Homuncli, Golems, and Artificial Life
By Gary Lachman
The notion of “man-made humans,” or other living creatures fashioned by human hands, has a long history in mythology and folklore. In recent years, with the development of genetic engineering, virtual reality, and artificial life of various sorts, it has gained a new significance. But our current fascination with—not to mention dread over—the increasing likelihood of genetically modified and artificial humans is not, in essence, a particularly new development. It touches on some of the central themes of religion and the occult and magical practices that emerged from a once-powerful but now submerged spiritual belief
The Kabbalah, for example, includes legends and stories about the alchemical homunculus, or “little man,” and the golem, a kind of proto–Frankenstein’s monster. In both cases the idea is that through certain secret magical practices, human beings can share in the creative power of God. To the orthodox believers of both Judaism and Christianity such a notion is considered blasphemous and betrays either the hubris of humanity or the work of the devil. How much the orthodox misunderstanding and rejection of these ideas helped to distort them is unclear, and space and time prevent me from exploring this question. Although ostensibly concerned with very similar objectives—the creation of an “artificial man”—the alchemical homunculus and the kabbalistic golem are quite different. The popular understanding of these esoteric themes has for the most part focused on a literal interpretation, and their resurgence in our contemporary consciousness threatens to take that literalism seriously.
Prior to the rise of science and the mechanical vision of human life and the universe, the idea of creating human simulacra had a strong organic foundation. The homunculus was something one grew; the popular belief was that homunculi could be grown from the mandrake root, whose shape lent itself to anthropomorphic speculation. The golem, too, although not quite as organic as the homunculus, was nevertheless not pieced together bit by bit, as Mary Shelley’s monster would be; it was fashioned, molded from clay or soil and then miraculously brought to life.
To be sure, the prescientific age had mechanical marvels as well. Hero of Alexandria in the second century wrote manuals on how to construct moving god images and other automated devices. Using steam and sand, Hero was able to animate singing mechanical birds, to rotate statues, and to power a miniature puppet theater. There is evidence that such mechanical wonders were used as much for entertainment as for religious purposes. And we also know that animated statues played an important part in the religious rites of the NeoPlatonic schools of late antiquity, a practice that resurfaced in the folk traditions of the Middle Ages. Pope Sylvester II was said to have consulted a mechanical “talking head,” and the same was said of the monk Roger Bacon and the Dominican friar and natural philosopher Albertus Magnus.
As Victoria Nelson shows in her fascinating book The Secret Life of Puppets, this tradition of animated god images carried on in the popular fascination with puppets. The ancients, however, didn’t view their animated images as human simulacra but more as a kind of magical magnet used to attract divine energies. To animate a god image was to perform theurgy, to create the god, to bring the god to physical manifestation. For ancients like the philosophers Plotinus, Proclus, Porphyry, and Iamblichus, this meant drawing down the god-force that resided in the stars and embodying it in the image of the god. Although this was a form of “giving life” to inanimate objects, it was concerned not with creating humans but with making the divine present.
The question arises then: What is the homunculus and what is the golem? Franz Hartmann’s 1896 Life of Paracelsus defines homunculi as “artificially made human beings, generated from the sperm without the assistance of the female organism (black magic.)” The Swiss alchemist Theophrastus Bombast von Hohenheim, otherwise known as Paracelsus (1493–1541), is recognized by many as an early master of holistic medicine and natural healing. It was from Paracelsus that Goethe, a great reader of alchemical and occult literature, got the idea of the homunculus which he used in the second part of Faust. Paracelsus offered a complete recipe for creating a homunculus:
If the sperma, enclosed in a hermetically sealed glass, is buried in horse manure for forty days, and properly magnetized, it begins to live and move. After such a time it bears the form and resemblance of a human being, but it will be transparent and without a body. If it is now artificially fed with the Arcanum sanguinis hominis until it is about forty weeks old, and if allowed to remain during that time in horse manure in a continually equal temperature, it will grow into a human child, with all its members developed like any other child, such as could be born by a woman; only it will be much smaller. We call such a being a homunculus, and it may be raised and educated like any other child, until it grows older and obtains reason and intellect, and is able to take care of itself.
Hartmann notes that Paracelsus has been taken to task for believing in the literal creation of such a being, but in Paracelsus’s defense, he offers a story purporting to give evidence for the reality of such things. It’s easy to assume that Paracelsus was taken in by the common, literal understanding of what the homunculus is. But there’s also the possibility that Paracelsus was aware of this understanding and used the superstition to communicate secret teachings. References to the need to bury the sperm in horse manure, to keep it there for forty days, and to feed it with the Arcanum sanguinis hominis, the “secret blood of man,” suggest that Paracelsus may have been making reference to mythic rather than literal ideas.
