Paracelsus: The Man Beneath the Myth

Abstract: Paracelsus––whose unorthodox beliefs and volatile temperament caused him to be ostracized from his contemporaries in the tightly knit academic and medical communities, where gossip and scandal circulated with relative ease in spite of the spacial limitations under which mail couriers then operated––was thought of as an agent of the Devil. Though history has been kinder to him, his association with the black arts remains irrevocable––for in a 1942 speech before the Royal Society of Medicine, H. P. Bayon described Paracelsus as “not a harbinger of light.” This paper seeks to uncover the man beneath the myth, and then, hopefully, to set at rest the idea that Paracelsus was anything but an ordinary (and godly) man with ideas and ideals ahead of his time, ideas and ideals that, unfortunately for his reputation, were unsettling to his contemporaries. On a separate note, this paper also attempts to demonstrate the folly of basing one’s opinion of someone or something off of a reputation that, more often than not, is fabricated from half-baked rumors and ill-conceived exaggerations.

Theophrastus Philippus Aureolus Bombastus von Hohenheim––better known to posterity by his Latin pen-name Paracelsus, meaning ‘better than Celsus’, a reference to the Roman encyclopedist Aulus Cornelius Celsus who “ruled science when Theophrastus began studying medicine”[1]––was a physician, alchemist, botanist, astrologer and occultist who lived between 1493 and 1541. Paracelsus is well-remembered for his vehement outbursts against tradition; his critical, even scornful, attitude towards his contemporaries in the medical and academic communities; and his pioneering of medical chemistry, which won him posthumous recognition for its intrepid repudiation of the teachings of Hippocrates and Galen, and then-unprecedented use of “metals and minerals . . . for therapeutic purposes.”[2] However, because of the heavy-handed manner in which Paracelsus expressed his beliefs, or the absurd grandiloquence and incoherent bombast with which he laced his writings, he acquired more than a few enthusiastic enemies.[3] H. P. Bayon, lecturing at the Royal Society of Medicine in 1942, described Paracelsus thusly: “a rude, circuitous obscurantist, not a harbinger of light, knowledge and progress . . . [,] violently destructive, only rarely critically constructive and never original, if ever right.”[4]

Claims of rudeness, violence, unconstructiveness and unoriginality are scarcely the only, or the worst, accusations to have been leveled at Paracelsus. Paracelsus, a firm and unrepentant believer in magic, suffered the great misfortune of having lived at a time when sorcery and witchcraft were regarded with suspicion––men, credulous and fearful of the unknown, would marvel at his seemingly miraculous cures, and wonder, “what magic powers might be at the disposal of this wonder-worker, and had he come by them in a Christian way?”[5] Inevitably, this gave rise to the Paracelsan legend. Paracelsus was deemed an agent of Lucifer, and his inexplicable powers of restoration, for which he incurred the envy of Europe’s finest medical minds, were attributed to his unholy devotion to the black arts; indeed, Paracelsus himself was known to lament, “They begrudge the honor I won healing princes and noblemen, and they say my powers came from the Devil.”[6]

Depicted as a supernatural entity, Paracelsus naturally became something of a mythical figure, one for whom “[l]egend marks his every step.”[7] A large broadsword, which Paracelsus was never seen without, was “bewitched,” and its pommel was reputed to contain “the Elixir of Life.”[8] His white horse, which was said to traverse vast distances without ever tiring, was given to him by Satan.[9] He was seen in two places at once; he possessed the Philosopher’s Stone; and he could converse with and raise the dead.[10] It was even suggested, on account of the hermetic (celibate) existence Paracelsus seems to have led his entire life, that he was a eunuch, which bore its own stigma then.[11] In due course, Paracelsus served as the inspiration for Dr. Faust (or Faustus), who, in the 16th century German folk legend Faust, travels the world like a “knight-errant of science,” seeking to learn what he can of medicine, philosophy, and religion, only to grow discontent, and eventually to sell his soul to the Devil in exchange for “power over space and matter.”[12]

