Surprisingly, though we know little about them, there is evidence that some women did engage in theurgical and alchemical practices. I’ve found two: Theosebia, an acquaintance of Zosimus of Panopolis and Asclepigeneia, a teacher of Proclus.
Let’s start with Theosebia.
Theosebia was a contemporary of Zosimus of Panopolis, one of our earliest sources for alchemy. They were active around the end of the 3rd century, a time when a lot of folks were preoccupied with eschewing the “base” material world and focusing on more lofty spiritual concerns. Zosimus’ relationship with Theosebia seems to be that of either spiritual mentor or contemporary—it is difficult to tell. On the one hand, he wrote a lengthy instructive text to her (The Final Quittance) outlining alchemical techniques. On the other hand, she also seems fairly competent in her own right: She comes under criticism from Zosimus for leading her own groups and keeping alchemical secrets, well, secret. Nevertheless, Garth Fowden suggests that Theosebia “appears to have been among the most influential exponents of alchemy in her day.” Influential, but almost invisible from a historical standpoint!
We know a little bit more about Asclepigeneia, from whom Proclus learned about theurgy. Were going to move a couple hundred years forward here to the 5th century, and we’re going to change the location from Egypt to Athens. Proclus had been taught many things in many places, but he found his teachers Syrianus and Plutarch in Athens. This is no mere “let’s talk about Proclus.” This is relevant.
Plutarch had a grandfather named Nestorius who apparently knew tons about theurgy and how to do things like perform incantations with barbarous words and read astrological charts. Where did Nestorius learn all these wonderful things? No one knows, but he teaches these things to Plutarch. Plutarch then pulls a total dick-move and dies before he can pass his knowledge onto Proclus. The situation is truly awful. My scholarly guess is that Proclus was hella pissed.
You may have guessed by now that Asclepigeneia plays the protagonist here. She’s the great-great granddaughter of Nestorius and has somehow inherited the theurgic knowledge from her father, Plutarch. Ah ha. Is she the missing link? You betcha.
With Plutarch dead, it is up to Asclepigeneia to initiate Proclus. And that’s what she did. It was quite magical…literally:
“In passing on theurgic lore only within the family, the theurgist [Asclepigeneia] is taking a leaf out of the book of the magician, since magicians also maintained the fiction that theirs was an esoteric branch of knowledge, only to be handed on to trusted intimates.”
~ Matthew W. Dickie, 317
Like Theosebia, beyond these small details, there isn’t much more information about Asclepigeneia (or maybe there is and it hasn’t been found yet!). However, there are a couple of conclusions we can draw from the examples of these two women:
- Women indeed had access to esoteric knowledge, be it that of alchemy or theurgy.
- Women could be in positions of leadership in controlling this knowledge, either through initiating others (Theosebia) or teaching their skills to students (Proclus).
These are two really awesome and amazing roles! While women really didn’t get to take the lead very much in Greco-Roman society, apparently it happened enough in esoteric circles to warrant documentation on two separate occasions. Perhaps as research moves forward into these areas we’ll learn more about the status of women in ancient esoteric traditions.
Fowden, Garth. The Egyptian Hermes. Princeton University Press. 1986. 120-126.
Dickie, Matthew W. Magic and Magicians in the Greco-Roman World. Routledge. 2003. 316-318.
Photo by Abode of Chaos.