Paracelsus (1493–1541)
One of the most striking and picturesque figures in the history
of medicine, alchemy, and occultism, full name Auraelus
Philippus Theophrastus Paracelsus Bombast von Hohenheim,
this illustrious physician and exponent of the hermetic philosophy
was renowned under the name of Paracelsus.
He was born December 26, 1493, in Einsideln, near Zürich,
Switzerland. His father, the natural son of a prince, himself a
physician, desired that his only son should follow the same profession.
The fulfillment of that desire was directed during the
early training of Paracelsus. The training fostered his imaginative
rather than his practical tendencies, which first cast his
mind into the alchemical mould.
He freed himself from the constraining bonds of medicine
as practiced by his contemporaries, who chiefly applied bleeding,
purging, and emetics, and set about evolving a new system
to replace the old. In order to study the book of nature better,
he traveled extensively between 1513 and 1524 and visited almost
every part of the known world. During his travels he compiled
the wisdom present at the time on metallurgy, chemistry,
and medicine, and the folk wisdom of the untutored.
Paracelsus met the Cham of Tartary, conversed with the magicians
of Egypt and Arabia, and is said to have even reached
India. At length his protracted wanderings came to a close, and
in 1524 he settled in Basel, then a favorite resort of scholars
and physicians, where he was appointed to fill the chair of medicine
at the university.
His inflated language, eccentric behavior, and the splendor
of his conceptions attracted, repelled, and gained him friends
and enemies. His antipathy to the Galenic school became ever
more pronounced, and the crisis came when he publicly
burned the works of Galen and Avicenna in a vase into which
he had cast nitrate and sulphur. By such a proceeding he incurred
the hatred of his more conservative brethren and cut
himself off forever from the established school of medicine. He
continued his triumphant career, however, until a conflict with
the magistrates brought it to an abrupt close. He was forced to
flee from Basel, and thereafter wandered from place to place,
earning a living as best he could.
An element of mystery surrounds the manner of his death,
which took place September 24, 1541. Some say that he was
poisoned at the instigation of the medical faculty, others that
he was thrown down a steep incline.
But interesting as were the events of his life, it is to his work
that most attention is due. Not only was he the founder of the
modern science of medicine, but the magnetic theory of Franz
A. Mesmer, the ‘‘astral’’ theory of modern Spiritualism, and
the philosophy of Descartes were all foreshadowed in the fantastic,
yet not always illogical, teachings of Paracelsus.
He revived the ‘‘microcosmic’’ theory of ancient Greece, and
sought to prove the human body analogous to the solar system
by establishing a connection between the seven organs of the
body and the seven planets. He preached the doctrines of the
efficacy of willpower and the imagination (i.e., magic)
‘‘It is possible that my spirit, without the help of my body,
and through an ardent will alone, and without a sword, can stab
and wound others. It is also possible that I can bring the spirit
of my adversary into an image and then fold him up or lame
him at my pleasure.
‘‘Resolute imagination is the beginning of all magical operations.
‘‘Because men do not perfectly believe and imagine, the result
is, that arts are uncertain when they might be wholly certain.’’
He was thus a forerunner of New Thought teachings. The
first principle of his doctrine was the extraction of the quintessence,
or philosophic mercury, from every material body. He
believed that if the quintessence were drawn from each animal,
plant, and mineral, the combined result would equal the universal
spirit, or astral body in human beings, and that a
draught of the extract would renew youth.
He came to the conclusion that ‘‘astral bodies’’ exercised a
mutual influence on each other, and declared that he himself
had communicated with the dead and with living persons at a
considerable distance. He was the first to connect this influence
with that of the magnet, and to use the word ‘‘magnetism’’ with
its modern application in the occult. It was on this idea that
much of Franz A. Mesmer’s work was built.
Papaloi Encyclopedia of Occultism & Parapsychology • 5th Ed.
While Paracelsus busied himself with such problems, however,
he did not neglect the study and practice of medicine, into
which both astrology and the magnet entered largely. When he
was sought by a patient, his first care was to consult the planets,
where the disease had its origin, and if the patient were a
woman he took it for granted that the cause of her malady lay
in the moon.
His anticipation of the philosophy of Descartes consisted in
his theory that by bringing the various elements of the human
body into harmony with the elements of nature—fire, light,
earth—old age, and death might be indefinitely postponed.
His experiment in the extraction of essential spirits from the
poppy resulted in the production of laudanum (a popular form
of opium through the nineteenth century), which he prescribed
freely in the form of ‘‘three black pills.’’ The recipes he gives
for the philosophers’ stone, the elixir of life, and various universal
remedies are exceedingly obscure. He was known as the
first physician to use opium and mercury, and to recognize the
value of sulphur.
