Paracelsus (1493–1541) One of the greatest of alchemists and Hermetic philosophers, whose popular but unorthodox healing methods and supreme arrogance ran him afoul of the medical establishment. Paracelsus believed in natural Magic, a holistic approach to medicine, and the existence of the auric field as an influence on health. His contemporaries called him the Second Hermes and the Trismegistus of Switzerland. He is an important figure in the development of modern orthodox medicine and homeopathic medicine. MANLY PALMER HALL called Paracelsus a patron of forlorn causes who endured much ridicule in his lifetime but whose ideas have regained merit in modern times.
Paracelsus was born on either November 10 or December 17, 1493, (both dates are given in biographies) in Maria-Einsiedeln, near Zurich, Switzerland. He was the only son of a poor German physician; his mother died in childbirth or soon thereafter. He was christened Philippus Aureolus Theophrastus Bombast von Hohenheim. He was known as Theophrastus until he graduated from college, when he renamed himself Paracelsus, or “above Celsus,” which reflected his egotistical belief that he was greater than the Roman physician Celsus.
Little is known of Paracelsus’s early life. His father moved to Villach, near Klagenfurt, when the boy was nine. According to lore, Paracelsus learned Alchemy and medicine from his father.
Paracelsus probably studied at the university and Basel. In 1514 he went to work in the mines and metallurgical workshops in Tyrol, working for Sigismund Fugger, an alchemist. In just a year’s time, Paracelsus learned a great deal from Fugger.
From then on, throughout the rest of his life, Paracelsus exhibited a restlessness that kept him on the move. He traveled throughout Europe and was even said to visit Russia and the Far East. He may have worked as an army surgeon. In Italy, he earned a medical degree at the University of Ferrara. He traveled for 12 years, amassing a great deal of knowledge from metallurgists, physicians, alchemists, and other occultists. According to lore, he learned the Hermetic secrets from Arabian adepts in Constantinople and learned about ElementALS and other residents of the spirit world from the Brahmins of India. He was a devout student of the Bible and mingled his Christian beliefs with his esoteric wisdom.
Paracelsus settled in Strasbourg, where he quickly gained fame as a physician. He cured a prominent publisher in Basel of an unspecified illness that had resisted other therapies. Suddenly Paracelsus was famous, and he was named to the post of City Physician and Professor of Medicine.
As a doctor, Paracelsus was renowned for his gift of healing. However, his egotism antagonized his peers. His searing put-downs of colleagues were so offensive that he seldom lasted long in a post. In Basel, Paracelsus dedicated himself to reforming all of medicine. He scandalized his students and peers by publicly burning the revered medical texts of Galen and Avicenna.
His disdain for physicians was exceeded only by his alleged disdain for women. (There is no record of any romantic involvements in his entire life.) His The Book Concerning the Tincture of the Philosophers was subtitled written against those sophists born since the deluge, in the age of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, an example of his contempt for all physicians throughout history. He states in the text, “. . . I have been chosen by God to extinguish and blot out all the phantasies of elaborate and false works, of delusive and presumptuous words, be they the words of Aristotle, Galen, Avicenna, Mesva, or the dogmas of any among their followers.”
Paracelsus’s stay in Basel lasted only two years, for then he had thoroughly offended all of his professional colleagues. He was often drunk, rude, and loud and had a sharp tongue. He readily insulted the intelligence and practices of other physicians, calling them idiots, infants, sausage-stuffers, clownish concocters, ignorant sprouts, and wormy and lousy sophists. He was especially disdainful of the herbal remedies that were still in vogue at the time, calling them “loathsome and fulsome filthy potions.” Furthermore, he bragged that he was first among physicians and had made more cures than all physicians of Europe combined.
