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The Uncanny Valley in Ancient Greek Art | Time 19.11.

18, 11'09

The Concept of the 'Uncanny Valley' Dates to 1970. The Phenomenon Is Thousands…
The Concept of the 'Uncanny Valley'
Dates to 1970. The Phenomenon Is
Thousands of Years Older

Attic red-figure volute-crater depicting the birth of


Pandora with Zeus, Hermes and Epimetheus present, 5th
century BC. Heritage Images—Getty Images

By ADRIENNE MAYOR November 13, 2018

Most people experience an eerie sensation when they meet


natural-looking artificial beings, especially humanoid robots. This

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The Uncanny Valley in Ancient Greek Art | Time 19.11.18, 11'09

is the “Uncanny Valley” effect, the psychological reaction of


unease and apprehension upon encountering hyper-realistic
replicas or automata. Affinity increases with verisimilitude, but
positive feelings drop off steeply as the entity approaches being
indistinguishable from reality. Anxiety rises when the line dividing
the inanimate from the animate begins to collapse, and actual
movement or the illusion of movement intensifies the disturbing
feeling. The sudden drop-off is the descent into the “Uncanny
Valley,” first identified by the robotics engineer Masahiro Mori in
1970. Today the Uncanny Valley is a well-known response to
extremely lifelike robots and AI entities.

The phenomenon can be traced back more than 2,000 years, to


classical antiquity.

The most ancient examples of an Uncanny Valley response to


artificial life occur in Homer’s Odyssey (ca. 700 BC). In the
Underworld, Odysseus jumps back in fear when he encounters
vivid pictures of ferocious wild predators and murderers with
glaring eyes. Odysseus prays that this fiendish artist will not
create any more of these terrifying images. In another passage,
Odysseus sees an intricately wrought golden brooch depicting a
hunting hound mauling a fawn. He is awestruck by the “living”
vignette of the dog seemingly captured in the very act of killing
the fawn as it gasps out its last breath.

In the Iliad, Homer tells how the god of invention and technology,
Hephaestus, places on the warrior Achilles’ shield a vivid
panoramic scene of moving, talking people. In Hesiod’s epic poem
Theogony, Hephaestus fabricates the facsimile of a young woman
called Pandora. He makes a splendiferous gold crown for her,
decorated with miniature monsters so lifelike they seem to writhe

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The Uncanny Valley in Ancient Greek Art | Time 19.11.18, 11'09

and roar. When Zeus displays the completed replicant Pandora


before dispatching her to earth with her fateful jar, everyone is
filled with profound awe (thauma). Their reaction — “seized with
amazement” — parallels ancient and modern descriptions of the
emotions aroused by miraculously realistic statues or automatons.

In two dramatic scenes in fifth century BC plays by Euripides and


Aeschylus, some old men are frightened out of their wits by
realistic animated statues crafted by the legendary inventor
Daedalus. In Aeschylus’s play Theoroi, a group of Satyrs are
alarmed by effigies of their own heads nailed to a temple. One
Satyr cries out that they are so real they only lack voices to come
alive. Another Satyr exclaims that the lifelike replica of her son’s
head would send his mother shrieking in horror. Such theatrical
anecdotes suggest that classical Athenian audiences were familiar
with genuine artworks of disquieting realism.

Unprecedented innovations and brilliant techniques in art and in


mechanical technology, evoked sebas, thauma, and thambos — awe
and dread, speechless wonder, and utter astonishment. Many
ancient writers described how people confronted with true-to-life
artificial animals and especially human figures experienced the
“shock of the new,” a sense of surprise and pleasure — but mixed
with acute feelings of disorientation, alarm, and terror. The
examples of the unnerving effects of artistic illusions, vivid
imitations of life, animated sculptures of humans and animals, and
statues that seem to actually be what they portray can be seen as
ancient parallels of the “Uncanny Valley” phenomenon.

