Cleopatra the Alchemist
|Cleopatra the alchemist|
Imaginative depiction of Cleopatra the Alchemist from Mylius' 1618 Basilica philosophica "Seals of the Philosophers".
|Born||c. 3rd century|
Cleopatra the Alchemist who was likely alive during the 3rd century, was an Egyptian alchemist, author, and philosopher. She experimented with practical alchemy but is also rumored to be one of the four female alchemists that could produce a Philosopher's stone. She is credited with the invention of the Alembic, an early tool for analytic chemistry.
Life and places of work
The dates of Cleopatra the Alchemist's life and death are unknown, but she was active in Alexandria in the 3rd century or the 4th century. Likely a colleague or follower of Mary the Jewess, she was also associated with Mary the Jewess's school of chemistry. Her work is considered similar to Mary the Jewess's work. She used the sun as a heat source to ferment horse dung, which in turn would heat her laboratory.
Identity and misnomers
Cleopatra is a pseudonym for an author whose real name has been lost. She is not the same person as Cleopatra VII, nonetheless she may be referred to as Cleopatra: Queen of Egypt in some later works, who also had an interest in alchemy. This incorrect naming was possibly done on purpose. As we noted, she was linked to the famous Queen Kleopatra to whom the Arab writer Ibn-Wahs-Chijiah attributed a book on poisons and to whom the Romans gave a book on cosmetics. One example of this can be found in Basillica Philosophica by Johann Daniel Mylius (1618), where her seal is pictured alongside the motto: "The divine is hidden from the people according to the wisdom of the Lord". Cleopatra is also used as a character within the dialogue of the alchemical texts themselves. She is also mistaken for the same as Cleopatra the Physician. The two lived supposedly during the same time and are said to have similar styles in their writing, both having grand imagery. 
Contributions to alchemy
Female chemists in Greco-Roman Egypt were not uncommon, primarily they were active concocting fragrances and cosmetics. This was a largely female dominated branch of science at the time (for this reason the work of the early alchemist were sometimes called opus mulierum 'women's work'). Cleopatra was a foundational figure in alchemy, pre-dating Zosimos of Panopolis. Michael Maier names her as one of the four women who knew how to make the philosopher's stone, along with Maria the Jewess, Medera, and Taphnutia. Hostility was building at this time from Christian leaders, who destroyed many scientific texts. Later, Muslim scholars would try to preserve some of these texts, including Cleopatra's. Cleopatra was mentioned with great respect in the Arabic encyclopedia Kitab al-Fihrist from 988. She is sometimes credited with the invention of the alembic. Also trying to quantify alchemy and its experiments, Cleopatra worked weights and measures.
Chrysopeoeia of Cleopatra
She is most noted for the text Chrysopoeia of Cleopatra, a sheet of papyrus which contains many emblems,"indeed her discourse is the most imaginative and deeply felt document left by the alchemist" later developed and used within gnostic and hermetic philosophy. Chrysopoeia translated is "gold-making". It is the single surviving piece of work from Cleopatra. This is the single article that is left from her work (likely the result of Emperor Diocletian's persecution of Alexandrian alchemists and the burning of their works). A copy can be found at Leiden University, located in the Netherlands. Much is told from the writing styles of Cleopatra. Her use of imagery reflected "conception and birth, the renewal and transformation of life," which had an impact on the literature of alchemy. Marianne Offereins and Renate Strohmeier note how Cleopatra herself describes alchemy: "[Cleopatra the alchemist] compares the philosopher alchemist who contemplates his work to a loving mother who thinks about her child and feeds it." An example of the imagery is the serpent eating its own tail as a symbol of the eternal return, called Ouroboros: the snake curving around with his head in his mouth (eating itself) is an obvious emblem of unity of the cosmos, of eternity, where the beginning is the end and the end is the beginning". Also on the Chrysopeoia is an inscription in a double ring this describing the Ouroboros:
- "One is the Serpent which has its poison according to two compositions, and One is All and through it is All, and by it is All, and if you have not All, All is Nothing."
Within the inscription ring is also symbols for gold, silver, and mercury. Along with those are drawings of a "dibikos" and an instrument similar to a kerotakis, both alchemical apparatuses. Another of her symbols is the eight-banded star. It is believed that the drawing of these star symbols and the crescent shapes above them are a pictorial depiction of turning lead into silver. Her work also contained several descriptions and drawings of the technical process of furnaces.
|Images from Chrysopeoia of Cleopatra|
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