Cleopatra the Alchemist – 3rd Century – Alexandria, Egypt

Ancient Egypt, Egypt

 

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We do not know this woman’s real name, as ‘Cleopatra’ is assumed to be a pseudonym for a woman alchemist and philosopher who authored a number of alchemical texts.

She lived in Egypt and is associated with the same school of alchemy as Maria Prophetissima. Like Maria, Cleopatra’s work was concerned mostly with transforming substances through the processes of distillation and sublimation.

Three texts on alchemy are attributed to Cleopatra:

  • Εκ των Κλεοπατρας περι μετρων και σταθμων. (On Weights and Measures)
  • Κλεοπατρης χρυσοποια (Chrysopeoeia of Cleopatra)
  • Διαλογος φιλοσοφων και κλεοπατρας (A Dialogue of Cleopatra and the Philosophers)

The most famous of these texts is the Chrysopoeia of Cleopatra which is a sheet of papyrus illustrated with symbols for gold making, assumed to be drawn by Cleopatra herself.

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The drawings include an ouroboros (a snake eating itself), an ancient symbol which represents eternity. The text describes the ouroboros as follows:

“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.”

There is also a diagram of a dibikos, (an alchemical tool for distillation) and several images of stars and crescents.


Notes:

Not to be confused with Cleopatra VII, the last pharaoh of Egypt.


References:

Hypatia’s Heritage. A History of Women in Science from Antiquity through the Nineteenth Century – Margaret Alic

Women in Science: Antiquity Through the Nineteenth Century – Marilyn Bailey Ogilvie

On Wikipedia:

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Maria the Prophetess – c. 1st Century CE – Egypt

Ancient Egypt

 

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Like so many women of her time, the details of the life of Maria Prophetissima are hazy at Prophetissabest. 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.

The tribikas:

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

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An alemic – very similar to a tribikas

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.

The kerotakis:

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.

The bain-marie:
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.

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A bain-marie illustration

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.

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Medieval illustration of a mandrake root

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.

References:

History of Alchemy podcast

The Jewish Alchemists: A History and Source Book – Raphael Patai

On Wikipedia:


Image credits:

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

 

Tapputi – c. 2000 BCE – Babylonian Mesopotamia

Mesopotamia, Sumer

Tapputi

Tapputi, a perfumer, is not only the first known female chemist, but the first chemist of any gender known to history. Her title, Belatekallium, meant female overseer, which tells us that she worked at the royal palace in Mesopotamia.

The making of perfume or aromata was an important industry in ancient Mesopotamian life. The preparation of the materials was extensive and highly technical.

We know of Tapputi from a cuneiform tablet which bears her name as well as her own recipe for a perfume which describes using oil, flowers, myrrh and calamus to be distilled and filtered with water. This also is the first known reference to a still.

Full text:

If you prepare flowers, oil and calamus as a salve, and you have tested the flowers; you set up… a distillatory. You put good potable water [into a hairu pot]. You heat tabilu and put it in. You put 1 qa haminu, 1 qa iaruttu, 1 qa of good, filtered myhrr into the hairu put. Your standard in this is the water taken and divided. You operate at the end of the day and in the evening. It remains overnight. It becomes steeped.

"Illustration Acorus calamus0" by www.biolib.de. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Illustration_Acorus_calamus0.jpg#/media/File:Illustration_Acorus_calamus0.jpg

“Illustration Acorus calamus” by http://www.biolib.de. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

You filter this solution… with a filter cloth into a hirsu pot at dawn, on the rising of the sun, you clarify from this hirsu pot into another hirsu pot. You discard the residue. You use 3 qa of purified Cyperus in the solution with the aromatics. Discard the inferior material. You put 3 qa myrrh, 2 qa pressed and filtered calamus in the solution with these aromatics… 1 ½ pure gullu… two beakers… small beakers… you filter… kanaktu in a sieve. You decant the oil in the hairu pout… in the solution [you rub that which was with the solution overnight] [you examine] the comminuted material. You remove [its bad part]. You filter this solution which [you clarified into a distillatory] … 3 qa… [you throw]… balsam into this solution in [a hirsu pot]. [you kindle a fire]. When the solution is heated for admixture, [you pour in the oil]. You agitate with a stirrer. [When the oil, solution, and aromatics] continue to dissolve, [you raise] the fire… you cover the distillatory on top. [you cool] with [water]. When the sun rises,[you prepare] a [container for] the oil, solution and aromatics.

You allow the fire under the distillatory to die down. You remove the distilled and sublimed substances from [the trough of the distillatory].

When the sun [rises],[if] they continue to dissolve in one another and [the fire rises], you cover the [top] of the distillatory. You cool. You prepare a flask for the calamus oil. You put a filter cloth over the flask. You remove the dregs and residue left in the distillatory.

This is the preparation of flowers, oil and calamus for [salve] for the king according to the recipe of Tapputi-Belatekallium, the perfumer.


References

  • Early Arabic Pharmacology – Martin Levy
  • Hypatia’s Heritage: A History of Women in Science from Antiquity Through the Nineteenth Century – Margaret Alic 

On Wikipedia: