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The concept of a homunculus (Latin for "little man", sometimes spelled "homonculus," plural "homunculi") usually refers to a small creature constructed (often by way of mystical means) from numerous organic components. The term is often used to illustrate the functioning of a system.

19th century engraving of Goethe's Faust and Homunculus


Homunculus of Alchemy

The term appears to have been first used by the alchemist Paracelsus. He once claimed that he had created a false human being that he referred to as the homunculus. The creature was to have stood no more than 12 inches tall, and did the work usually associated with a golem. However, after a short time, the homunculus turned on its creator and ran away. The recipe consisted of a bag of bones, sperm, skin fragments and hair from any animal of which the homunculus would be a hybrid. This was to be laid in the ground surrounded by horse manure for forty days, at which point the embryo would form.

There are also variants cited by other alchemists. One such variant involved the use of the mandrake. Popular belief held that this plant grew where semen ejaculated by hanged men (during the last convulsive spasms before death) fell to the ground, and its roots vaguely resemble a human form to varying degrees.

The root was to be picked before dawn on a Friday morning by a black dog, then washed and "fed" with milk and honey and, in some prescriptions, blood, whereupon it would fully develop into a miniature human which would guard and protect its owner.

Yet a third method, cited by Dr. David Christianus at the University of Giessen during the 18th century, was to take an egg laid by a black hen, poke a tiny hole through the shell, replace a bean-sized portion of the white with human sperm, seal the opening with virgin parchment, and bury the egg in dung on the first day of the March lunar cycle. A miniature humanoid would emerge from the egg after thirty days, which would help and protect its creator in return for a steady diet of lavender seeds and earthworms.

Homunculus of Spermists

The term homunculus was later used in the discussion of conception and birth. In 1694, Nicolas Hartsoeker discovered "animalcules" in the sperm of humans and other animals. Some claimed that the sperm was in fact a "little man" (homunculus) that was placed inside a woman for growth into a child; these later became known as the spermists. This seemed to neatly explain many of the mysteries of conception (for instance, why it takes two). However it was later pointed out that if the sperm was a homunculus, identical in all but size to an adult, then the homunculus may have sperm of its own. This led to a reductio ad absurdum, with a chain of homunculi "all the way down." This was not necessarily considered a fatal objection however, as it neatly explained how it was that "in Adam" original sin the whole of humanity was already contained in his loins. Nevertheless, as atomic theory became prominent, the theory fell from favor. The improvement of microscopy eventually buried the theory.

The sensory and motor homunculi

The concept of a homunculus (Latin for “little man,” sometimes spelled “homonculus”) is often used to illustrate the functioning of a system. In the scientific sense of an unknowable prime actor, it can be viewed as an entity or agent.

The Greeks, including Hippocrates, pondered heredity. They devised a theory of “pangenesis,” which claimed that sex involved the transfer of miniaturized body parts: “Hairs, nails, veins, arteries, tendons and their bones, albeit invisible as their particles are so small. While growing, they gradually separate from each other.” This idea enjoyed a brief renaissance when Charles Darwin, desperate to support his theory of evolution by natural selection with a viable hypothesis of inheritance, put forward a modified version of pangenesis in the second half of the nineteenth century. In Darwin's scheme, each organ—eyes, kidneys, bones—contributed circulating “gemmules” that accumulated in the sex organs and were ultimately exchanged in the course of sexual reproduction.

Because these gemmules were produced throughout an organism's lifetime, Darwin argued any change that occurred in the individual after birth, like the stretch of a giraffe's neck imparted by craning for the highest foliage, could be passed on to the next generation. Ironically, then, to buttress his theory of natural selection Darwin came to champion aspects of Lamarck's theory of inheritance of acquired characteristics—the very theory that his evolutionary ideas did so much to discredit.