Ronald D. Gray, in his book Goethe the Alchemist, argues that there’s a great deal of evidence showing that the homunculus was one of many names used by the alchemists to designate the secret aim of the alchemical Great Work. To most of us, alchemy is a primitive forerunner of chemistry, and if we know anything about alchemy it’s that it was concerned with turning lead into gold. Many calling themselves alchemists convinced themselves and many others that this was indeed the aim of the Royal Art and that it was possible. Many sought the secrets of alchemy out of sheer greed, and many would-be alchemists found a comfortable niche or, perhaps more often, an undesirable end, in the employ of a king or queen.
But there’s another way to read the alchemical project, and that is that the transformation had more to do with the alchemists themselves than with a lump of metal. Turning lead into gold was a symbolic way of describing the true aim of alchemy: the spiritual transformation of the alchemist. If one takes the time to read the alchemical literature, it’s easy to come away feeling absolutely muddled. Strange creatures, impossible landscapes, paradoxes, and downright illogic seem to dominate; the closest thing to any modern is the writings and art of the surrealists, who, ironically, looked to the alchemists for inspiration or interpretation of dreams.
It is in the psychological literature of the last half century, especially in the Jungian school, that we find great correspondence with alchemical thought. The true goal of the alchemists, the real aim of all the preparation and cumbersome apparatus, was to unite their earthly, mortal soul with that of the Creator, to participate in the divine, to reawaken their spiritual consciousness, and to grasp the secret forces at work behind the natural world. In this the alchemists carried on the same work as their Neoplatonic forebears.
Success in this work depended on following the proper procedures, which included astrological concerns, exemplifying the alchemist’s belief that the cosmos was a unified whole and that each part of it embodied the divine force animating everything. For the alchemist, matter was not the dead, inert stuff it is for us: it was a living body, one that could respond to a person’s attention. As the alchemists transformed the matter in their alembic through the alchemical process, their own inner world experienced similar changes. The entire process centered on the idea of rebirth. The alchemists were to “die” in a sense—to lose their earthly, mortal being—and, if the procedure was successful, would be reborn.
Death was an essential aspect of the alchemical process; it was out of death that new life could emerge, as it did in the Frankenstein’s monster. In Paracelsus’s recipe for the homunculus, the horse manure represents the putrefaction needed to begin the process of rebirth. This is the first step in the alchemical work. The old self, the old Adam, must be broken down until we arrive at the prima materia, the primordial stuff, the unformed matter out of which any future creation can take place. The forty days in which the sperma is buried in the horse manure parallel Christ’s forty days in the desert, when he is tempted by Satan. This means that the alchemist must undergo trials, must endure some suffering, and that the alchemical process is not something going on outside of oneself but is something that must be lived through. This is also suggested in the idea that the homunculus, the little man who is the alchemist reborn, must be fed by the alchemist’s own secret blood. The alchemist’s attention, concentration, mind, or soul must be completely focused on the task variously known as the creation or discovery of the philosopher’s stone, the elixir of life, potable gold, the universal solvent, and, very often, the creation of the homunculus depicted in numerous alchemical illustrations, often as the god Mercury encased in the alchemical vessel.
That the alchemists would speak of this in parable, allegory, and obscure language shouldn’t be surprising. It’s difficult enough for us, who have the advantage of familiarity with self-help and psychotherapeutic literature, to grasp the meaning of rebirth. For the literal-minded of the Middle Ages, who were taught that all magic and occult knowledge was the work of the devil, this would be a subtle notion indeed. The idea that by going through the alchemical rebirth, one would become as Christ—regenerated—would strike them as blasphemous. What was left was the literal idea of making an actual man or woman, just like the idea of making actual gold from lead or finding an actual stone. Yet a famous alchemical maxim reads: “Our gold is not the vulgar gold.” Clearly, making material gold was not what they were after. Creating an actual tiny human being was always recognized as a display of power that went beyond nature. This is a dim and distorted echo of the alchemists’ belief that their art was against nature in the sense that it both sped up a natural process and redeemed its practitioners from a life lived solely at the natural, Adamic, unregenerate level.
