Brazen head

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Roger Bacon's assistant Miles is confronted by the Brazen Head in a 1905 retelling of the story.

A brazen head, brass, or bronze head was a legendary automaton in the early modern period whose ownership was ascribed to late medieval scholars, such as Roger Bacon, who had developed a reputation as wizards. Made of brass or bronze, the male head was variously mechanical or magical. Like Odin's head of Mimir in Norse paganism,[n 1] it was reputed to be able to correctly answer any question put to it, although it was sometimes restricted to "yes" or "no" answers. In the seventeenth century, Thomas Browne considered them to be misunderstanding of the scholars' alchemical work,[1] while in modern times, Borlik argues that they came to serve as "a metonymy for the hubris of Renaissance intellectuals and artists".[2] Idries Shah devotes a chapter of his book The Sufis to providing an interpretation of this "head of wisdom" as well as the phrase "making a head", stating that at its source the head "is none other than the symbol of the [Sufic] completed man."[3]


Chaucer's The Squire's Tale depicts a moving brazen horse among the gifts from an Arab and an Indian king to Cambuscan, and compares it to the Trojan horse.[4] It is likely that these accounts had their origin in allegorical treatments of alchemy[1] and in early machines whose owners pretended to have given them life or speech.[4] They may also have found inspiration in the Greek legends concerning Talos, the brass guardian of Minoan Crete.[5]

The first account of a talking head used to give its owner answers to his questions appears in William of Malmesbury's c. 1125 History of the English Kings, in a passage where he collects various rumors surrounding the polymath Pope Sylvester II, who was said to have traveled to al-Andalus and stolen a tome of secret knowledge, whose owner he was only able to escape through demonic assistance.[6][7][n 2] He was said to have cast the head of a statue using his knowledge of astrology. It would not speak until spoken to, but then answered any yes/no question put to it.[6]

The Roman poet Virgil, in his medieval role as a sorcerer, was credited with creating his own oracular head in Gautier de Metz's c. 1245 Image of the World (French: Image du Monde).[2] The 1319 Renard le Contrefait retold the story and may have been the first to specify that the head was made of brass.[2]

The heads were then ascribed to several of the major figures of the 12th- and 13th-century Renaissance, who introduced Europe to Arabian editions of Aristotelian logic and science, as well as the Muslims' own work on mathematics, optics, and astronomy. These included Robert Grosseteste,[11] Albertus Magnus, and—most famously[12]Roger Bacon.[13] Grosseteste was said to have constructed "an hed of bras to... make it for to telle of suche thinges as befelle" over the course of seven years but then lost it through 30 seconds' neglect.[11] Its relics were supposedly held in a vault under Lincoln College.[14] Reports that Albertus Magnus had a head with a human voice and breath and "a certain reasoning process" bestowed by a cacodemon[15] eventually gave way to stories that he had built an entire automaton who was so overly talkative that his student Thomas Aquinas destroyed it for continually interrupting his train of thought.[4][14] Bacon, with the help of a Friar Bungy[14] or Bungay,[16] was said to have spent seven years building one of the devices in order to discover whether it would be possible to render Britain impregnable by ringing it with a wall of brass.[14][n 3] They only succeeded in their work once they compelled the assistance of a demon.[16] Like Grosseteste before them, however, they were said to have missed the decisive moment, either from forgetfulness[14] or exhaustion.[16] Having missed it, the head either collapsed or exploded[16] or was scrapped as useless.[14]

Other people reputed to have a brazen head include Boethius, Faust,[13] Arnaldus de Villa Nova,[19] Stephen of Tours,[20] and Enrique de Villena.[21] A brazen head also appears in the surviving accounts of the Carolingian Valentine and Nameless,[22] where it reveals the pair's royal origin in a necromancer's lair in Clarimond Castle;[4] despite the age of the base story, however, the earliest surviving copies date to the 15th century. It is thought to have been the basis for a lost Elizabethan drama.[2]


Hero of Alexandria wrote two books about steam, water, air-powered devices, the Pneumatica and Automata, that were known to medieval Islamic science and reappeared in Europe during the 12th- and 13th-century Renaissance.

The talking "Skull of Balsamo" was a mechanical illusion of the Viennese magician Joseffy. The skull was made of painted copper inset with real human teeth, answering questions by turning or clicking its lower jaw.[23]

In popular culture[edit]

An Elizabethan woodcut of Miles playing his tambour while Friars Bacon and Bungay sleep and their Brazen Head speaks: "Time is. Time was. Time is past."



Video games[edit]

  • In The Savage Empire, the first Worlds of Ultima game, a brass head can be found and eventually reunited with its bejeweled body, creating a golem-like automaton that joins the player's party.
  • A metal head, referred to as "the Hidden Knowledge", appears in Atlantis: The Lost Tales, described as being able to answer all questions. This head, however, appears to be made of steel or silver, rather than brass.

