3 Great Female Alchemists
These women decorously represent female participation in the art of alchemy.
The fourth premise of the Emerald Tablet reads: “The Sun is its father, the moon its mother,” perhaps referring to that fundamental metaphor within the Ars Magna, known as the alchemical marriage. The union of two forces is the essential act of the work, solve et coagula, and on a given plain, it is evident that feminine and masculine energies star in this binomial system that can, potentially, be purified in pursuit of unity.
In any case, if we were to unravel the metaphor and return to the prime act which inspires it, then just as the feminine principle –the still and liquid mercury– is a fundamental element within the great work, we could claim the same in the active presence of women in practical alchemy: it is simply an essential ingredient in the process.
The following are three women who decorously represent the female figure in the alchemical praxis.
Mary the Jewess (3rd century)
Since none of her original texts survive, we know of Mary the Jewess, also known as Maria Prophetissima, through the texts of many other alchemists. She is particularly referenced by Zosimos of Panopolis, who quoted her with great respect, and even admiration. It is generally believed that he was the first one to call her “Moses’ daughter”, a name that would lead her to be known as “Mary the Jewess”, although she wasn’t Jewish. The Arabs, however, preferred calling her “Plato’s daughter”.
Her greatest impact was inventing new and improved alchemical equipment; particularly a heating and distilling device. Maria used metal, clay, and glass to build, and she preferred crystal containers since “one can see without touching”. Her most important contribution —and one which we continue to use today— was the balneum Mariae, or “water bath” in English: a double boiler that generates a subtle heat. She emphasized the masculine and female nature of metals, and observed they had a body, a soul and a spirit, which could be revealed through complex alchemical processes.
Cleopatra the Alchemist (Kleopatra Chrisopoeia)
We know even less about her than we do of Mary the Jewess, but it is generally believed she was her closest successor. One of her texts still survives: Chrysopeia of Cleopatra, translated as Gold-making, which contains some of her diagrams and symbols, proving her particular creative genius. In an attempt to quantify the practical side of alchemy, Cleopatra experimented with weights and measurements. Some say that she could trap sunrays using mysterious resources and she used horse manure as a heat source.
Hypatia (c. 350 AD)
Hypatia was the daughter and disciple of philosopher and mathematician Theon Alexandricus, and she is the first known female mathematician. She studied philosophy, mathematics, astronomy and music, and she was a charming teacher at the Musaeum in Alexandria, who accepted students from different religions when it was common to separate Christians, Pagans and Jews.
She wrote The Astronomical Cannon, reviewed Ptolemy’s Tables, and inventoried numerous celestial bodies. She also improved the astrolabe’s design, which was used to locate the position of the stars. Her most prominent work, however, was in the field of algebra; she wrote 13 books with a commentary on the arithmetic of Greek mathematician Diophantus, in which she proposed several solutions to the many problems he proposed.
Many of her works were lost when the Library of Alexandria was destroyed, and her death was no less tragic. She was murdered and dismembered by Christian fanatics. Today, when people speak of the history of mathematics and astronomy, hers is the only female name to be mentioned.
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