Hypatia: Scientist, Philosopher, and Martyr

“All formal dogmatic religions are fallacious and must never be accepted by self-respecting persons as final.”

“Reserve your right to think, for even to think wrongly is better than not to think at all.”

“Life is an unfoldment, and the further we travel the more truth we can comprehend. To understand the things that are at our door is the best preparation for understanding those that lie beyond.”

These are words attributed to Hypatia of Alexandria, considered the first notable woman in mathematics, who also taught philosophy and astronomy. Although she was widely esteemed for her wisdom and ethical virtue in life, she got caught up in political turmoil and was murdered by a ravenous mob of zealots. Her murderers were honoured and their leader made into a saint. Today, as Neos Alexandria celebrates her martyrdom, we strip them off of this false honour, and deliver it to the sixty-year old pagan they murdered.

Honour her today (and for the rest of your life, if you can). Uphold her virtues and the things she loved. Read on Neoplatonism, astronomy, or mathematics. Study the Hellenistic civilisation of Alexandria. Learn Greek. Neos Alexandria suggests that we reflect on her life and its meaning, and make traditional heroic offerings to her spirit. Take a stand in opposition to ignorance, intolerance, and religious violence of every sort. Use this as an opportunity to remove these qualities from yourself as well, for bigotry is a deceptive thing and can hide in the hearts of even the most enlightened person.

However you do it, the important thing is that she is remembered, and that the events that led to her death (and the deterioration of Alexandria’s intellectual fabric) never be allowed to rule again.

Who was Hypatia?

Some of us know her through their religion, some of us through their science, and some of us through the 2009 film Agora. Below, I have listed several important details about her life, most of which I owe to the Mos Maiorum Foundation’s well-researched article on Hypatia, written by my Heathen friend Hrafnkell Haraldsson.

  • The exact date of her death is unknown, as only the month is historically attested. Traditionally, the occasion has been placed at the mid point of the Ides of March (the 15th), during the season of Lent.
  • Hypatia was the daughter of Theon, who was head of the Museum or Library of Alexandria during the reign of Theodosius I, possibly its last.
  • She was around sixty years old when she was murdered.
  • Hypatia was a Neoplatonist philosopher. She most likely assumed the divinity of the entire cosmos.
  • Hypatia was a Pagan, though her Paganism was likely of a philosophical or intellectual variety than the popular form celebrated through public sacrifices. We know little of her private rites, however.
  • She was the author of several commentaries, including one on Diophantus, an astronomical canon, and a Commentary on Apollonius’ Conics.
  • Hypatia was not a fan of religious intolerance and coercion: pupils of all sorts of inclinations were drawn to her, not only Pagans, but also many Christians, two of which would later become bishops.
  • Hypatia was not a Pagan activist: she was not known to have joined any of the public riots between Pagans and Christians, as her own circle included both.
  • The burning of the Royal Library of Alexandria may or may not have occurred during her lifetime. There are four possible time periods in which the Library may have been burnt down: 1. Julius Caesar’s fire in the Alexandrian War, in 48 BCE (an unfortunate accident); 2. the attack of Emperor Aurelian in 270 CE to suppress revolts; 3. the outlawing of Paganisms by Emperor Theodosius I or at the decree of Patriarch Theophilus in 391 CE; 4. the Muslim conquest in 642 CE
  • There is also the possibility that the Great Library was not entirely destroyed at any of these time periods, but slowly deteriorated over the passing of these events. We do, however, have evidence of several Pagan temples, which may have doubled as schools, libraries, or research institutes, being converted or destroyed at that time.
  • Hypatia was a brave woman: There is basis for the rumour that she stood “like a lion” between prefect and bishop; that she shared with Orestes the conviction that the authority of the bishops should not extend to areas meant for the imperial and municipal administration.
  • Hypatia was riding through the city in her chariot, on her way home, when the Christian mob, led by the parabalanai, turned their frenzy upon her. The ringleader, acting under Patriarch Cyril‘s direction, was apparently a lector named Peter. Hypatia was hacked to death in the gloom of the so-called Caesar-church (Caesareum) and her body burnt. This church was the old centre of the imperial cult in Alexandria and was recently converted (as had so many temples) into a church. It was also the See of Cyril himself – his headquarters, if you will.
  • Some reports suggest she was flayed with ostraca (pot shards, not actual oyster shells) and set ablaze whilst still alive, though other accounts suggest those actions happened after her death.
  • Cyril justified the deed by proclaiming it part of the unrelenting war on Paganism. The path was now clear to turn on both Jews and Pagans and make Alexandria an orthodox Christian city.
  • Two scholars have different opinions on who is to blame for her murder: J.M. Rist blames the rabble, claiming Cyril had no part to play in their conclusions about Hypatia’s influence over Orestes, and excuses Cyril of all charges save one, that of covering up the crime. But Maria Dzielska holds Cyril responsible, even if he did not commit the murder himself (and she does not think he planned it, either), though he created the atmosphere that led to her death as “the chief instigator of the campaign of defamation against Hypatia”. After all, it was his city, and his watch, and the parabalanai were under his direct command, as was Peter the Lector. Another scholar, Pierre Chuvin, has a harsher verdict. He makes clear that “his hands cannot have been entirely clean, since the murder was committed in his own patriarchal church”.
  • The murder of Hypatia, a sixty-year-old woman, was not only an act of hatred, but also a criminal offense warranting a swift and severe response from those charged with upholding the law. That response never came; those who committed the crime were unpunished. In fact, as we already know, Patriarch Cyril was canonised a saint.

A tragedy well remembered.

However, as Neos Alexandria continues to remind us every year, although they slew her body they could not destroy her soul, and she has remained a shining example to those who have suffered persecution down through the ages.

Khaire Hypatía!

Hypatia_portrait

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4 thoughts on “Hypatia: Scientist, Philosopher, and Martyr

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