Encyclopedia Womannica

Beautiful Minds: Maria the Jewess

Episode Summary

Maria the Jewess (c. 0 and 300 CE) was an alchemist in Ancient Egypt.

Episode Notes

Every weekday, listeners explore the trials, tragedies, and triumphs of groundbreaking women throughout history who have dramatically shaped the world around us. In each 5 minute episode, we’ll dive into the story behind one woman listeners may or may not know -- but definitely should. These diverse women from across space and time are grouped into easily accessible and engaging monthly themes like Pioneers, Dreamers, Villainesses, STEMinists, Warriors & Social Justice Warriors, and many more. Encyclopedia Womannica is hosted by WMN co-founder and award-winning journalist Jenny Kaplan. The bite-sized episodes pack painstakingly researched content into fun, entertaining, and addictive daily adventures.

Encyclopedia Womannica was created by Liz Kaplan and Jenny Kaplan, executive produced by Jenny Kaplan, and produced by Liz Smith, Cinthia Pimentel, and Grace Lynch. Special thanks to Shira Atkins and Edie Allard. Theme music by Andi Kristins.

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Episode Transcription

Hello! From Wonder Media Network, I’m Jenny Kaplan and this is Encyclopedia Womannica. 

In case you’re just tuning in, here’s the deal. Every weekday, we’re telling the story of a different woman from history who you may not know about but definitely should. Each month is themed and this month we’re talking about Beautiful Minds, intellectual giants whose work had an extraordinary impact.

Today we’re heading back to Ancient Egypt around the first century CE to talk about a woman who changed the world of alchemy and thereby created a tool still found in chemistry labs and kitchens alike. Meet Maria the Jewess. 

Not much is known about Maria’s life, but she is written about in the works of famous ancient Alchemists including Zosimus of Panopolis. She was also known as Maria the Hebrew and Maria the Prophetess. 

Maria was a practitioner of Alchemy, which was essentially the precursor to modern chemistry. Alchemists particularly sought to understand how to transform less valuable substances into more valuable ones. Most famously, they worked to change lead into gold. Alchemists  believed that by figuring out how to purify substances, they were connecting with the divine. 

Another major goal of ancient alchemy was to find a substance that would extend life. In other words, for those of you who are Harry Potter fans, Nicolas Flamel, the creator of the Sorcerer’s Stone, was an alchemist. 

Alchemy existed for centuries, from Hermes Trismegistus to Isaac Newton. But the process was forever changed by Maria. 

Maria is believed to have founded a school in Alexandria where she taught the craft. She is credited with saying, “Just as a man is composed of four elements, likewise is copper; and just as a man results from the association of liquids, of solids, and of the spirit, so does copper.”

Another teaching of hers was, “Join the male and the female and you will find what is sought.” 

Maria is said to have perfected one of the stages of the alchemical process: Distillation. In The Emerald Tablet, the most famous alchemical text, the distillation process is described as, “It rises from Earth to Heaven and descends again to Earth, thereby combining within itself the powers of both the Above and the Below.” 

Maria observed the process of distillation in nature and created a device to mimic her findings. She used one vessel, filled it with liquid and then put another vessel inside of it to use to melt the material she wanted to distill. In other words, she created a double boiler. 

As you may know, that device, which is still used in kitchens and labs today, is called a Bain-Marie or Mary’s bath. The Bain-Marie ensures the material that is being melted heats evenly and that the temperature doesn’t get too high. 

There is some evidence that double boilers existed before Maria. Still, she clearly made an impact as it’s known by her name to this day. 

As scientific inquiry shifted from alchemy to chemistry, practitioners continued to utilize Maria’s design for distillation. And in kitchens all over the world, Bain-Marie’s are essential for some very tasty items including: cheesecake, custard and sauces like hollandaise. They’re used to melt chocolate and to thicken condensed milk for a wide variety of treats. And Bain-Maries are also used as a way to keep dishes warm. 

It’s unlikely that Maria succeeded in her alchemical quests to best death. That said, her legacy remains in the very useful tool that bears her name.

Tune in tomorrow for the story of another Beautiful Mind.

Special thanks to Liz Kaplan, my favorite sister and co-creator.

Talk to you tomorrow!