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A homunculus (Latin for "little human", plural is "homunculi"; the diminutive of homo, "human") is, most generally, any representation of a human being. It is often used to illustrate the functioning of a system. In the scientific sense of an unknowable prime actor, it can be viewed as an entity or agent.

Preformationism,” a theory of heredity, claimed either the egg or the sperm (exactly which was a contentious issue) contained a complete preformed individual called a homunculus. Development was therefore a matter of enlarging this into a fully formed being.

Homunculus of alchemy

In Carl Jung's studies of alchemy, he believed the first record of an homunculus in alchemical literature appeared in the Visions of Zosimos, written in the third century AD, although the actual word "homunculus" was never used. In the visions, Zosimos mentions encountering a man who impales him with a sword, and then undergoes "unendurable torment," his eyes become blood, he spews forth his flesh, and changes into "the opposite of himself, into a mutilated anthroparion [a Greek alchemical concept of a being somewhat similar to a golem but possessing a sense of will and intelligence], and he tore his flesh with his own teeth, and sank into himself," which is a rather grotesque personification of the ouroboros, the dragon that bites its own tail, which represents the dyophysite nature in alchemy: the balance of two principles. Zosimos later encounters several other homunculi, named as the Brazen Man, the Leaden Man, and so forth. Commonly, the homunculi "submit themselves to unendurable torment" and undergo alchemical transformation. Zosimos made no mention of actually creating an artificial human, but rather used the concept of personifying inanimate metals to further explore alchemy.

In Islamic alchemy, Takwin ( ) was a goal of certain Muslim alchemists, notably Jabir ibn Hayyan (later known as Geber in Europe). In the alchemical context, Takwin refers to the artificial creation of life in the laboratory, up to and including human life.

There are also variants cited by other alchemists. One such variant involved the use of the mandrake. Popular belief held that this plant grew where semen ejaculated by hanged men (during the last convulsive spasms before death) fell to the ground, and its roots vaguely resemble a human form to varying degrees. The root was to be picked before dawn on a Friday morning by a black dog, then washed and "fed" with milk and honey and, in some prescriptions, blood, whereupon it would fully develop into a miniature human which would guard and protect its owner. Yet a third method, cited by Dr. David Christianus at the University of Giessenmarker during the 18th century, was to take an egg laid by a black hen, poke a tiny hole through the shell, replace a bean-sized portion of the white with human semen, seal the opening with virgin parchment, and bury the egg in dung on the first day of the March lunar cycle. A miniature humanoid would emerge from the egg after thirty days, which would help and protect its creator in return for a steady diet of lavender seeds and earthworms.

Homunculus of spermists

Homunculi in sperm as drawn by N.
Hartsoecker in 1695
The term homunculus was later used in the discussion of conception and birth. In 1694, Nicolas Hartsoeker discovered "animalcules" in the semen of humans and other animals. This was the beginning of spermists' theory, who held the belief that the sperm was in fact a "little man" (homunculus) that was placed inside a woman for growth into a child. This seemed to them to neatly explain many of the mysteries of conception. It was later pointed out that if the sperm was a homunculus, identical in all but size to an adult, then the homunculus may have sperm of its own. This led to a reductio ad absurdum, with a chain of homunculi "all the way down". This was not necessarily considered by spermists a fatal objection however, as it neatly explained how it was that "in Adam" all had sinned: the whole of humanity was already contained in his loins. The spermists' theory also failed to explain why children tend to resemble their mothers as well as their fathers, though some spermists believed that the growing homunculus assimilated maternal characteristics from the womb environment in which they grew.

Sensory and motor homunculi

The homunculus is also commonly used to describe the distorted human figure drawn to reflect the relative space human body parts occupy on the somatosensory cortex (sensory homunculus) and the motor cortex (motor homunculus). The lips, hands, feet and sex organs have more sensory neurons than other parts of the body, so the homunculus has correspondingly large lips, hands, feet, and genitals. Well known in the field of neurology, this is also commonly called 'the little man inside the brain.'

Homunculus argument in the philosophy of mind

A Homunculus argument accounts for a phenomenon in terms of the very phenomenon that it is supposed to explain (Richard Gregory, 1987). Homunculus arguments are always fallacious. In the psychology and philosophy of mind 'homunculus arguments' are useful for detecting where theories of mind fail or are incomplete.

