We Can Build You

We Can Build You1): The Homunculus in Alchemical Tradition

John Eberly

“Rava created a man; he sent him to Rabbi Zera, who spoke to him; when he did not reply, Rabbit Zera told him: 'You are a creation of magic; return to your dust.'“—Talmud

This quote is found in Chapter L, Book II of Henry Cornelius Agrippa's The Three Books of Occult Philosophy under the chapter heading, “Of Certain Celestial Observations and the Practice of Some Images.” It follow this observation,

“But who can give a soul to an image, or make a stone to live, or metal, or wood, or wax? And who can raise out of stones children unto Abraham?” Agrippa is apparently referring to Genesis 28, and Donal Tyson, editor of the latest edition of The Three Books2) speculates,

“Perhaps this is a veiled reference to the golem legend. The golem was a slave formed of clay and infused with spirit by magic to protect the Jews from their Christian persecutors.”3)

Moshe Idel, in his book Golem: Jewish Magical and Mystical Traditions on the Artificial Anthropoid states,

“By creating an anthropoid the Jewish master is not only able to display his creative forces, but may attain the experience of the creative moment of God, who also has created man in a similar way to that found in the recipes used by the mystics and magicians. Paraphrasing a statement of Glanvill, we may describe the golem practices as an attempt of man to know God by the art He uses in order to create man.”4)

Der Golem, far from being neuter, engendered within Mary Shelley's imagination the magical child known to literature and Frankenstein's monster. This “monster” has become the scapegoat for the advance of the industrial revolution, subsequent technology, and all manner of “artificial intelligence,” making the clubfooted leap from spinning wheel to Internet in one shaggy bound.

In this instance we are making a distinction between the ultimate creative force of God in the universe, and a microcosmic version dependent upon the imagination of one who is created. We must also distinguish between the creative, and the procreative which depends also on imagination guiding a natural generative function content with propagating a species.

Considering the anthropoid, or homunculus, however, all distinctions blur, as the artist who wills the creation relies on macrocosmic irritation, and acknowledges his role as an instrument of the divine Will. One would do well to remember and consider how,

“Pythagoras said that man was a microcosm, which means a compendium of the universe; not because, like other animals, even the least, he is constituted by the four elements, but because he contains all the powers of the cosmos. For the universe contains Gods, the four elements, animals and plants. All of these powers are contained in man. He has reason, which is a divine power; he has the nature of the elements, and the powers of moving, growing, and reproduction.”5)

In Genesis 1:17 we read,

“So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him, male and female he created them.”

Imagination contains the seed and acts as the locus of the creative generation of the image. It also becomes a “swinging door” between one level (or several, in fact) of consciousness and another, for example, between matter and spirit.

“The whole word I said is His imagination, then I saw: His imagination is Himself.”—Shah Nimatullah

Paracelsus, a contemporary of Agrippa and a fellow student of Johannes Trithemius6), speaks of the imagination in several of his works.

“It is the principal of all magical action.”—De Peste, Lib. I. “All our sufferings, all our vices are nothing else than imagination … Ad this imagination is such that it penetrates and ascends into the superior heaven, and passes from star to star. This same heaven it overcomes and moderates, all that is an imaginative mature, which can impress itself on heaven, and, this done, heaven has, on the other hand, the power of refunding that impression.”—De Pest, Additamenta in Lib. I, Prol. “So, also, a strong imagination is the source of both food and evil fortune.”—De Peste, Lib. II, c.2.

In the opening passage of Agrippa's Chapter L, previously cited, we find,

“So to make anyone fortunate, we make an image in which these are fortunate, viz, the significator of the life thereof, the givers of life, the signs, and planets … But if we will make an image to procure misery, we must do contrariwise, and those which we place here fortunate, must therefore be unfortunate, by raising malignant stars.”7)

It would seem that the two most famous students of Trithemius agree upon the medium of the imagination as the ground in which the macrocosmic influences the microcosm, and vice versa. What they are saying essentially is that man may indeed influence the heavens by certain artistic-magico manipulations and cause a change in fortune and destiny.

Perhaps occult working of this nature gave rise in part to the injunctions against the production of the graven image by Judeo-Christian (iconoclast)—Islamic tradition.

Trithemius himself wrote a tract entitled Veterum sophorum sigilla et imagines magicae, which consists of descriptions of talismanic-magical images. In the course of his life he was accused of sorcery, a charge which he consistently denied.

