FAQ: Hypatia Of Alexandria
Does the name Hypatia of Alexandria mean anything to you? When I first encountered it in the early ’70s it meant nothing to me, either. That is how thoroughly the official historians of the last 1500 years had done the job of eradicating evidence of women in every field from mathematics and philosophy to astronomy and invention. Although she was the subject of some 19th century works of fiction, it took feminist scholarship to resurrect her reputation as the greatest polymath of the post-classical era, the head of the School of Philosophy at Alexandria. She was a brilliant mathematician, an astronomer, and a prominent lecturer on the philosophy of Plotinus. She was, of course, a pagan and that did not sit well with the local Christian Bishop, Cyril. By the time of Hypatia, circa 370 to 415 C.E., the church had abandoned its earliest roots in which women had been priests and bishops. An ascetic strain of religiosity had taken over the hierarchy and a Judaic misogyny had marred the priesthood. Although pockets of goddess worship and the ancient ‘Mystery Schools’ survived, their days were numbered and with them the best minds of the ancient pagan world.
FAQ: Hypatia Of Alexandria
As the most distinguished scholar of her day, “Hypatia wore a philosoper’s robe as a male would. She drove her own chariot, sailed her own boat, rode blooded horses alone out into Alexandria’s encircling deserts. She stood before thousands when she spoke and, being both young and lovely, knew many men. Before she was twenty, she had surpassed her famous father in heer mastery of mathematics and astronomy.” In her fictional biography of Hypatia, author Ki Longfellow maintains that the practices of the Mystery School of Alexandria contributed to her demise. Longfellow makes the point that in Hypatia’s era, alchemy was still regarded as the summit of human wisdom and as the most learned woman of her age, Hypatia would have been an initiate despite her allegiance to reason and logic rather than experimental ‘science’. Whether she was a believer or merely underwent initiation as a matter of form we do not know but contemporaries who wished her ill could use her association with the Mystery School to mar her reputation amongst Christians.
A Woman Scorned
In her professional capacity, Hypatia was famous for having corrected many texts – including her father’s version of the Almagest and other works in geometry for the manuscript collections of the great Library of Alexandria. However, as the Christian church gained temporal as well as ‘spiritual’ power, the schools and libraries of the ancient world – even the famed academies of Athens that gave us Plato and Socrates – were destroyed by Christian mobs and the soldiers of Christian emperors.
Whether motivated by pure misogyny or political expediency, priests began to preach the evils of permitting this pagan ‘whore’ to appear in public lecturing to thousands, mostly men! Although she was apparently courted by the governour of Alexandria, Orestes, she refused to marry and be subject to a husband. But the Christian state was about submission, not independence and her freedom of movement irked Cyril, the Patriarch of Alexandria. In some ways the priests and bishops had far less freedom than Hypatia did since those who had not been born wealthy depended on Church stipends for their upkeep. Never mind that their ideal was to live in holy poverty! Hypatia, as the pre-eminent authority of her day attracted wealthy patrons and students from all over the pagan world. However, it is thought that her political alignment with Orestes in favour of a secular -as opposed to a religious – state was the excuse the Christians, led by the notorious misogynist ‘Peter the Lector’, seized upon as an excuse to kill her. Whatever the motive, her death suggests an unusually strong level of personal hatred. She was dragged from her carriage into a church, stripped and skinned to death with the edges of sea shells and broken tiles. As if that were not enough, her body was then hacked to pieces, burnt, and the bones scattered for carrion. That sounds kind of personal to me…
What we know for certain is that apart from a few treatises, her voluminous correspondence with other scholars and the majority of her books on various aspects of mathematics and astronomy were collected from libraries throughout the Hellenistic world by the Church and burnt in public bonfires after her murder. Over the next ten centuries the Church and patriarchal historians systematically omitted Hypatia and her intellectual heirs from the “official” version of History. Would Hypatia’s fate be any different today if she happened to be born in, say, Afghanistan?
© Delia O’Riordan 2012 – 2014
The books cited above are available in Delia’s “A List” Amazon Shop HERE.