The Goddess And Alchemy
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Author: Theresa C. Dintino
Posted: July 10th. 2005
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Is Alchemy a Goddess Religion? Is the ‘big secret’ of Alchemy that it has a strong base in Goddess Spirituality, in the female mysteries? As my research into this ancient spiritual tradition grows, I become more confident that this is the case. Alchemy is the experiential study of the cycle of life, death and rebirth at the spiritual, elemental and human levels. It is concerned with the process of transmutation of matter from one form to another and the transmission of the universal life force, symbolized by the ankh, carried by Isis, bestower of the universal life force – the Goddess.
Its defining mythology is the Egyptian story of Isis and Osiris, twins who are also lovers, brother and sister God and Goddess, and Isis’ regeneration of Osiris after his murder. After she resurrects him Isis performs a sexual act, impregnating herself with new life, their hawk headed son Horus, who, in alchemy and Hermetic tradition appears to be identified as a Christ – anointed one.
Seth kills his brother Osiris by tricking him into a wooden coffin he has prepared especially for him and throwing it into the Nile. Isis and her sister Nephthys, grieving and lamenting, go in search of their brother. Isis was so associated with mourning in Egypt, at funeral services women were hired to call out loud wailing lamentations as the body was escorted to the grave. They would dress as Isis and Nephthys.
After she has found him, Seth retrieves his body and kills him yet a second time, by dismembering him and scattering his 14 body parts throughout the Nile Delta. Isis recovers 13 of them. She reassembles him, however, one essential part is missing, his penis. Isis creates one, which she reattaches and then uses to impregnate herself, making her a creator as well as regenerator.
This part of the myth echoes the Grail legends and the woundedness of the Fisher King whose ‘wound’ is often alluded to as a sort of ‘impotence’ that creates the wasteland. Though often overlooked and omitted, the significance of the Goddess fashioning a new penis cannot be underestimated. Male virility is rooted in relation to the feminine. Falling out of relation to the Goddess renders impotence.
Where has the penis gone? Has Seth, overestimating its importance, done something extra tricky with it? In one version of the myth a crab eats it. Without the influence of the Goddess it is simply food, mortal, earthly. None of this is any matter to Isis who simply makes a new one. This is a radical point. With the penis she has created she impregnates herself, almost flaunting its ability to function as well as the old one, perhaps better, since she had no child before. Clearly to Egyptians this was a key element of the story for when men were buried, as part of the embalming procedure; they were buried with a penis crafted out of wood or clay to be like Osiris, the first embalmed, and now the God of the afterlife.
Many of the themes of the Isis/Osiris myth can be deconstructed into the alchemical process of life, death and regeneration recreated in the alchemist’s lab. The two deaths, twice dead, may have significance to the experiments carried out on base metals; first death in wood and water, second by dismemberment, disbursement and reconstruction, the addition of something new, divinely inspired, leading toward resurrection, rebirth. The alchemist herself carries out the role of Isis, seeking out the proper ingredient, bringing it to the appropriate point of decay, breaking it into separate components, then ‘mating’ male with female to create a new metal – a new form of matter. If one is a true magus, these processes are happening on a spiritual/soul level as well. The alchemist experiences death, life, rebirth, witnesses the magical properties of transmutation in the bain-marie as well as her own bodymind. In her rebirth she possesses new wisdom, the secret of life, which will inform her actions in her present life journey.
Most significantly Isis is a Bird Goddess, resonating strongly with the shamanic tradition that preceded dynastic Egypt and remained a continuous part of the spiritual life of Egyptians under the guise of initiation rites in temples. It may also account for the animal imagery in their Pantheon. By flapping her magical wings Isis brings the air of life, wind, sacred breath, back into Osiris’ nostrils. Her wings are also that with which she embraces one at death, an escort to the otherworld. Her association with death and decay are is important as her Creatrix/Regeneratrix qualities in Egyptian mythology as well as alchemical and Hermetic tradition. Her wings make her transcendent of her mortal role of wife and mother. Her wings are also strongly associated with the BA or spirit of Egyptian belief.
