Lady Theurgists

It’s hard to come by voices of women in antiquity. It would be enough to ask “Where are the women” for most ancient matters, but what about those who engaged in esoteric practices? Did they exist?

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.

So Plutarch.

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:

  1. Women indeed had access to esoteric knowledge, be it that of alchemy or theurgy.
  2. 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.

Sources:

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.

3 thoughts on “Lady Theurgists
  1. I am not accustomed to seeing swear words in serious, scholarly discourse. So, I respond with some doubts as to your sincerity. However, this is such an important topic; I pray it will be given the serious, scholarly attention that it deserves. Women were very prominent in ancient Greek and Egyptian mystery cults, their most famous role being as primary spokespersons for the Delphic Oracle. Apparently, they were also very influential in early Christianity. Jesus rebelled against the patriarchal tradition of Judaism by treating women with an unusual degree of respect. Early Christians often met in private homes, so the hostess was a major figure. Mary’s virgin birth echoes many of the legends about the Egyptian Isis and other goddesses of the Middle East.

    In fact, the extreme patriarchy of both Judaism and later Christianity is caused, according to some scholars, by the need to break away from the persistent worship of earth goddess religions in the ancient middle east as well as in Northern Europe among Druids. Agricultural people often felt the need to pay homage to the earth to insure successful harvests. I hope to see more and more serious research on this topic, without swear words. Carl Jung, though himself a Protestant, believed that the Roman Catholic focus on the Virgin Mary was an attempt to correct the lack of respect for the feminine in the medieval catholic church. Further, he felt many neurotic features in modern culture were the result of our failure to balance male and female aspects of the Deity as early Alchemy and Esoteric traditions had tried to do. The use of swearing and “invented” names in this article suggest the same contempt for this very important problem. I pray we can heal this conflict in ourselves and in our culture as we come to better understand the full history of religion in Western Culture.

    1. Thank you Vara Sue,

      Yes you are right about your observations about Goddesses, women in christian leadership etc. What strikes me about the two examples I mention is that transcendental philosophical pursuits are usually elitist male traditions. (Although we can bring in a grey area of ‘gnosticism’ for sure). For that reason, the evidence of women here is more jarring than in, say, early Christianity which, if I understand correctly, appealed in some ways to the disenfranchised (which would include women).

      Best,

      Sarah

  2. Dear Sarah,

    I’m not being judgmental, only cautious as there is a good deal of ridicule traditionally aimed at this field. Some scholarly articles I’ve read have gone to the extreme of being so “academic” they seem lifeless and irrelevant to the deeply moving power of the esoteric tradition. I hope scholars eventually find a balance. My own background is poetry. I would really recommend Robert Graves’ pioneering work, The White Goddess, if you haven’t read it before. He really sketches out the research territory for this subject I think. It is so important to bring the “hidden” female element out of history, even more difficult than revealing the hidden esoteric influence on religion. I am delighted to see your work. I have advanced cancer. I think it was given to me by fanatical Catholics who like to punish those who pursue this subject. I had enormous difficulty as a professor, eventually having to leave a tenured position because of religious harassment. But I sense that things are getting better now in some areas. I truly hope so, and I am so glad to hear about your work. I will be eager to hear more, just do be careful. Some of these fanatics feel that swearing is a worse crime than murder.

    The problem lies of course with sex, which really drives many repressed and repressing people up the wall. Sexuality was so important to ancient earth religions because fertility of their crops was a life and death matter without modern techniques for storage. They were accustomed to celebrating, even worshipping the fertility of the earth and of women. The most ancient models of fertility goddesses are thick, pregnant women. So different from the thin models of the fashion world that we worship today as beauty. The thin female suggested starvation to the ancients, their greatest fear.
    Strangely enough, we moderns have brought back the castration fears of ancient religions as some churches try to “punish” those who spun their social, political agendas with sexual harassment of both men and women. Your research could really help to expose and hopefully end these viscous, illegal practices.

    If you haven’t read Graves’ book already, you will see just how frightening and nasty these sexual practices and sacrifices can get in the ancient world. Thank goodness we have modern laws against them. However, some of the “hidden” motivation in religion is a cover up of illegal activity both in worship forms and in punishment of “heretics.” So, again this scholarly research becomes essential not just to complete historical perspective but also to stop criminal practices, like using illness and medical institutions for torture and political or religious persecution. I wish you all the best.

    Godspeed,

    Sue

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