The Lost History of Women in Chemistry: The First Alchemist

This is the second post in the D/S Women’s History Month series, The Lost History of Women in Chemistry, to see Part I: The First Perfumer click here

In the Indie perfume universe, the word alchemy pops up a lot. It graces the title of several popular companies. It also tends to be the word we use once words fail to describe the process of turning disparate ingredients into something more than the sum of their parts, something magical. As Clarke’s Third Law states:

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic

Likewise, any significantly advanced skill becomes more than craft, it becomes alchemy. In this edition of Lost History, we visit the Pearl of the Mediterranean, Alexandria, in the first centuries of the common era to meet a woman, or perhaps women, whose’s outsider status made it possible to defy the conventions of society and have the name Mary live on in chemistry and your kitchen for over 2,000 years.

A Mary By Any Other Name

In English, she is best known as Mary the Jewess or Miriam the Prophetess, in Hebrew Miriam HaYehudia. The Roman’s called her Maria Hebrea, or Maria Prophetissima when they were feeling fancy.  Ibn al-Nadim called her, Mary the Daughter of Plato in the 10th century and the name stuck among Persian and Arab writers. Regardless of the moniker, folks have been talking about Mary for a while. The woman that we will call Miriam (as it would have been the name she identified herself with) lived at some point between the 3rd-century B.C.E and 3rd-century C.E (Ptolemaic-Roman Period) in the city of Alexandria…umm maybe, or maybe she was more than one woman, or not real. We’ll get to that a bit later, but let’s set the stage first.


Miriam, Alchemist Super Star

Her first biographer, the early 4th-century Neo-Platonic Greek alchemist, Zosimos of Panopolis, places her in the 1st century C.E., thus making her the first among the Western alchemists. [Sidenote: alchemy was also going on in India and China, but at this point in history there is little communication between the three branches which developed independently.] Over the years she has been attributed with creating the bain-marie, which is named for her. You may know it as the way one tempers chocolate.

A reason for Miriam to reach science sainthood alone Credit

She is attributed with inventing hermetic sealing, the Alembic three-armed still, and finding hydrochloric acid. Zosimos says she discovered how to partially neutralize polyprotic acids, thus making an acid salt (like sodium bicarbonate). His account of which is the first time neutralized salts are mentioned in the historical record. Other alchemical and hermetic discoveries have been attributed to Miriam, for instance, a recipe for making gold out of the mandrake root. As well as two processes, leukosis (whitening) and xanthosis (yellowing), which were considered steps in turning base metal into gold. Ibn al-Nadim credits her with finding Caput Mortuum. If you read the Wikipedia entry on Mary the Jewess, it incorrectly refers to Caput Mortuum as a purple dye. Caput Mortuum (Latin: dead head) is a name given to a dark purple colour, but much later. In Ibn al-Nadim’s case, he is talking about an alchemical substance that I can best described as dark matter-like, which was thought to be the first step to creating a Philosopher’s Stone. So as far as alchemists are concerned Miriam is a rock star, but her very existence has been up for debate since the 16th century.

Photos Or It Didn’t Happen

So why do people think she isn’t real? Here is the rub, none of her original work survives. In my mind there are plenty of reasons why her works did not last:

  1. The series of fires and attacks on the Library of Alexandria and her daughter libraries
  2. The anti-Jewish backlash following the Kitos Wars
  3.  The anti-Neoplatonism riots of the 3rd-century C.E

I could go on, let’s just say it was a tough time. From the third century on, Miriam is referenced in great detail in alchemical works and early chemistry, but there are no contemporary accounts of her life. There are also accounts of her deeds that vary widely. For instance, she is mentioned as being the teacher of Democritus ( c. 460 – c. 370 B.C.E.) in Egypt, as well as Alexander the Great (356 – 323 B.C.E) when he was in Syria, and also being a student of Plato (c. 427 – c. 347 B.C.E) in Greece.

Alchemical Symbol for the Philosopher’s Stone

To be fair Miriam’s teaching credits didn’t get added to her CV until much later, but unless she succeeded in making a Philosopher’s Stone, she didn’t do all the things credited to her but, does that mean she is fictitious? You know how on the internet people say “photos or it didn’t happen,” for academics, it’s, “corroborating sources to support your existence or you may not be real”.

It’s not an unreasonable position to take, but part of the reason her existence was called into question was that she was female. Surely, no Greek man would follow a female teacher. That raises the question, why would Zosimos benefit in making her up or promoting her if there was any doubt about her validity? By the time of his writing the thriving Jewish population of Alexandria, with roots going back to the conquest by Alexander the Great, had been, as Trajan’s general reported to him, “extinguished from the city” through genocide and exile. There is a theory that maybe Miriam was Gnostic or an early convert to Christianity, which may be true, but the Christians were not doing too well at the time either and were firmly against Platonic thought. Then there is the issue of gender.

In the Hellenistic world, even in Hellenized Egypt, women had no rights. Legally speaking, a woman was the property of her father until ownership transferred to a husband. They had no right to citizenship, property, or even freedom of movement. Most wealthy women were kept in what was grossly referred to as “Oriental Seclusion”, basically house arrest. This is in opposition to freedoms women had under earlier Egyptian dynasties, but at this time, there were two Egypts. The Greek Ptolemaic Egypt, and the native Egypt, which served the Ptolemaic half.

Most Greek women could not read or write and were discouraged from learning. Men were also cautioned against education women. As one Athenian reading primer taught young boys in the 4th century, “A man who teaches a woman to write should know that he is providing poison to an asp.” In that environment, calling a Jewish woman the first alchemist would probably do more to hurt your platform then help. He included her because she was simply too important to his work to exclude.

