Department of History
University of California, Irvine
 Instructor:    Dr. Barbara J. Becker


Week 3.  Generation

excerpts from
Various Works of Paracelsus (1493-1541)


Herbarius... (c. 1525)

Since ancient times philosophy has striven to separate the good from the evil, and the pure from the impure; this is the same as saying that all things die and that only the soul lives eternal.  The soul endures while the body decays, and you may recall that correspondingly a seed must rot away if it is to bear fruit.  But what does it mean, to rot?  It means only this -- that the body decays while its essence, the good, the soul, subsists.  This should be known about decaying.  And once we have understood this, we possess the pearl which contains all the virtues.

Archidoxis... (c. 1526)

The quinta essentia [quintessence; ethereal substance found in each of the four elements] is that which is extracted from a substance -- from all plants and from everything which has life -- then freed of all impurities and all perishable parts, refined into highest purity and separated from all elements....  The inherency of a thing, its nature, power, virtue,, and curative efficacy, without any ... foreign admixture ... that is the quinta essentia.  It is a spirit like the life spirit, but with this difference that the spiritus vitae, the life spirit, is imperishable, while the spirit of man is perishable....  The quinta essentia being the life spirit of things, it can be extracted only from the perceptible, that is to say material, parts, but not from the imperceptible, animated parts of things....  It is endowed with extraordinary powers and perfections, and in it is found a great purity, through which it effects an alteration or cleansing in the body, which is an incomparable marvel....  Thus the quinta essentia can cleans a man's life....  Therefore each disease requires its own quinta essentia, although some forms of the quinta essentia are said to be useful in all diseases....

Only what is incorporeal and immortal, what is endowed with eternal life, what stands above all natural things and remains unfathomable to man, can rightly be called an arcanum [secret remedy]....  Like the divine curative powers, it has power to change us, to renew us, and to restore us....  And although the arcana are not external and although they do not constitute a symphony to the divine essence, they must be considered heavenly as compared with us mortals, for they can preserve our bodies, and by their influences achieve marvels in us that reason cannot fathom....  The arcanum is the entire virtue of a thing, multiplied a thousandfold....  Up until the present epoch, which is still young, only four arcana have come to our knowledge....  The first arcanum is the prima materia, [chaos; disorganized matter from which the universe emerged] the second the lapis philosophorum [philosopher's stone], the third is the mercurius vitae [quicksilver], and the last the tinctura [dye].... 

The prima materia can consume a man's old age and confer a new youth upon him -- thus a young herb from a new seed grows in a new summer and a new year....  The second arcanum, the lapis philosophorum, purifies the whole body and cleanses it of all its filth by developing fresh young energies....  Mercurius vitae the third arcanum, has a purifying action; like a halcyon, which puts on new feathers after moulting, it can remove the impurities from man -- down to the nails and the skin -- and make him grow anew.  Thus it renovates the old body....  Tinctura, the last arcanum, is like the rebis [hermaphrodite] -- the bisexual creature -- which transmutes silver and other metals into gold; it "tinges," i.e., it transforms the body, removing its harmful parts, its crudity, its incompleteness, and transforms everything into a pure, noble, and indestructible being....

Paragranum... (1530)

The great virtues that lie hidden in nature would never have been revealed if alchemy had not uncovered them and made them visible.  Take a tree, for example; a man sees it in the winter, but he does not know what it is, he does not know what it conceals within itself, until summer comes and discloses the buds, the flowers, the fruit...  Similarly the virtues in things remain concealed to man, unless the alchemists disclose them, as the summer reveals the nature of the tree. -- And if the alchemist brings to light that which lies hidden in nature, one must  know that these hidden powers are different in each thing -- they are different in locusts, different in leaves, different in flowers, and different in ripe and unripe fruits.  For all this is so marvellous that in form and qualities the last fruit of a tree is completely unlike the first one...  And each thing has not only one virtue but many, just as a flower has more than one colour, and each colour has in itself the most diverse hues; and yet they constitute a unity, one thing....

