Alchemy: The Homunculus
Once, at a music festival, a frenzied and flustered man snuck-up behind me and started whispering about the homunculi that were gathered all around. Amidst a stream of hippies selling peace at half price, he begged me to see them for what they were. "Empty shells of being with no real eyes," he went on. Then, he spooked himself and ran.
Fortunately, at the time, I had no idea what he was talking about and brushed him off as another hippie tripping on too much acid. It wasn't until much later that I realized his words actually held meaning. Regardless of his paranoid attempts to warn me of the soulless zombies walking around, the homunculus was a real thing.
The word homunculus literally means "little man". Sometimes equated to the golem of ancient folklore, it is man's attempt at playing God. Like a miniature Frankenstein's monster, the homunculus was an attempt to make life from nothing, to use magic to animate the animalcules or building blocks of life itself. It was believed to be the highest purpose humans would achieve, making them gods.
Before modern science, one theory entitled preformationism held to the idea that human sperm (or eggs) held within it an animalcule, or preformed human. Development, in the womb, was thereby the process of enlarging this preformed human until it was large enough to be born. During their time, alchemists sought to enlarge this being in other ways, thus attempting to make the homunculus or little man.
Alchemy arose simultaneously in Europe, Egypt, and Asia from the 16th to 18th centuries. Alchemists were not scientists and did not work with the scientific method. They worked with real chemicals over an open fire, guided by magical texts and secret codes. The seven stages of alchemical transformation were believed to be calcination, dissolution, separation, conjunction, fermentation, distillation and coagulation.
Many believe the desire for alchemical research and experimentation arose from the Emerald Tablet of the Egyptian, Hellenistic god Hermes Trismegistus; sometimes referred to as Thoth, the Greek god of magic, knowledge, and wisdom, or Enoch the great ancestor of Noah. The Emerald Tablet has also been associated with Adam and Eve's third son, Seth, the God-ordained son who replaced Abel as mentioned in the Hebrew Tanakh.
The etymological meaning of alchemy comes from Old French alquemie and Latin alchymia, meaning art of transmuting metals. It was a branch of pure philosophy and protoscientific research based off of chemistry, occultism, and the crossing of empirical research with mysticism. The goals of alchemy were to transmute base metals like lead into "noble" metals such as gold. Other goals aimed at achieving artificial life, the perfection of the human body and soul, and an elixir of immortality, oftentimes referred to as "the philosopher's stone".
While alchemists would be considered modern day magicians, those who've studied their work have adopted a more indulgent perspective:
"Bent over boiling crucibles in their shadowy laboratories, squeezing bellows before transformative flames and poring over obscure formulas, some alchemists stumbled on techniques and reactions of great value to later chemists. It was experimentation by trial and error, historians say, but it led to new chemicals and healing elixirs and laid the foundations of procedures like separating and refining, distilling and fermenting" (Wilford).
Preformation of Animalcules
How to Make a Homunculus
The first known account of the production of the homunculus is said to be found in an undated Arabic work called the "Liber Vaccae" or "Book of the Cow", purportedly written by the Greek philosopher Plato himself. In it, the author lays out the recipe and instructions for creating a homunculus creature (Warning: Graphic details follow):
- magician semen
- sun stone (a mystical phosphorescent elixir)
- animal blood
- a cow or ewe
- green tutia (a sulphate of iron)
- a large glass or lead vessel
- Mix the semen and sun stone and inseminate the cow or ewe.
- Carefully plug the animal's vagina with the sun stone.
- Smear the animal's genitals with the blood of another animal.
- Place the artificially inseminated animal inside a dark house where the sun never shines.
- Feed the cow or ewe exclusively on the blood of another animal.
- Prepare a powder of ground sun stone, sulfur, magnet, and green tutia.
- Stir with the sap of a white willow.
"At this point, the text indicates that the cow or ewe should give birth and the resulting "unformed substance" should be placed in the powder you just prepared -- which will cause the amorphous blob to grow a human skin.
Next, keep the newborn homunculus in a large glass or lead container for three days. The creature will become crazy hungry in this time, so you'll then feed it the blood of its decapitated mother for seven days. In this time, it should develop into a full-grown tiny, grotesque humanoid with some fragment of a human soul" (Lamb).
Why Create a Homunculus?
Creating a homunculus would be like animating Frankenstein's monster, essentially creating life from nothing. It is an achievement that humans and scientists have sought after since the dawn of time. It would mean that man has unlocked the hidden code of creation, that man has become a god. While becoming a god in the name of science may entice some, there are several other reasons an alchemist might create a homunculus.
1. One reason an alchemist would create a homunculus is because once the creature is born, it can be used to make the full moon appear on the last day of the month.
2. A homunculus has the power to allow a person to shape-shift into a cow, a sheep, or an ape.
3. If shape-shifting isn't your thing, a homunculus can be used to allow the alchemist to walk on water.
4. A homunculus can also be used to enable a person to see demons and spirits, and even converse with them.
5. Some believe a homunculus can be used to know things that are happening far away, like a sort of telepathy or low level omniscience.
6. A homunculus could be used to summon rain at unreasonable times, thus controlling a small aspect of nature and the weather.
7. Finally, a homunculus can be used to produce extremely poisonous snakes.
Transition to Science
Regardless of the reasons for creating the homunculus, the process is pretty gruesome and inhumane. As the scientific method underwent a modern revolution, the practice of alchemy slowly fell into the shadows. While some brilliant minds, such as Sir Isaac Newton, find alchemy's mysteries intriguing, the entire practice eventually had too much voodoo, magic, or hocus-pocus to held any real merit for the future centuries and technologies of the world.
While alchemy is typically thought of as a metaphysics in its best regard, the term homunculus hasn't completely fallen to the wayside. From a modern scientific context, the homunculus has allowed for physical representation of the brain and its connection to various sensory and motor nerve endings. The cortical homunculus is an anatomical map of the devisions of the body. It is a neuroscientific map or representation of what our body would look like if our body parts grew in proportion to how much we sense with them. While grotesque, it the model does allow for a unique view of the human brain in relation to human interactions with the physical world.
Crash Course: Homunculus
© 2017 Luke Holm