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Definition: homunculus from Cambridge Dictionary of Human Biology and Evolution

Fully formed, miniature human body believed, according to some medical theories of the sixteenth and seventeeth centuries, to be contained in the spermatozoon. See Preformation Doctrine and encasement theory.

Summary Article: homunculus
from Chambers Dictionary of the Unexplained

A tiny man which, according to alchemists, could be produced artificially from human semen and endowed with magical powers to serve its creator.

The word ‘homunculus’ is Latin for ‘little man’, and the term appears to have been first used by the 16th-century alchemist paracelsus. Like Aristotle, Paracelsus believed that the central ingredient for the generation of offspring was the male semen, and that the mother contributed only the matter from which the young was made. He therefore reasoned that it should be possible to generate a little man artificially by cultivating human semen in a flask, keeping it warm, and providing it with nutrients as it developed. In his De Rerum Natura, he describes the process by which a homunculus may be created: semen is kept in decaying horse dung until it begins to live and move, after which it is fed with ‘the arcanum of human blood’ and kept in the dung for 40 weeks, until is has become a fully developed miniature man. It may then be educated to serve (as with the golem of Jewish folklore) and protect its creator. Paracelsus claimed to have created such a creature, which was allegedly no more than 30 centimetres (12 inches) tall.

Other alchemists had different theories on the best way to create a homunculus; one involved mandrake. This plant was popularly believed to grow in ground where the semen of a hanged man had fallen (ejaculated in the final throes before death), possibly because the form of its root often roughly resembled the shape of a man. It was believed that after the root was picked it should be washed and ‘fed’ with milk and honey, or sometimes blood, until it developed into a homunculus. Another writer, Dr David Christianus, wrote in the 18th century of a method involving an egg. An egg laid by a black hen has a hole poked in the shell and a small amount of the white is replaced with human semen. The hole is then sealed with virgin parchment, and the egg buried in horse dung. In this method it was claimed that a tiny human would develop after 30 days, which would protect its creator if fed regularly.

It was believed that the homunculus was in every respect identical to a human, except that it did not possess a soul, and was endowed with magical powers and insights.

© Chambers Harrap Publishers Ltd 2007

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