Underlying the more frequently discussed themes of the myth of Isis/Osiris is one that does not receive much attention but is equally important. It is the theme of love and passion. The passion of Isis, her intense love for Osiris, which drives her to perform the miraculous. Passion and love, for lack of a better word, are key elements of alchemy – love displayed on a universal level, on an alchemical level – attraction, magnetism – all the many ways that love appears in the Universe. Is the Universal Life Force – the ankh – that which we thoughtlessly call love? Love combined with passion, an active, moving love. By this I mean love in the broadest possible context of the word. I mean that which brings us forth into life, that keeps us engaged with our lives, with each other, that which makes a tree grow and a shoot of grass turn green, the reaching towardness of love, the reaching out that is love, the yearning for life displayed by nature at every moment, the temporary blossoming of a flower into its utmost fullness of expression and the bee that comes to drink of that display of love in wild abandon.
It is not my intention to bring the love of Isis for Osiris to the level of everyday human love, although that is certainly held within this broader context. The fact that they are siblings and lovers already displays two possible kinds of love. We must remember that they fell in love in the womb; their love is primordial, original love, a love formed before their more human/mortal love. Isis and Osiris, born of the same womb, are essentially One, as are we all, born of the same original Mother, in the great cosmic womb, and bringing us to the main alchemical premise and baseline belief in the Unity of All.
The Goddess also figures prominently in alchemy in its concern with primal matter, the primal matrix from which all else may be transmuted. All emerges out of this One, this original originator. Before creation, before “before, ” there is the One, the All.
In the alchemist’s lab the primal matter - the base matter which all else can be combined with through various procedures of heat and extraction to recreate matter – the same matter but in a different form, is a secret form of mercury. It is frequently indicated by a hollow oak tree with a fountain gushing from it, the original fountain of life; the tree always a symbol of the Goddess, the fountain – the life force, water, the well of the Goddess. Is this hollowness of the tree also indicative of Osiris’ new penis re-created by Isis, this original tool of regeneration? Perhaps it was fashioned of wood or a metal that had been through an alchemical process all its own. Much of the symbolism is sexual and indeed many scholars believe that important rituals and initiatory processes of the Alchemists, Hermeticists, and Gnostics were also sexual in nature. Ancient Goddess traditions include sexuality in their rites – recognizing it as a sacred gift with which humans are able to participate in the cycle of life, death and regeneration – the vast creativity of the cosmos.
One of the alchemical symbols many of us are familiar with that gives a direct indication of covert Goddess worship is the Black Madonna, associated with Hermeticism, Gnosticism, Sophia, Mary Magdalene but most of all with Isis.
In his book, Le Mystère des Cathédrales, Fulcanelli, an alchemist who achieved the Great Work – the height of alchemical practice – in the 20th Century, explains that Isis is the Black Madonna, “the Virgin about to give birth...Isis before conception... earth before its fecundation and which the rays of the sun are soon going to bring to life.” (p.57-58) He calls her a theogany; Greek for God begetting. It is she who came first, the original Mater, Mother, Mother of the Gods, the primal matter.
Fulcanelli equates this aspect of the Goddess with the creative darkness, stating that the primordial condition – essential of any generation to take place - is the total absence of any solar light. (p.136)
The Darkness. Darkness associated with sleep, dreams, seed germination, the molten center of the earth, the strata of inner earth, the place where minerals are forged, where ancient sunlight gets transformed. From modern physics we know that, as ancient alchemists believed, earth and our entire solar system is transformed sunlight – its conception and subsequent birth the result of a colossal supernova explosion that took place some 4.6 billion years ago. Supernova stars are master alchemists creating all the elements with fusion at their core through the process of their life cycle and eventual imploding explosion. Deep within the earth these virginal elements again transmute themselves into rich mineral streams.
