Sunday, 5 May 2013

Guest blog: Robin L. Gordon - 'Searching for the Soror Mystica: the lives and science of women alchemists'

Blurb: The reader will find many types of stories in this account of women practicing alchemy. Diverse subjects are integrated that encompass 16th-17th century politics, religion, scientific inquiry, medicine and even the way love can result in some misguided choices. This book touches upon history of science, biography, classical Jungian psychology, women’s studies, theology and a dash of the occult sciences. Early scientists, or natural philosophers as they were known, did not separate subjects from each other the way modern academics tend to do. They were interested in how the universe worked and that meant studying everything, from astrology and physics to Jewish mysticism and the Christian Bible. They constructed connections that the modern thinker might overlook or more deliberately, dismiss as preposterous. I explore the lives and alchemical practice of some remarkable women as well as comment on the way alchemy fragmented into esoteric studies and modern chemistry.


How the Search for the Soror Mystica Began

Initially, my work began with previous research I had completed in which I examined the psycho-historical significance of the philosopher, Baruch Spinoza, and his relationship with alchemy. I argued that the study of alchemy played a considerable role in developing major scientific theories, a notion supported by research on the history of science. Alchemical study consists of an intertwined relationship between philosophy, theology, matter, spirit, and soul. There is evidence that the emergence of a separatio, a divergence in people’s understanding of the relationship between the ideas of body, soul, and spirit, occurred around the seventeenth century, at the time of the Scientific Revolution; yet, I could not reconcile how that split could take place within the context of an alchemical paradigm that was held by most philosophers of the time such as Boyle, Newton, and numerous other scientists who studied alchemy. Alchemy stated that body, soul, and spirit were bound together and separating them from each other, a step needed in order to finally create the Philosopher’s Stone, was a difficult task fraught with error. In the midst of researching these well-known scientists, I also began noticing tantalizing morsels of information concerning what I came to think of as the ladies of alchemy and science. It seemed that there were many women who studied alchemy and were sometimes referred to as a soror mystica (mystic sister).

Investigating the story of the soror mystica leads the researcher down disparate paths. The term soror mystica usually refers to the female helper of the alchemist. For example, in Psychology and Alchemy, the noted depth psychologist Carl Jung, identified a young woman named Theosebeia as a soror mystica and the helpmate of Zosimos of Panopolis. Possibly the actual sister of Zosimos as well, Theosebeia assisted him in writing one of the first alchemical encyclopedias, Cheirokmeta c. 300 CE. The encyclopedia consisted of 28 books and included references to the work of both Maria Prophitissa and Cleopatra (another alchemical investigator, not necessarily the well-known queen).

Another source of information on the soror mystica is the Mutus Liber (1677). This work consists of a series of 15 engravings that illustrate the steps in accomplishing alchemical work. The author is unknown except by the name, “‘Altus—the high, deep, or profound one.’” The Mutus Liber is unusual in that it depicts the alchemist working alongside a woman, possibly his wife, although the term, soror mystica is not used in the treatise. However, besides the women pictured in assorted woodcuts and engravings in the alchemical literature such as in the Mutus Liber, as well as references to the work of Maria Prophitissa, I initially found very little evidence of female alchemists.

A few unfamiliar names, however, did emerge in my research on the afore-mentioned men. For example, Lady Katherine Ranelagh (1614-1691), sister of the famous scientist, Robert Boyle, opened her home to her brother and his al-chemical colleagues. Perhaps I projected my own scientific curiosity onto her, but I could not help but think that someone who was associated with the stories of their research in natural philosophy would surely be involved with the work itself. There is evidence of her work in what some historians have described as medical chemistry or iatrochemistry. Katherine also studied the Kabbalah, the body of Jewish mysticism, and I wondered if she linked this religious learning to understanding the nature of the Philosopher’s Stone. Does the dearth of written evidence that she worked as an alchemist herself mean that she acted only as an assistant for her notable brother?

Months of combing through the collection at the Huntington Library in San Marino, California, proved fruitful in my search for these women practitioners. For example, Marie Meurdrac was described by historian, Lucia Tosi as the first woman to publish a book on alchemy or early chemistry in La Chymie charitable et facile, en faveur des Dames Charitable [Easy Chemistry for Women]. In addition to providing detailed instructions for the creation of medicines and cosmetic ointments, Marie exhorted her readers to follow her example and dis-tribute these remedies free of charge to the poor, a practice that I eventually learned was common for many of the women alchemists. Marie also offered to teach women in her own laboratory if they felt unsure about attempting the alchemical work on their own.

