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Hypatia from the "The School of Athens" by Raphael

Hypatia from the “The School of Athens” by Raphael

It’s Women’s History Month and I’m back with the latest installment on my favorite Lady Philosopher, Hypatia of Alexandria. This year I’m tackling Hypatia’s sister philosophers. Hypatia didn’t spring from her father’s forehead fully girded and ready for combat in the primarily male world of Late Antiquity. There is a long history of women philosophers—”lovers of wisdom”— down through the ages, and Hypatia is just one link in that chain. More than thirty-five women are attested to in the records leading up to, and contemporary with, Hypatia—and those are just the women whose heads (and intellect) rose above the crowd enough to be noticed by the decidedly biased ancient historians. One, ARETE of Cyrene (c 400/300 BCE )  ran a school of philosophy seven hundred years before Hypatia. Nine of those women studied (what early nineteenth century scholars later called) Neoplatonism. Two (that we know of) taught both men and women.

Since thirty-five is far too many women to profile, I’ll concentrate on the Neoplatonists and leave the rest for another post. (Please go to Women-philosophers.com, maintained by Kate Lindemann Ph.D., professor emerita at Mount Saint Mary College – Newburgh, New York, for overviews on more than 110 remarkable women philosophers.) When telling the stories of women scholars in history, it is impossible to separate them from their male relatives and teachers. A little context: the vast majority of people—men and women—until recent times, were illiterate, uneducated, and labored in agriculture and resource extraction. Only a small elite could afford education and that generally was reserved for the sons.

But not always.

History is filled with fathers who educated their daughters (including Theon and Hypatia). Because of genuine affection, they had no sons, or the girls were too brilliant to ignore—it didn’t matter. It happened. (Even today, research shows that a father’s encouragement distinctly improves the chances a girl will do well, and chose a career, in the STEM fields—science, technology, engineering and math.) Because the educated elite was such a small circle, these women tended to marry inside it (if they married) and have children that followed in their footsteps. If they didn’t teach directly, they educated their children, who did teach. So let’s take a look at the Neoplatonists and the extraordinary women who contributed to this philosophy’s development and dissemination.

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Princesses Behaving Badly book coverOnce upon a time, there lived a beautiful princess who wasn’t afraid to cheat, deceive, seduce or murder anyone who got in her way.

I like these kinds of books—collections of short bios of (mostly) unknown women who are remarkable for doing daring/unusual things down through history. I have one on women at sea; several on women warriors; others on women explorers, mathematicians, and scientists. They generally follow a pattern of one to two page biographies written in a breezy, modern style emphasizing the outrageousness (for her time) of the woman’s actions.

Why do I like these kinds of books? To be honest, they’re snack food—light fluffy reads that give me a break from heavy turgid research books. They also remind me that—despite what the history books tell us—some women of every age, somewhere in the world were doing remarkable things. The majority (like today) lived ordinary lives, but a few women always stood out and lived extraordinary ones. I like learning about them and being inspired to tell their stories. This kind of book is a good starting point for any historical novelist looking for inspiration.

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Hypatia: Hher Life and Times coverMy writing is drawing some attention. This time it’s my non-fiction collection of essays about Hypatia. A couple of months ago I received an intriguing email from a science radio show. Someone there had heard about my book and thought Hypatia would be a good subject for an interview. Ever eager to promote greater knowledge about this neglected woman scholar, I said yes and sent off a copy of my book. They loved it! Last month I had a lovely conversation with the producer and interviewer. This month the interview is up for your listening pleasure at Science for the People as “Hypatia and Women in STEM” (science, technology, engineering and mathematics). Enjoy!

I had no idea when I pulled these essays and articles together a year and half ago, Hypatia: Her Life and Times would become so popular. I’ve sold copies around the world and it ranks in the top twenty of books on ancient history sold on iTunes (right after Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire). Hypatia has quite a fan club in cyber space. If you want more information about the book, check out the this page on my web site. Thanks to everyone to who has supported indie publishing by buying and reviewing this book!

Reconstruction of Lindow Man

Reconstruction of the “Lindow Man” bog body. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Samhain–the night of the dead. Yevetha knew from the ice around her heart there was one more ghost to walk the night and haunt her dreams. She clutched a tiny fur blanket to her sunken chest and rocked back and forth, keening. Sixteen summers ago she had ripped a bloody baby from the womb of her dying daughter and had wrapped him in the fur.

Yevetha had searched in the bogs for the rare herbs that would bring on her milk and had endured the pain caused to an aging body as it prepared to nurse the tiny infant. Her love had been rewarded as Bohumil grew into a fine strong young man with his mother’s blue eyes.

At the waning of the last full moon, Bohumil had come of an age to marry. He had packed for the hand of days it would take him to travel to the ocean tribes and set out through the forest to trade for a bride price.  The full moon returned.  Bohumil did not.

