Mary the Jew 23

Female Alchemist

Cooks know a Bain-Marie is a ‘double boiler’, a water-bath used for delicate cooking such as making custard. The ingredients are placed in a bowl and gently heated over a pan of boiling water, or individual dishes are stood in a tray of water that is put in the oven.

Bain Marie is French for ‘Mary’s Bath’ and you won’t be surprised to know that it was invented by a woman called Mary, or Mary the Jew to be exact. In bygone days, folks were punctilious in their racism. What may surprise you was Mary was not a celebrity kosher chef but an alchemist.

None of her works survive. She is only known from quotes in a compendium of writings called the Book of Hermetic Lore. These were fragments from different alchemy treatise put together in the 7th or 8th century in Constantinople.

By the 10th century Arab scientists considered her among the most influential alchemists of all time. It was, of course, from Arabic translations of Byzantine works that Mary was re-discovered in the west as ‘one of the sages’. Specifically in the preserved fragments of the writings of Zosimus Alchemista, who lived in Southern Egypt around 300 AD.

Zosimus credits Mary with the invention of three fundamental pieces of alchemists’ kit: Bain Marie used for heating, alembic for distillation and the condenser for separation. The latter two were used from medieval times to distil brandy from wine, and to extract essential oils from flowers in perfumery. Modern versions are used today.

Zosimus is vague about when Mary lived. He thought it was a couple of hundred years before his own time. A few hundred years later, a Byzantine scholar had moved her birth back to the Golden Age of ancient Athens, around 400 BC. Here she is mentioned as the teacher of the Greek philosopher Democritus, famous for his theory the universe was made of indivisible atoms surrounded by empty space.

Sound familiar?

Still others put Mary back further in time claiming she was Miriam, the sister of Moses; himself considered an alchemist and a magician, due to his ability to confound the Egyptian priests before Pharaoh, to say nothing of unleashing ten plagues upon a hapless Egypt while attempting to release the Children of Israel from bondage.

Despite the lack of any historical information about Mary, some say it is indisputable she existed, claiming she is mentioned by the early Greek writer Ostanes. Unfortunately this overlooks the fact Ostanes was not a historical figure either; merely a name attributed to a huge number of alchemical texts around 500 AD: some thousand years after he was supposed to have lived.

Pliny the Elder, writing at the beginning of the Christian period, believed Ostanes was a mythical Persian who introduced magic to ancient Athens and gave the Greeks a mania for this ‘monstrous craft’.  As with Mary, none of  Ostanes’ writings exist, yet like her, by the 500 AD,  he was considered one of the great authorities in alchemy and magic.

23 thoughts on “Mary the Jew

  1. Reply kim Jun 14,2017 8:39 am

    Fascinating information. Thanks for sharing and informing!

  2. Reply Olga Núñez Miret May 29,2017 10:09 am

    I’m not a great or big cook, Paul, but even I’ve heard of Bain-marie (or baño María in Spanish) for a long time, but never thought to check where it came from. I agree that considering how difficult it was for information to travel in the past, the fact that some figure (vaguely historical) is mentioned in a number of sources indicates, at the very least, that it must have grabbed some authors’ imagination. Although, often legends are more appealing than reality but not always. 😉

    • Reply Paul Jun 1,2017 12:09 am

      Hi Olga, I think it surprised everyone (especially me) to discover it is a piece of alchemist’s equipment.. perhaps that is why custards come out gold?

  3. Reply dgkaye May 28,2017 8:11 pm

    Fascinating post Paul. I always find it so interesting to learn where many terms originated from and your findings are always enlightening. 🙂

  4. Reply Shehanne Moore May 27,2017 6:32 pm

    Paul, another great post and I knew nothing about Mary, so this was interesting to say the least. Thought provoking in fact about the fragments that do survive, the mentions she gets. To me ‘legends’ are stubborn and suggest some truth xxxx

    • Reply Paul May 27,2017 7:15 pm

      You might be right the core of legends does tend to be founded in truth and to be persistent… but often sadly impossible to date. Plus over the centuries stories are reinterpreted to suit the audience… which means details are lost. For example look how many times reboots King Arthur has had from Geoffrey of Monmouth to the idylls of the king to Guy Ritchey. to make matters worse, up to the last half century there and scientific dating methods such as radio-carbon etc. there as no way to know how old any document was… up to around the 18 century something 1,000 years old and something 200 years old would both be considered equally ancient. So you are right, legends do have a persistent core founded in truth but often that truth is so glossed over as to be very little help in tracking them down.

