Each of us enters the world with limited powers. We are born within the bounds of bodies, which both grant and limit the power of our will.
Limitation frames our existence. We live a limited span; we have limited strength; we have limited power to create.
Naturally we resent our limits, and our spirit rebels against all forms of limitation. We see our bounds as bondage. Most of us have desired—if not always acted—to break free of our bounds. We envy the birds their freedom to soar, though they are as bound as we. We have coined their power of flight as a symbol of the free-spirited soul.
Limited to bodily existence, and feeling constrained by it, we have turned to intellect to enlarge our powers. Medicine extends our lifespan; machines multiply our strength; imagination increases our creativity. Imagination creates and makes real the impossible.
When our ancestors asked their first questions, imagination made its presence known by answering them. Imagination gave birth to observations and comparisons; imagination gave rise to dreams, then to legends. Eventually the questions turned back to our bounds and limits: Why do we die? Why are there limits to what we can do? Can we live forever? Can we create as the universe or God creates?
Occultists, the boldest questioners, devoted lifetimes to the search for answers. 2,500 years ago, advances in technology changed the nature of occult study, turning it slowly toward the data collection and testing procedures that have evolved into the scientific method of the present day. Alchemy arose from the occult tradition, but followed the relation between the natural world and the supernatural one. Alchemists sought the Philosopher’s Stone, a talisman that would give them the power to transcend the limits that bind us all: the power to change one form of matter into another (base metal into gold and silver); to extend life; to rejuvenate ourselves; and to create life without recourse to reproduction.
Renaissance alchemists used the name “Homunculus” (plural “homunculi”; Latin for “little man”) for the artificial human beings they labored to create. Their speculations built on legends, which had originated in past imaginings: the roots of the mandrake plant, forked like the legs and trunk of a man, and whose scream upon being picked killed every living thing that heard it; the notion of spontaneous generation of vermin from rotting rubbish; and the fancy that adult geese had grown from the goose-necked barnacles on ships’ hulls.
The modern notion of the man-made monster that begins with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, E.T.A. Hoffmann’s “The Sandman,” and Goethe’s Faust came directly from the writings and researches of alchemists on homunculi.
The alchemists achieved none of their goals. They did not find the Philosopher’s Stone. They did not synthesize gold from other elements. They could not extend life. Their recipes for making homunculi failed. But their efforts gave us the gift of chemistry, and advances in pharmacology and other branches of medicine. And the alchemical idea of the homunculus has taken on new life: it serves as a tool to teach the functioning of the body—in particular, the motor and sensory functions of the brain, which we regard as the seat of imagination. In the end, imagination has led us full-circle to the study of itself.
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