Deus ex machina
A deus ex machina is a plot device
Plot device
A plot device is an object or character in a story whose sole purpose is to advance the plot of the story, or alternatively to overcome some difficulty in the plot....

 whereby a seemingly inextricable problem is suddenly and abruptly solved with the contrived and unexpected intervention of some new event, character, ability, or object.

Linguistic considerations

The Latin phrase deus ex machina comes to English usage from Horace
Quintus Horatius Flaccus , known in the English-speaking world as Horace, was the leading Roman lyric poet during the time of Augustus.-Life:...

's Ars Poetica
Ars Poetica
Ars Poetica is a term meaning "The Art of Poetry" or "On the Nature of Poetry". Early examples of Ars Poetica by Aristotle and Horace have survived and have since spawned many other poems that bear the same name...

where he instructs poets that they must never resort to a god from the machine to solve their plots. He refers to the conventions of Greek
Ancient Greece
Ancient Greece is a civilization belonging to a period of Greek history that lasted from the Archaic period of the 8th to 6th centuries BC to the end of antiquity. Immediately following this period was the beginning of the Early Middle Ages and the Byzantine era. Included in Ancient Greece is the...

 tragedy, where a crane (mekhane
A mechane or machine was a crane used in Greek theatre, especially in the fifth and fourth centuries BC.Made of wooden beams and pulley systems, the device was used to lift an actor into the air, usually representing flight. This stage machine was particularly used to bring gods onto the stage...

) was used to lower actors playing gods onto the stage. The machine referred to in the phrase could be either the crane employed in the task, a calque
In linguistics, a calque or loan translation is a word or phrase borrowed from another language by literal, word-for-word or root-for-root translation.-Calque:...

 from the Greek
Greek language
Greek is an independent branch of the Indo-European family of languages. Native to the southern Balkans, it has the longest documented history of any Indo-European language, spanning 34 centuries of written records. Its writing system has been the Greek alphabet for the majority of its history;...

 "god from the machine" ("," apò mēkhanḗs theós), or the riser that brought a god up from a trap door. The idea is that the device of said god is entirely artificial or conceived by man.

Ancient uses

The Greek tragedian
Tragedy is a form of art based on human suffering that offers its audience pleasure. While most cultures have developed forms that provoke this paradoxical response, tragedy refers to a specific tradition of drama that has played a unique and important role historically in the self-definition of...

Euripides was one of the three great tragedians of classical Athens, the other two being Aeschylus and Sophocles. Some ancient scholars attributed ninety-five plays to him but according to the Suda it was ninety-two at most...

 is often criticized for his frequent use of the deus ex machina. More than half of Euripides's extant tragedies employ a deus ex machina in their resolution and some critics go so far as to claim that Euripides invented the deus ex machina, although Æschylus employed a similar device in his 'Eumenides'. In Euripides' play "Alcestis
Alcestis (play)
Alcestis is an Athenian tragedy by the ancient Greek playwright Euripides. It was first produced at the City Dionysia festival in 438 BCE. Euripides presented it as the final part of a tetralogy of unconnected plays in the competition of tragedies, for which he won second prize; this arrangement...

", the eponymous heroine agrees to give up her own life in order to spare the life of her husband, Admetus. At the end Heracles
Heracles ,born Alcaeus or Alcides , was a divine hero in Greek mythology, the son of Zeus and Alcmene, foster son of Amphitryon and great-grandson of Perseus...

 shows up and seizes Alcestis from Death
In Greek mythology, Thanatos was the daemon personification of death. He was a minor figure in Greek mythology, often referred to but rarely appearing in person...

, restoring her to life and to Admetus. A more frequently cited example is Euripides' "Medea
Medea (play)
Medea is an ancient Greek tragedy written by Euripides, based upon the myth of Jason and Medea and first produced in 431 BC. The plot centers on the barbarian protagonist as she finds her position in the Greek world threatened, and the revenge she takes against her husband Jason who has betrayed...

