One of the great rabbinic scholars from the Geonic period, Rabbi Hai Gaon (939-1038 CE) wrote a responsum wherein he mentions as something "well-known" that that idolatrous temples would set up apparatuses that use science/technology in order to convince the uneducated of the efficacy of their cultic practices. He notes, for example, that they would commonly have medicinal remedies at these temples so that the sick might be healed by visiting. He compares this to the Talmudic legend of Gehazi using magnetics to give the illusion that Jeroboam's Golden Calves were suspended in the air. Is there any documentation of these or other examples of such use of scientific knowledge or technology in pagan temples?

The way I understand it, in contemporary terms, they might have hung something like an magic eye image on the wall of the temple and tell people that if they look closely, the deity will send them a secret message that is not plainly visible in the picture, and then when people finally see the hidden image, they would take that as proof of the efficacy or supernatural powers of the deity. Do we have any evidence of this sort of stuff going on in pagan temples?

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    What are "pagans" or "idolators" in this context? Anything that is not Jewish, anything that is not Jewish or Muslim, anything that is not from an Abrahamitic religion? Or yet something else? What time frame is he talking about? About his own time, about pre-islamic times, or about some other time?
    – Jan
    Dec 20, 2022 at 20:18
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    E.g. there is a clear association of Christian churches with elaborate mechanisms that measure time, but I am not sure if that is what you are looking for.
    – Jan
    Dec 20, 2022 at 20:22
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    @Jan: Not just Western European churches; but town halls also as in Prague: "Attached to the Old Town Hall is the most popular site in Prague- the astronomical clock. The clock was installed in 1410, making it the third oldest astronomical clock in the world and the oldest still in operation." Dec 21, 2022 at 1:30
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    @PieterGeerkens But the question seems to be about religious sites.
    – Jan
    Dec 21, 2022 at 7:03
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    "science/technology" are terms that, if used in the Middle Ages, had different meanings from our modern understanding. Please provide the original quote so we can evaluate what he might have been talking about.
    – ccprog
    Dec 21, 2022 at 9:13

1 Answer 1


Ancent Greeks and Romans sometimes created various automations for use in temples.

Here are quotes from the first source I found googling "Hellenistic automations".

Religion was a very important part of ancient life. Many of the inventions that were developed came to be used in religious processions and temples. From the sources, we know that the Greeks used self-operated machines for religious purposes

In religious and civic processions, which were a feature of life in cities such as Athens, automatons played a major role. In civic festivals, these machines were a type of entertainment technology. The god Nysa was part of a religious procession in Alexandria, and a figure of the god was carried in a cart and it would stand up and pour libations, which greatly impressed the crowds.

The automated snail of Demetrius of Phalerum is one of the earliest and most intriguing references to a processional automaton from the ancient world. Demetris was a tyrant and used the automaton to impress the population and make them accept his rule.

As for shrines and temples, it seems automatons were used to impress the faithful. There are many references to these technologies. They include references to figurines that could pour libations and also appeared to dance. Some accounts indicate that there was a shrine to Dionysus that had a number of automated figures. Several temples had trumpets that would sound when a door was opened and many shrines had automated water dispensers.

There is little record of the Romans developing automatons, however, they were great engineers. It seems that, like the Greeks, they used automatons as toys, entertainment and public spectacles

Mark Anthony had an automaton of Julius Caesar, made of wax, depicting Caesar rising from his deathbed and turning, slowly, to display his twenty-three bleeding wounds to the crowd. This started a riot and led to Brutus and the other killers of Caesar fleeing the city.

There are also reports that Roman temples used mechanical birds and figurines in a similar manner to the Greeks.

https://classicalwisdom.com/culture/history/automation-in-the-ancient-world/ .

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    See article on Hero of Alexandria.
    – justCal
    Dec 21, 2022 at 14:39
  • This is fascinating. Was it just the Greeks and Romans? Dec 21, 2022 at 20:36
  • Did any Christian writers in the first millennium mention this like R. Hai Gaon did? Dec 21, 2022 at 20:45
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    @Reb Chaim HaQoton In medieval times there continued to be some use of secular automatia. A throne hall in the Great Palace of Constantinople had a golden tree with golden birds that flapped their wings and sang, golden lions which beat their tails on the floor and roared, and a throne that rose up in the air. A palace or temple built by Khosrow II, KIng of KIngs of Iran, had a domed ceiling with images of the sky and heavenly bodies that revolved like the heavens, and made noise like thunder and dropped artifcial rain.
    – MAGolding
    Dec 23, 2022 at 7:43

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