Madre Grande Monastery

A Sacred site for healing, teaching, ceremony, and celebration

Who is paracelsus?


by John Drais

            As a monk of The Paracelsian Order I am often asked why we are named after a Sixteenth Century Fire-Philosopher, Rosicrucian doctor. The short answer is to honor a truly distinguished healer, teacher, and mystic far ahead of his time. The long answer requires a little more illumination.

            To know something of the life of Philippus Aureolus Theophrastus Paracelsus Bombastus von Hohenheim (1493-1541), is to know of the early struggles of light against ignorance and prejudice. During his life a new era, the Renaissance, was born.     The printing press was invented, the arts were turning to nature, science was reconsidering its formulas and assertions, theology was being called to account for its systems and limitations, and a new freedom opened its vistas to the human mind.

            We must honestly recognize the conditions of the Sixteenth Century in order to appreciate what Paracelsus achieved, to realize his high ethical standards that roused unrelenting hatred from the establishment, and his steadfast courage despite virulent opposition.

            Paracelsus lived by his motto: “Be not another if you can be yourself.”

            His father, Wilhelm Bombast von Hohenheim, a physician and chemist provided Paracelsus’ early education. He introduced his son to the rudiments of botany, alchemy, surgery, herbal medicine, and religious history.  Paracelsus continued his studies under the tutelage of several monasteries, and at the age of sixteen entered the University of Basel. He was then instructed by Johannes Trithemius the abbot of St. Jacob at Wurtzburg, one of the greatest adepts of magic, alchemy, and astrology. It was under this teacher that Paracelsus’ talents for the study of occultism were specially cultivated and brought into practical use. However, his restless nature and independent thinking made formal study most unattractive to him, and he was determined to seek an education in his own way.

            Led by a desire to learn more about the occult and the nature and property of minerals first hand, he went to the Tyrolean (Austria) mines owned by the Fügers. Paracelsus felt at home among the miners and the alchemists. He worked with both groups and soon came to the conclusion that the best education of all was what he gained through direct observation. He learned about the processes involved in mining operations, the nature of ores, the properties of mineral waters, and the stratification of the rocks of the Earth. Meanwhile he came to know the home life of the miners, studied their illnesses and types of accidents to which they were most prone. His experience with the alchemists convinced him of the futility of “gold-cooking,” (turning base metal to gold) but applied their combinations and solutions to making medicine. Paracelsus believed that all minerals subjected to analysis might yield curative and life-giving secrets.

            From his experiences in the mines he concluded that conventional schooling does not provide education in the mysteries of nature. Only by reading the book of nature firsthand and through personal contact with people who work with nature, can one come to anything like true natural scientific knowledge. He also concluded that since the temperaments, constitutions and activities of different peoples are not the same, the same disease will present geographic differences. Therefore he believed that it was incumbent upon the physicians to know other peoples as the key to understanding their own.        He wandered for nearly a full decade with very little possessions, through Germany, Italy, France, The Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden, Hungary, Transylvania, and Russia. He was taken prisoner by the Tartars and brought to the Khan, whose son later accompanied him to Constantinople. Paracelsus traveled through the countries along the Danube and came to Italy where he served as an army surgeon in the Imperial army, and participated in several military expeditions.. On those occasions he collected a great deal of useful information, not only from the physicians, surgeons, and alchemists, but also by his interactions with barbers, shepherds, Jews, Gypsies, midwives, fortune-tellers, and even executioners.  He collected useful information from the high and low, from the learned and from the vulgar, and it was nothing unusual to see him in the company of teamsters and vagabonds, on the roads and at the public inns.

            “The knowledge to which we are entitled is not confined in the limits of our own country,” he writes “and does not run after us, but waits until we go in search of it. No one becomes a master of practical experience in his own house, neither will he find a teacher of the secrets of nature in the corners of his room. We must seek for knowledge where we may expect to find it, and why should the man be despised who goes in search of it? … Happiness is better than riches and happy is he who wanders about, possessing nothing that requires his care… Nature is studied by examining the contents of her treasure-vaults in every country. Every part of the world represents a page in the book of nature and all the pages form the book that contains her great revelations.”

