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Paracelsus (born Philippus Aureolus Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim, 11 November or 17 December 1493 – 24 September 1541) was a Swiss Renaissance physician, botanist, alchemist, astrologer, and general occultist.[1]

"Paracelsus," meaning "equal to or greater than Celsus," refers to the Roman encyclopedist Aulus Cornelius Celsus from the 1st century, known for his tract on medicine.[2][3] He is also credited for giving zinc its name, calling it zincum,[4] and is regarded as the first systematic botanist.[5]

He was one of the first to suggest the idea that abnormal behaviors were not caused by witches, demons, and spirits etc. He suggested instead that people's mind and behaviors were influenced by the movements of the moon and stars.[6]


Paracelsus was born and raised in the village of Einsiedeln in Switzerland. His father, Wilhelm Bombast von Hohenheim, was a Swabian chemist and physician; his mother was Swiss, she died presumably in his childhood.[7] In 1502 the family moved to Villach, Carinthia where Paracelsus' father worked as a physician.[7] He received a profound humanistic and theological education by his father, local clerics and the convent school of St. Paul's Abbey in the Lavanttal.[7] At the age of 16 he started studying medicine at the University of Basel, later moving to Vienna. He gained his doctorate degree from the University of Ferrara in 15/15/16.[7][8]

His wanderings as an itinerant physician and sometime journeyman miner[9] took him through Germany, France, Spain, Hungary, the Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden and Russia.

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.

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 gained a reputation for being arrogant, and soon garnered the anger of other physicians in Europe. He held the chair of medicine at the University of Basel for less than a year; while there his colleagues became angered by allegations that he had publicly burned traditional medical books. He was forced from the city after a legal dispute over a physician's fee he sued to collect.

He then wandered Europe, Africa and Asia Minor, in the pursuit of hidden knowledge. He revised old manuscripts and wrote new ones, but had trouble finding publishers. In 1536, his Die grosse Wundartznei (The Great Surgery Book) was published and enabled him to regain fame. Paracelsus' life is connected to the birth of Lutheranism, and his opinions on the nature of the universe are better understood within the context of the religious ideas circulating during his lifetime.

He died at the age of 48 of natural causes, and his remains were buried according to his wishes in the cemetery at the church of St Sebastian in Salzburg. His remains are now located in a tomb in the porch of the church.

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 belong to another that can belong to himself."


Paracelsus believed in the Greek concept of the four elements, but he also introduced the idea that, on another level, the cosmos is fashioned from three spiritual substances: the tria prima of mercury, sulfur, and salt. These substances were not the simple substances we recognize today, but were rather broad principles that gave every object both its inner essence and outward form. Mercury represented the transformative agent (fusibility and volatility); sulfur represented the binding agent between substance and transformation (flammability); and salt represented the solidifying/substantiating agent (fixity and noncombustibility). For example, when a piece of wood is burnt, the products reflect its constitution: smoke reflects mercury, flame reflects sulfur, and ash reflects salt.[2]

The tria prima also defined the human identity. Sulfur embodied the soul, (the emotions and desires); salt represented the body; mercury epitomized the spirit (imagination, moral judgment, and the higher mental faculties). By understanding the chemical nature of the tria prima, a physician could discover the means of curing disease.

Contributions to medicine

Planet Metal Organ
Sun Gold Heart
Moon Silver Brain
Jupiter Tin Liver
Venus Copper Kidneys
Saturn Lead Spleen
Mars Iron Gall bladder
Mercury Quicksilver Lungs
The idea of harmony

Paracelsus pioneered the use of chemicals and minerals in medicine. His hermetical views were that sickness and health in the body relied on the harmony of man (microcosm) and Nature (macrocosm). He took an approach different from those before him, using this analogy not in the manner of soul-purification but in the manner that humans must have certain balances of minerals in their bodies, and that certain illnesses of the body had chemical remedies that could cure them. (Debus & Multhauf, p. 6-12)

As a result of this hermetical idea of harmony, the universe's macrocosm was represented in every person as a microcosm. According to the insights at the time, there were Seven planets on the sky, Seven metals on Earth and Seven centers (or major organs) in Man — seven was a special number. Everything was heavenly and closely interrelated (see table).

Diseases were caused by poisons brought here from the stars. But 'poisons' were not necessarily something negative, in part because related substances interacted, in part because only the dose determined if a substance was poisonous or not. Evil could expel evil. Therefore, poisons could have beneficial medical effects. Because everything in the universe was interrelated, beneficial medical substances could be found in herbs, minerals and various alchemical combinations hereof. Paracelsus viewed the universe as one coherent organism pervaded by a uniting lifegiving spirit, and this in its entirety, Man included, was 'God'. His views put him at odds with the Church, for whom there necessarily had to be a difference between the Creator and the created.[10]

He summarized his own views: "Many have said of Alchemy, that it is for the making of gold and silver. For me such is not the aim, but to consider only what virtue and power may lie in medicines." (Edwardes, p. 47) (also in: Holmyard, Eric John. Alchemy. p. 170)

Hippocrates put forward the theory that illness was caused by an imbalance of the four humours: blood, phlegm, black bile and yellow bile. These ideas were further developed by Galen into an extremely influential and highly persistent set of medical beliefs that were to last until the mid 1850s. The dominant medical treatments at Paracelsus' time were specific diets to help in the "cleansing of the putrefied juices" combined with purging and bloodletting to restore the balance of the four humours. Paracelsus supplemented and challenged this view with his beliefs that illness was the result of the body being attacked by outside agents.

