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.

10 Questions About Columbus Day

ihsanGercelman/iStock via Getty Images
ihsanGercelman/iStock via Getty Images

Every American student learns that Christopher Columbus sailed the ocean blue and landed in the New World in 1492. Winifred Sackville Stoner, Jr.'s poem "History of the U.S." has made it impossible to forget the date (although the couplet actually predates her birth), and many federal workers get a day off every October to recognize the explorer's arrival in the New World. You know the who and where, but here are 10 more answers to pressing questions about Columbus Day.

1. When did Christopher Columbus become a cultural icon?

By the early 1500s, other navigators like Amerigo Vespucci and Francisco Pizarro had become more popular and successful than Columbus had been with his off-course voyages. According to The New York Times, historians and writers in the latter part of the 16th century restored some of Columbus’s reputation with great words of praise for the explorer and his discoveries, with his fellow Italians proving particularly eager to celebrate his life in plays and poetry.

2. How did Christopher Columbus's popularity reach the United States?

Blame the British. As the American colonies formed an identity separate from their mainly English roots, colonists looked to figures like the "appointed of God" Columbus to symbolize their ideals. "By the time of the Revolution," writes John Noble Wilford, "Columbus had been transmuted into a national icon, a hero second only to Washington." Columbus's American legacy got another shot in the arm in 1828 when a biography (peppered with historical fiction) by Washington Irving transformed Columbus into an even more idealized figure who sought to "colonize and cultivate," not to strip the New World of its resources.

3. When was the first Columbus Day?

The first recorded celebration took place in 1792 in New York City, but the first holiday held in commemoration of the 1492 voyage coincided with its 400th anniversary in 1892. President Benjamin Harrison issued a proclamation in which he called Columbus a "pioneer of progress and enlightenment" and suggested that Americans "cease from toil and devote themselves to such exercises as may best express honor to the discoverer and their appreciation of the great achievements of the four completed centuries of American life."

If Harrison had had his way, though, the holiday would have been celebrated on October 21. He knew that Columbus landed under the Julian calendar, not the Gregorian calendar we use today—making October 21 the correct date for anniversary celebrations.

4. Did anyone actually celebrate Columbus Day in the 19th century?

Italian Americans embraced Columbus as an important figure in their history and saw celebrating him as a way to "be accepted by the mainstream," the Chicago Tribune notes. The Knights of Columbus, an organization formed by Irish Catholic immigrants in 1882, chose the Catholic explorer as their patron "as a symbol that allegiance to their country did not conflict with allegiance to their faith," according to the group's website. Following President Harrison’s 1892 proclamation, they lobbied for Columbus Day to become an official holiday.

5. When did Columbus Day become an official holiday?

The holiday first found traction at the state level. Colorado began celebrating Columbus Day, by governor's proclamation, in 1905. Angelo Noce, founder of the first Italian newspaper in the state, spearheaded the movement to honor Columbus and Italian American history. In 1907, the Colorado General Assembly finally gave in to him and made it an official state holiday.

6. When did Columbus Day become a federal holiday?

With Franklin D. Roosevelt as president, lobbying from the Knights of Columbus paid off, and the United States as a whole observed Columbus Day in 1934. Thirty-four years later, Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Uniform Holiday Bill, which designated Columbus Day as a federal holiday.

7. Why does the date of Columbus Day change every year?

Columbus Day was originally celebrated on October 12, the day Columbus landed in the New World, but the Uniform Holiday Bill took effect in 1971 and changed it to the second Monday in October, as well as moved the dates of Washington’s Birthday, Memorial Day, and Veterans Day to Mondays (Veterans Day would be moved back to November 11 in 1980 after criticism from veterans’ groups). The act of Congress was enacted to "provide for uniform annual observances of certain legal public holidays on Monday, and for other purposes."

8. Does every state observe the Columbus Day holiday on the same weekend?

In Tennessee, Columbus Day comes with an asterisk. The state’s official holiday observance calendar reads that Columbus Day is the second Monday of October, or "at the governor's discretion, Columbus Day may be observed the Friday after Thanksgiving."

9. Which states don't celebrate Columbus Day?

In Hawaii, the second Monday of October is known as Discoverer’s Day, "in recognition of the Polynesian discoverers of the Hawaiian Islands, provided that this day is not and shall not be construed to be a state holiday," KHON2 writes. According to the Pew Research Center, only 21 states treated Columbus Day as a paid state holiday in 2013. South Dakota, New Mexico, Maine, and the District of Columbia celebrate Native Americans Day or Indigenous People's Day as a paid holiday. Several cities, like San Francisco and Cincinnati, celebrate Indigenous People's Day.

10. How do other places around the world celebrate Columbus Day?

In Italy, Columbus Day (or Giornata nazionale di Cristoforo Colombo) is listed as one of the national or international days of celebration and is still on October 12, but it's not a public holiday. Some countries have chosen to observe anti-Columbus holidays like the Day of the Indigenous Resistance in Venezuela and Nicaragua, Pan American Day in Belize, and the Day of Respect for Cultural Diversity in Argentina.

Quid Pro Quo Has a Nefarious Etymology

MangoStar_Studio/iStock via Getty Images
MangoStar_Studio/iStock via Getty Images

While some altruists will happily lend a hand without expecting anything in return, most of the world runs on the idea that you should be compensated in some way for your goods and services.

That’s quid pro quo, a Latin phrase which literally means “something for something.” In many cases, one of those “somethings” refers to money—you pay for concert tickets, your company pays you to teach your boss how to open a PDF, etc. However, quid pro quo also applies to plenty of situations in which no money is involved. Maybe your roommate agreed to lend you her favorite sweater if you promised to wash her dishes for a month. Or perhaps, in return for walking your neighbor’s dog while he was on vacation, he gave you his HBO login credentials.

No matter the circumstances, any deal in which you give something and you get something falls under the category of quid pro quo. According to The Law Dictionary, “it is nothing more than the mutual consideration which passes between the parties to a contract, and which renders it valid and binding.” In other words, if everyone on both sides understands the expectation that something will be given in return for a good or service, your contract is valid.

Based on that definition, quid pro quo hinges on transparency; all parties must understand that there’s an exchange being made. However, this wasn’t always the case. As the Columbia Journalism Review reports, Merriam-Webster’s dictionary entry states that quid pro quo was used in 16th-century apothecaries to denote when one medicine had been substituted for another, “whether intentionally (and sometimes fraudulently) or accidentally.”

So, if you were an unlucky peasant with a sore throat, it’s possible your herbal remedy could’ve been swapped out with something less effective—or even dangerous. Though Merriam-Webster doesn’t offer any specific examples of how or why this happened, it definitely seems like it would have been all too easy to “accidentally” poison your enemies during that time.

Just a few decades later, the term had gained enough popularity that people were using it for less injurious instances, much like we do today.

[h/t Columbia Journalism Review]

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