I see that Adrienne Mayor, the author of The First Fossil Hunters, has a new book out called Gods and Robots, which explores ancient ideas about automata and related mechanical devices. I have not yet read the entire book, but I wanted to note that it opens with a subject that is particularly special to me, since I wrote an entire book about it myself five years ago: the legend of Jason and the Argonauts. She introduces the story first thing in chapter 1 in order to bring up the myth of Talos, the “man of Bronze,” whom she identifies as an “animated statue,” following, apparently, the being’s appearance in the Jason and the Argonauts movie, where the bronze giant was depicted as a statue on a pedestal. Indeed, she illustrates her discussion with a picture of a bronze casting of the movie’s model Talos used for the special effects shots. Weirdly, though, Mayor writes that the movie’s Talos was felled by “Medea’s trick,” even though in the movie the incident is removed to the start of the Argonauts’ voyage, before they met Medea, and Jason himself pops the bolt from Talos to kill him, an odd error for so important a point.
Here is Mayor describing Talos:
Talos patrolled Minos’s kingdom by marching around the perimeter of the large island three times each day. As an animated metal machine in the form of a man, able to carry out complex human-like actions, Talos can be spoken of as an imagined android robot, an automaton “constructed to move on its own.” Designed and built by Hephaestus to repel invasions, Talos was “programmed” to spot strangers and pick up and hurl boulders to sink any foreign vessel that approached Crete’s shores.
Well, yes… but also, no. When she adds that Talos was stopped by Medea, a “techno-witch” who has special knowledge of robot hydraulics (what Mayor calls, ridiculously, his “biomimetic ‘vivisystem,’” as though Latinate words could make a myth into a technology), I have to draw a line and just say no. That’s almost willful misrepresentation.
Mayor knows well that there are multiple versions of the story of Talos, contradictory in their details. Although she pays lip service to one that would not make Talos a robot, she clearly has chosen to prioritize the late version whereby Talos is seen as a metal robot powered by ichor—the blood of the gods—who was killed when Medea devised a way to spill his ichor and stop him.
But that wasn’t how the story began, or the only version of it.
The account given by Apollodorus in his Library (1.9.26) makes plain that there were multiple versions:
Some say that he was a man of the Brazen Race, others that he was given to Minos by Hephaestus; he was a brazen man, but some say that he was a bull. He had a single vein extending from his neck to his ankles, and a bronze nail was rammed home at the end of the vein. This Talos kept guard, running round the island thrice every day; wherefore, when he saw the Argo standing inshore, he pelted it as usual with stones. His death was brought about by the wiles of Medea, whether, as some say, she drove him mad by drugs, or, as others say, she promised to make him immortal and then drew out the nail, so that all the ichor gushed out and he died. But some say that Poeas shot him dead in the ankle. (trans. J. G. Frazer)
As you can see, the story is much more complicated that Mayor implies. I talked about this a bit in my Jason and the Argonauts in 2013, where I noted that the operative concern wasn’t about robots but rather Classical and Hellenistic conceptions of piety and divinity, notably the discomfort that Greek writers of that time felt with any ancient story that seemed to imply that a Greek committed an impious act against a god or demigod:
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.
Mayor isn’t wrong, of course, that Talos was envisioned as an android made of bronze and powered by divine ichor. That much is true from Classical vase paintings—as I noted in my book and she does in hers--that clearly show mechanical details on Talos, such as a bolt holding in his ichor, all dating back to the 400s BCE—centuries before Apollonius wrote the Argonautica and Apollodorus wrote his Library. That ichor is not robot juice but the divine essence of the gods can be seen in one of the oldest Greek sources, the Iliad (5.339–342), where ichor is identified as the blood of the gods.
But that Talos only became a “robot” in later centuries can be shown by the contemporary tradition, at least coeval with the robot one, reported by Simonides and Demon the Antiquarian, that Talos was the same as the Carthaginian Kronos—the monstrous god also identified at times as Moloch and to which babies were sacrificed and burned to death in honor of the sun. Kronos’ Carthaginian statue-cum-furnace was of bronze, and thus Talos was imagined as a bronze blazing statue as well.