The stories of women who studied the natural world have been given great-er examination as described elegantly by writers such as Margaret Alic, Lynette Hunter, Sarah Hutton, Merry Weisner and Tara Nummedal. Certainly, there were fewer educated women than men prior to the twentieth century, but many women, nonetheless, found a way to challenge their minds and immerse them-selves in a sincere study of the natural world. Thus, intrigued and invigorated, I continued to look for these elusive sisters in science. I have since compiled the names and stories of many women who were both skillful alchemists as well as researchers in several fields of science. I will describe the numerous ways they manifested their practice that was not always obvious and has been largely dis-regarded in traditional, alchemical literature.

Regarding research method, I employ the hermeneutic and heuristic methods, ones that are often employed in the field of social science and as well, depth psychology. Hermeneutics provides a framework for examining a question from several perspectives. Unlike a straightforward answer to one question, hermeneutics provides a space for exploring the numerous questions that continue to emerge in the course of research. One question leads to another and the resulting work may be quite different than what the researcher first planned. For example, I had not anticipated the significant role played by the study of the Christian Apocalypse that I found in the stories of many alchemists. The reader will find in chapter seven that one cannot disregard that area of study as peripheral. For some of the women in this book, their theology was so connected to their work that the question emerged and had to be addressed.

Another significant element of hermeneutic science will be seen throughout this book. Clark Moustakas describes this type of analysis; “hermeneutic science involves the art of reading a text so that the intention and meaning behind appearances are fully understood.”

Heuristics, as developed by Clark Moustakas, recognizes that the researcher is intimately involved with the subject of the research. There is some disagreement in the research community on how to define heuristics but the simplest way to explain the way I have used it in this book is to state that relating the stories of the women alchemists is one goal but I will also discuss what their stories mean to me. Moustakas explains:

It refers to a process of internal search through which one discovers the nature and meaning of experience and develops methods and procedures for further investigation and analysis. The self of the researcher is present throughout the process and, while understanding the phenomenon with increasing depth, the researcher also experiences growing self-awareness and self-knowledge. Heuristic processes incorporate creative self-processes and self-discoveries.

My work is subjective but I have tried to present alternative views to provide balance; the readers are invited to come to their own conclusions.

Finally, I have similarly approached my research from what is called a psycho historical perspective. Edward Edinger writes, “Everything that happens in the psyche happens for an adequate reason.” The field of depth psychology, which includes the study of the role of the unconscious in our psychic development, is the framework I will use to discuss my interpretation of what I believe occurred in the lives of the women alchemists. It will help the reader to understand that depth psychologists study the whole psyche, the unconscious as well as the conscious ego. Jung was followed by brilliant thinkers such as Marie Louise von Franz and Edward Edinger, who prodded the field further into explorations of how the unconscious is present and active in our daily lives. James Hillman added an archetypal element to depth psychology, characterizing the universe as alive and interconnected.
Depth psychology has a vested interest in traveling back in time to examine historical events through its particular lens. Our culture’s history is a story of our holistic development, the inner is reflected in the outer, or as the old alchemists often quoted, “as above, so below.” History does not unfold disconnected from psyche; it is a reflection, and often an unconscious one, of psyche’s development. Alchemical practices did not develop independently of the culture of the practitioners. It was spoken of in the terms of each generation, often employing its unique religious symbolism be it pagan, Gnostic, Christian, or of the Kabbalah. Carl G. Jung illuminated the analogy of alchemy and psychological development. It is within that context that I plan to reexamine events that are elements lacking in the story of Western evolution and the Scientific Revolution.

Another important aspect of understanding the idea of the psyche is that it has both a feminine and masculine nature, regardless of one’s sex. Balancing the feminine and masculine principles is a goal of individuation or psychic development. Eastern philosophy speaks of the feminine yin and the masculine yang as being active principles in our psyches. It can be argued that macro-entities such as culture and world consciousness contain these opposing aspects as well. The alchemical term coniunctio describes the joining of the two principles, resulting in something that is greater than the sum of the parts. This challenge of achieving harmony with the delicate balance of differing psychic energies will be illuminated in the course of telling the women alchemists’ stories.

Keeping in mind the existence of the masculine and feminine principles of psyche, a curious dichotomy appeared when I began my investigation searching for women alchemists. I sensed my inner psychic feminine principle pointing me strongly in the direction I should follow, via the tantalizing emergence of numerous names of women who appeared to be associated with alchemical work. The outer masculine; however, literally discounted these women. In one in-stance, I was informed via email by a prodigious author of traditional alchemical literature (physical alchemy) that in each case I cited in my email to him, the woman was fictional, inadequately documented, associated with herbal remedies which he stated was not “true alchemy,” or her alchemical status was the product of wishful thinking on the part of Jungians who wish to see coniunctio everywhere whether it exists or not. As I strive to be both a careful scholar and imaginative thinker, I felt that his points needed to be researched further. Yet, I also believed that these women, at a psychic level, were admonishing me that they were not phantasmagoria and furthermore, they cared little whether or not their work had been well documented by academics.

