It’s March—Women’s History Month and the anniversary of a remarkable woman’s death. In AD 415, a Christian mob murdered Hypatia, the renowned Lady Philosopher of Alexandria. The vicious act shocked the city and shamed the early Church. Socrates Scholasticus tells the story in his Historia Ecclesiastica:
Hypatia, daughter of the philosopher Theon, who made such attainments in literature and science, as to far surpass all the philosophers of her own time…For all men on account of her extraordinary dignity and virtue admired her the more. Yet even she fell a victim to the political jealousy which at that time prevailed. For as she had frequent interviews with Orestes, it was calumniously reported among the Christian populace, that it was she who prevented Orestes from being reconciled to the bishop. Some of them therefore, hurried away by a fierce and bigoted zeal, whose ringleader was a reader named Peter, waylaid her returning home, and dragging her from her carriage, they took her to the church called Caesareum, where they completely stripped her, and then murdered her with tiles. After tearing her body in pieces, they took her mangled limbs to a place called Cinaron, and there burnt them. This affair brought not the least opprobrium, not only upon Cyril, but also upon the whole Alexandrian church. And surely nothing can be farther from the spirit of Christianity than the allowance of massacres, fights, and transactions of that sort. This happened in the month of March during Lent, in the fourth year of Cyril’s episcopate, under the tenth consulate of Honorius, and the sixth of Theodosius.”
Hypatia, painted by Charles William Mitchell in 1885.
Since that time, only fragments about Hypatia’s life have come down to us; allowing poets, novelists, playwrights, scientists, feminists and religionists (both pro and anti) to appropriate her story for themselves. Her story has resonated down through the years, touching many people. She’s a major character in my novel Selene of Alexandria, the subject of the recent movie Agora directed by Alejandro Amenabar, and she rated a plate in Judy Chicago’s massive art piece The Dinner Party. She’s the subject of plays, poetry, propaganda and new age pagan polemics. Her life is represented in art and music. But what do we really know about her? Not much.
In researching my book, I waded through a literary swamp, with no guide, trying to get at some coherent view of Hypatia and her story. She was young/middle aged/older when she died. She was single/married/promiscuous/virginal. She was a pagan/witch/Christian. She was a brilliant mathematician/scientist to some and, according to others, contributed nothing worthwhile in either discipline. I read the few primary sources, but didn’t have the academic background to evaluate their usefulness. Socrates was a contemporary, but a church historian. Damascius was a pagan who wrote a full generation later. John of Nikiu wrote 200 years later. Who had an agenda and what was it?
Two scholars have attempted to pull the pieces together in book form in the last two decades: Maria Dzielska, a Polish classics scholar, with Hypatia of Alexandria; and mathematics professor Michael A. B. Deakin with Hypatia of Alexandria: Mathematician and Martyr. I’ve read both, several times, in my research and want to share my thoughts. (more…)
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