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Philippus Aureolus Paracelsus (1493-1541) - original name Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim - Note: in some sources the birth date is November 10, 1493.


Swiss physician, chemist, "the greatest alchemist of all time," one of the fathers of modern medicine. Paracelsus was the pseudonym of Dr Theophrastus Bombastus Hohenheim, which meant 'beyond Celsius', implying that he was greater physician than the then-revered Roman physician and Platonist philosopher Aulus Cornelius Celsius. A rebellious thinker, Paracelsus developed his own system of medicine and philosophy.

"By nature I am not subtly spun, nor is it the custom of my native land to accomplish anything by spinning silk. Nor are we raised on figs, nor on mead, nor on wheaten bread, but on cheese, milk and oatcakes, which cannot give one a subtle disposition. Moreover, a man clings all his days to what he received in his youth; and my youth was coarse as compared to that of the subtle, pampered, and over-refined. For those who are raised in soft clothes and in women's apartments and we who are brought up among the pine-cones have trouble in understanding one another well." (from Paracelsus: Selected Writings, ed. by Jolande Jacobi, 1951)

Theophrastus Bombastus Hohenheim (Paracelsus) was born in Einsiedeln, Switzerland, the only son of a poor German physician. His father was the illegitimate offspring of a disgraced Swabian nobleman, who had lost both reputation and estates.

Around 1509 Paracelsus started his studies of chemistry and medicine at the University of Basle. After receiving his bachelors degree in 1510, he learned about metals and minerals and mining diseases at the mines in the Tirol. Paracelsus also earned a doctorate, perhaps from the University of Ferrara. At Erfurt he met and apprenticed himself to one Rufus Mutianus, a friend of Pico della Mirandola (1463-94), a Faustian scholar. At some point in the mid-1510s Paracelsus studied under the Hermetic philosopher Trithemius.

Between the years 1510 and 1524 Paracelsus wandered through Europe, Russia and the Middle East, learning the practice of medicine as a military surgeon and acquired a considerable knowledge of alchemy. For his support of the peasants' revolt he was forced to flee from Salzburg. He left the city "too hastily to pack his clothing." (Paracelsus: Speculative Theory and the Crisis of the Early Reformation by Andrew Weeks, 1997, pp. 78-79)

In his wide travels, Paracelsus became acquainted with remedies not familiar to contemporary physicians, and which brought him a high prestige. After great success as an army physician, he set himself to reforming medicine. He opposed scholastic physicians and medical authorities and emphasized the importance of practical knowledge. His philosophy was a curious mixture of mysticism, hard thinking, and chemical knowledge. It is thought that he learned the Hermetic secrets from Arabian adepts in Constantinople. "The physician," he wrote, "is he who in the bodily diseases takes the place of God and administers for Him." (Four Treatises of Theophrastus Von Hohenheim Called Paracelsus, edited, with a Preface by Henry E. Sigerist, 1996, p. 15) 

Paracelsus thought that the physician must be a chemist and was accused of prescribing poisonous substances, when he used inorganic, particularly metallic elements in internal remedies. Paracelsus defended himself that his opponents treated their patients with poisons too, but did not know the proper dosages. "The preparations of Antimony vary with the diseases for which it is administered. That which is used for wounds differs from that which is applied in the case of leprosy. And so of the rest. To take the same preparation of Antimony both in wounds and in leprosy would be a serious error." (Paracelsus in Alchemical Medicine, The Story of Chemistry by N.C. Datta, 2005, p. 64)

"Every experiment is like a weapon which must be used in its particular way – a spear to thrust, a club to strike," Paracelsus wrote in Grosse Wundartney (1536, Surgeon's Book). "Experimenting requires a man who knows when to thrust and when to strike, according to need and fashion." (A Spoonful of Sugar: 1,001 Quotations for the Pharmacist and Pharmaceutical Scientist, edited by Raymond Rowe, Joseph Chamberlain, 2007, p. 40) Paracelsus taught that wounds would heal naturally if kept clean and drained. He is credited with successfully treating syphilis, gout, leprosy, and ulcers with mercury. Paracelsus also coined the name of "zink" from zinne (tin) and kupfer (copper).

