Inside any cabinet of curiosities – and especially inside the Eclectarium of Doctor Shuker – anything is possible, even living statues and other recondite examples of art imitating life in the most literal sense! So please indulge me if you will, and permit me to explore a longstanding interest of mine that resides amid the outermost shadows of unnatural history.
One of Greek mythology’s most famous stories tells of Pygmalion, king of Cyprus, who skilfully carves from ivory the statue of a young woman so beautiful and realistic that he falls in love with her, and which, in answer to his prayers, the goddess Aphrodite brings to life so that he can marry her and make her his queen, Galatea. Although I have yet to encounter a modern-day factual case quite so dramatic as this, there are many accounts on file of statues, icons, and other carved, inanimate effigies that have reputedly exhibited all manner of unexpected behaviour – weeping, moving, blinking, singing, and even wing-flapping and chess-playing. However, as examined here, could it be that these miraculous entities owe their talents more to a complex mix of human ingenuousness and ingenuity than to any divine intervention?
MIRACULOUS – OR MANIPULATIVE – ICONS?
There are numerous reports of venerated statues and icons that allegedly exhibit miraculous powers, as previously documented in detail by me in Dr Shuker’s Casebook (2008) and elsewhere. Perhaps the most famous – or infamous – examples are weeping and bleeding statues (usually of the Madonna), many examples of which have been documented from around the world. In 1995, however, Pavia University chemistry researcher Dr Luigi Garlaschelli published a revelatory paper in which he disclosed precisely how to create such an icon. Other researchers have achieved similar successes, since when, not surprisingly, this particular phenomenon has attracted rather less attention from the media. The same is true in relation to milk-drinking statues, whose ostensibly extraordinary feats have been readily duplicated by scientists and revealed to involve nothing more dramatic than capillary action.
However, these are by no means the only religious effigies that in some manner or another imitate the living form. Among the earliest known versions, present in a number of ancient Egyptian temples, was a goddess statue placed upon the altar and holding an empty vase. When the priest lit a fire on the altar, wine would miraculously appear inside the goddess’s vase, and then pour out onto the fire in front of the suitably-amazed worshippers gathered there. In reality, however, as explained by Hero of Alexandria, a perspicacious 1st-Century-AD scholar, the statue contained a secret reservoir of wine and a tube leading up to and into the bowl. As the fire warmed the statue, air expanded inside a hidden airtight chamber linked to the wine reservoir, forcing the wine up the statue’s internal tube and out into the bowl until it poured over the edge, quenching the fire, whereupon the statue would cool, the hidden chamber’s air would stop expanding, and thus the wine flow would stop.
Book documenting the moving Madonna statue of Ballinspittle phenomenon
Very different but equally noteworthy was the moving Madonna statue of Ballinspittle in Ireland. During 1985, many worshippers and intrigued tourists alike visited a statue of the Madonna at a shrine in Ballinspittle, County Cork, after hearing reports that it had been seen to move, rocking backwards, sideways, and forwards, and had sometimes even been said to move its head and shoulders. As so often occurs with such events, comparable reports also began to emerge in relation to other similar statues all over Ireland, but in the case of the Ballinspittle Madonna, events drew to a dramatic, unexpected close on 31 October, when the statue was violently attacked by some men, badly damaging it.
Luckily, before this destructive denouement occurred, the statue had been filmed by a team of scientists from Cork’s University College during some of its purported bouts of movement, but when the film was examined, no movement whatsoever could be detected. Consequently, it would seem that the Madonna’s observers had fallen victim to the autokinetic effect – the false perception of movement in a stationary object caused by the viewer’s own slight movement, but which he fails to notice due to an absence of background detail that would reveal that he was the one who was moving, not the object.
As for the life-sized crucifixion figure of Jesus at the Holy Trinity Church in Ambridge, Pennsylvania, that supposedly opened and closed its eyes during a service on Good Friday 1989, or the Madonna statue at the Mater Ecclesiae Mission Church in Thornton, California, whose eyes, chin, and hands were said to move on several different occasions during 1981, both of these icons were also filmed and photographed by investigators. When the data was analysed, however, the ‘movements’ were found to be nothing more than optical illusions – i.e. created by the angles at which the icons had been observed, photographed, or filmed.
