Oddcast episode

Tatiana Bur on Living Statues, Then and Now

Here at the SHWEP we are fascinated by the ancient practice of ensouling statues, and trying to figure out (insofar as this is still possible) what the readers of the Chaldæan Oracles, the Hermetic Asclepius, and the theurgic Platonists were doing, or thought they were doing, when they brought a statue to life. Part of the story is understanding ancient Hellenic attitudes toward statues and automata – statues that move – in a non-theurgic context, and to understand this material you want to talk to Tatiana Bur, a scholar at the forefront of research on ancient automata and their religious uses (or should that be ‘religious life’?).

We begin our interview with two quotes from the Hermetic Asclepius, and go from there:

[24] “Are you talking about statues, Trismegistus?” “Statues, Asclepius, yes. See how little trust you have! I mean statues ensouled and conscious, filled with spirit and doing great deeds; statues that foreknow the future and predict it by lots, by prophecy, by dreams and by many other means; statues that make people ill and cure them, bringing them pain and pleasure as each deserves.

[38] “And the quality of these gods who are considered earthly – what sort of thing is it, Trismegistus?” “It comes from a mixture of plants, stones and spices, Asclepius, that have in them a natural power of divinity. And this is why those gods are entertained with constant sacrifices, with hymns, praises and sweet sounds in tune with heaven’s harmony: so that the heavenly ingredient enticed into the idol by constant communication with heaven may gladly endure its long stay among humankind. Thus does man fashion his gods.

                                                                                                                                       Asclepius 24, 38, Copenhaver’s translation.

Note: Your host is not the only person to connect the automaton tradition exemplified by Hero of Alexandria and the theurgic animation of statues! Fabio Paolini was a Venetian writer of the sixteenth century. The following quote is taken from Frances A. Yates. The Hermetic Tradition in Renaissance Science, in Brian P. Levack, ed. Renaissance Magic, New York, NY/London, Garland, 1992, pp. 237-8:

In 1589 there was published in Venice a large volume by Fabio Paolini entitled Hebdomades …. When speaking of the magical statues of the Hermetic Asclepius, Paolini makes this remark: “we may refer these to the mechanical art and to those machines which the Greeks call automata, of which Hero has written.” Paolini is here speaking in the same breath of the statues described by Hermes Trismegistus in the Asclepius, which the Egyptian magicians knew how to animate, and the work on automata by Hero of Alexandria which expounds mechanical or pneumatic devices for making statues move and speak in theatres or temples. Nor is he intending to debunk the magic statues of the Asclepius by showing them up as mere mechanisms, for he goes on to speak with respect of how the Egyptians, as described by Trismegistus, knew how to compound their statues out of certain world materials and draw into them the souls of demons. There is a basic confusion in his mind between mechanics as magic and magic as mechanics …. Paolini states that the production of motion in hard recalcitrant materials is not done without the help of the anima mundi, to which he attributes, for example, the invention of clocks.

Interview Bio:

Dr Tatiana Bur is Moses and Mary Finley Research Fellow at Darwin College, Cambridge. She is a classicist with a special research-interest in the intersections between ancient religion and technology (and, in particular, has done serious work in the long-neglected field of study of ancient automata).

Her Cambridge staff page lists some of her publications, but her upcoming book, Manufacturing the Marvellous: Technology and Divine Presence in Ancient Greek Religion, is what we are really looking forward to.

Primary (in order mentioned in the interview):

  • Hephaistos makes self-moving tripods-on-wheels: Iliad XVII 373-379.
  • Hero of Alexandria’s On the Making of Automata: See now Grillo, F. (2019) Hero of Alexandria’s Automata: A Critical Edition and Translation, Including a Commentary on Book One. PhD diss. University of Glasgow.
  • Dædalus’ statues that run away: Reported by Diodorus Siculus in a tone of scepticism (4.76.1-3).
  • The statue of Athena turns her head away: Iliad VI 311.
  • Lucian, Alexander the False Prophet: Please see our episodes on ancient mages and on Lucian for more on this work and the snake-god Glycon.
  • Athenæus on the festival of Ptolemy Philadelphus: Deipnosophistae, 5.198F -199A = FGrH 627 F 2. See Rice, E. (1983) The Grand Procession of Ptolemy Philadelphus, Oxford, for more information about this happening.
  • Polybius on the giant snail of 308 BCE (which let out slime!): Polybius 12.13.9-11 = FGrH 75 F4.
  • The Mechanical Problems: for an introduction to this text see Winter, T. N. (2007) ‘The Mechanical Problems in the Corpus of Aristotle’, Faculty Publications Classics and Religious Studies Department: University of Nebraska, Lincoln 68.


Recommended Reading:

On ancient science and mechanics:

Berrey, M. (2017) Hellenistic Science at Court. Berlin.

Cuomo, S. (2018) ‘Greek Mechanics’ in A. Jones and L. Taub (eds) The Cambridge History of Science. Cambridge. 449–67.

