Years of Deception Through Religious Automata
The term “robot” was first introduced by Czech writer Karel Čapek in 1920 in his play “RUR” (Rossum’s Universal Robots). The word “robot” is derived from the Czech word “robota,” which simply means “worker,” or “to work.” Though in the context of the novel, it means “hard work” or “penal servitude.”
Čapek‘s robots were portrayed as artificial humans who were sold for $120 and given subordinate positions, performing any menial task, including giving birth to human children and participating in wars. The robots in the play resembled humans and possessed the ability to think and experience emotions, blurring the lines between them and “androids” – machines that resemble humans.
Nowadays, robots are commonly referred to as machines that can perform repetitive tasks and/or have the ability to perceive, act, and communicate. In this context, a robot is as much a microwave or a vending machine as it is a self-driving car or an android capable of purchasing groceries.
Before the term robot was coined, mechanical machines and/or devices were referred to as automatons or automata. Automata has been used since the dawn of civilization, though most people only tend to remember Da Vinci’s automata such as his robotic knight or mechanical lion, or the 18th-century Mechanical Turk Chess Master.
An often overlooked aspect of these mechanical machines is how they have been used for religious purposes. They have been used in various religious traditions to represent the divine, educate and entertain communities, and pass down stories and traditions from one generation to the next. Religious automata have also been a source of innovation, inspiring engineers and craftsmen to create new devices that can perform complex tasks.
However, these devices had (and still have) the potential to change public perception of religion and influence the adoption of certain religious doctrines. The use of religious automata to perform ‘miracles’ or to convey spiritual experiences can be a powerful tool for religious leaders to attract followers and promote their beliefs.
Religious automata have been used for centuries to sway public perception and opinion into a doctrine or other they might not have chosen if it hadn’t been for the ‘miracles’ people witnessed being performed by said automata. The implications of religious automata are significant and far-reaching.
Types of Religious Automata
Religious automata refers to a class of mechanical devices that embody religious beliefs or themes. These devices are often designed to perform repetitive actions, such as reciting prayers that reflect religious rituals.
Religious automata come in many different forms. Some are simple mechanical devices, while others are complex machines that incorporate electronics and computers. Here are some examples of different types of religious automata:
Clockwork angels are mechanical devices that are designed to move like real angels. These devices often have wings that flap and can be made to move in different directions. Some clockwork angels are designed to play music, while others are designed to recite prayers.
Automated rosaries are mechanical devices that are designed to recite prayers. These devices often have a series of beads that move through the device as the prayers are recited. Automated rosaries can be used for personal prayer or as part of a group prayer.
Nativity scenes are mechanical devices that represent the birth of Jesus. These devices often have moving figures that represent Mary, Joseph, and the baby Jesus. Some nativity scenes also include other figures, such as shepherds and animals.
Prayer wheels are mechanical devices that are used in Buddhist and Hindu traditions. These devices are designed to recite prayers as they are turned. Prayer wheels are often made from wood or metal and are decorated with religious symbols and texts.
Animatronic Religious Figures
Animatronic religious figures are complex machines that are designed to move and speak like real people. These devices often have sensors that detect the presence of people and can respond to their actions. Animatronic religious figures are often used in theme parks and other entertainment venues.
Automata in Ancient Egypt
The first records of proto-automata can be traced back to Ancient Egypt some 4000 years ago. This came in the form of ancient wooden statutes that could mimic human movements via their mechanical operating systems. It is said that some of these statues could also speak, operated by temple priests.
Automata were used for various purposes such as entertainment, religious rituals, and practical applications such as the irrigation system of the Nile River.
It has also been suggested that some temples might have used a complex system of pulleys and weights hidden within the temple’s walls to move some of the false doors. But so far, this theory remains unconfirmed.
Religious Automata in the Classical World
Religious automata have been around for centuries. Machines such as the Flying Pigeon of Archytas of Tarentum (4 century BC) are still in use in some religious ceremonies around the world, likely symbolizing the Christian “White Dove” ascending into the heavens.
