Organized Session

Bible-Based Science in Paracelsus and his Followers


William R. Newman

Indiana University


James Voelkel

Science History Institute


Session Abstract

Theophrastus von Hohenheim (1493/4-1541), popularly known as Paracelsus, is recognized as a critically important figure in the transition from medieval to early modern science. To the world of Anglo-Saxon scholarship, Paracelsus and his followers have come to symbolize medical reforms such as the adoption of an ontological disease etiology and rejection of humoral pathology, as well as the "chymical" turn in medicine more generally. In the history of chemistry, on the other hand, the Paracelsian theory of three principles or tria prima, mercury sulfur, and salt, is widely credited with breaking down the monopoly that the scholastic theory of four elements held on matter theory up to the sixteenth century. Yet Paracelsus was not only a medical practitioner and chymist. He was also a lay theologian and preacher who drew heavily on the Bible for his knowledge of the natural world: in fact, it was his major source. The religiosity of Paracelsus has long been known in the abstract, but Anglophone scholarship such as the influential work of Walter Pagel and Alan Debus has focused almost exclusively on his medical and scientific contributions without much regard to his use of the Bible. The current session attempts to redress this imbalance by concentrating on the "Bible-based" aspects of Paracelsian science and magic. The session includes two widely known European historans of Paracelsus and his followers, Urs Leo Gantenbein and Didier Kahn, along with American scholars Dane Daniel (who coined the term "Bible-based Science" for Paracelsianism) and the historian of alchemy William Newman.

Presenter 1

Radical Spiritualism Meets Spagyrical Cosmology: Paracelsus on the Scriptural Foundations of Natural, Divine, and Demonic Magic

Dane T. Daniel

Wright State Univeristy - Lake Campus


Paracelsus's understanding of magic--which he usually expressed in terms of the types of natural, "celestial" (or Christian), and demonic astronomia-is inextricably tied to his scripturally based Weltbild. A significant and controversial voice within early modern natural philosophy and medicine as well as radical-spiritualist elements of the Reformation, the Swiss=German iconoclast proffered a magical cosmology largely derived from his idiosyncratic biblical exegesis. Although incorporating the mostly extra-Biblical concepts of the tria prima (salt, sulphur, and mercury), elemental matrices, and microcosm-macrocosm analogy, Paracelsus's spagyrical world (or magico-alchemical cosmos) also featured a concept developed in his extensive theological writings, namely, that the universe consists of two overlapping cosmologies, the natural and the divine, the former a mortal creation by God the Father, and the latter an eternal creation by God the Son. In this context Paracelsus countered the types of natural magic-e.g., nectromantia, astrologica, and signatum-with its more potent "celestial" analogues. Some participate in both cosmologies, and the celestial magus-an adept in the eternal realm--possesses the greatest powers available to human beings. While not discounting other sources, e.g., the Neoplatonist, I will highlight the scriptural dimensions of Paracelsus's magic and his views on the categories and practitioners of magic. I will also evaluate Paracelsus's idiosyncratic magic in terms of the historical analyses of magic by such scholars as Keith Thomas and Richard Kieckhefer. Breaking from medieval tradition, Paracelsus integrated a Christian magic, and he postulated that black magic is merely either a delusion of its practitioners or demonic employment-permitted by God-of natural powers.


Presenter 2

The Two Lights: The Interplay of Natural Philosophy and Theology in Paracelsus

Urs Leo Gantenbein

Zurich Paracelsus Project, University of Zurich


Half of the extensive complete works of the physician and natural philosopher Theophrastus von Hohenheim (1493/94-1541), known as Paracelsus, are dedicated to theological questions. The special feature consists in the fact that Paracelsian philosophy and theology do not stand for themselves alone, but rather influence each other intensively. Paracelsus exemplifies the instruments of knowledge in the fields of nature and metaphysics with the metaphors of the two lights, the light of nature and the light of the Holy Spirit, which provide the appropriate insights to seekers of truth. In particular, it will be examined here how Paracelsus tries to explain biblical content by means of his theories of natural philosophy. It is in this sense that he entitled a longer commentary on the Gospel of Matthew with the intention of presenting "natural and similar interpretations" of the four Gospels.


Presenter 3

A Medicina Mosaica: the Monarchia Triadis in Unitate by Gerhard Dorn (1577)

Didier Kahn

Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique


In 1577, the Paracelsian Gerhard Dorn was commissioned by the Duke of Anjou (the King of France's youngest brother) to translate into Latin and comment on the medical works of Paracelsus. The first book he published while in charge of this task contained several treatises, including one by himself : The Ternary's Monarchy within Unity. Under this typically Trithemian title, Dorn intended to explain the philosophical (or rather "metaphysical," as he put it) basis of Paracelsian medicine through a paraphrastic account of Creation in terms of Unity, Binary and Ternary: the unity of body and soul had been smashed to pieces by the Fall (a topic already present in the works of Paracelsus), leading to the perverted Binary. According to Dorn, who drew heavily on both Trithemius's magical theology and the medical ideas of Paracelsus, man's health and salvation were only possible through Redemption, the latter being identified to the Ternary's return to Unity. This highly speculative treatise made good use of the Paracelsian tria prima and the four elements (a scholastic perversion, Dorn specified, even doubling that of the Devil, who had only produced the Binary). It summarized several ideas already expressed by Dorn in his very first publications and blended some key ideas of Paracelsus, such as his notion of philosophia adepta, with Trithemius's definition of magic (very similar to Pico della Mirandola's) as "wisdom, i.e. the understanding of physical and metaphysical things, which consists of the knowledge of divine and natural virtues."


Presenter 4

A Chymist among Beasts: Paracelsus and Animal-lore

William R. Newman

Indiana University Bloomington


A little known feature of Paracelsus's work lies in his use of traditional beast-lore as a means of understanding both the cosmos and human behavior. This is evident, for example, in his use of the basilisk, a mythological creature whose powers included the ability to kill by mean of its sight. For Paracelsus, the basilisk becomes an explanatory tool for understanding action at a distance. There are "basiliskish" stars, for example, that receive and amplify the evil thoughts of humans (especially women) and spread disease by returning those thoughts to earth in the form of maleficent, pestiferous rays. But Paracelsus's reconfiguration of mythological animals is not limited to the basilisk. His work is populated by other creatures which, like the basilisk, found their traditional characteristics outlined and transmitted in medieval encyclopedias, Christianizing bestiaries, and the Bible itself. These included the lion for example, who supposedly woke its still-born cubs to life by roaring at them, or the bear, which was said to shape its blob-like offspring into their ursine form by licking them. Newman's presentation will explore Paracelsus's incorporation of traditional beast-lore into the core of his natural philosophy, illustrating the remarkable degree to which the moralizing natural history of the bestiaries motivated and informed his work.