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

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.


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.


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.


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.

A woodblock illustration from Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay
Mental Floss
How Jeremy Bentham Finally Came to America, Nearly 200 Years After His Death
Mental Floss
Mental Floss

One day toward the beginning of March, an unusual object arrived at a New York City airport. Carefully encased in a foam-padded, specially built wooden chair and strapped in with a bright-blue sash, it was the stuffed skeleton of one of Britain's most famous philosophers—transported not for burial, but for exhibition.

"We all refer to him as he, but the curator has corrected me. I need to keep referring to it," says University College London conservator Emilia Kingham, who prepared the item for its transatlantic voyage.

The stuffed skeleton belongs to the philosopher Jeremy Bentham, who died in 1832. But for well over a century, his "auto-icon"—an assemblage including his articulated skeleton surrounded by padding and topped with a wax head—has been on display in the south cloisters of University College London. Starting March 21, it will be featured in the Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibition "Like Life: Sculpture, Color, and the Body (1300–Now)," marking its first appearance in America.

While the auto-icon has sometimes been seen as an absurd vanity project or memento mori, according to Tim Causer, it's best understood as a product of Bentham's trailblazing work. "I would tend to ask people to reckon with the auto-icon not as macabre curio or the weird final wish of a strange old man," says the senior research associate at UCL's Bentham Project, which is charged with producing a new edition of the philosopher's collected works. Instead, "[we should] accept it in the manner in which Bentham intended it, as a sort of physical manifestation of his philosophy and generosity of spirit."


Engraving of Jeremy Bentham by J. Posselwhite
Engraving of Jeremy Bentham by J. Posselwhite

Bentham is best known as the founder of utilitarianism, a philosophy that evaluates actions and institutions based on their consequences—particularly whether those consequences cause happiness. A man frequently ahead of his time, he believed in a world based on rational analysis, not custom or religion, and advocated for legal and penal reform, freedom of speech, animal rights, and the decriminalization of homosexuality.

His then-unconventional ideas extended to his own body. At the time Bentham died, death was largely the province of the Church of England, which Bentham thought was "irredeemably corrupt," according to Causer. Instead of paying burial fees to the Church and letting his body rot underground, Bentham wanted to put his corpse to public use.

In this he was influenced by his friend and protégé Dr. Thomas Southwood Smith, who had published an article called "Use of the dead to the living" in 1824. Smith argued that medical knowledge suffered from the limited number of bodies then available for dissection—the Crown supplied only a handful of hanged criminals each year—and that the pool of available corpses had to be expanded to allow surgeons more practice material, lest they begin "practicing" on the living.

From his earliest will, Bentham left his body to science. (Some scholars think he may have been the first person to do so.) But he also went one step further. His last essay, written shortly before his death, was entitled "Auto-icon; or, farther uses of the dead to the living." In it, Bentham lambasts "our dead relations" as a source of both disease and debt. He had a better idea: Just as "instruction has been given to make 'every man his own broker,' or 'every man his own lawyer': so now may every man be his own statue."

Bentham envisioned a future in which weatherproofed auto-icons would be interspersed with trees on ancestral estates, employed as "actors" in historical theatre and debates, or simply kept as decoration. The point, he felt, was to treat the body in terms of its utility, rather than being bound by superstition or fear.

"It was a very courageous thing to do in the 1830s, to ask yourself to be dissected and reassembled," Causer says. "The auto-icon is his final attack on organized religion, specifically the Church of England. Because Bentham thought the church had a pernicious influence on society."

Sketch of Jeremy Bentham's corpse laid out for dissection
"The Mortal Remains" of Jeremy Bentham laid out for dissection, by H. H. Pickersgill

There was only one man Bentham trusted with carrying out his last wishes: Smith. After a public dissection attended by eminent scientific men, the devoted doctor cleaned Bentham's bones and articulated the skeleton with copper wiring, surrounding them with straw, cotton wool, fragrant herbs, and other materials. He encased the whole thing in one of Bentham's black suits, with the ruffles of a white shirt peeking out at the breast. He even propped Bentham's favorite walking stick, which the philosopher had nicknamed "Dapple," in between his legs, and sat him on one of his usual chairs—all just as Bentham had asked for.

