In Aurora Thesaurus, Dorneus is said to have evolved Leonhard Thurneysser’s sketch of a right size apparatus to distill urine. But even Thurneysser was profoundly influenced by the writings of Paracelsus.
The merging of a man with a chemical tool would only be accepted in the fantastic world of Hieronymus Bosch. But, as an alchemist, I must try to understand why Paracelsus gives the prestigious title of homunculus, or tiny man, only to a tool to distill our liquid waste. And as researcher, I can not help but notice that the Swiss doctor-alchemist uses the same term in other treaties and with well hidden meanings.
The man-vessel in the picture on the top, known as anatomical alembic, belongs to “Aurora Thesaurusque Philosophorum, Theophrasti Paracelsi, Germani Philosophi, & Medici prae cunctis omnibus accuratissimi“, Basel 1577, a treatise alternately attributed to Gerard Dorn and Paracelsus ( through Dorn’s memories of his master). As an appendix to the book we can find “Anatomia Corporum ad huc Viventium” that’s to say the anatomy of living according to Paracelsus, a little treatise, often taken as superstitious, about what today we would define concordances between the shape and dimensions of the vessel and the morphology and size of the patient. This is specially the case with the chapter the anatomical alembic in the picture is tied up, that’s to say “De Vase Distillatorio ad Urinam”, on the distillatory vessel for urine. The text will be translated from latin and presented in the article, together with “De Furnace Anatomica”. We will see that Paracelsus ambiguously refers to the anatomical alembic as homunculus, and we know he adopts the same terms in others treatises to indicate the incarnation of a spirit. Does Paracelsus, and Dorneus for him, just mean to indicate the best possible flask size to distill our liquid waste?
To alleviate our disappointment would be enough to think of the importance covered by this unseemly substance in the production of Lapis Microcosmi. But let’s put aside this “prosaic” possibility, for the moment, and look for something more fascinating (as if the production of the Magisterium Magnum was not charming enough).
The anatomical alembic was interpreted by some as an indication of inner processes, that’s to say a man who uses himself as a metaphoric extractor. The paracelsian doctrine of concordances between vessel and morphology/size of the patient, in “Anatomia Corporum ad huc Viventium”, may imply a knowledge well older than Paracelsus. Going back to the scholar Arabic distillers era, we find ideas that may unite fields now irremediably disconnected. For instance, Ibn-Sīnā/Avicenna developed a comparison with the top of the alembic and the process of applying suction cups, with blood conceived as a vehicle of the spirit of man; and in the upper half of the human body, as an alembic’s cap, was gathered the vaporized spirit of the mixture.
This ancient idea seems to have been an integral part of the so called popular erudition until a few centuries ago. The eighteenth century Italian scientist Antonio Vallisneri gathers this lost knowledge in his “Lezione accademica intorno l’origine delle fontane”, or academic lesson on the origin of fountains, 1726, not without having labeled them as superstitions: ” ….our elders believed that any steam rising from the center of our body could go wandering everywhere and for every part, from fiber to fiber, from pore to pore and particularly from the lower abdomen ascended to the head, where, in shape of alembic, was received and, once stored, it was distilled and like rain fell on the lower parts. But the cautious diligence of modern anatomists, proving the opposite, has denied these lies”. But this thinking is still rather distant from the concept we are used to give to the paracelsian homunculus, in the sense of the creation of a tiny man, which rather fits the world of the occult magic (1).
The eighteenth chapter of the Indian poem Rasarnava, or Ocean of Mercury, starts with the sentence: ” A beautiful, shining copper vessel (….) shall be the measure of the man in height and half in diameter” (2). It follows the description of important final operations to be performed inside, which, to a lab alchemist, may sound legitimately operational, and probably to an inner alchemist legitimately tantra. But should we give this Rasarnava actor only a metaphoric role, imagining him as actually a real man, or a real vessel? Wouldn’t be possible to reconnect these far distant concepts?
