Medicine and Magic

[This is taken from H. Stanley Redgrove's Bygone Beliefs.]

THERE are few tasks at once so instructive and so fascinating as the tracing of the development of the human mind as manifested in the evolution of scientific and philosophical theories. And this is, perhaps, especially true when, as in the case of medicine, this evolution has followed paths so tortuous, intersected by so many fantastic byways, that one is not infrequently doubtful as to the true road. The history of medicine is at once the history of human wisdom and the history of human credulity and folly, and the romantic element (to use the expression in its popular acceptation) thus introduced, whilst making the subject more entertaining, by no means detracts from its importance considered psychologically.

To whom the honour of having first invented medicines is due is unknown, the origins of pharmacy being lost in the twilight of myth.  OSIRIS and ISIS, BACCHUS, APOLLO father of the famous physician AESCULAPIUS, and CHIRON the Centaur, tutor of the latter, are among the many mythological personages who have been accredited with the invention of physic.  It is certain that the art of compounding medicines is extraordinarily ancient.  There is a papyrus in the British Museum containing medical prescriptions which was written about 1200 B.C.; and the famous EBERS papyrus, which is devoted to medical matters, is reckoned to date from about the year 1550 B.C. It is interesting to note that in the prescriptions given in this latter papyrus, as seems to have been the case throughout the history of medicine, the principle that the efficacy of a medicine is in proportion to its nastiness appears to have been the main idea.  Indeed, many old medicines contained ingredients of the most disgusting nature imaginable: a mediaeval remedy known as oil of puppies, made by cutting up two newly-born puppies and boiling them with one pound of live earthworms, may be cited as a comparatively pleasant example of the remedies (?) used in the days when all sorts of excreta were prescribed as medicines.[1]

[1] See the late Mr A. C. WOOTTON’S excellent work, Chronicles of Pharmacy (2 vols, 1910), to which I gladly acknowledge my indebtedness.


Presumably the oldest theory concerning the causation of disease is that which attributes all the ills of mankind to the malignant operations of evil spirits, a theory which someone has rather fancifully suggested is not so erroneous after all, if we may be allowed to apply the term “evil spirits” to the microbes of modern bacteriology.  Remnants of this theory (which does— shall I say?--conceal a transcendental truth), that is, in its original form, still survive to the present day in various superstitious customs, whose absurdity does not need emphasising: for example, the use of red flannel by old-fashioned folk with which to tie up sore throats—red having once been supposed to be a colour very angatonistic to evil spirits; so much so that at one time red cloth hung in the patient’s room was much employed as a cure for smallpox!

Medicine and magic have always been closely associated.  Indeed, the greatest name in the history of pharmacy is also what is probably the greatest name in the history of magic—the reference, of course, being to PARACELSUS (1493-1541). Until PARACELSUS, partly by his vigorous invective and partly by his remarkable cures of various diseases, demolished the old school of medicine, no one dared contest the authority of GALEN (130-circa 205) and AVICENNA (980--1037). GALEN’S theory of disease was largely based upon that of the four humours in man—bile, blood, phlegm, and black bile,--which were regarded as related to (but not identical with) the four elements—fire, air, water, and earth,-- being supposed to have characters similar to these.  Thus, to bile, as to fire, were attributed the properties of hotness and dryness; to blood and air those of hotness and moistness; to phlegm and water those of coldness and moistness; and, finally, black bile, like earth, was said to be cold and dry.  GALEN supposed that an alteration in the due proportion of these humours gives rise to disease, though he did not consider this to be its only cause; thus, cancer, it was thought, might result from an excess of black bile, and rheumatism from an excess of phlegm.  Drugs, GALEN argued, are of efficiency in the curing of disease, according as they possess one or more of these so-called fundamental properties, hotness, dryness, coldness, and moistness, whereby it was considered that an excess of any humour might be counteracted; moreover, it was further assumed that four degrees of each property exist, and that only those drugs are of use in curing a disease which contain the necessary property or properties in the degree proportionate to that in which the opposite humour or humours are in excess in the patient’s system.