Taub, L. (2017) Science Writing in Greco-Roman Antiquity. Cambridge.

On the agency of ancient cult statues:

Bremmer, J. (2013) ‘The Agency of Greek and Roman Statues: From Homer to Constantine’, Opuscula 6: 7–21.

Donohue, A. (1997) ‘The Greek Images of the Gods: Considerations on Terminology and Methodology’, Hephaistos 15:31–45.

Gaifman, M. (2016) ‘Theologies of Statues in Classical Greek Art’ in E. Eidinow, J. Kindt and R. Osborne (eds) Theologies of Ancient Greek Religion. Cambridge. 249–80.

Gordon, R. (1979) ‘The real and the imaginary. Production and religion in the Graeco-Roman world’, Art History 2: 1–34.

Mylonopoulos, J. (ed.) (2010) Divine Images and Human Imaginations in Ancient Greece and Rome. Leiden.

Osborne, R. (2014) ‘The Living Presence of the Gods in Ancient Greece’ in C. van Eck, J. van Gastel, and E. van Kessel (eds) The Secret Lives of Artworks: Exploring the Boundaries Between Art and Life. Leiden. 23–37.

Platt, V. (2011) Facing the Gods: Epiphany in Graeco-Roman Art, Literature and Religion. Cambridge.

Scheer, T. (2000) Die Gottheit und ihr Bild. Untersuchungen zur Funktion griechischer Kultbilder in Religion und Politik. Munich.

Steiner, D. T. (2001) Images in Mind: Statues in Archaic and Classical Greek Literature and Thought. Princeton, NJ.

On mechanics (especially automata) in (literary, philosophical, cultural) context(s):

Berryman, S. (2003) ‘Ancient Automata and Mechanical Explanation’, Phronesis 48: 344–369.

———— (2009) The Mechanical Hypothesis in Ancient Greek Natural Philosophy. Cambridge.

Bosak-Schroeder, C. (2016) ‘The Religious Life of Greek Automata’, Archiv für Religionsgeschichte 17: 123–136.

Bur, T. (2016) Mechanical Miracles: Automata in Ancient Greek Religion. MPhil diss. University of Sydney.

—– (forthcoming) ‘The Importance of the Construct: Technological Animation in Ancient Religious Contexts’ in Bur, T., Gerolemou, M. and Ruffell, I. (eds) Technological Animation in Classical Antiquity.

—– (in preparation) Manufacturing the Marvellous: Technology and Divine Presence in Ancient Greek Religion.

Devecka, M. (2013) ‘Did the Greeks Believe in their Robots?’, CCJ 59: 52–69.

de Solla Price, D. (1964) ‘Automata and the Origins of Mechanism and Mechanistic Philosophy’, Technology and Culture 5: 9–23.

Tybjerg, K. (2003) ‘Wonder-Making and Philosophical Wonder in Hero of Alexandria’, Studies in History and Philosophy of Science 34: 443–466.

On articulated figurines:

Elderkin, K. (1930) ‘Jointed Dolls in Antiquity’, AJA 34(4): 455–79.

Muratov, M. (2005) From the Mediterranean to the Bosporos: Terracotta Figurines with Articulated Limbs. PhD diss. New York University.

—– (2019) ‘Paratheatrical Performances in the Bosporan Kingdom: The Evidence of Terracotta Figurines’ in D. Braund, E. Hall and R. Wyles (eds) Ancient Theatre and Performance Culture Around the Black Sea. Cambridge.

Reeves, N. (2015) ‘A Rare Mechanical Figure from Ancient Egypt’, Metropolitan Museum Journal 50: 43–62.

On the mēchanē:

Chondros, T., Milidonis, K., Vitzilaios, G. and Vaitsis, J. (2013) ‘“Deus-Ex-Machina” Reconstruction in the Athens Theater of Dionysus’, Mechanism and Machine Theory 67: 172–191.

Mastronarde, D. (1990) ‘Actors on High: The Skene Roof, the Crane, and the Gods in Attic Drama’, Classical Antiquity 9: 247–294.

Weird and wonderful:

Shannon Grimes. Secrets of the God Makers: Re-thinking the Origins of Greco-Egyptian Alchemy, Syllecta Classica 29, 2018.

Todd C. Krulak. ’Invisible Things on Visible Forms’: Pedagogy and Anagogy in Porphyry’s Peri Agalmatôn. Journal of Late Antiquity, 4:343–64, 2011.

Victoria Nelson. The Secret Life of Puppets. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, 2001.

Irini-Fotini Viltanioti. Divine Powers and Cult Statues in Porphyry of Tyre. In A. Marmodoro and I-F. Viltanioti, editors, Divine Powers in Late Antiquity, pages 61–74. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2017.

Gaby Wood. Living Dolls: A Magical History of the Quest for Mechanical Life. Faber, London, 2002.


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