The Trials and Tribulations of (reading about) Paracelsus

paracelsusParacelsus Magic into Science – Henry M. Pachter
Collier Books – 1951

I was looking for a new book to start at the end of November when I picked up a most peculiar volume off my shelf. 100,000 Years of Man’s Unknown History had come as part of a set of cooky ancient-alien books that I bought years ago, and as I skimmed through it, I saw mention of the mysterious Count Von Küffstein and his homunculi. (If you’re not familiar with the Count Von K, you might want to check out my post about Aleister Crowley’s strange creations.) I was intrigued, but I was about to spend half the day on a bus and I wanted a smaller book that would fit in my pocket. I was buzzing off the idea of homunculis though, and so I picked up the biography of Paracelsus that I had found on a ‘free books’ table when I was in university.

Paracelsus was a travelling doctor/healer in the 16th century. He disdained the traditional academic approach to medicine and tried to figure out better ways to heal people. Most of his methods would sound very silly to us today, but his approach, which was based on reasoning and experiment, has contributed to the development of the modern scientific method. He was a pretty cool guy too. He traveled around Europe, healing people, writing books, getting drunk and starting arguments with local professors and doctors.

theophrastus
The man’s life was interesting, but in truth, this book is actually quite boring. However, when it comes to books on Paracelsus, I reckon the boring ones are probably the most trustworthy. Pachter’s focus is on how Paracelsus influenced science, and while he never denies Paracelsus’s fascination with the occult, he doesn’t give it as quite as much attention as I maybe would have liked. There’s only a few very brief mentions of Homunculi in here. (Paracelsus claimed it was possible to create miniature human life by placing glass bottles of sperm into steaming piles of horseshit.)

Pachter acknowledges that other writers have gone completely overboard with their interpretations of the more mystical aspects of Paracelsus’s writings, and even though I was fairly bored with Paracelsus when I finished this one, I went straight on to a silly book on Paracelsus that I had been meaning to read for the past year.

paracelsus-by-hartmannThe Life and Doctrines of Paracelsus – Franz Hartmann
1886?

The only attraction of this book is the fact that it seems to have been the text that brought the story of Count Von Küffstein to the attention of the occult community towards the end of the 19th century. In the 8th chapter there’s a chapter on Homunculi that contains an extremely lengthy footnote telling the story of Count Von K. As far as I can tell, this book was originally written in German and later translated into English. If it was originally published in German, we can presume that the footnote on the Count was a paraphrase of the account given in Die Sphinx. (Again, read my post on Crowley if you’re not following this.) This would mean that nobody has ever actually translated Die Sphinx directly. I have been toying with the idea of translating and publishing it myself, but I don’t want to waste my time if it was already been done. If anyone has any information on this, please let me know.

Aside from a single footnote, this book was un-fucking-bearable. The first chapter gives an account of Paracelsus’s life, and the rest explores his beliefs. This is basically the exact opposite of Pachter’s book. While Pachter gives perfunctory mention to the more nonsensical ideas of Paracelsus, Hartmann wallows in them. I read the first two chapters and then skimmed till I got to the homunculus bit. I simply wasn’t prepared to give these dated and stupid concepts the attention that would be required to make sense of them. This book was utter shit.

paracelsusthegreatFrom The Book of Alchemy

Paracelsus was actually cooler than I expected, but these books were a real chore to read. I’m reading two other dry ones at the moment, and I don’t think I’ll move straight on to 100,000 Years of Man’s Unknown History as I reckon I ought to treat myself to something a bit more enjoyable first. The story of Paracelsus played a part in shaping the Faustian Legend, and I am now considering a reread of Marlowe and Goethe’s versions of that tale for a future post on the same.

paracelsus-ulyssesParacelsus was Swiss born, but James Joyce thought so highly of him that he included him in a list of Irish heroes and heroines of antiquity in Ulysses.

Transcendental Magic, Its Doctrine and Ritual – Eliphas Levi

2015-07-06 20.53.53
Senate – 1995

This book is a load of bollocks. I’ve seen it mentioned in other books, and I thought that I should check it out. In fairness, I was probably underwhelmed because I have come across these ideas in so many other books (Although they were bollocks in those books too.) There is a story that the secrets disclosed herein were once the private knowledge of a secret society to which Levi belonged*, but I think it would be unfair to blame anyone other than Levi for this stinking garbage heap of nonsense. Levi links the usual ancient traditions together and adds a bunch of his own bullshit into the mix to create a completely incoherent mess of esoteric diarrhea.