The title and substance of Agrippa's Chapter L links the celestial with the imaginative, and in Paracelsus' work, ”A Book Concerning Long Life” we uncover more correspondences and praxis:

“For example, if Mars should be disposed to destroy me, and there be a mental inclination from him in my mind, which might induce mental disease, I construct my homunculus (of wax), that the operation of Mars may be directed to this image, and I may get off safely. It is easier to affect the homunculus, and so the planet is able to work its will more gently and without resistance … The material is the same by means of the opening that has been made.”8)

… and there be a mental inclination from him in my mind.” The unhealthy influence of Mars has produced a feeling of dis-ease in the imagination of the person, where reason is powerless. If at the very least one “gets it into his head” to believe that a situation exists, then for all practical intents and purposes, it exists.

“… by means of the opening that has been made” seems to explain that by diverting the attention of the planet away from the person and focusing it on the homunculus the tension of the situation is alleviated; the human is freed from the malignant forces fo the celestial body by opening an easier and less resistant path via the more pliable and accommodating image embodied in the hospitable (wax) homunculus.

For further illustration let us consider the following contemporary account:

“Following the advice of Paracelsus, during the hours of Venus, on the day dedicated to Saturn, I constructed my homunculus out of red wax, in the mold of a tiny (3” high) man. On his forehead I inscribed the sign of Mars. Near midnight I took him outside and placed him on an old elm stump in the open night air. Smoky clouds passed over and around a full snow moon as I walked the four corners blowing smoke and charging the homunculus. I asked that all destructive celestial influences be directed away from me and toward this image. Afterwards, on my trip back to the house, a dog barked in the distance, announcing the arrival of Hecate … Inside I set the homunculus down on the stairs and returned in a moment, accidentally stepping on it in the dark, breaking it. At first I attempted to reattach the head with more molten wax; failing that it became clear that his function over, he should be destroyed and returned to formless chaos …“9)

Clearly this image, this type of homunculus, is talismanic, akin to engraving the sign of a planet upon a metal ascribed to that particular planet in order to ensure wealth, health, and general prosperity, as directed in the following case by Pseudo-Maimonides,

“I advise you to make one (magic homunculus) for yourself, and carry it with you hidden and always, and you will succeed in all your affairs, with the help of God.”10)

There is yet another type of homunculus, more on part with der golem, perhaps, which finds its procreative genesis in the fertile ground of the creative imagination.

In classical alchemy, three kingdoms are recognized, the plant, animal, and mineral. The mineral kingdom is often considered highest, while the plant kingdom bridges the other two. All three kingdoms are intimately interrelated, however, generally speaking only the animal readily contains obvious aspects of all three.

In animal alchemy, the human animal is considered to be the creature which yields the richest of the three principals attributed to all three kingdoms, being the salt (bones), sulphur (found mixed in the flesh with volatile salt and mercury), and mercury (blood).11)

In a tract by Eirenaeus Philalethes entitled, ”The Secret of the Liquor Alkahest“ we find that the alkahest in question is a salt,

“5. A.—Which is the most noble salt? A.—If you desire to learn this, descend into yourself, for you carry it about with your, as well as the salt its Vulcan, if you are able to discern it. 6. A.—Which is it, tell me, I pray you? A.—Man's blood out of the body, or man's urine, for the urine is an excrement separated, for the greatest part, from the blood. Each of these give both a volatile and fixed salt; if you know how to collect and prepare it, you will have a most precious Balsam of Life.”12)

As we shall see, this type of working is not for the squeamish, and those predisposed to prudery may wish to read not further. Indeed, alchemical operations in the animal kingdom have been the source of all manner of superstition and prejudice. Blood work conjures up images of sorcery and vampirism in the popular imagination, and in some alchemical circles this work has even been linked to Gilles de Rais!

Paracelsus relates the following way to accomplish the magnum opus in the animal kingdom, the creation of the homunculus.

