Mysticism and Machines

E.R. Truitt revisits John Cohen’s 1963 article on the history of automata and the quest to recreate humanity.

A scene from Karel Čapek's 1920 play R.U.R. (Rossum's Universal Robots), showing three robots.John Cohen's 1963 essay, Automata in Myth and Science, tantalisingly introduces some of the beguiling objects and strange stories that appear, just a few years later, in his monograph Human Robots in Myth and Science (1966). In both, Cohen explores humanity's longstanding fascination with the idea of making artificial people, stretching back to the Babylonians and encompassing not only Ancient Greek culture and its heirs, but also ancient Chinese and Indian culture. In everything from the Biblical teraphim (mummified oracular heads) and Haephestos's handmaidens, endowed with speech and sentience, to the Chinese practitioners of khwai shuh, who sought to bring images and statues to life to serve as slaves, Cohen's focus is on the mystical origins behind the search for perfect human imitation.

So often the ability to create life was taken as the prerogative of the gods: 'The age-old quest for technical skill in simulating human performance must … be distinguished from a deeper desire to wrest from the gods the secret of the creation of man', notes Cohen. To him, the mystical elements of the drive to replicate human thought and behaviour are bound up in our desire to understand the hidden, esoteric and fundamental power of the universe. But this desire must be understood for what it is: providing an allegorical interpretation of the universe rather than being a literal understanding, or 'science'.

The range of objects – material and fantastical – that Cohen calls 'automata' and 'human robots' includes those that promise enlightenment, that perform labour and that provide entertainment. A head that speaks the future, whether made from a preserved human head or from brass, is different from a being or machine created to perform slave labour (the word 'robot' comes originally from the Czech word for forced labour or drudgery: robota). Moreover, there were many different ideas in circulation at different times and places about how to make this kind of object. According to some legends, learned men could animate lifeless matter using the spirits – benevolent and malevolent – of the universe: this is the accomplishment attributed to ancient Egyptian priests, who brought statues to life; to the nameless sorcerers in the 13th-century Lancelot, who entrapped demons inside metal statues; and to Rabbi Lowe of 16th-century Prague, who created a golem from clay.

My own research into the history of automata suggests that the mystical and technological approaches to making artificial life are not as distinct as Cohen would have them. Haephestos was, after all, the god of metal-smithing and fabrication and conceptual links between metalworking and magic appear in multiple societies and belief systems. The promise of technology was, for many writers, precisely that it offered the possibility of surpassing the regular and obvious limitations of human creation by using human (and sometimes non-human, or demonic) ingenuity. Furthermore, the explanations and legends that cultures create around artificial people reflect the preoccupations, assumptions and beliefs of those cultures. In medieval Latin culture, the moving statues that were relatively common in the Greek- and Arabic-speaking worlds were believed to be made by using the hidden powers of natural objects such as gemstones or animal parts or by using the fundamental connections between celestial bodies and earthly things. These were machines without mechanisms.

Cohen's essay reveals that, at heart, these objects, however different in function or operation, are doing the same kind of cultural work: they embody humanity's attempts to define life. Is something that moves like a person the same as a person? What if it can feel? Or speak? These questions, which seem so urgent in an age of cloning, super-intelligent machines, cybernetic prostheses and medical devices that keep the body alive long after consciousness has departed it, pre-date the invention of DNA sequencing or the computer. We have been asking them for as long as we have been human.

E.R. Truitt's Medieval Robots: Mechanism, Magic, Nature, and Art was published by the University of Pennsylvania Press in May 2015.

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