Miriam the Jewess

Miriam the Jewess (sometime in the 1st to 4th century AD).

Maria the Jewess (or Maria Prophetissima, Maria Prophetissa, Mary Prophetissa, Miriam the Prophetess) is a figure appearing first in the works of the Gnostic Christian writer Zosimos of Panopolis.

Zosimus’ sources are not clear, and may be developed from Miriam, sister of Moses, but on the basis of his comments she is estimated to have lived anywhere between the first and third centuries AD. She is attributed with the invention of several kinds of chemical apparatus and is considered to be the first nonfictitious alchemist in the Western world.

The primary source for the existence of a Maria the Jewess in the context of alchemy is Zosimos of Panopolis, who wrote in the 4th century the oldest alchemy books known. Zosimos describes several of her experiments and instruments. In his writings, Mary is almost always mentioned as having lived in the past and being one of the “sages.”

George Syncellus, a Byzantine chronicler of the eighth century, presents Mary as a teacher of Democritus, whom she met in Memphis, Egypt at the time of Pericles. The tenth century Kitāb al-Fihrist of Ibn al-Nadim cites her as one of the fifty-two most famous alchemists, knowing the preparation of the caput mortuum (nigredo, or black phase). The Roman philosopher Morieno called her “Mary the Prophetess” and the Arabs knew her as the “Daughter of Plato”, a name that in Western alchemical texts was reserved for the white sulfur.

In the Alexander book (2nd part) of the Azerbaijani Persian poet Nizami, Maria, a Syrian princess, visits the court of Alexander the Great, and learns from Aristotle (384 BC – 322 BC), among other things, the art of making gold.

Though none of her writings have survived, quotes credited to her are found in hermetic writings. The most notable of those quotes is found in an extract made by an anonymous Christian philosopher, named The Dialogue of Mary and Aros on the Magistery of Hermes, in which are described and named operations that would later be the basis of Alchemy, leukosis (whitening) and xanthosis (yellowing). One was made by grinding and the other by calcination. This work describes for the first time an acid salt and other acids that can be identified with acetic acid. There are also several recipes for making gold, even from root vegetables such as the Mandragora.

Several cryptic alchemical precepts have been attributed to Maria Prophetissa. She is said to have spoken of the union of opposites:

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

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.

Psychologist Carl Jung used this as a metaphor for the process of wholeness and individuation.

Related Apparatus

Mary is said to have discovered hydrochloric acid, though this is not accepted by most science texts.

Maria, alongside Agathodaimon, pseudo-Democritus and Hermes Trismegistus, has also been mentioned by Zosimos of Panopolis in his descriptions pertaining devices such as the tribikos, the kerotakis and the bath, although her alleged contributions are disputed and not clear.


The tribikos was a kind of alembic with three arms that was used to obtain substances purified by distillation. No one knows for sure whether Mary the Jewess was its inventor, but Zosimos credits the first description of this instrument to her. In her writings (quoted by Zosimos), she recommends that the copper or bronze used to create the tubes be the thickness of a frying-pan, and the joint between these tubes and the still-head be sealed with flour-paste.


The kerotakis is a device used to heat substances used in alchemy and collect vapors. It is an airtight container with a sheet of copper suspended on the top. When working properly, all joints are in a tight vacuum. The use of such sealed containers in the Hermetic arts led to the term “hermetically sealed”. The mystical kerotakis was a reconstitution of the formation process of gold that was going on in the bowels of the earth.

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


Her name survives in the invention of the water-bath or bain-marie, extensively used in chemical processes in which gentle heat is necessary. This term was introduced by Arnold of Villanova in the fourteenth century AD.


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3 thoughts on “Miriam the Jewess

  1. Angela Marie Sorenson

    Thanks for your information on Maria the Prophetess. If you know of any other information on her, would you let me know where I might read? I have no education of her what so ever, nor have I ever heard of her name, but I dreamed of her and was told her name in my sleep. I was trying to connect with my past lives when I heard her name in my dream state. I just thought there must be something I should be learning from her. I did not know if what Zosimos wrote is written in English?

  2. Peter

    You will find a whole chapter devoted to her in Raphael Patai’s book “The Jewish Alchemists.” Yes, much of what Zosimos (and others) wrote about her is in English in Patai’s book. The above is actually just a wikipedia article, republished.

    1. Travis Dow Post author

      I actually just bought that book! It was really expensive for some reason which is why it took me so long. Yep, this will be updated when I read it. It was tough to find real stuff about her, and not something that was written a thousand years later as legend.


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