He applied himself also to the solution of a problem that exercised
the minds of scientific men in the nineteenth and twentieth
centuries—whether it was possible to produce life from inorganic
matter. Paracelsus asserted that it was, and left on
record a quaint recipe for a homunculus, or artificial man. By
a peculiar treatment of certain ‘‘spagyric substances’’ (which he
unfortunately omitted) he declared that he could produce a
perfect human child in miniature.
Medical, alchemical, and philosophical speculations were
scattered so profusely throughout his teaching that one concludes
that here was a master-mind, a genius, who was a charlatan,
by reason of training and temperament. Paracelsus displayed
a curious singleness of purpose and a real desire to
penetrate the mysteries of science.
He left on record the principal points of the philosophy on
which he founded his researches in his Archidoxa Medicinae. It
contains the leading rules of the art of healing as he practiced
and preached them. He stated that he had resolved to give ten
books to the Archidoxa, but had reserved the tenth in his memory.
He believed it was a treasure that men were not worthy to
possess and should only be given to the world when it abjured
Aristotle, Avicenna, and Galen, and promised a perfect submission
to Paracelsus. The world did not recant, but Paracelsus relented
and at the entreaty of his disciples published his Tenth
Book of the Arch-Doctrines, also known as On the Secret Mysteries
of Nature.
At the beginning Paracelsus hypothesized, and then attempted
to substantiate, the existence of a universal spirit infused
into the veins, which forms within us a species of invisible
body, of which our visible body directs and governs at its will.
This universal spirit is not simple—not more simple, for instance,
than the number 100, which is a collection of units. The
spiritual units are scattered in plants and minerals, but principally
in metals. There exists in these inferior productions of the
earth a host of sub-spirits that sum themselves up in us, as the
universe does in God. So the science of the philosopher has to
unite them to the body, disengage them from the grosser matter
that clogs and confines them, and separate the pure from
the impure. To separate the pure from the impure is to seize
upon the soul of the heterogeneous bodies and evolve their
‘‘predestined element,’’ ‘‘the seminal essence of beings,’’ and
‘‘the first being, or quintessence.’’
To understand this latter word ‘‘quintessence,’’ it is necessary
to postulate that every body is composed of four elements.
The essence compounded of these elements forms a fifth,
which is the soul of the mixed bodies, or, in other words, its
‘‘mercury.’’ ‘‘I have shown,’’ stated Paracelsus, ‘‘in my book Elements,
that the quintessence is the same thing as mercury.
There is in mercury (soul) whatever wise men seek.’’ That is,
not the mercury of modern chemists, but a philosophical ‘‘mercury’’
of which every body has its own. ‘‘There are as many mercuries
as there are things. The mercury of a vegetable, a mineral,
or an animal of the same kind, although strongly resembling
each other, does not precisely resemble another mercury, and
it is for this reason that vegetables, minerals, and animals of the
same species are not exactly alike. . . .’’
Paracelsus sought a plant in the vegetable kingdom that was
worthy of holding the same rank as gold in the metallic—a
plant whose ‘‘predestined element’’ united in itself the virtues
of nearly all the vegetable essences. Although this was not easy
to distinguish, he claimed to recognize at a glance the supremacy
of excellence in the melissa, and first decreed to it the pharmaceutical
crown. Then
‘‘He took some balm-mint in flower, which he had taken
care to collect before the rising of the sun. He pounded it in a
mortar, reduced it to an impalpable dust, poured it into a longnecked
vial which he sealed hermetically, and placed it to digest
(or settle) for forty hours in a heap of horse-dung. This
time expired, he opened the vial, and found there a matter
which he reduced into a fluid by pressing it, separating it from
its impurities by exposure to the slow heat of a bain-marie (a vessel
of hot water in which other vessels are heated). The grosser
parts sunk to the bottom, and he drew off the liqueur which
floated on the top, filtering it through some cotton. This liqueur
having been poured into a bottle he added to it the fixed
salt, which he had drawn from the same plant when dried.
There remained nothing more but to extract from this liqueur
the first life or being of the plant. For this purpose Paracelsus
mixed the liqueur with so much ‘water of salt’ (understand by
this the mercurial element or radical humidity of the salt), put
it in a matrass, exposed it for six weeks to the sun, and finally,
at the expiration of this term, discovered a last residuum which
was decidedly, according to him, the first life or supreme essence
of the plant. But at all events, it is certain that what he
found in his matrass was the genie or spirit he required; and
with the surplus, if there were any, we need not concern ourselves.’’