            At the age of thirty-two he returned to Germany where he soon became widely celebrated for the many and powerful cures he performed. In 1527 in Basel he was appointed a professor of medicine and surgery, and town physician. His doctrines were essentially of his own creation. He taught them independently of the opinions of others, and in the German, not in Latin as it was customary. He sought to win confidence by careful experiments and lucid explanation. Paracelsus would praise the physician’s simplicity of dress coupled with knowledge and capacity of mind and hand. The most advanced of his students accompanied him to the sick-beds of his patients, and learned by observation of his diagnosis and his treatment. Experience, he said, was better than all the anatomy lessons of the lecture- room. If they wished to understand a disease, “let them look it in the face, watch its symptoms, study its phases, measure their duration, classify for themselves its cause and the sequence of its condition, discover its alleviations, compound themselves its remedies.”

            He led them into the surrounding country to study for themselves the herbal medicine “where God has placed them. How should they recognized the plants in tinctures and powders even skillfully compounded? Better than all books, better than medical-gardens, however complete, were the open spaces where Nature was the gardener, for there the medicines grow by choice, drawing from soil and air the virtues which make them potent. Out in nature, which is covered by only one roof, where the sources of remedies are the meadows, valleys, mountains, and forests, from which we receive supplies for our medicines.”

            Paracelsus drew them on to alchemy, to chemistry, to experimentation. “For they must be their own apothecaries, and must distill, combine, dissolve their own medicines and this could be thought and developed only by constant observation and constant practice.”     

            “I wish you to learn,” he would urge them, “so that if your neighbor requires your help, you will know how to give it, not to stop up your nose, like the scribe, the priest, and the Levite, from whom there was no help to be got, but to be like the good Samaritan, who was the man experienced in nature, with whom lay knowledge and help. There is no one from whom greater love is sought than from the doctor.”

            As town physician he had the oversight of the apothecaries, and he discovered not only their carelessness and neglect, but also their “secret understanding” with the doctors. In his letter of expostulation he demanded that the apothecaries and their stores should be inspected, and their proceedings be rigorously controlled; their recipes should be submitted to the opinion of the town physician and the apothecaries should defer to examination before their appointment since the bodies and lives of the sick were in their power.  Medicines should be charged according to a fixed rate, and the exorbitant prices which had drained the people be ended.

            Paracelsus did not read or write much.  He dictated his works to his disciples without any memoranda or manuscripts.  He invented a great many words of his own to express his meaning, and only few of his words have obtained the right of citizenship in English. To facilitate the study of the works of Paracelsus, his disciples composed dictionaries to explain the meaning of his terms. His seven volume book, “De Gradibus et Compositionibus Receptorum et Naturalium,” Basel, 1526; and “Chirurgia Magna,” were printed during his life, the rest of his writings did not become known publicly until after his death.

            Paracelsus was a Christian in the true spirit of the word. For him there were only two subjects of paramount interest in life: God in Heaven to be worshiped and trusted, and God in nature and in man to be passionately sought after. “Faith is a luminous star that leads the honest seeker into the mysteries of Nature. You must seek your point of gravity into God, and put your trust into an honest, divine, pure, sincere, and strong faith, and cling to it with your whole heart, soul, sense, and thought –full of love and confidence. If you possess such a faith, God (Wisdom) will not withhold His truth from you, but He will reveal his works to you credibly, visibly, and consolingly.”

            It is obvious, however, Paracelsus was aware of the impending division between medicine and religion. He warned his contemporaries that to divide therapy from religion was a grave error of judgment. To him, the advancement of practical therapy depended upon a continuous exploration of the invisible side of nature-a search for causes- and the realization that man was not simply a physical creature but also a living soul whose internal attitudes could profoundly affect his health. Paracelsus states, "A man who is angry is not only angry in his head or in his fist, but all over… all the organs of the body, and the body itself, are only form-manifestations of previously and universally existing mental states."