Darwin was invoking only Lamarck's theory of inheritance; he continued to believe that natural selection was the driving force behind evolution but supposed that natural selection operated on the variation produced by pangenesis. Had Darwin known about Mendel's work (although Mendel published his results shortly after The Origin of Species appeared, Darwin was never aware of them), he might have been spared the embarrassment of this late-career endorsement of some of Lamarck's ideas.

Whereas pangenesis supposed that embryos were assembled from a set of minuscule components, another approach, “preformationism,” avoided the assembly step altogether: either the egg or the sperm (exactly which was a contentious issue) contained a complete preformed individual called a homunculus. Development was therefore merely a matter of enlarging this into a fully formed being.

In the days of preformationism, what we now recognize as genetic disease was variously interpreted: sometimes as a manifestation of the wrath of God or the mischief of demons and devils; sometimes as evidence of either an excess of or a deficit of the father's “seed”; sometimes as the result of “wicked thoughts” on the part of the mother during pregnancy. On the premise that fetal malformation can result when a pregnant mother's desires are thwarted, leaving her feeling stressed and frustrated, Napoleon passed a law permitting expectant mothers to shoplift. None of these notions, needless to say, did much to advance our understanding of genetic disease.

Fetiform teratoma (homunculus) is a term that has been given to a rare form of teratoma that resembles a malformed fetus. There are very few reported cases in the English-language literature of this entity. Since the discovery of this well organized and highly differentiated mature cystic teratoma, there has been a lively discussion and fascination as to its pathogenicity. This tumor must be distinguished from fetus-in-fetu, a parasitic monozygotic twin usually found inside the body of a newborn or infant, and an ectopic pregnancy.

The term appears to have been first used by the alchemist Paracelsus. He once claimed that he had created a false human being that he referred to as the homunculus. The creature was to have stood no more than 12 inches tall and did the work usually associated with a golem (in Jewish folklore, a golem [sometimes pronounced goilem] is an animated being crafted from inanimate material; the name appears to derive from the word gelem, which means “raw material”). However, after a short time, the homunculus turned on its creator and ran away. The recipe consisted of a bag of bones, sperm, skin fragments, and hair from any animal of which the homunculus would be a hybrid. This was to be laid in the ground surrounded by horse manure for 40 days, at which point the embryo would form.

The homunculus argument in philosophy of mind

Today the term is used in a number of ways to describe systems that are thought of as being run by a "little man" inside. For instance, the homunculus continues to be considered as one of the major theories on the origin of consciousness, that there is a part (or process) in the brain whose purpose is to be "you". The homunculus is often invoked in cybernetics as well, for similar reasons.

A Homunculus argument accounts for a phenomenon in terms of the very phenomenon that it is supposed to explain (Richard Gregory (1987)). Homunculus arguments are always fallacious. In the psychology and philosophy of mind 'homunculus arguments' are extremely useful for detecting where theories of mind fail or are incomplete.

Homunculus arguments are common in the theory of vision. Imagine a person watching a movie. He sees the images as something separate from himself, projected on the screen. How is this done? A simple theory might propose that the light from the screen forms an image on the retinas in the eyes and something in the brain looks at these as if they are the screen. The Homunculus Argument shows this is not a full explanation because all that has been done is to place an entire person, or homunculus, behind the eye who gazes at the retinas. A more sophisticated argument might propose that the images on the retinas are transferred to the visual cortex where it is scanned. Again this cannot be a full explanation because all that has been done is to place a little person in the brain behind the cortex. In the theory of vision the Homunculus Argument invalidates theories that do not explain 'projection', the experience that the viewing point is separate from the things that are seen. (Adapted from Gregory (1987), (1990)).

A homunculus argument should be phrased in such a way that the conclusion is always that if a homunculus is required then the theory is wrong. After all, homunculi do not exist.

