THE HOMUNCULUS: FROM SCIENCE FACT TO GOTHIC FICTION

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SYNOPSIS

With a long and winding path through history from ancient times, to the renaissance and beyond, Alchemy was a vast subject with a multitude of practitioners, from the legendary and mythical to established medical gentry and scholarly clergy. In fact and fiction, they were men and women obsessed by the magical bending of the laws of nature to their will, creating gold, the elixir of life, stones that shone like the sun or offered immortality. Another sect of the sprawling tradition, however, found its interest in a far stranger creation, that of the homunculus, or “the little man”. Their writings can today be seen as some of the strangest works to exist in the history of scientific advancement and have far more in line with the publications of Gothic Horror that would eventually follow, centuries later.

Maxwell-Stuart, P.G (2012) The Chemical Choir: A History of Alchemy. Continuum International Publishing, London, UK.
 
Lindsay, Jack (1970) The origins of alchemy in Graeco-Roman Egypt. Barnes & Noble, NY, USA.
 
Saif, Liana (2016) The Cows and the Bees: Arabic Sources and Parallels for Pseudo-Plato’s Liber Vaccae (Kitab al-Nawamis). Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, 2016, pp. 1-47(47). Warburg Institute, University of London, UK.
 
Van Der Lugt, Maaike (2009) Abominable Mixtures: The Liber Vaccae in the Medieval West, or the Dangers and Attractions of Natural Magic. Traditio: Studies in Ancient and Medieval History, Thought, and Religion, Vol. 64 (2009), pp. 229-277. Cambridge University Press, UK
 
Newman, William R. (2005) Promethean Ambitions: Alchemy and the Quest to Perfect Nature. University of Chicago Press, USA.
 
Grafton, Anthony. Siraisi, Nancy (1999) Natural particulars: nature and the disciplines in Renaissance Europe. MIT Press, USA.
 
Besetzny, Emil (1873) Die Sphinx Freimaurerisches Taschenbuch. L. Rosner, Vienna.
 

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The Homunculus: From Science Fact to Gothic Fiction

 

Intro

 

WIth a long and winding path through history from ancient times, to the renaissance and beyond, Alchemy was a vast subject with a multitude of practitioners, from the legendary and mythical to established medical gentry and scholarly clergy. In fact and fiction, they were men and women obsessed by the magical bending of the laws of nature to their will, creating gold, the elixir of life, stones that shone like the sun or offered immortality. Another sect of the sprawling tradition, however, found its interest in a far stranger creation, that of the homunculus, or “the little man”. Their writings can today be seen as some of the strangest works to exist in the history of scientific advancement and have far more in line with the publications of Gothic Horror that would eventually follow, centuries later. This is Dark Histories, where the facts are worse than fiction. 

 

Alchemy in the early & middle ages

 

The long history of Alchemy, whilst often focusing on wonders such as the transmutation of Gold or the Philosopher’s Stone in popular fiction, is in reality so vast and spans such a large timeframe and geographical area that to summarise is borderline impossible, not least due to the flexibility of the term itself and whether you wish to confine it to the transmutation of various metals, or the wider art of transformation and all the various pathways this led down, from visual art to early concepts of biology. It was at times, accepted as a legitimate study of the natural world and at others banished from the mainstream and pushed into the realm of counter-culture, an ebb and flow that followed it throughout its long history, across seas, continents and cultures. 

 

As far back as 5000 BCE, the practice of metallurgy was used both in a practical and ritual context, with the basic principles of extracting various base metals, such as silver, copper, tin, lead and gold from ore. 1500 years later, the fundamentals of creating alloys, such as melding copper and tin to create bronze ushered in the bronze age throughout the near east. Just over 2000 years later, Iron taken from meteorites was smelted into priceless artifacts, jewelry and the occasional ceremonial weapon. This smelting of Iron was much more difficult than earlier alloys and fundamental to the process was the design of a new kind of furnace able to heat the metals to the required temperatures, which, once discovered for use on the early meteorological fragments, was expanded upon to cater to the smelting of native metals, initiating the beginning of the iron age in the near east. Around this time, dyes were introduced by the most skilled tradesmen, often with a goal to give ordinary items a golden appearance. Far from being a simple scientific process, the earliest practitioners of metallurgy were often mystics and saw metal working as an almost magical, oftentimes spiritual ritual and the process was carried out as such, with crossover into astronomy coming widely into play.