The last straw in Basel came when he publicly burned the works of IBN SINA (Avicenna) and Galen in a brass pan with sulphur and nitre to show his contempt for traditional medicine. Paracelsus proclaimed that these towering figures were “sticking in Hell.” He proclaimed that his cap had “more learning in it than all the heads in the university,” and his beard had “more experience than all the academies.” He said he had no need to praise himself because Nature praised him, as exemplified in this passage from The Treasure of Treasures for Alchemists:
O, you hypocrites, who despise the truths taught you by a true physician, who is himself instructed by Nature, and is a son of God himself! Come, then, and listen, impostors who prevail only by the authority of your high positions! After my death, my disciples will burst forth and drag you to the light, and shall expose your dirty drugs, wherewith up to this time you have compassed the death of princes, and the most invincible magnates of the Christian world. Woe for your necks in the day of judgment! I know the monarchy will be mine. Mine, too, will be the honor and the glory. Not that I praise myself: Nature praises me. Of her I am born, her I follow. She knows me, and I know her. The light which is in her I have beheld in her; outside, too. I have proved the same in the figure of the microcosm, and found it in that universe.
His colleagues attempted to oust him from his post, but the city authorities supported him. However, his lectures were marred by catcalls and interruptions. The end came when the Canon Lechtenfels, a prominent citizen, became ill and offered a fee to anyone who could cure him. Paracelsus did so, but the canon refused to pay him. Paracelsus sued the man in court, but the sentiment against him was so great that he lost the case. He then heaped abuse on the magistrates. Threatened with severe punishment for contempt of court, he fled the city.
He roamed throughout Europe, plagued by increasing drinking problems. He borrowed money in taverns to pay for his drink. Lore holds that he always repaid the loans with handsome interest from some mysterious fund. He wore clothes until they were rags. He worked cures and revised old manuscripts, making a brief comeback with the publication of Wundartzney in 1536.
The prince-archbishop Duke Ernst of Bavaria invited Paracelsus to Salzburg in 1541. Within six months Paracelsus died, on September 24. He was 51 years old. The cause and circumstances of his death are not known. According to one story, his body was found on a bench at the White Horse tavern in Salzburg. Stories circulated that he had died during a drunken orgy or that he was poisoned or killed in a scuffle with assassins who were hired by his enemies. Some of his friends claimed that jealous physicians hired an assassin to push him off a cliff. After he was buried, his bones were dug up several times, moved, and reburied. A fracture in his skull was revealed to be caused by rickets. Paracelsus evidently sensed his impending demise, for he made out his will three days before his death.
Paracelsus was revered as a great healer by the public, who kept his memory alive. As late as 1830 when an epidemic of cholera swept close to Salzburg, people made pilgrimages to his grave and prayed. The cholera spared the residents of Salzburg but ravaged other parts of Austria and Germany.
During Paracelsus’s time, the Hermetic wisdom was rediscovered and put to use. Paracelsus was the first man to write scientific books for the public. His writings comprise most of what is known about the ancient Hermetic system of medicine. His collected works were published in 10 volumes between 1589 and 1591.
Paracelsus’s works attracted a growing following, and by 1570 a distinct Paracelsian school of thought existed. His work was a major factor in the inclusion of chemistry in university teachings.
Despite his bombast and lack of social graces, Paracelsus was unparalleled in his innovations in chemistry and medicine. He believed in a universal, natural magic that was bestowed on all things by God and that was manifested in physicians as healing ability. All things in nature served a good purpose, he said, even the midnight dew (see CELESTIAL DEW) that he collected on plates of glass.
His natural remedies often worked when the traditional wisdom of the day did not. While other doctors treated wounds by pouring boiling oil on them to cauterize them or simply by amputating flesh after it became gangrenous, Paracelsus maintained that wounds would heal naturally if kept clean and drained. He is credited with successfully treating syphilis, gout, leprosy, and ulcers with MERCURY. He also practiced an early form of homeopathy by treating plague victims with minute amounts of their own excrement. He practiced holism, believing that mind and body affected the other.
Paracelsus said that all things live in and radiate light that is different from ordinary light—it is the vitalizing force of the universe that creates health and well-being. Invisible light carries wisdom, and visible light, the light of Nature, nourishes the body. IMAGINATION, he said, is the route to self-discovery. When conscious WILL and the intellect are flooded with the light of Nature, one’s destiny is fulfilled. There are three suns in the solar system:
• A physical sun warms and reveals the body of things and dissipates crystallization.