Caves, the darkness of caves, places of human ritual through the millennia, temples built to embody/contain the darkness, the complete and total darkness of the womb. In the temples of Isis, incubation within one of the dark inner chambers was one of the initiation rites. It was believed that Isis would come to you in a dream, providing information, answers to questions, divination. Temples of dreaming were prevalent among early Goddess worshiping cultures where the darkness was honored as equally important to the light. The Goddess, associated with the moon, lunar consciousness, held you within the darkness which was a safe place, not to be feared. Honoring darkness seems to go hand in hand with recognition and respect for the Goddess, which translates into overall value for women and the female mysteries at the cultural, political and socio-economic levels. On the island of Malta (circa 4000 BCE), where great colossal statues of Goddesses still stand, is the underground hypogeum. In this deep subterranean temple dug out by antler picks was found the famous Dreaming Goddess: a large woman asleep or dreaming on a small boat-like structure. She wears typical priestess attire, breasts exposed and a bell shaped skirt. Interestingly Isis was associated with ships and boats. There was a Spring festival in which she was placed in a boat and libations were thrown to the sea. In Egyptian belief, there was also a boat that took you to the otherworld, again associated with the watery realm, the feminine. In Minoan Crete where the Snake Goddess ruled supreme (6000-500 BCE) the temples had rooms which archaeologists labeled pillar-crypts — deep sunken rooms, completely dark, with one pillar running up the center, again used for ritual and initiatory purposes.
According to Fulcanelli, most of the Black Madonnas, which were originally Isis/Cybele/Artemis, were kept in crypts below the cathedrals they were associated with — most being called Notre-Dame. These underground Goddesses acted as a nurturing, sustaining, esoteric force supporting the more grandiose exoteric structure above, again reminiscent of the molten generative center at the core of the earth. Scientists now believe the molten core of the earth plays a vital part in sustaining the temperature and supporting life on the planet and was a key factor in earth becoming a living planet. Planets without this molten generative core do not go on to create and sustain life. This type of heat is qualitatively different than that generated from solar rays.
Once located in abundance in Europe, especially the South of France, most Black Madonnas were destroyed or stolen, some were painted or bleached white—almost all were brought to the above. The Black Madonna is most often depicted with a child in her lap, or at her breast, thus the association of these statues with the Virgin Mary. But she could just as easily be Isis with Horus whose similar image preceded Christianity by thousands of years.
The mother/child connection is yet another representation of universal love and care, the love of a mother for her child, the Goddess for her devotees, the earth for her many creations. The mother and child is also a symbol of the procreative, regenerative power of the Goddess, the earth mother, the fecundity of primal matter and again darkness.
Some believe that the Black Madonna was the overt worship of Mary Magdalene as the wife of Jesus, holding their child, which the orthodox church in the 12th century deliberately transferred over to the Virgin Mother to distract attention from this other, in their view, more problematic woman. Whether one believes in the marriage of Jesus and Mary Magdalene or not, it is becoming increasingly clear, even from examination of the standard gospels, that Mary Magdalene was the apostle who anointed Jesus for his death and was there to care for the body and indeed pray and assist his transition to the otherworld at the tomb. She seems to have been a priestess (probably of Isis) who was guiding him through a shamanic, initiatory process. Thus her association with the Black Madonna makes sense on many different levels.
Mercury is represented by the snake in Alchemy, the snake a representation of the Goddess — the cosmic creative force — throughout cultures of all types and at all ages on the planet. A symbol of wisdom, transformation, transmutation, often a Creator Goddess who was there at the beginning — the snake and double helixes of the DNA — again associated with the ankh — the creative, procreative universal life force.
In, The Goddess in the Gospels, Margaret Starbird explains gematria, a mathematical system of the Greek and Hebrew languages used to encode symbolism into sacred texts. The scholars who wrote the New Testament in Greek were familiar with gematria, Greek mathematics and philosophy and so used this system. She explains the symbolism associated with the number 153, called Vesica Piscis and one of the most well known and important numbers in the classical world. The Vesica Piscis — the measure of the fish — describes the shape made when two circles intersect each other (). It was considered the primal creative matrix in Geometry from which all other shapes emerged. The Vesica Piscis was said to contain vast generative properties. It also corresponds to the Greek gematria of Mary the Magdalene whom Starbird identifies as the Goddess in the Gospels equal to Jesus, his partner and consort, erased and disappeared by the fathers of the orthodox church. The () shape is also a clear reference to the vulva and was a design used for doorways in gothic cathedrals all over Europe, most of which are Notre Dames.
