There is something enduringly romantic about the image of the alchemist in their laboratory. It is no wonder that J.K.Rowling said “I’ve never wanted to be a witch, but an alchemist, now that’s a different matter.” Alchemy emerged into recorded history in Alexandria, in the West, and in China and India, in the East, at about the same time: the fourth to the third century BC. No one is sure whether this happened independently, or whether it first arose in one part of the world and was then carried by travellers to the other, which would certainly have been possible, since the Silk Route was already in operation.
In the East alchemy was almost exclusively concerned with discovering spiritual liberation and an ‘elixir of life’, which would increase longevity or even confer immortality. In the West the Graeco-Egyptian culture of Alexandria was mainly concerned with using the principles of alchemy to work with metals and minerals, but often in a way that combined a spiritual understanding with a manipulation of the world of matter.
This branch of alchemy almost certainly emerged out of one of the earliest and most powerful magical traditions in the world: that of ancient Egypt. There are no written traces of this early Egyptian alchemy, due to the destruction of the great library of Alexandria, but the legend that the Egyptian god Thoth was the founder of alchemy echoed on until the medieval era.
By the sixteenth century alchemy was flourishing in England, and although most alchemists were male, one of the most unusual and talented women in England’s history – Mary Sidney, Countess of Pembroke – maintained an alchemical laboratory, assisted by Sir Walter Raleigh’s half-brother Adrian Gilbert, who also created an elaborate magical garden in the grounds.
Mary Sidney is remarkable for being one of the few women whose names appear in the history of alchemy in England and, indeed, the world. She was also the first English woman to achieve a significant literary reputation.
About the authors: Philip Carr-Gomm is an author in the fields of psychology and Druidry. He is the author of 16 books, and one of the leaders of the Order of Bards, Ovates, and Druids. Carr-Gomm lives in Sussex, England with his wife and children.
Sir Richard Heygate is a documentary filmmaker and author with a special interest in alternative worlds. He is best known for the BBC documentary “Bart and Bounder.”
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