References to ancient magic appear in several popular movies ranging from the Indiana Jones trilogy to The Scorpion King. Are the movies just having fun, or did people in the ancient world actually witness events they considered magical? If they did, does that mean there was actually magic in the ancient world, or is there a realistic take on what might have appeared magical to the ancients?
The History Channel provided a window to address part of these questions in an episode of their Ancient Discoveries series called “Machines of the Gods.” The episode featured ancient temples and how temple priests would commission engineers to design “magical” contraptions to lure people into the temples. Designs showed lodestone being used to suspend objects in the air, statues designed to cry blood during sacrifies, and statue heads that would moan at passing visitors. Other machines would open the temple doors when a sacrificial fire was started. One such system operated through a clever use of pulleys and heated water. It was designed by Hero of Alexandria, a master of hydraulics commissioned to design several of the devices.
While some of the contraptions were definitely impressive, not all of them worked according to the specifications in Hero’s notes when the History Channel tried to reconstruct them. For instance, a statue that was supposed to cry tears of blood as the sacrificial fire was being lit did not work because the flame did not generate enough heat. A propane torch quickly fixed that problem, and the statue began to cry. While changes to the design specifications in the notes may have been made in practice or a larger fire used, it does leave the question of how many of the designs featured in the program were actually implemented. It reminds me of an old joke, one version of which is reprinted here.
After having dug to a depth of 200 meters last year, American scientists found traces of copper wire dating back 2000 years and came to the conclusion that their ancestors already had a telephone network more than 2000 years ago.
Not to be outdone by the Americans, in the weeks that followed, English scientists dug to a depth of 300 meters and shortly after headlines in the UK newspapers read: “English archaeologists have found traces of 3000 year old copper wire and have concluded that their ancestors already had an advanced high-tech communications network a thousand years earlier than the Americans.”
One week later, the Globe & Mail newspaper reported the following: “After digging as deep as 5000 meters in Canada, scientists have found absolutely nothing. They have therefore concluded that 5000 years ago Canadian inhabitants were already using wireless technology.”
All jokes aside, even if only some of these inventions ended up working as designed, they must have had a profound effect on the visitors to these temples. As the program noted, such technological wizardry was mostly confined to the temples during this era, so the spectators must have been particularly awestruck. Perhaps a few even thought they were witnessing “magic” from the gods themselves.