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The Uncanny Valley in Ancient Greek Art | Time 19.11.18, 11'09

Philosophers, poets and playwrights tell us that images and


sculptures of startling realism called up conflicting strong
emotions in the viewers. By the fifth century BC, Greek sculptors
were achieving extraordinary levels of anatomical verisimilitude,
with exceedingly minute details of veins and musculature.
Sculptors began to depict naturalistic, fluid poses that had been
impossible before innovations in artistic technology. And keep in
mind that both marble and bronze statues were realistically
painted. A host of eminent artists’ lifelike works were described by
Pliny the Elder. Among his examples of sculptures of “miraculous
excellence and absolute truth to life” was a bronze dog licking its
wound — a statue so valuable that it could not be insured for loss
but had bodyguards charged to defend it with their lives. Pliny also
singled out Pythagoras of Rhegium (fifth century BC), renowned
for his muscle-bound marble statues of athletes with visible
tendons and veins. The festering ulcer on the leg of his “Lame
Man” statue caused viewers to wince with sympathetic pain. The
paunchy and balding portrait statues made by the Athenian
sculptor Demetrius of Alopece (ca 400 BC) were so “lifelike that
they were unflattering.” People even developed the desire to have
sex with erotically compelling naturalistic statues.

Meanwhile, painting masterpieces began to feature astonishing


depth and perspective. Compelling three-dimensional effects
made hands and objects appear to project from the surface.
Examples from the fourth century BC, described by Pliny, include
Aristeides who painted emotional expressions so skillfully, and
Apelles, whose life-size murals of energetic horses elicited neighs
from live horses. Artists competed with each other to produce
convincing trompe l’oeil paintings and objects, such as luscious-
looking grapes that deceived birds into pecking them. Several
ancient writers praised the works of Theon of Samos, who

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The Uncanny Valley in Ancient Greek Art | Time 19.11.18, 11'09

specialized in “imaginary visions that they call phantasias,” vivid


paintings accompanied by theatrical effects of sounds, music, and
lights to give realistic “sense-surround” impressions. Another
talented artist was Parrhasius, whose incredibly lifelike portraits
of athletes appeared to pant and sweat. For his vivid painting of
Prometheus ravaged by the eagle, it was whispered that Parrhasius
must have tortured a slave to death as his model.

Modern historians tend to underestimate the role of technical


ingenuity in achieving these dazzling ancient artworks. In his
survey of realistic artworks, Pliny explained how bronze sculptors
made plaster and wax casts of living people, a technique that
enhanced the realism of portraits. Evidence for the use of plaster
and wax casts of real people’s bodies to make phenomenal, true-
to-life bronze sculptures has come to light in some magnificent
statues of the fifth century BC. These unexpected discoveries of
artistic technology shocked the modern art world accustomed to
assuming that classical sculptors possessed inimitable, awesome
virtuosity in achieving such realism. The casting-from-life
technique helps explain the stunning mimetic qualities of many
bronze statues.

Meanwhile, numerous ancient Greek accounts refer to statues that


could move their heads, eyes, or limbs, perspire, weep, bleed and
make sounds. The idea that statues, especially of divinities,
possessed agency has a deep history, long before the fifth and
fourth centuries BC when artists began to create exceptionally
lifelike figures and historical inventors began to design genuine
automatons and self-moving devices. It was possible to make
statues with parts and hidden or internal mechanisms capable of
movement, such as nodding, raising arms, opening temple doors,
and so on. Hollow statues with cavities and tubes allowed priests

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The Uncanny Valley in Ancient Greek Art | Time 19.11.18, 11'09

to ventriloquize their voices, and Plutarch, Cicero, Dio Cassius,


Lucian and many other ancient writers revealed ways to cause a
statue appear to shed tears, sweat or bleed. Such tricks fostered
the illusion that figures were being animated by the gods
themselves.

The intense fascination and fear evoked by the profusion of


amazingly realistic artworks, animated statues and automated
objects more than two millennia ago represent the very first
inklings of the Uncanny Valley effect.

Adapted from Gods and Robots: Myths, Machines, and Ancient


Dreams of Technology by Adrienne Mayor. Copyright © 2018 by
Adrienne Mayor. Published and reprinted by permission of Princeton
University Press.

Contact us at editors@time.com.

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