Very few people would propose that there actually is a little man in the brain looking at brain activity. However, this proposal has been used as a 'straw man' in theories of mind. Gilbert Ryle (1949) proposed that the human mind is known by its intelligent acts. He argued that if there is an inner being inside the brain that could steer its own thoughts then this would lead to an absurd repetitive cycle or "regress" before a thought could occur:

"According to the legend, whenever an agent does anything intelligently, his act is preceded and steered by another internal act of considering a regulative proposition appropriate to his practical problem. . . . Must we then say that for the agent . . . reflections how to act to be intelligent he must first reflect how best to reflect how to act? The endlessness of this implied regress shows that the application of the appropriateness does not entail the occurrence of a process of considering this criterion."

The homunculus argument and the regress argument are often considered to be the same but this is not the case. The homunculus argument says that if there is a need for a 'little man' to complete a theory then the theory is wrong. The regress argument says that an intelligent agent would need to think before it could have a thought.

If the homunculus argument is applied to the problem of the "intelligent agent" a subtly different result from the regress argument occurs. The homunculus argument applied to Ryle's theory would be phrased in terms of whether the mental attribute of 'reflecting upon things internally' can be explained by the theory that 'the mind is intelligent acts' without the appearance of a homunculus. The answer, provided by Ryle's own logic, is that internal reflection would require a homunculus to prevent it from becoming an infinite regress. Therefore with these assumptions the Homunculus Argument does not support the theory that mind is wholly due to intelligent acts.

The example of Ryle's theory demonstrates another aspect of the Homunculus Argument in which it is possible to attribute to the mind various properties such as 'internal reflection' that are not universally accepted and use these contentiously to declare that a theory of mind is invalid.

Early literary representations

The idea of the homunculus has proven to be fruitful inspiration. Homunculi can be found in centuries' worth of literature. These literary references have spawned references in modern times in film, animation, video and card games.

  • One of the very earliest literary references to the homunculus which also hints of its origination occurs in Thomas Browne's Religio Medici (1643) in which the author states-
I am not of Paracelsus minde that boldly delivers a receipt to make a man without conjunction...., (Part 1:36)

  • The alchemical connection also occurs in the German playwright Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's rendition of Faust, Part 2 which has that famed sorcerer create a homunculus, who then carries out extended conversations with his maker and Mephistopheles.
  • In his source study of Englishwoman Mary Shelley's novel Frankenstein, Prof. Radu Florescu notes that her father, William Godwin, and her husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley were both quite familiar with the lives and works of alchemists like Paracelsus and others. Florescu also suggests that Konrad Dippel, an alchemist born in Castle Frankenstein whom he believes may have been the inspiration for Dr. Frankenstein, was a student of Dr. David Christianus.
  • In Laurence Sterne´s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, Volume I, Chapter II , there is a reference to the homunculus: "(...) the animal spirits, whose business it was to have escorted and gone hand-in-hand with the homunculus, and conducted him safe to the place destined for his reception."

