Humans like to play God. We tinker with nature, mold it, manipulate it, and abuse it. We like to think that we have power over the natural world and that we can use it to our own ends, and one pursuit of recent times has been the quest to create life out of thin air. Just as Frankenstein did in literature, we are coming upon an age in which cloning and other such experiments are allowing us to invoke life from nothingness, once the realm of what only nature itself could do. This is not even a pursuit unique to modern science and technology, and for hundreds of years human beings have been caught up with this obsession with meddling with the laws of life and death, and perhaps even being successful.
Throughout medieval times a popular mystical and pseudo-scientific pursuit was alchemy, or the transmutation of various common materials into something else, for example base base metals being transformed into precious metals such as gold. One little known practice within alchemy was the creation of new life in the form of tiny humanoid creatures collectively referred to as homunculi, with "homunculus" meaning “Little Man” in Latin. This new artificial life was most often said to be embodied in diminutive humanoids, and the practice appears in alchemical texts throughout the world. These tiny beings were most famously written of in the writings of the alchemist Theophrastus Paracelsus, also known as Philippus von Hohenheim (1493–1541), but have also appeared in numerous other such tomes, such as the books of Islamic alchemy written by the alchemist chemist, astronomer, astrologer and philosopher Jābir ibn Hayyān, as well as in the 16th century manuscript Tacuinum Sanitatis, and a text called the Chymical Wedding of Christian Rosenkreutz (1616), among others.
The methods of creating homunculi are varied, yet all with the same end purpose of generating artificial life. One of the most well-known recipes for making a homunculi appeared in the work of Paracelsus, who strongly believed that human semen was a key component in the process, thinking that sperm held a certain power above and beyond the ovum and was essential to creating new life. His main method of creating homunculi was to use a combination of semen and blood to make a quite frankly unholy sounding little monstrosity. Paracelsus would write of his process:
Let the semen of a man putrefy by itself in a sealed cucurbite [glass vessel] with the highest putrefaction of the venter equinus [horse manure] for 40 days, or until it begins at last to live, move, and be agitated, which can easily be seen. After this time it will be in some degree like a human being, but, nevertheless, transparent and without body. If now, after this, it be every day nourished and fed cautiously and prudently with the arcanum of human blood, and kept for 40 weeks in the perpetual and equal heat of a venter equinus, it becomes, thenceforth, a true and living infant, having all the members of a child that is born from a woman, but much smaller. This we call a homunculus; and it should be afterwards educated with the greatest care and zeal, until it grows up and begins to display intelligence.
Got all that? Another method of creating homunculi was written of in the medieval text called Liber Vaccae, or “Book of the cows,” and in this case the arcane recipe calls for using an actual cow as a sort of surrogate mother for the homunculi. Again semen is key, and it is to be mixed with a sun stone before artificially inseminating the cow with it and then the vagina plugged up with the stone, after which the animal is only to be fed the blood of another animal and kept completely out of sunlight. Not even a single ray is to hit the animal at this point or it will undo the spell.
If all goes according to plan, the cow will become pregnant and give birth to a shapeless, writhing mass, which is to be placed within a mixture of ground sun stone, sulfur, magnet, green tutia, and the the sap of a white willow in a large lead or glass bowl. The amorphous blob should then begin to take on a humanoid shape and congeal into a recognizable form, which is then to be kept in the lead container for several days and fed a diet of human blood. If you are successful, this newborn homunculi will not only be a great conversation starter at parties, but can also impart a wide range of powers, of which the text explains:
If it (the homunculus) is placed on a white cloth, with a mirror in its hands, and suffumigated with a mixture of human blood and other ingredients, the moon will appear to be full on the last day of the month. If it is decapitated, and its blood is given to a man to drink, the man will assume the form of a bovine or a sheep; but if he is anointed with it, he will have the form of an ape. If the homunculus is fed for forty days in a dark house, on a diet of blood and milk, and then its guts are extracted from its belly and rubbed onto someone's hands and feet, he may walk on water or travel around the world in the winking of an eye. Kept alive for a year and then placed in a bath of milk and rainwater, it will tell things that happen far away.
There is yet another recipe written of by a professor of Giessan University in Germany by the name of Dr David Christianus in the 18th century. The process involved an egg that was to be obtained from a black hen, after which it was to be infused with a small amount of human semen through a hole and then sealed with a piece of the hymen of a virgin, and then buried during the March lunar cycle. If all is done perfectly then a homunculus is said to break out of the egg and dig its way out to find its new master, who is supposed to feed it earthworms and lavender seeds.