 

The Ancient Greeks played a large role in the creation of Alchemy, with the natural philosophers who theorised upon the four elements of earth, air, fire and water along with many other philosophical theories put forth by both Plato and Aristotle, especially of note being Aristotle’s “The Origins of Metals”. What followed was a jumble of names of legendary alchemists living in the Egyptian city of Alexandria, whose attributions to various texts still ignite debate today, however, here the basic rules of alchemy began to be formed, as natures rules were hammered out by thinkers, students and teachers, such as Democritus, Hermes, Isis and Maria Prophetissima. This era also saw the first ban placed upon the practice of turning metal into gold and silver and the first known, recorded use of the word “Khemia”, which would later travel throughout Europe and become the modern term of Alchemy. The ban, unsurprisingly, saw only to run the practice of alchemy underground, rather than stamp it out.

 

Some of the earliest texts that one could define as recognisable alchemy were originally written in the 3rd century AD, in Greco-Roman Egypt. Scraps of work exist written by an Egyptian born Greek mystic, Zosimos of Panopolis, one of the earliest and most celebrated Alchemists of the age whose existence and attributions to various writings stand with some evidential basis. His work, which was thought to make up over 25 books now exists only in fragments, but appeared to have focused upon the concept of metallic alchemy with a special highlight on the concept of chrysopoeia, or the process of creating gold. In his writings he often cited earlier practitioners’ works and made use of many tools and pieces of equipment that had been previously invented, which clues us in to the fact that although Zosimos was one of the earliest pioneers of his craft, he certainly wasn’t the first. From what is left of his work, one can see that despite the crude and obviously early theories, he worked to theoretical principles and laid some of the groundwork to what would become the basic principles of chemistry.

 

After the Arab conquest of Egypt, many works that dealt with the principles of alchemy were translated into Arabic and further expanded. Jabbir Ibn Hayyan, one of the greatest Arabic Alchemists of this period, evolved aristotelian principles and produced his theory of sulphur and mercury. Throughout this period of Arabic dominance in the region, many famous works later translated into Latin were written, including “The Book of the Secret of creation and the Art of Nature” and “The Picatrix”, a book which included symbols of each planet in the solar system, how to include them in magical sigils and of how they relate to the different metals. 

 

In the mid 12th Century, Robert of Chester, an English scholar who lived for a period in Spain, which at the time, was divided by a Christian and an Arabic leader, translated the first book on Alchemy available to English speaking readers, “The Book of the Composition of Alchemy”. This further credits to him the creation of the word Alchemy itself. Within 10 years, several further key books on Alchemy were translated into English and the practice had spread widely throughout the rest of Europe. As in other places before it, it didn’t take long before prohibition and restrictions were placed upon the practice of Alchemy and by the 13th Century, it was banned in several countries in Europe on the grounds that it promoted the creation of counterfeit coins and by the church, where it was looked upon as heresy. This pushed Alchemy further outside the mainstream in medieval Europe, creating a counter-culture, with an element of secrecy, of mysticism and of ritual that kept it separate from straight science. At times it could appear magical, occultist or utterly esoteric in its practice. There were mixtures used as ingredients referred to in vague terms and contraptions only available to those with prior reading of books written by practitioners with invented names. It was in many ways, an art for those initiated and unashamedly exclusive in its knowledge. 