20th century literary representations

  • In the twentieth century Umberto Eco's Foucault's Pendulum, has several references to a homunculus, particularly detailed in a chapter dealing with druidic rites performed at a party in the country estate (castle) of a wealthy Rosicrucian. After a series of sensually stimulating occult acts are played out for the small audience, several homunculi appear to be created, but the main character, Casaubon, cannot decide if they are wax or indeed authentic magic.
  • German horror writer Hanns Heinz Ewers used the mandrake method for creating a homunculus as the inspiration for his 1911 novel Alraune, in which a prostitute is impregnated with semen from a hanged murderer to create a woman devoid of morals or conscience. Several cinematic adaptations of Alraune have been made over the years, the most recent in 1952 with Erich von Stroheim. The 1995 film Species also appears to draw some inspiration from this variation on the homunculus legend.
  • In English novelist W. Somerset Maugham's 1908 work The Magician , Oliver Haddo, a character based on British occultist Aleister Crowley, is obsessed with the creation of homunculi.
  • In English novelist Peter Ackroyd's novel The House of Doctor Dee, John Dee, the Elizabethean mathematician, astrologer, philosopher and magus, attempts and succeeds in creating a homunculus.
  • American author David H. Keller, M.D., wrote two pieces featuring homunculi. One was a short story, "A Twentieth-Century Homunculus," published in Amazing Stories in 1930, which describes the creation of homunculi on an industrial scale by a pair of misogynists]. In the other, a novel called The Homunculus, published in 1949 by Prime Press of Philadelphia, retired Colonel Horatio Bumble creates such a being.
  • Also examining the misogynistic tendencies of the creators of homunculi, Swedish novelist Sven Delblanc lampoons both his homunculus' creator and the Cold War industrial-military complexes of the Soviet Union] and NATO in his novel The Homunculus: A Magic Tale.
  • A homunculus called Twigleg is one of the main characters of the 1997 children novel Dragon Rider by German author Cornelia Funke. This homunculus is also artificial; he is created by combining artificial ingredients and a small living creature (probably a small insect).
  • In Jane R Goodall's 2004 mystery novel "The Walkers" (Hodder Headline ISBN 0-7336-1897-9), ancient secrets pertaining to the creation of the alchemical homunculus are central to a plot involving murders based on Hogarth's prints and set in "Swinging London". The creation of homunculi, together with the search for the philosopher's stone, was a central aim of alchemy. Implicit in the novel is the uneasy speculation that the original experiment succeeded and this evil being may indeed move through history.
  • In Cormac McCarthy's All the Pretty Horses "homunculus" is used to describe the cuchillero who tries to murder John Grady Cole in the prison.

