10 Strange Things in the Smithsonian's Collection


Mechanized Monk

Here's another strange relic that ended up at the Smithsonian: a 16th-century, mechanized monk from Spain. An amazing specimen for its time, the monk stands 15 inches (38 centimeters) tall and is a self-acting automaton. It still works centuries later, though it's not frequently activated for preservation's sake. When wound up, the monk completes a series of movements. With a trancelike gaze upon his face and his mouth opening and closing as if he's chanting, the monk slowly paces out a pattern, raising his arms in various devotional gestures as he proceeds.

The legend behind the mechanical monk is this: In 1562, Don Carlos, the crown prince of Spain, was grievously injured from a fall, and it threw the monarchy -- and indeed, to some extent, the world -- into chaos. His father, King Philip II, was desperate to save his heir and authorized all manner of treatments. None worked, however, and it looked like the prince would die.

As a final attempt to save his son, King Philip prayed to God for a miracle -- and promised God a miracle of his own in return should the boy survive. The prince did indeed live (there's some lore here relating to a local monk's remains and how they helped heal the boy, but the facts are unclear), so King Philip hired a renowned clockmaker to construct the diminutive yet entrancing mechanical monk in the image of the one many believed to have healed the prince. No one knows for sure why he chose this as his way to offer payback to God, but many interesting theories abound among experts.

Up next, an item worn by someone who would have greatly appreciated this "bedtime story" had he heard it.