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Female Alchemists

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From: (Adam McLean)

Some weeks ago I met an art historian who was researching alchemical symbolism and who asked me about female alchemists. I truly could not immediately call to mind more than three, Maria the Jewess and Miriam the prophetess, and Perenelle wife of Flamel - all of these more mythical figures than real individuals. There is of course Leona Constantia who wrote 'Sonnenblume der Weisen', 1704, but I cannot easily recall any other woman alchemists. Can anyone help my memory on this point? It would be good if I could draw up a list.

Adam McLean

Not much use here but there's also Rebecca wife of Thomas Vaughn, Lady Anne Conway might be thought of as a spiritual alchemist.

There is the tract attributed to Cleopatra- interesting that it was attributed to a woman.

There is a "mistress oglevy" described as a "rare chymical genetlewoman" and a Lady Judith Barrington" mentioned in Stephen Clucas *The correspondence of a XVII-century gentleman:Sir Cheney Culpepper...* AMBIX vol 40 p.149 1993

John Aubrey writes Mary Countess of Pemboke "was a great Chymist, and spent yearly a great deale in that study"

The mother of Lucy Hutchinson, who was the wife of the superintendant of the Tower of London may well have learnt alchemy from Sir Walter RalieghI quote from *Memoirs of the Life of Colonel Hutchinson* everyman's edition 1908 p12.

"Sir Water Raleigh and Mr Ruthin being prisoners in the Tower, and addicting themselves to chemistry, she suffered them to make their Rare experiments at her cost, partly to comfort and divert the poor prisoners, and partly to gain the knowledge of their experiments, and the medicines to help such poor people as were not able to seek physicians. By these means she aquired a great deal of skill"

A Tomazine Scarlet was imprisoned and fined by the College of Physicians for using stibium in 1588 which probably means she was Paracelsian in orientation, though she claimed to be illiterate, so this must be doubtful.

Another doubtful attribution must be the wife of Richard Mathew's- the Mathew's who got into the pamphlet war with George Starkey about the "mathew's pill"

Some of these might be a bit far fetched but maybe they are of some use.

Jon Marshall

Regarding your recent post on female alchemists you write:
<< and Perenelle wife of Flamel - all of these more mythical figures than real individuals.>>
I have never thought of Pernelle as mythical, but rather as a good, solid woman of some good sense. I think that the Nicolas/Pernelle pair has taken on something of a symbolic importance among alchemists, in that it is representative of the union of the 2 natures which is necessary in the Work.

I have a bit of 'oral history' for you, that I cannot verify, but it comes from my French friends: Pierre Curie was a modern alchemist, pursuing theGreat Work, and pitchblende was chosen as a 'prime matter'. He worked with Marie on this. After his death by accident, which was due in part to his progressive radiation poisoning, 'some people' came to Marie with a proposal. Given the beginnings of a sort of feminism in Europe, it was necessary to have a national hero who was a woman. 'Clean up your work, get rid of the vestiges of Hermeticism and Alchemy, publish it as pure physics...'.

Again, a bit questionable.


Russ House

Date: Thu, 13 Jul 1995 00:41:20 -0400 From:

And along with Jon Marshall's revealing account of Elizabethan mystic lady chemists, some homage must be paid to the nameless priestesses of the Eluesinian Mysteries and their prehistoric forebears of the feminine cults who since before prehistory were guardians of a vital pharmocopeia. At the climax of the Eluesinian rites of the mystae the Kernos was passed around holding the mystic mixture of herbs, grain and wine. The grain was generally the fungus ergot, contained of lysergic acid and which was guarded by women as an agency to *Epoptai*, the moment of revelation. But it was also a powerful obstetric chemical for how it was anti-hemorrhagic, caused the uterus to contract and safely expell the afterbirth. The major cause of death at childbirth was hemorrhage and which continued as such after ergot of rye, wormwood (Artemisia Absinthe), marrebore, herbarum mater and other mugwort type plants were banished by the Church. Naturally, the hallucinogenic attributes of such plants were understood and figured in various rituals of the feminine cults. Be sure, despite such repression, the witches of Europe maintained the obstetric phamocopaiea and without question it was passed on to the lady alchemists of a later time. Such activity remained a guarded secret because dangerous to practice. wonder then, the State and Church approved practice of witch hunting. The secret drugs not only successfully competed with the deadly male medical approach to childbirth but offered some hope for the prospects of women faced with the grave risk of bearing a child. In view of womens' station, this would never do! Wonder then more, that clerical and spiritual sycophants and modern medicine alike have kept this a well guarded secret.

So lets hear more about women alchemists (if you dare!) and less about the vanities of modern feminists who are hardly in charge of the vital pharmacopaeia, indeed, have broken the chain from pre-history to the present by which the feminine cult offered life-saving relief to their sisters in labour and in the cause of childbirth (note: Dr. Albert Hoffman, "discovered" LSD while attempting to synthesize the obstetric attributes of ergot and the like. So well was the secret of the feminine pharmocopaeia surpressed that the good doctor was shocked when he got high as a kite and tripped the light fantastic. He was neither having a baby at the time or about to see the light as a mystae of the Mysteries).

Bernard X. Bovasso


Some others that might be included are:

Theosebeia and Zosimos

Mrs. Atwood and her father

Jane Leade and John Pordage

Far fetched but what about Mrs. March and Elias Ashmole