According to tradition Christians learned alchemy from the Arabians who adopted it from the Egyptians since in Arabic the term meant “matter of Egypt,” Al-Khemeia, “Land of the Moon,” and ancient name of Egypt. Since adopting it from the Egyptians the Christians believed or later rationalized alchemy was invented by Thoth, or Hermes, or the Virgin Mary.
To many it may come as a surprise to know there were feminine alchemists even during the medieval period. . One of the oldest Greek alchemy works entitled Gold-making of Cleopatra contains alchemy symbols of gold, silver, and mercury, and perhaps a lead-copper alloy, and arsenic. Another text Dialogue of Cleopatra and the Philosophers, perhaps in the second century CE, gives examples of alchemical allegories which are difficult to interpret. It is almost certain that neither work was written by Cleopatra, but that the composers chose to put her name on the works. This shows there was some feminine influence among the alchemists. Mary the Jewess, in the third century, was one of the famous. Some hold she was Mariam or Maria, the sister of Moses, but in reality this seems unlikely. Mary discovered the distillation of alcohol in the time of the Caliphate, and invented the double-boiler, still called bain-marie “Mary’s bath” in France. During the Renaissance many alchemists were persecuted as witches. Julius, Duke of Brunswick, was burned alive in 1575 in the iron chair because she could not confess how base metals were turned into gold.
Sexual symbolism entered alchemy as it progressed further toward mysticism. There were allegories involving the copulation or marriage of the King and Queen, the union of opposites, this was especially true of the incestuous relationship between the brother and sister. The King, representing the material, swallowed the son who represented the spirit; this whole allegory represented the spirit dying to enter matter so it could be renewed into something finer. Christian alchemists say the son as symbolizing Christ who died so man could be reborn spiritually. Chaotic prime matter, prima materia, was symbolized as the Mother because all things originate from it. Prime matter like the earth and Adam, whom Eve came from, were thought to be hermaphroditic.
It is said these sexual allegories were not clear because the alchemists did not fully understand them and/or wanted to obscure the sinister side of nature. The latter is probably the more of the truth on the matter. The alchemists, as best as they could with their knowledge, dealt with nature, and nature was considered evil by the Church, therefore they had to conceal their activities. They recognized the sexual activities of nature which the Church called sinful; to willfully admit to them or condone them would have placed these men and women in grave danger.
But the sexual imagery that soon entered the texts was not easily disguised. The alchemical allegory usually depicted masculine and feminine principles in union such as “a Hermaphrodite born of two mountains, Mercury and Venus.” The sun and moon were personified as naked male and female figures with the moon saying to her spouse, “O Sun, thou dost alone if I am not present with my strength, as a cock is helpless without a hen.”
When many alchemists gradually recognized that the transmutation of base metals such as lead and copper to silver and gold was beyond their power their royal art became more mystic in assuming a religious aspect in the spiritual realm; if we cannot make gold we will make golden human beings. The alchemical art about this time took a Gnostic twist. The alchemists sought to gain divine power and wisdom from Sophia, the Mother Goddess and consort of the Gnostic good but remote God, whose name signifies wisdom. Valentin’s L’Azoth des philosophes depicts her as a crowned, fish-tailed Aphrodite rising from the sea, spouting streams of milk and blood from her breasts. This is a direct copy of the Hindu representation of the virgin Maya, mother of the world. Alchemists referred to her as the Siren of Philosophers, “born of our deep sea (Maria), who pours milk and blood from her paps.”
Alchemy was filled with sexual allegories, these are just a few. Gnosticism added more as has been noted with its Mother Goddess Sophia whose name was thought to mean secret wisdom. Gnosticism so influenced alchemical thinking that some referred to the philosopher’s stone as the Sophistical Stone. Sophia was called the Mother of Wisdom, thus linking the Madonna with the pagan Goddess.
When such things were transpiring within the communities of alchemists it is no wonder that the Church took a condemning view of alchemy. As previously mentioned the Church was anti-nature, and it also was anti-sexual. These were not the only issues the Church had with alchemy. From almost its conception the Church was anti-Gnostic; being as influenced by Gnosticism as alchemy was the Church would be bound to be against it.
Beginning with the Gnostic philosophy of “know thyself” alchemy began changing; not only did it changed but its goals also changed. Even though alchemy retained its mysticism it attracted more adherents with its teaching of self-improvement. This self-improvement teaching included everyone, women as well as men. The work of the psychiatrist Carl G. Jung demonstrated the benefits of combining alchemy with psychoanalysis. An underlying principle of both disciplines is the unification of opposites. Opposites were united in alchemy to make purer metals; in psychoanalysis opposites through the process of confrontation were smoothed out and united to produce a more functional personality.
Even though Jung retained a large part of the Christian teaching in Jungian psychology, this does not have to be an absolute. Those not believing in Christianity can employ alchemical techniques as well to reach a higher self. For example, whereas for Jung the death, decomposition, of old metals and the resurrection of purer ones symbolized the resurrection of Christ for a non-Christian is may symbolize the resurrection of Horus or Adonis; the most important concept is these resurrections symbolize the birth of a new person.
To bring about such a resurrection simply is not a matter of willing it, it has to be believed and worked at too. Some say alchemy even yet is a difficult discipline to master, one needs also to know astrology, Tarot, and other disciplines too in order to foster self-improvement. Partially this is true, the more knowledge one has about himself and his relation to his environment the easier it will be to perfect oneself. Astrology demonstrates one’s relationship to the planets; and Tarot will demonstrate one’s relationship to life, particularly the specific problems which one is incurring in life. As in alchemy, one is dealing with both the macrocosm and the microcosm. Man and his world should be in harmony for man to function properly.
Such proper balance does not just happen. It requires desire, wanting it to happen, belief, believing it will happen, and work, imaging and perfecting ways that cause it to happen. Referring to Jung’s typical comment concerning psychoanalysis, an active imagination is required. This also requires belief. When Witches, for example, enter the magic circle to sing and chant to materialize to cone of power in order to receive a benefit, they must belief that whatever they have asked for has already occurred.
With an active imagination one is not afraid to think unconventionally. In fact one who thinks independently gains knowledge and has courage to break taboos when necessary. In this way the pagan, or non-Christian, like the alchemist views nature as it is. All of the sexual allegories were not inserted in alchemy just for their sake alone. No, they described the hermaphroditic nature as it was, and not as evil as the Church described it. This alone demonstrates why Jung found alchemy a companion to psychotherapy since they both teach the person that it is all right to accept him or herself as they are and not like someone else says they should be.
Simply said, modern alchemy, by whatever means used, is based on the simplest principle that everyone leaned in childhood from parent and teacher: Never say can’t. When one says, I can’t, he stops trying. Many people have been made afraid to try to advance themselves by being told to accept what they have; this leads to stagnation, a mark of social rigidity. A.G.H.
Walker, Barbara G. The Woman’s Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets. New York, HarperCollins, 1983. pp. 18-22.
Jung, C. G. Psychology and Alchemy. 2nd. ed. (Transl. by R. F. C. Hull). “The Collected Works of Jung” Vol. 12. Bollingen Series XX. Princeton, NJ. Princeton University Press. 1970. pp. 319-320.
Fabricius, Johannes. Alchemy: The Medieval and Their Royal Art. London. Diamond Books. 1976. pp. 51, 57-59.