My class was held at the most progressive school in a consortium of left coast seminaries. I was supposed to sell it as scholarship with a social-activist edge. So I was trying to ask questions to provoke my students into exploring ways that historical study of Alchemy and Art can inform our own contemporary practice and activism. I was not prepared for it all. One of the biggest problems I have been haunted by cropped up when a student kept asking “where are all the women?” –which I agreed is an excellent question. Any study of
historical religious, esoteric, or proto-scientific traditions and texts will appear male-centric. The good news, I said, was that Alchemy at least has a great many interesting female historical characters available for study. The legendary inventor of Alchemy in Antiquity was Mariah the Jewess.
Women wrote some of the most important occultist interpretations of alchemy in the 19th century. Think Mary Anne Atwood and H.P. Blavatsky. Many leading alchemical theorists in contemporary occultism and magic are female. We could profitably talk about Starhawk, Sandra Tabitha Cicero or any of the formidable post-Golden Dawn ladies if we want to get into contemporary “Alchemy.” (there are of course the Women of the Golden Dawn who have already merited a book of their own). I tried to bring all that up but I did not succeed in convincing my interlocutor that the study of alchemy isn’t just another odious example of the patriarchal problem. I’ve been haunted by the difficulty of justifying this study of Alchemy+Art ever since. It reminds me of the people who can’t understand why I would want to study an outdated science. I would love to be able to get through to them and share my enthusiasm, and hope one day to prove that the study of Alchemy and Art is indeed worthwhile, even if only as an academic exercise but also–and perhaps especially–as a source of inspiration for our own practice.
I had been inspired a great deal by the work of my friend Allison Coudert, UCD Religious Studies Prof. who moved from excellent books on Alchemy, Christian Kabbalah, and Leibniz to feminist study of 19th century religion. She turned me onto the excellent Signs feminist art analysis of Atalanta Fugiens, as well as
the work of William R. Newman on “Alchemy, Domination and Gender.” Many of the best scholars working today on Alchemy and Magic are women, and my work has been profoundly inspired by them. My MA thesis was inspired by the work of Deborah Harkness on the alchemist-neoplatonist-conjurer John Dee. My friend M.E. Warlick is a great example of a female Art History scholar confronting the problems of violence represented in Alchemical and Surrealist art. I’ve had the good fortune to attend an alchemy conference where I met amazing women scholars like Pamela Smith, Tara Nummedal, Jennifer Rampling, to name just a brilliant few who are on the cutting edge of historical study. But enough about me…