Homunculus: (n.) a little human
A tiny person within a Sperm By N Hartsoecker, C.1695
There are only a few subjects in art history that always grab my attention, no matter who created the object or when it was created or what museum, collection, or gallery I happen to be visiting.
One such subject is the homunculus, a Latin word meaning “little man/human.” In the ancient art of alchemy (another analog of the transformation process), the soul is depicted as a homunculus, or “small man.” It was symbolically equivalent to the Philosopher’s Stone, and the Elixer or Universal Medicine. This homunculus personified the unconscious as an Inner Man, a hermaphroditic being, a spirit in the bottle, a “brain child.”
Often the homunculus is shown in moments of Mary’s annunciation by the angel Gabriel: in place of the dove, representing the Holy Spirit, a small image of baby Jesus flies from Heaven towards the Virgin.
Pacino di Binaguida, Tree of Life c. 1310
If you look carefully you can see Baby Jesus flying through the air.
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.
Medieval Manuscripts are bountiful
The Homunculus is first referred to in alchemical writings of the 16th century, and the idea that miniature fully-formed people can be created has been traced to the early Middle Ages.
But homunculi (plural) need not always be of Jesus. In the example below, the holy Trinity sit in Heaven, to the left, and a homunculus flies across the bedroom towards a sleeping woman, whose husband appears to witness the miraculous conception. The scroll that surrounds the Trinity reads, “Let us create man in our image and likeness” (‘Faciamus hominem ad imaginem et similitudem nostram’). Thus, the image makes visible the invisible moment in which the woman becomes pregnant by divine intervention.
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.
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.
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 “De Natura Rerum” (beautiful manuscript here) 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.
Moving into the 20-21st Century “Life is created in test tube”, one newspaper announced after Edwards and Steptoe reported the first in vitro fertilisation of a human egg in 1969. In the imagination of popular culture, it was not a microscopic ball of embryonic cells that the test-tube held, but a developing or even a full-term baby: IVF was immediately elided with the speculative technology called ectogenesis, in which gestation too happens in vitro.
Yet homunculus-making was rarely condemned merely on hubristic grounds. Rather, the medieval debate, informed by Plato and Aristotle, was about whether human art could compete with nature. Alchemical gold was suspect not because it was fake but because it was deemed inferior. In the case of the homunculus, this supposed shortcoming of human art had a particularly incendiary implication: the artificial being was considered to lack a soul. The impiety therefore hinged on the fact that either one was seen to be compelling God to give it one, or the homunculus would be free from original sin and not in need of Christ’s salvation
This was no coincidence, for the methods of IVF fitted comfortably into ancient anthropoetic imagery (test tube babies) Alchemical symbolism abounds with pictures of people in glass jars, and arguably the first artificial people-making technology was the alchemical creation of a homunculus, often said to be done by fermenting human sperm in a sealed vessel.
When Time magazine interviewed Ian Wilmut after his team announced the cloning of Dolly the sheep in 1997, it remarked that “One doesn’t expect Dr Frankenstein to show up in a wool sweater, baggy parka, soft British accent and the face of a bank clerk.” It was one of many examples of how Frankenstein, supplemented by other myths both ancient (Faust) and modern (Brave New World), sets the context for media commentary on new developments that allow us to modify and perhaps to create living organisms.
A newbie on the block of course, is the Cortical Homunculus. This a physical representation of the human body, located within the BRAIN. A cortical homunculus is a neurological “map” of the anatomical divisions of the body. There are two types of cortical homunculi: sensory and motor.
Sophia, the Holy Wisdom, 1812
Now let’s meet Sophia, a lifelike humanoid robot capable of remarkable.
The name Sophia is honored as a goddess of wisdom by Gnostics, as well as by some Neopagan, New Age, and Goddess spirituality groups. In Orthodox and Roman Catholic Christianity, Sophia, or rather Hagia Sophia (Holy Wisdom), is an expression of understanding for the second person of the Holy Trinity, I find it incredibly intriguing that this name was given specifically to the first woman robot. Why was the Robot a woman ? Sophia can be described as the wisdom of God, and, at times, as a pure virgin spirit which emanates from God. In this case, Humanity is God as it has created the being, even though it is AI. The Sophia is seen as being expressed in all creation and the natural world as well as, for some of the Christian mystics.
Sophia was unveiled by Hanson Robotics at SXSW Interactive in Austin, Texas. Sophia became an instant sensation. She is designed to interact with us ‘mere humans’. Sophia features two sophisticated cameras in her eyes that, combined with computer algorithms, can track the facial expressions and eye movement of the people she talks to and recognise individuals. She also wishes to anniliate humanity. This synthetic “creature” dubbed “Sophia” it’s creator has Faustian overtones of “Playing God”. Some might say that, in the age of assisted conception and cloning, Mary Shelley’s Gothic novel is more relevant than ever.
But any possibility that the artificial being might be more-than-human is eclipsed by Frankenstein. By making Victor a “modern Prometheus”, Mary Shelley ensured that hubris was placed at the centre of her fable; because hers was a world in which God no longer intervened directly, the creature itself was called upon to exact the retribution that Faustian tradition demanded. What’s more, it was no longer sufficient for the artificial being to be conjured up by occult alchemical forces.
Incredibly fascinating is that there is a Homunculus Nebula. This being a bipolar emission and reflection nebula which surrounds the massive star system Eta Carinae.
Could this be where humanity originated ?
Situated within the arm of Sagittarius, within the Homunculus is a smaller Little Homunculus, and within that a shell of shocked material from stellar winds that has been called Baby Homunculus.
The Homunculus was ejected in an enormous outburst from Eta Carinae. Light from this event reached Earth in 1841, creating a brightening event in the night sky which was visible from the Earth’s surface at the time. During the event (as seen from Earth) Eta Carinae briefly became the second-brightest star in the sky, after Sirius.