The legend of the golem has also suffered from a too-literal interpretation. Probably the most well known version of the golem story is Gustav Meyrink’s classic expressionistic novel The Golem, published in 1915. Several film versions of the golem story have been made; the best-known is probably Paul Wegener’s 1920 version. In the first film to deal with the theme, Otto Rippert’s 1916 Homunculus, a scientist creates an artificial man and endows him with more than human powers. When this superman discovers his true origin—that he is not human at all and can never feel love—he reacts violently and inaugurates a reign of terror that leads to his destruction. This notion of a lack, of something missing, also haunts homunculi in future storytelling.
The popular idea of the golem had its start in the 1890s, when the creature became associated with the legends surrounding the famous Rabbi Loew of Prague, an almost mythic figure of the sixteenth century. In one version, Rabbi Loew creates the golem to protect the Jewish population of Prague from one of Emperor Rudolph II’s pogroms. Prague is perhaps the most occult and alchemical city in Europe; aside from the golem legends, it has a long tradition of puppets, dolls, and magic shows of various kinds.
Although the popular idea of the golem is associated with the magical powers of Rabbi Loew—and there is no evidence that the rabbi himself ever attempted to make a golem—the term has a long. if obscure history in Talmudic literature. The word golem is mentioned once in the Bible, in Psalm 139; today it’s often translated as “embryo.” Golem itself means “unformed”; it’s the hyle of the ancients, the chaotic, inchoate state of matter before it is given form by the Creator. The similarity between this and the alchemical prima materia seems clear. In the Talmudic Aggadah, Adam is referred to as “golem.” In a midrash from the second and third centuries, Adam is described as a kind of cosmic golem, an immense being whose body is as large as the universe and who can see the entire history of the world, its past and future—an echo of Madame Blavatsky’s akashic record.
This description relates to the kabbalistic idea, also shared by hermetic, alchemical, and Gnostic beliefs, that the universe itself is a kind of man, Adam Kadmon, and that each of us is a microcosm, a universe in miniature: the universe is a Great Man, and we are all little universes. There is a story that when God was creating the world, he made Adam first but left him unfinished, in a golem state, fearing that if he completed him and then went on to create the universe, Adam himself might get the credit for the work (which implies something about the character of the Creator). So God left Adam unfinished, and only after creating the world did he breathe life into him. One symbolic interpretation of this story, which relates to the alchemical “little man,” is that we all are golems until the breath of the divine enters us. We are all unfinished, incomplete, until regenerated.
The kabbalist scholar Gershom Scholem tells us that “the golem is a creature, particularly a human being, made in an artificial way by virtue of a magic act, through the use of holy names.” In kabbalistic tradition, the golem, like Adam, is made of clay or soil. He is molded into human form, and then the mystical name of God, the Tetragrammaton, JHVH, is written on a piece of paper and placed on his mouth. The motif of a magical word or name shows the importance of writing and language in the Jewish mystical tradition. Kabbalah itself is a mystical interpretation of the Bible, and the interplay of words, their rearrangement into other words, and their numerical values all play an important role in understanding the secret laws behind creation. Whereas in the alchemical idea of the homunculus the alchemist himself is re-created, here the kabbalist echoes God’s creative power and creates a kind of life himself.
There is some practical value in this, in that the golem is often used as a kind of slave or worker who, takes care of many otherwise onerous tasks, similar to the modern robot or android. The golem, however, is a kind of sorcerer’s apprentice, and, as in the Frankenstein tale, the monster gets out of hand. In many versions, the golem continues to grow and grow and soon becomes too big for the magician to handle.
There are different versions about how the golem is stopped. In the most popular one, the word emeth, “truth,” is written on the golem’s forehead, and this gives it life. In order to stop it from destroying the ghetto, the magician rubs out the first letter of the word, leaving meth, which means “death.” The man of clay then tumbles to the ground and shatters. In Gustav Meyrink’s novel the golem, a metaphor of the novelist’s true self, is brought to light through the act of writing. In one of the many film versions, the golem falls in love with the magician’s daughter and, like the homunculus, turns violent and has to be destroyed. Gershom Scholem points out that, in keeping with kabbalistic tradition, the golem always lacks some essential quality. In some versions it lacks the power to speak, emphasizing that the magical power of words is reserved for God and his devout believers. In others it lacks intelligence or some other positive human quality. All golem stories, however, portray the golem, no matter how strong, as less than fully human. The imperfection of their creature shows that the magicians, no matter how knowledgeable, are still far short of God, a point that contemporary advocates of “man-made humans” may wish to ponder.
Jewish Mythological Creatures
Famous For: Being the biggest and baddest bird who purposefully dropped an egg once, which destroyed a forest and flooded 60 villages with eggy grossness.
