Wednesday, May 23, 2018

The Origin of Miriam bat Isaac: Guest Post by June Trop

The Origin of Miriam bat Isaac

People often ask me how I came to create my protagonist, Miriam bat Isaac. The short answer is a book fell on my toe.

I was taking a course on Concepts in Chemistry with no idea for a paper about a significant early concept. In desperation, I wandered through the library stacks, hoping an idea would strike me. And something did. The book that fell on my toe opened to a page about Maria Hebrea, a Jewish woman from Ancient Alexandria who became the legendary founder of Western alchemy and held her place for 1500 years as the most celebrated woman of the Western World. I was in shock! How is it that as a chemistry student, I’d never heard of such a famous woman?

The answer was that as an alchemist, very little would be known about her. In fact, all alchemists wrote under a pseudonym to 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.

And so, the bad news was that I’d have trouble finding information about her for my paper. But the good news was that with so little known, I was free to invent a life for her. So, I gave her a name, a twin brother intent on becoming a gladiator, a servant who had an ear for gossip, a worldly potbellied dwarf who knew every sleazy waterfront inn, and a handsome jeweler who would introduce her to the League of Alchemists and a lot more.

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

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