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Paracelsus' Natural Spirits

by Alan G. Hefner

The consideration of nature spirits in Paracelsus' day was dangerous because it almost inevitably led to the Church's conclusion that the person was either insane or possessed by demons. Mental illness in the Middle Ages was a moral matter as was practically everything else. This, in itself, is why mental illness still has a stigma for some people even today. Then even when mental illness was recognized it was thought to indicate that the person was enthralled with one of the deadly sins, which caused a hormonal imbalance in the brain. Madmen and idiots were prime examples of this, possessed by demons. The epileptic was the prime candidate to be described as being demonic possessed, he exhibited all the indications.

The Malleus Maleficarum described in pseudo-medical terms just how a demonic entity could cause hallucinations in a person. In summary, even the soul is created by God, with God's permission, other bodies can enter it, and they can make impressions on the inner faculties corresponding to the bodily organs. By using the impressions the devil can draw out an imagine retain in the memory, say a phantasm of a horse, in back of the head, move it to the middle of the head, where the cells of imaginative powers are, and finally to the sense of reason in front of the head. By such method he causes such a sudden change and confusion, that such objects are thought to be actual things seen before the eyes. This can be clearly exemplified by the natural defect in frantic men and other maniacs.

Such beliefs caused people experiencing mental illness to suffer cruel treatment from others. One such incidence is recorded of the English mystic Margery Kempe who experienced episodes of mental illness in the late fourteenth century. People scorned her, said she howled like a dog, banned her, cursed her, and clamed she was harmful around people. She had an understanding husband and was more fortunate than most.

Amidst this atmosphere others described demons as slicing off limbs of men, impaling them on skewers, forcing drink down their throats till they burst, fornicating with them, pouring molten lead over their heads, and frying their dismembered parts in a pan. That many such acts were perpetrated by men upon other men at that time fairly indicates the role demons played on the violent fears and instincts of the populace.

It may be asked where all of these little demons came from. The answer is that in pre-Christian times people believed in nature spirits. The belief that all things have spirits constitutes animism and dates practically to antiquity. More examples of this belief are the Lasa, in Etruscan mythology, and the Lares, in Roman mythology. Like many aspects of paganism, the Church thought it more expedient to incorporate this belief into Christianity than try to completely eliminate it. However, in this incorporation the essential nature of some spirits were changed; whereas in Paganism spirits were good and bad, in Christianity they all were proclaimed evil, or demons who served their master the Devil, and who like him were made by God, but who with him had turned from God in disobedience.

This orthodoxy was established by the Canon Episcopi, which set all subsequent views to be held concerning demons until the Renaissance. There were of various sorts, some were celestial causing bad omens such as comets, others such as goblins and kobolds lived underground and were said to be responsible for mining accidents. The Malleus Maleficarum again waken interest in demons, their demonic behavior, and sought to eradicate the necromantic rituals in which they were invoked. It was said that witches acquired their powers through demons. Some claimed all magic to be demonic. Paracelsus frequently had to refute accusations of sorcery. He along with Agrippa did not think all spirits were evil. The latter even dared to imply that, by confusing natural and black magic, the Inquisition was frequently guilty of ascribing to demons events which could be explained by natural forces.

Paracelsus, considering himself Catholic, went further and said some so-called demons are not supernatural in any sense, but merely "natural" beings: a mixture of human, animal, and spirit. To make such a statement then was daring if not maddening; no wonder Paracelsus had to refute accusations of sorcery, but his statement illustrates his humanity in an age of extreme brutality. It likewise represents the reason behind his work, On Nymphs, Sylphs, Pygmies, and Salamanders, date uncertain, in which he does not just simply recount fantastical peasant tales, but diligently tries to fit them into his personal cosmological and ontological scheme. Paracelsus was well aware of superstition, for he said, "There are more superstitiones in the Roman Church than in all these women and witches..."; but what he heard he considered carefully in order not to treat it in a deaf-and-dumb manner.

He never states that he sees the beings which he describes, but one is aware that he intuitively senses these sensatory beings. He further comprehensively describes these identities. There are like humans, may be good or bad: "They are witty, rich, clever, poor, dumb like we who are from Adam." They resemble humans, although different in proportion, because God made them in the image of man just as man is made in God's image. Paracelsus ascribes to them the same characteristics as man possesses. They have health and disease, similar customs, behavior, and speech; similar virtues which vary from better and coarser or more subtle and rougher; only in figure do they differ from men. Like man, they eat of their labor, and have wisdom to govern, justice to protect and preserve.

Paracelsus was certain that God created these creatures because, as he said, "For God is miraculous in His works which He often lets appear miraculously." They are like humans in every aspect except one; they do not possess souls, which is why they desire human company. According to Paracelsus these being wooed men, seeking their souls in order to be baptize and be in union with Christ. This is a profound Christian belief to seek redemption even for nonhumans.

He describes four types of beings: nymphs, the water people; sylphs, the air people; pygmies, the earth people; and salamanders, the fire people. Paracelsus categorized these beings according Aristotle's four elements. Sylphs were also know as sylvestres-"forest people"-or "wind people"; the pygmies are "mountain people," whom some call gnomes. Nymphs are legendary undines, and salamanders also may be called vulcani, probably after the Roman god Vulcan.

Each group of beings inhabits its own element just as humans breathe and pass through air, for example, the earth is like a gas, "chaos," through which gnomes easily pass through. And, for each a different element provides the "soil" in which to grow its food; water is the "soil" of the gnomes.

Nymphs often look similar to men and women and it was not uncommon for them to try to marry a human. But these marriages usually turned out unfortunate. Gnomes were small, about "two spans"; salamanders were "long, narrow, and lean"; and sylvestres were "cruder, coarser, longer, and stronger" than humans. Mating between members in each group can occasionally give birth to monsters, just as in humans, which create some of the characters in myths. Sylphs bare giants, nymphs bare sirens, dwarfs are of pygmies, and will-o'-the-wisps come from salamanders. The birth of these monsters are sign of some calamity, Paracelsus stated, for instant, a giant might herald an earthquake.

Paracelsus thought God created such beings purposely so that would be guardians of their respective elements, the treasures of the world, so that man would not plunder them all at once. Notably, gnomes dwell in mines where precious ores and minerals are found.

As it is seen Paracelsus advances some pre-Christian or pagan ideas of nature spirits, and argues that they may not be entirely evil, but he stays well within his Christian boundaries and speaks with an attitude of his times. Although he gives his spiritual beings a divine purpose, he terms their abnormal offspring monsters. Like his contemporaries, he gives anything abnormal, out of the ordinary, a sinister meaning. They may signal future calamities, giants can be signs of earthquakes.

Such an attitude may help to explain the paradox of Paracelsus. Although he advanced science he still clung to ideas of his Catholic faith, which in some ways hindered the advancement he worked for. One might see him as a man standing in two worlds, one of faith, the other of medicine. The paramount question is why; why did he do so? None can be sure, but perhaps the answer lies with the mind and heat of Paracelsus himself. He knew the abuses to the people from the world in which he lived. He loved the ordinary people and he loved nature. He knew the healing effects of ores and minerals. His knowledge of the ancients gave him a knowledge of spirits that led him to believe they all were not bad and could help people. But, still there were his religious beliefs, the God he loved, the faith he grew up in, and the promise of eternal salvation. The paradoxical Paracelsus tried to make it all fit together.


Ball, Philip. The Devil's Doctor: Paracelsus and the World of Renaissance Magic and Science. New York. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 2006. pp. 302-307.
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