Brazen Heads: The Curious Legend Behind Fortune-Telling Automata

A woodblock illustration from Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay
A woodblock illustration from Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay
Wikimedia // Public Domain

Fortune-telling automata—think Zoltar—were a fixture of penny arcades and amusement parks for generations of schoolchildren. But these creations owe their origin in part to the literary legend of the brazen head, an imaginary all-knowing mechanical device supposedly endowed with the ability to answer any question and predict the future. Called brazen because they were made of brass, their popularity peaked in the Renaissance, when plays and romances featured them and thinkers pondered the supposed mysteries of their making.

"A NATURAL MAN'S HEAD"

The most frequently referenced brazen head is the one allegedly made by 13th century Franciscan friar and philosopher Roger Bacon, although stories of its creation don't appear until centuries after his death. The anonymous 16th century prose romance The famous historie of Fryer Bacon describes the magical object as a precise brass replica of a “natural man’s head,” including “the inward parts,” and tells how Bacon, struggling to give it speech, summoned the Devil to ask him for advice. Satan announced that the head would speak after a few weeks, as long as it was powered by “the continuall fume of the six hottest simples,” a selection of plants used in alchemical medicine.

The tale formed part of the plot of the popular play Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay, written by English dramatist and pamphleteer Robert Greene and first performed around 1589. In both accounts, Bacon’s ultimate purpose was to build a magical wall of brass around Britain to protect it against any invasions; the all-knowing head would have assisted him in the task. There is, however, a crucial difference: In the play, the “monstrous head” isn’t built by alchemy nor by natural magic, but by “necromantic charms." In both sources, when the magical creation finally speaks, Bacon is fast asleep and misses its words—“Time is,” “Time was,” and “Time is past.” The opportunity to question his creation about the secrets of the universe is gone, and the head explodes, destroying itself.

Never mind that Bacon was an expert in geometry and mathematics and one of the pioneers of the scientific method; rumors that he had built a brazen head “by the hand of the Devil” persisted well into 17th century. The extent of Bacon's magical doings during his lifetime is a subject of much debate, but his association with the demonic may come in part from his experiments in optics, which resulted in impressive tricks of perspective judged to have been done “by power of evyll spirites,” in the words of the 16th century mathematician Robert Recorde. And while there is no record of Bacon ever creating an actual brazen head, he was fascinated by early astronomical clocks—also made of brass, and also offering information about the cosmos.

Oil painting of Roger Bacon in his observatory by Ernest Board
Ernest Board, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 4.0

Bacon was a disciple of bishop Robert Grosseteste, another polymath alleged by literary legend to have made a brazen head, in his case by using “astral science” with the purpose of predicting the future. There are many similarities between the stories—particularly the fact that Grosseteste was also asleep when the brazen head delivered its cryptic words—so it’s likely that the two tales may have influenced one another over the years. And like Bacon, Grosseteste wasn’t exactly a sorcerer: Centuries after his death, he remains an influential figure in mathematical physics, still remembered as a crucial name in the development of Oxford University, where he lectured.

Even a saint was said to have made a brazen head. Renaissance sources tell us that 13th century Saint Albertus Magnus spent 30 years building a man of brass able to correctly answer any question, but according to one version of the story, the automaton was so loquacious that a disciple of Saint Albertus—the famed Thomas Aquinas—knocked it to pieces to stop its constant chattering.

Yet the earliest known written reference to something like a brazen head predates the Renaissance, and appears in the 12th century Chronicle of the Kings of England by William of Malmesbury. The historian attributes the creation of this head to Gerbert of Aurillac, who would become Pope Sylvester II in 999. We’re told that Gerbert traveled to Spain to “learn astrology and other sciences of that description from the Saracens,” and that he stole a book of spells from a Saracen philosopher before making a pact with the devil, who was responsible for his rise to the papal throne. “By a certain inspection of stars,” Gerbert built a head that accurately answered “yes” or “no” to any question—including one about its creator’s death. (Gerbert may have been clever enough to create an omniscient figure, but he failed to ask it the right questions: Told that he would only die after singing mass in Jerusalem, death nevertheless caught him by surprise days after having sung mass not in the city of Jerusalem, but in Jerusalem Church in Rome.)

William’s account is key to how the legend of the brazen head was received and interpreted. As a Christian monk, he regarded Islam as unholy. When Gerbert meddled with Saracens (a term medieval Europeans commonly used for Arabs and later Muslims) he was understood to have opened a door to the occult, introducing a “demonic” object to the Western world. William also perhaps strengthened the connection to paganism in the text by mentioning Daedalus, the cunning craftsman of Greek mythology, who fathered Icarus—and an impressive number of ancient automata.

INGENIOUS DEVICES

There was, indeed, some truth behind these stories. Ancient automata were not a mere mythical creation, but a real product of the inventiveness of some very early engineers. In the 4th century BCE, Archytas of Tarentum created a steam or compressed-air-powered dove; 3rd century BCE Philon of Byzantium designed a wine-pouring maid; and 1st century CE Hero of Alexandria produced a series of mechanical devices that included coin-operated machines, puppets, singing birds, and even a miniature theater able to stage a tragedy. This Greco-Alexandrian tradition was carried forward by Arab-Islamic engineers, such as the Banū Mūsā brothers in 9th century Baghdad, whose Book of Ingenious Devices contains designs for several different automata.

If many Christians regarded these inventions as devilry, it wasn’t just for their seemingly unnatural qualities, but also for their pagan origins.