Given all this, it soon becomes apparent that the more one learns about Paracelsus, the more one wonders who this small, choleric man really was. Was he, like the fictional Dr. Faust, a lost soul who forsook God’s gracious instruction for the Devil’s perfidy? Or was the so-called Paracelsan legend rooted in a motley collection of bold exaggerations and two-faced lies spouted by envious men intent on ruining Paracelsus’s reputation? If so, this spurious depiction of Paracelsus has largely stood the test of time, as is indicated by Bayon’s dismissive characterization of the controversial physician, quoted above. This paper seeks to redress, in some small way, the time-worn misconceptions of Paracelsus. It chooses not to dissect Paracelsan theory, but instead attempts to strip away the myth to gain a small measure of the man. Who, or what, persuaded Theophrastus von Hohenheim to live his life as he did? This quest for understanding begins, as it logically must, with an investigation into Paracelsus’s early years, his upbringing and education.

Paracelsus was born in Einsiedeln, Switzerland, the son of Els, who was “the innkeeper’s daughter . . . [and] a matron in the pilgrim hospital.”[13] Of Paracelsus’s mother, little is known. Legend tells that Els, who was mentally ill, committed suicide no later than 1502, when Paracelsus was eight- or nine-years-old. This, however, is pure speculation, and one should recall that Els’s purported suicide would have only reinforced the perception of her son as ungodly, suicide having been a grave sin in medieval times.

In any case, it was his father, Wilhelm von Hohenheim, the town physician, that young Theophrastus admired most. The ‘von’ in Wilhelm’s name implies relation to nobility, and indeed Wilhelm was the illegitimate son of Georg Bombast von Hohenheim, of the Swabian Hohenheims. Georg, a prideful and brusque member of the Germany aristocracy, who also attained high rank in the Order of the Knights Hospitaller, was entangled in a political dispute that could only be resolved with the forfeiture of his entire estate.[14] Georg’s fall from grace seems not to have affected the fortunes of his bastard son, who was “raised on his uncle’s farm in the village of Rieth in Württemberg [southern Germany]” and, as planned, had enrolled at the nearby University of Tübingen to read medicine.[15] However, whether due to “lack of funds, wanderlust, or attraction to the alchemists,” Wilhelm quit before he could complete his postgraduate studies and thereby receive his “doctor’s kiss.”[16] This meant, unfortunately, that Wilhelm could not practice medicine at court.

Wilhelm’s experiences at Tubingen were significant nonetheless, for there he acquired a “working knowledge of Latin, botany, medicine, alchemy, and theology,” which he eventually passed on to Paracelsus.[17] Indeed, Paracelsus, who, by all reports, was very close to his benevolent father, would always heap praise on Wilhelm, “calling him his first teacher, ‘who has never forsaken me.’”[18] Paracelsus would further remark that his father had “opened his [Paracelsus’s] eyes to the true method of gaining knowledge and experience.”[19]

For his father’s aristocratic relatives, who had so callously dispensed with Wilhelm after Georg’s imprudence, Paracelsus felt nothing but hatred. In fact, his very sobriquet may well have been intended as a slight against the Hohenheims, for some speculate that ‘Paracelsus’ is a “bombastic translation of Hohenheim, which means the Mountain Home.”[20] Others, however, disagree, suggesting that ‘Paracelsus’ is no snub, but “a paraphrase of Hohenheim carrying the ‘High Home’ into the spiritual region.”[21] Notwithstanding these contrary explanations for Theophrastus von Hohenheim’s choice of pen-name, the fact of the matter is, Paracelsus’s aversion to his noble relatives only quickened as he aged, until he came to detest all blue-bloods on principle. He would often mock his “beringed and berobed” colleagues in the medical community––and the prosperous in general––for their excesses, attributing such wanton behavior to the general wickedness of the gentry, while never failing to gloat about the perfection of his own “simple” lifestyle, which he credited to his impoverishment.[22] [23] It should be noted, however, that Paracelsus, too, may have struggled to contain a penchant for liquor, as he was once criticized “about his habit of mixing preaching and drink during his time in Salzburg.”[24]