Homunculus arguments are common in the theory of vision. Imagine a person watching a movie. They see the images as something separate from themself, projected on the screen. How is this done? A simple theory might propose that the light from the screen forms an image on the retinae in the eyes and something in the brain looks at these as if they are the screen. The Homunculus Argument shows this is not a full explanation because all that has been done is to place an entire person, or homunculus, behind the eye who gazes at the retinae. A more sophisticated argument might propose that the images on the retinae are transferred to the visual cortex where it is scanned. Again this cannot be a full explanation because all that has been done is to place a little person in the brain behind the cortex. In the theory of vision the Homunculus Argument invalidates theories that do not explain 'projection', the experience that the viewing point is separate from the things that are seen (adapted from Gregory, 1987; 1990).

How a homunculus theory of mind argument might be visualised

"According to the legend, whenever an agent does anything intelligently, his act is preceded and steered by another internal act of considering a regulative proposition appropriate to his practical problem. . . . Must we then say that for the agent's . . . reflections how to act to be intelligent he must first reflect how best to reflect how to act? The endlessness of this implied regress shows that the application of the appropriateness does not entail the occurrence of a process of considering this criterion." Ryle 1949.

Ryle's theory is that intelligent acts cannot be a property of an inner being or mind, if such a thing were to exist.

John Searle's Chinese Room thought experiment, in which he likens a computer translating Chinese into English to a man in a room swapping symbols without truly understanding what the symbols mean, is an example of the use of a homunculus to explain a concept in the philosophy of mind.

The homunculus argument and the regress argument are often considered to be the same but this is not the case. The homunculus argument says that if there is a need for a 'little man' to complete a theory then the theory is false or incomplete. The regress argument says that an intelligent agent would need to think before it could have a thought.

Early literary representations

Homunculi can be found in centuries worth of literature.

  • One of the very earliest literary references to the homunculus which also hints of its origination occurs in Thomas Browne's Religio Medici (1643) in which the author states-

I am not of Paracelsus minde that boldly delivers a receipt to make a man without conjunction. ..., (Part 1:36)

19th century engraving of Goethe's Faust and Homunculus

  • Writing on the purely superficial westernization of Russian intellectuals in his travel journalism Winter Notes on Summer Impressions, Dostoevsky writes: 'There is no soil, we say, and no people, nationality is nothing but a certain system of taxation, the soul is a tabula rasa, a small piece of wax out of which you can readily mould a real man, a world man or a homunculus – all that must be done is to apply the fruits of European civilisation and read two or three books’

Contemporary literary representations

  • In the twentieth century Umberto Eco's Foucault's Pendulum, has several references to a homunculus, particularly detailed in a chapter dealing with druidic rites performed at a party in the country estate (castle) of a wealthy Rosicrucian. After a series of sensually stimulating occult acts are played out for the small audience, several homunculi appear to be created, but the main character, Casaubon, cannot decide if they are wax or indeed authentic magic.

  • German horror writer Hanns Heinz Ewers used the mandrake method for creating a homunculus as the inspiration for his 1911 novel Alraune, in which a prostitute is impregnated with semen from a hanged murderer to create a woman devoid of morals or conscience. Several cinematic adaptations of Alraune have been made over the years, the most recent in 1952 with Erich von Stroheim. The 1995 film Species also appears to draw some inspiration from this variation on the homunculus legend.

  • In her tribute to the painter Jules Pascin, English poet Mina Loy penned the following stanza:
"Silence bleeds/from his slashed wrists/the dim homunculus/within/cries for the unbirth"

  • The English 'Prince of Story Tellers' Dennis Wheatley's novel 'The Satanist' Hutchinson 1960. As part of the plot a Satanist using Homunculus as part of his Occult ritual to create air breathing creatures. The Homunculus were created and stored in large fluid filled jars from a previous ritual. The ultimate transformation required a 21-year-old virgin to be sacrificed and her blood fed to the Homunculus. The virgin had previously been christened to Satan at birth by her father for occult favours and riches, unknown to herself. This book reflects Dennis Wheatley's remarkable detail for Occult happenings which includes a warning for those who might dabble in this area.

  • In English novelist Peter Ackroyd's novel The House of Doctor Dee, John Dee, the Elizabethean mathematician, astrologer, philosopher and magus, attempts and succeeds in creating a homunculus.