Labyrinthus... (c. 1537)

Alchemy is a necessary, indispensable art....  It is an art, and Vulcan is its artist.  He who is a Vulcan has mastered this art; he who is not a Vulcan can make no headway in it.  But to understand this art, one must above all know that God has created all things; and that He has created something out of nothing.  This something is a seed, in which the purpose of its use and function is inherent from the beginning.  And since all things have been created in an unfinished state, nothing is finished, but Vulcan must bring all things to their completion.  Things are created and given into our hands, but not in the ultimate form that is proper to them.  For example, wood grows of itself, but does not transform itself into boards or charcoal.  Similarly, clay does not of itself become a pot.  This is true of everything that grows in nature....

Nothing has been created as ultima materia [matter that has reached its final form] -- in its final state.  Everything is at first created in its prima materia, its original stuff; whereupon Vulcan comes, and by the art of alchemy develops it into its final substance....  For alchemy means:  to carry to its end something that has not yet been completed.  To obtain the lead from the ore and to transform it into what it is made for....  Accordingly, you should understand that alchemy is nothing but the art which makes the impure into the pure through fire....  It can separate the useful from the useless, and transmute it into its final substance and its ultimate essence.

de Natura rerum... (c. 1538)
[though commonly attributed to Paracelsus, scholars question his authorship of this text]

Decay is the beginning of all birth....   It transforms shape and essence, the forces and virtues of nature.   Just as the decay of all foods in the stomach transforms them and makes them into a pulp, so it happens outside the stomach....  

Decay is the midwife of very great things!  It causes many things to rot, that a noble fruit may be born; for it is the reversal, the death and destruction of the original essence of all natural things.  It brings about the birth and rebirth of forms a thousand times improved.... 

Let the semen of a man putrify by itself in a container with the highest putrefaction of horse dung for forty days, or until it begins at last to live, move, and be agitated, which can easily be seen.  After this time it will be in some degree like a human being, but nevertheless, transparent and without body.  If now, after this, it be every day nourished and fed cautiously and prudently with elixir of human blood, and kept for forty days in the perpetual and equal heat of horse dung, it becomes thenceforth a true and living infant, having all the members of a child that is born from a woman, but much smaller.  This we call a homunculus; and it should afterwards be educated with the greatest care and zeal, until it grows and begins to display intelligence.  Now this is one of the greatest secrets which God has revealed to moral and fallible man....

Let it be for you a great and high mystery in the light of nature that a thing can completely lose and forfeit its form and shape, only to arise subsequently out of nothing and become something whose potency and virtue is far nobler than what it was in the beginning....

The transmutation of metals is a great mystery of nature.  However laborious and difficult this task may be, whatever impediments and obstacles may lie in the way of its accomplishment, this transmutation does not go counter to nature, nor is it incompatible with the order of God, as is falsely asserted by many persons.  But the base, impure five metals -- that is, copper, tin, lead, iron, and quicksilver -- cannot be transmuted into the nobler, pure, and perfect metals -- namely, into gold and silver -- without a tinctura, or without the philosophers' stone.

Coelum philosophorum... (uncertain)

Here on earth the celestial fire is a cold, rigid, and frozen fire.  And this fire is the body of gold.  Therefore all we can do with it by means of our own fire is to dissolve it and make it fluid, just as the sun thaws snow and ice and makes them liquid.  In other words, fire has not the power to burn fire, for gold itself is nothing but fire.  In heaven it is dissolved, but on earth it is solidified.... 

God and nature do nothing in vain, or without a purpose.  The place of all things indestructible is not subject to time, it has no beginning or end, it is everywhere.  Those things are efficacious when all hope has been given up, and they may accomplish miraculously what is considered impossible, what looks hopeless, absurd, or even desperate.

But to write more about this mystery is forbidden and further revelation is the prerogative of the divine power.  For this art is truly a gift of God.  Wherefore not everyone can understand it.  For this reason God bestows it upon whom He pleases, and it cannot be wrested from Him by force....

Go to:
  • The Golem: Legends of the Ghetto of Prague (c. 1916) by Chayim Bloch (1881-1973)
  • The Herball, or Generall Historie of Plantes (1597) by John Gerard (1545-1612)
Readings for Week
Lecture Notes for