The birth of Hypatia of Alexandria is estimated to have been between 350-370CE and her death 415CE. She was the daughter of the mathematician Theon of Alexandria. She was a Neoplatonist, mathematician, astronomer and constructed astrolabes and hydrometers, but did not invent these. She is also known to have supported the heliocentric model of the solar system against the current view of the time.
Her attitude towards Christians and Pagans was equal, she taught both in her school. One of the most prominent members of the Christian Church was Synesius, the future Bishop of Ptolemais. The Alexandrian school was highly regarded at the time as a great centre of learning. According to the Neoplatonic historian Damascius (c 458-c 538CE) she lectured on the writings of Plato and Aristotle. He also states that she walked through Alexandria in a tribon, a kind of cloak associated with philosophers, giving impromptu public lectures. The Neoplatonism she and her father taught was based mainly on the teachings of Plotinus. Synesius describes Hypatia as “… a person so renowned, her reputation seemed literally incredible. We have seen and heard for ourselves she who honourably presides over the mysteries of philosophy.”
The Christian historian Socrates of Constantinople, a contemporary of Hypatia, describes her in his Ecclesiastical History:
“There was a woman at Alexandria named 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. Having succeeded to the school of Plato and Plotinus, she explained the principles of philosophy to her auditors, many of whom came from a distance to receive her instructions. On account of the self-possession and ease of manner which she had acquired in consequence of the cultivation of her mind, she not infrequently appeared in public in the presence of the magistrates. Neither did she feel abashed in going to an assembly of men. For all men on account of her extraordinary dignity and virtue admired her the more.”
Hypatia remained a virgin all her life. When a student took a romantic interest in her she tried to sooth his passions by playing the lute! When this didn’t work she showed him her bloody menstrual rags and said: “”This is what you really love, my young man, but you do not love beauty for its own sake.” This had the desired effect and he no longer pursued her!
The Bishop of Alexandria at the time, Theophilus, was a strong opponent of the Neoplatonic philosophy. He ordered the destruction of the Serapeum, which was a Temple to the Greco-Egyptian god Serapis. It was used as a meeting place for the Neoplatonists at the time. After his death in 412CE his nephew Cyril took over as Bishop. Cyril had a rival for the post named Timothy and as soon as he came to power Cyril began to take revenge on those who had supported Timothy. He closed all the churches that housed his rival’s supporters and confiscated all their property. He also closed the synagogues and expelled all the Jews from the city. Synesius wrote a letter to Hypatia asking her to intercede in the problem, saying that she always had power and she could use that power for good and that she had taught that a Neoplatonic philosopher must introduce the highest moral standards into politics and act for the benefit of their fellow citizens.
Fearing Hypatia’s popularity with the people Cyril and his allies attempted to blacken her name in every way possible. In the 7th century an Egyptian Coptic priest , 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 her Satanic wiles. And the governor of the city honoured her exceedingly; for she had beguiled him through her magic. And he ceased attending church as had been his custom… And he not only did this, but he drew many believers to her, and he himself received the unbelievers at his house.”
Orestes the governor of Alexandria at the time was friend of Hypatia and she was accused of leading him away from the Christian faith.
During the month of march 415CE Hypatia was travelling home in her carriage when she was set upon by a mob of Christians led by Peter the lector. They dragged her into a former pagan temple that had been converted into a Christian church, stripped her naked and using oyster shell scraped the flesh off her body. They cut out her eyeballs and then tore her body into pieces and took it out of the city to a place named Cinarion, where they burned the remains. It is believed that Cyril ordered her death and he was later made a saint!
Her murder brought an end to the Neoplatonic school in Alexandria. The people were shocked by her death. How much she was revered ,even by true Christians, is reflected in a letter sent to her by Synesius in 413CE
“My heart yearns for the presence of your divine spirit, which more than anything else could alleviate the bitterness of my fortunes.” At another time he says: “Oh, my mother, my sister, my teacher, my benefactor! My soul is very sad. The recollection of my children I have lost is killing me. . . . When I have news of you and learn, as I hope, that you are more fortunate than myself, I am at least only half-unhappy.”
HP Blavatsky writes in “Isis Unveiled” (Vol II page 253):
“ It was precisely the teachings of this Pagan philosopher, which had been so freely borrowed by the Christians to give a finishing touch to their otherwise incomprehensible scheme, that had seduced so many into joining the new religion; and now the Platonic light began shining so inconveniently bright upon the pious patchwork, as to allow every one to see whence the “revealed” doctrines were derived. But there was a still greater peril. Hypatia had studied under Plutarch, the head of the Athenian school, and had learned all the secrets of theurgy. While she lived to instruct the multitude, no divine miracles could be produced before one who could divulge the natural causes by which they took place. Her doom was sealed by Cyril, whose eloquence she eclipsed, and whose authority, built on degrading superstitions, had to yield before hers, which was erected on the rock of immutable natural law.”
The legacy of Hypatia lives on. In 1853 Charles Kingsley published the novel “Hypatia, or New Foes with an Old Face” . This became a play entitled “Hypatia” performed at the Haymarket theatre in London in January 1893. In 2009 the actress Rachel Weisz starred as Hypatia in the film “Agora” which was a somewhat fictionalised account of the philosophers life. For example at the end the Christians decide to stone her after being persuaded by her fathers slave Davus not to skin her alive. Davus, a character created for the film, is in love with her secretly and suffocates Hypatia before the mob can reach her, to save her suffering. He tells the mob that she has only fainted as they begin to stone her. I think the change may have been because the original method of her death may have been too gruesome for the film.
Hypatia showed immense courage establishing herself as a respected philosopher in a very male dominated society and she stands out as a true martyr for women’s rights at the time. Hopefully a great deal that is positive can be gleaned from her life and untimely death.