Mary the Jewess, First Known Alchemist

Distillation in a water bath (bain-marie), c. 1500

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Mary the Jewess (around 0-200 CE) was the first known alchemist in history. She lived in Eygpt and invented processes and apparatuses that were used for centuries after that. Her story became something of a legend in later Arabic and Christian writings.

Life and History

Occupation: Alchemist, inventor

Also known as: Maria Hebraea, Maria Prophetissima, Maria Prophetissa, Maria the Hebrew, Miriam the Prophetess; Mariya the Sage; Mary the Prophetess (16th and 17th centuries)

Early source: 4th-century alchemist Zosimos of Panopolis, who called her the sister of Moses

Mary the Jewess and her alchemical contributions are documented by Zosimos of Panopolis in his text Peri kaminon kai organon (On Furnaces and Apparatuses), which may be itself based on a text by Mary. He also quotes her extensively in The Coloring of Precious Stones.

According to Zosimus and later renderings of Maria's writings, alchemy was like sexual reproduction, with different metals being male and female. She described the oxidation of metals and saw in that process the possibility of transforming base metals into gold. The saying credited to Mary the Jewess, "Join the male and the female, and you will find what is sought," was used by Carl Jung.

Later Writings About Mary the Jewess

Variations on the story of Mary are told in sources after Zosimus. The church father Epiphanius, bishop of Salamis, mentions two writings by Mary the Jewess, Great Questions and Small Questions, where he credits her with a vision of Jesus. Mary's story is also retold in Arabic writings where she is supposedly both a contemporary of Jesus (having carried the infant Jesus) and Ostanes, a Persian brother-in-law of Xerxes, who lived about 500 BCE.

Legacy

The name of Mary the Jewess survives in two terms used in chemistry. The water-bath, a term used for both a process and a device, is also called in Romance languages the bain-marie or baño maria. The term is still used in cooking today. The bain-marie uses heat from water in a surrounding vessel to keep a consistent temperature, something like a double boiler.

"Mary's black" is also named for Mary the Jewess. Mary's black is a black sulfide coating on metal which is produced using the process of kerotakis.

Mary the Jewess also invented and described the alchemical apparatus and process called the kerotakis and another apparatus called the tribokos.

Bibliography

  • Raphael Patai. The Jewish Alchemists: A History and Source Book. "Mary the Jewess" p. 60-80, and "Zosimus on Maria the Jewess" p. 81-93.
  • Jack Lindsay. The Origins of Alchemy in Graeoc-Roman Egypt. 1970s.
  • “Maria the Jewess: An Inventor of Alchemy.” הספרייה הלאומית, web.nli.org.il/sites/NLI/English/library/reading_corner/Pages/maria_the_jewess.aspx.