Paracelsus

From Lives of Alchemystical Philosophers, based on materials collected in 1815 (1888)

By Arthur Edward Waite


{137} Philippus Aureolus Theophrastus Bombast von Hohenheim was born in the year 1493, at Maria Einsiedeln, in the canton of Zurich, in Switzerland. He was descended from the ancient and honourable family of Bombast, which had abode during many generations at the castle of Hohenheim near Stuttgart, Würtemberg. His father was a physician of repute, and in possession of a large collection of curious books. His mother had been the matron of a hospital, and Theophrastus, their only child, was born one year after their marriage. He is said to have been emasculated in his infancy, a tradition which may have been invented to account for his beardless and feminine appearance, and for his hatred of women.

Paracelsus received the first rudiments of education from his father, and, as he advanced in his studies and capacity, he was instructed in alchemy, surgery, and medicine. One of the works of Isaac Holland fell into his hands, and from that moment he was inflamed with the ambition of curing diseases by medicine superior to the materia at that time in use. He performed several chemical operations, according to the books of the celebrated Hollander, and adopted from his writings the ancient principles that a salt, mercury, and sulphur form a trinity in every substance. This system he enlarged and explained by his own intellectual illumination. He imbibed much of his father's extensive learning, and then continued his studies under the guidance of monks in the convent of St Andrew of {138} Savon, afterwards at the University of Basel, and finally devoted himself to the occult sciences with the illustrious Johann Trithemius, Abbot of Spanheim, for his teacher and director. In this way he acquired "the Kabbalah of the spiritual, astral, and material worlds." He was afterwards placed under the care of Sigismond Hagger or Fagger, to be improved in medicine, surgery, and chemistry. At twenty years of age he started on his travels through Germany, Hungary, Italy, France, the Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden, and Russia. In Muscovy he is said to have been taken prisoner by the Tartars, who brought him before "the great Cham." His knowledge of medicine and chemistry made him a favourite at the court of this potentate, who sent him in company with his son on an embassy to Constantinople. It was here, according to Helmont, that he was taught the supreme secret of alchemistry by a generous Arabian, who gave him the universal dissolvent, the Azoth of western adepts, the alachest or sophic fire. Thus initiated, he is said to have proceeded to India. On his return to Europe he passed along the Danube into Italy, where he served as an army surgeon, performing many wonderful cures.

At the age of thirty-two he re-entered Germany, and was soon after invited to take a professorship of physic, medicine, and surgery at the University of Basel, then illuminated by the presence of Erasmus and Oporinus. There, in his lectures, he professed "internal medicine," denounced the antiquated systems of Galen and other authorities, and began his instruction by burning the works of these masters in a brass pan with sulphur and nitre. He created innumerable enemies by his arrogance and his innovations, but the value of his mineral medicines was proved by the cures which he performed. These cures only increased the hatred of his persecuters, and Paracelsus {139} with characteristic defiance invited the faculty to a lecture, in which he promised to teach the greatest secret in medicine. He began by uncovering a dish which contained excrement. The doctors, indignant at the insult, departed precipitately, Paracelsus shouting after them: -- "If you will not hear the mysteries of putrefactive fermentation, you are unworthy of the name of physicians." Subsequently, he came into conflict with the municipal authorities, and was forced to flee from Basel. He resumed his strolling life, lodging at public inns, drinking to excess, but still performing admirable cures. Oporinus testifies that even during the period of his professorship he never seemed sober.

In 1528, Paracelsus proceeded to Colmar. In 1530 he was staying at Nuremberg, where the faculty denounced him as an imposter, but he transfixed his opponents by curing in a few days some desperate cases of elephantiasis. "Testimonials to this effect," says Hartmann, his latest biographer, "may still be found in the archives of the city of Nuremberg." He continued his wanderings and his intemperate manner of life, dying on the 24th of September 1541.

The actual manner of his death has been variously recounted. The original "Lives of Alchemysticall Philosophers" says that it occurred on a bench of the kitchen fire at the inn at Strasburg. Dr Hartmann, on the other hand, tells us that he "went to Maehren, Kaernthen, Krain, and Hungary, and finally landed in Salzburg, to which place he was invited by the Prince Palatine, Duke Ernst of Bavaria, who was a great lover of the secret arts. In that place, Paracelsus obtained at last the fruits of his long labours and of a wide-spread fame. But he was not destined to enjoy a long time the rest he so richly deserved. . . . He died, after a short sickness (at the age {140} of forty-eight years and three days), in a small room of the 'White Horse' Inn, near the quay, and his body was buried in the graveyard of St Sebastian." His death is supposed to have been hastened by a scuffle with assassins in the pay of the orthodox medical faculty.

The last commentator on Paracelsus, Dr Franz Hartmann, has devoted a chapter to the alchemical and astrological teachings of the seer of Hohenheim. The first art, according to Paracelsus, separates the pure from the impure, and develops species out of primordial matter. It perfects what Nature has left imperfect, and, therefore, its principles are of universal application, and are not restricted to the metallic and mineral kingdoms. Gold can be made by physical chemistry, but the process is poor and unproductive in comparison with the gold which can be produced by an exercise of the occult powers which can exist in the soul of man. Actual and material gold can be psycho-chemically manufacured. By this amazing theory, Paracelsus created a new school of alchemy, which abandoned experimental research, and sought within themselves the secret, subject, and end of alchemystical philosophy.

Five Portraits of Paracelsus - Short biography of Paracelsus