Yevetha pulled her worn skin cloak tighter about her shoulders and turned to the fire pit at the back of the hut.  The cramped space reeked of peat smoke and the herbs drying in the thatch ceiling. She pushed at a tangle of coarse gray hair, leaving a smudge of soot across one cheek.

Yevetha had seen forty-six winters. She was weary and there was no one to replace her as healer now that the Sun priests had outlawed the worship of the Great Mother and all Her arts. She spat on the fire. For twenty years the Sun priests had cursed her life. They had converted the village men to their Sun worship and fewer and fewer women met in the secret glade to keep the covenant with the Mother Goddess.

Yevetha pulled a bronze knife from her belt and stretched to cut several herbs from the store in the ceiling. Bitter rue for grief, sweet rosemary for remembrance and rough hemp for dreams. She took a figure made of twigs from a plain reed basket and tied the tear-stained fur around its waist with a twist of straw. Continue Reading »

Normally, I restrict this blog to historical notes and book reviews, but this is a special occasion. My book Selene of Alexandria is a featured read this Saturday, October 26, at The Fussy Librarian, a website that offers personalized ebook recommendations. You choose from thirty genres and indicate preferences about content and the computer works its magic. I’ve signed up for the service and get a personalized list of ebook recommendations every day. All the recommended books cost $5.99 or less and have rankings of 4 stars or better. Check it out at TheFussyLibrarian.com

Selene of Alexandria CoverFor those not familiar with my novel, here’s the back cover blurb:

“…readers will be captivated” – Historical Novel Society

“…an entertaining and enlightening novel….a fine read through and through.” – Midwest Book Reviews

“… does what historical fiction does best—weave historical fact, real-life historical figures, and attention to detail with page-turning, plot-driven fiction.” – The Copperfield Review

This story of ambition, love and political intrigue brings to life colorful characters and an exotic time and place. In A.D. 412 Alexandria, against the backdrop of a city torn by religious and political strife, Selene struggles to achieve her dream of becoming a physician–an unlikely goal for an upper class Christian girl. Hypatia, the famed Lady Philosopher of Alexandria and the Augustal Prefect Orestes offer their patronage and protection. But will it be enough to save Selene from murderous riots, the machinations of a charismatic Bishop and–most dangerous of all–her own impulsive nature?

Cover of Daughters of Copper WomanSometimes a book grabs me by the heart and won’t let go. Daughters of Copper Woman is one of those books. I’ve been fascinated by myths, legends and folk tales since I was small. I devoured the children’s books about Greek myths and quickly moved on to Norse legends and Grimm’s tales. For the most part I enjoyed them as adventure and hero stories filled with fantasy, but (except for fables) little in the way of morals or values. I have an informal collection of the classics, plus books from the Middle East, Africa and Asia. Knowing my passion, it’s not surprising my daughter gave me this book for Mother’s Day.

First published in 1981, Daughters of Copper Woman is a wonderful retelling of myths and history through the voices of elderly First Nations women from the American Northwest. The author Anne Cameron is of Celtic descent, but lived close to the reservation on Vancouver Island and chronicled their tales in this book and its sequel Dzelarhons: Mythology of the Northwest Coast. Copper Woman is considered an underground classic and has sold over 200,000 copies, in many languages, world-wide.

So my question: “How the hell did I miss this book for the last thirty-two years?”

From the opening story “Copper Woman”:

And then the Creator, who is neither male nor female, man nor woman, but both, and something more than either…took the shells of the sea and the minerals of the rocks and fashioned a skeleton…took the salt water of the ocean and made from it blood…took handfuls of dirt and on the skeleton fashioned a body, which was then encased in skin, made from the skin of the Creator and the same color as copper…she became First Woman, she became Copper Woman.

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WWII PosterReaders of this blog know I like to highlight fiction and non-fiction that present capable women with strong personalities. I read a post in a forum recently that intrigued me. The person was looking for historical fiction recommendations, but “none of those anachronistic modern women dressed up in historical costumes crap.” I don’t think he was disparaging time travel fiction and, yes, I’ve read a few stories where the women seem to have more modern sensibilities than might be warranted. But not all strong females in historical fiction are anachronistic. I’ve read other blog posts by historical fiction writers also deploring recent criticism about strong women described by readers as “too modern” in spite of ample historical evidence that women did and thought as the writers wrote them. Where does the dissonance come from? Why would a reader think a woman couldn’t be a doctor in Late Antiquity, captain a whaling ship, or teach men to fly planes during WWII — all documented events?

I blame school history books. The protagonist in my novel, Selene of Alexandria is a young woman who wants to become a physician in fifth century Alexandria — not a “healer” or midwife — a trained and apprenticed physician. There is ample written and archaeological evidence of women physicians through the ages, including this period. But if you don’t look outside the traditional history texts, you wouldn’t know that. Continue Reading »

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