Theophrastus Bombast von Hohenheim

Theophrastus Bombast von Hohenheim (1492-1541), also more famously known as Paracelsus, is perhaps one of the most controversial figures in the history of Western medicine. His impact on the world of medicine still has reverberations even today, for he was the first physician to attribute some diseases to what we now call 'germs'.

However, his approach to medicine was most unconventional, even by the standards of his own day. Because of his unusual medical philosophies and his itinerant lifestyle, some authorities now doubt that he ever actually attained his full medical licence. However, in practice he was both a doctor of physic and of surgery and considered it essential to gain knowledge of healing through direct contact with his patients, a practice that was all too often lacking in sixteenth century medicine.

Although born in Switzerland, he travelled extensively in Germany, France, England and the universities of Italy to pursue his medical learning, and also served in the Venetian army as a military surgeon. His view of medicine and his medical philosophy was strongly influenced by occult science and superstition on the one hand and supernatural and theological ideas on the other. For Paracelsus, the four pillars of medicine were philosophy, astrology, alchemy and occult virtues and the essence of healing was love and right relationship with God. He sought to bring the interpenetration of microcosm and macrocosm into his medical practice, perceiving no real distinction between the natural and the supernatural.

For Paracelsus, the powers of nature were paramount, for he saw that nature is the great healer rather than the physician per se. He was a student of both alchemy and the cabala and considered that the study of subjects such as astrology and chiromancy were fundamental to the practice of medicine. For: "There is nothing in man that is not marked in his exterior, so that by the exterior one may discover what is in the individual who bears the sign". He then lists the four means by which the inner man may be known, by chiromancy, physiognomy of the face and body and by his posture, movement and gestures. The hand is but one manifestation of many interrelated internal and external correspondences and is an important tool in the Art of Signs or the Doctrine of Signatures, of which Paracelsus was a foremost advocate.

However, his understanding of chiromancy does seem to have been a little warped, in as much as he considers it to be a study of both the hands and the feet (!). Moreover, elsewhere in his writings he says that: "There are yet other kinds of chiromancy, for example that of herbs or tree leaves, of wood, rocks, mines, or the chiromancy of landscapes, roads and rivers and so on." Although this is perhaps merely a statement of how the inner virtues or qualities of an object may be known by its outward form, he does seem to have stepped beyond the bounds of chiromancy proper and to have somewhat confused it with geomancy!

At other points, he also calls chiromancy "... a false art that concerns itself with soothsaying" and classes it along with pyromancy and hydromancy as an 'uncertain art' by which a man might become deceived and led astray. It seems he was more interested in the principle of chiromancy, that the outward form reveals the inner being, than with being a practitioner of hand reading as such. Certainly no written work on chiromancy is cited as having being written by him in the various lists of his complete works.  As such, we may consider that he was not actually a practising chiromancer.

Paracelsus wrote on many diverse subjects though he seems to have encountered considerable opposition in getting his works published. In addition to writing on astrology and alchemy, magic and the arcana in general, he also wrote works on theological and religious topics such as the Psalms as well as covering specifically medical issues, such as treatments for hysteria and syphilis. Although his comments on chiromancy are not particularly extensive and do not suggest that he knew much in the way of the detail of chiromantic practice, the stature of Paracelsus makes him one of the foremost advocates of the chiromantic art from this period as a whole.


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