Role playing games[edit]

  • The Sample Dungeon written by J. Eric Holmes for the 1977 Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set rulebook contains a room where "set into the stone of the west wall is a bronze mask, about the size of a manhole cover. The eyes and mouth are shut". A riddle is inscribed, which if solved will cause the mask to open its eyes and speak, answering one question per day.[30]
  • The scenario The Auction for the Call of Cthulhu role playing game centers around the theft and recovery of a brazen head that is reputed to give answers to any question related to the Mythos.[31]


The Brazen Head pub in Dublin, established in 1198 and over 800 years old, is the second oldest pub in Ireland. There is also a Brazen Head pub in Limerick.

Additionally, there are bars named The Brazen Head in Brooklyn, New York; in Toronto, Ontario, Canada; and pubs in Omaha, Nebraska; 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.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Other speaking severed heads include the Celtic Bran the Blessed and the Greek Orpheus.
  2. ^ Malmesbury even notes that "probably some may regard all this as a fiction, because the vulgar are used to undermine the fame of scholars, saying that the man who excels in any admirable science, holds converse with the devil"[8] but professes himself willing to believe the stories about Sylvester because of the (spurious) accounts he had of the pope's "shameful end".[9] In fact, Sylvester's reputation as a sorcerer arose from the slanderous "Against Gregory VII and Urban II" (Latin: Contra Gregorium VII et Urbanum II), written c. 1085 by an imperial partisan—either St Benno of Osnabrück or Cardinal Benno of San Martino—anxious to discredit the independent papacy amid the Investiture Controversy.[10]
  3. ^ A project to construct a brass wall around Carmarthen had earlier been attributed to Merlin by the Welsh bards,[17] a story which reappeared in Spenser.[18]



  1. ^ a b Browne, Pseudo. Epid., Bk. VII, Ch. xvii, §7.
  2. ^ a b c d Borlik (2011), p. 130.
  3. ^ Shah, Idries (1977) [1964]. The Sufis. London, UK: Octagon Press. p. 225-227. ISBN 0-86304-020-9.
  4. ^ a b c d Warton (1778), p. 263–265.
  5. ^ Clegg (2003), p. 111.
  6. ^ a b Malmesbury, Chron., Bk. II., Ch. x., p. 181.
  7. ^ Truitt (2015), p. 71 ff.
  8. ^ Malmesbury, Chron., Bk. II., Ch. x., p. 174.
  9. ^ Malmesbury, Chron., Bk. II., Ch. x., p. 175.
  10. ^ Truitt (2015), p. 72–73.
  11. ^ a b Gower's c. 1390 Conf. Amant., Vol. II, Bk. IV, ll. 234–243: "The grete clerc Grossteste".
  12. ^ Truitt (2015), p. 69.
  13. ^ a b Butler, E. M.: The Myth of the Magus; Cambridge University Press, 1948
  14. ^ a b c d e f Worthies (1828), p. 48.
  15. ^ Delrio's 1599 Disquis. Magic., Vol. I, Ch. iv., p. 31. (in Latin)
  16. ^ a b c d Clegg (2003), p. 110.
  17. ^ Gerald, Itin. Cambr., Bk. I, Ch. vi.
  18. ^ Spenser, The Faerie Queene, III.3.9 & ff.
  19. ^ McCorduck, Pamela (2004), Machines Who Think (2nd ed.), Natick, MA: A. K. Peters, Ltd., ISBN 1-56881-205-1; p. 12
  20. ^ Breeze (1988).
  21. ^ de Larra, Mariano José; El doncel de Don Enrique el Doliente, chapter 30; from Obras Completas, Barcelona, Montaner y Simón, 1886
  22. ^ Val. & Ors., Ch. xxviii.
  23. ^ Abbott, David Phelps (1908), The Marvelous Creations of Joseffy, Open Court Publishing.
  24. ^ Cervantes, Don Quixote, Ch. lxii.
  25. ^ Cervantes, Miguel: Don Quixote de la Mancha; Rudolph Schevill and Adolfo Bonilla, editors, c. 1941; p. 282, line 26
  26. ^ Anders, Charlie Jane (18 May 2009), "Walt Whitman's Best Friend Wrote the First Robot Revolution Story", io9.
  27. ^ O'Conner, "The Brazen Android" (audiobook hosted at Internet Archive).
  28. ^ Baldwin, James (1905), "Friar Bacon and the Brazen Head", Thirty More Famous Stories Retold, Cincinnati: American Book Co..
  29. ^ Gibson, Neuromancer.
  30. ^ Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set rulebook (1977), page 43 (1st edition) or page 44 (2nd or 3rd edition)
  31. ^ McCall, Randy. (1983). "Chapter 1: The Auction". In Petersen, Sandy (ed.). The Asylum and Other Tales. Chaosium. pp. 8–21.


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