“Let the semen of a man putrefy by itself in a sealed cucurbite with the highest putrefaction of the venter equinus for forty days, or until it begins at last to live, move, and be agitated, which can easily be seen. After this time it will be in some degree like a human being, but nevertheless, transparent and without body. If now, after this, it be every day nourished and fed cautiously and prudently with the arcanum of human blood, and kept for forty weeks in the perpetual and equal heat of a venter equinas, it becomes, thenceforth a true and living infant, having the members of a child that is born from a woman, but much smaller. This we call a homunculus, and it should be afterwards educated with the greatest care and zeal, until it grows up and begins to display intelligence. Now, this is one of the greatest secrets which God has revealed to mortal and fallible man. It is a miracle and marvel of God, an arcanum above all arcana …” He goes on to say that this is how all manner of marvelous people are called the children of of wood sprites and nymphs, who romp and play in the imagination of a mid-summer night's dream, “because in their virtue they are not like men but like spirits.”13)

Aleister Crowley, in the Commentary to the Book of the Law echoes this sentiment when he says,

“I take it as certain that every offering of this talisman infallibly begets children on one plane or another of this our cosmos, whose matter is so varied in kind. Such a child must partake of its father's nature; and its character will be determined, partly by the environment in which it is bred to manifestation, lives and ultimately changes in what we call death, and partly by the inmost will of the father, perhaps modified to some extent by his conscious will at the time of his slipping the leash.”14)

In the novel The Magician, by Somerset Maugham, the main character “Oliver Haddo,” obviously based on Crowley, is preoccupied with accomplishing the magnum opus in the animal kingdom. “Haddo,” Maugham's literary homunculus drawn from the Crowley legend certainly partakes “of its father's (Crowley's) nature”: he is rumored to be feeding his homunculus with human blood—obtained from his own wife!15)

A far more lyrical vision of the alchemical engendering of the homunculus, in this case a pair, of homunculi, is revealed to us during the sixth day of The Chemical Wedding of Christian Rosenkreutz by J. V. Andreae, after an adventure which can be interpreted as a complete alchemical process,

“We opened up the molds, and there were two beautiful, bright, and almost transparent images such as human eyes have ever seen, of a little boy and girl, only four inches long. What amazed me the most was they were not hard, but soft and flesh-like as any human being, but they had no life … the old gentlemen roused us and told us continually to let on drop after another of the bird's blood, which had bee caught in the golden beaker, fall into the images' mouths. This apparently made them grow, and whereas they started out tiny, now they grew more beautiful in proportion to their size.”16)

The idea of the alchemist procreating the homunculus has its symbolic roots in antiquity as interpreted by the fourth-century Egyptian magus, Horapollo Miliacus in his Hieroglyphics, Book One, no. 10 “The Only Begotten,”

“To signify the only begotten, or birth, or a father, or the world, or man, they draw a scarab. The only begotten, because this animal is self-begotten, unborn of the female. For its birth takes place only in the following way. When the male wishes to have offspring, it takes some cow-dung and makes a round ball of it, very much in the shape of the world. Rolling it with its hind legs from east to west, it faces the east, so as to give it the shape of the world, for the world is borne from the east to the west. Then burying this ball, it leaves it in the ground for twenty-eight days, during which time the moon traverses the twelve signs of the zodiac. Remaining here, the beetle is brought to birth. And on the twenty-ninth day, when it breaks the ball open, it rolls it into water for it considers this day to be the conjunction of the moon and the sun, as well as the birth of the world. When it is opened in the water, animals emerge which are beetles. It symbolizes birth for this very reason. And a father, because the beetle takes its birth from a father only. And the world, since its birth takes place in the shape of the world. And a man, since females do not exist among them.”17)

The world is a solitary entity which generates all living things, and as such it has often been considered to be bisexual in nature.18)

In an explanation of the Pythagorean prohibition against the consumption of beans, Prophyry, in his Life of Pythagoras, reveals another possible foundation for the hermetic conception of the homunculus in chapter 44:

“Beans were forbidden, it is said, because the particular plants grow and individualize only after that which is the principle and origin of things is mixed together, so that things underground are confused, and coalesce, after which everything rots together. Then living creatures were produced together with plants, so that both men and beans rose out of putrefaction, whereof he alleged many manifest arguments … if at the time when beans bloom, one should take a little fo the flower, which is then black, and should put it in an earthen vessel, and cover it closely, and bury it in the ground for ninety days, and at the end thereof take it up, and uncover it, instead fo the bean he will find that either the head of an infant or the vagina of a woman had developed.”19)

A. O. Spare used a form of sigil magic which involved charging the sigil with sperm (concentrated blood) and burying it in a vessel in the ground. The sigil was then remembered at the “magical time” juts preceding orgasm (or rather during the postponement of orgasm), rushing it to the imagination to inseminate the egg of unconscious will.