Supported by Erasmus, he became professor of medicine in the University of Basel, lecturing in his German-Swiss dialect rather than in Latin as was customary. This naturally upset the university authorities. In addition, he burned publicly the works of Avicenna and Galen and declared that his cap had more learning in it than all the heads in the university. "O you hypocrites, who despise the truths taught you by a great  physician, who is himself instructed by the Nature, and is a son of God himself!"  Paracelsus exclaimed in a speech in his typical bombastic style. "Come then, and listen, impostors  who prevail only by the authority of your high positions!" (The Philosopher's Stone by Peter Marshall, 2002, p. 349) He drew about him a school known as the Paracelsists, and claimed among his discoveries that of indefinitely prolonging life. 

During all this time, Paracelsus continued to write prolifically. His writings, which he dictated to his disciples, comprise most of what is known about the ancient Hermetic system of medicine. However, apart his surgical work, Grosse Wundartzney, (1536), some pamphlets and astrological forecasts he hardly published anything else.

Paracelsus applied his knowledge of astrological aspects to healing processes. In Philosophia Occulta Paracelsus wrote that human beings have two kinds of spirits – one is from the heaven, one from the nature, but they should follow their heavenly spirit in life. Although he made references to the Aristotelian elements of earth, air, fire, and water, he definend them in his own way. Diseases originate from salt, sulfur, or mercury, which correspond respectively matter (body), soul, and spirit. A doctor should trust more in his intuition and reason that what the patient tells. All wisdom belongs to God (De Fundamento Sapientiae) – and thus we should try understand ourselves to be able to know the divine truth, which has been given to human beings.

"For just as gold is tested in fire a seventh time, the pysician must be proven by fire a seventh time and more . . . Fire approves all things," Paracelsus argued. "Thus the physician is tested; [but] not that he may be burned: rather, his art, theory, [and] practice are to be babtized by fire." (Paracelsus (Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim, 1493-1541): Essential Theoretical Writings, 2008, pp. 304-305) His followeers were apt to call themselves philosophers by fire.

In Neun Bücher Archidoxis (circa 1526-1527) Paracelsus examined role of the sun, and compared it with the alchemical furnace. This text, which was issued in many editions from the 1570s, had a considerable influnce on occultist parcices. A complete edition of his works in Latin appeared in 1589.

Following a quarrel with the magistracy, he was driven out of Basel in 1528. Paracelsus spent a wandering life in Switzerland, Alsace, and southern Germany. Due to his superiority complex, he had a terrible reputation among his colleagues and he had a habit of losing every  friend he ever made.

Paracelsus settled for a few years in the Austrian province of Carinthia, where he produced some of his most famous writings, among them Sieben Defensiones (1538, The Seven Defensiones), Labyrinthus medicorum errantium (1538, On the Errors and Labyrinth of the Physiocians), and Das Buch vom Tartaro, das ist vom Ursprung des Sands und Steins (On the Origin and Cause of Sand and Stone). In Prognosticatio (1536) Paracelsus claimed that the drawings of Tarot cards had magical meaning. His accompanying captions for them may have inspired Nostradamus. Éliphas Lévi (1810-1875), a mystic and great admired of Paracelsus, said that the work was "the most astounding monument and indisputable proof of the reality and existence of the gift of natural prophecy." (The Propecies of Paracelsus: Magic Figures and Prognostications: Made by Theophrastus Taracelsus About Four Hundred Tears Ago, 1915, p. 11)

The Arch-Bishop Duke Ernsty of Bavaria invited in 1541 Paracelsus to Salzburg. It is believed that he was poisoned or killed by assassins who were hired by his enemies. Paracelsus died on September 23, 1541. Most likely his experiments with poisonous chemical substances contributed to his death at the age of forty-eight. "All things are poison, and nothing is without poison, only the dose makes the poison," he wrote in 1538. After he was buried his bones were dug up several times, moved and reburied. Paracelsus never married. One of his student said, that he avoided the company of women altogether. It has been claimed that Paracelsus was emasculated in infancy by accident or by a drunken soldier. No beard grew on his face.