What He Is: Ziz is the least famous of the biggest and most powerful creatures in the world. Where the Behemoth is of the land and the Leviathan takes up residence in the sea, the Ziz’s home is in the skies. He is so big that his feet can touch the ground and his head touches the sky, so how he flies is a bit of a mystery. He is sometimes grouped with the Bar Juchne, a race of giant mythical birds. Ziz protects the world from southern storms and has a wingspan so large it blocks out the sun. It shows up in the Talmud, where the excuse for throwing its eggs around was because it was rotten. The Children of Israel will have our revenge, though: according to popular legend, the Ziz, Leviathan, and Behemoth will all be killed for a feast at the coming of the Messiah.
Where Are They Now?: Ziz, like many of the other creatures on this list, can be grouped in with very similar creatures. Giant birds show up everywhere, called Rocs and Ankas, for example. The giant eagles in The Hobbit are a friendly version that saves many heroes from danger at the last possible second. As for actual fatal egg droppings, that is thankfully a rare occurrence.
Famous For: Tunnelling underground to build the First Temple in Jerusalem.
What They Are: Essentially, a shamir is a small insect that can break through pretty much any substance. When constructing the first temple, tools that could also be used for war were forbidden, so shamir were apparently used in lieu.
Where Are They Now? The seventh Prime Minister of Israel changed his name to Yitzhak Shamir, inspired by the creature. Usually, insects that are good at cutting things take the form of enemies and show up as monsters of the week pretty frequently. Sandworms are a dominant force in the Dune series of novels. The Conqueror Worm by Edgar Allan Poe relies heavily on Jewish symbolism while never referring to the shamir outright. Regulan bloodworms from Star Trek can cleanse and harm people, being both useful and dangerous.
Famous For: Possessing People. Being whiny jerks.
What They Are: Dybbuk’s are your basic possessive spirit: ghosts or spirits that occupy people’s body against their will. They are often related to souls that need help moving on and, as such, figuring out exactly what the Dybbuk wants is the best way to exorcise it. This means listening to its problems and trying to appease it, like a slightly more articulate toddler, but in the body of someone you know.
Where Are They Now?: Figuring out the requests of possessing spirits is a mainstay story in supernatural-themed television. Buffy the Vampire Slayer uses the device plenty of times but never refers the spirits as Dybbuk, even though character Willow Rosenberg is herself Jewish. The 2009 Coen Brothers film A Serious Man opens with a dybbuk possessed man killing a couple with an icepick.
Famous For: Siphoning goat’s milk by day and human blood by night. Shapeshifting.
What They Are: Broxa’s are originally a bird that liked to drink blood and steal milk from goats, which is delightful. They are basically Jewish vampire bats, but during the Middle Ages they shapeshifted into a witch or demon, primarily taking a female appearance. Why the sudden shift is a mystery to scholars, most attribute it to Jewish cultures mixing with those around them.
Where Are They Now?: Blood suckers are everywhere and none is more famous than Dracula, who could shapeshift and liked to drink blood. Vampires, especially shapeshifting ones, have dominated culture, and we are all familiar with Twilight’s sparkly versions. Vampire bats are actually real and a nuisance, but not really for humans, they prefer livestock. Broxa also bear a striking similarity to the Chupacabra, a blood sucking creature of popular legend in Central and South America.
Famous For: Being cows or possibly unicorns.
What They Are: The fact that when we hear the word unicorn and all think of a white horse with a horn is a relatively new phenomenon. Unicorns are actually a widespread mythical creature that is found all over the world and, with each iteration, the description changes quite significantly. The Jewish version is a Re’em and it is more or less a cow. It’s mentioned nine times in the Bible, sometimes referred to as an oryx or unicorn. Generally, it is considered to be an ancestor of cattle, usually called auroch, but too wild to be tamed. Some depictions give it a single horn as well. Some Creationists believe a Re’em is actually a triceratops, which would have been awesome if dinosaurs and humans lived at the same time. I bet they would have had a very gamy taste.
Where Are They Now?: Unicorns are everywhere, so are cows. In popular culture, bulky single horned animals are also everywhere and generally look like rhinos, but many big military vehicles, especially bulky naval ships, are named unicorns in reference to the traditionally, non-horse type of unicorn. Haruki Murakami’s brilliant novel Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World has a character who reads dreams from unicorn skulls, ones that are not very horselike. In Harry Potter, Re’em blood is an extremely rare substance that gives immense strength to anyone who drinks it.
Famous For: Being big and mysterious, but only to us. Apparently everyone knew about them way back when.