This is actually two books in one. The first is a book on the dogma of magic, the second is a book on the rituals. The chapters in each book correspond to each other, and if I were to read it again, I would read the corresponding chapters in pairs. I am almost definitely not going to read this book again though. The first ten chapters in each text are on numbers. For example, the second chapter is on the number two. For this chapter, Levi thinks of all the things that exist in pairs, and occults them. Cain and Abel represent the Yin and the Yang. Yin is the Angel Lucifer, but Yang is the Angel Michael. Yin depends on Yang, so death (Lucifer) depends on life (Michael). Death is a penis, but it is also life, therefore a penis is actually a vagina. Now this is of course corroborated by the two pillars of the temple of Solomon: they enclose the tree of life and the tree of knowledge, duhh! It’s all so obvious!

So each book starts off with ten chapters of that kind of crap. It’s only after the number chapters that Levi gets into necromancy and witchcraft. Those chapters are alright. There are some fucked up rituals described in detail. My favourite is the ritual that requires the necromancer to somehow put themselves in a position whereby they are assisting a priest in the celebration of mass on Christmas Eve. They must help the priest until the host is consecrated and then  interrupt the ceremony by yelling ‘LET THE DEAD RISE FROM THEIR TOMBS!” After this they run from the church to the graveyard, continually screaming. Wouldn’t it be amazing to see that happening? Levi also gives detailed instructions on the steps you need to take to become master of the Gnomes of the earth. Yep, this is all fairly pragmatic stuff…

The translator, A.E. Waite, provides lots of footnotes, most of which criticize Levi’s nonsense in a manner so harsh that one would wonder why he bothered with it at all.  Waite, who wasn’t exactly the most rational man in the world, describes Levi’s ideas as ‘fantastic’, ‘without authority’, ‘idle nonsense’, ‘incredibly bad’ and ‘made up out of his own head’. I also own his translation of Levi’s History of Magic, a book that I now doubt I will ever read.

The illustrations are cool though. The Sabbatic goat on the cover is quite deadly, and there’s a fair few images in here that I’ve seen elsewhere.  That’s the thing about this book; it has been used as a source for lots of other books that explain its contents far more clearly than it does itself (I would recommend Cavendish’s The Black Arts to anyone who’s interested.)

I was also delighted to find a brief reference to the tarte Bourbonnaise of Panurge. The Borbonesa tart is a dessert mentioned in Gargantua and Pantagruel. It is a “filthy and slovenly compound, made of store of garlic, of assafoetida, of castoreum, of dogs’ turds very warm, which he steeped, tempered, and liquefied in the corrupt matter of pocky boils and pestiferous botches” This is Rabelais’ description, not Levi’s. Levi only mentions the tart in comparison to the smell that might emerge from one of the potions described in the chapter on charms and philtres.

If you want to read a mess of mystical bullshit about the astral plane and tarot cards, then this is the book for you. Otherwise, skip to the chapters on necromancy, witchcraft and the Sabbath, and leave it at that.

*My source for that information was Wade Baskin’s Dictionary of Satanism, so it’s almost definitely untrue.

Please share the below image, and let’s hope somebody takes the challenge!

necromancer challenge

The Black Arts – Richard Cavendish

Picador – 1972

blackarts

This book is a tricky one. Half of it’s great, half of it’s horrible. The sections on ritual magic, witchcraft and satanism are really interesting, but the book also contains comprehensive sections on numerology, cabala, tarot, astrology and alchemy. Personally speaking, when I buy a book on ‘the Black Arts’, I’m not really interested in reading about people playing with cards or counting the numbers in their names. I want blood rituals, human sacrifice and horrible acts of depravity. (Reading this book could be compared to going to a Slayer concert and then finding out that Tool are the opening band.) I’m going to largely ignore the parts that I didn’t like for this review; if you want to learn about tarot, fuck off and prance over to your nearest renaissance fair.

There’s some really interesting stuff  in here about demons from Biblical Pseudepigrapha. I’m still only about halfway through the Christian Bible right now, but I’m really looking forward to finishing that and then reading the Books of Enoch, the Testaments of Solomon and the Life of Adam and Eve. There’s something particularly exciting about the idea of Jehovah being good mates with the demons back in the day – Yeeeeeeoweh and de lads!

One of my favourite things about the book is the fact that it reads more like a history book  than a grimoire or set of instructions. A large amount of the information is utterly unbelievable, but Cavendish manages to reference his sources in such a way as to avoid any accusations of credulity that might be thrown at him. He politely leaves it up to the reader to decide what they think is bullshit and what’s legitimate, and this approach makes this kind of book far more interesting to read.

There’s a great bibliography and a ‘suggestions for further reading’ section at the back. I’ve already ordered quite a few of its sources, and I’ll hopefully get around to reviewing them here sometime soon. I’m going to pretend that I didn’t begrudgingly wade through 5 chapters of new-age shite and give this book a glorious 7.5/10.