A homunculus1 is traditionally a form of artificial life created by alchemy or magic. Vaguely human shaped, the homunculus serves as a companion, helper and possibly a surrogate child for its creator.
Despite the name, they are not necessarily small - some homunculi are described as man sized - and how man-like they are varies from account to account. This may be a function of how the creature was made and/or the skill of its creator - some are recorded as being able to speak, but most are mute. Other common unnatural features include wings, beaks, claws and fur. In a fantasy setting they may be hard to distinguish from imps and may be mistaken for a familiar (or may be a common disguise for familiars). In some accounts the homonculus will bear a more or less grotesque resemblance to its creator.
Methods of creation vary - most seem to be enthusiastic about the use of human semen2 - which would seem to re-inforce the "surrogate child" theme3 and blood4. Other methods involve mandrake (a herb deeply entwined with human fertility) and retorts packed with herbs and and/or animal parts and incubated in baths of sand or manure for a given time. Sometimes the creator frames the creature's body with metal wire and/or clay and sometimes not - a man-sized homunculus could even be cast onto a human skeleton. Of course, you could use the skeleton of a child or a monkey for a smaller creation… Probably the simplest method recorded involved injecting semen into a fresh hen's egg, sealing the hole with parchment and then burying it in dung until it hatched5.
If such things matter in your game, a homunculus probably doesn't have a soul - it may, however, share part of its creator's soul if that's what clones do under your magic system. This may make it more - or less- susceptible to magic. It is entirely normal for a homunculus' master to be able to conduct remote viewings through his creature's senses - this may be an inherent ability or normal scrying magic with an improved focus. Harming the homunculus may or may not harm the creator, but it's likely that access to one will provide substantial sympathetic benefits to magical sendings aimed its creator. Since it is likely to be made of a piece of him, it will probably provide a strong link under the magical law of contagion.
Allegorical homunculi also appear in some alchemical texts as the protagonists of stories in which a person submits to an agonising transformation into a higher form. These may be coded myth describing the purification of metals by human analogy - or describing human spiritual transformation by analogy to metallurgy.
Frankenstein's monster may be an example of a homunculus … or not … the original novel is unclear about exactly how it was created, but alchemy is hinted at, and it's a possible explanation.
Game and Story Use
- In a 'magical university' setting, homunculi may be an every day part of life, scuttling around the campus and to and from diggs and the shops of alchemists, apocatheries and stationers. Or wine shops and fast food restaurants, depending on the faculty.
- Homunculi may be the surrogate children and spoilt pets of those magi whose parental ambitions are frustrated by social incompetence, social exclusion, workaholism or other 'demands of the art' (like being a eunuch perhaps).
- Shamanism and alchemy aren't a great fit, but in a system where magicians in general tend to be "third gender" or otherwise queer in some way, as in some shamanic traditions, homunculi would also serve the surrogate child role as well as or inbetween apprentices.
- Make the creation process as dark and as complicated as suits your campaign - upgrades may be as simple as putting the right animal parts/herbs/spells into the retort, or as complicated as needing to develop the magical equivalent of a whole new genome. The looks of the finished product might depend on the creator's crafting skills, his purity of soul or even just on chance.
- Creating a homunculus from your own … resources … is probably crucial in bonding it to you. Using someone elses' may render it disobedient and/or uncontrollable. Even for your own "offspring" there's always the risk of "Frankenstein Syndrome".
- A homunculus could make a good NPC ally for a mage character.