• An astral sun reveals the structure of the soul and dissipates the darkness of ignorance.
• A spiritual sun nourishes the human spirit and dispells the darkness of death.
Paracelsus believed the Hermetic principle that man has a vital body, an etheric double created and energized by the vital life force of the universe, and that when the vital body is depleted, physical ailment results. Paracelsus said the vital body could be reenergized by bringing it into contact with another vital body that had an overabundance of the vital life force. He is credited with having been the original discoverer of MESMERISM, a theory of magnetic healing put forward in the late 18th century by Franz Anton Mesmer. Paracelsus used concentrated mental energy to stimulate bodily functions in a patient. He was well aware of the dangers of this power, which if misused would degenerate into mental Sorcery. He said that only the most qualified physicians should use mental healing powers.
Like most alchemists and physicians of his time, Paracelsus believed in Astrology, that man was governed by the movements of heavenly bodies. He held that sickness and wellness are controlled by astral influences. The key to curing illness was secret remedies that restored the celestial harmony between the inner astrum, or star within man, and a heavenly astrum. The remedies were physical, but their healing components were spiritual. Paracelsus believed that all physicians should be knowledgeable about astrology and stellar influences. He used magical astrological TalismanS in his work, metal disks inscribed with planetary Symbols.
The careful preparation of medicines was crucial to their success, he believed. Substances possess a variety of spiritual powers, which affect one disease one way and another disease in another manner. Paracelsus believed strongly in the principles of sympathetic magic in healing. One of his most famous remedies was mumiae, a substance taken from Egyptian mummies. Later, other substances were used. The mumiae absorbed the vibrations of illness and also absorbed beneficial vibrations of other substances and things in nature, which could then be imparted into ill patients through physical contact.
In alchemy, Paracelsus regarded metal transmutation as secondary to the real, spiritual purpose of the art, especially as it pertained to medicine and healing. His primary tutor in the alchemical arts was a mysterious Adept named Solomon Trismosin, who taught Paracelsus how to obtain the Philosopher’s Stone in Constantinople. Paracelsus referred to the stone as the Tincture and the Lili of Alchemy and Medicine; he said that it was a “Universal Medicine, and consumes all diseases, by whatsoever name they are called, just like an invisible fire.” Only small doses were necessary, he said. By this means, he claimed to have cured “leprosy, venereal disease, dropsy, the falling sickness, colic, scab, and similar afflictions; also lupus, cancer, noli-me-tangere, fistuals, and the whole race of internal diseases, more surely than one could believe.”
He said that the Prima Materia is the essence of the world soul (see Anima Mundi) and is key to creating spiritual GOLD. He said that MERCURY, SALT, and SULPHUR are the TRIA PRIMA buildings blocks of all things. He led the way in introducing chemical compounds into medicine and in describing zinc, a term he invented. He also invented the terms ALKAHEST (a universal solvent) and spagyric, a description of the art of alchemy. He applied the term alcohol (al-kohl), which referred to black eye-paint, to wine.
Carl G. Jung considered the psychological aspects of Paracelsus’s alchemy to represent the path of individuation or of becoming perfect and whole.
See also OINTMENTS.
- Hall, Manly P. The Secret Teachings of All Ages. 1928. Reprint, Los Angeles: The Philosophic Research Society, 1977.
- ———. Paracelsus: His Mystical and Medical Philosophy. Los Angeles: The Philosophic Research Society, 1964.
- Holmyard, E. J. Alchemy. New York: Penguin Books, 1957.
- Paracelsus. “The Book Concerning the Tincture of the Philosophers,” in Hermetic and Alchemical Writings of Paracelsus, A. E. Waite, trans. 1894. Available online. URL: http://www.sacred-texts.com/alc/paracel2.htm. Downloaded January 10, 2005.
- ———. “The Treasure of Treasures for Alchemists,” in Hermetic and Alchemical Writings of Paracelsus A. E. Waite, trans. 1894. Available online. URL: http://www.sacredtexts.com/alc/paracel1.htm. Downloaded January 10, 2005.
- Seligmann, Kurt. The History of Magic and the Occult. New York: Pantheon Books, 1948.