Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Two Prophetesses for Burns Night

IN HONOR OF THE SCOTTISH BARD: THE SECRET HISTORY OF WOMEN DISTILLERS (Kathleen Willcox, VINEPAIR). The article is not in honor of Rabbie Burns Night, which is tonight, but this post is. The first woman distiller listed in the article is of interest to PaleoJudaica:
Mary the Jewess, a.k.a Maria the Jewess, Mary the Prophetess, or Miriam, truly is the First Lady of Hooch. Many of the details of Mary’s life have been lost to history, but thanks to the 4th century Gnostic Christian writer Zosimos of Panopolis, who wrote about Mary’s groundbreaking work in Peri kaminon kai organon (On Furnaces and Apparatuses), we can be confident that she essentially invented the still. Mary lived around 200 CE and has been credited with the invention of several chemical instruments, one of which is the tribikos (a type of alembic still). The goal of her early still was non-boozy: Mary was attempting to master the art of making gold from base metals. She is considered to be the Western world’s first true alchemist, and today, while we aren’t trying to turn lead into precious gold, her work helps us turn base materials like corn and water into… whiskey! A model of her device is still used in some parts of Europe to make brandy and whiskey. It’s used in America, too, often to make moonshine.
There's more on Mary the Jewess (Maria Hebraea) or Mary the Prophetess (Maria Prophetissa) in this rather technical Jewish Encyclopedia article by Moses Gaster or this more accessible popular essay at the History of Alchemy website. The bottom line is that she is first mentioned by the alchemist Zosimus of Panopolis around 300 CE; she may or may not have been a real person; and if she was real, we don't know when she lived except that it was before Zosimus. As the quote above indicates, she didn't distill whisky, but she did reportedly invent some of the technology that would in due course lead to whisky distilling. Here is an unattributed account of The practise of Mary the Prophetess in the Alchymicall Art at the Sacred Texts Archive.

Reading about Mary the Prophetess inevitably made me think of another prophetess associated with distilling, or at least with a place very much associated with distilling. The remote Isle of Jura on the western coast of Scotland is especially known for its whisky distillery. And this distillery produces an excellent single malt in honor of the island's prophetess. The legend of the Jura Prophetess is as follows:
"A little after 1700, the Campbells of Jura drove away an old prophetess, despite the fact that she was renowned for her wisdom. By way of revenge, she foretold that the last Campbell would leave the island destitute and blind in one eye, with his few belongings in a cart pulled by a single white horse. The prophecy came true in 1938, when Charles Campbell, having lost the sight of one eye in the First World War, fell on hard times and led his white horse down to the pier for the last time. Like Jura itself, Prophecy is a whisky impregnated with such stories: each drop recounts a different legend."
That's all I have been able to find about her, but I'm planning on visiting the Isle of Jura this summer, and I will report back on any local legends I encounter there.

Meanwhile, there you have it. Two prophetesses and a fine single malt for Burns Night. Sláinte! And remember to be nice to prophetesses.