16th century alchemist Paracelsus

How a 16th Century alchemist inspired a natural perfume

In the early 1500s in a lecture hall in a university in Switzerland, a man is being jeered and booed. Soon he will be taken by the collar and removed from his teaching post. The reason for such ire is that he was saying that we cannot learn the craft of healing simply from reading books, we need to experience it; and that Nature above all else, is the greatest teacher.


Nature above all else, is the greatest teacher - Paracelsus

The man being booed and jeered was the extraordinary 16th Century alchemist and physician, Paracelsus. who said many things that we can learn from. Philippus Aureolus Theophrastus Bombast of Hohenheim aka Paracelsus was born in Switzerland in 1493 [1493-1541], a time when a new era of thought was emerging out from under the grip of the church. Paracelsus would become one of the greatest and illuminated minds of that age.

He was a natural philosopher, physician and alchemist. He trained as a physician but it was under the tutelage of Johann Trithemius of Spanheim, abbot of St Jacob at Wurzburg that his talents as an occultist and alchemist began to shine. Paracelsus travelled extensively throughout Europe, Scandinavia and Russia and it was on these travels that he garnered healing knowledge from physicians, alchemists, barbers, gypsies and midwives.

While Paracelsus’ spirituality was a Christian one and he said, “Faith is a luminous star that leads the honest seeker into the mysteries of Nature’, he also speaks the language of a shaman, just as Hildegard had 400 years earlier.  

Paracelsus also wrote extensively about the idea of the Doctrine of Signatures. This concept acts as a way of navigating herbal medicine as it suggests that the way a plant grows, its shape, colour, habitat, scent, texture and seasonal patterns can provide clues as to its affinity with the human body and mind and how we might use it in medicine.

His alchemical studies and his healing work straddled science and the magic of the natural world. His methodology inhabited a world of planets, plants, spirit and elementals such as salamanders, gnomi, durdales, sylphs and nymphs. His world was magical and multi-dimensional and everything was imbued with its own life force. Spirit was everywhere. And yet, also he laid down the foundation for today’s modern pathology.

He wrote of how energy can be in two places at once and the power of distance healing. He saw every plant on earth as having a corresponding star in the heavens. While his words were of his time, his writings resonate with quantum physics today.

He repeatedly said that the value of his teachings would be appreciated in due course, and this is proving to be true. For example, he said, “Man is dependent for his existence on Nature, and the state of Nature depends on the condition of mankind as a whole.”

Paracelsus inspires me in so many ways. I am fascinated by the complexity of his character and the wide range of his expertise. On one hand he was overbearingly forthright and had a total lack of fear of upsetting the establishment. He was not afraid to speak out against the system and academia because he saw it leading away from ‘the light of Nature’, and he upset many people in the process. This was an age where medicine was moving from a nature-based approach to a more reductionist, scientific approach. Yet beneath his bluster there seems to be a man who was extraordinarily sensitive and open to the healing power of nature, which he called the Archeus. He always started and end with Nature. He was led by her and in this I find a message of trust for these modern times.

His notions of spirit echo with the ways of the ancient Greek god of medicine, Asclepius – both seeing the importance of dreaming to help the spirit find the answers it seeks.

As a natural perfumer I find his alchemical approach is so akin to the process of working with natural aromas to creating something much more than the sum of its parts. Paracelsus invites me to go deep into each ingredient, into the very essence of everything I make.

In Magnes Hortus, the natural perfume I have created as an aromatic rendering of this inimitable man, I have explored the fiery bombastic side of his nature and tempered it with the deep sensitivity and respect he had for the natural world and cosmos. Peppers, spices, resins only drawn out by heat and then fleeting top notes like the spirit within the alchemical process find their place in this rendering of such an extraordinary man.


True magic is the greatest of all natural sciences because it includes a true knowledge of visible and invisible nature. It is not only a science, but an art, because it cannot be learned out of books, but must be acquired by practical experience – Paracelsus

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