Talos of Crete: A 2,000-Year-Old Tale of the First Robot God
Believe it or not, but ideas of artificial intelligence and automata were alive and well over 2,000 years ago within Greek mythology. The myth of Talos (‘Τάλως’)—the first robot-like creature in mythology—is certainly a fascinating example. Its name is related to Zeus, as on the island of Crete, Zeus was also called Talios, and in the ancient Greek dialect Talos was the name of the Sun.
The giant robot Talos was brought to life in the 1963 mythological fantasy movie, Jason and the Argonauts. The 17 inch (43 cm) model of Talos was created by the animator and special effects artist Ray Harryhausen. (Oriel Malik / YouTube)
The Story of Talos, the Ancient Greek Automaton
According to Greek legends, Talos was not a human being but an automaton made by Zeus himself. Another version of the Greek myth attributes his creation to Hephaestus, the god of fire and iron. In other versions, Talos was the son of Cres and the god Hephaestus. Made by humans, rather than born of nature, the idea of Talos was first mentioned by Hesiod circa 700 BC.
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Talos was the sun god of Crete and was supposedly constructed of bronze. A single vein, starting from his neck and running down to his ankles, carried his life-blood — liquid metal — and upon each ankle was bolted a nail to prevent the liquid metal from leaking out. Depictions of Talos on coins and within paintings vary, some portraying him with wings while others depict him without.
Talos was given to Minos, the king of Crete, by Zeus to protect Crete against any invader; however, according to the ancient Greek author Apollonius Rhodius, Talos was a gift from Zeus to Europe in order to protect her and her kids, whom she later gifted to king Minos.
Depiction of the giant Talos god armed with a stone on the obverse of a silver didrachm from Phaistos, Crete, dating to circa 300 to 270 BC. (Public domain)
Talos and His Mission: Protecting Crete from its Enemies
Plato claimed that Talos protected Crete by travelling around the island three times a day. Taking into account that Crete is the biggest island in Greece, going around it three times a day would have been an enormous task, meaning that either Talos was a giant creature, or he had other means of transportation, such as flying, which may explain why he is sometimes depicted with wings.
When any enemy ship approached Crete, Talos would send huge rocks and destroy the ships from a distance. If enemies managed to get on the land of Crete, Talos would make his body exceptionally hot and kill the enemies.
Still depicting Talos confronting the crew of the Argo from 1963 film Jason and the Argonauts. (Oriel Malik / YouTube)
However, the protection of Crete was not his only mission. Talos also had to make sure that the divine laws were being followed by all inhabitants of the island. To fulfil this duty, three times a year he would visit all the villages of the island carrying the metallic plates on which the divine laws were inscribed.
Talos protected Crete for many years until he was finally defeated by Jason and the Argonauts, not using weapon, of course, but by trickery. When Jason and the Argonauts approached Crete, Medea, the sorceress, occupied Talos by talking to him and using spells, persuading him to remove the nails from his ankles. Thus the liquid metal spilled out and Talos died.
The death of Talos as depicted on a 5th century BC Greek vase. (Forzaruvo94 / CC BY-SA 3.0)
Reality Within the Myth of Talos
History has shown us that some myths, such as the story of Troy, have developed from real events that were incomprehensible and, perhaps, unexplainable by those who witnessed them. One way for witnesses to pass on a record of such events was through the use of words and depictions that were consistent with their contemporary understanding of the world, knowledge and beliefs.
Could it be that the account of Talos was, in fact, based on reality? And if so, what exactly was Talos? Is it possible that Talos was actually a spacecraft, a mechanically created device or even an extraterrestrial? The descriptions are certainly consistent with some kind of mechanical flying device – made of bronze with flying wings, capable of circling a large land mass three times per day and with the ability to fire some kind of weapon at enemy ships.
What about the vein running down the length of its body carrying Talos’ life-blood? The myth claims that spilling this liquid caused Talos to die. Some have claimed that this was an ancient depiction of an extraterrestrial spacecraft which was powered by some form of liquid fuel. Meanwhile, the idea of a giant automaton able to grow exceptionally hot, throw rocks at ships and leak life-fluid, has been explained by others as alluding to Talos alluding to a volcanic eruption.
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For now, the answers to these questions remain elusive. But whatever the answer, Talos remains a fascinating and mysterious story found within Greek mythology. The story of Talos is not the only myth which explore the idea of artificial intelligence and science fiction, as they also appear in stories of Medea, the craftsman Daedalus, Prometheus and Pandora. The idea of these robotic creatures was alive and well a long time before technology actually made them possible. As Adrienne Mayor stated, “myths reinforce the notion that imagination is the spirit that unites myth and science.”
Top image: Illustration depicting the mythological Talos god. Source: matiasdelcarmine / Adobe Stock
By Ancient Origins
Mayor, A. 2018. Gods and Robots: Myths, Machines, and Ancient Dreams of Technology. Princeton & Oxford: Princeton University Press
Shashkevich, A. 28 February 2019. “Stanford researcher examines earliest concepts of artificial intelligence, robots in ancient myths” in Stanford News. Available at: https://news.stanford.edu/2019/02/28/ancient-myths-reveal-early-fantasies-artificial-life/
Trckova-Flamee, A. 3 March 1997. “Talos” in Encyclopedia Mythica. Available at: https://pantheon.org/articles/t/talos.html