Mary the Jewess (fl. 1st, 2nd or 3rd c.)

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Mary the Jewess (fl. 1st, 2nd or 3rd c.)

Hebrew alchemist . Name variations: Maria the Jewess; Miriam the Jewess; Maria Prophetissa; Maria of Alexandria; Miriam the Prophet; Miriam the Prophetess. Born in Alexandria, Egypt, in the 1st, 2nd, or 3rd century ce.

A shadowy historical figure, Mary the Jewess is often identified as Miriam the Prophet , the sister of Moses.. Miriam the Prophet is a Biblical woman who is known by some of the same alternative names as Mary the Jewess. By other accounts, this is an erroneous association, and the seeming incongruity between the time periods when each one lived implies that they are different women. Yet details are muddled in the haze of myth and history, so many sources treat them as the same person. Some attribute the link to the concept of alchemy as a gift from God to his prophets, or to the Hebrews alone. Others ascribe it to the ancient alchemists' tendency to appropriate historical names for themselves as a way to gain prestige. Nonetheless, Mary the Jewess left behind enough fragments of her writings to establish for herself a revered place in scientific antiquity.

Ancient alchemy, "the art" linked with science, was an amalgamation of "the mystical, the rational, and the practical." The time and place in which Mary lived, the churning, heterogeneous society of Alexandria in the first few centuries after Christ, was the perfect environment for a female Jewish alchemist. Along with Cleopatra (fl. 1st c. bce), the physician and author, Mary the Jewess is considered one of the founders of alchemy, and in a 17th-century text is listed as one of the 12 sages of alchemy. Zosimus, in the 3rd century, states that she was the first alchemist to compose the "first material," copper burned with sulfur, necessary for the preparation of gold.

In simplest terms, alchemy sought to achieve the transmutation of base materials into precious materials; the ultimate goal was the creation of the Philosopher's Stone, which alchemists believed could both transform matter into gold and silver and bestow immortality. One of the central tenets of alchemy was the fusing of elements with their opposites, in particular those elements which "adepts" or skilled practitioners designated as "male" and "female." Although these terms were meant metaphorically (as was much in alchemy), the equal respect accorded to both male and female elements had the practical result of allowing male alchemists very little reason to shut women out of the art. Although the degree of acceptance fluctuated, throughout the centuries women alchemists frequently practiced both alongside men, who were often, but not always, their husbands or other family members, and independently, as did Mary the Jewess.

Mary believed that God had given the secret to alchemy exclusively to the Hebrews. She taught that all matter is one, and that successful creation of gold results when parts are combined, saying, "one becomes two, two becomes three, and by means of the third the fourth achieves unity; thus two are but one." Her writings also draw an analogy in this principle between metals and humankind. Although her philosophies and theories were influential, her most important legacies to science were her inventions or improvements of the physical apparatus of chemistry. She left the oldest description of the three-armed still, or tribikos, and invented the kerotakis, a sealed container in which metal shavings were exposed to vapors. Her most famous contribution is the water bath or double boiler, a twofold vessel in which contents of the inner part are heated by hot water in the outer part. Her affiliation with this device lingers in both the French name for it, bain Marie, and the German name, Marienbad.


Doberer, Kurt K. The Goldmakers. London, 1948.

Kass-Simon, G., and Patricia Farnes, eds. Women of Science: Righting the Record. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1990.

Ogilvie, Marilyn B. Women in Science: Antiquity through the Nineteenth Century. London: Cambridge Press, 1993.

Jacquie Maurice , Calgary, Alberta, Canada

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Mary the Jewess (fl. 1st, 2nd or 3rd c.)

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