How could primal matter be anything other than the Goddess? The Primal Mother — mater — the original matrix from which all else is born is the Goddess, not only in the past and future but every moment in every now arising and arising again and again out of this original matrix which gives birth not only to humans, plants and animals, stars and planets but to the multiverse, reality itself.
Fulcanelli is anything but covert in his worship of the Goddess when he states that, “I know, myself, that the goddess Isis is the mother of all things, that she bears them all in her womb and that she alone can bestow Revelation and Initiation.” (p.136)
Unlike Fulcanelli, many of us today continue to hide our devotion to the Goddess. We remember, deep within our beings, years of persecution. It feels like a dangerous thing to do, think or even associate with. Are we still indeed in danger or is it rather a conditioned response or old pattern that we need to reprogram within ourselves. Is the hiding away of our Goddess worship yet another way that we are oppressed — that we collude with the oppressors without consciously realizing it? Are we truly safe to worship the God or Goddess of our choice?
Alchemy arose out of the melting pot of syncretic spirituality of Alexandria Egypt 300 BCE–400 CE. In this period in Alexandria religions of Judaism, Egyptian and Greco-Roman Paganism, cults from Asia and Asia Minor, Africa, people of vastly differing beliefs coexisted relatively peacefully. Here religion, philosophy, science, mathematics, magic, poetry commingled, creating new ideas, many of which still form the basis of the entire Western world, including Christianity. Most scholars agree that at this time the cult of Isis gained an enormous following not only in Alexandria but also in Greece, Rome, Gaul, Anatolia and other locations. The cult of Isis had evolved into a syncretic spirituality that included science, math, arts, magic and a series of initiations in the tradition of other great mystery schools of the time. It was a monotheistic religion. Isis was the One, the All.
The cult of Isis was extremely attractive because of her sympathetic role of wife and mother, her experience of mourning, her enjoyment of her own sexuality. She was a Savior Goddess, simultaneously human and transcendent. No concern was too petty for Isis. She could be all things to all people.
This powerful and charismatic cult was a serious competitor for the fledgling Christianity which had also borrowed much from the cult of Isis to create itself. As pointed out by Lynn Picknett in her book, Mary Magdalene, the baptism rite is one example. It could have gone either way. What kind of a world would we live in if the entire Western world had taken on the worship of Isis?
The orthodox Christians, establishing a rigid hierarchy based on the example of the Roman Empire were able to wrest control, albeit violently, from not only other religions but also other forms of early Christianity that were more gender-equal and inclusive of Goddess traditions. These other traditions were forced underground. Alchemy was one; Gnosticism, Neo-Platonism and Hermeticism others. There were pockets where it continued, flaring up in the 12th Century Gaul and 14th Century Florence where the translation of texts from ancient sources sparked the Renaissance. Often called female divine or feminine principle, Goddess worship is a key component in most esoteric - or what came to be known as occult - traditions.
Fulcanelli, Le Mystere des Cathédrales. Las Vegas: Brotherhood of Life, 1984, 2003.
Gimbutas, Marija, The Civilization of the Goddess. HarperSan Francisco, 1991.
Picknett, Lynn, Mary Magdalene. New York: Carrol & Graf, 2004.
Starbird, Margaret, The Goddess in the Gospels. Rochester, Vermont: Bear & Company, 1998.
Swimme, Brian and Thomas Berry, The Universe Story. HarperSanFrancisco, 1992.
Witt, R.E., Isis in the Graeco-Roman World. London: Thames & Hudson, 1971
Copyright: All rights belong to Theresa C. Dintino 2005
Theresa C. Dintino
Location: sebastopol, California
Bio: Theresa C. Dintino is the author of the newly released Stories They Told Me, a novel of Shamanism and Goddess spirituality set in Bronze Age Crete. Her novel, Ode To Minoa, was published in 1999. Ode To Minoa is the spiritual odyssey of a Snake Priestess in Minoan Crete. Ms. Dintino’s work has appeared in The Beltane Papers , SageWoman , and Goddessing Magazine. She has recently completed a new novel, The Strega and the Dreamer , the tale of an Italian Strega, midwife and healer, who immigrates to the United States at the turn of the last century and encounters the birth of the Western medical establishment. Visit her at http://www.ritualgoddess.com.
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