Soul Food: Paracelsian Spiritual Mummy and the Virtues of Ingredients

by Jennifer Park

What is it in food that nourishes us? In a curious Paracelsian treatise, Medicina Diastatica, translated into English from the Latin by Ferdinando Parkhurst and published in 1653, it is written that that which is proper for food must be “alible and vitall, because our life and spirit cannot be otherwise sustained, then by the Analogicall and vitall spirit of another” (6). This vital spirit is one that Paracelsus aligns with what he calls spiritual mumie, which can be “taken from a living body” and “separated and prepared accordingly” (8-9).

To explain how the power of this transferable—and ingestible spiritual mummy works, and where to locate it in matter and vitality, Paracelsus compares its virtues to male seed. In the same way that the “seed of man” is “neither part of the man, nor any substantiall of the parts of the same body, but only a power or certain form descending into the Testicles,” and furthermore “augmented by the mechanick and subordinate spirits, and…endued with a multiplying faculty of it self in the place and time appointed by the Liturgie and rule of Nature,” so too spiritual mumie “cannot be part of…the body it selfe; but must of necessity be a kinde of…addition or trajection,” which “dissipates its self, not only amongst the utmost parts of the body, but even into the best disposed matter” (11). In other words, Paracelsus’s spiritual mummy takes on the characteristics of the soul.

It is thus that the soul, or spiritual mummy, “dissipates” itself in matter to be ingested: it “disposeth it self into the alimentall accession of new matter” (12). For Paracelsus, then, spiritual mumie is the key to why various ingredients and simples embody the virtues that they do, and why they might be used in specific types of recipes and remedies, or avoided in other ingestibles for humans. The text mentions that there is a “proper aliment or food ordained for every kinde of Creature” (13). As such, certain animals are able to find nourishment from plants known to be poisonous to humans. For example, a certain kind of fly is able to “feed on the leaves of Napell, by some called Wolfebane,” the starling finds nourishing “Hemlock, which is poysonous to man,” and the quail can feed on “the hearb Hellebore that is noxious to men” (13).

In terms of such “proper aliment,” it is indeed the “Mumie” of the creature which “requireth the proper Mumie of another for the conservation of it self,” in the same way that it was thought that the consumption of bones was needed for bone growth, and the same with flesh for flesh (13). Having made this point, Paracelsus provides a number of recipes or remedies that are in dialogue with analogies in nature that demonstrate the ways in which such spiritual mumie is transferred. The acquiring of mummy is thus essential to curing “Phthysick (or Consumption of the Lungs),” which requires “eating the Lungs of a Fox” for its cure (13-14). So, too, the author reports a remedy from Galen preserving the individual from epilepsy, or the falling sickness, requiring that the “Masculine Paeony” be “hung about one after the manner of an Amulet (or Charm) being gathered in a Balsamick or proper time” (14). These recipes or remedies enable the author to make an argument about how the virtues of spiritual mummy, or the soul, works: it is the “aforementioned faculties or…powers” that “lay hidden in and with the Nerves and strength of its operation,” found in “the Mumie of the Paeony, Rose, or of any other thing” (15).

Martin Schongauer (German, about 1450/1453 – 1491), Studies of Peonies, German, about 1472 – 1473, Gouache and waterolor, 25.7 x 33 cm (10 1/8 x 13 in.), 92.GC.80. Image Credit: The J. Paul Getty Museum.

Using these examples, the author seems to attribute to Mumie what others have called sympathies, and provides answers to such mysteries as love potions work to “allure the affections and minds towards this or that party,” as well as provides the explanation for why an ancient fable that recounts how “Tigres and other wilde Beasts have been made tame by being nourished with humane milk,” may not have been simply a fable (15). It is, the author affirms, “Mumie” which is “the cause, foundation, architect, and medium of these things” (15). And thus is mummy Paracelsus’s explanation for the virtues of different natural simples that make them useful in various recipes. Though materia medica and drugs lost their medicinal virtues over time, as Tillmann Taape has examined, Paracelsus’s emphasis is on how despite being “pluckt up and dryed, or in any wise dead,” herbs and plants and other simples are able to retain the virtues of the spiritual mummy that was “first infused into them” (16). Just as we can ingest in “every root of Poeony” what Paracelsus calls an “Antepilepticall faculty” (16) that preserves the consumer from the falling sickness, so too we, and our own spiritual mummy, can continue to be nourished by other herbs and ingredients “till their Mumie is wholly extinguished” (17).


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