The deeper connection between the masculine and feminine principles of psyche is at the heart of my work. Historical accuracy regarding women’s practice of alchemy and what it looked like is important to me, not for the academic, scholarly, ego-oriented stamp of approval, but for the very fact that there is even a question of whether or not they studied the science. I question why the field of depth psychology, which values the feminine psyche, offers so little information regarding these women; yet, recounts so many stories of their male counterparts? Reading numerous accounts of alchemists results in a long list of male practitioners but only a handful of women. Why would women not have practiced this early chemistry? Why would certain scholars be so sure they did not? Why does one have to prove women studied alchemy as opposed to simply accepting the logic that they must have, considering their other well-known pursuits in astronomy, natural philosophy, and mathematics?

Therefore, I will also examine the nature of what some writers disparagingly label women’s alchemy, as if it were of lesser value, less meaningful, not sufficient. We do have examples of women’s early medicinal work in the rare, surviving copies of their recipe books or “receipts.” These women boiled herbs, made poultices, and processed curative food using the identical operations and implements employed by the alchemists. Alchemical practices such as distillation were, in fact, commonly used by non-alchemists as well as the traditional alchemist that comes to mind when we imagine some fellow working in his laboratory.

The notion that alchemy could manifest in different ways seems clear to me and is a central argument in my work. Robert Multhauf argues that telling the story of chemistry, the child of alchemy, necessitates examining how medicine and chemistry are completed by each other. This entails embracing alchemy as a legitimate science, rather than pretending that the work was an uncommon, occult practice. Margaret Alic discusses the role of alchemy in the manufacture of perfumes and cosmetics, and acknowledges that, “the work of the early alchemists was sometimes called opus mulierum—‘women’s work’” thus diminishing alchemy’s importance. Lynn Thorndike, however, quotes Libavius, a German alchemist who wrote Neo-Paracelsica (1594) and Alchymia (1597). He defined alchemy as “the art of accomplishing masteries and extracting pure essences from compounds by separating the body, while Chymia or chemistry was the second part of Alchymia and concerned with making chemical species.” Thus, alchemy subsumes chemistry rather than vice versa.
W.S.C. Copeman examines the connection between alchemy and the development of the field of medicine. He states, “No learned physician could afford to be without a working knowledge both of alchemy and astrology.” Alchemy and astrology were the foundations for studying the nature of matter and thus, contributed to the development of medical practice. Copeman describes how Queen Elizabeth learned chemistry from her personal astrologer and alchemist, Dr. John Dee. Even Pope John XXI is described as having been a physician and utilizing a laboratory at his Palace in Avignon where he also experimented with alchemy. Copeman points out that subsequent to the Pope’s failure at achieving transmutation, he issued his Papal Bull declaring that alchemy was not acceptable to God. Consequently, these records of men practicing alchemy in conjunction with healing make the use of the term, women’s alchemy, puzzling.

Bio: Robin L. Gordon, Ph.D. is Professor of Education at Mount St. Mary’s College, Los Angeles. Professor Gordon began her career as a secondary science teacher in both public and private schools in Southern California. She completed a Ph.D. in Education at the Claremont Graduate University (1989) and a second Ph.D. in Depth Psychology at Pacifica Graduate Institute (2004). Professor Gordon’s area of research is multi-disciplinary. Recent publications include: “Finding the Philosopher’s Stone: An Essay on Teaching.” In Dennis Slattery & Jennifer Selig (Eds.) Reimagining Education: Essays on Reviving the Soul of Learning (New Orleans, LA: Spring Journal Books, 2009); “My Encounter with the Women Alchemists.” Alchemy Journal, 10(2), pp. 26-33; “Making Use of Story to Teach Science and Mathematics. “Ladder, 10-13, 2007; and Dupuis, Adrian D. & Gordon, Robin L., Philosophy of Education in Historical Perspective (3rd ed). Lanham, Mass: University Press of America, 2010).


Linda Acaster said...

Ooh,I shall pass this on to someone who may well be interested. Thanks for bringing it to our attention.

Rosemary Gemmell said...

What a fascinating study - some of which I'm quite interested in. And what a lot of research!

Savanna Kougar said...

Beyond fascinating, and speaks to the real value of women. Helping others with their gathered knowledge without the pomp, status, and circumstance often so cherished by men.

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