As said above, historians of science state that Gerard Dorn took inspiration from Leonhard Thurneysser’s idea to compare layers of urine with human body regions, but since Thurneysser was profoundly influenced by the writings of Paracelsus, the idea behind could actually have been of Paracelsus himself. Unlike his contemporaries, instead of spontaneous sedimentation of urine, Thurneysser applied fractionated distillation at different temperatures to determine the elements of sulfur, salt and mercury. But which techniques he used is nowhere described. In the drawing on the left we can see a diagram of the procedure Thurneysser took from Diokles of Karystos (4th Century BC). So circulus representing the head, superficies the thorax, perforatio belly + bowels, and fundus analogous to the urinary tract.
Leonhard Thurneysser (1531-1596) may have been the, or one of the most influential uroscopists in Europe. Uroscopy, in the 16th Century, was almost synonymous with medical diagnosis. In those times physicians were regularly depicted with a urinary vessel (matula) in their hands. Thurneysser was a very interesting figure. Born and raised in Basel, Switzerland, he was trained by his father as a goldsmith. But he soon developed interest in medicine and natural sciences and was a protégé of Johann Huber, a professor of Internal Medicine in Basel. At the age of 18 he started to travel through Europe and even to the Near-East and to Egypt. Everywhere he went he displayed professional abilities as goldsmith, physician, chemist, alchemist, as printer, metallurgist and astrologer. Among his publications there was “Quinta Essentia”, description of connection of alchemy and medicine in the spirit of Paracelsus, just to figure out the admiration he had for the Swiss doctor-alchemist.
We are no longer used to watch masters uroscopists performing their theatrical analysis, as today the latter are carried out through chemical breakdown of our liquid waste. But Alchemy asks us not to forget the importance of our personal raw matters as urine ( together with blood and bones) in the production of Lapis Microcosmi, the human part of the Magisterium Magnum to be joined to Lapis Macrocosmi (3). Is not a chance occurrence that Paracelsus applies anatomical concordances to the distillation tools for those matters. Allegories involving odd combinations man-tools could stand either for Lapis Microcosmi ( so operations on urine, blood etc) or metals, specially the alchemical metal for antonomasia: gold. And there is no contradiction, as Mercurius from human raw matters was even used to “open” gold, but we could alchemically say it was altogether strengthened with gold, our Sun in the Earth (4).
We know that iatro-chemistry in some extent did gather, and conserve, the shadow of the ancient alchemical processes. For instance, still in renaissance times, alchemists did know that they would find the element Earth in the bottom and the Fire on the top of the vessels, and vice versa when the rotation of the processes turned again (5). On the other hand they were perfectly aware of the need for a real science of sizes and shapes to be applied to their laboratory tools and vessels. The failure to follow such did lead to failure in salts volatilization, just to mention one.
My translation from “Anatomia Corporum ad huc Viventium” appendix to Aurora Thesaurus:
“Concerning the height measurement, it must be used a vessel out of white venetian blown glass, substantially transparent, with a spouted cap-helm, straight and evidently 24 inches high and diameter four inches wide, which is indeed the sixth part of the height: the proportion of our vessel will fit to the human body. It is understood that it must contain our spagirical and anatomical homunculus (tiny man) who is evidently hidden in his urine, our real anatomy and fire, which thing is here well described to the inexperienced chemical quacks. It is outlined the cap of our vessel with its spout, head, nose, and neck of our anatomical tiny man. To finish, the body of the vessel under the cap, to which we apply the longitudinal measures, so to distinguish all the areas of the living body, it is good for a living body, if dead no medicine would be beneficial to him.
For those who took a casual glance to the writing, I mean to repeat:” the anatomical homunculus who is evidently hidden in his urine, our real anatomy and fire”. The homunculus is the alchemical fire in the human urine, which Paracelsus called Quintessence. The real essence of a man. The alchemical essence.