Paracelsus' major work On the Miners' Sickness and Other Diseases of Miners documented the occupational hazards of metalworking including treatment and prevention strategies. He also wrote a book on the human body contradicting Galen's ideas.

Contributions to toxicology

File:300704 beratzhausen-oberpfalz-paracelsus-denkmal 1-480x640.jpg

Monument to Paracelsus in Beratzhausen, Bavaria

File:Einsiedeln IMG 6265.JPG

Memorial in Einsiedeln, Switzerland

Paracelsus, sometimes called the father of toxicology, wrote:[11]

German: Alle Ding' sind Gift, und nichts ohn' Gift; allein die Dosis macht, daß ein Ding kein Gift ist.

"All things are poison, and nothing is without poison; only the dose permits something not to be poisonous."

Or, more commonly

"The dose makes the poison."

That is to say, substances considered toxic are harmless in small doses, and conversely an ordinarily harmless substance can be deadly if over-consumed.

Contributions to psychotherapy

Paracelsus is credited as providing the first clinical/scientific mention of the unconscious. In his work Von den Krankeiten he writes: "Thus, the cause of the disease chorea lasciva is a mere opinion and idea, assumed by imagination, affecting those who believe in such a thing. This opinion and idea are the origin of the disease both in children and adults. In children the case is also imagination, based not on thinking but on perceiving, because they have heard or seen something. The reason is this: their sight and hearing are so strong that unconsciously they have fantasies about what they have seen or heard."

Legend and rumor

Paracelsus is claimed by the Fraternitas Rosae Crucis to be the true identity of the mythical alchemist Christian Rosenkreutz who was the major figure in the Fama Fraternitatis published in 1614 in Germany, which at the time caused excitement throughout Europe by declaring the existence of a secret brotherhood of alchemists and sages who were preparing to transform the arts, sciences, religion, and political and intellectual landscape of Europe while wars of politics and religion ravaged the continent. Divergent views believe Rosenkreuz to be a pseudonym for a more famous historical figure like Francis Bacon.

Paracelsus is also often cited as coining the phrase "the dose makes the poison". Although he did not say this precisely, it seems that Paracelsus was indeed well aware of the principle (see discussion on Toxicology above).

Many books mentioning Paracelsus also cite him as the origin of the word "bombastic" to describe his often arrogant speaking style, which the following passage illustrates:

I am Theophrastus, and greater than those to whom you liken me; I am Theophrastus, and in addition I am monarcha medicorum and I can prove to you what you cannot prove...I need not don a coat of mail or a buckler against you, for you are not learned or experienced enough to refute even a word of mine...As for you, you can defend your kingdom with belly-crawling and flattery. How long do you think this will last?...Let me tell you this: every little hair on my neck knows more than you and all your scribes, and my shoe buckles are more learned than your Galen and Avicenna, and my beard has more experience than all your high colleges.

— Paracelsus, Selected Writings [12]

However, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, the origin of the word "bombastic" is not a play on Paracelsus's middle name, Bombastus. Instead, that dictionary cites "bombast": an old term for cotton stuffing.


Published during his lifetime

  • Die große Wundarzney Ulm, 1536 (Hans Varnier); Augsburg (Haynrich Stayner (=Steyner)), 1536; Frankfurt/ M. (Georg Raben/ Weygand Hanen), 1536.
  • Vom Holz Guaico, 1529.
  • Vonn dem Bad Pfeffers in Oberschwytz gelegen, 1535.
  • Prognostications, 1536.

Posthumous Publications

  • Wundt unnd Leibartznei. Frankfurt/ M., 1549 (Christian Egenolff); 1555 (Christian Egenolff); 1561 (Chr. Egenolff Erben).
  • Von der Wundartzney: Ph. Theophrasti von Hohenheim, beyder Artzney Doctoris, 4 Bücher. (Peter Perna), 1577.
  • Von den Krankheiten so die Vernunfft Berauben. Basel, 1567.
  • Kleine Wundartzney. Basel (Peter Perna), 1579.
  • Opus Chirurgicum, Bodenstein, Basel, 1581.
  • Huser quart edition (medicinal and philosophical treatises), Basel, 1589.
  • Chirurgical works (Huser), Basel, 1591 und 1605 (Zetzner).
  • Straßburg edition (medicinal and philosophical treatises), 1603.
  • Kleine Wund-Artzney. Straßburg (Ledertz) 1608.
  • Opera omnia medico-chemico-chirurgica, Genevae, Vol3, 1658.
  • Philosophia magna, tractus aliquot, Cöln, 1567.
  • Philosophiae et Medicinae utriusque compendium, Basel, 1568.
  • Liber de Nymphis, sylphis, pygmaeis et salamandris et de caeteris spiritibus