In other words, it would seem that at least as far as religious effigies are concerned, miracles are very much in the eye of the beholder – as opposed to the lens of the camera.
MEMNON’S SINGING COLOSSUS
While visiting Egypt in 2006, one of my must-sees was among this ancient country's lesser-known attractions - yet, ironically, it is also one of its most extraordinary. Standing amid the ruins of Thebes on the West Bank of the Nile are two gigantic stone statues, aptly dubbed Colossi, but less aptly known in full as the Colossi of Memnon - as they have nothing to do whatsoever with the Trojan hero Memnon. Instead, they are 18.6-m-tall representations of Pharaoh Amenhotep III, seated on his throne, were erected approximately 3500 years ago, and are all that remain of his mortuary temple.
In 27 BC, the eastern Colossus was partially destroyed when its upper half crashed to the ground following a powerful earthquake, but far from losing its former glory this shattered edifice gained even greater fame – due to its extraordinary ability thereafter to sing! Prior to the earthquake it had been resolutely mute like any other self-respecting statue, but now, each morning at daybreak, this singular structure gave voice to a weird, readily audible sound that resembled a chiming bell – at least according to the numerous visitors that came from far and wide to hear it, believing that this statue’s eldritch cry would bring them good fortune.
The Colossi of Memnon (Dr Karl Shuker)
There is a very pertinent American maxim: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”. Sometimes, moreover, it may be best to leave well alone even if the object in question is indeed broken. Sadly, however, the Roman emperor Septimus Severus clearly thought otherwise, because in 199 AD he supervised the eastern Colossus’s long-awaited repair, in which a freshly-carved upper half replaced the original wrecked version. As a result, the statue regained much of its erstwhile majesty and dignity, but during the restoration process it also lost something – its voice, because from then on the statue never sang again, remaining silent to this day.
Many suggestions to explain its unwonted vocal ability and its equally unexpected silence have been proposed (though none has been confirmed). These include the effects of the earthquake causing the conversion of previous ultrasonic emissions into audible ones prior to the statue’s restoration, or the audible rubbing together of certain sections of the statue’s lower half warmed by the sun and expanding unequally as a result – or even phoney noises created secretly by Egyptian priests for the purpose of extorting money from gullible visitors.
This last-mentioned proposal, if true, would certainly not be unique in the annals of history. In the 12th Century, for instance, when Bishop Theophilus infamously smashed a number of statues at Alexandria that he deemed to be heathen, he discovered that some of them were hollow and were placed against a wall in such a manner as to permit an Egyptian priest to hide behind them and speak through their mouths to an awestruck audience of worshippers.
THE GOLEM OF PRAGUE
According to Jewish tradition, a golem is a model of a man made from clay or mud, which can be brought to life if certain holy words written upon a piece of parchment and then placed in its mouth are spoken by a Rabbi, but is rendered inanimate again if the parchment is removed (in some versions of this tale, a neck medallion bearing the words, rather than a piece of parchment, is used). The most famous example is the man-sized golem of Prague, which Rabbi Yehudah Loew ben Bezalel supposedly created and brought to life in 1580 to work as a labourer for him, but which, when he forgot to replace the parchment in its mouth, ran amok in the city’s until he finally subdued it, then hid its lifeless body thereafter in the attic of Prague’s Old-New Synagogue.
Although this story is fictitious, it is a curious anomaly that even today, it is against Czech law to enter this synagogue’s attic, even though no such ruling exists in relation to any of this country’s other Jewish temples. So could there really be something mysterious hidden in the synagogue’s attic?
Ivan Mackerle's book documenting his investigations into the Golem of Prague (Ivan Mackerle)
Czech investigator Ivan Mackerle has proposed an intriguing explanation. Namely, that there really was a golem of sorts – but not a clay creation brought to life. Instead, after learning that the word ‘golem’ translates from Hebrew not only as ‘artificial man made with magic’ but also as ‘fool’, Mackerle suggests that it was actually a retarded man cared for by the Rabbi. Moreover, he believes that the ‘parchment’ was medicine given to him by the Rabbi to control fits or seizures, that the golem’s running amok when the parchment was not replaced in its mouth was actually the man running wild due to not receiving his medicine, and that when captured by the Rabbi the man died, so to save himself from prosecution the Rabbi swiftly hid the man’s body in the synagogue’s attic and forbade anyone from entering it again.
