Jew of the Week: Miriam the Jewess

Possibly the Most Enigmatic Woman in History

“Maria Prophetissa” by Maier, 1617

For millenia, the study of alchemy has been pursued by wise men around the world, practised by such greats as Isaac Newton and Chaim Vital. Ironically, the founding figure of alchemy happens to be a woman, called Maria Hebraea or “Mary the Jewess” (c. 3rd century CE). She is considered to be the first real-life, non-mythological alchemist, making her the first true alchemist in history. She wrote several treatises on the subject, as well as other philosophical works (including the Axiom of Maria: “One becomes two, two becomes three, and out of the third comes the one as the fourth.”) She is credited with the monumental discovery of hydrochloric acid, and isolation of acetic acid (vinegar). Maria invented at least three scientific apparatuses: a distillation chamber called the tribikos; a sealed-vacuum for collecting vapours, known today as an extractor; as well as the water-bath that we’ve all used in high schools science labs, which still bears her name, the bain-marie. Naturally, many legends have sprung up about this enigmatic Jewish woman. Some say she was the teacher of Democritus, others that she was a student of Aristotle, and others a princess of Saba. Funny enough, she became a key figure in Islam, listed in the Kitab-al-Fihrist as one of the most important scientists/alchemists of all time.


Words of the Week

The coming into being of a Jewish state in Palestine is an event in world history to be viewed in the perspective, not of a generation or a century, but in the perspective of a thousand, two thousand or even three thousand years. That is a standard of temporal values or time-values which seems very much out of accord with the perpetual click-clack of our rapidly changing moods and of the age in which we live. This is an event in world history.
– Winston Churchill