That the sperm of a man be putrefied by itself in a sealed cucurbit [a pumpkin-like gourd] for forty days with the highest degree of putrefaction in a horse’s womb, or at least so long that it comes to life and moves itself, and stirs, which is easily observed. After this time, it will look somewhat like a man, but transparent, without a body. If, after this, it be fed wisely with the Arcanum of human blood, and be nourished for up to forty weeks, and be kept in the even heat of the horse’s womb, a living human child grows therefrom, with all its members like another child, which is born of a woman, but much smaller.
This quotation, from the 1537 book De Natura Rerum written by Swiss physician, Alchemist and astrologer of the German Renaissance, Paracelsus, is thought to be earliest (surviving) written mention of the term homunculus. Homunculus means “little man” in Latin and these artificially created human-like creatures were, along with the transmutation of base metals into gold, one of the most eagerly pursued goals of the Alchemists.
Paracelsus’ is by no means the only How-To guide for creating a such a creature to have survived however. Liber Vaccae (“The Book of the Cow”) is an even older Alchemical text – a 12th century Spanish translation of a 9th century Arabic book entitled Kitab al-Nawamis (“The Book of Laws”) – gives a slightly different (or perhaps simply more detailed) recipe/formula for the creation of artificial, humanoid life. This version states that either a cow or a ewe (rather than a mare) would be the best host and that, once inseminated (using a mixture of semen and the alchemical “sun stone”), the beast should be kept in the dark and fed only on blood for the duration of the gestation. Once born, the homunculus should be transferred to a jar where it is fed on the blood of it’s slaughtered (via decapitation) mother. Liber Vaccae also gives details other alchemic recipes – such as one for generating a swarm of bees from an animal corpse [footnote 1] – most of which are similarly bizarre and gory. No one in their right minds would attempt to replicate any of these experiments, especially not in the 21st century. Would they?
The Modern Homunculus
In November 2015 a Russian YouTuber using the name Как Сделать uploaded their second video. The video has been watched more than thirteen million times, and reposted (at least in part) by many other YouTube users, often using titles such as “Real or Fake?”. The title of the video is “How to make a homunculus (Homunculus 1)” and it shows the YouTuber (visible only as a pair of hands) conducting an experiment. There is no animal, dead or alive, in the video, Как Сделать uses a hen’s egg in place of the mare/ewe/cow’s womb. After making a small hole in the shell of the egg, a syringe containing what we are told is semen is injected into the yolk. The hole is then covered with medical tape (“it is not necessary to do it very hermetically” the subtitles inform us), the egg placed in a sealed plastic container, which in turn is placed inside a woolly hat to create a warm and dark environment. This is shelved in a dark and quiet cupboard where it remains undisturbed for ten days. The video then skips ahead and we see the egg retrieved from its woolly sanctum after the allotted time has passed. The medical tape has a dark blotch on it where some kind of mold has grown. Как Сделать isn’t too worried by this as he says “In principle Paracelsus wrote that a small rotting is permissible. But it should not be very intensive”. The egg is cracked open rather unceremoniously with the back of a knife (homunculi aren’t capable of hatching themselves, apparently) and the contents emptied into the plastic container. From within the dark and unpleasant looking goop, using a large pair of metal tweezers, Как Сделать retrieves something surprising. A pale, spider-like thing – perhaps three inches in length – which appears to have five legs, or tentacles which flex very slowly and ever so slightly, is held before the camera.
“It seems he is in bad condition. But he is alive because there are some movements. So what can I say? The alchemical recipe is actually true. But this creature can not have any highly developed intellect. At best it’s like and amoebae or jellyfish. It’s hard to say why the experiment has not turned successful. Perhaps because of the infection”.
The YouTuber goes on to say that Paracelsus’ instructions are quite vague and so he is not positive he has followed everything as he should have but he says, he may try again in the future. And, indeed, he did.
