Roots of the Frankenstein Complex

“I ought to be thy Adam, but I am rather the fallen angel… ” Mary Shelley, Frankenstein Mankind differs from other species by being intelligent. Intelligence and creativity allows humans to survive despite their relatively inferior physical attributes. Besides these benefits, being intelligent has also inspired fear. Humanity has always been afraid of being the creator of its own end. This phobia can be seen in ancient texts as well as modern science fiction works. Mary Shelley’s masterpiece, Frankenstein, is one of most known examples uses this theme.

Isaac Asimov, who is known by his contribution to science fiction genre with his novels and new ideas about synthetic humans, even named the fear of artificial man after Frankenstein novel; Frankenstein complex. Despite the fact that it is named after Frankenstein, the fear of artificial human has existed before 1818; it was even present before the stormy days of Industrial Revolution and Enlightenment Age. In this piece of work, it is aimed to track the roots of Frankenstein complex to its origin by examining various myths and tales, determine the main cause of this fear and find Mary Shelley’s source of inspiration.

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Oedipus and Ancient Mythology Oedipus complex can be considered as the earliest form of fear of being destroyed by one’s own creation. Oedipus complex takes its name from the protagonist of Sophocles well known tragedy Oedipus Rex. In this tragedy, King Laius’ is murdered by his own son and this event raises the anger of gods, thus causes the destruction of Kingdom of Thebes. Freud explains Oedipus complex in “The Material and Sources of Dreams”: “His destiny moves us only because it might have been ours — because the Oracle laid the same curse upon us before our birth as upon him.

It is the fate of all of us, perhaps, to direct our first sexual impulse towards our mother and our first hatred and our first murderous wish against our father. Our dreams convince us that this is so. ” (Freud, p. 296) To Freud, every son has a rebellious instinct against his father. It can be said that just like this lethal father – son relationship, every created being has an inevitable destiny to confront his/her creator. Mythologies from the every corner of the world have a tale of creation going rogue.

According to Mesopotamian myths, Tiamat, primordial goddess of chaos and oceans, is killed by an alliance of her daughter and sons under the leadership of the storm god Marduk. In the far North of the world, Vikings believed that Midgard (means “Middle World” in ancient Norse tongue, it is assumed that Midgard was where the mankind live and the middle one of the nine worlds) was created from the corpse of the giant Ymir, who is murdered by three gods he unintentionally created. Killing or maiming the father is a recurrent motif in Ancient Mythology.

Kronos gilds his father Oranos in a conspiracy with his mother, Gaia. Later, he falls victim to Zeus’ (his own son) plot. These tales are not exclusive to ancient beliefs. Modern Abrahamic faiths also have the creation-gone-wrong motif. According to the classical genesis story in Judaism, Christianity and Islam, the God is challenged by his own creation, Satan. Satan tries to overthrow the God after the God’s decision on creating the mankind displeases him. Considering all these myths, tales and beliefs one can’t himself or herself to ask a question: Why?

Why nearly all these attempts to create another living and rational being end with a catastrophe? The answer varies. In the perspective of literature studies, the explanation is pretty much clear. All the stories need to include a struggle for keeping up the tension. Since the God, whether he is an omnipotent and omniscient being or just a deity with humane emotions and weaknesses, is alone at the very beginning; the only way to make him a protagonist is adding an antagonist to the story, and this is possible only if the God decides to create something capable to compete with him.

The other explanation is psychoanalytic point of view. According to famous historian of religions, Mircea Eliade, religions and mythologies take their roots from mass consciousness of people (Eliade, p. 27-60). Thus, settled Oedipus Complex in individuals’ minds reflects on the creation tales. The similarities between Oedipus complex and Frankenstein complex are easy to see. There are two major differences between these two phenomenons: Firstly, Frankenstein complex is the fear of another living and thinking form while in Oedipus complex struggle is between two individuals of the same species.

