Saturday, July 31, 2010

Robots of Myth And Legend: Saint Albert and Pure Awesomeness

A reader writes in to ask me about the origin of the legend that Saint Albertus Magnus built a clever automaton.  The same reader, helpfully, submits a link to something I hadn't seen before, the Supplement to Mr. Chambers's cyclopædia: or, universal dictionary of arts and sciences, which contains an article on automata reporting the following:
Authors sometimes speak of brazen heads made under certain constellations, capable not only of speaking, but of prophesying, and rendering oracles.  Henry de Villeine, Virgil, pope Silvester, Robert of Lincoln, and Roger Bacon, are said to have had such figures.  Albertus Magnus, it is pretended, went further.   He made a compleat man, or Androides....   It is generally said to have been composed of a mixture of divers metals, though some will have it to have been made of flesh and bones. It was burnt by Thomas Aquinas.--This Androides, it seems, solved all problems, and cleared up all difficulties for its author...  [more...]
Kicking around amongst my resources, I discover I have a copy of "Alien Intellect and the Roboticization of the Scientist" by Sarah L. Higley, an article that appeared in Camera Obscura 1997 14(1-2 40-41):129-160. The article is feminist and includes some nonsense about the legends of talking bronze heads representing giant penises, or something. But though Higley's theorizing is worthless, she fills her article with interesting information.  According to her, the legend of St. Albert's android comes to us from the thirteenth-century Rosaio della Vita.  Dear reader, that is probably the place to go to find the legend.

But the most interesting part of Higley's article is most definitely her summary of a twelfth-century Pali text called the Romavisaya, a text on which I have been able to find no further information.  I reproduce Higley's summary so you can revel in the kick-awesomeness of this fascinating medieval text from Burma.  Can anyone possibly tell me where I can get a copy?
"The Kingdom of Rome" (Romavisaya) is taken from the Lokapannati, a collection of medieval Pali tales about the marvels of King Asoka.  Rome, so the story goes, trains bahulayantakara, or "machine makers," who construct bhuta-vahana-yanta, or "spirit-bearing engines," for "commerce, agriculture, capturing, and executions."  Force to write their names in a book each month, these engineers are kept under close surveillance lest they spread their technology to Rome's enemies.  If they are missing form Rome, a flying execution machine follows them and beheads them.  Despite the Roman king's efforts, news of his technology has spread to the East, and one young Burman decides that he will steal this information and make "as many of these machines as there are people here in Pataliputta."  He arranges, somehow, to be reborn in the Kingdom of Rome where he marries the daughter of the chief engineer of the robots.  She gives him the secrets of their construction, and he writes them down on a leaflet which he sews into the flesh of his thigh.  He then tells his son to have his body buried in Burma when he is assassinated, as he will be, for he intends to leave the Kingdom of Rome.  He does, he is beheaded, his body taken back to Pataliputta, his thigh opened, the blueprints retrieved, and the moving statues constructed by his son.  the son makes for King Ajatasattu an army of moving mechanical warriors who guard the doors to his buried sacred relic.  The king dies, his sanctuary is forgotten, and Asoka, Ajatasattu's grandson, finds and unearths it, only to be stopped by the mechanical vigilance of the moving statues.  He pays the (incredibly long-lived) son of the engineer from Rome to dismantle the mechanism so he can secure the relic for his own status.  "How is it," wonders the Roman emperor meanwhile, "that the technology of Burma resembles so closely our secret technology?"  He send a gift to Asoka which the greedy king orders the engineer to open.  the android emerges, cuts off the unfortunate servant's head, and flies back to Rome.  [Sarah L. Higley, "Alien Intellect and the Roboticization of the Scientist," Camera Obscura 14.1-2,40-41 (1997):132-133]
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