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James Randi Educational Foundation

An Encyclopedia of Claims, Frauds, and Hoaxes of the Occult and Supernatural

Introduction | "R" Reading | Curse of the Pharaoh | End-of-the-World Prophecies

Index | A | B | C | D | E | F | G | H | I | J | K | L | M | N | O | P | Q | R | S | T | U | V | W | Y | Z

Paracelsus (circa 1493-1541) He was grandly named Theophrastus Philippus Aureolus Bombast von Hohenheim, a Swiss scholar/physician/mystic who called himself Paracelsus (para Celsus meaning “beyond” Celsus, an early Platonist and anti-Christian philosopher). Paracelsus was born to educated parents in Switzerland and was admitted to the University of Basel at age sixteen.
      His life's work took him to Croatia, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Poland, Portugal, Russia, Scandinavia, Spain, and Turkey. His philosophy was a curious mixture of mystical notions and hard thinking. He added a few facts to chemical knowledge, made some of the earliest attempts to organize medical information, and was among the first to use nonorganic chemicals to treat disorders, but by most measures he was a superstitious, argumentative, offensive braggart who alienated everyone with whom he came in contact.
      True to his calling as a physician of that day, he insisted upon applying his knowledge of astrological aspects to all healing processes. On a more realistic bent, he laid the basis for an understanding of psychologically based illness by teaching that negative attitudes and stress can invoke certain problems, while a positive attitude is more conducive to avoidance of those conditions and/or to recovery. That glimmering of the basic idea of psychological/psychosomatic causes and effects, widely accepted today, was expressed by Paracelsus thus: “A powerful will may cure, where a doubt will end in failure.”
      Paracelsus favored the use of magnets in curing patients, and was in that respect the inspiration for Franz Anton Mesmer, the French mountebank who, two hundred years later, discovered the principles of what we now call hypnosis, or suggestion. Mesmer at first believed that magnets were necessary for his induction of the “trance” state, but soon found that what became known as Mesmerism worked just as well without such aid.
      Paracelsus studied and recorded methods of discovering and recovering metals from the earth. In that time, diviners (dowsers) used their forked sticks, pendulums, and other devices to find not only water, but metallic ores. Then, as now, any success they enjoyed was due either to their knowledge of geology or just dumb luck.
      A natural wanderer and vagabond, this scholar managed to lose every friend he ever made, and his superiority complex soon earned him a terrible reputation. That reputation was well earned, as indicated in the preface to one of his books. He wrote:  

      In this midcentury, monarchy of all the arts pertains to me, Theophrastus Paracelsus, prince of philosophy and medicine. For to this am I chosen by God that I may extinguish all fantasies of all far-fetched, false and putative works and presumptuous words, be they of Aristotle, Galen, Avicenna, Mesue, or any of their adherents.

      As a result of this attitude, though he taught at various centers of learning, Paracelsus stayed at each for only short periods of time before his superiors and his students decided they'd had enough of him.
      He tried to change even the primitive notions of what made up the basic elements of the Renaissance universe. He disallowed the four elements of fire, earth, water, and air, replacing them with sulfur, mercury, and salt. However, even in this matter he seems not to have ever made up his mind.
      In 1536 he published his Prognosticatio, a book of thirty-two illustrations that very much resemble the well-known Tarot cards. He claimed that the line drawings were magical, and wrote accompanying captions for them which he said were prophecies. Allegorical and symbolic in nature, these drawings and texts are as enigmatic as the Nostradamus writings, and may well have inspired the French seer in his style, since they were available to him well before he even produced his first almanac. This work of Paracelsus was referred to by his great admirer, another mystic named Éliphas Lévi, as “the most astounding monument and indisputable proof of the reality and existence of the gift of natural prophecy.”

Paracelsus, the flamboyant early scientist who revolutionized the medical treatment of his day.

      Along with descriptions of strictly magical procedures that he took as having some value, he made observations which indicated his grasp of both human nature and correct methodical thinking. Though he was inescapably subject to the superstitions of his day and the necessity of catering to popular prejudices——including a tendency to immolate those who doubted scriptural declarations——he was frequently able to rise above those burdens, as when he discoursed on medical matters and public attitudes. In his fourth book on diseases, A Paramiric Treatise, he closed with these words:  

      You have seen how natural bodies, through their own natural forces, cause many things [believed to be] miraculous among the common people. Many have interpreted these effects as the work of saints; others have ascribed them to the Devil; one has called them sorcery, others witchcraft, and all have entertained superstitious beliefs and paganism. I have shown what to think of all that.

      One might believe those to be the thoughts of a thinker of this century.

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