Aspects of my Pantheon: Hypatia of Alexandria

Published August 22, 2019

 I worship no gods, but there are persons and principles that I hold in very high regard. My personal “pantheon” refers to a collection of historical figures, symbols, creatures, or movements I use to define my conception of the sacred. My chosen icons of divinity embody virtues that are immutable and relatable. Hypatia is one such figure. Her exemplary life strikes me as worthy of emulation and even adoration.

Hypatia was a female philosopher and mathematician who studied and lived in ancient Greece. She was born around 350 AD to the renowned mathematician “Theon of Alexandria.” Theon decided to educate his daughter just the same as he instructed his sons. As a result, Hypatia grew into a scholar of international standing. Socrates Scholasticus wrote that she “far surpassed all the philosophers of her time” and was known for her unassailable “dignity and virtue.” She became an internationally respected professor, sought for her work in astronomy, philosophy, and mathematics. She authored several books on mathematics, and is thought to have edited other prominent texts of the time including Diophantus’s thirteen volume series “Arithmetica” and her father’s commentary on Ptolemy’s “Almagest.” There are only a few source texts remaining that refer to her life and tragic death. However, correspondence letters written by her student Synesius Cyrene, who later became the Bishop of Ptolemy, provide more detailed information about her professorship.

Hypatia was a woman whose brilliance commanded the respect of her male counterparts; she lectured and taught in The Great Library of Alexandria until Christian mobs destroyed it in 391 AD. Even after the burning of the Library, she continued to study and teach. Hypatia was beloved by the elites of her city and attended governing assemblies typically forbidden to women. City rulers sought her advice on pertinent political matters, especially concerning the volatile religious division within the city. Hypatia extolled the virtues of peace and tolerance; as such, she was willing to accept students from any religion – Christian or Pagan. Greek historian Damascius wrote, “The whole city rightly loved her and worshipped her in a remarkable way…” 

Her visibility and power incensed the local Christians, whose new religion was on the rise. Christian monks considered her power in Alexandria to be heretical, blasphemous even. Her mere existence incited jealousy and rage within their ranks. Historians agree that it was most likely Bishop Cyril, the Patriarch of Alexandria, who hatched the plot to murder Hypatia. He was known for inciting despicable acts of violence perpetrated by his clergy and congregation.

In March of the year 415 AD a group of Christian monks kidnapped Hypatia as she traveled through the city by chariot, they brought her to a nearby church and skinned her alive with shards of ceramic tile. Some say they dismembered her corpse and scattered it around the city. Other reports claim that she was dragged behind a chariot until her remains were unrecognizable. All accounts attest that her body was treated most heinously, then burned in public as a warning to any other pagan woman with big ideas. Her death marks a pivotal time in history when paganism fell, and Christianity became ascendant.

Hypatia was killed because she had the unusual opportunity to become educated during a time when most women were illiterate and confined to the household. It was her gender combined with knowledge of math, astronomy, and philosophy was profoundly threatening to the Christian doctrine. She was subject to many charges of witchcraft and even Satanism. Bishop John of Nikiu wrote,

“And in those days there appeared in Alexandria a female philosopher, a pagan named Hypatia and she was devoted at all times to magic, astrolabes, and instruments of music, and she beguiled many people through Satanic wiles.” (Ecclesiastical History VII.15)

I consider Hypatia a feminist icon because of her bravery in the face of oppression. Her insistence on being a different kind of woman, by achieving a scholarly status traditionally accorded only to men. She paid for it with her life, but it is this unflinching courage to be a powerful, intelligent woman in the ancient world, which keeps me in awe. It is not only her life but her martyr’s death and its terrible import that gives her a deserving place in my pantheon.

The Christians have their Christ. Conversely, I nominate Hypatia to be my martyred savior. She died because of what she was – a woman unlike any other in her time: a woman who dared aspire to intellectual greatness, who walked in dignified beauty, rejecting the role of subjugating motherhood, instead claiming a place of equality among the men of knowledge and power in her age.

Hypatia’s values reflect my own: peace, tolerance, reason, knowledge, study. Her story is worthy of mythologizing.

Sources:

https://penelope.uchicago.edu/~grout/encyclopaedia_romana/greece/paganism/hypatia.html

http://www.math.wichita.edu/history/women/hypatia.html

http://www-history.mcs.st-and.ac.uk/Biographies/Hypatia.html

https://www.britannica.com/topic/Library-of-Alexandria/The-fate-of-the-Library-of-Alexandria

If the story of Hypatia interests you, check out this historical drama based on her life, “Agora” (2009). https://www.imdb.com/title/tt1186830/