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Who was Miriam bat Isaac?

Sixteenth Century Depiction of Maria Hebrea


      I’ve modeled my heroine, Miriam bat Isaac, on the woman known as Maria Hebrea, who probably lived in Alexandria, Egypt during the First Century CE. When I encountered a reference to her work in a course on the historical development of concepts in chemistry, I wondered how a Jewish woman from Ancient Alexandria became the legendary founder of Western alchemy and held her place for 1500 years as the most celebrated woman of the Western World.


     In the alchemical literature, Maria Hebrea is also referred to as Mary the Jewess or Miriam the Prophetess, sister of Moses. Like her, all alchemists wrote under the name of a deity, prophet, or philosopher from an earlier time to enhance the authenticity of their claims or shield themselves from persecution. Although the tradition among all the crafts and mystical cults was to guard the secrecy of their work, persecution was a real risk for alchemists, who could be accused of and summarily executed for conspiring to debase the currency.


     So while Miriam bat Isaac is fictive, her personage is based on the once-famous but now little-known Maria Hebrea, alchemist extraordinaire. If you’ve ever used a double boiler, then you’ve profited from one of her many practical inventions.

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