To test his hypothesis, Mackerle succeeded in persuading the Czech authorities to allow him entry into the attic – but only to find it empty. However, he later learned that in 1883 the synagogue had been renovated, and that if any human remains had been found there they would have been removed and buried in the Jewish cemetery. So who knows? Perhaps in some unmarked grave are the mortal remains of a real-life golem.
TALOS AND THE TERMINATOR
Among the most popular of modern-day science-fiction films is the all-action series of Terminator movies, but countless centuries earlier the ancient Greeks were thrilled by tales of their very own killer android. This was an enormous bronze statue called Talos that famously came to life when, during their quest for the Golden Fleece, Jason and his band of fellow heroes landed on the island of Crete. This terrifying episode was skilfully recreated by animatronics expert Ray Harryhausen for the classic fantasy movie ‘Jason and the Argonauts’ from 1963.
Still from 'Jason and the Argonauts featuring Talos (Columbia Pictures)
Who as a child watching that film for the first time was not pleasurably chilled when - after Hercules and Hylas had robbed the gods’ own treasure chamber concealed inside the pedestal of Talos’s immense bronze statue - Talos’s head suddenly creaked and slowly turned round, looking down at the startled heroes? And then, to their even greater horror, the entire statue came to life, stepping down from its pedestal to pursue them and attempt to sink their vessel the Argo by hurling huge boulders at it. Fortunately, Jason was able to save his ship and crew by pulling out the great cork in the heel of one of Talos’s feet, which released the immortal fluid or ichor that bestowed life upon this bronze statue, and thus rendered it lifeless once more. Nevertheless, compared to Talos even Arnie’s relentless, murderous Terminator seems relatively tame!
MEDIEVAL AUTOMATA – MAGICAL OR MECHANICAL?
It was celebrated science-fiction novelist Sir Arthur C. Clarke who once wrote: Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”, and this is definitely true in relation to certain highly ingenious creations dating back to medieval times. Today, we would readily recognise such constructions as mechanical, animatronic devices, but back in those bygone ages, they were deemed by all but the most discerning, educated observers to be magical entities, and their creators – far from being lauded for their inventiveness – could well find themselves charged with witchcraft!
Indeed, this was almost the fate of a certain enterprising student at Cambridge University during the 1540s. He manufactured a mechanical flying beetle to feature in a stage production of the play ‘Pax’ by Aristophanes, but the beetle was so lifelike that he faced accusations that it was the work of the devil! Happily, however, although a charge of sorcery was brought against him, it was dismissed – otherwise, if he had been found guilty and executed in some typically gruesome manner, the world would have been deprived in subsequent years of the extraordinary talents of occultist, alchemist, and early scientist Dr John Dee.
By the 18th Century, the world was rather more accustomed to automata, but even this enlightened age was awestruck by the inventive genius of Jacques de Vaucanson. His ability to manufacture realistic automata was unparalleled in terms of complexity and diversity. Among his most astonishing creations were a statue of the Greek deity Pan, which stood up from its seat and played its panpipes, before bowing when applauded and then sitting back down; a mandolin player that simultaneously played its instrument, sang, and tapped in time with its foot; a frighteningly lifelike asp that hissed and struck at the breast of an actress playing Cleopatra when it was touched by her; and a ‘breathing’ piano player that faithfully imitated a breathing human pianist and also moved its head whilst playing.
Indeed, Vaucanson actually began work upon the production of a mechanical man complete with artificial heart and circulatory system that would fully replicate its living counterpart, but died before he could complete it. Had he done so, the world’s first android robot might have been created – Vaucanson’s Frankensteinian ability for replicating the living state in artificial form had, after all, already been demonstrated by virtue of his most famous creation, an animatronic duck.
