A group of us were chatting over coffee the other day when the topic of superheroes came up. If you were an ancient Greek or Roman god then it was safe to assume that special powers went with the job. For example, the ability to shape-change was key to many of Zeus’ amorous conquests. Think of the story of Europa and the Bull or Leda and the Swan.
This reminded me of the Monty Python sketch about a society of Supermen and Superwomen. Everyone walked around wearing bright blue and red clothing with capes, a large ‘S’ over the chest, their underwear over the top of their leggings, and so on. One of them was riding a bike and had had an accident. A group of Supermen and Superwomen looked on apparently helpless to fix it, helpless that is until one of the Supermen changed into his alter ego, with workmen’s overalls underneath his costume – Bicycle Repair Man. Once the bike had been fixed, much to the relief of a crowd of Supermen and Superwomen, Bicycle Repair Man went on his way, followed by shouts of “Whatever would we do without you Bicycle Repair Man!”
You can see the sketch here;
This is by way of a rather lengthy and rambling introduction to the fact that things we take for granted such as skills and technology would be regarded almost as divine or miraculous in ancient societies, making us seem like divine beings to a Roman visitor. Smartphone technology (as in the case of our Ancient Worlds mobile web app), allows us to consult a digital oracle for deeper insights, instantly accessing wisdoms and images at speeds that put Hermes to shame. However, even with this ‘fire’ of knowledge passed to us not by Prometheus but through wi-fi, servers and glass faced devices we are gods with a small ‘g’…
Because the moment something simple failed, like having a broken pipe for instance, we would be in the position of the hapless Supermen and Superwomen in the sketch, powerless to do anything, waiting for a latter-day Roman ‘Aqueduct Repair Man’ to come along. The technology may have superhuman powers but its efficacy may be interrupted by all too human frailty or the banality of everyday life.
Which reminds me of the scene in Woody Allen’s film Mighty Aphrodite (1995) where the chorus tries to call Zeus to intervene and sort out the mess the characters have got themselves into, they get the pre-recorded message: ‘I’m sorry Zeus isn’t in right now. Please leave your name and number…’
Seriously, however, the lesson is not to underestimate the ability of people in the past to carry out what we might regard as quite complex procedures. I seem to recall that a Roman dictator had an operation on his unsightly varicose veins, ancient metal workers were capable of making sophisticated devices such as the Antikythera mechanism and there was even an ancient Greek steam engine which was treated more like a curiosity or a party trick. And they clearly knew enough about human anatomy to create accurate models of the womb and so on.