  • American author David H. Keller, M.D., wrote two pieces featuring homunculi. One was a short story, "A Twentieth-Century Homunculus," published in Amazing Stories in 1930, which describes the creation of homunculi on an industrial scale by a pair of misogynists. In the other, a novel called The Homunculus, published in 1949 by Prime Press of Philadelphiamarker, retired Colonel Horatio Bumble creates such a being.

  • Also examining the misogynistic tendencies of the creators of homunculi, Swedish novelist Sven Delblanc lampoons both his homunculus' creator and the Cold War industrial-military complexes of the Soviet Unionmarker and NATOmarker in his novel The Homunculus: A Magic Tale.

  • A homunculus called Twigleg is one of the main characters of the 1997 children's novel Dragon Rider by German author Cornelia Funke. This homunculus is created by combining artificial ingredients and a small living creature (probably a small insect or spider). He is also referred to as a "manikin".

  • In Jane R. Goodall's 2004 mystery novel "The Walker" (Hodder Headline ISBN 0-7336-1897-9), ancient secrets pertaining to the creation of the alchemical homunculus are central to a plot involving murders based on Hogarth's prints and set in "Swinging London". The creation of homunculi, together with the search for the philosopher's stone, was a central aim of alchemy. Implicit in the novel is the uneasy speculation that the original experiment succeeded and this evil being may indeed move through history.

  • In Cormac McCarthy's All the Pretty Horses "homunculus" is used to describe the cuchillero who tries to murder John Grady Cole in the prison.

  • In Sean Williams' Books of the Cataclysm one of the central characters is a homunculus containing the consciousnesses of the Mirror Twins Seth & Hadrian Callisto.

  • In "Doctor Illuminatus" (Alchemist's Son Trilogy) by Martin Booth, Pierre de Loudéac persists to create a homunculus and succeeds. Also mentioned in the sequel "Soul Stealer". Martin Booth passed away before the trilogy was completed.

  • In Hugh Paxton's 2006 novel Homunculus (MacMillan New Writing ISBN 978-0230007369), alchemy is harnessed for modern military purposes. Homunculi created from human body parts and powered by moonshine are used as bioweapons in war-torn Sierra Leonemarker.

  • In James P. Blaylock's novel Homunculus, published in 1986, a homunculus is much sought after by several of the book's characters because of its powerful magical abilities.

Film and pop culture

Film, television and literature

  • The homunculus' likely first appearance in film was the six-part 1916 German serial Homunculus.
  • In the classic horror film Bride of Frankenstein, Dr. Frankenstein's old teacher, Dr. Praetorius, shows him his own creations, a series of miniature humanoids kept in specimen jars, including a bishop, a king, a queen, a ballerina, a mermaid, and a devil. These are clearly intended to be homunculi, based on those creatures described by Emil Besetzny's Sphinx, as translated and presented in Franz Hartmann's Life of Paracelsus.
  • In the 2006 book Keeper of the Waters, the second book in the Daughter of Destiny series, an enemy that the main character encounters is a homunculus.
  • In the Americanmarker film The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1974), the homunculus is portrayed as a miniature winged gargoyle creature who is the nemesis of Sinbad.
  • In the 2005 comedy film The League of Gentlemen's Apocalypse a homunculus is created in a subplot called "The King's Evil." The character Geoff Tipps is reading the script of "The King's Evil" and asks, "What is a homunculus?". Later, after writing himself into the script, he is being interrogated, during which he is asked, "How do you know of the homunculus?" to which he responds in exasperation, "What IS a homunculus?".
  • Glen Phillips created a homunculus in the video for "Everything But You"
  • In the rare cult film Moonchild (1974), there is a homunculus who is a servant to a manager in a mission hotel, and a young art student is tormented by strange flashbacks and hallucinations. [40275]
  • In The Talons of Weng-Chiang, a 1977 serial from the British television series Doctor Who, the Peking homunculus is the proper name given to an animated ventriloquist's dummy known as Mr. Sin. The dummy was really an android from the future, with the cerebral cortex of a pig.
  • In Manhattanmarker (1979) Woody Allen's character refers to his girlfriend's (Diane Keaton) ex-husband (Wallace Shawn): I thought you said he was a ladies' man, he looks like a homunculus.
  • The supernatural thriller Ghost Road Blues by Jonathan Maberry features a homunculus as a servant of the vampire overlord Ubel Griswold.
  • In the film Pan's Labyrinth, the little girl Ofelia nurses a mandrake type homunculus with two drops of her blood each day in order to help her pregnant mother.
  • In the remaining twenty-five episodes of The Life and Times of Juniper Lee, Ray Ray Lee (the main character Juniper's little brother) has his soul living in a homunculus body that looks exactly like him after his original body mutates into a massive creature.
  • In the Babylon 5 spin off series Crusade, Galen uses a telepresence device, referred to as Homunculus, to explore the surface of a dangerous planet. When asked about its name he said that it meant "a parallel version of one's self".
  • In If you're reading this, it's too late by Pseudonymous Bosch, the main characters, Cass and Max-Ernest, pursue and eventually locate a homunculus.
  • In GoGo Sentai Boukenger, the Questers create a giant Homonculus, by placing three Precious into a special vessel.
  • In 9, directed by Shane Acker, the 'Stitchpunk' characters are literal homunculi, being tiny human puppets with souls encased inside.
  • In Meet Dave Eddie Murphy plays a homunculus, realized as a tiny alien in a human-sized robotic mechanism with the appearance of Eddie Murphy.
  • In The Big Bang Theory episode 303, Sheldon calls his roommate (Leonard) a homonculus. This is later explained to be a perfectly formed miniature human being.
  • In Cory Doctorow's Makers , the Disney-In-A-Box prototype is staffed and operated by homunculi. First appearance, Part 49: [40276]

