Talos as literally a robotic bronze statue. This was dramatic, clever, visually stunning—and had only faint connections to ancient texts.
As I discussed in my 2013 book Jason and the Argonauts through the Ages, the Greeks were much less interested in whether Talos was a robot than in taking a story originally about humans attacking a divine being and recasting it (if you forgive the pun) in a way that makes it less impious toward the gods:
Since the word Cretan talos is the same as helios on the mainland, it has been argued since ancient times that Talos was originally a Cretan sun god, represented as a bull, a man, or a bull-headed man. A remnant of his godhood remains in the ichor said to flow through his veins, ichor being the divine equivalent of blood. Apollodorus records three variants in the death of this demigod: Medea removing the nail sealing his vein, Medea driving him mad with drugs, and the great archer of the Argonauts, Poeas, shooting him in the ankle. If the pattern of Medea taking over actions formerly ascribed to other actors holds true, the story that Poeas attacked Talos would have been the older of the two, and relocated to Medea as the locus for impious acts, such as causing the death of a divine being.
I went into a bit more detail about the reasons that Adrienne Mayor can be right in a limited sense but wrong that the Greeks thought of Talos in terms of robotics and artificial intelligence in a 2018 blog post. I’ve added some additional views here, but the final point remains the same: We can’t impose modern concerns onto ancient myths while ignoring the original context in which the stories developed. These stories can be used to help us think about modern technology, but they are not ancient commentaries on a future that hadn’t happened yet.
Kent P. Geraldine
5/24/2023 04:01:45 pm
'As should be obvious, a sentient being might be hypnotized and driven mad by ghosts; a programmed robot would not."
5/29/2023 07:39:07 am
Use of metals as a ranking system goes back to ancient Egypt and Babylonia, where the goal of "alchemy" (changing lead into gold) was understood as symbolic of a spiritual ideal - "base" metals (common and biodegradable) transformed into "noble" metals (more rare and corrosion resistant).
5/29/2023 08:44:10 pm
I lean toward viewing you as an unreliable narrator. What in your terminology makes a metal "biodegradable"?
6/3/2023 02:22:08 pm
[reply to Kent, whose question has no 'reply' button]
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