 

Despite all of its ritualism, complicated philosophy and at times mystical approach to the natural laws, Alchemy was not magic. Its ties to transformation, however, linked it with a form of magic long into the renaissance period, when the studies of many alchemists shifted from the ultimate goal of creating gold, to a wider, chemistry based field. Though this was one path taken, there were, as always, people with stranger ideas. In European Alchemy, the creation of the Philosophers stone was variously connected with the ultimate goals of an Alchemist, to create wealth and the Elixir of life. In every era, however, as Alchemy was driven underground, another path quickly became further corrupted from some of the more mainstream goals, twisting the art into a form of alchemical, occultist magic that took the concept of transmutation and ran in a new direction. Surrounded as it was in the realms of the esoteric, it was only a small step for a practitioner to veer quickly into the world of the darkest experiments, where things other than gold were the ultimate successes. Tinctures of materials to turn oneself invisible or to imbibe the ability to walk on water were imagined, as too was the creation of life itself. From the earliest days of alchemy, this side-tract had stepped in tandem, spawning works that today exist in both factually historocial and questionably anecdotal texts. Whilst people like Nicholas Flamel became famous for their work with the philosopher’s stone, which he was said to have used to build orphanages throughout France with its generation of wealth, there were others who attempted to make a far darker, though arguably just as famous, creation.

 

Plato (or not) & The Liber Vaccae

 

One struggle when studying the history of alchemy is who to attribute specific writings to. Whilst many works have known authors, the reality as to whether or not the published name actually matched the writer is something of a debate for many manuscripts. This was most often the case in regards to works supposedly written by some of the most famous alchemists of any era, some of who have built up a legendary status. One example of this was Plato and an interesting example of work falsely attributed to him is a manuscript known as the “Liber Vaccae”, or “The Book of the Cow”. Published in Spain in the 12th Century, the Liber Vaccae is in fact, a Latin translation by a French Bishop, William of Auvergne, of a much earlier Arabic work named the “Kitab al Nawamis” by alchemist Ibn Al-Jazzar, that dates from the 9th century and is now, aside from a few fragments, all but lost. 

 

The Liber Vaccae is, essentially, a book of 80 experiments, split into two halves, with around 40 Minor experiments taking up the first half, and 40 Major experiments the second. The minor experiments concern themselves with simple, everyday natural magic and alchemy, such as the creation of lamps and the creation of illusions, whilst the second section of major experiments busy themselves with much more complicated concepts. 

 

From its earliest origins, the debate on spontaneous generation of life was a major path in alchemy. Preceding many early experiments in creation, there existed the concept that lice could spawn from humans on account of their being “too moist” and that the rotting corpses of animals left to putrefy would spawn swarms of living bees, as in the process of Bugonia.

 

“Build a house, ten cubits high, with all the sides of equal dimensions, with one door, and four windows, one on each side; put an ox into it, thirty months old, very fat and fleshy; let a number of young men kill him by beating him violently with clubs, so as to mangle both flesh and bones, but taking care not to shed any blood; let all the orifices, mouth, eyes, nose etc. be stopped up with clean and fine linen, impregnated with pitch; let a quantity of thyme be strewed under the reclining animal, and then let windows and doors be closed and covered with a thick coating of clay, to prevent the access of air or wind. After three weeks have passed, let the house be opened, and let light and fresh air get access to it, except from the side from which the wind blows strongest. Eleven days afterwards, you will find the house full of bees, hanging together in clusters, and nothing left of the ox but horns, bones and hair.”

 

Whilst it’s debated whether or not Bugonia was ever an actual practice, ritual or otherwise, or just a literary device, the basic misunderstanding of biology that underpinned the theories of birth from putrefaction was fairly widespread and one can see similar instructions in a multitude of works that riff on the idea. Some of the earliest and most famous passages on the creation of life exist in the Major experiments in the aforementioned Liber Vaccae, which evolved the concept of spontaneous generation to one of creation, 

 

“The magician must take some of “his own water”, [sperm] when it is still warm, and mix it with an equal amount of the stone which is called the stone of the sun, a stone that shines at night like a lamp… With the mixture of sperm and sun stone, the magician inseminates a cow or a ewe. He then carefully plugs up its vagina with the sun stone and smears its genitals with the blood of the animal that was not chosen for insemination. Then the cow or the ewe must be placed in a dark house, in which the sun never shines. Its food must be mixed with the blood of the other animal. While awaiting the moment of birth, the magician prepares a powder made of ground sun stone, sulphur, magnet, and green tutia, stirred with the sap of a white willow. The unformed substance to which the ewe or the cow gives birth must be placed in this powder, whereupon it will instantly grow a human skin. The newborn homunculus must be kept in a large glass or lead vessel for three days, until it is very hungry. Then it is fed on its decapitated mother’s blood for seven days until it has developed into a complete animal.”