Anime, manga and comic books

  • In the anime version of Fullmetal Alchemist, the main character Edward Elric battles supernatural enemies, the homunculi, who are created when an attempt is made to create/revive a human, using human transmutation. Each homunculus shown in the series represents one of the seven deadly sins. The manga version of Fullmetal Alchemist, as well as the remake anime Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood, has the homunculi as artificial human beings, with the Philosopher's Stone for the core, instead of the heart. 'Father', the creator of the homunculi, controls them to carry out his various orders and to find 'suitable sacrifices'.

  • Another anime that made use of the homunculus concept is Cyber Team in Akihabara. The homunculi are the first line of attack of Jun Goutokuji (in her guise of Blood Falcon) when she confronts Hibari Hanakoganei in the first episode.

  • A homunculus named Roger is a supporting character in many of the Hellboy and B.P.R.D. comic books published by Dark Horse. However, Roger is human-sized, which is unusually large for a homunculus; other than the method by which he was created, he seems to have more in common with a golem. Roger's size is commented upon at length during B.P.R.D.: The Universal Machine, where Roger is described as one of only two man-sized homunculi ever created.

  • In the manga The Tarot Café by Sang-Sun Park, the character Belial creates Homunculus-like "Dolls" using pieces of a necklace of his that has magic powers. He creates "Dolls" of people that the main character, Pamela, who is immortal, knew as a child such as her mother, her lover, who was an immortal dragon named Ash, and a monk named Victor who was in love with her. He then sends these "Dolls" to Pamela in order to make her believe she is going mad.

  • In the avant-garde anime Serial Experiments Lain, the main character, a 13-year old-girl named Lain Iwakura, is referred to as a "homunculus made out of artificial rhibozome" by Eiri Masami, a character that could be considered the series' villain, implying that she was artificially created, probably by Masami himself.

  • In the Visual Novel named Animamundi: Dark Alchemist, the character Bruno Glending created an army of Homunculus in secret by claiming they are clonesmarker. The main character Georik Zaberisk also creates one using pure water, semen, horse dung, and either his own or another character's blood.

  • In the manga Buso Renkin, the main characters, Kazuki Muto and Tokiko Tsumura, fight homunculi (plant and animal-type first, then human-type) created through what seems like advanced science. The first few are controlled by Koushaku Chono/Papillon Mask, and the rest by Bakushaku Chono/Dr. Butterfly.

  • The manga named Homunculus, by Hideo Yamamoto, tells the story of a homeless (Nakoshi) that undergoes a trepanation because a rich student is convinced that this operation activates a sixth sense that allows Nakoshi to see other people's homunculus, which are said to be their actual form.