But not everything went quite according to plan. The philosopher had asked to have his head preserved in the "style of the New Zealanders," which Smith attempted by placing the head over some sulfuric acid and under an air pump. The result was ghastly: desiccated, dark, and leathery, even as the glass eyes Bentham had picked out for it during life gleamed from the brow.

Seeing as how the results "would not do for exhibition," as Smith wrote to a friend, the doctor hired a noted French artist, Jacques Talrich, to sculpt a head out of wax based on busts and paintings made of Bentham while alive. Smith called his efforts "one of the most admirable likenesses ever seen"—a far more suitable topper for the auto-icon than the real, shriveled head, which was reportedly stuffed into the chest cavity and not rediscovered until World War II.

The preserved real head of Jeremy Bentham
Jeremy Bentham's preserved real head
Matt Brown, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Smith kept the auto-icon at his consulting rooms until 1850, when he donated it to University College London, where Bentham is often seen as a spiritual forefather. It has been there ever since, inside a special mahogany case, despite rumors that students from Kings College—UCL's bitter rival—once stole the head and used it as a football.

"His head has never been stolen by another university," Kingham confirms. Causer says there is reason to believe the wax head was stolen by King's College in the 1990s, but never the real head. The football part of the story is particularly easy to dismiss, he notes: "We all have human heads, and kicking them doesn't do them much good, particularly 180-year-old human heads. If anybody kicked that, it would disintegrate on impact, I think." (Kingham also notes that the real head is not decomposing, as is sometimes claimed: "It's actually quite stable, it just doesn't look like a real-life person anymore. The skin is all shrunken.")

Another beloved myth has it that the auto-icon regularly attends UCL council meetings, where he's entered into the record as "present but not voting." Causer says that's not true either, although fiction became reality after the auto-icon graced the council meetings marking the 100th and 150th anniversary of the college's founding as a nod to the legend; it also attended the final council meeting of the school's retiring provost, Malcolm Grant.


Jeremy Bentham's auto-icon
Thomas Southwood Smith and Jacques Talrich, Auto-Icon of Jeremy Bentham. UCL Culture, London

Bentham always wanted to visit America; Causer says he was "a big admirer of the American political system" as the one most likely to promote the greatest happiness for its citizens. But before he could accomplish in death what he failed to do in life, UCL had to mount a careful conservation operation.

The first step: a spring cleaning. The conservation team at UCL removed each item of clothing on the auto-icon piece by piece, holding carefully to the delicate areas, like a loose left shoulder and wrist, where they knew from previous x-rays that the wiring was imperfect. After a detailed condition report and an inspection for pest damage (thankfully absent), the team surface-cleaned everything.

"The clothes were quite grubby because the box that he's sitting in, it's actually not very airtight," Kingham says. A vacuum with a brush attachment took care of surface dirt and dust, but the inner items required a more thorough clean. "We determined that his linen shirt and also his underwear could do with the wash, so we actually washed those in water. It was quite exciting saying I've been able to wash Jeremy Bentham's undies." The wax head was cleaned with water and cotton swabs, and occasionally a little spit, which Kingham says is a common cleaning technique for painted surfaces.

Kingham's team rearranged the stuffing around the skeleton, plumping the fibers as you would a pillow. The stuffing around the arms, in particular, had started to sag, so Kingham used a piece of stockinette fabric to bind the area around the biceps—making them look more like arms, she says, but also reducing some of the strain against the jacket, which threatened the stitching.

But the most labor-intensive part of the preparation, according to Kingham, was devising a customized padded chair for the auto-icon's transport. Their final creation included a wooden boarded seat covered in soft foam that had been sculpted to hold the auto-icon lying on its back, knees bent at a 90-degree angle to minimize stress on the pelvis—another weak point. The auto-icon was bound to the chair with soft bandages, and the whole thing inserted into a travel case. The wax head was also set inside a foam pad within a special handling crate (the real head will stay at UCL, where it is currently on display), while Bentham's regular chair, hat, and walking stick got their own crates.