 

There were three such experiments on the creation of a “rational animal” included in the Liber Vaccae and the uses of such a creation were vast, depending on how the resulting “animal” was treated. If one were to cut off the head of the animal and feed the blood to a human, the drinker would turn into a cow or sheep, if the blood were rubbed on a human like an ointment, they would instead turn into an ape. If, on the other hand, one were to nurture the animal, rather than decapitate it, by keeping it in a dark house and feeding it on blood and milk, it could then be killed, gutted and the organs rubbed upon one’s feet to allow them to walk on water. Keeping it alive for more than a year in a bath of milk and rainwater would allow one to ask the animal questions concerning the future or far away lands, which it would be perfectly able to answer.

 

A second experiment that was similar in nature to the first, instead used the womb of a monkey and the outcome left the practitioner with an animal that could be dissected and its various parts used for a multitude of purposes. Its eyes could be made into a concoction allowing one to see spirits and demons and a drink made from its tongue would allow one to speak with them. If one were to mix its brain with the brain of a human corpse and spread it upon a tree, it would allow the tree to instantly flourish and blossom. Yet another experiment used the heart of an animal, wrapped in the skin of its forehead to make the user invisible. 

 

In the fourth experiment detailed in the Liber Vaccae, we can see the most direct link with the Bugonia mentioned previously, using the corpse of a decapitated calf,

 

“This involves locking up the corpse in a dark house with fourteen closed windows on the East, blocking all its body orifices after having reattached the head, hitting it with a large dog’s penis, extracting the flesh from the skinned corpse, grinding this with a certain herb, and leaving the mixture in a corner of the house, until it will be converted into worms. Every following day, a window must be opened and some powdered dead bees thrown upon the worms in order to convert them into bees.”

 

Interestingly, in the Liber Vaccae, the idea is expanded upon, and it is stated that if one were to reverse the instructions, a cow could equally be generated from a swarm of dead bees. The other recipes are equally bizarre and macabre, including an experiment to create a small cow with the face of a human and the wings and claws of a bird. 

 

“The worms are first generated from the flesh of a certain fish, which must be ground with an equal amount of human blood and put into the brain of a bull, which is then put into a vessel and buried in the ground for forty days. The successive stages  involve the addition of more animal and human substances, more incubatory vessels and burials, leading to the creation of other hybrid animals: a hairy, viperlike worm with two horns and two enormous eyes, big beelike worms, and a fish with a human face. The fat of the final animal, the cow, can be used as an ointment to transform permanently the shape of a person into a pig or an ape.”

 

It’s important to note that despite the abhorrent nature of the magical experiments described, the magic itself was not seen as inherently evil. At the time, there was an important distinction between magic that was natural and that which was demonic. Demonic magic of the occult underworld called upon demons and witchcraft, whereas natural magic aligned itself far more with alchemy and relied only upon the natural laws of things and exploiting the hidden laws of nature. This was, apparently, a far more acceptable, justifiable approach to magic for most, especially in the eyes of the church. Interestingly, as time passes, surviving copies of the Liber Vaccae move from being kept within collections of medical journals, to collections of magic and occult writings instead.

