The Golem, the Homunculus – most have never heard of these terms. These terms and the concepts they stood for flourished in the middle ages in the Middle East and through the Middle East into Europe. The men behind these ideas, seeking immortality and superior human abilities and powers, were the ideological predecessors of the transhumanist movement.
This herbal and alchemical approach to reach immortality and rejuvenation, extended itself to attempts to create an artificial consciousness.
Creating The Homunculus and Robots
In the late middle ages, both in Europe and the middle east, among both Jewish and Arabic writers, the idea of a artificial man arose. The term commonly used for such creations is a homunculus. Among the Jewish writers he was called a Golem. Abu Musa Jābir ibn Hayyān (Arabic: جابر بن حيان) an Islamic chemist astrologer, alchemist, physician among many other skills wrote a book entitled Kitab Al-Ahjar (“Book of Stones”). In it, he spoke of a goal called takwin (Arabic: تكوين) meaning to bring into being, which was nothing more than the creation of synthetic life. As Katheleen o’Connor explains in her 1994 doctoral dissertation for the University of Pennsylvania,
From the emic perspective of the alchemist, the act of takwin was an emulation of the divine creative and life-giving powers of Genesis and Resurrection and tapped the physical and spiritual forces in nature. At the same time it was an act through which the alchemist was inwardly transformed and purified, a spiritual regeneration.
Thus, all kinds of life could be produced using alchemical methods such as the creation of minerals (takwin al-ahjar), of plants (takwin al-nabat), of animals (takwin al-hayawan) as well as of men and prophets (takwin ashab al nawamis). This was produced by artisanal action (sani).
Robert Geraci in his book entitled Apocalyptic AI: Visions Of Heaven In Robotics, Artificial Intelligence , And Virtual Reality states,
The school of Jabir continued to publish books, as did other Islamic alchemists, some of whom published in their own names and some of whom published pseudonymously. While these subsequent works drew upon Jabir, they added significantly to his legacy. Among the more interesting pseudonymous works is The Book Of The Cow, which was attributed to Plato but is clearly of medieval Islamic provenance. In addition to recipes for creating bees out of putrefying cow and vice versa, The Book Of The Cow also offers a recipe for a homunculus. A homunculus is an artificial humanoid manufactured through alchemical recipes, generally as a means for acquiring magical powers of the answers to difficult questions. The homunculus of The Book Of The Cow has superhuman powers; it is thus a significant departure from Jabir’s homunculus which seems more or less identical with an actual human being.
William Newman in his book entitled, Promethean Ambitions: Alchemy And The Quest To Perfect Nature states that homunculus “…of the pseudo-Plato and Jabir traditions could not only talk – it could reveal the secrets of nature.” There were specific instructions on how to make a homunculus based in part on the Aristotelian theory held in that day regarding the existence of spontaneous generation. This theory provided a conceptual basis for the ability to bring forth life forms from non-living things.
קַבָּלָה, meaning “receiving,” (founded on a manner of interpretation based on mystical Rabinnic Judaism), was first mentioned in the Talmud when speaking about Rava (רבא). Rava was a Jewish Talmudist who stated that artificial life could be created by a life of absolute purity.
Raba said: If the righteous desired it, they could [by living a life of absolute purity] be creators, for it is written, But your iniquities have distinguished between etc. Rabbah created a man, and sent him to R. Zera. R. Zera spoke to him, but received no answer. Thereupon he said unto him: ‘Thou art a creature of the magicians. Return to thy dust.
Even further Ronald Eisenberg in his book titled The JPS Guide To Jewish Traditions explains the basic concept of the Golem.
According to Sefer Yetzirah and other mystical books, it is possible (using a detailed set of instructions) to create living beings out of earth using secret combinations of the letters of the Hebrew alphabet, the names of the 10 Sefirot, and the secret names of God. Legends maintain that a golem is incapable of speech and lacks a soul but has superb vision and superhuman strength and generally follow its mater’s orders without question.
To the Jews the magic was in the name of God being brought forth and focused for power. There were many names of God according to kabbalists. Of course there were also materials that were shaped, such as virgin soil that was from a place where no man had ever dug and water that had never been poured in any kind of vessel.
These stories have had an important effect on the development of the robot. In 1921 Karel Capek a Czech playwright wrote a play entitled R.U.R. based on the ancient Jewish Golem story. This play utilized the word robot for the first time.
We include a French Documentary with English subtitles which is the most complete explanation of the alchemy practiced during the middle ages. The only difference to the ignorance of many is that it is still practiced today by modern alchemists. If you cannot see the embedded video here is the link: http://bit.ly/jshYU3.
As we move into the Middle Ages in Europe and into the Enlightenment of the 1700s, these ideas would not die.