In ancient Greece, automata were used in religious ceremonies to represent the gods. One of the earliest examples is the Automatic Healer (sometimes known as the Automatic Maid), created by Philo of Byzantium in the 3rd century BC.
The life-sized humanoid robot was able to hold a bottle of wine in its right hand and pour wine into the cup it was holding in its other hand.
In another example, the Greek engineer Hero of Alexandria designed a series of mechanical devices that were used in temple rituals, including a machine that dispensed holy water and another that could open and close temple doors.
Hero’s religious contributions are often overshadowed by his contributions in the fields of physics, engineering and weapons of war. His engineering abilities were used in temples to awe and impress the general, less educated population. Not only was he able to create temple doors that could open and close or a holy water dispenser, his inventions were able to convince the common people that god was actually present in a temple.
He did so by using clever figures that could move, dance around or even spit fire. He also created a machine that could mimic the sound of thunder. But perhaps most important of all, was the invention of jugs that could ‘turn water into wine’. It is entirely possible that Hero’s devices were used by a new sect of Judaism in the first century’… making it ‘possible for the Catholic Church to have incorporated this well-known party trick as a cornerstone of its new belief system.
Hero’s inventions were not unique in the Classical Greek World. Many historians have argued that Hellenistic kings might have used said inventions as tools for monarchical rules, since many automata were intended to cause astonishment. However, this theory is widely disputed.
Thresholds, doors and gates are not the only symbols associated with the divine. There are prolific references in recorded history of cult statues that were miraculously animated in some way. Some could turn their heads upwards into the sky, other statutes were reported to sweat, and others still were able to close their eyes.
Some of the signs given by the statues were considered by warriors going to war as either good or bad omens. In temples and festivals, the pan-sensory animations of the automata statues were intended to heighten the religious experience.
Automata in the Golden Age of Islam
The period from the middle of the 8th to the middle of the 13th century is called by historians the “golden age of Islamic culture” or the “Islamic Renaissance” when the Arab Caliphate had its largest state.
Scientists, philosophers, doctors and thinkers gathered in Baghdad. The Abbasid caliphs Harun al-Rashid and his son Abdullah al-Ma’mun founded an academy in Baghdad called the House of Wisdom.
The caliphs wanted to make Greek texts accessible to the Arab world, so they encouraged translators. Their goal was to preserve the Greek heritage in Arabic in the library of the House of Wisdom, and also to give impetus to the development of medicine – in the Caliphate there was a demand for doctors.
Around the 9th century, three Banu Musa brothers worked in the library of the House of Wisdom. They were scientists in different fields, but each of them was interested in mechanics. Together they wrote a book of knowledge about mechanical devices “Kitab al-Khiyal”. There were about a hundred devices in it, some of the mechanisms were original, some were taken from the works of Heron of Alexandria.
The British orientalist Guy le Strange, in his translation of the Arabic chronicles, mentions how the Byzantine ambassadors who arrived in Baghdad in 917 described the riches they saw – among other things, there was a Silver Tree in the Baghdad Palace (Dar-ash-Shajara), weighing more than a ton. A similar tree (The Silver Tree of Karakorum), reportedly existed in the heart of Mongolia.
The Silver Tree of Baghdad stood in the middle of a large water tank. The tree had 18 branches, each of which had many small branches with golden and silver birds. All the birds were of different sizes and each sang.
A similar mechanism was seen by the Italian diplomat Liutprand of Cremona when he was at an audience in Constantinople in 949.
The mechanic-inventor al-Jazari, who lived in 1136-1206, wrote a treatise “The Book of Knowledge on Brilliant Mechanical Devices”, in which he described instructions for creating and using 50 mechanisms – a crankshaft, water clocks, jukeboxes and others. Each invention was accompanied by an illustration and a description.
Al-Jazari’s most famous invention is the elephant clock. The automaton was powered by a system with a water tank that was large enough to fill exactly half an hour. The whole structure was hidden in the figure of an elephant, on which stood a carriage with a ruler and a driver.
