Lesson 5) Creation of Monsters
Hello class! You’re just in time for midterms. I know, I know, it’s probably not the first thing you wanted to hear when you stepped into the room. Oh hold on, don’t put away your notebooks just yet, we have yet to get into the lesson! This is a topic that I personally have found both fascinating, yet simultaneously disturbing. I apologize in advance if you are squeamish or have just eaten, but as a warning, our topic today lies in one of the more unethical, dark corners of alchemy and could probably give a horror novel a run for its money. Remember that the content in today’s lesson will not be included on your midterm, however, it will be on your final and you’ll need it when you take your N.E.W.T.s next year. Let’s start!
In the past, particularly in Years Two and Three, we have skirted around the topic of creating artificial life. Today we will go more in depth with this topic, particularly with homunculi, which are small humans or humanoids created through alchemy. As I have mentioned before, fabricating “true” life from magic isn’t possible at all. The “life” created wouldn’t be sentient nor long-lasting. Even then, when considering the topic of artificial life, one must truly think about whether or not what they are doing is ethical. In theory, creating “true” life requires powerful, archaic magic that can be overwhelming to the average witch or wizard, and even those who have dedicated their lives to studying it. Alchemy is centered around the whole need for balance, making this practice highly dangerous, as bringing a sentient creature into the material plane requires something in return. This could mean the whole magical ritual needing a sacrifice of some sort, whether it’s a body or a soul, and thus it may reside well within the realm of Dark Arts or magic that no one should ever mess with. That being said, it didn’t stop alchemists from experimenting with magic in order to make some of these dastardly creations.
The first idea for making any type of synthetic life through alchemy dates back as far as the inception of the field, however, the creation of a homunculus began in the early Middle Ages. As mentioned in Year Two Lesson Three, even though the word “homunculus” wasn’t mentioned, Carl Jung pointed to the new being emerging from the several instances of sacrifice in Zosimos’ dreams as the very first time this idea was brought up in alchemical literature. About a hundred years later, alchemical texts made their way from Alexandria to Persia and Arabia. We already know that the Arabs had a thriving alchemical community due to the shift in the texts and that many were interested in Takwin, the study of creating artificial life. This included a variety of animals, ranging from snakes to scorpions, and eventually the idea of creating humans made its way into the study. While we’re already aware, thanks to Year Three Lesson Three, of Jabir ibn Hayyan’s Book of Stones that includes several of these “recipes,” there was a more prominent Takwin text published centuries earlier titled Book of the Cow (Liber Vaccae). The Book of the Cow is the first in alchemical literature to contain definite “recipes” for homunculi and actual descriptions of three different types of these small humans. What’s strange about this particular text is that no one knows who actually wrote it, as this was published before Hayyan and a majority of the Takwin alchemists were alive. Magihistorians theorize that Plato was the original author of Book of the Cow and that the text was one of those from the Library of Alexandria that made its way to Arabia. There is an opposing crowd that proclaims the text was written by an anonymous ancient Egyptian alchemist, however, neither side has been able to prove the true author, yet.
The recipes in Book of the Cow are extremely grotesque and not for the faint of heart. Long story short, they mainly involve inseminating a female animal, taking the substance it births and submerging it in a powder (made from various ingredients that differ depending upon the particular variant) for a few days, putting it in a glass jar, and decapitating the mother animal and feeding its blood to the blob. After that, a homunculus with certain magical powers is formed. I can see the look of disgust on your faces. Trust me, I am on the same page with the rest of you. Anyway, disturbing laboratory instructions aside, the variants of the resulting homunculi are fascinating, even though these methods haven’t been proven effective.
The first variant of homunculus was born from an ewe or cow (possibly even a bicorn), has the shortest incubation period of seven days, and is able to bestow powers onto others. This homunculus had the capability of transfiguring a human into an ape, sheep, or cow, giving people the ability to walk on water, and granting people the ability of remote viewing if they didn’t have it before. Another interesting tidbit is that this homunculus was able to make the full moon appear on the last day of any month. The second variant of homunculus was born from a monkey, had an incubation period of 40 days or more, and was known to be a medium for spirits and demons. Now, this might seem ludicrous in a world where we can clearly see ghosts, but there are seers that specialize in communicating with the dead who decided not to walk the route to becoming an apparition. Whether demons exist or not is a completely different topic, but essentially this homunculus was able to give people the ability to see and converse with spirits without needing a seer. The third variant of homunculus was born from an unidentified female animal and had the same incubation period as the second variant. This one differs more than the other two due to its powers not being centered around granting abilities to others. This homunculus was able to conjure poisonous snakes and cause rain during dry weather.
Although all three homunculi did have very interesting powers, these beings weren’t sentient enough to simply use them. Getting these results actually involved more grotesque rituals involving this tiny human, which included anything from rubbing its entrails on your hands and feet to actually decapitating it and drinking its blood. Again, it’s quite disgusting and I highly discourage you from even thinking about attempting to create a homunculus, especially using this method.