Despite his obsession with alchemy, Paracelsus encouraged research, observation and experiment, and revolutionized medical methods. He was among the first to write scientific books for the public. He described silicosis, and to connected goitre with minerals found in drinking water. By experimenting he improved pharmacy and therapeutics, developed techniques for the production of laudanum, and explored the effects of other opium derivatives as well. Two hundred years later laudanum became the fashionable way to escape from psychic or physical pain. Moreover, he was the first physician to make use of the magnet and to explore the phenomenon of magnetism in relation to the human organism. On the basis of Hermetic principle of interrelationship he recognized the connection between psyche and the physical organism, and paved way for the work of Mesmer and subsequently Freud.

The Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Jung has described Paracelsus as "an ocean, or, to put it less kindly, a chaos, an alchemical melting-pot into which the human beings, gods, and demons of that tremendous age, the first half of the sixteenth century, poured their peculiar juices." (Collected Works of C.G. Jung, Volume 15: Spirit in Man, Art, And Literature, edited and translated by Gerhard Adler & R.F.C. Hull, 1971, p. 19)

According to Paracelsus the physician had to be not only an alchemist but also an astrologer, because the human beings have a firmament body, which is the corporeal equivalent of the astrological heaven. And since the astrological constellation makes a diagnosis possible, it also indicates the therapy. He favored the use of magnets in curing patients; two hundred years later the French Franz Anton Mesmer developed a theory of animal magnetism and stroked patients with magnets.

Jung was fascinated of Paracelsus's writings about alchemy and the connection between the alchemical stone (the lapsis) and the mystical experience of God. He returned to Paracelsus's ideas in several writings, among which the most thorough was Psychology and Alchemy (1944). It explores the analogies between alchemy, Christian dogma and symbolism on the other hand, and the dreams and visions, the classical material of psychoanalysis. The character of Paracelsus has inspired several writes, among them Robert Browning (1812-1889), Arthur Schnitzler (1862-1931), and Jorge Luis Borges (1889-1986).

In Borges's story 'The Rose of Paracelsus' the doctor prays to his God to send him a disciple. A young man (Johannes Grisebach) appears. He is ready to follow Paracelsus, if he can prove his skills as an alchemist by burning a rose to ashes and making it emerge again. Paracelsus says that the rose is eternal, and only its appearances may change. "The path is the Stone. The point of departure is the Stone. If these words are unclear to you, you have not yet begun to understand. Every step you take is the goal you seek." (from 'The Rose of Paracelsus' by Jorge Luis Borges, in Collected Fictions, translated by Andrew Hurley, 1998, p. 505) The man throws the rose into the flames. Paracelsus tells that all the other physicians call him a fraud – perhaps they are right. The young man says: "What I have done is unpardonable. I have lacked belief, which the Lord demands of all the faithful. Let me, then, continue to see ashes. I will come back again when I am stronger, and I will be your disciple, and at the end of the Path I will see the rose." (Ibid., p. 507) He leaves, promising to come back, but they both know that they would not see each other again. Alone, Paracelsus whispers a single word and the rose appears again.