On the roof of the carriage sat a Chinese dragon and an Egyptian phoenix – in those days, the territory of the Arab caliphate reached Central Asia and al-Jazari wanted to emphasize the multiculturalism of the world. Filling the reservoir with water triggered the algorithm.
In addition, al-Jazari designed mechanical musicians for meetings at the master’s court – several figures sat in a boat and played drums and cymbals.
They worked thanks to the hydraulic mechanism. These mechanisms were supposed to be programmable, in much the same way the mechanisms of Hero of Alexandria were.
Al-Jazari’s car also had a shaft with pegs, like in the theatre of Heron. At al-Jazari, it was powered by water. The pegs activated a lever that controlled the drummer’s hands – and the rhythm of the drum depended on the location of the pegs.
Religious Automata in the Middle Ages
In the Middle Ages, religious automata became popular in Europe. Spain was a melting pot of cultures, religions, and traditions. As a result, the country saw the rise of religious automata, which were mechanical devices created to perform religious rituals and display miraculous events.
Monks and religious craftsmen began creating mechanical devices that could recite prayers, sing hymns, and perform other religious rituals. These devices were often used in monasteries and churches to help monks and priests perform their daily duties.
Religious automata were used in the medieval times as a way to display the power and magnificence of the Church. They were often created for public displays during religious festivals, and were intended to inspire awe and reverence in the faithful. These machines were powered by water, air, or even human labour, and were often adorned with intricate details and decorations.
Other “religious” automata were also common, which were used at holidays and in church rituals. Many statues and crucifixes contained mechanisms inside that ensured the movement of the hands and the release of blood from wounds.
The automatons of the Virgin Mary were especially common. One such automaton was la Virgen de los Reyes, a wooden figure of Mary and a baby that could articulate and turn its head. Clock mechanisms were also installed inside Mary and the baby.
Religious automata were not only used in public displays but also in private devotions. Wealthy individuals would commission automata for their personal use, often incorporating them into their home altars or private chapels. These devices were used to create a sense of awe and wonder in the viewer, and to encourage devotion and piety.
The use of religious automata in Spain during the Middle Ages was not without controversy, however. Some religious leaders saw them as a distraction from true devotion and a waste of resources. Others feared that the use of mechanical devices in religious ceremonies could lead to a decline in faith and belief in miracles.
Despite these concerns, religious automata continued to be used throughout the Middle Ages and into the Renaissance. They represented a unique blend of science and faith, combining the mechanical ingenuity of the time with the religious fervour of the people.
Religious Automata in the Renaissance
The Renaissance period, spanning from the 14th to the 17th century, was a time of great innovation and creativity in Europe. It was during this time that religious automata became even more popular, as they combined the artistic and technological advancements of the period with the deep spiritual beliefs of the people.
Religious automata in the Renaissance period were created to perform religious rituals and tell stories from the Bible. They were often highly detailed and intricate, with many moving parts that were powered by springs or clockwork mechanisms. Some of the most famous examples of religious automata from this period are still on display in museums and churches throughout Europe.
According to legend , Philip II, who reigned in Spain from 1556 to 1598, ordered the court engineer Juanelo Turriano to make a clockwork monk in gratitude to God for the healing of his son. However, the feeling of gratitude did not last long, and soon Philip II ordered his son to be imprisoned, where he died.
The wooden figure of a monk is about 40 centimetres high. The automaton imitates walking. The clergyman moves on wheels thanks to a clockwork mechanism, but movable feet are attached to the automaton.
The monk is dressed in a cassock, so the viewer sees only the feet, this creates the illusion of movement. With one hand, the robot brings a cross to its face for a mechanical kiss, and with the other it hits the chest.
In Western Europe, there are other elaborated automated ﬁgures again in early modern times, like the moving mechanical monk from sixteenth century at the German Museum at Munich.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, religious automata became popular entertainment. Mechanical toys that represented religious themes, such as nativity scenes, became popular during the Christmas season. These toys were often made from wood or tin and were designed to move and play music.
