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Paracelsius

(1493 - 1541)


Paracelsius

Aka Phillipu Aureolus, aka Theophrastus Bombastus von Hockenheim ab Mannheim, something of a mouthful, which goes some way to explaining why his friends preferred to call him Paracelcius.

Parcelsius was born in Einsiedeln, near Zurich, Switzerland and was the son of a doctor of medicine. With a burning ambition to discover the secret of the world he wandered from country to country practising magic, alchemy and astrology and visiting the universities of France, Italy and Germany, eventually returning to Germany where he took up the chair of physic and surgery at Basle, and effected many remarkable cures.

Bombastic by name and bombastic by nature, his name became a word in the English language rather than the other way round. He burnt the works of Galen and Avicenna in public, pronouncing himself their superior. Paracelsius was the father of modern chemistry.

Paracelsius died in the Hospital of St. Sebastian in Saltzburg and, as often happens, his fame dramatically increased after his death. His followers greatly influenced Western medicine throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. This is another illustration that alchemists often exhibited other skills and areas of learning than just that.

His followers included Adam von Bedenstein, who edited and published many of Paracelsius' works at Basle. Among his detractors was Andreas Libavius who savagely attacked his works. However, this only served to extend the fame of Paracelsius, rather in the way that the old bad-boy rock stars used to assert that "any publicity is good publicity".

Paracelsius was the first protagonist of wholistic medicine in the west, believing that to treat an illness it was necessary to treat the whole person. He also believed in the power of the mind in determining the success or failure of a cure. In Basle he found the freedom to express his ideas on medicine which were largely derived from alchemy. However he eventually fell foul of the authorities: publicly burning the books of Hippocrates and Galen did not help.

He advocated medicines based on minerals rather than herbs, often on the basis of alchemical principles and held a strong belief on the astral influence on health. He believed that there are heavens within us which, in times of illness, need to be "realigned" with the greater heaven.

His importance to western medicine lies not just in the fact that he was the first homeopath but also that he understood that certain medical conditions are directly chemical and can be treated with prepared chemical remedies. He is therefore the father of allotropic medicine. He understood he circulation of the blood a century before it was officially recognised. Like Roger Bacon, he was an alchemist who made practical discoveries which would be of great use to the world, but often would not be recognised until decades or even centuries had passed.

Paracelsius spent a lot of time trying to create life from inanimate materials. Porta asserts that the process of putrefaction is the key to this, and relates a recipe left by Paracelsius:

”Paracelsius saith:

As the yelk and white of an egge becomes a chick by the heat of a hen,
so a bird burnt to ashes and shut up in a vessel of glass
and so laid under the mixen, will become a slimy humor; and then, if it be laid under an hen,
is enlivened by her heat, and restored to her self like a Phoenix.

Fictus reporteth, and he had it out of Albertus, that there is a certain bird, much like a blackbird,
which is generated by the putrefaction of sage; whch receives her life and quickening from the general life of the whole world.”

The poem “Paracelsius” was published by Robert Browning in 1835 and is based on his actual life. He sets out with “an aspiration to discover the secret of the world and a conviction that he is chosen to discover that knowledge” (Oxford Companion to English Literature). He seeks it in spite of the dissuasion of his friends Festus and Michael. In Part 2 of the poem he is in Constantinople (now Istanbul) and is despondent that he has so far been unsuccessful in his quest. He meets Aprile the poet who shows him that his error is in pursuing knowledge without love. Paracelsius in next in Basle, first admired than dismissed as a charlatan, and finally dying in Salzburg, having failed because of his lack of empathy with mankind:

their half-reasons, faint aspirings, dim struggles for truth, their poorest fallacies,
Their prejudice and fears and cares and doubts;
All with a touch of nobleness, upward tending.


Acknowledgements and further reading:

Sir Paul Harvey (Ed.)The Oxford Companion to English LiteratureOUP Essentials
Martin, ShaunAlchemy and AlchemistsPocket Essentials
Sean MartinAlchemy, the Philosopher's StoneWildwood House
Klossowski de Rola, StanislasAlchemy, The Secret ArtThames and Hudson
Redgrove, StanleyAlchemy Ancient and ModernAres

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© Ken James 2008