 

Not only did the Liber Vaccae exist in a murky grey area between necromancy and natural magic, especially with its summoning of spirits, but it also existed in a murky offshoot of alchemy. Though it may be seen as a far cry from the simple concept of alchemy as a practice to transmute one metal into another, it falls perfectly in line with many of the pathways that branched from the magic of transformation and the harnessing of secret, natural powers. There were in fact, many alchemists that saw the pursuit of gold to be nothing compared to the ultimate alchemical goal of creating artificial life. Aside from magic and alchemy, many of the concepts found in the experiments of the Liber Vaccae and other texts that contain similar instructions on the creation of life, can be directly linked back to Aristotelian theories on sexual reproduction and the concept of spermism, an early theory which suggested that life is created by the combining of menstrual blood and semen, with the father providing the essential characteristics to the offspring via sperm, whilst the mother provided the material substrate via menstrual blood. One giving form, whilst the other, matter. This is in turn mixed with the sun stone, an alchemical ingredient that likely stems from the aristotelian theory that the sun held the power behind all generation of life on earth. Whilst the ideas in the Liber Vaccae might seem absurd to us, for readers at the time, much of the material would have been fairly reasonable, with the creation of a homunculus far more acceptable as a concept by itself than when it was mixed with the cross breeding of animals that takes place in many of the experiments, a practice that was considered far more troubling.

 

The Liber Vaccae spent around 200 years disseminating across Europe, until the 14th Century, where a copy appeared to wind up on the shores of England. Throughout its life, it had delighted, terrified and enraged readers, many of whom found its use of magic to create godlike powers in the practitioner to be disturbing at best, however, it was unsurprisingly the manuals instructions to create human life that were deemed the most disagreeable. Several translations omitted the offending experiments, mainly on the religious grounds that crossbreeding between man and animal was stepping over a boundary firmly placed by God. Nevertheless, it is, perhaps, equally unsurprising that the pursuit in the creation of life was far from over with the Christian rejection, that branded the Liber Vaccae as “monstrous”.

 

Paracelsus

 

By the 16th Century, Alchemy was an established arm of study throughout Europe, though it was still rejected from University teachings, it was nevertheless an important area of study for academics who busied themselves in the natural sciences. As far as homunculi are concerned, if we follow the experimental pathway of creation through putrefaction, we are, eventually led to a book published in 1537 by the Swiss Alchemist Paracelsus. 

 

Born in 1493, Phillipus Aureolus Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim, later to be known as Paracelsus, was a natural philosopher, alchemist and physician. In later life, he would go on to pioneer the use of chemistry in medicine, seed the concept of clinical diagnosis and become a founding father of toxicology, however, his ideas were not always as accepted and many, were not always quite so grounded. Along with his contributions to medical advancement, Paracelsus also generated theories that, along with his rejection of many established medical concepts, saw him chased out of Universities across Europe. A maverick in more ways than one, he taught lectures in German rather than Latin in order for his teachings to be more accessible, invited practitioners who lacked academic backgrounds to his University in Basel and publicly burned copies of works by revered physicians that he disagreed with. His outspoken detest of the establishment pushed him out of the medical profession, at times forbidding him to practice and it wasn’t until after his death in 1541 that his works were truly studied and widely adopted. Quite outside of his medical career, however, Paracelsus had another history that pushed up against the establishment and gave him a reputation in life that often preceded him. As he advanced his medical knowledge and career, so too had he practiced in alchemy, astrology and divination. 

 

In 1572, the physician Adam von Bodenstein published a book entitled “Die Natura Rerum”, or “The Nature of Things”, which he attributed to the writings of Paracelsus. Although this attribution is the manner of some debate, it is likely that at least in part, it does contain legitimate writings from the Swiss physician. Within the text, Paracelsus once more turns to putrefaction as a vehicle for transmutation of one thing to another, turning the discussion towards eggs, which he believed were incubated by chickens in order to provide heat that would rot the “Mucilaginous Phlegm” inside. Once the matter inside the egg was sufficiently rotted, it would in turn become the living matter that would then go on to develop into a chick. You could, he proposed, replace the living hen with warm ashes and incubate the egg in the same way. Paracelsus then took this concept one step further and described the creation of a Basilisk, a man-made monster, which he called “A monster above all monsters”. In an incredible bout of fantastical misogyny, Paracelsus explains that a Basilisk, which is created using menstrual blood, sealed in a glass jar and left to rot inside a pile of horse manure, is the embodiment of “the greatest impurity of women” and is able to kill by merely glancing at its victim, just like a menstruating woman, who “also has a hidden poison in her eyes.”