Secondly, the subject of the complex is the one who created the other in Frankenstein complex, but in Oedipus complex, the focus is on the created one, the son. Alchemy, Mysticism and Pseudo Science Other main sources of Frankenstein complex is alchemy and mysticism in a period from the Middle Ages to the Enlightenment Age. Due to the lack of positive scientific methods, pseudo sciences (Alchemy, Astrology etc) gained a huge amount of popularity in these years. Even the well known scientist in these times have involved with alchemy and astrology.

On the other hand, religions have given birth to more and more mystical thoughts. Kabala in Judeo Christianity and Sufism in Islam have occupied the minds of philosophers and clerics in these ages. The first well-match examples of Frankenstein complex belong to these times. Homunculus and Golem tales shares the characteristic of Frankenstein. Creating a homunculus (a sentient human which is created without sexual intercourse) was main goal of alchemists alongside with transmutation and immortality. Carl Gustav Jung says that first reference to creating an artificial human is dated to 3th century AD.

In Visions of Zosimos, Zosimos of Panopolis argues that in his visions he sees himself impaled and dismembered with a sword by Ion, who is believed to be a divine spirit and founder of a Gnostic sect. Then, Ion throws pieces of Zosimos to sacred altar and burns them. After that, Zosimos transforms into a pure, spiritual entity. Ion melts to a horrible creature, anthroparion, while crying blood. Jung considers anthroparion as the first example of homunculus in alchemical literature. (Jung, p. 142 – 144) The word homunculus was first used by famous scientist and alchemist Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa von Nettesheim.

Another famous alchemist of this era, Philippus Aureolus Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim, also known as Paracelsus, claims that he managed to create a homunculus in a test tube from human sperm, heated by horse dung for the forty weeks of normal human pregnancy. He also says: “From such Artificial men, when they come to Mans age, are made Pygmies, Giants, and other great and monstrous men, who are the instruments of great matters. ” (Campbell) Alchemists or occultist from 18th to 20th centuries also seek to create homunculus. Dr David Christianus wrote another receipt for Homunculus.

Aleister Crowley, maybe the most famous occultist of 20th century and head of the esoteric “Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn” society, alleged to have created a homunculus. He named his homunculus “the moon child” and said that his homunculus had escaped after a while. (Moonchild) Homunculus is a primary source of inspiration for Frankenstein. The concept of Homunculus has been a foundation for the later artificial men and robot idea. In the novel, protagonist Victor Frankenstein follows the footsteps of Cornelius Agrippa and Paracelsus in his journey.

These two figures (especially Agrippa) trigger his passion in alchemy and science. Though being reprimanded by his father and later his tutor in the university, he respects alchemists and natural philosophers of pre Enlightenment Age and even after he had been convinced to hollowness of alchemy, he admits their part in his quest for creating an artificial man. “Natural philosophy is the genius that has regulated my fate; I desire, therefore, in this narration, to state those facts which led to my predilection for that science.

When I was thirteen years of age, we all went on a party of pleasure to the baths near Thonon: the inclemency of the weather obliged us to remain a day confined to the inn. In this house I chanced to find a volume of the works of Cornelius Agrippa. I opened it with apathy; the theory which he attempts to demonstrate, and the wonderful facts which he relates, soon changed this feeling into enthusiasm. A new light seemed to dawn upon my mind; and, bounding with joy, I communicated my discovery to my father. My father looked carelessly at the title page of my book, and said, “Ah! Cornelius Agrippa!

My dear Victor, do not waste your time upon this; it is sad trash. ” If, instead of this remark, my father had taken the pains to explain to me that the principles of Agrippa had been entirely exploded, and that a modern system of science had been introduced, which possessed much greater powers than the ancient, because the powers of the latter were chimerical, while those of the former were real and practical; under such circumstances, I should certainly have thrown Agrippa aside, and have contented my imagination, warmed as it was, by returning with greater ardour to my former tudies. It is even possible that the train of my ideas would never have received the fatal impulse that led to my ruin. But the cursory glance my father had taken of my volume by no means assured me that he was acquainted with its contents; and I continued to read with the greatest avidity. When I returned home, my first care was to procure the whole works of this author, and afterwards of Paracelsus and Albertus Magnus. I read and studied the wild fancies of these writers with delight; they appeared to me treasures known to few beside myself.