Those who wished to know what this genie was like were informed
that it as exactly resembled, as two drops of water, the
spirit of aromatic wine known today as absinthe suisse. It was a
liquid green. Unfortunately, it failed as a specific in the conditions
indispensable for an elixir of immortality.
By means and manipulations as subtle and ingenious as
those that he employed upon the melissa, Paracelsus learned
to extract the ‘‘predestined element’’ of plants that ranked
much higher in the vegetable aristocracy—the ‘‘first life’’ of the
gilly-flower, the cinnamon, the myrrh, the scammony, and the
celandine. All these supreme essences, which, according to the
fifth book of Archidoxa, united with a mass of ‘‘magisteries’’ as
precious as they were rude, were the base of so many specifics,
equally reparative and regenerative. This depended upon the
relationship that existed between the temperament of a privileged
plant and the temperament of the individual who asked
of it his rejuvenescence.
However brilliant were the results of his discoveries, those
he obtained or those he thought he might obtain, they were for
Paracelsus but the beginning of magic. To the eyes of so consummate
an alchemist, vegetable life was not important; it was
the mineral—the metallic life—that was significant. Paracelsus
believed it was in his power to seize the first life-principle of the
moon, the sun, Mars, or Saturn; that is, of silver, gold, iron, or
lead. It was equally facile for him to grasp the life of the precious
stones, the bitumens, the sulphurs, and even that of animals.
Paracelsus set forth several methods of obtaining this
great arcanum. Here is the shortest and most simple explaination
as recorded by Incola Francus
‘‘Take some mercury, or at least the element of mercury,
separating the pure from the impure, and afterwards pounding
it to perfect whiteness. Then you shall sublimate it with salammoniac,
and this so many times as may be necessary to resolve
it into a fluid. Calcine it, coagulate it, and again dissolve
it, and let it strain in a pelican [a vessel used for distillation]
during a philosophic month, until it thickens and assumes the
Encyclopedia of Occultism & Parapsychology • 5th Ed. Paracelsus
form of a hard substance. Thereafter this form of stone is incombustible,
and nothing can change or alter it; the metallic
bodies which it penetrates become fixed and incombustible, for
this material is incombustible, and changes the imperfect metals
into metal perfect. Although I have given the process in few
words, the thing itself demands a long toil, and many difficult
circumstances, which I have expressly omitted, not to weary the
reader, who ought to be very diligent and intelligent if he wishes
to arrive at the accomplishment of this great work.’’
Paracelsus himself described in Archidoxa his own recipe for
the completion of it, and profited by the occasion to criticize
his fellow-workers.
‘‘I omit what I have said in different places on the theory of
the stone; I will say only that this arcanum does not consist in
the blast [rouille] or flowers of antimony. It must be sought in
the mercury of antimony, which, when it is carried to perfection,
is nothing else than the heaven of metals; for even as the
heaven gives life to plants and minerals, so does the pure quintessence
of antimony vitrify everything. This is why the Deluge
was not able to deprive any substance of its virtue or properties,
for the heaven being the life of all beings, there is nothing superior
to it which can modify or destroy it.
‘‘Take the antimony, purge it of its arsenical impurities in
an iron vessel until the coagulated mercury of the antimony appears
quite white, and is distinguishable by the star which appears
in the superficies of the regulus, or semi-metal. But although
this regulus, which is the element of mercury, has in
itself a veritable hidden life, nevertheless these things are in
virtue, and not actually.
‘‘Therefore, if you wish to reduce the power to action, you
must disengage the life which is concealed in it by a living fire
like to itself, or with a metallic vinegar. To discover this fire
many philosophers have proceeded differently, but agreeing to
the foundations of the art, have arrived at the desired end. For
some with great labour have drawn forth the quintessence of
the thickened mercury of the regulus of antimony, and by this
means have reduced to action the mercury of the antimony
others have considered that there was a uniform quintessence
in the other minerals, as for example in the fixed sulphur of the
vitriol, or the stone of the magnet, and having extracted the
quintessence, have afterwards matured and exalted their heaven
with it, and reduced it to action. Their process is good, and
has had its result. Meanwhile this fire—this corporeal life—
which they seek with toil, is found much more easily and in
much greater perfection in the ordinary mercury, which appears
through its perpetual fluidity—a proof that it possesses
a very powerful fire and a celestial life similar to that which lies
hidden in the regulus of the antimony. Therefore, he who
would wish to exalt our metallic heaven, starred, to its greatest
completeness, and to reduce into action its potential virtues, he
must first extract from ordinary mercury its corporeal life,
which is a celestial fire; that is to say the quintessence of quicksilver,
or, in other words, the metallic vinegar, that has resulted
from its dissolution in the water which originally produced it,
and which is its own mother; that is to say, he must dissolve it
in the arcanum of the salt I have described, and mingle it with
the ‘stomach of Anthion,’ which is the spirit of vinegar, and in
this menstruum melt and filter and consistent mercury of the
antimony, strain it in the said liquor, and finally reduce it into
crystals of a yellowish green, of which we have spoken in our
As regards the philosophers’ stone, he gave the following
‘‘Take the electric mineral not yet mature [antimony], put
it in its sphere, in the fire with the iron, to remove its ordures
and other superfluities, and purge it as much as you can, following
the rules of chymistry, so that it may not suffer by the aforesaid
impurities. Make, in a word, the regulus with the mark.