Selected English translations

  • The Hermetic And Alchemical Writings Of Paracelsus, Two Volumes, translated by Arthur Edward Waite, London, 1894. (in Google books), see also a revised 2002 edition (preview only) Partial contents: Coelum Philosophorum; The Book Concerning The Tincture Of The Philosophers; The Treasure of Treasures for Alchemists; The Aurora of the Philosophers; Alchemical Catechism.
  • The Archidoxes of Magic by Theophrastus Paracelsus, translated by Robert Turner. Facsimile reprint of the 1656 edition with introduction by Stephen Skinner, Ibis Publishing, 2004.

Online bibliographies

Popular Culture

  • Paracelsus is mentioned in Plate 22 of William Blake's The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.
  • Paracelsus is the main character of Jorge Luis Borges's short story, The Rose of Paracelsus.
  • The German drama film Paracelsus was made in 1943, directed by Georg Wilhelm Pabst.[13] Pabst was later sharply criticized for having produced this film in Nazi Germany, subject – like all German films at the time – to the supervision of Goebbels and the considerations of Nazi propaganda.
  • The CBS television series Beauty and the Beast had a recurring villain named Paracelsus who like his historical namesake was adept at creating drugs and medicines.
  • In the Visual Novel Animamundi: Dark Alchemist, the character Jan van Ruthberg mentions Paracelsus as the creator of the Philosopher's Stone.
  • He is mentioned as a wizard in the Harry Potter universe, and appears as a Chocolate Frog Card in the protagonist's first train trip to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.
  • He is mentioned in the second chapter of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley's Frankenstein along with Cornelius Agrippa and Albertus Magnus.
  • He is mentioned in the 92nd chapter of Herman Melville's Moby Dick.
  • In Haunting Ground, "Aureolus" is a reference to Paracelsus.
  • Paracelsus appears as "Bombastus" in the Facebook game Assassin's Creed: Project Legacy. He is an acquintance of the Assassin Order and helps Giovanni Borgia study a Crystal Skull the latter retrieved from Mexico.
  • In the Capcom Playstation game Resident Evil 3: Nemesis, the experimental weapon used to destroy the Nemesis at the end of the game is named "Paracelsus' Sword" (hence it being a tool to purge infections such as those created by the T-Virus)
  • In the anime/Light novel To Aru Majutsu no Index, Paracelsus is the ancestor of the alchemist Aureolus Izzard.
  • In the anime Maburaho, the main character is informed early on that he is descended from Paracelsus, as well as several other famous figures from history. This explains why his magical abilities are so valuable.
  • In the Guilty Gear fighting game series, the name given to A.B.A's sentient key-shaped weapon is "Paracelsus."
  • Hiromu Arakawa, creator of Fullmetal Alchemist, uses his name for her character, Van Hohenheim, in said series
  • An excerpt from Paracelsus' book, Liber de nymphis, sylphis, pygmaeis et salamandris et de caeteris spiritibus, is read out loud in the first episode of Dantalian no Shoka

See also

  • 15th century physician writers


  1. Allen G. Debus, "Paracelsus and the medical revolution of the Renaissance"—A 500th Anniversary Celebration from the National Library of Medicine (1993), p. 3.
  2. 2.0 2.1 Read J (1961). Through alchemy to chemistry, Bell and Sons.
  3. (1935) "Introduction" Celsus A Cornelius De Medicina (On Medicine), Loeb Classical Library.
  4. Habashi, Fathi. Discovering the 8th metal (PDF), International Zinc Association..
  5. Hefner Alan G. Paracelsus.
  6. David H. Barlow and Vincent Mark Durand (2004). Abnormal Psychology: An Integrative Approach. p. 11
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 7.3 Template:BBKL
  8. (2005). Rediscovery of the Elements: Paracelsus. The Hexagon of Alpha Chi Sigma (Winter): 71–8.
  9. Conner Clifford D (2005). A peoples history of science, 306, Nation Books.
  10. Alex Wittendorff, Claus Bjørn, Ole Peter Grell, T. Morsing, Per Barner Darnell, Hans Bjørn, Gerhardt Eriksen, Palle Lauring, Kristian Hvidt (1994). Tyge Brahe (in Danish), Gad. p44-45
  11. p. 435, Verkehrsmedizin: Fahreignung, Fahrsicherheit, Unfallrekonstruktion, B. Madea, F. Mußhoff, and G. Berghaus, Köln: Deutscher Ärzte-Verlag, 2007, ISBN 3-7691-0490-0.
  12. Paracelsus, Selected Writings, ed. with an introduction by Jolande Jacobi, trans. Norbert Guterman, (New York : Pantheon, 1951), p. 79-80
  13. NY Times: Paracelsus. NY Times. URL accessed on 2009-09-13.

Further reading

External links

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