Mythological Steampunk

Steampunk is most traditionally associated with the Victorian era–with top hats and hot air balloons and fob watches and Jules Verne. But the existence of fantastic technology in historical settings predates the 18th century by several thousand years. What’s more amazing to contemplate than a steam-powered space ship? Giant robots in Ancient Greece.

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The Hero Alexandria Steam Engine.

Aside from strange, anachronistic devices like the Antikithera device or the Hero Engine, there is no historical evidence of robotics, clockwork, or steam engines in Greece. But if one takes a magnifying glass to the old stories, the Greek mythologies, you find that technology is not present just once or twice, but over and over again. Mixed in with the magic of gods and goddesses is the magic of giant magnets, and human flight.

Daedalus is perhaps the most well-known example of technology in Grecian mythology. He was a great artist, craftsman, and engineer who worked for King Minos of Crete. Minos originally hired him to construct the labyrinth–an inescapable prison for his wife’s ill-begotten son the Minotaur. When the labyrinth was completed, Minos had all the workmen who had built it put to death lest anyone reveal its secrets. Daedalus was too valuable to kill, however, so Minos had him and his son Icarus imprisoned instead.

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“The Flight of Icarus” by Jacob Peter Gowy

Fearing Minos would soon find an excuse to have them executed after all, Daedalus began plotting a means of escape. Crete was an island, and all ships leaving would be searched, so he determined that the only way out was to fly. To this end he created wings for himself and his son that would carry them off the island. The wings were constructed of fallen feathers from passing birds, candle wax, and innovation beyond that which exists today. They worked too, but Icarus ignored his father’s warning and flew too high. The wax melted, the feathers fell off, and he plummeted into the sea. Daedalus, however, escaped to Sicily where he continued to invent new and exotic items for a new patron, King Cocalus.

Aphrodite and Hephaestus as portrayed in the film "The Adventures of Baron Munchausen"

Aphrodite and Hephaestus as portrayed in the film “The Adventures of Baron Munchausen”

Daedalus was also said to invent moving images, and statues so lifelike they appeared to be real people. But not all inventors were mortals. Hephaestus, god of metal working and the forge, was known to create a number of remarkable, advanced technologies for fellow gods, or favoured mortals. Most notably, Hephaestus is the first recorded inventor of automatons, or robots. He created tripods that could walk to Olympus and back, and he created Talos, the robotic guardian of the island Crete. Talos was made of bronze and as tall as ten men. He walked through the sea, creating a circuit around the island that took only three hours. Nobody got in or out of the harbour without giving him the correct password. If you gave the wrong password, or failed to answer, he smashed the ship with his huge iron club. Talos had a single vein which held ichor, a blood-like substance that gave life to the gods, and was defeated when Ariadne of the Argonauts tricked him into allowing her to removing the single nail that held it shut.

Hercules and the Stymphalian birds

Hercules and the Stymphalian birds

Any magical tools the gods possessed where forged by Hephaestus. He made Hermes winged helmet, allowing the messenger to fly. He made Achilles armour, that made him invincible. He made Eros’ magical bow and arrow, the one that never missed and caused anyone touched by it to fall instantly in love. He made Helios’ chariot–the one that carried the sun across the sky. He made one of the first prosthetic limbs when he caved a new shoulder from ivory for Pelops. He made statues of dogs so life-like that they would bite invaders, much like Daedalus’ moving images. Perhaps most interestingly, he made the bronze clappers that enabled Hercules to defeat the Stymphalians–birds made from iron and bronze.

Nobody knows where the Stymphalian birds came from, although they were said to be pets of Ares, the god of war. They definitely feel like a science experiment gone wrong with their poisoned dung, and penchant for eating men. Hercules frightened them away using a brass clapper designed by Hephaestus, who took pity on his plight.

Greek mythology is full of strange references to metal or technology, such as the huge magnetic mountain that pulled the iron nails out of Odysseus’ ship causing it to fall apart and shipwreck the sailors. With stories like these it is easy to imagine Daedalus as an extraordinary inventor, and Hephaestus as a mad scientist surrounded by robotic servants. Isn’t Mythological Steampunk is a genre just waiting to happen?

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