" in which the deus ex machina is used to convey Medea
Medea is a woman in Greek mythology. She was the daughter of King Aeëtes of Colchis, niece of Circe, granddaughter of the sun god Helios, and later wife to the hero Jason, with whom she had two children, Mermeros and Pheres. In Euripides's play Medea, Jason leaves Medea when Creon, king of...

, who has just committed murder and infanticide
Infanticide or infant homicide is the killing of a human infant. Neonaticide, a killing within 24 hours of a baby's birth, is most commonly done by the mother.In many past societies, certain forms of infanticide were considered permissible...

, away from her husband Jason to the safety and civilization of Athens. In Aristophanes' play "Thesmophoriazusae
Thesmophoriazusae is one of eleven surviving plays by the master of Old Comedy, the Athenian playwright Aristophanes. It was first produced in 411 BC, probably at the City Dionysia...

" the playwright parodies Euripides' frequent use of the crane by making Euripides himself a character in the play and bringing him on stage by way of the mekhane.

Aristotle was a Greek philosopher and polymath, a student of Plato and teacher of Alexander the Great. His writings cover many subjects, including physics, metaphysics, poetry, theater, music, logic, rhetoric, linguistics, politics, government, ethics, biology, and zoology...

 criticized the device in his "Poetics", where he argued that the resolution of a plot must arise internally, following from previous action of the play:
Aristotle praised Euripides, however, for generally ending his plays with bad fortune, which he viewed as correct in tragedy, and somewhat excused the intervention of a deity by suggesting that "astonishment" should be sought in tragic drama:


During the politically turbulent 17th and 18th Centuries, the deus ex machina was sometimes used to make a controversial thesis more palatable to the powers of the day. For example, in the final scene of Molière's
Jean-Baptiste Poquelin, known by his stage name Molière, was a French playwright and actor who is considered to be one of the greatest masters of comedy in Western literature...

 play Tartuffe
Tartuffe is a comedy by Molière. It is one of his most famous plays.-History:Molière wrote Tartuffe in 1664...

, the heros are saved from a terrible fate by an agent of the compassionate, all-seeing king -- the same king that held Molière's career and livelihood in his hands.

The novelist Andrew Foster Altschul
Andrew Foster Altschul
Andrew Foster Altschul is an American fiction writer and political commentator. He is the author of the novels Deus Ex Machina and Lady Lazarus, and his short fiction and essays have been published in Esquire, McSweeney's, Fence, and One Story...

 satirized reality television in a 2011 novel titled Deus Ex Machina.

The classic novel Lord of the Flies
Lord of the Flies
Lord of the Flies is a novel by Nobel Prize-winning author William Golding about a group of British boys stuck on a deserted island who try to govern themselves, with disastrous results...

uses a deus ex machina in its conclusion when the savage children are rescued by a passing navy man. The author William Golding
William Golding
Sir William Gerald Golding was a British novelist, poet, playwright and Nobel Prize for Literature laureate, best known for his novel Lord of the Flies...

 uses this technique to convey to the audience the terrible fate which would have afflicted the children (in particular Ralph) if the navy man had not arrived at that moment.

The plot of the book and 2005 film adaptation War of the Worlds
War of the Worlds (2005 film)
War of the Worlds is a 2005 American science fiction film adaptation of H. G. Wells' novel of the same name, directed by Steven Spielberg and written by Josh Friedman and David Koepp. It is one of three film adaptations of War of the Worlds released that year, alongside The Asylum's version and...

is succinctly resolved with terrestrial microorganisms that kill the otherwise unconquerable invaders.

Comic book writer Matt Fraction
Matt Fraction
Matt Fritchman, better known by the pen name Matt Fraction, is an Eisner Award-winning American comic book writer, known for his work as the writer of The Invincible Iron Man, The Immortal Iron Fist and Uncanny X-Men for Marvel Comics and Casanova for Image Comics.-Career:Fraction wrote two...

 was criticized for employing Franklin Richards
Franklin Richards
Franklin Richards is a fictional comic book character appearing in books published by Marvel Comics, usually as a supporting character in Fantastic Four.Franklin is an Omega-Level mutant with vast psionic and reality-manipulating powers...