 

If one could create a Basilisk from the menstrual blood of women, Paracelsus goes on to suggest, then it is equally possible to create the male counterpart, a homunculus from semen. It was the first time the word “homunculus”, latin for “little man” was actually used in any alchemical texts. Not only did Paracelsus coin the term, therefore, but he goes on to explain how one could make such an abomination.

 

“We must now by no means forget the generation of homunculi. For there is something to it, although it has been kept in great secrecy and kept hidden up to now, and there was not a little doubt and question among the old philosophers, whether it even be possible to nature and art that a man can be born outside the female body and [without] a natural mother. I give this answer – that it is by no means opposed to the spagyric art and to nature, but that it is indeed possible. But how this should happen and proceed – it’s process is thus – that the sperm of a man be putrefied by itself in a sealed cucurbit for forty days with the highest degree of putrefaction in a horse’s womb, or at least so long that it comes to life and moves itself, and stirs, which is easily observed. After this time, it will look somewhat like a man, but transparent, without a body. If, after this, it be fed wisely with the arcanum of human blood, and be nourished for up to forty weeks, and be kept in the even heat of the horse’s womb, a living human child grows therefrom, with all its members like another child, which is born of a woman, but much smaller.”

 

This “miracle” of human life was “a secret above all secrets” and, if nurtured long enough to grow into adulthood, would grow into creatures such as giants and dwarves, with enhanced strength and powers. Once again we can see similar theories on the importance of the male sperm and the female menstrual blood in reproduction. The horse’s womb mentioned is not, importantly, referring to an actual womb, but rather a warm pile of horse manure used to provide heat to the glass jar. The use of an artificial womb in this way was not only symbolic, it also provided the function of keeping the material warm. The same can be seen in the earlier experiments and that of the Bugonia, where a sealed house is used, providing the same purpose, both functionally and symbolically. 

 

Not all of Paracelsus’ ideas in Alchemy were quite so out there and he is credited with multiple innovations in natural philosophical thought, including the adding of Salt as a basic principle element that all natural things in the universe are built from, along with the already established duo of sulfur and mercury. On the other hand, if this were true, then there was no fundamental difference between organic and inorganic matter and if that was the case, then transforming life from its foundational elements was no different from transforming metals. It was a subtle, but dramatic shift in thinking. As for the veracity of the text, there is debate over who actually authored the work, but even if it was not Paracelsus himself, it still shows that at least some ALchemists of the age were creating such theories. Over the next couple of centuries, the lines between truth and fiction would continue to blur, as the instructions grew murkier whilst the outcomes even more fantastic.

 

Count Johann Ferdinand von Kufstein and Abbé Geloni

 

In the 18th Century, matters of the homunculus began to break down considerably and the line between that which was presented as fact and what was presented as fiction blurred considerably. Moving away from direct instruction on how to create a homunculus, there are instead recounted tales of those that claimed to have witnessed their creation. Perhaps most famously of these, is the experiments carried out by an Austrian nobleman, named Count Johann Ferdinand von Kufstein together with an Italian cleric and mystic, Abbe Geloni, in 1775. The account of the affair was reconstructed from a series of diary entries originally authored by Von Kufsteins butler, James Kammerer and was published in an 1872 masonic handbook named “The Sphinx”, written by Dr Emil Besetzny. 

 

In this account, the two alchemists produced no less than ten homunculus, housed in glass bell jars filled with water. Their creation lasted for five weeks and was done by closing up each jar with the bladder of an ox and a “magical seal”. 

 

“They were buried under two cart loads of manure, and the pile daily sprinkled with a certain liquor prepared with great trouble by the adepts. The pile after such sprinklings began to ferment and steam, as if heated by a subterranean fire. When the bottles were removed, it was found that the spirits had grown to about a span and a half each; the male homunculi were come into possession of heavy beards, and the nails of the fingers had grown. In two of the bottles there was nothing to be seen save clear water, but when the Abbe knocked thrice at the seal upon the mouth, uttering at the same time certain Hebrew words, the water turned a mysterious colour and the spirits showed their faces, very small at first, but growing in size til they attained that of a human countenance. And this countenance was horrible and fiendish.”

