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Literature / The Homunculus Of Maimonides

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The Homunculus of Maimonides is an Eastern European Jewish folk tale first written down in the Sippurim by Wolf Pascheles in 1847. It concerns the historical Maimonides, a Late 12th Century rabbi and man of science, and his fictional attempt to resurrect a man he had killed for the purpose of the experiment. The tale is a product of the Maimonidean Controversy, which is a centuries-spanning series of debates regarding Maimonides and his views on Judaism. It is evidently from the anti-Maimonides camp, because the man is depicted far from positively and eventually suffers the rest of his life for it.

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Maimonides's fame as a doctor draws the interest of an ambitious young Londoner, who sets out to become Maimonides's equal. To gain access to Maimonides's secrets, the young man pretends to be a pitiful and mute beggar eager for a job as servant. He proves himself so competent that Maimonides has him assist with each of his experiments. In addition to what he learns there, he reads the doctor's works behind his back so that in only a few years his knowledge is on par with Maimonides's. The deception ends when Maimonides is called to the court to cure a courtier. While he does correctly identify the nature of the ailment, his solution would be fatal. Thus, Maimonides's assistant finally speaks to warn his master and remind him of the correct treatment he himself has written about. Given the beneficial outcome of the assistant's deceit, the doctor forgives him and makes him his co-researcher proper. Eventually, Maimonides proposes an experiment to make someone immortal, which requires killing them and letting the parts soak in a special concoction for a while. It is to be one of them and they cast lots for the unenviable role. The assistant comes out as the guinea pig and at first all goes well. Then Maimonides begins worrying about the consequences of his experiment. In the final days, Maimonides gets around the vow by releasing an animal into the room, which knocks over the container holding the assistant, ending the experiment. Maimonides buries the remains and flees, but wherever he goes all people, Jewish or not, treat him with hostility.

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The story is closely related to Maimonides and the Study of Medicine and variations, in which it is Maimonides who is the assistant. His master, a brilliant doctor, needs the help of a student but won't allow any to surpass him and thus kills them after a year of service until Maimonides gets the better of him. The (supposed) resurrection method is in line with tales such as the one of Isis and Osiris, the one of Medea and Pelias, and ones about Virgil's and Paracelsus's deaths. Depending on the version, Maimonides kills the student out of jealousy as the master would do in Maimonides and the Study of Medicine or he has a crisis of conscience that echoes the self-destructive reasoning of the golem created by Jeremiah and Ben Sira in the Commentary on the Secret of the Tetragrammaton.

Title notwithstanding, the student is as much a homunculus as he is an undead, a golem, and he even shares an aspect with the mandrake.note  How much he leans to any of them depends on the version.

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Although Frankenstein was published three decades before the Sippurim, The Homunculus of Maimonides itself is an older tale if of unknown age. The similarities between the two creatures and their circumstances are there, but the homunculus's relation to Frankenstein's Monster, if any, is unknown.


The Homunculus of Maimonides provides examples of:

  • Alchemy Is Magic: The experiment described within that grants immortality instructs one to "kill a healthy man, cut his body into pieces, and place the pieces in an airless glass container. Sprinkle upon them an essence gathered from the sap of the Tree of Life and the balsam of Immortality, and after nine months the pieces of this body will be living again." From the way Maimonides saw the remains develop, it's certain the setup would've worked if left to run its course.
  • Animal Jingoism: In some versions, Maimonides shoos a cat and a dog into the room with the glass container, because it's inevitable they'll go at each other's throats and oh-so-unfortunately damage the glass container during their fight. This may be symbolic for the, in a way, mutual destruction Maimonides and his student inflict on each other.
  • Body Horror: There's two cases: the courtier and the assistant.
    • The courtier literally has a worm sucking on their brain. Their skull needs to be cut open to remove it. Maimonides almost removes the worm by force, which would've caused fatal brain damage. Instead, a plant is held next to the brain so that the worm leaves willingly to nibble on the leaves.
    • The assistant gets cut up to start the process of immortality. In the fourth month, Maimonides takes a look and sees the severed flesh had restructured itself. In the fifth month, the flesh is back to to a singular if rudimentary human form. In the sixth month, the arteries and nerves are visible. In the seventh month, the organs become functional. And in the eighth month, the face is nearly done. Nearly. Maimonides is "unable to bear the demonic grin".
  • Brain Food: The courtier's illness is due to a worm in their head that's sucking on their brain. Luckily, the worm does prefer leaves if given the choice.
  • Cock-a-Doodle Dawn: In some versions, Maimonides shoos a rooster into the room. It knocks the container over rather than cry the homunculus out of its slumber, but the symbolism is there.
  • Complete Immortality: The outcome of the experiment would've been a human who is immortal and impossible to harm.
  • Does This Remind You of Anything?: The assistant is essentially rebirthed in an alchemical womb, a process which takes either nine months or forty days as per alchemical standards. For all intents and purposes, Maimonides performs a late term abortion.
  • Driven by Envy: Occasionally, the reason Maimonides cuts off the experiment is because he doesn't want his student to become his better. Very rarely, there's no casting lots and Maimonides orders the student to serve as guinea pig out of envy.
  • Engagement Challenge: Maimonides's daughter may promise the student to marry him if he subjects himself to the immortality experiment.
  • Exact Words: There was a promise that the living researcher would under no circumstances damage the glass container to end the experiment before the dead researcher's revival. So Maimonides lets a cat and a dog do the work for him.
  • For Science!: Maimonides is depicted as being deadset on making humankind aware and in control of all existence. Even his attempt to make the assistant immortal is just to see if it's possible.
  • Golem: It's version-dependent if this applies or not. Mention of the Sefer Yetzirah makes it explicit, while the pretend-muteness of the student early on, the need for two researchers, and the necessity to destroy the creature, are circumstances that intentionally or conveniently fit the golem tradition.
  • How the Mighty Have Fallen: Of the well-deserved kind. This story does have a propaganda angle, after all. Maimonides and his assistant start out wealthy and renowned. But when they shoot for immortality, the assistant ends up dead and Maimonides an outlaw.
  • Mad Scientist's Beautiful Daughter: Maimonides's daughter, if she's part of the story, is this. She doesn't have to be innocent, depending on how Maimonides is depicted, but she usually is.
  • My God, What Have I Done?: Maimonides starts doubting shortly before the experiment finishes and the doubt only gets worse and worse. He realizes he is risking heresy by creating a human who could replace God. And in the end, he understands he will have to both kill and break his vow to set things sort of right.
  • No Name Given: No character but Maimonides is named in any version. Not even in versions where the student's last word is the name of Maimonides's daughter.
  • The Oath-Breaker: Maimonides is forced to become this to prevent affront to God. He'd sworn his assistant he wouldn't end the experiment prematurely, and yet he did to avoid an artificial messiah.
  • Obfuscating Disability: The assistant pretends muteness to win Maimonides's trust and keeps this up for years.
  • Obfuscating Stupidity: The assistant pretends simpleness to win Maimonides's trust and keeps this too up for years.
  • Our Homunculi Are Different: Traits the titular homunculus shares with the alchemical creature include the artificial womb it develops in and the human intellect it would've had. Normally, though, a homunculus is a new entity and not a human rebirthed.
  • People Jars: That would be the glass container in which the immortal-to-be is kept until the process is complete. The descriptions of how things develop inside aren't pretty.
  • Secretly Wealthy: The assistant is the son of a rich businessman in London. He keeps this secret from Maimonides at first.
  • Setting Update: The story takes place either in Cordova, Spain, where Maimonides helps someone at the Spanish court, or it takes place in Egypt, where Maimonides's patient sometimes is the sultan's daughter.
  • Spell Book: The knowledge of resurrection is taken either from a medical book by Solomon or from the combined knowledge in the Book of Healing (Sefer Marpe) and the Book of Creation (Sefer Yetzirah).
  • World Tree: The sap of the Tree of Life is one of the ingredients needed to revive a human and make them immortal. It's not said how Maimonides got his hands on some (assuming it's not just a poetic name for something less esotoric).
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: In versions that add Maimonides's daughter, she is only present to motivate the student. One man dies, the other flees, and whatever the daughter's fate is goes unmentioned.

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