Paracelsus (born Phillippus Aureolus Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim, 17 December 1493 in Einsiedeln, Switzerland – died 24 September 1541 in Salzburg, Austria) was a Renaissance physician, botanist, alchemist, astrologer, and general occultist. "Paracelsus", meaning "equal to or greater than Celsus", refers to the Roman encyclopedist Aulus Cornelius Celsus from the first century known for his tract on medicine. He is also credited for giving zinc its name, calling it zincum and is regarded as the first systematic botanist.
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.
Later he was to write:
"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."
Between the years 1510 and 1524 he wandered through Europe, Russia and the Middle East, learning the practice of medicine as a military surgeon and acquired a considerable knowledge of alchemy.His wanderings as an itinerant physician and sometime journeyman miner took him through Germany, France, Spain, Hungary, the Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden and Russia. 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."
He later journeyed to Egypt, Arabia, the Holy Land, and Constantinople seeking alchemists from whom to learn. On his return to Europe, his knowledge of these treatments won him fame. He did not go along with the conventional treatment of wounds, which was to pour boiling oil onto them to cauterize them; or if they were on a limb, to let them become gangrenous and then to amputate the limb. Paracelsus believed the then-ridiculous idea that wounds would heal themselves if allowed to drain and prevented from becoming infected.
As a physician of the early 16th Century, Paracelsus held a natural affinity with the Hermetic, neoplatonic, and Pythagorean philosophies central to the Renaissance, a world-view exemplified by Marsilio Ficino and Pico della Mirandola. Paracelsus rejected the magic theories of Agrippa and Flamel in his Archidoxes of Magic. Astrology was a very important part of Paracelsus' medicine, and he was a practicing astrologer -- as were many of the university-trained physicians working at this time in Europe. Paracelsus devoted several sections in his writings to the construction of astrological talismans for curing disease, providing talismans for various maladies as well as talismans for each sign of the Zodiac. He also invented an alphabet called the Alphabet of the Magi, for engraving angelic names upon talismans.
Astrology was a very important part of Paracelsus' medicine. In his Archidoxes of Magic Paracelsus devoted several sections to astrological talismans for curing disease, providing talismans for various maladies as well as talismans for each sign of the Zodiac. He also invented an alphabet called the Alphabet of the Magi, for engraving angelic names upon talismans.
Paracelsus gained a reputation for being arrogant, and soon garnered the anger of other physicians in Europe. In 1526, supported by Erasmus, he became professor of medicine in the University of Basel, lecturing in German, not Latin. In Basel 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. He drew about him a school known as the Paracelsists, and claimed among his discoveries that of indefinitely prolonging life.
Perhaps it was his behavior at this time that eventually led to his nickname "the Luther of physicians," for in his lectures he was so bold as to denounce as antiquated the revered systems of Galen and his school, whose teachings were held to be so unalterable and inviolable by the authorities of that time that the slightest deviation from their teachings was regarded as nothing short of heretical. As a crowning insult he actually burnt the works of these masters in a brass pan with sulfur and nitre!
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. 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. All diseases originate from salt, sulfur, or mercury, which correspond respectively matter (body), soul, and spirit (in Paramirum). 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. 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.
His high-handed behavior, coupled with his very original ideas, made him countless enemies. The fact that the cures he performed with his mineral medicines justified his teachings merely served further to antagonize the medical faculty, infuriated at their authority and prestige being undermined by the teachings of such a "heretic" and "usurper." Thus Paracelsus did not long retain his professorship at Basle, but was forced once again to leave the city and take to the road in a wanderer's life.
In 1528, owing to quarrel with the magistracy, he was driven out of the town. Paracelsus spent a wandering life in Switzerland, Alsace, and southern Germany. He 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).
Paracelsus pioneered the use of chemicals and minerals in medicine. He used the name "zink" for the element zinc in about 1526, based on the sharp pointed appearance of its crystals after smelting and the old German word "zinke" for pointed. He used experimentation in learning about the human body. Paracelsus was also responsible for the creation of laudanum, an opium tincture very common until the 19th century.
Paracelsus died on September 23, 1541, aged 48, of natural causes and his remains were buried according to his wishes in the cemetery at the church of St Sebastian in Salzburg. After he was buried his bones were dug up several times, moved and reburied. His remains are now located in a tomb in the porch of the church. Paracelsus never married. One of his students said, that he avoided the company of women altogether.
After his death, the movement of Paracelsianism was seized upon by many wishing to subvert the traditional Galenic physics, and thus did his therapies become more widely known and used.
His motto was "alterius non sit qui suus esse potest" which means "let no man that can belong to himself be of another".
Back to the top of the page