PARACELSUS’ views were based upon his theory (undoubtedly true in a sense) that man is a microcosm, a world in miniature.[1] Now, all things material, taught PARACELSUS, contain the three principles termed in alchemistic phraseology salt, sulphur, and mercury.  This is true, therefore, of man:  the healthy body, he argued, is a sort of chemical compound in which these three principles are harmoniously blended (as in the Macrocosm) in due proportion, whilst disease is due to a preponderance of one principle, fevers, for example, being the result of an excess of sulphur (i.e. the fiery principle), etc.  PARACELSUS, although his theory was not so different from that of GALEN, whose views he denounced, was thus led to seek for CHEMICAL remedies, containing these principles in varying proportions; he was not content with medicinal herbs and minerals in their crude state, but attempted to extract their effective essences; indeed, he maintained that the preparation of new and better drugs is the chief business of chemistry.

[1] See the “Note on the Paracelsian Doctrine of the Microcosm” below.


This theory of disease and of the efficacy of drugs was complicated by many fantastic additions;[1] thus there is the “Archaeus,” a sort of benevolent demon, supposed by PARACELSUS to look after all the unconscious functions of the bodily organism, who has to be taken into account.  PARACELSUS also held the Doctrine of Signatures, according to which the medicinal value of plants and minerals is indicated by their external form, or by some sign impressed upon them by the operation of the stars.  A very old example of this belief is to be found in the use of mandrake (whose roots resemble the human form) by the Hebrews and Greeks as a cure for sterility; or, to give an instance which is still accredited by some, the use of eye-bright (Euphrasia officinalis, L., a plant with a black pupil-like spot in its corolla) for complaints of the eyes.[2] Allied to this doctrine are such beliefs, once held, as that the lungs of foxes are good for bronchial troubles, or that the heart of a lion will endow one with courage; as CORNELIUS AGRIPPA put it, “It is well known amongst physicians that brain helps the brain, and lungs the lungs.”[3]

[1] The question of PARACELSUS’ pharmacy is further complicated by the fact that this eccentric genius coined many new words (without regard to the principles of etymology) as names for his medicines, and often used the same term to stand for quite different bodies.  Some of his disciples maintained that he must not always be understood in a literal sense, in which probably there is an element of truth.  See, for instance, A Golden and Blessed Casket of Nature’s Marvels, by BENEDICTUS FIGULUS (trans. by A. E. WAITE, 1893).

[2] See Dr ALFRED C. HADDON’S Magic and Fetishism (1906), p. 15.

[3] HENRY CORNELIUS AGRIPPA:  Occult Philosophy, bk. i. chap. xv. (WHITEHEAD’S edition, Chicago, 1898, P. 72).


In modern times homoeopathy—according to which a drug is a cure, if administered in small doses, for that disease whose symptoms it produces, if given in large doses to a healthy person---seems to bear some resemblance to these old medical theories concerning the curing of like by like.  That the system of HAHNEMANN (1755--1843), the founder of homoeopathy, is free from error could be scarcely maintained, but certain recent discoveries in connection with serum-therapy appear to indicate that the last word has not yet been said on the subject, and the formula “like cures like” may still have another lease of life to run.

To return to PARACELSUS, however.  It may be thought that his views were not so great an advance on those of GALEN; but whether or not this be the case, his union of chemistry and medicine was of immense benefit to each science, and marked a new era in pharmacy.  Even if his theories were highly fantastic, it was he who freed medicine from the shackles of traditionalism, and rendered progress in medical science possible.

I must not conclude these brief notes without some reference to the medical theory of the medicinal efficacy of words.  The EBERS papyrus already mentioned gives various formulas which must be pronounced when preparing and when administering a drug; and there is a draught used by the Eastern Jews as a cure for bronchial complaints prepared by writing certain words on a plate, washing them off with wine, and adding three grains of a citron which has been used at the Tabernacle festival.  But enough for our present excursion; we must hie us back to the modern world, with its alkaloids, serums, and anti-toxins— another day we will, perhaps, wander again down the by-paths of Medicinal Magic.



