You’ve probably heard this in reference to movies with absurdly poor writing. You know, you and your friends watch some dumb movie and afterwards someone calls out a plot event as a “deus ex machina.” Maybe they were the jerk who yelled it out in the middle of the movie theater, back when we still went to those. Hey, maybe the movie was so bad the rest of the theater was okay with it? Anyway, movie etiquette aside, where the heck did deus ex machina even come from?
What Does Deus Ex Machina Mean?
One of the nice things about this phrase is that you can go and use it after reading this post and you wouldn’t be considered too much of a weirdo. Deus ex machina as a plot device refers to some unexplainable thing that happens out of nowhere and fixes the entire plot’s issues. It would be if, at the end of your favorite movie, instead of the characters winning (or losing) the day, some unnamed god (Cthulhu, perhaps?) arrives and the forces of evil just… disappear. Then it is never addressed again.
Yeah, you can probably think of at least some version of the deus ex machina appearing in books you’ve read, movies you’ve watched, or even games you’ve played. Basically anything that’s based on a narrative can, intentionally or not, fall into the trappings of this narrative device.
Typically, you get a deus ex machina when the plot has written itself into a corner–the story has found a way to create a problem that was completely unsolvable within the rules of the narrative’s world. Because it breaks narrative rules, the use of this device is often confusing, solving the unsolvable out of nowhere.
That’s why when you see some egregious use of deus ex machina, you’ll probably yell “what?” really loudly. Maybe throw your hands up in the air or whatever.
Obviously, in contemporary narratives, the deus ex machina might not fix the entire plot. Maybe it just solves a strange, impossible seeming quirk of the plot so the story can continue moving forward. You might have thought about the Great Eagles in The Lord of Rings. Even Tolkien kinda thought that.
“Alright, but where’s it from?”
Amazing question, dear anonymous reader. If you’re down with your Laitn, you probably have figured out now that deus ex machina translates to “god from the machine.”
It’s actually this translation that gives us the origin of the deus ex machina. You see, the phrase “god from the machine” is originally Greek. If you know a thing or two about Greek culture, you know they had a lot of mythos and a very powerful pantheon of gods that basically governed their lives. Things that, at the time, were unexplainable to Greek society were seen as either blessings or the wrath of the gods.
So it makes sense that such unexplainable events would make their way into Greek narratives. And make their way into Greek narratives they did, beginning with Greek theater; typically the Greek tragedy. Sometimes the deus ex machina was a comedic device too, but we imagine that the Greeks wouldn’t want to make fun of their deities too much.
Regardless, deus ex machina is actually really, really literal in its application.
Plays back then did have access to some pretty neat technology. Namely pulleys and other neat little things to elevate performances. You would maybe call them simple machines. These could be used to elevate actors above the stage, in a way that would make them like gods compared to the rest of the characters. If you introduced a god with a simple machine, you might perhaps say that you got a “god from the machine.”
No seriously, that’s where it comes from. The gods, played by people on pulleys, would literally arrive to fix all the problems in a play’s narrative.
So the applications of the phrase haven’t really changed all that much.
Greek mythos is important to a lot of things, like their daily lives. Some of that has appeared in ours too. Look here.