The Strange Theory of the Homunculus

There have been many strange and peculiar theories that have been developed and studied over the years, but one of the most popular theories is the one involving a creature called the homunculus. The homunculus is a small human-like creature with body parts that resemble those found in a person, although it is much smaller in scale. Throughout the sixteenth century, it was believed that the homunculus could be created through unnatural means by mixing several items that we will be discussing later; however, in the nineteenth century, it became fictitious since there was no factual evidence supporting the claim that a small creature can be made unnaturally. To know more about this interesting fictional creature, let us take a dive into the strange theory of the homunculus.

Origins of the Term

According to records, the first use of the term “homunculus” was found in a text called “De Natura Rerum” that was written by Paracelsus in 1537. In the text, Paracelsus claimed that someone could create a homunculus by using a human sperm in sealing it inside a cucurbit for forty days while having the temperature similar to one found inside a horse’s womb. The sperm will then slowly transform into a small human, although it has a transparent body. Paracelsus then said that it should be fed with “the Arcanum of human blood” for forty weeks in order for it to develop body parts properly.

There are some people who claim that the concept for the homunculus had existed even before Paracelsus wrote his strange method in 1537, and one of those people was the famous psychoanalyst Carl Jung. In Jung’s argument, the method for creating homunculi is found in the text “Visions of Zosimos,” which is believed to have been written in the third century. In the text, it was stated that Zosimos saw a priest that changed his form into a small creature known as the “anthroparion.” Jung believes that the term mentioned in the text has the same meaning as “homunculus.” However, Carl Jung Stated that he does not equate the homunculus to artificial life; instead, he compared it to the “inner person” of a human being that is rarely shown in the real world.

a drawing by NicolaasHartsoeker in 1695 depicting a small person inside a sperm

Homunculus in the Concept of Spermists

Sperm swim to ovum cell with 3d rendering in laboratory science concept

The concept of the homunculus was first presented in the 1600s to explain the process of conception. Once implanted in a female, the homunculus, a little human supposed to be contained within each sperm cell, would mature into a child. It was eventually discovered that this hypothesis was erroneous because it assumed that the homunculus could create its own sperm, resulting in an endless cycle of miniature people. The concept also fails to account for the fact that offspring frequently have traits from both parents. However, the spermist theory was widely embraced for a long time before it was shown false.


Influence of Folklore in Alchemy

Since the homunculus has originated from sixteenth-century alchemy, it is widely believed that the alchemists were inspired by the popular folklore in that period for finding ways to creating an artificial human.

The mandragora or mandrake, a real plant that is associated with folklore as a creature that has a killing scream whenever its roots or head is dug up from the ground, is stated to be one of the major inspirations behind the homunculus. Mandrakes are believed to have small child-like body parts that are hidden on the ground, and the top of its head is what makes up the branches and leaves that are seen on the surface.

In Jewish folklore, the homunculus is often linked to the golem, which is a small creature that is usually depicted to have body parts made of rocks or soil. According to the stories, the golem is human-made and symbolizes the power of humans to create human life, similar to what the homunculus signifies.

The Modern Homunculus

Because the homunculus is considered as a fictional and imaginary creature today, there have been many works of literature and entertainment that used the term for various functions and reasons. The method of creating artificial humans has been a popular theme in stories since the 1800s, with some of the earlier ones that used the theme perfectly are Frankenstein by Mary Shelley and Faust, Part Two by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.

Faust by Goethe

The homunculus is also featured in many TV shows, films, and video games around the world, including Dungeons & Dragons, Being John Malkovich, and Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark. In Japan, there is a popular manga titled Fullmetal Alchemist that centers on the rules of alchemy and has a group of characters called the “Homunculi” that looks like humans but with supernatural powers and abilities due to how they were artificially made.

Homunculus in the Field of Neurology

A 2-D model of cortical sensory homunculus

A homunculus is a deformed cartoon version of a human being created to show how our minds see the various parts of our bodies. Due to the fact that they have more sensory nerves than other bodily parts, lips, hands, feet, and genitalia are depicted as being larger. This is due to the fact that these body parts occupy greater room in the sensory and motor cortex, the regions of the brain that regulate touch and movement. The phrase “the small person within the brain” is frequently used to describe this concept in neurology.

The Homunculus Argument

A flowing blue vortex energy background with half an acupuncture dummy in a blue color showing meridians and space for copy

Despite many people believing that homunculus doesn’t exist, there are some intellectuals that use the term for other purposes, and one of which is the homunculus argument that is related to human vision. According to the argument, humans have an “internal viewer” that sees whatever our eyes see in the real world. This internal viewer is said to a smaller version of the person, but the mind is the one who subconsciously creates its existence. When the eyes are able to focus on objects and send signals to the brain on what it looks like, the brain develops the images into movie-like scenes that the internal viewer is watching. The homunculus argument is also called the Cartesian theater, where the “inner being” of the person is watching what is happening to the bigger version of him or her in the real world.

However, some people consider the homunculus argument as a fallacy due to one major flaw. The flaw is that if the internal viewer closely resembles his or her bigger counterpart, then he or she must have another internal viewer inside the mind as well. Because of this fallacy, one can argue that the number of internal viewers in a person’s mind is infinite, and many believe that there is nothing infinite in the world or even in the universe, as everything is supposed to have a beginning and an end. Many arguments and counterarguments are still being put out today for the fallacy, so we are still far away from knowing if the homunculus argument should be taken seriously.