Film and pop

  • The homunculus has also long been a popular theme in film, starting with the six-part 1916 German serial Homunculus.
  • In the classic horror film Bride of Frankenstein, Dr. Frankenstein's old teacher, Dr. Praetorius, shows him his own creations, a series of miniature humanoids kept in specimen jars, including a bishop, a king, a queen, a ballerina, a mermaid, and a devil. These are clearly intended to be homunculi, based on those creatures described by Emil Besetzny's Sphinx, as translated and presented in Franz Hartmann's Life of Paracelsus.
  • In the American film The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1974), the homunculus is portrayed as a miniature winged gargoyle looking creature, who is the nemesis of Sinbad. The homunculus was made from mandrake root.
  • The main character Kyle from Kyle XY may be an advanced type of homunculus.
  • In various works of fantasy fiction and science fiction, the term "homunculus" describes any man-made humans or humanoid creatures that are created via alchemy or magic.
  • In the TV show M*A*S*H, Maj. Charles Emerson Winchester III (David Ogden Stiers), in a classic fit of pique, refers to Cpl. Max Klinger (Jamie Farr) as a "hairy homunculus".
  • In the popular manga and anime Fullmetal Alchemist, the main character Edward Elric battles supernatural enemies claiming to be homunculi. Each one of them bears a code name taken from the seven deadly sins: Lust, Envy, Gluttony, Wrath, Greed, Sloth, and Pride. In the anime, they are the products of failed attempts to resurrect deceased humans, resulting in artificial beings who superficially resemble the dead person but differ greatly in personality. The idea of failed resurrection is explored more in the quote, "Either because of love, or out of foolish curiosity, human transmutation is attempted... and when these attempts all backfire, a different life is created... a being that has its own body and mind, but no soul... This is how the damned are born." The weakness for these Homunculi would be to be exposed to any part of the remains of the person that the Homunculus was supposed to represent, which would immobilize them, and enable them to be killed. In the manga, they were created by a powerful alchemist known as "The Father". Their method of creation differs from the anime severely; the substance Red Water that forms the Philosopher's Stone is injected or inserted into a still living human. If they survive the assimilation process, the bodies are given a new consciousness and exist as homunculi. This is rarely achieved; most times the human spirit struggles until death. However, the most recently recreated homunculus shares his body with the soul of the human inside it.
  • Another anime who made use of the homunculus concept is Cyberteam in Akihabara. The homunculus are the first line of attack of Jun Goutokuji (in her guise of Blood Falcon) when she confronts Hibari Hanakoganei in the first episode.
  • In the Game Boy Advance video game Fire Emblem: Rekka no Ken, the main villain Nergal uses henchmen of humanlike appearance but inhuman disposition and talent created by means of forbidden magic called morphs, whose means of creation resemble that of Homunculi.
  • The Homonculus is a monster in Nethack. In non-graphical versions, it appears as the symbol i (Imps and minor demons). The monster is low level, easy to defeat, and is classified as size tiny. If eaten, it (sometimes) grants the player an intrinsic poison resistance.
  • A homunculus named Roger figures greatly into some of the Hellboy comic books. However, Roger is human-sized, which is unusually large for a homunculus; other than the method by which he was created, he seems to have more in common with a golem.
  • In the Dungeons & Dragons role-playing game, a wizard can create a homunculus as a type of familiar.
  • In the Magic: The Gathering card game, two creatures exist with "homunculus" in their name. Both are blue creatures, blue being the color of artificial creation and illusion, among other things.
  • The homunculus appears in both the card game Yu-Gi-Oh!. In the card game, there are two creatures, one named "Homunculus The Alchemic Being", and one named "Golden Homunculus".
  • In Yu-Gi-Oh! GX, Lyman Banner (Daitokuji) created a homunculus in his own image as means of prolonging his life.
  • In the Enix console role-playing game Valkyrie Profile, the alchemist Lezard Valeth experiments with homonculi. Among them are his minion Bellion, and numerous female elven-like forms kept in large glass tubes.
  • In the avant-garde anime Serial Experiments Lain, the main character, a 14-year old-girl named Lain Iwakura, is referred to as a "homunculus made out of artificial rhibozome" by Eiri Masami, a character that could be considered the series' villain, implying that she was artificially created, probably by Masami himself.
  • The Homunculus is a false body that can be inhabited by a willing mind in Sean Williams' book series The Books of the Cataclysm, once a soul has entered the homunculus it will morph to appear as that person, but is stronger and more durable than a normal human body.
  • In the MMORPG Ragnarok Online, a Homunculus is a creature that is created by Alchemist-class characters using various ingredients gathered from the fabled Yggdrasil Tree. Once raised by an Alchemist, the Homunculus follows and assists the player.
  • In the 2005 comedy film The League of Gentlemen's Apocalypse a homunculus is created in a subplot called "The King's Evil." The character Geoff Tipps is reading the script of "The King's Evil" and asks, "What is a (sic) homunculus?" Later, after writing himself into the script, he is being interrogated, during which he is asked, "How do you know of the homunculus?" to which he responds in exasperation, "What IS a homunculus?"
  • In the manga Buso Renkin, a homunculus is an artificial life form that eats humans, created by the science of alchemy.
  • The Survival Horror game Haunting Ground by Capcom includes at least one homunculus as an antagonist that relentlessly pursues the player character Fiona Belli.
  • In the Nintendo DS Game Magician's Quest: Mysterious Times, by Konami, the player character is given an assignment to grow a homnuculus. This is done by casting an incantation on a special mushroom for several days. The homunculus follows the character around for a few days and doesn't have to much to say. Then it send the player character a telegram that it must leave them. The telegram says the homnuculus is looking for a way for it to stay with the character forever.

Other uses of the name "homunculus"

