Heinrich Khunrath

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Khunrath (or Kunrath), Heinrich

(b. Leipzig, Germany, ca. 1560 [?]; d. Dresden [Leipzig?], Germany, 9 September 1605)

thesophy, alchemy, medicine.

It has not yet been proved that Heinrich was a brother of Conrad Khunrath; nor is it known whether he is identical with a certain Henricus Conrad Lips, who enrolled at Leipzig University in the winter of 1570. He matriculated at the university of basel in May 1588 and received the M.D. on 3 September 1588. On several title pages of his books he is called medicinae utriusque Doct. (doctor of theoretical and practical medicine). Later he practiced medicine at least at Hamburg (in 1598) and Dresden.

It is difficult to give even an outline of Heinrich Khunrath’s work, which is largely unknown, in brief compass. He believed himself to be an adept of various spiritual traditions of alchemy dominated by the paracelsian belief in the divine science of medicine as a privilege of the initiated (scientia arcanorum). Beginning with his twenty-eight doctoral theses (defended at Basel on 24 August 1588) he used the then modern Neoplatonic combination of heavenly and earthly processes to develop his ideas of Christianized natural magic (Divino-Magicum). This irrational component in his works attracted readers in the 17th century as well as in later times: as edition of his Amphitheatrum sapientiae appeared as a late as 1900. On the other hand, he held experience alone to be decisive against the opinions of the great philosophers. With this union of theosophical experience and experience from natural observations he tried to shape what was then called physicochemica, that is, a chemical art grounded on general principles and practiced by the physicochemici. They used the artificial method, that is, the application of chemical means to obtain reactions from natural substances, and took as a basis the three principles sulfur, salt, and mercury, together with essentia. The last he made equivalent to the Mosaic “Ruach Elohim,” to the Hermetic anima mundi, to the philosophers’ forma, and to the essentia quinta of the doctrine of elements. He explicitly distinguished the mercury as a philosophical principle mentioned from quicksilver, as did Michael Potier in his time. Needless to say, Khunrath based his ideas on a profound knowledge of the Chymia of his time and of medicine.

Khunrath ardently sought to find and demonstrate the secret, divine primary matter endowed with the universal virtue of ruling all natural processes (hylealischer, pri-materialischer catholischer; Chaos; Chaos Physico-chymicorum catholicus; Allgemeiner, naturlicher, dreieiniger. . .allergeheimbster Chaos; materia prima mundi.) These efforts would, he claimed, afford eternal wisdom. Medical and chemical operations have to be undertaken, he stated, first under the guidance of God, then of Jesus Christ, and finally through the three methods called Christiano-Kabalice, Divino-Magice, and Physico-Chymice. Through prayer and work) orando et laborando) the theosopher has to implement them. The relation to God was an essential feature of the chemistry of Khunrath’s time (see, for instance, Clemens Timpler).

On 1 February 1625 Khunrath’s Amphitheatrum was condemned by the Sorbonne for its mixture of Christianity and magic. It must be admitted that to appreciate the symbolic character of his works requires enthusiasm and admiration for the mystical; a modern reader looking for real relations to medical and chemical reactions would scarcely understand it. Nevertheless Khunrath deserves more than admiration from enthusiasts of the occult. He still awaits the kind of understanding that would derive from an appreciation of the reciprocal role of thought in mediating between the two ranges of spiritual striving and experimental knowledge. The theosopher himself invited his readers to heed the motto of the owl: “Was helffn Fackeln, Liecht oder Brilln, Wann die Leute nicht sehen wölln.” (What good are torches, light, or spectacles, tofolk who own’t see.)


I. Original Works. Mentioned in the text is Amphiatheatrum sapientiae aeternae. . .(Frankfurt am Main, 1653; other eds. are listed in bibliographical sources quoted below); an ed. not mentioned in the literature appeared at Magdeburg in 1608. The many other works and eds. that are not fictitious can be found in the catalogs of the Bibliothéque Nationale, Library of Congress, and British Museum; also consult those of T. Georgi, Allgemeines europäisches Bücherlexicon, 8 vols. (Leipzig, 1742-1758); W. Heinsius, Allgemeines Bücherlexikon oder vollständiges alphabetisches Verzeichnis aller von 1700 bis 1892 erschienenen Bücher, 19 vols. (Leipzig, 1812-1894); and J. Ferguson, Bibliotheca chemica, 2 vols. (London, 1954). Other works extant but not listed in these bibliographies are naturgemes-alchymisch Symbolon, oder, gahr kurtze Bekentnus, henrici Khunrath Lips.: Beyder Artzney Doct.. . .(Hamburg, 1598); Warhafftiger bericht von philosopchao Athanor (Magdeburg, 1599) ; and Confessio dechao physico-chemicorum Catholico (Strassburg, 1699). F. Ferchl (in Chemisch-pharmazeutisches Bio-Bibliographikon, 2 vols., (Mittenwald, 1937-1938) mentions Tractat von gründilicher Curation Tartari, Grieses, Sandes, Steins, Zipperleins an Händen und Füssen (Hof, 1611)—see W. Heinsius 1812). Heinsius and J. F. Gmelin, in Geschichte der Chemie, I (Göttingen, 1797), 570, report on a MS at the library of the University of Jena, entitled “Die Kunst, den lapidem Philosophorum nach dem hohen Liede Salomon’s zu verfertigen.”

II. Secondary Literature. See Claude K. Deischer and Joseph L. Rabinowitz, “The Owl of Heinrich Khunrath: Its Origin and significance,” in Chymia, 3 (1950), 243-250. No detailed historical biography or interpretation of Khunrath’s work is known. A few notes can be found in the following books (listed chronologically): Lynn Thorndike, A History of Magic and Experimental Science, VII (New york, 1958), 273-275—from the few remarks a distorted picture of Khunrath is inferred; J. R. Partington, A History of Chemistry, II (London-New York, 1961), 645; Walter Pagel, Das Medizinische Weltbild des Paracelsus, seine Zusammenhänge mit Neuplatonismus und Gnosis, which is Kosmosophile, I (Wiesbaden, 1962), pp. 71-72, 93, pls 2 and 3; and John Read, Prelude to Chemistry (Cambridge, Mass., 1966), pp. 81-82, 251-252, pl. 52 For older sources of remarks, see Ferguson.

Hans Kangro

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Khunrath, Heinrich (1560-1605)

German alchemist and hierophant of the physical side of the Magnum Opus. Khunrath was certainly aware of the greater issues of Hermetic theorems and may be regarded as a follower of Paracelsus. Born in Saxony in 1560, Khunrath graduated in medicine from the University of Basle at age 28. He practiced in Hamburg and thereafter in Dresden. He died in poverty and obscurity in Leipzig on September 9, 1605 at age 45.

The most remarkable of his works, some of which are still in manuscript, is the Amphitheatrum Sapientiae! Eterne! solius vere, Christiano Kabbalisticum divino magicum. This unfinished work appeared in 1602, although it is believed an earlier edition was printed in 1598. A 1609 edition contains a preface and conclusion by Khunrath's friend Erasmus Wohlfahrt. It is a mystical treatise based on the wisdom of Solomon describing the seven steps leading to universal knowledge. Khunrath's book has been interpreted as the voice of ancient chaos, and its folding plates are particularly odd. In 1625 Khunrath's work was condemned by the Sorbonne for its mixture of Christianity and magic.

Khunrath believed in the transmutation of stones and metals through alchemy and sought the elixir of life. The physician and chemist Conrad Khunrath (ca. 1594) may have been Heinrich Khunrath's brother.