Homunculi: The Making of a Man

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Faust’s Creation of a Homunculus (Source: Wikipedia)

 

The creation of artificial humans has been a subject of fiction, folklore, and mythology since some of our earliest stories. Though these same tales have taken many shapes and forms over the years, they come in a number of flavors including that of the Cities Eternal’s favorite homunculus, Elisa.

Artificial humans can be seen going as far back as classical mythology. In many creation myths (Egyptian, Greek, Aztec, etc) it is gods who are responsible for either birthing humans into existence or forming them out of other materials (bones, mud, and blood most often). But we’re going to focus on the more Frankenstein side of things: Humans making other humans.

The oldest and most classic is the story of Pygmalion, the lovelorn sculptor who fell in love with his sculpture, which was subsequently brought to life by Aphrodite. This is one of the earliest examples and something of a cop-out (It’s still a divinity that brings the statue to life), but unlike previous examples both fleshy (Pandora) and metal (Hephaestus’ automatons, Talos), this si the first one to be made and wished alive by human hands. In Ovid’s version the statue lacks a name, but in later interpretations she would be given names such as Galatea and Elise.

In many ways the shift of creator figure from divine to human is deliberate comparison. By creating life in his own image man himself becomes divine, a motif with earliest roots in a reoccurring figure from Jewish literature: Golems.

Golems are living figures made in the shape of men, built of mud and animated by a scroll known as a shem. More often than not these compliant automatons were seen as less than human (because of course only God can create men) characterized by their primary handicap: The inability to speak. Golems are mentioned several times in the Talmud, but became popular along with many other forms of mysticism during the Middle Ages, when tales of golems being made. This came to a head in the most famous story of golems, that of the legendary Golem of Prague, built by the Maharal to defend the Jewish ghettos of Prague from anti-Semitic attack.

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The Maharal (Source:Wikipedia)

The popularity of golems rose around the same time as discussion of our primary specimen of interest: The Homunculus. First described in alchemical writings by renowned sixteenth-century alchemist Paracelsus, the homunculus was a miniature human being that was grown primarily from collected and putrefied human semen (Relating back to the popular-at-the-time notion of preformationism) fed with blood and left in the womb of a horse.

Paracelsus was not the only alchemist interested in the creation of life, and accounts of the creation of miniature humans by artificial means were popular throughout Europe and the Middle East.

This idea of the creation of life by human hands is one that continues well into the modern era with mixed reaction. It became the subject of modern horror with the publication of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, wherein the making of a human without conjunction of man and woman results in a misbegotten and murderous monster who, while clearly intelligent and eloquent, ultimately resents his creation in a world where he was never meant to be. Modern adaptations often add the macabre twist of constructing the body itself from stitched-together corpses.

Much can and has been said on Frankenstein, whether Shelley knew of the homunculus myth or simply tapped into that same common motif based on her own experiences, who can say. But since then depictions of artificial humans have always had a touch of the depraved rather than the noble. The idea that life made outside of natural human union is an affront, an aberration, harkens back to the golem’s own subhuman nature. In the modern era of fiction we have built for ourselves a new artificial fiend, that of AI. In many ways artificial and robotic life in science fiction represents the same modern fear of the unnatural depicted in Frankenstein. Life made outside of nature will inevitably conflict with nature.

But what of the homunculus? The word itself is used in modern fantasy fiction more often than not, in those works where alchemy is the truer science rather than Chemistry’s slightly-daft old uncle. Others have used them as allegory for the dispossessed (Those made without families truly belong nowhere) and misogyny (What kind of man seeks to create life absent from a woman?). The homunculi of the Cities Eternal take a decidedly modern approach. Elisa is truly artificial, and inhuman in many of her mannerisms. She is made explicitly by magic from the handiwork of a master alchemist, but her creation is more Frankenstein than Paracelsus’ un-palatable semen fermenting. Her apparent albinism serves multiple narrative functions: That of marking her as an outcast in society who is never truly able to fit in, a deliberate comparison to an artist’s signature (Or more darkly an owner’s brand), as well as a fun little shout-out to the TYPE-MOON fictional universe in which all homunculi of the Einzbern family were depicted as albino.

Much can and has been written on man’s relationship with creating life. Some see it as enlightenment, others as taboo. It taps into a key societal conflict of natural vs. artificial, and has its roots deep in our cultural psyche.

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