Internal view of Vaucanson's extraordinary animatronic duck
Even by today’s technological standards, this invention would be an exceptional feat of engineering (in 1868, kaleidoscope inventor Sir David Brewster referred to it as “perhaps the most wonderful piece of mechanism ever made”), so more than 250 years ago it was little short of miraculous. Vaucanson stated that his intention when constructing this automaton was to reproduce a real duck’s internal organs and thence to simulate the functions of eating, drinking, and digestion – and judging from Prof. John Cohen’s description of this amazing entity in his enthralling book, Human Robots in Myth and Science (1966), he certainly succeeded:
"The duck stretched its neck to take grain from a hand and then swallowed and digested it. It drank, paddled and quacked, and imitated the gestures which a normal duck makes when swallowing precipitately. The food was digested by dissolution, not by trituration, [Cohen then quotes Vaucanson himself:] “the matter digested in the stomach being conducted by tubes, as in an animal by its bowels, into the anus, where there is a sphincter which permits it to be released”."
And just to demonstrate and confirm his claims beyond any shadow of doubt, Vaucanson constructed his duck as a transparent automaton, so that its internal organs and their functioning could be clearly seen by its fascinated observers.
Vaucanson’s inspiration for his duck may well have been the mechanical peacock constructed in 1688 by General de Gennes, which could eat and walk in a lifelike manner. Or perhaps he had heard of a truly extraordinary ‘miracle’ that had taken place one day in 1653. That was when a drunken visitor to the Caiaphas chapel at Sacro Monte in Piedmont, Italy, came upon a stone statue of St Peter repentant, which incorporated in its structure a large cockerel. Allegedly, the cockerel suddenly came to light, flapping its wings and turning round on its pedestal, before just as abruptly regaining its normal, rigid pose! Needless to say, the man’s inebriated state would have been sufficient to ensure that his testimony received short shrift – were it not for the fact that the cockerel’s unanticipated activity had also been witnessed at the same time by several other visitors to the chapel.
Had a genuine miracle truly taken place, or could it be that what had been observed was a beautifully-timed, elegantly-choreographed performance by a secretly-manufactured automaton? In view of Vaucanson’s incredibly complex mechanical duck and de Gennes’s peacock, the contemporary production of a wing-flapping, rotating cockerel would certainly not be beyond the realm of conceptual or practical possibility.
THE CHEATING CHESS PLAYER OF VON KEMPELEN
No discussion of living statues and human automata can ignore the most scandalous, controversial example of all – Von Kempelen’s miraculous chess player. During the late 1700s, a Hungarian civil servant called Wolfgang von Kempelen (later made a Baron) constructed a life-sized mechanical man, dressed as a turbaned Turk and seated behind a wooden cabinet, which was so greatly skilled in the art of playing chess that it attracted the interest of many European monarchs and toured the continent successfully for over a century, passing through several owners after its creator’s death in 1804.
However, the secret of the Turk is that it owed its chess-playing success not to any mechanical inventiveness on the part of Von Kempelen, but rather to the hidden presence of a human chess player cleverly concealed within the cabinet, who moved the chess pieces on the board above by means of a series of magnets. Sadly, Von Kempelen’s chess player was destroyed by a fire that broke out in 1854 at the Chinese Museum of Charles Willson Peale in Philadelphia, where it had been donated by its last owner, Dr John Kearsley Mitchell.
Revealing the secret of Von Kempelen's chess player
As proposed at the beginning of this Eclectarium blog post, there are many cases in which animate statues and other ‘living’ effigies unquestionably owe their miraculous state not to any supernatural source but to much more mundane (albeit undeniably inventive) human involvement. Not surprisingly, therefore, in his excellent book Looking for a Miracle (1993), mysteries debunker Joe Nickell claims that there is no credible evidence for the existence of any miraculous icons and effigies. Moreover, he backs this statement by noting that although there are numerous religious statues on display in museums and galleries, there is no report of any miraculous happenings with any of them, only with versions in churches and other places of worship. He concludes that this is because museums and galleries are controlled environments where the opportunity for hoaxing would be much less.
This is certainly true, but there is also an equally pertinent, alternative viewpoint to consider – could it be that it is the very act of worship that generates miracles, which is why they are never recorded in museums and galleries?
Perhaps, as succinctly voiced by St Augustine of Hippo back in the 5th Century:
"A miracle does not happen in contradiction to nature, but in contradiction to that which is known to us of nature."
Colossus of Memnon (Dr Karl Shuker)