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Title page of Benedictus Figulus's 1608 edition of Kleine Wund-Artzney, based on lecture notes by Basilius Amerbach the Elder (1488–1535) of lectures held by Paracelsus during his stay in Basel (1527).

Paracelsianism (also Paracelsism; German: Paracelsismus) was an early modern medical movement based on the theories and therapies of Paracelsus. It developed in the second half of the 16th century, during the decades following Paracelsus' death in 1541, and it flourished during the first half of the 17th century, representing one of the most comprehensive alternatives to learned medicine, the traditional system of therapeutics derived from Galenic physiology.

Based on the by then antiquated principle of maintaining harmony between the microcosm and macrocosm, Paracelsianism fell rapidly into decline in the later 17th century, but left its mark on medical practices. It was responsible for the widespread introduction of mineral therapies and several other iatrochemical techniques.


Spagyric is a word in English that means "alchemy". Some people have coined the use of the word to mean an herbal medicine produced by alchemical procedures, particularly in the context of Paracelsianism. These procedures involve fermentation, distillation, and extraction of mineral components from the ash of the plant. These processes were in use in medieval alchemy generally for the separation and purification of metals from ores (see Calcination), and salts from brines and other aqueous solutions.


The word comes from the Ancient Greek σπάω spao "to draw out" and ἀγείρω ageiro "to gather".[1][2] It is a term probably first coined by Paracelsus.[citation needed] In its original use, the word spagyric was commonly used synonymously with the word alchemy, however, in more recent times it has often been adopted by alternative medicine theorists and various techniques of holistic medicine.[citation needed]

In practice[edit]

Spagyric most commonly refers to a plant tincture to which has also been added the ash of the calcined plant. The original rationale behind these special herbal tinctures seems to have been that an extract using alcohol could not be expected to contain all the medicinal properties from a living plant, and so the ash or mineral component (as a result of the calcination process) of the plant was prepared separately and then added back to 'augment' the alcoholic tincture. The roots of the word therefore refer first to the extraction or separation process and then to the recombining process. These herbal tinctures are alleged to have superior medicinal properties to simple alcohol tinctures, perhaps due to the formation of soap-like compounds from the essential oils and the basic salts contained within the ash. In theory these spagyrics can also optionally include material from fermentation of the plant material and also any aromatic component such as might be obtained through distillation. The final spagyric should be a re-blending of all such extracts into one 'essence'.

The concept of the spagyric remedy in turn relies upon the three cardinal principles of alchemy, termed salt, sulfur, and mercury. "The basis of matter was the alchemical trinity of principles – salt, sulfur, and mercury. Salt was the principle of fixity (non-action) and in-combustibility; mercury was the principle of fusibility (ability to melt and flow) and volatility; and sulfur was the principle of inflammability."

The three primal alchemical properties and their correspondence in spagyric remedy are:

  • Mercury = water elements, representing the life essence of the plant, the very alcohol extract of the plant is the carrier of the life essence.
  • Salt = earth element, representing the vegetable salts extracted from calcined ashes of plant body.
  • Sulfur = fire element, virtue of plant, representing the volatile oil essence of the plant.

Paracelsus stated that the true purpose of alchemy was not for the vulgar purpose of gold making, but rather for the production of medicines. The term 'Spagyria' has been used by Paracelsus in his book Liber Paragranum, deriving from the Greek words 'spao' and 'ageiro', the essential meaning of which is to 'separate and to combine'.

He formulated that nature in itself was 'raw and unfinished', and man had the God-given task to evolve things to a higher level. As an example: The 'raw' medicinal plant would be separated into the basic components he termed 'mercurius', 'sulfur', and 'sal' and thereby cleaned of non-essential components. 'Mercurius', 'sulfur', and 'sal' were then recombined forming the medicine.

In contemporary terms, this would be the extraction of the essential oils with vapour gaining the 'sulfur'. Then fermentation of the remaining plant and distilling the alcohol produced thus gaining 'mercurius'. Extraction of the mineral components from the ash of the marc which would be the 'sal'. Diluting the essential oils in the alcohol and then dissolving the mineral salts in it would produce the final potion. (This is a simplified representation of the process which varies strongly depending on the source chosen.)

Joseph Needham devoted several volumes of his monumental Science and Civilisation in China to Spagyrical discovery and invention.

The word spagyrici is inscribed on the coffin-plate of the English Paracelsian physician Sir Thomas Browne (1605-82).

See also[edit]


  1. ^ John Craig, A New Universal Etymological, Technological and Pronouncing Dictionary of the English Language, Volume 2. London: G H Collins, 1849, p. 730
  2. ^ Alexander Reid, A Dictionary of the English Language, New York: D Appleton & Co., 1845, pp. 383, 476, 516


  • Allen George Debus. The English Paracelsians. University Of Chicago Press, 1968. (original publication 1965)
  • Allen George Debus. The French Paracelsians. Cambridge University Press, 2002. (original publication 1991)
  • Didier Kahn, Alchimie et paracelsisme en France à la fin de la Renaissance (1567-1625) [Cahiers d’Humanisme et Renaissance 80]. Geneva: Droz, 2007.
  • Wilhelm Kühlmann and Joachim Telle, eds. Corpus Paracelsisticum: Dokumente frühneuzeitlicher Naturphilosophie in Deutschland. Tübingen: Max Niemeyer, 2001-.
  • M. C. Ramos Sánchez, F. J. Martín Gil, J. Martín Gil. "Los espagiristas vallisoletanos de la segunda mitad del siglo XVI y primera mitad del siglo XVII". Estudios sobre historia de la ciencia y de la técnica: IV Congreso de la Sociedad Española de Historia de las Ciencias y de las Técnicas: Valladolid, 22–27 de Septiembre de 1986, 1988, ISBN 84-505-7144-8, pp. 223–228. (in Spanish)
  • Jole Shackelford. A Philosophical Path for Paracelsian Medicine: The Ideas, Intellectual Context, and Influence of Petrus Severinus (1540/2-1602). Copenhagen: Museum Tusculanum Press, 2004.

External links[edit]