Mary the Jewess

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Engraving depicting Maria Prophetissima from Michael Maier's book Symbola Aurea Mensae Duodecim Nationum (1617).

Mary or Maria the Jewess (Latin: Maria Hebraea), also known as Mary the Prophetess (Latin: Maria Prophetissa) or Maria the Copt (Arabic: مارية القبطية, romanizedMāriyya al-Qibṭiyya),[1] was an early alchemist known from the works of Zosimos of Panopolis (fl.c. 300) and other authors in the Greek alchemical tradition.[2] On the basis of Zosimos's comments, she lived between the first and third centuries A.D. in Alexandria.[3][4] French, Taylor and Lippmann list her as one of the first alchemical writers, dating her works at no later than the first century.[5][6]

She is credited with the invention of several kinds of chemical apparatus and is considered to be the first true alchemist of the Western world.[7]

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.[8]


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.[9] 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".

George Syncellus, a Byzantine chronicler of the 8th century, presented Mary as a teacher of Democritus, whom she had met in Memphis, Egypt, during the time of Pericles.

The 10th century Kitāb al-Fihrist of Ibn al-Nadim cited Mary as one of the 52 most famous alchemists and stated that she was able to prepare caput mortuum, a purple pigment.

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.[10]

Arabic and Latin works[edit]

Of Mary's Greek works only fragments survive as quoted by Zosimos of Panopolis, pseudo-Olympiodorus and other later authors.[11] However, several Arabic writings attributed to her are extant, some of them also in Latin translations:

  • Risālat Māriyya bint Sāba al-malik al-Qibṭī ilā Āras ("Letter of Maria, Daughter of [the Queen of] Sheba, the Copt, to Aras"), also known as Risālat Māriyya ilā Aras wa-su'āluhu wa-jawābuhā lahu ("Letter of Mary to Aras, his Question and her Answer to Him"). This work was translated into Latin as Practica Mariae prophetissae sororis Moysi.[12]
  • "The Book of Maria and the Wise Men"[13]
  • "The Epistle of the Crown and the Creation of the Newborn Baby"[14]

Alchemical philosophy[edit]

Axiom of Maria[edit]

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.

Marie-Louise von Franz, an associate of psychologist Carl Jung, gives an alternative version:[15]

Out of the One comes Two, out of Two comes Three, and from the Third comes the One as the Fourth.

Carl Jung used this axiom as a metaphor for wholeness and individuation.


Several cryptic alchemical precepts have been attributed to Mary. She is said to have spoken of the union of opposites:[16]

Join the male and the female, and you will find what is sought.


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.[17]


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.[18]


An alchemical balneum Mariae, or Maria’s bath, from Coelum philosophorum, Philip Ulstad, 1528, Science History Institute

The kerotakis (Greek: κηροτακίς or κυροτακίς), is a device used to heat substances used in alchemy and to collect vapors.[19] 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.

This instrument was later modified by the German chemist Franz von Soxhlet in 1879 to create the extractor that bears his name, the Soxhlet extractor.


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.[20] This term was introduced by Arnold of Villanova in the 14th century. The bain-marie is also used for cooking food.[21]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Raggetti 2022, p. 21; Martelli 2022, p. 40.
  2. ^ Raggetti 2022, p. 21.
  3. ^ Feldman, Louis H.; Reinhold, Meyer (1996-10-01). Jewish Life and Thought Among Greeks and Romans: Primary Readings. A&C Black. ISBN 978-0-567-08525-2.
  4. ^ Chemical History Tour, Picturing Chemistry from Alchemy to Modern Molecular Science Adele Droblas Greenberg Wiley-Interscience 2000 ISBN 0-471-35408-2
  5. ^ Taylor, F. Sherwood. “A Survey of Greek Alchemy”. The Journal of Hellenic Studies 50 (1930): 109–139.
  6. ^ From Eve to Dawn: A History of Women, Origins, Mcarthur & Company. June 10, 2003. ISBN 978-1552782682, Page 221.
  7. ^ Patai 1995.
  8. ^ Eisen, Arri; Laderman, Gary (2015-03-04). Science, Religion and Society: An Encyclopedia of History, Culture, and Controversy. Routledge. ISBN 978-1-317-46013-8.
  9. ^ The secrets of alchemy. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press. 10 December 2012. ISBN 9780226923789.
  10. ^ Alic, Margaret (2005). El legado de Hipatia: historia de las mujeres en la ciencia deed la antigüedad hasta fines del siglo XIX. ISBN 9682316820.
  11. ^ Ullmann 1972, p. 182.
  12. ^ Ullmann 1972, p. 183; Raggetti 2022, p. 23.
  13. ^ Raggetti 2022, p. 23.
  14. ^ Raggetti 2022, p. 23. Translated by Holmyard 1927.
  15. ^ von Franz, Marie-Louise (1974). Number and Time: Reflections Leading Towards a Unification of Psychology and Physics. London: Rider & Company. p. 65. ISBN 0-09-121020-8.
  16. ^ Patai 1995, p. 66.
  17. ^ "Maria – ancient alchemist".
  18. ^ Taylor, Frank Sherwood (January 1992). Alchemists, Founders of Modern Chemistry. pp. 38–39. ISBN 9781564590022.
  19. ^ Partington, J. R. (January 1947). "History of Alchemy and Early Chemestry*[sic]". Nature. 159 (4029): 81–85. doi:10.1038/159081a0. ISSN 1476-4687. PMID 20281228. S2CID 4093076.
  20. ^ Holmyard, E. J. (1957). Alchemy. New York: Dover. pp. 48f.
  21. ^ Webster's International Dictionary of the English Language. Springfield, Massachusetts: G. & C. Merriam Co. 1900. p. 112. 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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