Taoist internal alchemy stresses the need to retain semen by tensing the body before orgasm and sending this sexual energy up the spine and into the head, and finally into the heart. This operation is essential to establish a more complex process in which certain internal organs produce a seed which is eventually fertilized procreating a spiritual fetus. By closing off all five senses, consciousness is finally transferred to the mature immortal spirit-body which then separates and enjoys and independent existence.20)

Much more may be said concerning internal alchemy and its relationship to Tantra, the subtle body of the kabbalist, and other related concepts found in various traditions which relate to our topic, however, this would be beyond the scope of the present essay.21)

There is a secret intrinsic to the nature of the philosopher's salt and its function throughout the universe of created matter in which immortality is equated with Fate without the trappings of “privilege” or “attainment.”22) In the world-view of the shaman the descent coincides with a purification, essential to the next step, the ascent. This fatal and fiery process produces a purity “white as snow,” and returns one “without blemish” to the origin. The purified body thirsts for its soul which cannot resist it, the soul in turn joins body to spirit, which animates the image and completes the trinity, resurrecting this new being into heavenly eternal life.

The “old” being must recognize that the lust to procreate originates in the truly beloved, immortal love. Once this yearning is pointed inward it initiates the alchemical marriage which proceeds naturally without opposition. At this point, a “new” being emerges, the “spiritual son.”

“He … must become conscious of the Image that he bears within himself, and Image reflecting that celestial counterpart of his being which enlightens him, which enables him to see every object in which he thinks that he recognizes that Image. His meditation must so perfectly realize the integration of this Image with his being, with his “spiritual body,” that it will become his companion forever, in the joy of recognized presence.”23)

Perhaps it is fitting to end this essay in the beginning.

“then the Lord God formed man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living being.”—Genesis 2:7

