From the ancient Greek neurospaston, neurospasta in the plural, formed of neuros, “nerve, wire, thread” and spaô, “to pull, to move”.
The term, in Modern Greek, also indicates a creature with ungainly movements as well as an articulated figure that is manipulated by a puppeteer. First, however, one must distinguish between the neurospasta and the automata, a word that describes each of the “animated” figures but which is also applied to different realities. No neurospaston was ever discovered in ancient Greece because these objects were made of wood, and therefore perishable; nor is there any trace of these objects in any mural or painted pottery which are generally eloquent witnesses to daily life in ancient times.
They are referred to in books, sometimes in detail, often more by innuendo or allegory. Xenophon’s reference to a “representation” of a neurospasta in The Symposium (a copy of Plato’s famous Banquet written c.381 BCE) leaves us wondering about their “nature”. A travelling acrobat, known as the Syracusan, opens the banquet by presenting a dance by an acrobatic dancer and a young boy. The beautifully deft movements of the dancers enchant the audience although the Syracusan appears to move them like puppets (IV § 55). The banquet ends with a pantomime with, on Socrates’ advice, movements much closer to reality.
It is, however, well known that tumblers (thaumatopoioi), tight rope walkers (kontopéktès), trapezists (neurobatai or schoinobatai), jugglers, clowns, mime artists and, in all probability, puppeteers, performed in public places, during banquets and even in the theatres. (Jean-Charles Moretti, Théâtre et société dans la Grèce antique Theatre and Society in Ancient Greece, LGF, 2001). In this regard, the reference made by Athenaeus of Naucratis on the subject is much more detailed because in the Deipnosophistes (The Banquet of the Sophists, 222-235 CE), there is mention of a neuropaste called Potheinos who performed on “the same stage where Euripides himself presented his noble tragedies” (Book I § 35). Then, in his “Allegory of the Cave”, Plato explained that the forms of the world that we say are real, are akin to the shadows projected by a light at the end of a cave and produced by small characters passing on a “low wall much like the partitions that puppeteers put up in front of themselves and over which they show their marvels” (The Republic, Book VII, 514 b).
In conclusion, the following extract from De Mundo (Book VI, 398 b), a pseudo-Aristotelian treatise, should be recalled: “And, like the puppeteers who, by pulling a string move the neck or the hands of their animated dolls, or the shoulder or even an eye and even all the parts together in a sort of harmony, divine nature too, by means of a simple movement of that which is closest to it, transmits its power to the beings that will come later and from there to those who are farther away until it has penetrated everything.”
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- Sike, Yvonne de. Les masques, rites et symboles en Europe [Masks, Rituals and Symbols in Europe]. Paris: La Martinière, 1998.
- Sike, Yvonne de. Les poupées. Une histoire millénaire [Puppets. A Millennial History]. Paris: La Martinière, 1998.