“Man’s nature,” writes CORNELIUS AGRIPPA, “is the most complete Image of the whole Universe.”[1] This theory, especially connected with the name of PARACELSUS, is worthy of more than passing reference; but as the consideration of it leads us from medicine to metaphysics, I have thought it preferable to deal with the subject in a note.

[1] H. C. AGRIPPA:  Occult Philosophy, bk. i. chap. xxxiii. (WHITEHEAD’S edition, p. 111).


Man, taught the old mystical philosophers, is threefold in nature, consisting of spirit, soul, and body.  The Paracelsian mercury, sulphur, and salt were the mineral analogues of these.  “As to the Spirit,” writes VALENTINE WEIGEL (1533--1588), a disciple of PARACELSUS, “we are of God, move in God, and live in God, and are nourished of God.  Hence God is in us and we are in God; God hath put and placed Himself in us, and we are put and placed in God.  As to the Soul, we are from the Firmament and Stars, we live and move therein, and are nourished thereof.  Hence the Firmament with its astralic virtues and operations is in us, and we in it.  The Firmament is put and placed in us, and we are put and placed in the Firmament.  As to the Body, we are of the elements, we move and live therein, and are nourished of them:--hence the elements are in us, and we in them.  The elements, by the slime, are put and placed in us, and we are put and placed in them.”[1] Or, to quote from PARACELSUS himself, in his Hermetic Astronomy he writes:  “God took the body out of which He built up man from those things which He created from nothingness into something . . . Hence man is now a microcosm, or a little world, because he is an extract from all the stars and planets of the whole firmament, from the earth and the elements, and so he is their quintessence.... But between the macrocosm and the microcosm this difference occurs, that the form, image, species, and substance of man are diverse therefrom.  In man the earth is flesh, the water is blood, fire is the heat thereof, and air is the balsam.  These properties have not been changed but only the substance of the body.  So man is man, not a world, yet made from the world, made in the likeness, not of the world, but of God.  Yet man comprises in himself all the qualities of the world.... His body is from the world, and therefore must be fed and nourished by that world from which he has sprung.... He has been taken from the earth and from the elements, and therefore, must be nourished by these.... Now, man is not only flesh and blood, but there is within the intellect which does not, like the complexion, come from the elements, but from the stars.  And the condition of the stars is this, that all the wisdom, intelligence, industry of the animal, and all the arts peculiar to man are contained in them.  From the stars man has these same things, and that is called the light of Nature; in fact, it is whatever man has found by the light of Nature.... Such, then, is the condition of man, that, out of the great universe he needs both elements and stars, seeing that he himself is constituted in that way.”[1b]

[1] VALENTINE WEIGEL:  “Astrology Theologised”: The Spiritual Hermeneutics of Astrology and Holy Writ, ed. by ANNA BONUS KINGSFORD (1886), p. 59.

[1b] The Hermetic and Alchemical Writings of PARACELSUS, ed. by A. E. WAITE (1894), vol. ii. pp. 289-291.


It is not difficult to discern a certain truth in all this, making allowances for modes of thought which are not those of the present day.  The Swedish philosopher SWEDENBORG (1688-1772) reaffirmed the theory in later years; but, as he points out,[2] the reason that man is a microcosm lies deeper than in the facts that his body is of the elements of this earth and is nourished thereby.  According to this profound thinker, FORM, spiritually understood, is the expression of USE, the uses of things being indicated by their forms.  Now, the human form is the highest of all forms, because it subserves the highest of all uses.  Hence, both the world of matter and the world of spirit are in the human form, because there is a correspondence in use between man and the Cosmos.  We may, therefore, call man as to his body a microcosm, or little world; as to his soul a micro-uranos, or little heaven.  Or we may speak of the macrocosm, or great world, as the Grand Man, and we may say that the Soul of this Grand Man, the self-existent, substantial, and efficient cause of all things, at once immanent within yet transcending all things, is God.

[2] See especially his Divine Love and Wisdom, SESE 251 and 319.



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