The attempts of creating artificial life didn’t seize in the slightest, and in fact, it carried over into Europe when alchemy followed the spread of Islam. However, it didn’t become inherently popular until the sixteenth century when Paracelsus wrote his own homunculus recipe in De Natura Rerum. This new recipe was very similar to the recipes in the Book of the Cow, except that it specifically required a horse and there was no need to create a powder. The homunculus was said to be born with a transparent body and must be fed with an elixir made from human blood called an arcanum for around 40 weeks or until it took on the appearance of a smaller human newborn baby. Paracelsus proclaimed that homunculi were not born with magical powers, but instead must be cared for and taught wisely until it was old enough to speak, at which point it would display a vast amount of intelligence. There aren’t records of Paracelsus actually creating a homunculus himself, however, he once wrote in a journal that he attempted to take an Aethonan horse from a winged horse pasture in Great Britain to experiment with, believing that using a magical creature would yield better results. However, he was unsuccessful as someone tipped Ministry officials that he was trespassing on the pasture. After that one attempt, Paracelsus never tried to obtain a winged horse again, thankfully deciding to move on to other subjects rather than perform what would definitely be considered animal cruelty.
The alchemy community has split opinions on whether to view the Book of the Cow and De Natura Rerum as physical processes or not. While some think there is merit to playing around in creating “life,” others believe these texts were meant to be read allegorically and the homunculus to be taken as a symbol. This also changed views on what the ultimate goal of alchemy was. Some believe the homunculus was symbolic for a spiritual regeneration through the Great Work, while others truly believe that the artificial generation of life was divine knowledge and the ultimate goal. Nevertheless, homunculi continued to appear in alchemical works. One example of this is at the end of the Chymical Wedding of Christian Rosenkreutz, a man and a woman are created and known as the Homunculi duo. This suggested that the end goal is, in fact, fabricating synthetic life and not creating gold or completing the Great Work.
There was an apparent “successful” homunculi attempt in 1775 when an alchemist named Count Johann Ferdinand von Kufstein proclaimed that he was able to produce ten homunculi with the help of an Italian cleric named Abbé Geloni. These homunculi were kept in glass jars in Kufstein’s Masonic lodge in Vienna and were reportedly able to see into the future. There were plenty of magical and Muggle witnesses of the creatures, which led into a full-scale investigation by the Austrian Ministry of Magic. Kufstein’s “homunculi” turned out to be young mandrakes suspended in a potion that keeps the screeching plants in a dormant and almost lifeless state. It was quite the scandal, really. Aside from having to send in obliviators to wipe the Muggle witnesses’ memories, Kufstein and Geloni were arrested for violating the International Statute of Secrecy. Now, what exactly prompted Kufstein to use mandrakes in his false experiment? When alchemy spread to Europe and people first learned of homunculi, a marginal amount of uninformed alchemists immediately linked them to mandrakes due to the plant’s humanoid appearance. This idea floated around in small alchemy circles and wasn’t widely known until after the publication of De Natura Rerum. This earned scoffs not only from herbologists, but also prominent alchemists such as Paracelsus and Johann Georg Faust, who publicly refuted the idea. This largely put the idea of mandrakes being homunculi to rest. However, Kufstein took this idea centuries later as an opportunity to carelessly gain fame. He prematurely harvested ten young mandrakes, hacked off the plants’ leaves, and stuffed them into jars. Obviously the Muggle witnesses would not have recognized the plants as mandrakes, but the magical witnesses were either in on the scheme or clearly knew nothing about herbology. And this is why you should always pay attention in Herbology, students!
Lastly, I have mentioned before that the creation of homunculi has been said to be a possible power of the Philosopher’s Stone. I won’t refute this possibility since the stone is usually the curveball that seems to be the exception to many rules of magic and this theory hasn’t necessarily been tested or proven false. Nicolas Flamel had once been asked to test this theory out, however, he ultimately refused, mentioning that “once someone commits the heinous act of playing god, he is never the same afterwards.” Although I clearly don’t have firsthand experience, I do ultimately think the theory of including a sacrifice has some merit, as I mentioned earlier in the lesson. Looking at the recipes detailed in past texts, they all include parts of the human body, whether it be fluids or full organs and limbs, and a living organism. Remember back in Year Two when we discussed how Voldemort tried to take the Philosopher’s Stone for himself so that he could create a new body? Since he was using the stone, this new body would have technically become a homunculi, however, Voldemort would have needed more than his mangled soul to create it. Having a soul to attach to the body and the Philosopher’s Stone is only half the battle. There is a high possibility that he needed some type of physical human part to add to the equation, which at the time would have probably been taken from Quirinus Quirrell, and even with the stone, the whole process would have taken anywhere from a couple months up to a year. Even then, there’s no telling how much mobility or control Voldemort would have had over his new homunculus body. He would have grown from a small newborn-like body at the rate of a normal human and most likely retained the tiny stature as he grew. Of course, since this ultimately never ended up happening, we will never know the answer, but it’s interesting to think about! Would the Second Wizarding War have been delayed if he had actually succeeded in obtaining the Philosopher’s Stone due to the maturing time of the homunculus? Would Voldemort even regain his magical ability in a body created using this method or would his followers have had to act out gruesome rituals similar to the ones described in the Book of the Cow in order to activate them? I can clearly imagine some of the “proper” and “high-ranked” purebloods dipping out as soon as someone mentions the ritual or a baby Voldemort being impatient to grow up. Ah, I digress, but I’ll leave the lesson here on this funny note.
That is it for today, students. I apologize again for ruining your lunch, but you now have to stick around to take the midterm. While I am handing out the tests, I would also like to mention that you have an extra credit essay assignment on today’s topic. There are two prompts for you to choose from: the first focusing on the morality of creating artificial life while the second requires you to get a little… creative. Ah, here we go! Since everyone now has their midterm, be sure to turn it in on my desk when you are done. You may begin!