Paracelsus would also ridicule his fellow physicians for their unquestioning belief in tradition. For instance, during his year-long stint as a professor of medicine at the University of Basel, Paracelsus refused to lecture in Latin, then the language of academia, preferring instead his native German. Perhaps influenced by his formative mentor Bishop Erhard of Lavanttal, who neglected to teach young Theophrastus the finer points of grammar and rhetoric, and instead spent time with his enthusiastic pupil “over crucibles and in speculations on the Philosopher’s Stone,” Paracelsus came to disdain the humanities, suggesting, “It would be much better to learn medicine first and Latin later.”[25]

Paracelsus’s education took a meandering course after his mother’s untimely death. He and his newly-widowed father left Einsiedeln for Villach in Austria. Paracelsus, then perhaps a few months shy of ten-years-old, enrolled at a mining school financed by the Fuggers of Augsburg, a mighty banking family. Wilhelm, meanwhile, found “rewarding employment” as a professor of chemistry at the Fuggers’ mining school; Paracelsus later affirmed that his father, in his capacity at Fuggers’, had taught him “the mysterious relations which existed between the metals and the stars,” thereby contributing to his education in metallurgy.[26] Paracelsus eventually attended the prestigious “Benedictine school at St. Andrew’s monastery in the Lavantall [a variant of Lavanttal] for higher scholastic education,” where he studied under Bishop Erhard, mentioned above.[27] On his spare time, Paracelsus worked as an alchemical assistant to his father, and would observe with wide-eyed anticipation “the wonderful transformations worked in the alchemist’s crucible, or in the big vats.”[28] Paracelsus’s experiences at Villach are undeniably momentous, for his early instruction in alchemy, astrology, and metallurgy surely inspired his later investigations in chemistry and the occult.

Exactly how many years Paracelsus spent at Fuggers’ and the Benedictine priory is lost to history, but most sources agree that Paracelsus left Villach in 1507, at the age of fourteen, to go to college. In Paracelsus’s day, students like himself “did not simply enroll at a nearby university.”[29] No, rather, they wandered from university to university, sometimes for years at a time, searching for the most knowledgeable academics alive. Even as they struggled to stay safe from bandits and other desperadoes, students had to pay for their food, shelter, and, in some instances, passage. To pay their expenses, students would resort to “pulling teeth, or selling medical remedies, telling fortunes, singing at inns.”[30] Subjected to such harsh conditions, students, by necessity, became “quickly inured to the hardships of a wandering life,” and their habits and mannerisms tended to reflect their vagrant lifestyle.[31] Paracelsus was no exception. Physically frail as a young child, Paracelsus apparently outgrew his infirmities after leaving Villach. Likewise, Paracelsus picked up the habit of carrying a large broadsword with him at all times, though whether he ever learned to wield his weapon remains a mystery––to be sure, the sword never seems to have strayed far from his person, so much so that, as previously indicated, some speculated it contained the secret to his powers.[32]

For two years, Paracelsus wandered from university to university––from Heidelberg to Freiburg, Ingolstadt to Cologne.[33] He never lingered at any one university, for these years were spent in constant disappointment and disillusionment. Paracelsus came to realize that the understanding he had so credulously believed college could grant him would have to be found elsewhere; the union of faith and reason, which he had “naively assumed . . . could never be at odds with” one another, remained inconceivable as yet.[34] These two years, along with the time spent in Villach, arguably were Paracelsus’s most impactful, since his experiences in academia, unpalatable as they were for the idealist in him, prompted his later outbursts against tradition for which he achieved immeasurable fame and notoriety.

At length, Paracelsus arrived at the University of Tübingen, his father’s alma mater. There, Paracelsus found himself, astonishingly enough, in conflict with the eventual leaders of the Reformation, including Martin Luther and John Calvin, who, in accordance with the Occamite school of thought, purported to believe in predestination. Paracelsus, on the other hand, placed great stock in the philosophies of Duns the Scot, Socrates, and Plato. He believed in man’s capacity to dictate his fate, and categorically rejected the Reformists’ unreasoned faith in prayer as a means of salvation, their skepticism that reason alone could enable a man to love God. Paracelsus, “[l]ike Vesalius, Giordano Bruno and Galileo after him,” was mesmerized by Socrates and Plato for their optimism that “man is not a stranger in the Universe, but has the power to understand it through the ‘Light of Nature.’”[35]