Religious Automata in Modern Times
According to IFR data for 2017, Japan produced over 50% of the world’s robotics. Japanese culture has been associated with robots for a long time – the first prototypes date back to the Edo period (1603-1868), during which the country was under the Iron Curtain, isolated from the rest of the world.
The Japanese automatons were called Karakuri-ningyo, where “Karakuri” means “tease”, “deceive”, “take by surprise”, and “ningyo” is written as two separate characters, meaning personality and form. Traditionally, Karakuri were used at religious festivals, but over time they became ingrained in popular culture.
Japanese robots of the past can be divided into three types: “butai karakuri”, intended for the theatre, “dashi Karakuri”, which were used in street performances and domestic “zashiki karakuri”.
The monks are still robotic today. One of these robots preaches in Beijing at the Longquan Temple.
Significance of Religious Automata
Religious automata have several different functions. They are used to educate, entertain, and inspire people of all ages. Here are some of the ways that religious automata are significant:
Preservation of Religious Traditions
Religious automata play an important role in preserving religious traditions. These devices can be used to teach people about religious rituals and beliefs. They can also be used to pass down stories and legends from one generation to the next. By preserving these traditions, religious automata help to keep religious communities strong and connected.
Religious automata can also help people to develop their spirituality. By reciting prayers, singing hymns, and performing other religious rituals, these devices can create a sense of connection with a higher power. They can also help people to focus their thoughts and meditate on religious themes.
Religious automata can bring people together and help to build strong communities. By participating in group prayer or watching a nativity scene, people can share their religious beliefs and connect with others who share those beliefs. This can create a sense of belonging and promote social cohesion.
Religious automata can also be used for entertainment purposes. Mechanical toys that represent religious themes can be fun and engaging for children and adults alike. These devices can also be used to teach people about religious themes in a way that is engaging and memorable.
Religious automata have been a source of innovation throughout history. Engineers and craftsmen have been inspired to create new devices that can perform religious rituals and tell religious stories. This has led to new technologies and techniques that have been used in other fields as well.
Implications of Religious Automata
The implications of religious automata are significant and far-reaching. One of the key implications of religious automata is that it has the potential to change public perception of religion and to influence the adoption of certain religious doctrines. The use of religious automata to perform miracles or to convey spiritual experiences can be a powerful tool for religious leaders to attract new followers and promote their beliefs.
When people witness miracles or spiritual experiences through these devices, they may be more inclined to accept the beliefs and teachings of the religion associated with the automata. This is because the automata may provide concrete evidence of the power of a particular religion or deity, which can be compelling for those who are searching for spiritual meaning.
Religious Automata can also help to reinforce existing religious beliefs and practices in the minds of believers by creating physical manifestations of spiritual experiences and providing visual representations of religious stories and rituals. For example, a mechanical crucifixion scene can serve as a reminder of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ and the importance of redemption in the Christian faith.
However, the use of religious automata can also have negative implications. For example, it can lead to a focus on the external aspects of religion rather than the internal spiritual experiences. It can also promote a culture of consumerism, where religious experiences are seen as a product to be consumed rather than an internal journey of spiritual growth.
Another potential issue with religious automata is the potential for fraud or manipulation. If religious leaders or others with control over the automata use them to deceive or manipulate people, it can lead to a loss of trust in religious institutions and a backlash against the use of these devices.
As with any technology, the use of religious automata should be considered carefully and with an awareness of both its positive and negative implications. As technology continues to advance, it is likely that religious automata will continue to evolve and play an important role in religious communities around the world.
* This article is part of a series that involves The Cult of Orgia, Orgy Part Planners of Ancient Rome, Ergot Poisoning, Medieval Dance Mania, Dancing Plague and Tarantism, and Religious Automata.
It might include a few more posts to make the story more complete. All posts will be updated linking to each other as articles are published.
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