What is alchemy? (And why use it to talk about gender?)

Alchemy is perhaps not given enough credit. Most people are familiar with only the vaguest idea of the practice, and usually what they think of is the effort to  turn metals into gold, which out of context seems like very materialistic goal. Actually, alchemists worked with metals because they were chemists at a time when religion and science were considered very much the same thing, and working with the elements was a way to study spiritual ideas. But alchemists ultimately made the church uncomfortable, because their ideas were wild, creative, and altogether too Pagan. The ancient practice of alchemy occurred in several places in the world, but many of the texts we have access to come from medieval and Renaissance Europe.

While alchemists are commonly said to have had the goal of transmuting base metals into gold, the larger and most important work of alchemy was much more esoteric. The transmutation of metals was a metaphor and also part of the work of achieving a spiritual transformation. Merging ideas and substances thought to be opposites was thought to give rise to spiritual completion, which is similar to ideas in Eastern philosophy.

A rebis, with each half holding a
gendered astrological symbol
Combining the male and female energies into one was one of the most important parts of that goal. The alchemists praised androgyny and produced hundreds of images of mixed-sex beings, including intersexed people, conjoined twins, and angelic figures. The mixed-sex being is sometimes considered to be the primordial Adam of the old testament. Often it is referred to as a rebis, or two-thing. The rebis may result from the “alchemical wedding” in which the lunar Queen and solar King are joined in matrimony. (Can you see why they made the Pagan-hating Catholic church uncomfortable?)

Hundreds of years later, we have archives of thousands of alchemical texts and images, translated mainly from Latin. The alchemists’ texts are not always easy to translate or understand, since alchemists veiled their work with secret symbols and codes. Some of their chemical experiments can be performed today with instructions from the internet, while other texts dealt entirely with spiritual ideas related to the elements.

Alchemy, and in particular alchemical androgyny, has always resonated with me because it reflects aspects of my journey. When most of us start out in life, we’re immersed in a binarist culture that recognizes very distinct, and unmixable, male and female energies. Alchemy scholar Mircea Eliade wrote, “To be no longer conditioned by a pair of opposites results in absolute freedom.”And the alchemists did not see the alchemical androgyne as simply a half-and-half being, combining two ends of a binary:

Hermes called me the Sun and the Moon. Riplaeus called me the green lion. Our author called me hermaphrodite, but I pay no attention to that. It makes no difference. Nor does it matter what the sophists [philosophy teachers] call me, for they learn nothing for all their trouble except: (1) I am One Substance, not two… (Hermaphrodite Child of the Sun and Moon, as translated by Mike Brenner.)
Although the alchemists thought about the rebis as a "two-thing," they acknowledged that this was their own limited construct for understanding. The rebis does not think of themself as the "two-thing," but understands their own nature as distinct.

As alchemists tried to break the rules of nature, to hack physical reality to reveal a spiritual truth, gender radicals break the rules of our culture and reveal gender as an infinite, multidimensional spectrum rather than a binary. There are many interesting parallels between genderqueer and gender variant people today and the alchemists.

Ultimately, the church grew uncomfortable with the writings of the alchemists, and encouraged scientists to stop working with religious ideas and focus on experimentation. Thus the church itself helped to give birth to modern science.


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