' massive but ill defined powers as a deus ex machina device in the 2011 book Fear Itself
Fear Itself (comics)
"Fear Itself" is a 2011 crossover comic book storyline published by Marvel Comics, consisting of a seven-issue, eponymous miniseries written by Matt Fraction and illustrated by Stuart Immonen, Wade Von Grawbadger, and Laura Martin, a prologue book by writer Ed Brubaker and artist Scott Eaton, and...



Sometimes, the unlikeliness of the deus ex machina plot device is employed deliberately. For example, a scene in The Life of Brian involves Brian, who lives in Judea in 33AD, being "rescued" from a high fall by a passing space ship.

Likewise, a deus ex machina was used as a pivotal plot device in the film Adaptation. When the main character seeks screen writing advice from a veteran of the film industry, he advises, "Find an ending, but don't cheat, and don't you dare bring in a deus ex machina." A deus ex machina is later employed in the film in the form of an alligator attack that saves the main character's life.

Director Richard Kelly put the phrase in the film Donnie Darko
Donnie Darko
Donnie Darko is a 2001 American psychological thriller film written and directed by Richard Kelly and starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Drew Barrymore, Patrick Swayze, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Noah Wyle, Jena Malone, and Mary McDonnell...

to show that there was some kind of advanced machine someplace in the future at work, manipulating people and sending signals to Donnie in Middlesex. When Donnie mentions this in the film he comes to realize that there really is a Deus Ex Machina. Donnie mutters, "Deus Ex Machina, our savior" as a car driven by Frank stops nearby, which startles his attackers and causes them to flee. The car acts as the deus ex machina; that is, the unexpected or improbable device that is introduced to resolve a problem, thus it is Donnie's "savior."

Deus Ex Machina is the name of the collective mask of androids at the end of Matrix Revolutions that makes a pact with Neo. If he defeats Agent Smith, then there will be peace in Zion. It is unclear whether or not the Wachowski Brothers intended the name to be ironic or if they merely thought that would be a fitting name for the "god" of the machines.

As a film about Ancient Greece, the 2011 film Immortals employed the plot device a number of times. The first time was when Teseus found the Bow. Another time was when Hermes came down from Olympus to save the characters (much like the deus ex machina in Ancient Greece).


In the Japanese manga and anime "Mirai Nikki", Deus ex machina is the name of the god of time that has absolute control over humans. He bestows 12 "mirai nikki"'s, or future diaries in the form of a storage medium not limited only to a written diary, including mediums such as mobile phones, audio recorders, and even picture books depending on the age, personality and/or disabilities which may limit them from using an ordinary diary. In each of the "diaries" of the twelve people, he chooses so that they contain diary entries describing future events. Each of the diaries have a unique name and ability, limiting or expanding the user's knowledge of the future. The twelve holders use these diaries to fight each other to the death in order to succeed Deus ex machina as supreme god of the universe and in Hellsing Ultimate (an OVA based on the manga Hellsing) one of the German machines have "Deus ex machina" written on the side.

In the CGI animated "Christmas
Christmas or Christmas Day is an annual holiday generally celebrated on December 25 by billions of people around the world. It is a Christian feast that commemorates the birth of Jesus Christ, liturgically closing the Advent season and initiating the season of Christmastide, which lasts twelve days...

" "television special
Television special
A television special is a television program which interrupts or temporarily replaces programming normally scheduled for a given time slot. Sometimes, however, the term is given to a telecast of a theatrical film, such as The Wizard of Oz or The Ten Commandments, which is not part of a regular...

", "Olive, the Other Reindeer
Olive, the Other Reindeer
Olive, the Other Reindeer is a CGI animated Christmas television special written by Steve Young, and directed by Oscar Moore. The feature was produced by Matt Groening's The Curiosity Company and animated by DNA Productions...

", written by "Steve Young
Steve Young (writer)
Steve Young is a television writer for The Late Show with David Letterman and Late Night with David Letterman. He is a Harvard University graduate and former writer for the Harvard Lampoon. He also wrote The Simpsons season eight episode "Hurricane Neddy". Steve Young adapted the holiday book...