If Paracelsus and Martin Luther truly opposed each other, one may have been hard-pressed to detect their enmity. At first glance, these two eminent thinkers would have seemed cut from the same cloth. Indeed, such is their similarity that, for some, Paracelsus was the “Luther of Medicine.”[36] Both individuals were firmly anti-Establishment: Luther sought an end to corruption in the Roman Catholic Church; and Paracelsus, for his part, sought to terminate the perverse exaltation of Galen’s outmoded medical beliefs and practices. And both were highly controversial. Perhaps in imitation of Luther, who, six years earlier, had burned a papal bull which repudiated his Ninety-Five Theses, Paracelsus, on June 24, 1527 (St. John’s Day), oversaw the burning of “the famous textbook of medieval medicine, the Canon of Avicenna,” at a marketplace in Basel.[37]

In any event, at Tübingen, Paracelsus was introduced to the philosophy of the ‘Light of Nature’, which espoused that the individual, through “his personal judgment of the good and the sublime,” could acquire insight into the very workings of the Creator’s mind and the Universe.[38] This conservative school of thought, which had received few adherents before Paracelsus’s time, proved highly influential in Paracelsus’s philosophical development, for it seems to have convinced him that the study of magic and other arcane disciplines could be turned to good use in the quest for “certainty . . . about the essence of all things.”[39] Paracelsus, though brazenly unapologetic about his ventures into the occult, was firmly opposed to “sorcery [black magic] and idolatry,” both of which were explicitly prohibited in the Bible.[40]

And so, as one must recall, the eventual perception of Paracelsus as an emissary of the Devil had no basis in fact. Certainly, Paracelsus seems to have enquired into subjects deemed unsavory––by the Church, that is––for their esoteric nature, but he never once said anything that ought to have incriminated him as an unbeliever. Indeed, accounts of Paracelsus’s early life indicate that he was reared in an extremely pious household, his father having been an avid student of the Bible. Sources speculate that such was Paracelsus’s religiosity, he eventually came to see only two subjects as worthy of investigation: “God in Heaven to be worshipped and trusted, [and] God in nature and in man to be passionately sought after.”[41] If true, this would once more suggest a profound concern, on the part of Paracelsus, with man’s understanding of God’s will (the ‘Light of Nature’).

After his stay at Tübingen, Paracelsus, on the advice of his father, studied at the University of Vienna, during which time he made the acquaintance of the university’s renowned president, humanist Joachim von Waadt (aka Vadianus). This relationship, though unexpected in light of Paracelsus and Vadianus’s contrary beliefs––Vadianus, unlike Paracelsus, attached greater importance to human rather than divine matters––seems to have lasted for many years, given that it was Vadianus who sheltered Paracelsus after the latter fled Basel, his reputation in tatters.[42] In any event, Paracelsus, then sixteen-years-old, spent an estimated two to three years at Vienna, where he received an education in “the ‘four high arts’––arithmetic, geometry, music and astrology.”[43] His time at Vienna, though well spent, was in many ways devastating for the young physician-to-be. Here, Paracelsus was taught that man’s fate was contingent on the movements and positions of the stars––this contradicted his belief in man’s ability to determine his own destiny through all of Nature’s tools given to man, including the mystic arts. Paracelsus rebelled against this instruction, so much so that his “unscientific optimism” finally won out over his assurance that there was still something to be learned in the academic world.[44] Paracelsus completed his undergraduate studies, but chose not to commence his graduate studies, abandoning Vienna (and academia) shortly after his eighteenth birthday in 1511.

Despite his loss of confidence in academia, Paracelsus visited one more university––the University of Ferrara in northern Italy––before ending his career as a student. Ferrara was notably progressive, for on its faculty were none other than Niccolo Leoniceno, who was highly critical of Avicenna for his distorted translations of Hippocrates and Galen, and Giovanni Manardi, who followed in Leoniceno’s footsteps as an unrelenting critic of ancient medicine and its advocates.[45] At Ferrara, more than anywhere else, Paracelsus found himself amongst like-minded individuals. Indeed, it is highly probable that Paracelsus’s later outbursts against Hippocrates and Galen were inspired, in large part, by Leoniceno and Manardi.[46]

