A History of Robotics: Myth and Legend

The ideas behind creating robots are hardly modern in origin. The idea of creating artificial people is rooted deep inside ancient mythology and folklore.

Within the pages of the Iliad are stories of Hephaestus, the deformed god of metalwork, who built mechanical servants to do his bidding. Hephaestus to the Greeks was named Vulcan to the Romans, both tell stories about how the god constructed mechanical entities such as golden talking handmaidens and three-legged tables that could move at their own accord. Greek mythology also tells of a figure named Pygmalion who created a statue of Galatea. The statue came to life and Pygmalion fell in love with it. The story of Cadmus tells of a prince who sowed dragon teeth in the soil which sprouted into soldiers. And yet another Greek tail describes Talos, a man made of bronze who defended Crete from invaders and pirates.

Written in the Younger Edda, Norse mythology tells of a giant named Mistcalf who was made out of clay in order to assist the troll Hrungnir in a duel with Thor. Rasmus B. Anderson, a former professor of Scandinavian languages at the university of Wisconsin has provided a detailed translation of the myth of Thor and Hrungner as described in the Younger Edda.
They regarded it very important who should gain the victory, and they feared the worst from Thor if Hrungner should be defeated, for he was the strongest among them. Thereupon the giants made at Grjottungard a man of clay, who was nine rasts tall and three rasts broad under the arms, but being unable to find a heart large enough to be suitable for him, they took the heart from a mare, but even this fluttered and trembled when Thor came. Hrungner had, as is well known, a heart of stone, sharp and three-sided; just as the rune has since been risted that is called Hrungner’s heart. Even his head was of stone. His shield was of stone, and was broad and thick, and he was holding this shield before him as he stood at Grjottungard waiting for Thor. His weapon was a flint-stone, which he swung over his shoulders, and altogether he presented a most formidable aspect. On one side of him stood the giant of clay, who was named Mokkerkalfe.
Jewish folklore tells of the Golem which is a clay creature brought to life by Kabbalistic magic. The most famous story is the Golem of Prauge in which the rabbi constructs the Golem out of clay retrieved from the banks of the Vltava river. Similar to Talos of Greek mythology, the Golem was a protector. However, the Golem was said to have turned on its creators in some versions of the stories.

This post is part of a series titled The History of Robotics. Each chapter is a year or era in robotics history. To see more check for posts labeled history or use the link bellow to view the next era.

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