A brazen head (or brass head or bronze head) was a legendary automaton that often appeared in literature, reputed to be able to answer any question. It was said to have been owned by medieval scholars who were believed to be wizards, or who were reputed to be able to answer any question. The device was always in the form of a man's head, and it could correctly answer any question asked of it. Mechanical variations appear in fictional literature: the head might be cast in brass or bronze, it could be mechanical or magical, and it could answer freely or it could be restricted to "yes" or "no" answers.
Among the people reputed to have a brazen head were:
- Roger Bacon (possibly tonsured, like a monk's)
- Robert Grosseteste
- Albertus Magnus
- Pope Sylvester II
- Arnaldus de Villa Nova
- Enrique de Villena
- Odin
Butler notes "[t]hese brass heads were so common that people began to believe that there was nothing supernatural about them" (p. 157).
- Bacon's Brazen Head is first alluded to in literature in Robert Greene's comedy drama Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay (c. 1589),
- In Miguel de Cervantes' Don Quixote(1605) Don Antonio Moreno has a brazen head, created for him by an unnamed Polish “pupil of the famous Escotillo of whom such marvellous stories are told” (chapter 62). It is later revealed to be fake. Note that the end notes for the Schevill and Bonilla edition of Don Quixote state that Escotillo is Michael Scot. The “Brazen Head” entry in Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable describes Escotillo as Italian, however.
- In Matthew J. Kirby's novel The Clockwork Three, Frederick finds a brazen head made by Albertus Magnus, in order for his clockwork man to work properly. It constantly repeats "Cur" or "why" in Latin at first, but after activated, it talks normally just as any other person would. It also would not understand anything with the word "why" in it.
- In Avram Davidson's fantasy novel The Phoenix and the Mirror, Vergil's house is known as The House of the Brazen Head from the talking head set in the wall next to the front door that guards the house, welcomes visitors, and announces them to the Magus.
- A brazen head plays an important role at the end of Robertson Davies' novel Fifth Business.
- In Daniel Defoe's A Journal of the Plague Year, it is stated that Friar Bacon's brazen-head was the usual sign of a fortune teller's dwellings.
- The main character in Philip K. Dick's 1967 novel The Zap Gun has a talking bronze head, which gives advice so cluttered with allusions to classical Greek and Latin authorities that it is of limited practical value.
- In Gregory Frost's Shadowbridge novels, the main character follows the guidance of a brazen head in the form of a brass pendant with the face of a lion.
- In the ending of the 1984 science fiction novel Neuromancer by William Gibson, one appears in the form of computer terminal, a richly decorated head made out of platinum and gems. Its voice is generated by "a beautiful arrangement of gears and miniature organ pipes... a perverse thing, because synth-voice chips cost next to nothing..."
- John Cowper Powys' novel The Brazen Head (1956)
- John Bellairs's The Face in the Frost mentions Roger Bacon's (rather deaf) brazen head as a resource to keep out maurading Danes.
- Nathaniel Hawthorne's "The Birth-Mark" mentions “the famous friar who created the prophetic Brazen Head”, implicitly Bacon. However, in his short story "The Artist and the Beautiful" from Mosses from an Old Manse, Hawthorne connects the Brazen Head or "Man of Brass" with both Albertus Magnus and Friar Bacon.
- A "bronze head" appears in John Masefield's The Box of Delights.
- In Norman Rush's Mating, the Brazen Head is one character's nickname for the American president Ronald Reagan. The Brazen Head is explained as "the hollow metal idols the Babylonian priestcraft got their flocks to worship, and which were equipped with speaking tubes leading down into the bowels of the temple whence the priests would make the idol speak."
- In The Dresden Files by Jim Butcher, modern day wizard Harry Dresden has a skull containing a spirit of intellect that offers advice and council, as a sort of magical lab assistant. It had been passed down through generations of wizards, and had accumulated untold amounts of knowledge. It is named Bob.
- In the TV series Da Vinci's Demons, Leonardo discovers a brazen head in the Andes mountains. In this reimagining, it is essentially an ornate phonograph.
- In the first Worlds of Ultima game, The Savage Empire, a brass head can be found and eventually reunited with its bejeweled body, to reassemble a functioning golem-like automaton that joins the player's party.
Additionally, there are bars named The Brazen Head in Brooklyn, New York; in Toronto, Canada; and pubs in Marylebone in London; in Glasgow; in Bloemfontein, South Africa; and in Napier, New Zealand. There is a Brazen Head Inn in Mingo in West Virginia and San Francisco.
- Butler, E. M.: The Myth of the Magus; Cambridge University Press, 1948
- McCorduck, Pamela (2004), Machines Who Think (2nd ed.), Natick, MA: A. K. Peters, Ltd., ISBN 1-56881-205-1; p. 12
- de Larra, Mariano José; El doncel de Don Enrique el Doliente, chapter 30; from Obras Completas, Barcelona, Montaner y Simón, 1886
- Cervantes, Miguel: Don Quixote de la Mancha; Rudolph Schevill and Adolfo Bonilla, editors, c. 1941; p. 282, line 26
- "The Brazen Android" by William Douglas O'Connor at Google Books
- Walt Whitman's Best Friend Wrote The First Robot Revolution Story Article about William Douglas O'Connor's "The Brazen Android", and link to audio file.
- Audiobook of "The Brazen Android" by William Douglas O'Connor.