 

“These beings were fed every three days by the count, with a rose-coloured substance which was kept in a silver box. Once a week the bottles were emptied and filled again with pure rain water. The change had to be made rapidly because, while the homunculi were exposed to the air, they closed their eyes and seemed to grow weak and unconscious, as though they were about to die. But with the spirits that were invisible, at certain intervals blood was poured into the water; and it disappeared at once, inexplicably, without colouring or troubling it. By some accident one of the bottles fell one day and was broken. The homunculus within died after a few painful respirations in spite of all efforts to save him, and the body was buried in the garden. An attempt to generate another, made by the count without the assistance of the Abbe, who had left, failed; it produced only a small thing like a leech, which had little vitality and soon died.”

 

It’s no small coincidence that the account published in the 18th century was far removed from the earlier alchemist’s detailed instructions. Vague in the extreme, there is little in the way of evidence to support any of the account, not least that the existence of the Count, nor the location of his home can be verified. The only evidence suggested by the author lies in the apparent visits by a handful of local dignitaries and nobles who were said to have witnessed the homunculi, though once again, no evidence exists.

 

It was perhaps, no surprise given the encroaching enlightenment, that discussion of homunculi became somewhat more fictional in presentation. It would be another 100 years, however, before the concept would be firmly entrenched as a fictional staple rather than a scientific or alchemical miracle. 

 

Victorian Esotericism & Modern Fiction

 

By the 19th Century, Alchemy had once again been pushed into the realms of counter-culture. Gradual distinctions between chemistry and alchemy had been formed in the mid 18th Century that had worked to separate the “legitimate” teachings of the developing sciences of the enlightenment and the old practices of alchemy, which were increasingly seen as little more than fraud and nonsense. A little more than a hundred years later, however, alchemy was revived in Victorian times by occultist scientists who found much to study in its esoteric history, interpreting it widely as spiritual, ritualistic and mystical rather than practical.

 

In the case of the homunculus, many writings became allegorical, riffing on the concepts of spiritual rebirth and regeneration. In fiction, the homunculus itself went through something of a bebirth, inspiring works such as the human patchwork of Frankenstein’s monster and later as the 20th century dawned, W. Somerset Maugham’s novel “The Magician”, based on a character heavily influenced by Alistair Crowley, sees a revengeful, bitter, magician makes a sacrifice from his wife in occult rituals to create homunculi, which he kept in glass jars in his manor house. In a far cry from the graphic descriptions of experiments undertaken by medieval alchemists, the homunculus has turned into a staple of horror movies, anime, manga, video games and popular fiction since the earliest years of the 20th Century until today. 

 

Conclusion

 

In many respects, the history of alchemy is a fascinating melding of early scientific investigation and utterly fictitious legend-building. On a practical level, an alchemist studied the natural laws and produced many useful solutions for dying, painting, simple medicine and metallurgy. At the other end of the scale, they pursued the philosopher’s stone, unimagined wealth, immortality and the creation of life. Even if we remain within the established canon of the legitimate history of alchemy as a scientific practice we can see legendary figures created, those who experimented with nature to create both the fantastical and the disturbed and in both respects, their pursuits have endured throughout history as a relentless draw for fiction. Their work has inspired the imagination in both horror and delight for hundreds of years, from the gothic tales of the 1800s to Harry Potter in the present time, the names of the legendary alchemists are constantly reimagined and their legends continuously built upon, as are the practices that they chose to embark upon, whether for noble means or those far less savoury.

 

As to the truth of the Homunculus, it seems fairly obvious from a modern, scientific standpoint that the creation of such beings was purely fictional and formed from a fundamental misunderstanding of biology. With all the modern understanding of reproduction, chemistry and embryology, it can feel utterly absurd that such experiments were ever given much credence at all, however, the mindset of those in the medieval age who followed the grim steps into experimentation give us a truly interesting insight into a dark and strange world where disturbing magic was practiced as perfect logic in macabre playgrounds of the strangest kind.

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