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Homunculi: how alchemists got life from a “test tube”

Even Paracelsus believed in the “recipe” for obtaining a homunculus. It turns out that it is enough to put horse dung and male seed into a pumpkin and wait until life is born. But judging by the fact that it is further described that the appeared homunculus needs to be fed with blood, it suggests at least a very optimistic mood of the alchemist, or the presence of positive results of the experiment.

Since time immemorial, scientists have tried to artificially create a human-like creature, and for the alchemists of the Middle Ages, this was no less important task than obtaining a philosopher’s stone. For the first time the word “homunculus” (from the Latin homunculus  – “man”) appeared in the works of the famous physician, philosopher and alchemist Paracelsus (1493-1541). 

In his fundamental work On the Nature of Things, one can find a detailed guide to the creation of artificial people: “If semen, enclosed in a tightly sealed bottle, is placed in horse manure for about 40 days and properly “magnetized”, it can begin to live and move. After this time, the substance takes on the form and features of a human being, but will be transparent and incorporeal.

If now it is artificially nourished for another forty weeks arcanum sanguinis hominis (lat. “the secret of human life force”) and kept all this time in horse manure at a constant temperature, it will grow into a human child …”

The diminutive suffix for the word homunculus was necessary for Paracelsus to indicate the short stature of a little man.

The belief that various spirits could be enclosed in vessels, not to mention humanoid beings, was widespread in the Middle Ages: Pope Benedict IX was said to have kept seven spirits he had cursed in a flask.

The second “birth” of the homunculus in culture can be considered its appearance in the second part of Goethe’s Faust, where the idea of ​​an endless desire for life and beauty was embodied in the image of a luminous creature. The very word “homunculus” then became widely known.

Alchemical activity pursued three main goals: obtaining gold, immortality and artificial life. That is, the idea of ​​a test-tube baby originated in the deep Middle Ages.

By the way, when you read stories about homunculi, the tale of Thumbelina begins to play with new gloomy colors. Maybe the girl-from-the-seed that was buried in the ground was not so beautiful, or she caused fear because of her unnatural origin, because only a blind mole decided to marry her from living creatures that were born naturally. Maybe a fairy tale about a homunculus?

From the treatises of the alchemists it follows that this artificial life has “all the limbs of a child, only much smaller in size.” However, they are more often described as very agile monsters. They could disappear in the blink of an eye, easily climb walls and ceilings. They were smart and able to communicate with people.

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Homunculus from the collection of the State Museum of Württemberg
Obtaining homunculi by alchemists

But why did they try to create them? The fact is that homunculi were considered ideal servants of alchemists. They were not only stealthy assassins, but also possessed psychic powers.

Manuscripts say that in 1775, Count Johann Ferdinand von Kufstein, together with Abbot Geloni, created ten homunculi with the ability to predict the future. Allegedly, he hid them in glass flasks in the Masonic lodge in Vienna.

But these insidious creatures also remained true for the time being. Some stories tell that homunculi killed their cruel masters or took revenge on them for their mistreatment.

Obtaining homunculi by alchemists
Obtaining homunculi by alchemists

Of course, we will never know if these creatures actually existed, as well as the existence of the philosopher’s stone and other other mysterious things. But everything has some foundation. 

Maybe homunculi existed in some form, although they were unlikely to appear in gourds and horse dung. What if they are creatures of some ancient race who survived by serving the alchemists?


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