Mesmerism (animal magnetism) – the parascientific theory of Franz Mesmer

Animal magnetism, also known as mesmerism, is the invisible natural power that all living things possess. It can have physical effects, including healing. This theory attracted many followers in Europe and the United States and was popular in the 19th century.


Franz Anton Mesmer was a German physician interested in astronomy. His theory assumes that there is a natural transfer of energy that occurs between all animate and inanimate objects. Mesmer called it animal magnetism. A similar idea was revived by the spiritualists of the new era in modern times. Mesmer’s theory attracted widespread attention between 1780 and 1850 and continued to have some influence until the end of the century. In 1843, Scottish doctor James Braid coined the term “hypnosis” for a technique based on mesmerism.

First steps

In 1774, Mesmer induced an “artificial tide” in a patient who was suffering from hysteria, Franziska Osterlin, by forcing her to swallow a drug containing iron and then attaching magnets to various parts of her body. The woman reported that she felt streams of a mysterious fluid running through her body, and for several hours she got rid of her symptoms. Mesmer did not believe that magnets were helpful in healing. He felt a telepathic connection with the patient.

Mesmer understood health as the free flow of the process of life through thousands of channels in the human body. The disease was caused by obstacles along the way. Overcoming them gave rise to a crisis that restored health. Nature could not do this spontaneously, so contact with the vehicle of animal magnetism was necessary. For example, to cure a madman, you need to induce an attack of madness. The advantage of magnetism was to accelerate such crises without danger.

Mesmer’s predecessor

Robert Fludd was a distinguished English physician with scientific and occult interests. He is remembered as an astrologer, mathematician, cosmologist, Kabbalist, and Rosicrucian apologist.

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Much of Fludd’s writings are centered around the sympathies found in nature between man, earth and the divine principle. His theory of the origin of all things stated: “All kinds and things come first from the dark chaos, then from the Divine light, which eventually gives rise to water.” This last element was also called the spirit of the Lord. In Fludd’s theory, Mesmer got his idea of ​​the “vital fluid”.


The terms “magnetizer” and “hypnotist” have been applied to people who study and practice animal magnetism. They were different from “mesmerist” and “magnetist”, which refer to those who study theory but do not practice it. The etymology of the word “magnetiser” comes from the French “magnetiseur”, meaning a person who has the ability to manipulate “magnetic fluid”.


There was a tendency among British magnetizers to refer to their clinical methods as “mesmerism.” They wanted to distance themselves from the theoretical orientation of animal magnetism based on the concept of “magnetic fluid”. Some magnetizers tried to direct her by “laying on of hands.” The effects of this included various feelings: intense fever, trembling, trance, and seizures.

Magnetic effect

Life fluid

Animal magnetism can cause a wide range of effects, from vomiting to what is called a “crisis.” The goal of the treatment was to hit the body in convulsions to remove the obstacles in the humoral system that were causing the disease. The crisis had two effects:

  1. A state in which the individual is completely reduced under magnetic influence. Although he must appear to have his senses, he still ceases to be an accountable being.
  2. A state of perfect and unimpeded vision. Any opacity is removed. Each object becomes luminous and transparent. It was believed that a critically ill patient is able to see through the body and find the cause of the illness either in himself or in other patients.
Hypnosis session

Skepticism in the romantic era

The study of animal magnetism stimulated the creation of societies of harmony in France, whose members paid to study the practice of mesmerism. Dr. John Bell was a Fellow of the Philosophical Society of the Harmonica of Paris and received a certificate to lecture and teach in England. The existence of societies has made mesmerism a secret art. His lecturers conducted hypnosis sessions. The increased secrecy of the practice has fueled skepticism about this. However, many proponents of mesmerism advertised the ease and opportunity for everyone to acquire the skills to perform their techniques.

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The popularization of animal magnetism was condemned and ridiculed by newspaper magazines and theater during the romantic era. Many considered him nothing more than a theatrical lie and charlatanism.

Telepathic communication

Political influence

The French Revolution catalyzed existing internal political tensions in Great Britain in the 1790s. Some radicals have used animal magnetism not only as a moral but also as a political threat. They accused big politicians and those in power of using hypnosis on the population.

London broker James Tilly Matthews argued that the French entered England through animal magnetism. He believed that “magnetic spies” would invade and subjugate his homeland. This invasion of foreign influences was perceived as a radical threat.

Mastery of magnetism

Mesmerism and Spiritual Healing Practices

Today, some scholars believe that mesmerism shares the concept of vitality and energy with Asian practices such as Reiki and Qigong. However, the practical and theoretical positions of these three theories differ significantly.

During the Romantic period, mesmerism was enthusiastic and terrifying in a spiritual and religious context. Although he was discredited by many as a credible medical practice, he created a place for spiritual healing. Some animal magnetists have advertised their practices emphasizing spiritual rather than physical benefits.

Several researchers, including Johann Peter Lange and Allan Kardek, have suggested that Jesus was the greatest of all magnetizers and that animal magnetism was the source of his miracles.

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