To be sure, accounts of Paracelsus’s upbringing and education are riddled with contradictions. For instance, sources are uncertain as to the identity of his mother––some speculate she was Els, but others suggest she was a member of the Grätzel family, or perhaps even a bondswoman (indentured slave).[47] More importantly, sources fail to establish a consensus about the chronology of Paracelsus’s life as an itinerant student. Some sources offer the narrative established above, that Paracelsus ventured first to Heidelberg, then Freiburg, Ingolstadt, Cologne, Tübingen, Vienna, and Ferrara, while others posit that Paracelsus studied first at Tübingen, then Heidelberg, Mainz, Treves, and Cologne, but never at Ferrara.[48] [49] Still others suggest that Paracelsus was never an itinerant student, and instead spent the duration of his undergraduate and postgraduate education at the University of Basel, where he eventually received his degree in medicine.[50]

Paracelsus’s amicable relationship with Vadianus, the renowned humanist, is likewise questioned. One source argues that Paracelsus and Vadianus would not have met until as late as 1531, when both were in the town of St. Gallen, ironically enough. Vadianus was St. Gallen’s physician and chief magistrate, while Paracelsus was in town to administer medical care to the retired magistrate Christian Studer.[51] In considering that this was some years after Paracelsus’s now-infamous stint as a professor of medicine at the University of Basel––Paracelsus was already ostracized from the medical community, a polarizing figure whose views would have directly contradicted those of the prominent and well-respected Vadianus––it is highly unlikely that the two would have established a friendly rapport had they ever crossed paths by happenstance. Rather, Paracelsus had every reason to fear Vadianus, and indeed he seems to have “shown every restraint” during his time in St. Gallen.[52]

In any case, perhaps the only consistency to these conflicting accounts of Paracelsus’s life as an itinerant student is that, at each university Paracelsus visited, he found something to scoff at, whether it was in the method of instruction, the ideas propagated, or the character of his classmates. For example, at Freiburg Paracelsus found “a house of indecency,” whereas at Ingolstadt Paracelsus was subjected to the severe and unimaginative convictions of “old scholastics.”[53] At Heidelberg, much as at Freiburg, Paracelsus encountered a student population “more intent on pleasure than on knowledge.”[54] Elsewhere, at Cologne Paracelsus objected to his professors’ frequent and unrepentant practice of “obscurantism,” or the calculated prevention of certain facts from becoming common knowledge.[55]

As I conclude this brief disquisition on Paracelsus’s upbringing and education, it need be reiterated that the Faustian legend of Paracelsus the ‘Devil’s doctor’ was an unsavory creation of Paracelsus’s most fervent critics. Their vile depiction of this irascible physician is in no way representative of who Paracelsus really was and what he stood for. Indeed, the Paracelsus uncovered in the above paragraphs is astonishingly human, a figure to whom most can relate. Paracelsus is shown to bear love for his father, a zeal for uncovering the mysteries in life, a respect for and faith in God Almighty, and perhaps a slightly exaggerated aversion to ceremony and tradition, born of his long-standing resentment towards the gentry. All are emotions and sentiments with which we can empathize.

In the fate that befell Paracelsus there is a lesson to be learned, and that is that no figure, however controversial, ought to be dismissed simply for the sake of being controversial, or because his/her methods are contrary to orthodox practices. Paracelsus––contentious, even outlandish, as some of his views certainly were––deserved at least the opportunity to be tried before a court of reason, that his convictions and methods may have been assessed on their empirical merits alone. Paracelsus’s plight reminds me of that of George Ohsawa, a 20th century philosopher and dietician best known for ‘founding’ macrobiotics, an alternative diet and lifestyle known for its curative powers. Ohsawa, who, like Paracelsus, suffered a tragic childhood––both his parents died of tuberculosis, and he himself contracted the illness at the age of eighteen, only to miraculously survive by implementing the tenets of the Japanese physician Ishitsuka Sagen, who “developed a diet therapy based on traditional oriental beleifs [sic] and practices”[56]––was, and has since been, regarded as wayward and deviant for his criticism of allopathic medicine and modern nutrition. Yet Ohsawa’s convictions may have medicinal value to those who choose not to blinker themselves so. For armed with these very convictions, Ohsawa, after a 1955 visit with his good friend Dr. Albert Schweitzer in Lambaréné, Gabon, during which time his body erupted in “deadly tropical ulcers,” successfully cured himself of his life-threatening affliction.[57]


[1] Henry M. Pachter, Magic Into Science – The Story of Paracelsus (Sumner Press, 2007), 9-10.

