Like so many women of her time, the details of the life of Maria Prophetissima are hazy at best. We cannot even be certain of her name, as she is referred to in turns as Maria Prophetissima (in Latin) Mary the Jewess and Miriam the Prophetess.
The little we do know about Maria is passed down to us by Zosimos of Panopolis, who authored the earliest known book on alchemy in the early 4th century. Zosimus describes Maria as ‘one of the sages’, and talks about her living in the past – so we can assume she lived between the 1st and 3rd centuries.
Most importantly, Zosimos describes Maria as not only a woman alchemist, but as an inventor. Alchemy was an early form of chemistry concerned mainly with purifying certain elements to create gold, medicines and even immortality. Though alchemy is generally no longer practiced, the inventions credited to Maria are still in use today.
This instrument was a kind of still used to obtain substances purified by distillation. A metal or element would be placed inside the pot and heated so that the alchemist can
collect vapours from one of the three tubes.
Maria made the recommendation that the tubes used with this equipment to extract the purified substance should be copper or bronze and the thickness of a frying pan. She also advised to seal the still-head using flour paste – an early kind of glue.
Zosimos credits Maria with the first written description of the tribikas, though it is not known whether she was its inventor.
Also used for collecting vapours, the kerotakis was a container with a sheet of copper on its upper side.
If used correctly, the kerotakis should be airtight and form a vacuum. The aim was to create the same conditions in a laboratory as when gold is formed naturally deep in the earth.
This apparatus bears the name of its inventor – Mary’s Bath. Also known as a double boiler, it consists of two separate chambers, one inside the other. The outer chamber is filled with liquid – usually water – and heated to boiling point. This regulates the temperature of the inner chamber and its contents.
The bain-marie continues to be used in chemical processes today, as well as in the kitchen where it is commonly used for foods requiring a gentle heat.
Join the male and the female, and you will find what is sought.- The Axiom of Maria
Though all of our information on Maria’s inventions and experiments in alchemy comes from male gnostic writers centuries later, we know that she authored alchemic texts herself – though they have since been lost.
One anonymous philosopher recorded an extract, known as The Dialogue of Mary and Aros and the Magistery of Hermes. This excerpt describes a number of operations which formed the basis of alchemy including the whitening and yellowing of elements. It is also the first document to mention an acid salt, and contains recipes for gold using mandragora (also known as mandrake).
As there is such sparse information on Maria Prophetissima, her life and contributions are often disputed. She is sometimes conflated with Moses’ sister, Miriam, placing her centuries earlier than Zosimos suggests. The popularity of the names Mary, Maria and Miriam in this time suggest that there might even have been more than one woman with this way in alchemical circles.
Regardless, Zosimus’ inclusion of Maria in his history of alchemy demonstrates some evidence of women working in science during the early Christian era.
The Jewish Alchemists: A History and Source Book – Raphael Patai
Maria Prophetissima By Michael Maier (1566-1622) – Symbola Aurea Mensae Duodecim Nationum, Frankfurt, 1617 Public Domain
An alemic from a medieval manuscript. The original uploader was Makemake at German Wikipedia – Own work (Original text: Eigenes Foto), Public Domain
An alchemical balneum Mariae, or Maria’s bath, from Coelum philosophorum, Philip Ulstad, 1528, Chemical Heritage Foundation.
“Hortus Sanitatis; mandrake Wellcome L0008134” by . Licensed under CC BY 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons