The Rebis or Alchemical Hermaphrodite

Conjunction Definition 1

“The Great Hermaphrodite” by Aaron Stewart Lewis Knapp

Recently, I wrote to Aaron Stewart Lewis Knapp regarding the alchemical artwork on the website Chemical Marriage and my intention to write a blog entry about the Rebis (or Alchemical Hermaphrodite). I received a timely and gracious response including the generous offer to “use any content I’ve made.” Thus, I have chosen to feature two of Knapp’s original pieces–“The Great Hermaphrodite” and “The Engagement of the Rebis“–to begin my exploration of this ancient alchemical concept.

“The Engagement of the Rebis” by Aaron Stewart Lewis Knapp

As Knapp explains, “The alchemists, in their quest for philosophical gold, considered the world to be influenced and manipulated by a multitude of paired forces: wet and dry, cold and hot, sun and moon, male and female, proton and neutron, etc. When these opposing forces are harmonized and balanced through synthesis, creation is commenced. The Great Hermaphrodite is an amalgam of this union.”

Rebis One Quote Cropped

In various medieval and early modern alchemical texts, conjunction is one step on the varied and lengthy path of the Great Work. As explained by Gareth Roberts in The Mirror of Alchemy, conjunction may result in an androgyne (an alternative term for the Rebis).

Conjunction Definition 2

Described as “the much coveted goal” of alchemy, the Rebis has repeatedly been “identified with the philosophers’ stone” and its sacred coincidence of opposites (Fabricius 90; DeVun 199). To many alchemists, alchemy is integrally connected with their understanding of divinity. To give one example, English alchemist Thomas Norton calls the practice “blessid & holye” in his 15th-century Ordinal of Alchemy (line 144). This and other such statements have led scholars to explore the complex connections among the Philosopher’s Stone, the Rebis, and the figure of Christ.

For example, in an article focused on alchemy and the “Jesus Hermaphrodite,” Leah DeVun argues, “Like Christ, the philosophers’ stone was a combination of nature and divinity, of corporeality and incorporeality, of opposites united in one subject” (203). Mark J. Bruhn likewise explores a sacred or religious connection with alchemy noting that “[t]hrough the Middle Ages the elusive Philosopher’s Stone came to be seen as a metaphor for Truth, or Christ, the Logos” (293).

(For readers interested in examining these concepts further, I’ve included a list of full citations near the end of this post. Also, please note that I have replicated DeVun’s plural possessive form of “philosophers’ stone” when quoting from her article.)

My Hermaprhodite ArticlesHaving explored such connections among mysticism, alchemy, and the Rebis in my own academic work, my intention when transmuting alchemical concepts to fiction was to ensure that conjunction and the Rebis were central features in The Alchemists’ Council.

The following images from the Rosarium Philosophorum (University of Glasgow, MS Ferguson 210) provide an example of the traditional alchemical processes on which I based my fictional Sacrament of Conjunction:

Rosarium Three Images

Within the Rosarium Philosophorum, opposites conjoin to symbolize perfection.


Within The Alchemists’ Council, conjunction is not used to create the Philosopher’s Stone. Instead, the Council’s Sacrament of Conjunction maintains the Stone’s power. Without conjunction, the Stone (or Lapis) would gradually lose its Quintessence and, eventually, cease to exist. Since their existence depends upon the Lapis, both Council and Flaw dimensions would likewise cease to exist. Additionally, the elemental balance of the outside world is ensured by (and therefore dependent on) the Alchemists’ access to the Lapis. Thus, Council alchemists must participate in the Sacrament of Conjunction in order to maintain all three dimensions and the millions of people residing therein.

Council Conjunction involves a complex ritual performed by the Elders. If the ritual succeeds, two alchemists conjoin into one body. Unlike images of the Rebis as depicted in real-world alchemical manuscripts, the conjoined alchemists of Council dimension appear as a single body with one head. Generally, only one of the two participants survives; the other is dissolved. Understandably, new Initiates to Council tend to find the sacrament appalling; they see it as a form of ritual sacrifice.

In this excerpt from Book One, Novillian Scribe Cedar explains an aspect of the conjunction to Initiate Jaden, who expresses her dismay in reply:

Cedar and Jaden Conjunction Discussion

Despite her early objections, Jaden later bears witness to the process:

Jaden Rebis Smaller

The Flaw in the Stone (Book Two of The Alchemists’ Council) focuses in part on the mutually conjoined couple Ilex and Melia. Unlike most conjoined pairs throughout Council history, both of these alchemists survive the Sacrament of Conjunction and must learn to cooperate as two people within one body.

Though I will refrain from spoilers at this point, I will acknowledge that Ilex and Melia, like the Lapis itself, are flawed. But as readers of Book One already know, the flaw in the Stone is the feature that allows for free will. Alongside other characters in Book Two, Ilex and Melia illustrate that despite sacred tradition, rules of Council dimension can be broken and protocols must be renegotiated in the pursuit of a more equitable world.

Adam M Purchased Image Framed

The preceding engraving from the Rosarium Philosophorum has been coloured by Adam McLean. His images of the Rebis are available to view and purchase here: Esoteric Prints–Alchemical Hermaphrodite.