If one did not have all of these rare and expensive ingredients or the means to fulfill the stringent and often complex or intricate requirements, there was another, simpler way to make a sort of poor man’s homunculus. All you had to do was to make your way to a gallows and find any mandrake plants that had sprouted up there, which are known for their rather human shaped roots. A common idea at the time was that a man who had died of hanging would sometimes discharge semen, which if it were to hit the ground would cause a magical mandrake plant to grow. If this root were to be pulled and then kept in a mixture of blood, honey, and milk, it was said to form into a simple homunculus that would serve as a sort of slave for the one who had created it.
Although this all sounds like it must surely be pure superstition and legend mixed with an imperfect understanding of how life and the natural world worked, there are nevertheless many accounts of actual homunculi being successfully created. One alchemist during the reign of England's Queen Elizabeth I by the name of John Dee supposedly conjured up several homunculi to use as spies for the Queen, with the idea being that they could hide away in the shadows of rooms to listen in on enemies. There was also a homunculus supposedly grown from human blood by a royal physician named Dr Pierre Borel for the French King Louis XIV, which could supposedly shoot beams of light from its head.
By far the most well-known successful homunculus experiment was undertaken by the Austrian alchemist Count Johann Ferdinand von Kufstein and the Italian mystic Abbé Geloni. The two apparently managed to grow a total of 10 homunculi over the course of several weeks, which they kept in sealed glass jars and which reached heights of up to 1 foot tall. According to the story, all of them looked different, and apparently had the ability to foresee the future. Cryptozoologist Karl Shuker would write of these homunculi thus:
No two homunculi looked the same, and to each was fixed an identity. Eight were physical manikins, known respectively as the king, queen, knight, monk, nun, seraph, miner, and architect, and clothes pertinent to their identities were manufactured for them. Each of these eight homunculi was fed with special rose-pink tablets every 3-4 days, and their water was changed once a week. On one occasion, the 'king' homunculus escaped from his jar, and was earnestly trying to remove the seal on the jar housing the 'queen' when he was spotted by Count Kufstein's butler, Kammerer. Chased by Kufstein and Kammerer, the 'king' soon fainted from exposure to the air, and was put back inside his own receptacle.
The remaining two homunculi were non-corporeal, and only appeared when Geloni tapped their jars and chanted certain magical words. A face would then materialise in each of them; moreover, in one the liquid would turn blue, in the other it would turn red. The red 'spirit' homunculus bore a horrible expression upon its face, was fed with a thimbleful of animal blood once a week, and its water was changed every 2-3 days, being replaced each time with fresh rainwater; whereas the blue 'spirit' homunculus had a beautiful angelic face, but was never fed, and its water was never changed.
All ten homunculi would answer questions concerning future events, invariably predicting correctly the outcomes, and they were observed by many people. These included some very notable personages, like Count Franz Josef von Thun and Count Max Lamberg.
Shuker postulates that these could have been misidentified exotic salamanders or some other amphibian, but in the end we can’t be sure just what happened here. The homunculi in question all subsequently disappeared, although one of them reportedly died and was buried in the yard of Kufstein, meaning that its remains should still be there. The problem is that no one is quite sure where exactly he lived and if there is indeed a body buried there we will probably never find it. Is proof of a real homunculi out there buried and forgotten? Who knows?
In more recent times the idea that these mystical homunculi could really exist has largely been scoffed at by scientists. It is seen as the realm of superstition and magical thinking combined with very bizarre and very wrong ideas about how life is created or works, to create a concoction of pure myth and legend. Since it is all an obscure historical practice that we will probably never really understand, it is almost impossible to know for sure. However, there have been those who have pursued the creation of real homunculi right up into modern times, and there has on occasion even been “evidence” put forward for these attempts.
In 2015 a series of videos hit YouTube originating from the country of Russia, from a user who claimed to have created actual living homunculi. The user claimed to have used the recipe provided by Paracelsus, and documents the progress of his experiments, which yield some interesting results to be sure. The user says that he has performed five separate experiments, and that two of these have been successful, with the resulting odd creatures shown on camera and just about as bizarre as you’d imagine. In one of the experiments, the creature seems to spray something at him, after which it is smashed with a dictionary to apparently die. The videos are all in Russian and have been mostly derided as hoaxes, but they are still weird and disturbing all the same. You can see one of the videos here, but be warned it is definately creepy and not a little disturbing.
It seems that our quest to meddle with nature and create life from nothing is not a new one. Humankind has been absorbed in this for hundreds of years, and shows no signs of ever really stopping. Where this will take us in the future is anyone's guess, but it seems to be a natural tendency that compels us, and has throughout history. Whether the homunculi were ever real or not it is an interesting look through the window of time, and a startling realization that these are pursuits that we have always been engaged in, through whatever means we have at our disposal.