  5. Reply Dewin Nefol May 27,2017 2:31 pm

    Hey Paul,

    Thank you for a most intriguing post.

    Like all things Alchemical, much of what we know is veiled in mystery and our knowledge pieced together and gleaned from ancient texts and speculation. I think that is half of the pleasure in engaging with Alchemy in the first place.

    One author, Diana Fernando, suggests that Ostanes introduced magic amongst the Greeks when he accompanied Xerxes on his expeditions in the Graeco-Persian Wars. She continues her account of Ostanes by attributing the word ‘Baetylos’ – the ‘Stone with a Soul’ and/or ‘the Stone that has a spirit’ to him…an idea that was later adopted by the Greeks as ‘lithoi empsychoi’ or divine stones.

    Another Ostanes is also included, along with Stephanos, as one of the early Alexandrian alchemists in the Corpus Hermeticum. This particular Ostanes wrote on tincturing and the colouring of metals. In The Divine and Scared Art he listed the the materials that made up the ‘Divine Water’, which is said ‘to raise the dead and destroy the living’. Among the Arabian treatises, a Book of Ostanes turned up with the works of Geber.

    I have not conducted any further research into the information Diana Fernando has cited but thought I’d leave what she has written here for your enjoyment and further pleasure. Happy investigating should you choose to seek validation…I am certain there will be gold at the end of your journey! ‘Aurum nostrum non est aurum vulgi’ 🙂

    Thanks again for an interesting article. Enjoy your weekend.

    Namaste 🙂


    • Reply Paul May 27,2017 5:08 pm

      And Dewin, thank you for a fascinating contribution to the article. It adds immeasurably to it. All my best Paul

      • Reply Dewin Nefol May 28,2017 4:29 am

        My pleasure Paul. Thank you for the article posted. I hope to return at a future time and read further from your fascinating Blog.

        Until next time…continue to sift the fine from the coarse and revel in the gold.

        Namaste 🙂


  6. Reply Mary Smith May 27,2017 2:17 pm

    So now I know who to blame when my custard curdles! Fascinating article, Paul, which makes me want to learn more about Mary and other female alchemists.

  7. Pingback: Smorgasbord Reblog – Mary the Jew – by Paul Andruss – One for the cooks amongst us. | Smorgasbord – Variety is the spice of life

  8. Reply Sally Cronin May 27,2017 10:09 am

    I have been using a Marie-bain or Bain- marie for donkey’s years and will now give it the respect it deserves. I am sure that there are many women whose inventions were swept under the carpet or relabelled with a masculine name. Brilliant as always Paul and have a reblog going out this afternoon.

  9. Reply Robbie Cheadle May 25,2017 6:09 am

    Fascinating read, Paul. Who would have thought that a “double boiler” came from so far back and from such an interesting source.

  10. Reply Jan Malique May 22,2017 12:40 pm

    Thank you for this post. It was only the other day that I was searching for female alchemists, Mary was mentioned. Alas the list isn’t extensive and I believe there more who go unacknowledged.

  11. Reply Stepen Perkins May 22,2017 2:07 am

    Point well taken with regard to the reliability of overall historical record However, it is also interesting to note, that no verifiable historical reference has ever been found to substantiate the existence of a prophet named Jesus of Nazareth during the period of the first century, made by either Pliny the Elder or any other major Roman historian approximate to that period.

    • Reply Paul May 23,2017 12:15 am

      Stephen, your comment is brilliantly ambiguous.You are absolutely right, there is no independent evidence for Jesus of Nazareth outside the gospels. Despite the Testimonium Flavianum in the Syriac version of Josephus- the near contemporary Jewish historian. Indeed in Josephus’ list of town and villages of Galilee there is no Nazareth. This leads some to wonder if Nazarene was actually a corruption of Nazorean – a Jewish religious vow (cant remember the details). In my opinion Pliny the Elder probably did not mention Christianity because it was not significant at the time. However Seutonius mentions Claudius expelled the Jews from Rome in the 40s(I think)because they were causing trouble on behalf of someone called Chrestus (Make of that what you will). Also a large part of Tacitus’ work have gone missing (some as recently as the last 100 years)- it is said these books cover the early Christian period. I would be interested to know your thoughts on faith and the reliability of sacred books in the face of any lack of independent verifiable documents as I find the subject endlessly fascinating. If you are interested I can recommend Barbara Thiering’s ‘The book that Jesus Wrote’. It is very thought provoking. Thanks for the insight and input. Best Paul

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