            Though the credit of bringing the system of Homeopathy to light goes to Dr. Samuel Hahnemann, the contributions of Paracelsus must be duly acknowledged. He refuted Galen's method of treating disease with remedies that produce different effects from those produced by the disease itself and emphasized that "when similar is put to similar, used and applied with intelligence then nature is served well". He wrote, “the similar cures the similar, the scorpion cures the scorpion, and mercury cures mercury. The poison is mortal for man except if in the organism there is another poison with which it may fight, in which case the patient regains health.” He thus laid down not only the Homeopathic law of healing, but also three other principles that are peculiar to Homeopathy-individualization of the patient, diagnosis in terms of like remedy, and minimum dose.

            Bismuth was one of the substances Paracelsus especially analyzed and which he cataloged as half-metal. He is credited with giving zinc its name and also classifying it as a half-metal. He is the precursor of chemical pharmacology and therapeutics, and the father of toxicology. He is a pioneer in the fields of hypnotism and magnetic therapy. Paracelsus used lodestones, or naturally magnetized pieces of the mineral magnetite, to treat conditions such as epilepsy, diarrhea, and hemorrhage. He believed that the ability of magnets to attract iron could be replicated by attracting disease away from the body. Attributed to him are the first mentions of hydrogen and nitrogen. Paracelsus successfully developed methods for the administration of mercury in certain diseases. He established a correlation between cretinism and endemic goiter, and introduced the use of mineral baths

            Most remarkable in Paracelsus’ work is that he achieved real advances in chemistry and medicine through the revival and original development of lore that had been kept alive only at a very low level (or had, indeed, been suppressed as heresy). This lore—alchemy, astrology, and the “prohibited arts”—can be traced to Hellenistic and Oriental Neoplatonism, Gnosticism, and syncretism; in Paracelsus’ hands it became, if not scientific, at least protoscientific.

           It is difficult to overrate the effect of Paracelsus’ achievement on the development of medicine and chemistry. Some thirty years after his death a powerful Paracelsian movement began to agitate naturalists and physicians all over Europe. It was set in motion by the need to find new and immediately effective medicines, and even orthodox traditionalists joined in some form (usually in attempting to devise a conciliatory and eclectic synopsis of Paracelsian and Galenic practice). Despite opposition and vilification, the influence of Paracelsus and the Paracelsians is apparent in the work of, Petrus Severinus, Van Helmont, Boyle, Willis, Sylvius, Stahl, Boerhaave, and others, well into the eighteenth century.

          Defining what Paracelsus believed in, himself, is a difficult task but it becomes less strenuous compared with the thorny subject of how his ideas were later developed by ‘Paracelsians’. As Trevor-Roper (1998) says ‘not only did its meaning change with time: even at its beginning it is indistinct.’ Pumfrey (1998) offers us three overlapping orders of paracelsians: followers of the man himself; followers of ‘chymical philosophy’; and, finally,  iatrochemists.

         Paracelsianism has been defined by Jole Shackelford (1991) as ‘an ideology, a set of fundamental ideas about the structure of the world that comprises cosmology, but extends to the moral, social, and political values that underlie a substructure.’ The broadness of the definition reflects the complexity of both the man and the movement: the scope of what Paracelsus himself taught and the various ways his message was developed and redirected by his followers. Some have even questioned whether ‘paracelsianism’, which originated as a term of abuse by opponents of Paracelsus, can ever be properly pinned down. Like the man himself, it is a definition that is constantly on the move.

         As a member of The Paracelsian Order I link to Paracelsus’ philosophy through the concept of unity of life, from chemical elements, to mankind, to the stars. I too, consider the human being a microcosm, a piece of the big puzzle, the macrocosm, to which is interconnected in never ending ways. I recognize as my duty to revere life, to gather knowledge through direct experimentation in the various kingdoms of nature, to expand my consciousness, and to offer meaningful service to all beings. In a continuous attempt to integrate the accomplishments of our present times, the noblest moral, scientific, social, political, and economical ideas with the sacred essences of the wisdom traditions I seek to honor my life’s purpose and Paracelsus, between many other teachers. I dedicate my work to being an aware and compassionate student (citizen) of the Universe.

      The Paracelsian Order has a path of its own with Principles and Practical Goals that are steering its course through time. Paracelsus planted a seed which grew in the minds and hearts of the founders of The Paracelsian Order in a life purpose. Through the members of The Paracelsian Order embodiment of this life purpose Paracelsus is alive today.