I have described myself as always having been imbued with a fervent longing to penetrate the secrets of nature. In spite of the intense labour and wonderful discoveries of modern philosophers” (Shelley, p. 477 – 478) Even though they inspired Mary Shelly in writing the novel Frankenstein, homunculus tales are not perfect-in-every-way examples to Frankenstein complex. In those tales, homunculi are happy to serve their masters and have little to none free will. At most, they leave their masters and escape from their houses.

There is not any example of an alchemist which is killed or harmed by a homunculus; but in Frankenstein complex, creator fears from his creation and this creation harbours a subtle or obvious grudge against his creator. The most Frankenstein-like tale in pre Enlightenment Age blossomed in Jewish ghettos of Middle and Eastern Europe. Due to the increasing Anti Semitist violence, most of the Jewish residents in Western Europe were casted out to East. In the metropolises of Eastern and Middle Europe, such as Vienna, Prague and Warsaw, Jewish ghettos quickly grew (Johnson).

These social change and wide pessimism augmented the interest toward mysticism in Jewish communities. It is assumed that origins of the Golem story dates back to Medieval Age, but the most known narrative is attributed to rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel who lives in Prague in late 16th century. The tale of Golem of Prague was compiled in 19th century. According to the legend, rabbi ben Bezalel manages to give life to a clay statue by using the secret knowledge of Adam’s creation. He forms a clay debris to shape of a man then attaches a piece of paper written “emet” (“truth” in Hebrew) to its forehead.

He uses this clay man, Golem, to defend Jewish ghetto from anti Semitic riots and run errands. Since it is forbidden to work in Shabbat days (Saturdays), Golem needs to be deactivated. Ben Bezalel erases the first letter of “emet” in Sabbath days, thus it becomes “met” (“dead” in Hebrew) and Golem gets immobilized. In a Shabbat day, Ben Bezalel forgets deactivating Golem. Golem goes berserk, creates havoc in the city and escapes (Idel, p. 296). In the “Golem of Prague” tale, outline is about man’s ambition to play the role of the god by creating a servant in a new life form and the catastrophic result.

In many ways, this tale shares more resemblances with Frankenstein than Homunculus legends. In both Frankenstein and “Golem of Prague”, protagonists decide to create a new being and succeed it. This creature later gets out of control and kills harms other people who are not responsible for the incident and completely innocent. On the other hand, background of Golem myth consists of Jewish Cabbala tradition and mysticism while Frankenstein inherits the experimental paradigm of alchemists; “Golem of Prague” is more like a religious story but Frankenstein is a precursor of science fiction literature.

Frankenstein discusses the same ambition with these two tales but Mary Shelley’s impulsion is a lot more rational than them. This situation is a fine example for displaying change in procession of the story due to the social change while the main theme remains same. Enlightenment Age The world witnessed a rapid development in science and technology in 19th and 20th century. This progress was the fruit of the Enlightenment Age or with its other name the Age of Reason.

The Enlightenment Age began in mid 17th century. With the discoveries of Galileo, Copernicus and Sir Isaac Newton, science has gained a prominent place in every aspect of life. The Enlightenment Age has also changed the people’s world-view in developed country. Rather than consulting priests, church or holy books; they have begun seeing science as the primary guide. Amazed with the glorious advancement, it was thought that everything is either possible or will be possible soon.

Edgar Allan Poe, who lived in the same century with Mary Shelley, describes scientists’ quest to understand the God’s works by examining nature: “If we cannot comprehend God in his visible works, how then in his inconceivable thoughts, that call the works into being? If we cannot understand him in his objective creatures, how then in his substantive moods and phases of creation? ” (Poe, p. 261) Age of reason provides a valuable inspiration for Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. In the novel, it is emphasized that science had succeed the place of alchemy and magic to create miracles.

