“Would you like to make a Mandragora, as powerful as the homunculus so praised by Paracelsus? Then find a root of the plant called bryony. Take it out of the ground on a Monday (the day of the moon), a little time after the vernal equinox. Cut off the ends of the root and bury it at night in some country churchyard in a dead man’s grave. For 30 days, water it with cow’s milk in which three bats have been drowned. When the 31st day arrives, take out the root in the middle of the night and dry it in an oven heated with branches of verbena; then wrap it up in a piece of a dead man’s winding-sheet and carry it with you everywhere.”
— excerpt from The History and Practice of Magic (1870), by Jean-Baptiste Pitois.
A favored ingredient in pagan rituals throughout the ages, and used frequently in various superstitious practices like that depicted above. When the mandrake wasn’t being used for its mystical properties it was also used as a hallucinogenic, a narcotic and a means of inducing an unconscious state. The root itself often bears what can resemble contorted little limbs, which is no doubt what inspired the belief that the mandrake root was a magical living entity, a diminutive humanoid creature. Unearthing a mandrake carelessly could result in the mandrake screeching with terror, which was believed in some folklore variants to kill a mortal instantly.
Similarly, De Natura Rerum (On the Nature of Things), 1537 by Paracelsus outlines the means by which a homunculus was believed to be formed:
“That the sperm of a man be putrefied by itself in a sealed cucurbit 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.”
There are various accounts of 16th century alchemists boasting of successfully producing multiple homunculi. The homunculi were often said to possess divine knowledge or supernatural abilities to better serve their creators (there is no credible evidence of a homunculus ever existing). At the time there was a great deal misunderstood and yet to be discovered in the field of biology. Mysticism was deeply entwined with all the scientific fields. They knew what they wanted, but were in most instances utterly incapable of finding a means to that end. The ability to turn lesser elements into gold is considered the driving force behind many alchemists of antiquity. The fabled Philosopher’s Stone is said to possess such a power. But aside from unlimited wealth, the desire to forge unnatural life from nothing seemed to be the will of a great many alchemists.
“I’ll mention here what I heard from my father’s holy mouth regarding the Golem created by his ancestor, the Gaon R. Eliyahu Ba’al Shem of blessed memory. When the Gaon saw that the Golem was growing larger and larger, he feared that the Golem would destroy the universe. He then removed the Holy Name that was embedded on his forehead, thus causing him to disintegrate and return to dust. Nonetheless, while he was engaged in extracting the Holy Name from him, the Golem injured him, scarring him on the face.”
— Rabbi Jacob Emden, 1776.
In Kabbalistic teachings of Judaism the creation of golems was a desired mystical ability. Similarly to the formation of Adam from dust in the book of Genesis, mystics longed to emulate the Creator and give life to crude (primarily) earth-formed humanoid constructs of their own.
To think how so much time, energy, contemplation and devotion would have gone into these (and countless other) processes attempting to achieve the formation of unnatural life. It brings to mind the story, Frankenstein (1823) by Mary Shelly. A time when grotesque and in some instances macabre experiments/rituals were being undertaken to test the limitations of what man was capable of. That work of fiction was depicting a very real desire. A desire to tamper with nature in an effort to reach an unnatural result.
Most of us assume that sort of thing was and is unfruitful and generally isn’t practiced anymore throughout the modern world. In 2015 it was reported that over 70 countries had banned human cloning. But it isn’t difficult to entertain the thought that somewhere out there, unsavory experiments could be unfolding this very instant. Most would probably prefer not knowing.
2 thoughts on “ᵀᴴᴱ GOLEM, ᵀᴴᴱ MANDRAKE & ᵀᴴᴱ HOMUNCULUS”
cool blog. i’ve done a few posts relating to homunculi too. currently reading a book on a golem. what synchronicity!
Cheers. I think it is an interesting subject, throughout history in many different cultures there’s been this will to breathe life into something inanimate. Or grow some miniature humanoid from a specific and usually grotesque method or from the inside of a plant. It even reoccurs in stories and myths, Pinocchio, Thumbelina, Momotarō (桃太郎). Even the Tsukumogami (付喪神) in Japanese folklore is an inanimate object said to acquire a soul and come to life after existing for 100 years. I guess now we’re getting close to an age where people could come close to living out that fantasy with the progression of robotics and artificial intelligence.
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