A Horde of Homunculi
“Homunculus #2” was uploaded in March 2016 and it is this video, viewed five and a half million times to date, which really caught the attention of a certain portion of the internet. In this video the original experiment is replicated but this time there is a lot more cleaning with alcohol and cotton-wool going on in between each of the stages with the egg and the syringe. The captions inform us that this is attempt number five and that the previous three have yielded no results. Everything is essentially done as previously but the egg is kept in its dark and warm condition for forty days this time. We skip ahead and once more the egg is cracked open. From within the darkened goop a differently shaped thing is tweezered; this time something like some kind of sea creature, with a “mouth” at one end, and again roughly three inches long. This creature moves. Held upside-down in the tweezers it lifts its “head” and moves it around. Как Сделать seems pleased (although not as excited as you might expect, to be honest) until he suddenly swears. He drops the creature on the tabletop and the next second slams a heavy book down on top of it. We are told (but I can’t see it myself) that the creature squirted some liquid (“poison”) from its mouth at its creator and that this was the cause of their violent reaction. The book is lifted up and a bloody, splattered mess is revealed.
“Homunculus #3” followed in April 2016 and this time Как Сделать (who introduces himself as “Korney” at the start of the video) was taking no chances. Wearing a gas-mask, gloves and a protective suit he opens five prepared eggs at once, but none yield any homunculi. “How to make a homunculus #4 (Homunculus)” was uploaded in May 2016 and this time a creature looking very much like the once which spat “poison”, but a lot cleaner, is retrieved from the eggy goop. In “Homunculus #5”, uploaded eight days later, we see the creature in a glass jar filled with milky water. It stands on a flattened “foot” end, its “mouth”, which seems to have a long red tongue/feeler protruding from it, at the top. It moves ever so slightly. We’re told that Korney has been putting sugar in the water but, as the alchemists wrote that homunculi should be fed on blood and milk, that is what he is planning on doing next. In the next video (June 2016) the creature has become fatter and larger. We are told it is now eating meat and we see it reacting to a tap on its glass bowl, before sucking in a small piece of meat. It doesn’t like its water getting too hot, we are told, and needs to be placed in the refrigerator periodically. “Homunculus #7” comes the following month and here we see a second creature that Korney has created, already in its water-filled glass jar. This one looks a little bit like a misshapen starfish, but doesn’t seem inclined to move. He has named the new creature Slowpoke, and the original Picachu after the Pokemon. Korney states his intention to put both creatures in the same tank once Slowpoke is large enough.
In the next video Slowpoke has grown a (not entirely convincing) eye, the pupil of which can be seen moving, seemingly tracking the movement of Korney’s hand. In “Homunculus #10” (December 2016) the two creatures are in the same tank and Picachu has its “mouth” fastened on to the back of Slowpoke (whose single eye looks rather comedically shocked). Korney isn’t sure if one is eating the other, or if they could be mating. In the following video not much has changed, only that Picachu seems to be “further in” to Slowpoke. In video number twelve (February 2017) the two creatures have merged into a single blobby thing which Korney touches with a paintbrush to show us that now moves (slightly) as one. By March they look like a weird flesh-coloured volcano thing or some sort of very unsettling sex toy. By April this thing has grown teeth and is being fed meat by Korney once again. The twist is that the creature will only accept meat which has been smeared in the creator’s own blood first. It starts “spitting” out clouds of dark liquid in its tank. Finally, in the most recent video, posted on the 12th of September 2017, Korney is examining a sample of the liquid under a microscope and testing its toxicity on a houseplant.
By this time many (myself included) would argue that the experiments of Как Сделать, aka Korney, have ceased to really have anything to do with Paracelsus, alchemy and the classical concept of the homunculus. In fact, I’m going to stick my neck out at this point and say I think that Как Сделать’s videos probably do not show real, living creatures, created by injecting human semen into shop-bought chicken eggs. It seems (to me) safe to assume that there is some degree of fakery going on here. I mean, to be perfectly honest, of course they’re fake. They obviously are. Indeed, there’s a rather good YouTube video entitled How to Fake a Homunculus (uploaded May 2016), which convincingly demonstrates some of the most likely means employed by Korney.
