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Paracelsus:  The Magic and the Science

Investigative Files

Joe Nickell

Volume 20.1, March 2010

Among the significant European figures of the sixteenth century, Paracelsus (1493–1541) was a transitional figure in the contest between magical and scientific thinking. On the one hand, he was part charlatan: his work was riddled with mystical nonsense about alchemy and the search for immortality.

On the other, he rejected much ancient nonsense, advocated experimentation, developed the idea that chemical substances might have medical value (Gridlan 1997, 881; Chavallier 1996, 21–22), and famously ob­served that whether or not a poison is lethal de­pends on its dose (qtd. in Chevallier 1996, 22).

Although he adopted the name Para­cel­sus—apparently to suggest superiority to Cel­sus, the Roman medical writer—he was born Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohen­heim in 1493. He was known not only for his revolutionary ideas but also for his argumentative manner; some claim—wrongly—that the word bombastic was derived from his name (Hauck 2000, 99).1 An inveterate traveler, he settled into the role of town physician and university lecturer at Basel from 1526 to 1529, when he lost a lawsuit over a professional fee. He continued wandering throughout Europe, Asia Minor, and Africa until he was invited to Salzburg, Austria, by the prince-archbishop in 1541. However, Paracelsus died there on Sep­tember 24, 1541, at the age of forty-eight (Collier’s Encyclopedia, 1993; Para­celsus 2008).

There are those who say that Paracelsus continues to be a transitional figure of another kind: a spirit interacting with the living and even being sought for miraculous cures. On a trip to Europe in 2007, I visited two sites in Salzburg where these activities are reputed to continue, Salzburg Castle and the tomb of Paracelsus.

Salzburg Castle

Located on the river Salzach, Austria’s beautiful city of Salzburg is capital of the state of the same name, both taking their appellation from the salt—the so-called “white gold”—mined from mount Dürnberg. Salzburg was the birthplace of Mozart, and today it offers many sights including a baroque cathedral, a palace (Schloss Mira­bell) and gardens, and (as part of the latter) a poignant little dwarf park bearing statues of the wee people who once graced the royal court (Salzburg n.d.; Der Zwergl­garten 2007).

The castle, the Hohensalz­burg Fortress, overlooks—actually towers over—Salzburg from atop the Mönchsberg mountain. Built in 1077, the structure is accessible by a steep footpath or by the funicular (a cable-operated railway), and it offers impressive interior scenes to­gether with commanding views of the historic city. The fortress was so imposing that for a thousand years it was never at­tacked, although “when Napoleon stopped by, the city wisely surrendered” (Steves 2007).

According to paranormalist Dennis Will­iam Hauck in his book The Inter­national Direc­tory of Haunted Places (2000, 99):

Psychics say [Paracelsus’s] ghost roams the castle grounds search­ing for his many manuscripts that were taken from his room after his death and hidden away by the Prince Bishop. American tourist Deb Dupre was one of many to feel the presence of Paracelsus in the castle. Her en­counter during a visit in 1986 changed her life, causing her to become more unconventional and creative and open to the deeper symbolism of alchemy. She even started painting dramatic and colorful depictions of alchemical forces in her own life. Dupre also picked up paranormal energy in several photographs of the castle, including the spiraling mist that followed her around.

A copy of one such “ghost” photo is reproduced in Hauck (2000, 99). Unfortunately, science has not found such “spiraling mist” to be due to “paranormal energy.” Instead, much evidence shows it is simply the result of the camera’s flash rebounding from the wrist strap!

I did a pioneering study of this effect (Nickell 1996, 13–14) and have replicated it many times under controlled conditions. Depending on the nature of the strap (round or flat, braided, smooth, etc.), the orientation and closeness of the strap to the camera, as well as other factors including lighting conditions, a considerable variety of effects can be produced. Even so, other instances of camera-strap “ghosts” in Hauck (2000, 110, 120, 157) are recognizable. (The interested reader should compare an example in Hauck [2000, 110] with one of mine [Nickell 1996, 13] to see how similar the effects can be.)

Visiting Salzburg Castle with my colleague Martin Mahner, I sought out the site in question and snapped some experimental pho­to­graphs, one of which is shown in figure 1. (At the bottom of the white curve, the more mist-like blurring is due to the strap’s relatively far distance from the lens, an effect that occurs along the entire length of the analogous curved line in the tourist photo, showing that that section of the strap was the farthest from the lens when the flash went off.)

Except for the photo and that reference to what “psychics say,” Hauck offers no further proof that Paracelsus’s ghost, or any other, haunts the fortress grounds. Indeed we queried one castle shopkeeper who insisted that there was no ghostly lore—no specific story or generalized topic—that she was aware of; neither were there any reported ghostly experiences that had come to her attention. Virtually no one, she told us, asks about ghosts. Subsequently, at the castle’s museum shop, a young lady attendant echoed the first shopkeeper’s sentiments.

Of course, no one can prove there is not a ghost at the fortress, but fortunately no one has to. Rather, the burden of proof falls on claimants, and thus far they have utterly failed to meet the challenge.

