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Searching for the Soror Mystica

The Lives and Science of Women Alchemists

Robin L. Gordon

Early scientists, or natural philosophers as they were known, did not seek knowledge in the disconnected way modern academics tend to do. They were interested in how the universe worked, which meant studying everything from astrology and physics to Jewish mysticism and the Christian Bible. They constructed connections that the modern thinker might overlook or even dismiss as preposterous. In this book, Robin L. Gordon explores the lives and alchemical practice of a number of remarkable women. Searching for the Soror Mystica touches upon the history of science, biography, classical Jungian psychology, women’s studies, theology, and a dash of the occult sciences. Readers will encounter sixteenth to seventeenth century politics, religion, scientific inquiries, medical discoveries, and even the way love can result in some misguided choices. « less more »
University Press of America
Pages: 238Size: 6 x 9
978-0-7618-6055-6 • Paperback • April 2013 • $34.99 • (£23.95)
Robin L. Gordon, Ph.D. is professor of education at Mount St. Mary’s College, Los Angeles. She 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 Claremont Graduate University (1989) and a second Ph.D. in depth psychology at Pacifica Graduate Institute (2004). Recent publications include Philosophy of Education in Historical Perspective, “Finding the Philosopher’s Stone: An Essay on Teaching” in Reimagining Education: Essays on Reviving the Soul of Learning, “My Encounter with the Women Alchemists” in Alchemy Journal, and “Making Use of Story to Teach Science and Mathematics” in Ladder.
List of Figures
Introduction: Who Are the Women Alchemists?
2: Alchemy 101: Connecting an Ancient Tradition to Modern Thinking
3: The Feminine Presence in the Magnum Opus
Maria Hebraea: Inventor
Hypatia of Alexandria: Her Experience of Mortificatio
4: Alchemy, Daemons, and Lovers
Sophie Brahe: Carrier of Sulphur
Anna Maria Zieglerin and Her Daemon
Susanne Katharina von Klettenberg: Goethe’s Teacher and Maggid
5: Healers Extraordinaire: Seventeenth Century Alchemical Sisters and Their Recipe Books
Marie Meurdrac: La Chymie
Isabella Cortese and Her Secrets
Alathea Talbot, Countess of Arundel: Natura Exentera
Lady Katherine Jones née Boyle, Viscountess Ranelagh: A Force of
Her Own
Elizabeth Grey, Countess of Kent: Is it Alchemy or Not?
Comparing the Women Alchemists’ Recipe Books with More Traditional Examples of the Genre: Mappae Clavicula, Giambattista Della Porta, Hannah Wooley, Diana Astry, William Lovell, and Robert Boyle
6: The Natural Philosophers
Margaret and Anne Clifford: The Alchemist and the Diarist
Mary Sidney Herbert, Countess of Pembroke: In the Sidney Circle
Anne Conway: Prima Materia and Consciousness
Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle: A Genuine Borderlander
7: Alchemy and the Apocalypse Intertwined
Dorothy Moore: Seventeenth Century Feminist
Katherine Boyle, the Hartlib Circle, and the Royal Society
The Millenarian Movement
8: Emerging Themes from the Work of the Women Alchemist
Mary Anne Atwood: In Between
Closing the Circle: Coniunctio, Mystic Sisters and The Chrysopeia of Mary the Jewess
Conclusion: Finis Coronat Opus
I have been waiting for this book on the history of female alchemists to be written for at least forty years. These women who explored the alchemical process in the past were the ‘wise women’ of history, not witches, but alchemists and scientists. To read Robin Gordon’s account of their lives and of her own process enables us to make this important encounter with the visionary female wisdom figures she refers to as the Soror Mystica.
Gloria Feman Orenstein, professor of comparative literature and gender studies, University of Southern California

In the past few decades, science historians have explored the depths to which natural philosophy and alchemy were intertwined before the development of chemistry. The study and practice of alchemy was omnipresent in the work of mathematicians and physicists such as Isaac Newton, physicians such as Paracelsus, and anonymous mystics. Gordon (education, Mount St. Mary's College, Los Angeles) provides the welcome reminder that women were just as aware as men of the alchemical tradition. After a general overview of the practice, she discusses Maria the Jewess and Hypatia as examples of ancient alchemists, and Sophie Brahe, Anna Maria Ziegerlin, and Susanne Katharina Von Klettenberg as individuals who exemplified the separation between physical alchemy and spiritual alchemy that developed over the long term. She then covers healer-alchemists who prepared medicines and recipe books, natural philosophers such as Anne Conway and Margaret Cavendish, and alchemists fascinated with kabbalah and Christian beliefs about the apocalypse. Some women fit multiple categories. Gordon relies mainly on secondary sources and does not compare her sources or combine them to derive new insights. Instead she reports from each source sequentially. Overall, an interesting read, but some discussion of why the women covered are worth remembering would have been valuable. Summing Up: Recommended. Lower-division undergraduates through researchers/faculty.