In 1929-30, an excavation in Giza uncovered a tomb of Akhethetep, an Old Kingdom courtier. Inside, a false door depicted a woman called Peseshet, presumably the tomb owner's mother, described as the “Overseer of Healer Women”. She was from the Old Kingdom and is the earliest record we have of a female Healer.
Upon my digging for the earliest archetypes of alchemists, I learned about the legend of Merit-Ptah. This legend came to life in 1938 through a book by Kate Campbell Hurd-Mead, a medical historian, doctor and activist, who set out to write a history of women in medicine. She described a female healer who was found in the Valley of the Kings in a secret part of her son’s tomb.
Then I found a paper by Jakub Kwiecinski, PhD, an instructor in the Dept. of Immunology and Microbiology at the University of Colorado School of Medicine and a medical historian. He wanted to verify the Merit-Ptah story by checking ancient Egyptian records. According to the Old Kingdom records he never found the name “Merit Ptah” but he did find the name Peseshet. A case of mistaken identities with a twist.
The Roman philosopher Morieno called her "Mary the Prophetess," and the Arabs knew her as the "Daughter of Plato'', she is also known as Maria the Jewess or Maria Hebraea. Most of what we know about her comes from the Egyptian alchemist Zosimos, who wrote in the late days of the Roman empire, 500 years after Maria lived. She appears in Michael Maier’s “Symbola Aaureae Mensae Duodecim Nationum” (1617) and is painted by Leonora Carrington in The Chrysopeia of Mary the Jewess, (1964).
Just like Cleopatra she is mentioned by Zosimos, practicing in Alexandria around the first and third centuries CE. She is credited with the invention of several kinds of chemical apparatus like stills and reflux condensers and the kerotakis, an early double boiler. The famous alchemist Arnold of Villanova introduced the term “bain-marie” in the 14th century and is still in use today. She is considered by some to be the first true alchemist of the Western world. The 10th century Kitāb al-Fihrist of Ibn al-Nadim cited Mary as one of the 52 most famous alchemists and stated that she was able to prepare caput mortuum, a purple pigment. Michael Maier names her along with 3 other women to be able to produce the philosopher's stone. She is also famously referenced by Carl Jung who uses the Axiom of Maria to symbolize the process of individualization, “One becomes Two, Two becomes Three, and out of the Third comes the One as the Fourth”.
She was known to be able to control the spirits and carry out mysterious transformations. She wrote poetry and was an accurate fortune teller. Teacher Keng was an intellectual and beautiful woman from the 9th century and knew the TAO art of Weidan and Neidan. At one point she was noticed by the Emperor. During their meeting he was so impressed with Keng’s eloquent and confident grace, that he gave her the title Teacher and her own living quarters, seperate from his many wives. In 975, an alchemical adept named Wu Shu wrote in his book on alchemy that she was a daughter of a famous scholar, loved wine, and was a master of the ‘art of the yellow and the white’ at the royal court during the Tang Dynasty.
Icons of Alchemy
These magical women are a new chapter in the “P5D” collection (Painting in the 5th Dimension). The portraits are of femme icons who have contributed to and practiced alchemy through its evolution from antiquity to modern times into chemistry and other sciences.
The ancient art of alchemy as we know it was first practiced in ancient Egypt where the priests and select few were initiated in the exclusive art. After Alexander the Great’s conquest of Egypt, Alexandria became the center of Hellenistic alchemical thought. It was an open and tolerant society that mixed native Egyptians and transplants from around the ancient world. Some like Pythagoras spread and developed these teachings. After his travels to the land of Khem and Mesopotamia, Pythagoras, opened his own academy to initiate the select few in the mystery schools of the ancients.
The word alchemy is derived from the Greek ‘’khemeioa’’ then Arabic ‘’al-kimiya’’ which are both rooted in the Egyptian word kem-it, which means ‘’black’’ or “the land of the black earth”. In China the word alchemy is associated with the terms Neidan and Waidan and takes affiliation with Taoist tradition of inner and outer alchemy dating back to 500 BCE. Chinese alchemy was more focused on medicines rather than gold making although records of edicts against alchemists and gold transmutations did go into effect. Chinese alchemy was more focused on creating the elixir of life.
The first translations of Hellenistic and Egyptian alchemical texts come to Europe from the Islamic Golden Age via Byzantium, and were commissioned by Khalid ibn Yazid around the 8th century. It wasn't until the 15th century that the lost art made its way to Medieval Europe. In 1460 Cosimo De Medici received a manuscript hailing from a monastery in Macedonia. He immediately commissioned his scribe Marsilio Ficino to stop his translation of the Platonic works and translate the discovered Hermetic treatise instead. His translation became available in select circles in 1471 and helped revive ancient axioms throughout the Italian Renaissance. Since then we have been piecing the puzzle together with the most recent Hermetic texts found among the The Dead Sea Scrolls and the Nag Hammadi Codices.
During my search for the philosopher's stone I have read of many men but was curious why there were so few women remembered, since all these men came from a woman, I'm sure their moms knew what their sons were up to. Then my research led me to a book that gave me some clues. I found a few names and those names led me to more of these magical women. Some of the women in this index appear in Judy Chicago’s monumental work, “The Dinner Party”. As part of her installation at the Brooklyn Museum Judy includes a chart that contextualizes the historical timeline of each female archetype from one generation to another. This chart provided a great reference for me as to who was also not on the list. Another work that gave me a source of information and knowledge is Raphael’s “The school of Athens”. This masterpiece focuses on the heritage of Plato and Aristotle and their contribution to secular philosophy, however discreet, one can notice the many women hidden in the background and in plain sight. Raphael did not leave us with information of the people in his fresco and we can only speculate on their identities and their relation to each other.
Most of the women in the P5D collection were unknown to me but their stories, although sometimes brief, were fascinating and I felt compelled to help remember these women and others like them. One can never know why we choose to record some but others fall through with time, until they can be recalled again. Nevertheless, their merit alone stands the test of time. Some left books and manuscripts and some left such an impression that men were sure to take note and never forget.
Each story gave me enough to spark my curiosity and I couldn't help but to start to wonder what they looked like. For some, I had historical references like paintings and prints, but for others I had to employ my imagination. I drew from the texts they left behind and from societies that kept their stories as part of their lore. These females are torch bearers and keepers of a philosophical way of being and seeing the world around us. Their source of magic is their quest to know thyself and the world they lived in and to share that light with others for the benefit of all. I hope through their stories and portraits you can better know a part of yourself.