", when Olive is locked in the back of the mail carrier's truck, she finds a package addressed to her from "Deus Ex Machina." The package is a metal file she uses to escape.

Video games

The Deus Ex
Deus Ex
Deus Ex is an action role-playing game developed by Ion Storm Inc. and published by Eidos Interactive in 2000, which combines gameplay elements of first-person shooters with those of role-playing video games...

series video games' titles refer to the main character who, controlled by the player, is the miraculous solution.


A deus ex machina is generally undesirable in writing and often implies a lack of creativity on the part of the author. The reasons for this are that it does not pay due regard to the story's internal logic and is often so unlikely that it challenges suspension of disbelief
Suspension of disbelief
Suspension of disbelief or "willing suspension of disbelief" is a formula for justifying the use of fantastic or non-realistic elements in literary works of fiction...

, allowing the author to conclude the story with an unlikely, though perhaps more palatable, ending.

The deus ex machina is often considered to be a poor storytelling technique by critics because it undermines the story's internal logic, although it is sometimes employed deliberately for this reason. Following Aristotle, Renaissance critics continued to view the deus ex machina as an inept plot device, although it continued to be employed by Renaissance dramatists; Shakespeare used the device in As You Like It
As You Like It
As You Like It is a pastoral comedy by William Shakespeare believed to have been written in 1599 or early 1600 and first published in the folio of 1623. The play's first performance is uncertain, though a performance at Wilton House in 1603 has been suggested as a possibility...

, Pericles, Prince of Tyre
Pericles, Prince of Tyre
Pericles, Prince of Tyre is a Jacobean play written at least in part by William Shakespeare and included in modern editions of his collected works despite questions over its authorship, as it was not included in the First Folio...

, and The Winter's Tale
The Winter's Tale
The Winter's Tale is a play by William Shakespeare, originally published in the First Folio of 1623. Although it was grouped among the comedies, some modern editors have relabelled the play as one of Shakespeare's late romances. Some critics, among them W. W...


Towards the end of the 19th century, Friedrich Nietzsche
Friedrich Nietzsche
Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche was a 19th-century German philosopher, poet, composer and classical philologist...

 criticized Euripides
Euripides was one of the three great tragedians of classical Athens, the other two being Aeschylus and Sophocles. Some ancient scholars attributed ninety-five plays to him but according to the Suda it was ninety-two at most...

 for making tragedy an optimistic genre
Genre , Greek: genos, γένος) is the term for any category of literature or other forms of art or culture, e.g. music, and in general, any type of discourse, whether written or spoken, audial or visual, based on some set of stylistic criteria. Genres are formed by conventions that change over time...

 via use of the device and was highly skeptical of the "Greek cheerfulness", prompting what he viewed as the plays' "blissful delight in life." The deus ex machina, as Nietzsche saw it, was symptomatic of Socratic
Socrates was a classical Greek Athenian philosopher. Credited as one of the founders of Western philosophy, he is an enigmatic figure known chiefly through the accounts of later classical writers, especially the writings of his students Plato and Xenophon, and the plays of his contemporary ...

 culture that valued knowledge over Dionysiac
Apollonian and Dionysian
The Apollonian and Dionysian is a philosophical and literary concept, or dichotomy, based on certain features of ancient Greek mythology. Several Western philosophical and literary figures have invoked this dichotomy in critical and creative works....

 music and ultimately caused the death of tragedy:

Nietzsche argues that the deus ex machina creates a false sense of consolation that ought not to be sought in phenomena and this denigration of the plot device has prevailed in critical opinion. Some 20th-century revisionist criticism suggests that the deus ex machina cannot be viewed in these simplified terms and argues rather that the device allows mortals to "probe" their relationship with the divine. Rush Rehm in particular cites examples of Greek tragedy in which the deus ex machina serves to complicate the lives and attitudes of characters confronted by the deity whilst simultaneously bringing the drama home to its audience.

External links

  • Ex Machina at TV Tropes
    TV Tropes
    TV Tropes is a wiki which collects and expands on various conventions and devices found within creative works. Since its establishment in 2004, the site has gone from covering only television and film tropes to also covering those in a number of other media such as literature, comics, video-games,...

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