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The title of this essay is taken in part from Philip K. Dick's novel We Can Build You written in 1961_62 following his wife's decision to have an abortion. See also Divine Invasions—A Life of Philip K. Dick, by Lawrence Sutin, pp 108–109.
Three Books of Occult Philosophy, edited by Donald Tyson, St. Paul, Llewellyn Publications, 1995.
ibid., p 405. More likely, perhaps, this is a not-so-veiled reference by Agrippa to the Hermetica writings ascribed to Hermes Trismegistus, particularly found in Asclepius III:24, in which statues are magically animated, “… statues living and conscious, filled with the breath of life … statues which inflict diseases and heal them, dispensing sorrow and joy according to men's deserts.” See below in the present essay, (see also Note 7. below) how this quote corresponds to a statement made by Agrippa in an opening passage to his Chapter L. For more on Hermes Trismegistus, Hermetica, and the Egyptian practice fo animating statues and how this information affected Augustine see Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition by Frances Yates, pp 3–13. In Marsilio Ficino's The Book of Life, translated by Charles Boer, pp 181–182, we find another discussion related to the animation of statues, in which Ficino reports that the practice likely originated with the Chaldeans. He then cites the Hebrew astrologer Smauel, and then David, bring us full-circle back to the quote in question found in Agrippa. Also see the copious and related entries under “statues” in the general index of Tyson's edit of The Three Books.
Albany, State University of New York Press, 1990, xxvii.
Anonymous, “The Life of Pythagoras Preserved By Photius.” Chapter 15. See The Pythagorean Sourcebook and Library, compiled by Kenneth Sylvan Guthrie, Grand Rapids, Phanes, 1987, p 139.
The legendary library of this 15th-century Mage drew the curious and the would-be learned from all over Europe. Trithemius (1462–1516), was a Benedictine monk who became abbot of the monastery of Saint Martin at Sponheim, which housed the library. He later became abbot of the monastery of Saint Jakob at Wurzburg.
Three Books of Occult Philosophy, p 402
Hermetic & Alchemical Writings of Paracelsus the Great, A. E. Waite, ed. Edmonds, Alchemical Press, 1992, “Part II. Hermetic Medicine,” pp 120–121.
Private magical diary entry of an acquaintance of the present author.
As quoted in The Jewish Alchemists, by Raphael Patai. Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1995, p 307. Also see the cave/temple scenes depicting (animated!) statues of kings made of various metals, in the enchanting work, Goethe's Fairy Tale of the Green Snake and the Beautiful Lily, trans. by Donald Maclean, Grand Rapids, Phanes, 1993.
The best allegorical work concerning the occult nature of blood remains the crucifixion scenes found in the New Testament; for elaboration see Karl von Eckarthausen's The Cloud Upon the Sanctuary, Letter V, pp 75–76; for further discussion see “The Open Door of Alchemy” by John Eberly, in “The Stone-The Journal of the Philosophers of Nature” #15, March 1996. For an example of practical animal alchemy, including work with blood, urine, and bones, see The Complete Chemist by Christopher Glaser, (1677), Sect. III. “Of Animals,” pp 270–282, reprinted recently by Kessinger. Most classic alchemical texts include sections concerning animal alchemy. The following example comes from the Appendix the Franz Hartmann's Paracelsus Life and Prophecies, New York, Steinerbooks, 1988, under the heading, “The Elixir of Life, ” pp 210–211: “To make the Primum Ens Sanguinis, take the blood from the median vein of a healthy young person … Add to this blood twice tis quantity of alcahest, close the bottle, after which the red fluid is to be separated from the sediment, filtered, and preserved. This is the Primum Ens Sanguinis, and it is used in the same manner as the Primum Ens Melissae.” If it is indeed like the Ens Melissae, one using the tincture may expect to quickly lose all their hair, finger and tow nails, which are then replaced by stronger version. in sort, a physical makeover takes place with remarkable results. A similar rejuvenating medicine is described in the ”Life of Cagliostro.“
Collecteanea Chemica-Being Certain Select Treatises on Alchemy and Hermetic Medicine, various authors, Edmonds, Alchemical Press, 1991, pp 12–13.
Hermetical & Alchemical Writings of Paracelsus the Great, pp 124–125.
The Eye in the Triangle, by Israel Regardie, Phoenix, Falcon Press, 1986, pp 372–373.
Although publicly opposed, Maugham is said by some to have signed a pact with Crowley to ensure his success as a writer! Anyone reading The Magician will see that its author somehow was indeed privy to a wealth of information concerning the production of the homunculus, which seems to be the focus of the novel. Crowley's reputation is barely a notch above Gilles de Rais, and as misunderstood. For example, in his book Magick he describes a repeated ritual in which he sacrificed “150 male children” in one years time–his way of saying he ejaculated spermatozoa 150 times in the course of as many rituals. (Related by Israel Regardie in The Eye of the Triangle, ibid.).
The Chemical Wedding of Christian Rosenkreutz, trans. by Joscelyn Godwin, Grand Rapids, Phanes, 1991, p 92.
The Hieroglyphics of Horapollo, trans. by George Boas. Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1993, p 48.
For more on the nature of bisexuality as it relates to alchemy, see Chapter nine of al-Kimia—The Mystical Islamic Essence fo the Sacred Art of Alchemy, by John Eberly, Anamnesis, 1995.
The Pythagorean Sourcebook and Library, p 132. It has been pointed out that the house of Pythagoras was dedicated to Demeter, the goddess representing generation in the plant kingdom.
See The Secret fo the Golden Flower, trans. by Richard Wilhelm. New York, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1962. See also Practical Taoism, trans. by Thomas Cleary. Boston, Shambala, 1996. See the works of Taoist master Mantak Chia available through healing Tao Press, and as an excellent introduction to these works and how they relate to western hermeticism, see also The Tao & The Tree of Life, by Eric Steven Yudelove, St. Paul, Llewellyn Publications, 1996.
Other related subjects might include robotics, cloning, the creative arts, and some of the writings of Jung, which seem to stem from a progression (or rather an unbroken lineage of ideas even older) of physica sacra to Naturphilosophie, the Renaissance, and Romantic scientific attitudes and practice; (the list could go on and on.) For a synthesis of general hermetic tradition married to alchemy see The Hermetic Tradition—Symbols & Teachings for the Royal Art, by Julius Evola. Rochester, Inner Traditions, 1995.
From the Corpus Hermeticum, 1,9, “The intellectual entity, male and female god (the primordial androgyne composed of sol and luna) which is Life and Light, engenders by means of the Logos, another creative intelligence, God of Fire and Fluid, who in turn creates seven ministers, who enclose within their circles the sense-perceived world. Their dominion is called (Fate).” The “seven ministers” are the seven planets, which minister to our microcosm the concept of animated materia. See “Of Salt and Stars,” by John Eberly, forthcoming.
Avicenna and the Visionary Recital, by Henry Corbin. Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1960, “The Hermetic Vision of Salaman and Absel,” p 221.