To conclude this post, I call again upon Leah DeVun. As she reminds us, “The hermaphrodite in alchemy was of course a purely intellectual conceit. . . . Nevertheless, there was something transgressive about them. The fluidity of sexes in the alchemical hermaphrodite hinted at the fluidity of boundaries between metals, which alchemy argued could be changed through the art of the alchemist. Whether the boundaries in question divided the sexes or the categories of humanity and divinity, the hermaphrodite of alchemical literature indicated that such boundaries were crossable” (DeVun 217).


  • Abraham, Lyndy. A Dictionary of Alchemical Imagery. Cambridge UP, 1998.
  • Bruhn, Mark J. “Art, Anxiety, and Alchemy in the Canon’s Yeoman’s Tale.” The Chaucer Review, vol. 33, no. 3, 1999, pp. 288–315.
  • De Pascalis, Andrea. Alchemy The Golden Art: The Secrets of the Oldest Enigma. Gremese International, 1995.
  • DeVun, Leah. “The Jesus Hermaphrodite: Science and Sex Difference in Premodern Europe.” Journal of the History of Ideas, vol. 69, no. 2, April 2008, pp. 193-218.
  • Fabricius, Johannes. Alchemy: The Medieval Alchemists and Their Royal Art. Rosenkilde and Bagger, 1976.
  • Norton, Thomas. Ordinal of Alchemy, edited by John Reidy, Oxford UP, 1975.
  • Roberts, Gareth. The Mirror of Alchemy: Alchemical Ideas and Images in Manuscripts and Books from Antiquity to the Seventeenth Century. U of Toronto P, 1994.


Find artist Michael Maschka’s painting and explanation of his work at Transmuthatio:


Find visual media artist Laura White’s collage of the Rebis at Laura White Illustration:

Laura White 3

Find a video briefly summarizing the symbolic elements of the Rebis on YouTube:


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Reading The Alchemists’ Council: Prima Materia and Prologue


[UPDATE: As of November 2017, Matthew Graybosch provided updated links to The Rebel Branch Initiate’s Guide. Though all of Matthew’s material can still be accessed via these new links, Eric’s contributions are not currently available.]

Breaking news! Thanks to the generosity and ingenuity of two readers, today marks a momentous time here at News from Council Dimension. Matthew Graybosch and Eric “Stile Tekel” Higby have begun their chapter-by-chapter read through of The Alchemists’ Council. Over the next several months, these two “outside world scribes” will offer their insights, anecdotes, quips, and analyses of the book. Honestly, I could not be more thrilled than I am with the discussion they offered us today in the introduction to The Rebel Branch Initiate’s Guide to The Alchemists’ Council, which focuses on the Prima Materia and Prologue. 

Both commentators have told me that they welcome my feedback on their post; therefore, I too will offer a few thoughts each week by way of response. If you have any questions or comments you would like to add along the way, feel free to do so either over at the host site or here in the comments.

Drink of This Cropped

So let me start by saying that I adore Graybosch’s blend of serious scholarship and sense of humour. He has adopted the strategy I’ve always aimed for in my classes–that is, Chaucer’s “best sentence and moost solaas” (General Prologue/Canterbury Tales, line 798). I laughed aloud when he mentioned the “muggles” of the outside world and later defined conjunction as “Thunderdome.” On a more serious note, I believe his hypothetical example of conjunction (with players Barbara, Alice, Diane, and Claire) to be spot on. His concluding thought of that paragraph–“While Alice and Barbara remain unconjoined, all possibilities remain in play but unrealized”–made me wonder if one of the #CouncilCats is named Schrödinger.

cat shirt

Regarding the question of whether or not I am aware of the tree connections to the names Aralia and Osmanthus, the answer is yes. The majority of the characters, including these two mythical beings, have names associated with trees. Indeed, this topic was explored in my most recent blog post regarding the pronunciation of the tree names: What if I Cannot Speak Musurgia Universalis?


Graybosch also notes connections with the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn and The Chymical Wedding of Christian Rosenkreutz. These references too are on the mark. My background in medieval literature includes a postdoctoral fellowship that focused on alchemical texts. Thus, along the way, I read (or at least read about) all sorts of lore and literature involving alchemy, much of which has been transformed (and in some cases transmuted) into the mythology and rituals of The Alchemists’ Council. (If you would like to know more about my academic work on alchemy, see the link Alchemy Articles via the MENU above.)


Higby’s penultimate paragraph is brilliant for the way in which it calls the reader into the book via the ritual of conjunction. Yes, “a binding of two is becoming one”: the reader and the book. After all, The Alchemists’ Council, in a metafictional sense, IS the book mentioned in the Epilogue. That discussion, however, is several weeks’ worth of analysis away. In the meantime, please find the nearest portal to join Graybosch and Higby on a journey of words about a book featuring manuscripts filled with inscriptions that have the power to change us all.

See you all next week!

From the HOME/BLOG page scroll upward to access MENU items (including BOOK REVIEWS) or downward to read the latest BLOG posts. Scroll to the bottom of the HOME/BLOG page to access the OLDER POSTS, ARCHIVES, and SEARCH.