Victor Frankenstein’s professor summarizes the fact: “After having made a few preparatory experiments, he concluded with a panegyric upon modern chemistry, the terms of which I shall never forget: “The ancient teachers of this science,” said he, “promised impossibilities and performed nothing. The modern masters promise very little; they know that metals cannot be transmuted and that the elixir of life is a chimera but these philosophers, whose hands seem only made to dabble in dirt, and their eyes to pore over the microscope or crucible, have indeed performed miracles.

They penetrate into the recesses of nature and show how she works in her hiding-places. They ascend into the heavens; they have discovered how the blood circulates, and the nature of the air we breathe. They have acquired new and almost unlimited powers; they can command the thunders of heaven, mimic the earthquake, and even mock the invisible world with its own shadows. ” (Shelley, p. 483 – 484) In the introduction of the novel’s second edition, Mary Shelly writes how she felt while writing the novel: “I saw — with shut eyes, but acute mental vision — I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together.

I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life and stir with an uneasy, half-vital motion. Frightful must it be, for supremely frightful would be the effect of any human endeavour to mock the stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the world. ” (Shelley, p. 456) This passage sums up Mary Shelley’s concerns about quick evolution of the science and human ambition of playing the God’s role by using the power of the science.

Another perspective of the Enlightenment also plays a great role in Dr. Frankenstein’s downfall; human body. It is known that pioneers of the Enlightenment, Leonardo da Vinci for example, had to work secretly on human body. After the Enlightenment Age, nearly all the restrictions based on religious basis have been removed. Scientists have gained the freedom to inspect the human body without the fear of church. Dr Frankenstein’s experiments on dead bodies are a clear indicator of worries about scientific ethic after the decline of religion’s power. Conclusion

Frankenstein is a very brilliant work in literature and a milestone in science fiction genre. It affected many other well known writers such as Isaac Asimov and Philip K. Dick. Besides, Frankenstein complex formed a basis for block buster science fiction movies, most notably Terminator and The Matrix series. Frankenstein is an innovative novel for sure, but it also carries the marks of past tales and legend. Mary Shelly has made a good combination of ancient myths, legends of alchemy and mysticism, the principles of modern science in her masterpiece.

All these factors have a different influence in the novel. The full name of the novel; Frankenstein or the Modern Prometheus gives clues about the novel’s inheritance. The main theme of the novel, a disastrous attempt to imitate god’s works, dates back to Prometheus, ancient times. This theme has ripened in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance period with the contributions of early scientists, alchemists, Gnostics and Kabbalists. Mary Shelley has modernized this theme with the bringings of the Enlightenment Age and given it a scientific basis. Mary Shelly’s successful realization of old legends and tales could be the key of the Frankenstein’s splendid achievement.


Campbell, Mary B. “Artificial Men: Alchemy, Transubstantiation, and the Homunculus. ” Republics of Letters: A Journal for the Study of Knowledge, Politics, and the Arts 1. no. 2 (April 3, 2010). Stanford University Online. Web. December 3 2012. http://arcade. stanford. edu/journals/rofl/articles/artificial-men-alchemy-transubstantiation-and-homunculus-by-mary-baine-campbell Crowley, Aleister.

Ay Cocugu. Istanbul: Alt?k?rkbes Yay?nc?l?k, 2004. Print. Eliade, Mircea. “Yaklas?mlar: Kutsal?n Morfolojisi. ” Dinler Tarihine Giris. 2009. Print. Freud, Sigmund. “The Material and Sources of Dreams. ” The Interpretation of Dreams. 1965. Print Idel, Moshe. Golem: Jewish Magical and Mystical Traditions on the Artificial Anthropoid. Albany, New York: State University of New York Press. 1990. Print Johnson, Paul. “Ghettos. ” A History of Jews. New York: Harper Perennial, 2010. Print Jung, Carl G. Collected Works of

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