  • In the popular trading card game Yu-Gi-Oh! there is a monster named "Golden Homunculus", as well as another called "Homunculus the Alchemic Being".

  • In the Ghost Hound Japanese Anime TV series, the main characters, at various times have an out-of-body experience. Their "Astral Bodies" resemble a form of homunculi and the Neuro-biological theory of " the little man " is, several times, referenced upon by side characters, psychologists and neuroscientists in the anime.


  • In the game Descent 3 on level 6 (Noctis Labryinthis), the player must battle the Homunculus, a boss robot constructed from scrap metal by the nomads of the planet.

  • In Dungeons and Dragons, Homunculi are semi-living magical constructs created by giving a portion of their creator's life to a composite of materials, often including wood, clay, or metal. There are several varieties, each created for a specific function, such as item creation, ranged combat, message delivery, or spying.

  • In the video game Shadow of Memories (also known as Shadow of Destiny), Homonculus is the name of one of the major characters, who is a true homunculus, with roots in the age of the alchemists. As the game progresses, the main character must go back in time to identify his killer and prevent various events from occurring in the future that would lead to his death. Once dead, the main character is brought to the "realm of the homunculus". The small, faint sounding man, the homunculus, helps the main character by offering advice.

  • In the Enix console role-playing game Valkyrie Profile, the alchemist Lezard Valeth experiments with homonculi. Among them are his minion Bellion, and numerous female forms kept in large glass tubes. Lezard's homonculi were half-human/half-elves.

  • RuneScape uses a homunculus in the quest "Tower of Life" when a group of alchemists incarnates a homunculus via magic, despising its existence it scares away the alchemists. (Post-Quest) It resides in the basement of the Tower.

  • The Hirameki sim novel for PC from Japan Animamundi has the main character researching how to create the perfect Homunculus host body to save his sister Lillith's still living head.

  • In the games Persona 3 and Persona 4, a Homunculus is a collectible item which will protect the game's protagonist against the effects of an instant-death spell cast by an enemy. Once used, it will disappear.

  • In the game Diablo II, Homunculus is a unique item only available to the necromancer class.

  • In the MMORPG Ragnarok Online, Alchemists have access to a system of pet-like creatures called homunculi that act as secondary characters which will fight for the owner.

  • 'Castlevania: Dawn of Sorrow' contains an enemy inside the Magician's Lab with this name, a clearish-blue humanoid hooked up to a tube, while underwater. Once awakened, moves towards player, and if it disconnects, drowns in a few seconds.

  • In Warhammer 40,000, the Dark Eldar medic/torturer is referred to as a "Haemonculus". they are masters of pain and alchemy. Haemonculus are renowned for their painful torture techniques, and genetic experimentation.

Miscellaneous uses of the term "Homunculus"

  • The Homunculus appears occasionally in the folklore of Eastern Europe as a construct made from natural materials such as dirt, roots, insects, feces, and other substances. In these stories the creature is revived through incantation and acts as a vehicle for the astrally projected mind of a sorcerer.

  • Laurie Schneider Adams, in "A History of Western Art", makes several references to a practice in the Middle Ages of depicting Christ as a homunculus. She states, "This depiction of Christ as a child-man, partly a reference to his miraculous nature, is a convention of Christian art before 1300". It is speculative, but Romanesque artists, often sculptors, may have been translating the infant Jesus in this way out of respect for his Divine nature, as a metaphor for his Divinity. Similarly, though stylistically very different, Michelangelo depicts David, the giant slayer, as a giant.

See also



  • Weiss JR, Burgess JB, Kaplan KJ. Fetiform teratoma (homunculus). Arch Pathol Lab Med 2006;130(10):1552-1556.
  • Watson JD, Berry A. DNA: The Secret of Life. New York, NY: Random House; 2003.
  • Abbott TM, Hermann WJ, Scully RE. Ovarian fetiform teratoma (homunculus) in a 9-year-old girl. Int J Gynecol Pathol 1984;2:392–402.
  • Kuno N, Kadomatsu K, Nakamura M, Miwa-Fukuchi T, Hirabayashi N, Ishizuka T. Mature ovarian cystic teratoma with a highly differentiated homunculus: a case report. Birth Defects Res A Clin Mol Teratol 2004;70:40–46.

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