  • Hideo Yamamoto's manga Homunculus is about a successful, maverick insurance analyst whose world plunged into chaos after he underwent trepanation.
  • In the video game Shadow of Memories (also known as Shadow of Destiny), Homunculus is the name of an entity that obviously has a great understanding of space and time, and he's helping the main character in the game to escape his death. He is a real homunculus, as his roots are in the age of the alchemists. Very little is known about his past. He also dresses dark, a reflection of his possible intentions. However, as the game progresses, the player will come to learn about both of these.
  • In the Nintendo D] game Castlevania: Dawn of Sorrow, a Homonculus is portrayed as an aquatic, human-like creature with a greyish-greenish body and a purple face, and is attached to a pink umbilical cord. It is located in a laboratory-themed area, possibly connecting it to the artificial human theme. It attacks by flailing its arms around violently, and can be destroyed by attacking it after it shows its face. It can also be destroyed if you let it come after you and leave the screen (at this point the cord should break and it should eventually drown.) The power gained from its soul allows the player to throw a little Homonculus (based on the actual origins of the term, possibly) that damages enemies.
  • In the computer game Diablo II (specifically the expansion pack Diablo II: Lord of Destruction), a Homunculus is a unique shield used by the Necromancer class of characters. It is a shrunken demon head and is the unique version of an "Hierophant Trophy", but no direct information concerning the relation of Homunculus the shield to the literal meaning of Homunculus is given.
  • In the MMORPG Computer game Lineage II, The Homunculus is a unique mystics sword used commonly by Mages in the game, later in the game, Large, One Eyed monsters High level monsters named Homunculus, and given Monster Ranks.
  • In The Talons of Weng-Chiang, a 1977 serial from the British television series Doctor Who, the Peking Homunculus is the proper name given to an animated ventriloquist's dummy known as Mr. Sin. The dummy was really an android from the future, with the cerebral cortex of a pig.
  • In the Sam Keith comic book The Maxx, the small white and blue creatures called Isz (iz in the singular) are referred to as Homunculi by the villain Mr. Gone.
  • In the manga Buso Renkin, a homunculus is an artificial life form that eats humans, created by the science of alchemy.
  • In the film Manhattan, Woody Allen refers to his girlfriend's former lover as a homunculus.
  • The MMORPG Ragnarok Online has recently adapted to a homunculus system for the Alchemist class in which a pet like homunculus is created using a skill earned through a quest. The homunculus then follows the user around like a pet, but has stats, skills, and will you help you in combat.
  • The RPG Star Ocean: Till the End of Time has a mechanical ability where the players can create elemental based homunculus which can be worked into weapons to give the weapons that element. The game describes the homunculus as artificial, while the appearance is that of a fairy, giving "living" traits.
  • In the Visual Novel name Animamundi: Dark Alchemist The character Bruno Glending created an army of Homunculus in secret by claiming they are clones, the main character Georik Zaberisk also creates one using pure water, semen, horse dung, and either his own or another character's blood.
  • Laurie Schneider Adams, in "A History of Western Art", makes several references to a practice in the Middle Ages of depicting Christ as a homunculus. She states, "This depiction of Christ as a child-man, partly a reference to his miraculous nature, is a convention of Christian art before 1300". It is speculative, but Romanesque artists, often sculptors, may have been translating the infant Jesus in this way out of respect for his Divine nature, as a metaphor for his Divinity. Similarly, though stylistically very different, Michelangelo depicts David, the giant slayer, as a giant. Jekeller 23:07, 28 August 2006 (UTC)
  • In the video game Lands of Lore III (1999) by Westwood Studios, the main character Copper can acquire a cynistic, wise-cracking, female homunculus named Griselda as a familiar.
  • In the video game "bloodwilltell tezuka osamu dororo" the homunculus is a boss creature.
  • Bibliometrics research has uncovered the "bibliohomunculus" within the word patterns of texts.


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  • Watson JD, Berry A. DNA: The Secret of Life. New York, NY: Random House; 2003.
  • Abbott TM, Hermann WJ, Scully RE. Ovarian fetiform teratoma (homunculus) in a 9-year-old girl. Int J Gynecol Pathol 1984;2:392–402.
  • Kuno N, Kadomatsu K, Nakamura M, Miwa-Fukuchi T, Hirabayashi N, Ishizuka T. Mature ovarian cystic teratoma with a highly differentiated homunculus: a case report. Birth Defects Res A Clin Mol Teratol 2004;70:40–46.