What They Are: Like most creatures on this list, there is a lot of speculation and not a ton of information: the Nephilim are mentioned only a couple of times and in a way that assumes you know what they are. Genesis 6:4 says “The Nephilim were on the earth in those days—and also afterwards,” which isn’t very informative.
Mostly, people believe they were giants with two possible origins. One, they are the result of fallen angels interbreeding with wicked people in the pre-Flood world; two, they are descended from Adam’s son Seth and condemned by God for rebelling. They don’t sound too friendly, being essentially the descendents of wicked watchers or failed revolters.
Where Are They Now?: Dante, the protagonist of the Devil May Cry video games, is supposedly one, although not exactly gigantic in his regular form. They also show up in the young adult book series The Mortal Instruments, where they are supernatural beings who became powerful by drinking the blood of an angel named Raphael.
Famous For: Being God’s own Secret Service. Attending almost every major Biblical event.
What They Are: Watchers are winged creatures that are basically God’s personal assistants. They fight for him; like in the War in Heaven that led to the Fall; send messages for him to humans, intervene in events on His behalf, and hang out around God all the time. They act as God’s army and are ranked as such. Cherubim, for example, hold special duties, like the ones who guarded the way to the Garden of Eden after Adam and Eve were banished. The Seraphim have six wings and constantly fly around singing praises to God. There are others as well, especially outside the canonical texts, but that could make them a Top 10 on their own!
Where Are They Now?: Watchers show up everywhere in various forms, it’s impossible to list all of them. Gandalf from The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings is essentially a guardian angel, especially for Bilbo Baggins. Marvel Comics has all sorts of Jewish influence, and the Watcher in that universe observes events on behalf of basically an intergalactic archive.
Famous For: Being really gigantic and having the world’s most powerful belly button.
What It Is: The Behemoth and Leviathan are generally grouped together as they unconquerable creatures of their respective habitats. For the Behemoth, that’s the land. He has an extended description in Job, and highlights include his tail like cedar, limbs as strong as copper, and apparently he holds a lot of power in his loins and in the navel of his belly. He can apparently drink the entire Jordan as well, so I guess he gets pretty thirsty being the most powerful creature to roam the land. But as powerful as he is, the Job passage describes him as essentially a house pet compared to God’s power, reminding Job who is really in charge.
Where Are They Now?: The Behemoth is essentially an unconquerable monster and that actually isn’t a very popular prospect in today’s popular fiction, which prefers successful heroic victories over creatures that only God can defeat. Thomas Hobbes used it as the title to his account of the English Civil War, quite appropriately. The word is used to describe a singular object of unique power and size, usually a monster, but often the monster is defeated by a hero and not really a very good example of a true Behemoth.
Famous For: Being a really big fish that likes to swallow people and ships whole.
What It Is: The Leviathan is the Behemoth’s more famous watery equivalent, being a gigantic whale or shark that is feared by sailors around the world. He also shows up in Job with a very long description that claims the mere sight of him is overpowering. He also can shoot fire from his mouth that sets coals ablaze and dismay goes before him. Weapons are useless against him and, in one poetic moment, iron and bronze are like straw and rotten wood to him. Basically, he’s the biggest and baddest fish in the Seven Seas.
Where Are They Now?: The word has become synonymous with giant sea creature, and popular folklore loves them some big fishes. Probably the most famous Leviathan is Moby Dick, a great white whale that torments Captain Ahab. It also shows up in the Illuminatus! Trilogy by Robert Anton Wilson as tentacled pyramid. It also is the name of many a spaceship in film, television, and video games, including Star Wars, Mass Effect, and Farscape.
Famous For: Being rocks. Rocks that move.
What They Are: Golem are usually animate beings made of inanimate objects, most commonly rocks. Adam, in a way, is a golem, being made from the earth by God. They are usually created by people as a sign of devotion and to help people in various tasks. Because of their status as distinctly Jewish creatures, there are many folklore stories about rabbis who made golems throughout history. In 16th century Prague, for example, a rabbi reportedly made one to protect the Jewish ghetto from anti-semitic attacks.
Where Are They Now?: Golems show up all over the place, both traditionally as helpers and also as enemies. Living statues are in almost every movie that is remotely fantasy-based. A Golem is a central part of Michael Chabon’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, which is just highly recommended reading. Nobel Prize winner Elie Wiesel wrote a children’s book based on the Prague golem as well. The video game Shadow of the Colossus, one of the most well received games of all time, is about a girl who must kill gigantic golems.