Homunculus: The Alchemical Creation of Little People with Great Powers
Although science has made much progress in the last century, there are still numerous ethical issues that need to be addressed by the scientific community. One such issue is that of the creation of artificial life. For some, this is the logical progress of scientific knowledge; for others, this is a realm that should not be intruded by human beings. Concepts relating to the creation of artificial life such as genetic engineering and human cloning are relatively modern scientific ideas. In the past, however, it was in the field of alchemy that Medieval scientists sought to artificially create life. One of the beings that alchemists were purportedly able to create was the homunculus, meaning ‘little man’ in Latin.
The homunculus is first referred to in alchemical writings of the 16th century. It is likely, however, that this concept is older than these writings. The idea that miniature fully-formed people can be created has been traced to the early Middle Ages (400 to 1000 AD), and is partly based on the Aristotelian belief that the sperm is greater than the ovum in its contribution to the production of offspring.
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Alchemical illustration of a Homunculus in a vial (new-moster.wikia.com)
The first known account of the production of the homunculus is said to be found in an undated Arabic work called the Book of the Cow, purportedly written by the Greek philosopher Plato himself. The materials required for the creation of the homunculus include human semen, a cow or ewe and animal blood, whilst the process includes the artificial insemination of the cow / ewe, smearing the inseminated animal’s genitals with the blood of another animal, and feeding it exclusively on the blood of another animal. The pregnant animal would eventually give birth to an unformed substance, which would then be places in a powder made of ground sunstone (a mystical phosphorescent elixir), sulphur, magnet, green tutia (a sulphate of iron) and the sap of a white willow. When the blob starts growing human skin, it would be required to be placed in a large glass or lead container for three days. After that, it has to be fed with the blood of its decapitated mother for seven days before becoming a fully-formed homunculus.
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A tiny person inside a sperm as drawn by N. Hartsoecker in 1695 (public domain)
In the Book of the Cow, there are two similar procedures for producing the homunculus. Instead of a cow / ewe, a female monkey is used in one, and an unidentified female animal in another. Additionally, different ingredients are used for the powder, and the incubation period of the blob in the vessel is extended to 40 days. All three types of homunculus have their own specific functions.
The first type of homunculus may be used to make the full moon appear on the last day of the month, allow a person to take the form of a cow, a sheep or even an ape, allow one to walk on water and know things that are happening far away. The second type of homunculus can be used to enable a person to see demons and spirits, as well as to converse with them, whilst the last type of homunculus can be used to summon rain at unseasonable times and produce extremely poisonous snakes.
A 19th century engraving of Goethe’s Faust and a homunculus (public domain)
The 16th century alchemist, Philip von Hohenheim, known also as Paracelsus, provides a different recipe for creating the homunculus in his work, De Natura Rerum. This recipe uses a horse as the surrogate mother of the homunculus, and the semen of a man is left inside the animal’s womb to putrefy for forty days, before a little man is born. Rather than using the homunculus to perform magical feats, Paracelsus instructs that the homunculus ought to be “educated with the greatest care and zeal, until it grows up and begins to display intelligence.” Paracelsus also claims that the procedure for making the homunculus is one of the greatest secrets revealed by God to mortals, perhaps suggesting that the creation of artificial life is divine wisdom that may be used by human beings.
Scientists today dismiss the work prescribed by the Book of the Cow and Paracelsus’ De Natura Rerum as mere fantasy, while others suggest the writing was intended to be taken symbolically, rather than literally, and contains hidden messages regarding the process of spiritual ascension. Nevertheless, the goal of producing the homunculus, i.e. the creation of artificial life, is a quest that some are still pursuing today.
Featured image: Homunculus in the Vial. Illustration of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Faust. Part Two, Act II, laboratory, 1899 (public domain)
Campbell, M. B., 2010. Artificial Men: Alchemy, Transubstantiation, and the Homunculus. [Online]
Available at: http://arcade.stanford.edu/rofl/artificial-men-alchemy-transubstantiation-and-homunculus
Goodrick-Clarke, N., 1999. Paracelsus: Essential Readings. Berkeley: North Atlantic Books.
Lachman, G., 2006. Homuncli, Golems, and Artificial Life. [Online]
Available at: https://www.theosophical.org/publications/1253
Lamb, R., 2011. How to Make a Homunculus and Other Horrors. [Online]
van der Lugt, M., 2009. "Abominable Mixtures": The 'Liber Vaccae' in the Medieval West, or the Dangers and Attractions of Natural Magic. Traditio, Volume 64, pp. 229-277.