For further reading: The Magus by Francis Barrett (1801); The Life of Theoprastus Paracelsus, 1887 (Trubner & Co.); Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim called Paracelsus by John Maxson Stillman (1920); Paracelsus by Friedrich Gundolf (1927); Paracelsus am Eingang der deutschen Bildungsgeschichte by Bodo Sartorius Freiherr von Waltershausen (1936); Paracelsus: Magic into Science by H.M. Pachter (1951); Paracelsus: an introduction to philosophical medicine in the era of the Renaissance by Walter Pagel (1958); The English Paracelsians by A.G. Debus (1968); 'Paracelsus the Physicion' by Carl Jung in The Spirit in Man, Art and Literature (1967); Encyclopedia of Mystical and Paranormal Experience by Rosemary Ellen Guiley (1991); Hermetic and Alchemical Writings of Paracelsus, ed by Arthur Edward Waite (1992); Three Famous Alchemists: Raymund Lully, Corneliius Agrippa, Theophrastus Paracelsus by Arthur Edward Waite, et al. (1998); Paracelsus, His Mystical and Medical Philosophy by Manly P. Hall (1999); Paracelsus: Medicine, Magic and Mission at the End of Time by Charles Webster (2008); '"Morbo spirituali medicina spiritualis convenit": Paracelsus, Madness, and Spirits' by Peter J. Forshaw, in Aisthetics of the Spirits: Spirits in Early Modern Science, Religion, Literature and Music, edited by Steffen Schneider (2015); Bridging Traditions: Alchemy, Chemistry, and Paracelsian Practices in the Early Modern Era, edited by Karen Hunger Parshall, Michael T. Walton, and Bruce T. Moran (2015) - Suom.: Suomeksi on ilmestynyt Paracelsuksen tutkimuksista mm. Franz Hartmannin (1838-1912) satasivuinen teos Okkulttinen lääketiede (2001)

Selected bibliography:

  • De Medicina, 1478
  • Elf Traktat von Ursprung, Ursachen, Zeichen und Kur einzelner, c. 1520
  • Volumen Medicinae Paramirum, c. 1520
  • Das Buch von der Gebärung der empfindlichen Dinge in der Vernunft, c. 1520
  • Neun Bücher Archidoxis, c. 1526-1527
  • Das Buch Paragranum, 1529-1530
  • Opus Paramirum, 1530-1531
  • Liber prologi in vitam beatam, 1533
  • De religione perpetua, 1533
  • De ordine doni, 1533
  • De honestis utrisque divitiis, 1533
  • Die grosse Wundartzney, 1536
  • Prognosticatio Eximii Doctoris Paracelsi, 1536
  • De Natura Rerum, 1537 (attributed to Paracelsus)
  • Labyrinthus medicorum errantium, 1538
  • Sieben Defensiones, 1538
  • Auslegung der Figuren, so zu Nürnberg gefunden seind worden, 1569
  • Archidoxis Magica, c. 1570 (attributed to Paracelsus)
  • Liber Azoth sive de ligno et linea vitae, 1590
  • Philip Aureole Theophrast Bombast von Hohenheim... Opera, Bücher und Schriften, 1589-91 (durch Joannem Huserum in Truck gegeben, 10 parts, reprinted 1603, 1616)
  • Theatrum chemicum, 1602-61 (6 vols.)
  • Hermetic and Alchemical Writings, 1894 (2 vols.)
  • Das Buch Paragranum, 1903 (ed. by Franz Strunz)
  • The Propecies of Paracelsus: Magic Figures and Prognostications: Made by Theophrastus Taracelsus About Four Hundred Tears Ago, 1915 (translated by J.K.; with introduction)
  • Theophrast von Hohenheim, genannt Paracelsus. Sämtliche Werke, 1922-33, (14 vols., translated into modern German by Bernhard Aschner)
  • Selected Writings, 1951 (edited by Jolande Jacobi)
  • Concerning the Spirits of the Planets, 1983
  • Hermetic Astronomy, 1983
  • The Tincture of the Philosophers, 1984
  • Alchemical Medicine, 1986
  • Alchemy: The Third Column of Medicine, 1988
  • A Treatise Concerning the Medicinal Philosophic Stone, 1989
  • Concerning the Alchemical Degrees, Grades & Compositions, 1990
  • Four Treatises of Theophrastus Von Hohenheim Called Paracelsus, 1996
  • Archidoxes of Magic: Of the Supreme Mysteries of Nature, of the Spirits of Planets, Secrets of Alchemy, Occult Philosophy, Zodiac Sign, 1997
  • The Seven Defenses of Paracelsus, 2001
  • Paracelsus (Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim, 1493-1541): Essential Theoretical Writings, 2008 (edited and translated with a commentary and introduction by Andrew Weeks)

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