Miriam or Pseudo-Miriam?

Portrait of a Jewish Woman, Charles Landelle

Zosimos quotes Miriam directly and at length in his text, which is the oldest known alchemical work ever discovered. He refers to her as, “one of the sages”. It’s important that the person recording her was Zosimos, because his writings have survived, and we know he was a real person. We also know that he was writing about the people he considered the founders of alchemy and he treats them as historical. Most of the other sages have been confirmed as historical as well. Zosimos’ work is a practical text, not a religious one and this is important because talk of legendary alchemist goes back much farther than the 1st century, but they are clearly not real people. Zosimos is writing down what he thinks is historical fact, and he is saying very clearly that Miriam (a woman and a Jew/possibly early Christian) is the first non-mythical alchemist in Western History. That is pretty significant.

I think there is a strong basis to believe that Miriam was a real person. Her multiple monikers and discombobulated timeline I think is better explained by there being more than one Miriam. It is not that strange. Miriam is a very common name. All of the geographical areas where she pops up in later accounts also had substantial Jewish communities, ringed by early Christian groups.We also know of other female alchemists like Kleopatra the Alchemist also of Alexandria (possible student of Miriam or collaborator on the Alembic) used a pseudonym. The pseudonym may have protected her identity. It may have also been used to make her work stand out, suggesting it was inspired by, or might actually have been, the work of an earlier alchemist This name stealing happened throughout the historical record, and the alchemist did it a lot. We have for instance the 8th-century Arab alchemist Jabir Ibn Hayyan, Latinized as Geber, and the 13th-century Italian Pseudo-Geber, or fake Geber, that wrote as if he was Geber. The problem was Pseudo-Geber knew his stuff, and it took a very long time to pull apart the works attributed to Geber and say this is Ibn Hayyan, and this is Pseudo-Geber. We could be looking at the work of mothers and daughters, of women wanting to be associated with Mary the Jewess as a brand name, or just a simple mix up. I mean how many educated Jewish women could there be?

The Role of the Outsider

Unlike their Greek counterparts, many Jewish women would have known how to read and write at the time. It was seen as a significant educational advantage for children, who would be expected to start religious studies at four years old if their mother had basic literacy.  Also, literacy among Jewish men was much higher than the Alexandrian public because men needed to know how to read for religious reasons. These levels would be lower than today of course, but judging from artefacts found in the Cairo Geniza that go back to 800 C.E, the Jewish community of Fustat (Cairo) had about 35%-50% literacy in the population across all economic groups. The  Fustat community was populated mainly by refugees from the purge of Alexandria, and the Alexandrian community was known for being wealthier and better educated. While the Ptolemaic dynasty did increase literacy, it at best had 25% of  Greek men literate in Greek and less than 5% of females. Furthermore, the Alexandrian Jews were most likely bi- or tri-lingual, speaking Hebrew, Koine Greek, and maybe Aramaic as well. They would have later added Latin, Coptic, or Berber to the mix.

Alexandria just before the Romans, Jewish Quarter noted on the Eastern side by the city wall near the Hippodrome

In a prosperous community such as Alexandria, it is altogether possible to have several wealthy Jewish women finding themselves in an economic position where they were free to study and invent. Only Greek descendants of the Ptolemaic settlers could be citizens of Alexandria, so Jews could never be citizens or in positions of power. Hence, the Game of Thrones-type intrigues and marriages of powerful families were not an important issue.That meant there was no incentive to keep these privileged women up in a tower. Meanwhile, the agreement between the city leaders and the Jewish community meant Jewish women were only subject to Jewish law within the Jewish Quarter. The community at the time was also very influenced by Platonic and Hermetic writings as well as The Kabala; these women would have had access to the philosophies that spurred on alchemy.  Jewish women of a certain class, at that particular time in Alexandria’s history, had a loophole in an otherwise oppressive system. It is no surprise that some took it.

It is no surprise also that elsewhere in the Greek and then Latin world when these opportunities presented themselves, women grabbed hold with both hands. It also isn’t a far stretch to envisage a dozen or so brilliant Jewish female thinkers standing out over the years and all of their accomplishments being so outside the norm; they got compressed down to that of one person.While being on the fringes of power without legal rights is a precarious situation for a community, it provides a unique perspective. Miriam as both a religious minority and a woman would have approached the world entirely different to her Greek male counterparts.

The Importance of Alchemy

The Alchemist, Adam McLean

Alchemy today is seen as a pseudoscience and a bit silly, but in Zosimos’ time, it was a protoscience. A protoscience is any form of scientific-like inquiry into the nature of the world, built on observation, but that pre-dates scientific rigour and methodology. Like many pseudosciences, however, alchemy suffers from logical leaps based on incorrect data. Mythology had been the way people explained their world for aeons so it only makes sense that in the early days of science certain mythological “truths” would be accepted as facts to be built upon. Science owes a lot to her older sister Alchemy. It is fair to say that all the alchemist discovered that worked Science claimed for herself, leaving Alchemy with just the legacy of a fool’s dreams for gold and immortality.

Maybe there was more than one Miriam, but their legacy, along with numerous other proto-scientists, caused a paradigm shift in how we view ourselves and the world that is still affecting us to this very day.So the next time you find yourself tempering some chocolate or putting a bit of bicarb in a recipe remember Miriam and the countless others like her who quietly changed the world.

If You Want to Know More

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

A Translation of a Zosimos’ Text in an Arabic Alchemy Book (PDF) by Prof. Dr. Hassan S. El Khadem

Collection des anciens alchimistes grecs (book scan, French) by Marcelin Berthelot

Header art: a detail from an engraving in Michael Maier’s book Symbola Aurea Mensae Duodecim Nationum (1617)


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