Back in early modern England, Protestants used the brazen head motif for their own political purposes. In Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay, Bacon—who like Gerbert, Grosseteste, and Albertus Magnus was an intellectual working on advanced ideas of philosophy and nature—is presented as a necromancer. The influential play is an example of Reformation propaganda: The Middle Ages are depicted as a breeding ground for magic and the occult, and Catholics are portrayed as credulous and superstitious, as opposed to Protestants, who are praised as advocates of progress.

MAGICAL RELICS

A wizard at Musée Mécanique, San Francisco
Musée Mécanique, San Francisco
Allison Meier, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

The fascination with fortune-telling heads didn’t end with the Renaissance, however. Centuries later, the legend of Bacon’s brazen head still breathed in the works of Daniel Defoe, Lord Byron, and Nathaniel Hawthorne. In A Journal of the Plague Year (1722), Defoe describes how brazen heads were “the usual sign” that marked the dwellings of fortune-tellers and astrologers in 1665 London. What may have been false advertising in the 17th century became reasonably accurate in the penny arcades of the 20th century, where the fortune-telling business was actually performed by machines.

Many of these more recent fortune-telling creations still trade on tropes of the exotic—elderly gypsy women, Central European magicians, or Eastern mystics. While such automata are increasingly rare, several now live in museums, such as the Musée Mécanique in San Francisco or the Tibidabo Automata Museum in Barcelona. Although not the brazen heads of legend, they’re still functioning, ready to tell us our future—as long as we don't fall asleep.

DNA Links Polish Barber Aaron Kosminski to Jack the Ripper Murders, But Experts Are Skeptical

Express Newspapers/Getty Images
Express Newspapers/Getty Images

Many people have been suspected of being Jack the Ripper, from author Lewis Carroll to Liverpool cotton salesman James Maybrick, but the perpetrator of the grisly crimes that gripped Victorian London has never been identified. Now, one of the case's first suspects is back in the news. As Smithsonian reports, Aaron Kosminski, a barber from Poland, has been linked to the Jack the Ripper murders with DNA evidence—but experts are hesitant to call the case closed.

The new claim comes from data now published in the Journal of Forensic Science. Several years ago, Ripperologist Russell Edwards asked researchers from the University of Leeds and John Moores University in Liverpool to analyze a blood-stained silk shawl thought to have belonged to Ripper victim Catherine Eddowes. The item, which Edwards owns, has been a primary piece of evidence in the murder investigation for years. In 2014, Edwards published a book in which he claimed Aaron Kosminski's DNA had been found on the garment, but his results weren't published in a peer-reviewed journal.

Five years later, the researchers have released their findings. Using infrared and spectrophotometry technology, they confirmed the fabric was stained with blood and discovered a possible semen stain. They collected DNA fragments from the stain and compared them to DNA taken from a descendent of Eddowes and a descendent of Kosminski. The mitochondrial DNA (the DNA passed down from mother to offspring) extracted from the shawl contained matching profiles for both subjects.

Kosminski was a 23-year-old Polish barber living in London at the time of the Jack the Ripper murders. He was one of the first suspects identified by the London police, but there wasn't enough evidence to convict him in 1888.

Following the newest study, many Jack the Ripper experts are saying there still isn't enough evidence to definitively pin the murders on Kosminski. One of the main issues is that a mitochondrial DNA match isn't as conclusive as matches with other DNA; many people have the same mitochondrial DNA profile, even if they're not related, so the forensic tool is best used for ruling out suspects rather than confirming them.

The shawl at the center of the study is also controversial. It was supposedly picked up by a police officer at the scene of Eddowes's murder, but that version of the story has been disputed. The shawl's origin also been traced back to multiple eras, including the early 1800s and early 1900s, as well as different parts of Europe.

Due to many factors complicating the Jack the Ripper case, the murders may never be solved completely. The crimes spurred a flurry of hoax letters to the London Police department in the 1880s, and even the letters that were thought to be authentic, like the one that gave Jack the Ripper his nickname, may have been fabricated.

[h/t Smithsonian]

Medgar Evers’s Mississippi Home Is Now a National Monument

Milt T, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
Milt T, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

The Mississippi home where civil rights leader and World War II veteran Medgar Evers lived at the time of his assassination has just been declared a national monument, the Clarion Ledger reports. The new designation was part of a sweeping bill signed by President Donald Trump that also established four other national monuments: one in Utah, one in California, and two in Kentucky.

The three-bedroom house in Jackson was already a national historic landmark as well as a stop on the Mississippi Freedom Trail. However, it now has the distinction of being known as the Medgar and Myrlie Evers Home National Monument. Evers and his wife, Myrlie, moved into the home with their two children after Evers became Mississippi’s first NAACP field secretary in 1954. As an outspoken activist, he also staged boycotts and voter registration drives, and helped desegregate the University of Mississippi.

The couple welcomed their third child into the world while living in their Jackson home, but due to Evers’s high profile, they had to take extra precautions. The home doesn’t have a front door because Evers believed this small barrier would help protect his family (the door was located on the side of the house instead). It wasn’t enough to protect him, though. On June 12, 1963, Evers was shot in his driveway by Klansman Byron De La Beckwith. A bullet hole can still be seen in a kitchen wall.

Evers’s murder helped prompt the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, according to historians. Myrlie Evers also went on to play a crucial role in the movement, serving as national chairwoman of the NAACP from 1995 to 1998. “Medgar and Myrlie Evers are heroes whose contributions to the advancement of civil rights in Mississippi and our nation cannot be overstated,” said U.S. Senator Roger Wicker, who co-sponsored the proposal for the national monument.

Under this new change of management—from former owners Tougaloo College to the federal government—the home will receive more funds for its preservation. Currently, the home can only be toured by appointment.

[h/t Clarion Ledger]

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