[2] Roy Porter, The Greatest Benefit to Mankind: A Medical History of Humanity (W. W. Norton & Company, Incorporated, 1997), 203.

[3] Ball, The Devil’s Doctor, 13.

[4] Ball, The Devil’s Doctor, 12-13.

[5] Pachter, Magic Into Science, 3.

[6] Pachter, Magic Into Science, 4.

[7] Ball, The Devil’s Doctor, 6.

[8] Pachter, Magic Into Science, 2.

[9] Ball, The Devil’s Doctor, 6.

[10] Pachter, Magic Into Science, 3.

[11] Ball, The Devil’s Doctor, 26-27.

[12] Pachter, Magic Into Science, 13.

[13] Ball, The Devil’s Doctor, 23.

[14] Ball, The Devil’s Doctor, 21-22.

[15] Ball, The Devil’s Doctor, 21.

[16] Pachter, Magic Into Science, 18.

[17] Ball, The Devil’s Doctor, 24.

[18] Ball, The Devil’s Doctor, 24.

[19] Pachter, Magic Into Science, 21.

[20] Pachter, Magic Into Science, 21.

[21] Anna M. Stoddart, The Life of Paracelsus: Theophrastus von Hohenheim 1493-1541 (Balefire Publishing, 2012), 38.

[22] Pachter, Magic Into Science, 20.

[23] Charles Webster, Paracelsus: Medicine, Magic and Mission at the End of Time (Yale University Press, 2008), 20-21.

[24] Webster, Paracelsus, 20.

[25] Pachter, Magic Into Science, 23.

[26] Pachter, Magic Into Science, 22.

[27] Stoddart, The Life of Paracelsus, 33.

[28] Pachter, Magic Into Science, 22.

[29] Ball, The Devil’s Doctor, 39.

[30] Ball, The Devil’s Doctor, 40.

[31] Ball, The Devil’s Doctor, 39.

[32] Ball, The Devil’s Doctor, 338.

[33] Pachter, Magic Into Science, 25.

[34] Pachter, Magic Into Science, 26-27.

[35] Pachter, Magic Into Science, 28-29.

[36] Pachter, Magic Into Science, 6.

[37] Pachter, Magic Into Science, 7.

[38] Pachter, Magic Into Science, 29.

[39] Pachter, Magic Into Science, 29.

[40] Webster, Paracelsus, 159.

[41] Stoddart, The Life of Paracelsus, 27.

[42] Pachter, Magic Into Science, 31.

[43] Pachter, Magic Into Science, 31.

[44] Pachter, Magic Into Science, 31-32.

[45] Pachter, Magic Into Science, 43-44.

[46] Pachter, Magic Into Science, 45.

[47] Ball, The Devil’s Doctor, 23.

[48] Pachter, Magic Into Science, 25-33, 43-45.

[49] Ball, The Devil’s Doctor, 41.

[50] Stoddart, The Life of Paracelsus, 38.

[51] Webster, Paracelsus, 15.

[52] Webster, Paracelsus, 16.

[53] Ball, The Devil’s Doctor, 41.

[54] Pachter, Magic Into Science, 25.

[55] Pachter, Magic Into Science, 25-26.

[56] Ron Kotzsch (October 1982). George Ohsawa. MacroMuse, 7, 6-7.

[57] Julia Ferré (September/October 2008). What is the Philosophy of Macrobiotics? Beginning Series, Part 5. Macrobiotics Today, Retrieved March 18, 2014 from

Copyright © 2014 Elliot Silverberg. All rights reserved.

About Elliot Silverberg

I am an essayist, freelance journalist, poet, and screenwriter; an avid reader with a fascination for historical fiction, sci-fi, and fantasy fiction; a student of the Ancient Greek and Roman cultures; and a tennis enthusiast.

Posted on March 25, 2014, in Essays and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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