"We had originally joked that it might be just easier to buy him a seat on the plane and just wheel him in on a wheelchair," Kingham says, laughing.

The special chair constructed for transporting Jeremy Bentham's auto-icon
UCL Culture

Luke Syson, the co-curator of "Like Life," says it was touching to watch the stick and hat emerge from their travel boxes, even if the auto-icon's special chair did look a bit "like how you would transport a lunatic around 1910—or indeed 1830."

Reached by phone just after he had finished installing the auto-icon, Syson says he wanted to include the item as part of the show's emphasis on works of art made to persuade the viewer that life is present. "This piece really sums up so many of the themes that the rest of the show looks at, so the use of wax, for example, as a substitute for flesh, the employment of real clothes … And then, above all of course, the use of body parts." And the auto-icon isn't the only item in the show to include human remains—when we spoke to Syson, he was looking at the auto-icon, Marc Quinn's "Self" (a self-portrait in frozen blood), and a medieval reliquary head made for a fragment of Saint Juliana's skull, all of which are installed in the same corner of the museum.

Syson says he was initially worried the auto-icon might not "read" as a piece of art—worries that were dispelled as soon as he installed the wax head. "The modeling of the face is so fine," he says. "The observation and expression, the sense of changing personality … there's a lovely jowliness underneath his chin, the wrinkles around his eyes are really speaking, and the kind of quizzical eyebrows, and so on, all make him really amazingly present."

And unlike at UCL, where the auto-icon sits in a case, viewers at the Met are able to see him on three sides, including his back. "He sort of springs to attention on his chair, he's not sort of slumped, which you couldn't see in the box [at UCL]."

Those who have worked with Bentham's auto-icon say it encourages a kind of intimacy. Taking the auto-icon apart, Kingham says, "you really do feel a closeness to Jeremy Bentham, because you looked in such detail at his clothes, and his bones, and his skeleton." The wax head, she says, is particularly lifelike. "People who knew him have said that it's a very, very good realistic likeness of him," she notes, which made it both eerie and special to handle so closely.

"This is both the representation and the person," Syson says. "We've been calling him 'Jeremy' these last few months, and he's sort of here, and it's not just that something's here, he's here. So that's an amazing thing."

Nearly 200 years later and across an ocean, Jeremy Bentham's auto-icon has arrived to serve another public good: delighting a whole new set of fans.

A woodblock illustration from Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay
Jyrki Kymäläinen, Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0
National WWII Museum Launches a European Tour Tracing the 'Band of Brothers' Path
Jyrki Kymäläinen, Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0
Jyrki Kymäläinen, Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0

Thanks to Stephen E. Ambrose's book Band of Brothers and the HBO miniseries of the same name, the story of "Easy" Company of the United States Army is among the most famous to come out of the Second World War. Now WWII buffs have a whole new way to experience that chapter in history: The National WWII Museum in New Orleans is offering a 13-day European excursion that traces the company's footsteps from Britain to Nazi Germany.

Easy Company suffered from one of the highest casualty rates of any U.S. company during World War II. They landed on the beaches of Normandy on D-Day, fought in the Siege of Bastogne during the Battle of the Bulge, and captured Hitler's infamous Eagle's Nest in Berchtesgaden, Germany.

All of those highlights are covered in the WWII Museum's tour called "Easy Company: England to the Eagle's Nest." The museum was founded by Ambrose, and the new tour gives guests an intimate look at the sites mentioned in his book. During the excursion, tour members will be treated to commentary from museum historians and guest appearances from the actors who portrayed Easy Company soldiers in the miniseries. Admission to historical sites at each stop, as well as meals, transportation, and accommodations, is included in the price.

The next available tour starts September 9, with tickets costing $8490 for single guests and $6495 for each guest traveling as a couple. And if you're looking for another book-related escape for your next vacation, Rail Europe's literary tour of the continent may suit your tastes.


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