Paracelsus’s Tomb

After searching for the ghost of Paracelsus at the castle, Martin and I visited the adept’s tomb at St. Sebastian’s church cemetery. We were there because of a statement by Hauck (2000, 99) regarding Paracelsus: “To this day, many ill and crippled people visit his gravesite hoping for a miraculous cure from the spirit of the greatest doctor of all time.” (Hauck’s specific source is unclear, since he supplies only a generalized bibliography.)

Located on a line of sight that runs due north from the castle, the cemetery is entered from the street Lizer Gasse and is at once a place that is quintessentially baroque and Italian—as well as one of quiet repose. Its centerpiece is the grave of Prince-Archbishop Wolf Dietrich (1587–1612). The cemetery also contains the Mozart family tomb (with the graves of the composer’s wife and father, Mozart himself being buried in Vienna), as well as the graves of other Salzburg notables.

Paracelsus’s grave niche in the church’s exterior, shown in figure 2, bears a bas-relief profile of him. It also includes a Latin inscription stating, “Here are the effigy and the bones of Philippus Theo­phrastus Para­celsus, who has won such fame in all the world through his Alchemy, until they are again clad in flesh. When this church was repaired in 1752 they were lifted from their mouldering grave and interred at this spot.”

Alas, while we were at the tomb, taking photographs and making notes, we watched in vain for the pathetic pilgrims who were expected to visit, hoping for magical healings. Only a curious tourist couple stopped briefly. Finally, I spied a young priest hurrying by, and I called out, “Excuse me, Father, do you speak English?”

“Some,” he answered.

I told him a book claimed that people came to Paracelsus’s tomb to be cured of their ailments, and I asked if this were in­deed so.

“I’ve never heard such a claim,” he told me. He did say that there was a group that made annual visits to the tomb, but he was unaware of any healing tradition at the site.

Even Hauck makes no mention of any actual healings being claimed at the site. If there are, their numbers would no doubt still pale in comparison to the French healing shrine, Lourdes. More than five million people visit Lourdes annually, yet only sixty-seven alleged “miracle cures” have been officially recognized since 1858 (D’Emilio 2008). Not only is that an abysmal record, but the claims at such healing shrines are invariably only examples of the logical fallacy arguing from ignorance (that is, drawing a conclusion from a lack of knowledge): “One does not know why the condition abated, so it must have been a miracle.” In fact, some “cures” are attributable to poor investigation, while others may simply represent misdiagnosis, psychosomatic conditions, prior medical treatment, the body’s own healing power, and other factors (Nickell 2007, 202–205).

Despite our disappointing search, Para­celsus does continue to be among us—not as a spirit plaguing our photos or providing miraculous healings but as a transitional figure in man’s gradual emergence from the shadowy underworld of ignorance and su­per­stition into the bright realm of science and reason.

Acknowledgments

I am grateful to CFI/Germany for inviting me to Darmstadt for a conference, from whence the indefatigable Martin Mahner and I were able to launch a five-country investigative tour. As always, I am supremely indebted to John and Mary Frantz, who generously set up an investigative fund that makes such endeavors possible. I also want to thank, as ever, Tim Binga, director of CFI libraries, for his research assistance and other colleagues who continue to help in so many ways.

Note

1. Actually, his father’s name was Wilhelm Bombast von Hohenheim; bombast is an old word for cotton stuffing (Paracelsus 2008).

References


Chevallier, Andrew. 1996. The Encyclopedia of Medi­cinal Plants. New York: DK Publishing.
Collier’s Encyclopedia. 1993. New York: P.F. Collier.
Cridlan, Avril, ed. 1997. Webster’s New Universal Ency­clopedia. New York: Barnes and Noble.
D’Emilio, Frances. 2008. Pope visits grotto in Lourdes, calls attention to faith. (Associated Press) Buffalo News, September 14.
Hauck, Dennis William. 2000. The International Direc­tory of Haunted Places. New York: Penguin Books.
Nickell, Joe. 1996. Ghostly photos. Skeptical Inquirer 20(4) (July/August), 13–14.
———. 1995. Entities: Angels, Spirits, Demons, and Other Alien Beings. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books.
———. 2007. Adventures in Paranormal Investigation. Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky.
Paracelsus. 2008. From Wikipedia, the free encyclo­pedia. Available online at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ Paracelsus (accessed September 30, 2008).
Salzburg Sightseeing Tours. N.d. (current 2007). Tour­ism booklet Salzburg, Austria: Salzburg Sight­seeing.
Steves, Rick. 2007. Rick Steves’ Germany and Austria 2007. Emeryville, CA: Avalon Travel Publishing.
Der Zwerglgarten. 2007. In The Sound of Music: Mirabellgarten. Available online at http://www.salzburg. info/soundofmusic_72.htm (accessed May 21, 2007).

Joe Nickell

Joe Nickell's photo

Joe Nickell, Ph.D., is Senior Research Fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSI) and "Investigative Files" Columnist for Skeptical Inquirer. A former stage magician, private investigator, and teacher, he is author of numerous books, including Inquest on the Shroud of Turin (1998), Pen, Ink and Evidence (2003), Unsolved History (2005) and Adventures in Paranormal Investigation (2007). He has appeared in many television documentaries and has been profiled in The New Yorker and on NBC's Today Show. His personal website is at joenickell.com.