Something Как Сделать has inarguably been very successful in spawning however, is imitators. In March 2016 YouTuber Andrew Chemenoch posted a video if himself replicating Korney’s experiments. The resulting hatchlings were very obviously live shrimp. In June 2016 a YouTuber called Wendigo uploaded a video entitled “BIG HOMUNCULUS” showing a creature which they claim to have created using an ostrich egg. The thing – about the size of a six month old baby – looks alarmingly like a gigantic animatronic scrotum. There are a myriad of copycat videos, some with creatures that look almost identical to those created by Korney. All of which are, of course, completely fake, either using practical effects like the originals, or else (and all too often) using actual animals (usually fish, amphibians, and insects) or animal parts inserted into eggs. I have even seen homunculus videos which use still images of real human fetuses which, it hardly needs to be said, is not just beyond the bounds of bad taste, but of decency too. If you are planning of viewing or searching for any videos or images pertaining to homunculi, be warned that some contain unpleasant, and possibly disturbing imagery. The idea of what a homunculus is in 2017 has, amongst a certain generation of YouTube viewers at least, has been cemented thanks to Как Сделать’s videos. But, way back in the mists of time past before “like and subscribe” was a thing, what was the purpose of creating a homunculus?
The Uses of Homunculi
The idea that a human-like creature could be created using the semen of an alchemist and a non-human host arose from the ancient belief that each sperm contained a fully formed animalcule (“little animal”). This concept is known as prefomatisim. There were tiny, fully formed humans in the head of each and every spermatozoa, and how they developed depended only on where they were allowed to grow. So then, what was the reasoning behind the alchemical creation of a homunculus? On one level it was simply a certificate of mastery of the craft – the creation of life by magical means put the Alchemist on a par with a God – but what is to be done with the homunculus once this goal has been achieved?
16th century English mathematician, astronomer, astrologer, occult philosopher, and Alchemist Doctor John Dee was said to have employed homunculi as spies. It’s claimed that Dee sent the diminutive humanoids out into the shadows of London to eavesdrop on suspected enemies of Queen Elizabeth I and report back to him. This however, seems an unorthodox use, and contradicts the otherwise widely held belief that a homunculus cannot survive for any length of time outside of the jar or vessel in which it lives. Most likely then this was either a rumour deliberately circulated to make the enemies of Elizabeth wary, or else simply a colourful bit of Dee mythology. The 12th century Liber Vaccae actually contains not one but three How-Tos for creating homunculi, each with a different intended outcome. According to ancient-origins.net:
The first type of homunculus [mentioned in the opening section of this essay] 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 [for which a female monkey is used as a host] 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.
So, the homunculus was not just a being born of alchemy, but possessed magical powers of its own. In 1775 two alchemists – the Austrian nobleman Count Johann Ferdinand von Kufstein, and the Italian mystic and Rosicrucian cleric Abbé Geloni – are said to have successfully created ten homunculi in a period of just five weeks. These creatures – each with their own distinct appearance – could apparently answer questions put to them and predict the outcome of future events with some accuracy. Paracelsus’ De Natura Rerum says that a homunculus could and should be “educated with the greatest care and zeal, until it grows up and begins to display intelligence”. Paracelsus’ model of homunculus seems to be intended as a kind of companion and pupil for its creator then; an Alchemist’s apprentice. In a sense the homunculus is the original Artificial Intelligence, created only to assist the Alchemist in his quest for knowledge. Perhaps then the ultimate goal of every teenager filming themselves behind a locked bedroom door, injecting their seed into some eggs stolen from the fridge isn’t merely YouTube stardom. Maybe, if properly trained and nurtured, those suspiciously rubbery sea-spider looking things they claim to hatch could become oracles, magical fonts of knowledge with the ability to control the lunar cycle, the weather, to grant the ability to shape-shift. Maybe. Or maybe we should just be grateful that they seem to be sticking with eggs.
 The belief that bees grew from the corpses of animals is a truly ancient one chronicled in the Bible. The Book of Judges is the seventh book of the Hebrew Bible, and of the Christian Bible, in which the story of Samson is told. Samson, attacked by a lion, was granted superhuman strength by God and simply tore the animal open with his bare hands, leaving it dead. Passing by the carcass upon his return journey, Samson saw that bees swarmed around it and made their honey within. Samson ate some of the honey, and took some home to his family. Later, Samson asked the riddle
“Out of the eater came something to eat. Out of the strong came something sweet.”
Given that he was the only one who saw the lion filled with bees, this was an unfair riddle – very much in the “What have I got in my pocket?” league. Lyle’s Golden Syrup – Britain’s oldest surviving brand – has an image of a dead lion surrounded by a swarm of bees on its tins, the slogan “Out of the strong came forth sweetness” beneath.
Magic in the Cloister: Pious Motives, Illicit Interests, and Occult Approaches to the Medieval Universe by Sophie Page (Penn State Press, 2013)