While we of the modern world scoff at the ancient alchemists who tried to turn lead into gold, many alchemical practices are at the root of today’s scientific experiments. Ironically, the fate and condition of alchemists in ancient and medieval society was often similar to that of the Jews–at the whim of the city rulers.

Quite often, alchemists did their work in secrecy, and frequently faced persecution. This may be the reason that so little biographical information is known about the woman known as the Mother of Alchemy, Maria Hebraica (aka Maria the Jewess, Maria Prophetisa, and Miriam the Prophetess). What is known about her comes, primarily, from the 4th century writings of Zosimos of Panopolis (the oldest existing alchemy text). Because Zosimos refers to her as an ancient, it is assumed that Maria lived around the 1st century in Alexandria, Egypt.

Chemists today no longer search for the magic formula that will turn base metal into precious metal. They do, however, use the balneum Mariae (Latin for “bath of Maria”), a water bath whose invention is credited to Maria Hebraica. She is also believed to have invented the kerotakis (a.k.a. Mary’s oven) and the tribikos, a three armed distillation chamber (still), as well as having discovered hydrochloric acid.

Zosimos also credits Maria Hebraica with a number of unique philosophies and sayings. For instance, on the union of opposites she taught: “Join the male and the female, and you will find what is sought.” One such teaching: “One becomes two, two becomes three, and out of the third comes the one as the fourth” is known as the Axiom of Maria.

Copyright © 2011 National Jewish Outreach Program. All rights reserved.

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