This done, cause it to dissolve in the ‘stomach of the ostrich’
(vitriol), which springs from the earth and is fortified in its virtue
by the ‘sharpness of the eagle’ (the metallic vinegar or essence
of mercury). As soon as the essence is perfected, and
when after its dissolution it has taken the colour of the herb
called calendule, do not forget to reduce it into a spiritual luminous
essence, which resembles amber. After this, add to it of the
‘spread eagle’ one half the weight of the election before its
preparation, and frequently distil the ‘stomach of the ostrich’
into the matter, and thus the election will become much more
spiritualized. When the ‘stomach of the ostrich’ is weakened by
the labour of digestion, we must strengthen it and frequently
distil it. Finally, when it has lost all its impurity, add as much
tartarized quintessence as will rest upon your fingers, until it
throws off its impurity and rises with it. Repeat this process
until the preparation becomes white, and this will suffice; for
you shall see yourself as gradually it rises in the form of the ‘exalted
eagle,’ and with little trouble converts itself in its form
(like sublimated mercury); and that is what we are seeking.
‘‘I tell you in truth that there is no greater remedy in medicine
than that which lies in this election, and that there is nothing
like it in the whole world. But not to digress from my purpose,
and not to leave this work imperfect, observe the manner
in which you ought to operate.
‘‘The election then being destroyed, as I have said, to arrive
at the desired end (which is, to make of it a universal medicine
for human as well as metallic bodies), take your election, rendered
light and volatile by the method above described.
‘‘Take of it as much as you would wish to reduce it to its perfection,
and put it in a philosophical egg of glass, and seal it
very tightly, that nothing of it may respire; put it into an athanor
until of itself it resolves into a liquid, in such a manner that
in the middle of this sea there may appear a small island, which
daily diminishes, and finally, all shall be changed to a colour
black as ink. This colour is the raven, or bird which flies at night
without wings, and which, through the celestial dew, that rising
continually falls back by a constant circulation, changes into
what is called ‘the head of the raven,’ and afterwards resolves
into ‘the tail of the peacock,’ then it assumes the hue of the ‘tail
of a peacock,’ and afterwards the colour of the ‘feathers of a
swan;’ finally acquiring an extreme redness, which marks its
fiery nature, and in virtue of which it expels all kinds of impurities,
and strengthens feeble members. This preparation, according
to all philosophers, is made in a single vessel, over a
single furnace, with an equal and continual fire, and this medicine,
which is more than celestial, cures all kinds of infirmities,
as well in human as metallic bodies; wherefore no one can understand
or attain such an arcanum without the help of God
for its virtue is ineffable and divine.’’
Hartmann, Franz. The Life of Philippus Theophrastus Bombast
of Hohenheim Known by the Name of Paracelsus and of the Substance
of his Teachings. London George Redway, 1887; Retd. with The
Prophecies of Paracelsus; Occult Symbols and Magic Figures. Blauvelt,
N.Y. Rudolf Steiner Publications, 1973.
The Hermetic and Alchemical Writings of Aureolus Philippus Theophrastus
Bombast, of Hohenheim, called Paracelsus the Great. 2 vols.
Edited by Arthur E. Waite. London James Elliott, 1894. Reprint,
New Hyde Park, N.Y. University Books, 1967.
Stillman, John M. Theophrastus Bombast von Hohenheim called
Paracelsus; his Personality and Influence as Physician, Chemist and
Reformer. LaSalle, Ill. Open Court Publishing, 1920.
Webster, Charles. From Paracelsus to Newton Magic and the
Making of Modern Science. Cambridge, Mass. Cambridge University
Press, 1982.