The idea that Talos’ earthly form was identified with a statue thus explains the vein and bolt, as A. B. Cook famously argued in 1914. There was no need to propose that he was imagined as a fully mechanical robot, but rather as a statue come to life:
It is tempting to explain certain traits in the myth of Talos along rationalistic lines. The single vein running from his neck to his ankles and closed by a bronze nail thrust through it vividly recalls the cire perdue method of hollow-casting in bronze, a process which was invented at a remote period and lasted throughout the whole history of Greek art. A rough model in clay or plaster, carefully coated with wax, was worked over by the sculptor till it satisfied him in every detail. The whole was next covered with a thin slip of finely powdered pottery. This was followed by other layers of increasing thickness and coarseness, which together formed the outer, mould. The shapeless mass was then exposed to a furnace or lowered into a pit with a fire at the bottom. The wax, thus melted, ran out through triangular holes left in the exterior. Bronze rods half an inch square in section had been stuck through the wax into the core and allowed to project like pins in a pin-cushion. These now held the outer and inner moulds apart. Into the intervening space molten bronze was poured through a hole in each foot of the statue, thereby taking the place of the wax driven out by the heat. Ultimately, when the figure had cooled, the outer mould was chipped away, the ends of the bronze rods cut smooth, the core extracted through the soles of the feet, and the whole surface touched up with minute accuracy. In this technical process the hollow from head to heel, pierced with its bronze pins, was — one may suspect — the fact underlying the fiction of Talos’ vein. Perhaps, too, the fiery pit into which the mould was lowered explains Simonides’ statement that Talos sprang into a fire.
At Athens, Talos was spoken of as a culture-hero of Crete, the inventor of the potter’s wheel and the compass. This is not particularly the work of a robot. On Crete, Cook reports, inscriptions identify Talos as “Zeus in Crete,” again referencing the fact that the mythological story seems to tell of a statue of a god come to life under that god’s possession. I’ll remind you again that Talos was powered by the divine ichor that Homer identified as the essence of the gods.
Mayor, for her part, says that modern historians (apparently like me) have “misunderstood Talos as inert matter supernaturally instilled with life by the gods via magic.” She counters this by saying that ancient accounts call Talos “made, not born,” as though that would contradict the idea of matter brought to life. (All created life was made rather than born!) “What living creature has a metallic body and a nonblood circulatory system sealed with a bolt?” she asks. The mystery vanishes quickly if we follow earlier Classical scholars in identifying Talos as a sun god who became identified with his own bronze statue, whose casting technique provides the precedent for where the divine essence could be found within a living bronze statue.
The two views are not contradictory or mutually exclusive, but rather superimposed. Over time, and especially in response to the development of Greek clockwork mechanisms, that story of Talos became less about the living statue of a forgotten god and more about an automaton. This process of rationalization can be found throughout the Argonautica. Diodorus, for example, gives a number of similar rationalizations where older mythic material about the golden-fleeced flying ram, fiery bulls, earthborn men, and other wonders receive extremely literal explanations.
Mayor rejects this view, by the way, on pages 22-23, because she wrongly ignores Cook’s lost-wax casting precedent and instead claims that the Talos story must always have been about a robot and could not have come to be seen as one in Hellenistic times because the bolt in his ankle was present in the Classical period. Weirdly, she describes Cook’s idea on the very next page and then lets it drop without consideration of how it—and Cook’s broader argument about Talos as faded god, unmentioned in her book--might affect her claim that Talos was never anything but a robot. She literally presented compelling evidence against her own idea and doesn’t seem to have realized it.
In sum, Mayor is correct for the limited case of Classical Greece and after, but most likely not that Talos originated as a fantasy about robots and automata. He became that in response to changing Greek culture, but it is an interpretation reflective of the time and place where it developed.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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