Mary the Jewess
Mary or Maria the Jewess, also known as Mary the Prophetess (Latin: Maria Prophetissima), is an early alchemist who is known from the works of the Gnostic Christian writer Zosimos of Panopolis. On the basis of Zosimos's comments, she lived between the first and third centuries A.D in Alexandria. French, Taylor and Lippmann list her as one of the first alchemical writers, dating her works at no later than the first century.
Through Zosimos many of the beliefs of Mary the Jewess can be observed. Mary incorporated lifelike attributes into her descriptions of metal such as bodies, souls, and spirits. Mary believed that metals had two different genders and by joining these two genders together a new entity could be made. By joining the different gendered substances together a unity of substances could be obtained.
The primary source for the existence of "Mary the Jewess" within the context of alchemy is Zosimos of Panopolis, who wrote, in the 4th century, the oldest extant books on alchemy. Zosimos described several of Mary's experiments and instruments. In his writings, Mary is almost always mentioned as having lived in the past, and she is described as "one of the sages".
The early medieval alchemical text ascribed to an otherwise unknown "Morienus Romanus" called her "Mary the Prophetess", and the Arabs knew her as the "Daughter of Plato" – a name which, in Western alchemical texts, was reserved for white sulfur.
Although none of Mary's writings have survived, some quotations credited to her are found in hermetic writings. The most notable of these are found in The Dialogue of Mary and Aros on the Magistery of Hermes, which is an extract made by an anonymous Christian philosopher. Operations are described in this document which would later become the basis of alchemy, such as leukosis (whitening) and xanthosis (yellowing). The document describes, for the first time, an acid salt and other acids. There are also several recipes for making gold from plants (mandragora, for example).
Several cryptic alchemical precepts have been attributed to Mary. She is said to have spoken of the union of opposites:
Join the male and the female, and you will find what is sought.
The following was known as the Axiom of Maria:
One becomes two, two becomes three, and out of the third comes the one as the fourth.
Out of the One comes Two, out of Two comes Three, and from the Third comes the One as the Fourth.
Mary, along with Agathodaemon, Pseudo-Democritus, and Hermes Trismegistus, was mentioned by Zosimos of Panopolis in his descriptions of certain devices, such as the tribikos, the kerotakis, and the bain-marie. But her contributions are disputed and not clear.
The tribikos (Greek: τριβικός) was a kind of alembic with three arms that was used to obtain substances purified by distillation. It is not known whether Mary invented it, but Zosimos credits the first description of the instrument to her. It is still used today in chemistry labs. In her writings (quoted by Zosimos), Mary recommends that the copper or bronze used to make the tubes should be the thickness of a frying pan and that the joints between the tubes and the still-head should be sealed with flour paste.
The kerotakis (Greek: κηροτακίς or κυροτακίς), is a device used to heat substances used in alchemy and to collect vapors. It is an airtight container with a sheet of copper upon its upper side. When working properly, all its joints form a tight vacuum. The use of such sealed containers in the hermetic arts led to the term "hermetically sealed". The kerotakis was said to be a replication of the process of the formation of gold that was occurring in the bowels of the earth.
Mary's name survives in her invention of the bain-marie (Mary's bath), which limits the maximum temperature of a container and its contents to the boiling point of a separate liquid: essentially a double boiler. It is extensively used in chemical processes for which a gentle heat is necessary. This term was introduced by Arnold of Villanova in the 14th century. The bain-marie is also used for cooking food.
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A vessel for holding hot water in which another vessel may be heated without scorching its contents;—used for warming or preparing food or pharmaceutical preparations.
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