Updated: Nov 15, 2019
From my previous posts, you may have noticed that in order to accomplish the feats that these wise women undertook in the time period in which they were born, many of them were not married nor did they have children. They were, as in one definition of the virgin goddesses of Ancient Greece, “women unto themselves.” Our next wise woman is not unlike the others. The subject of this biography made the point of staying virginal and chaste in order to stay relevant in a man’s world, focus on her academics and gain the respect of the people who, culturally at the time, valued celibacy as a virtue.
Hypatia was born between 350 and 370 AD in Alexandria, Egypt. The daughter of the astronomer and mathematician Theon, Hypatia was given a full classical education under the tutelage of her father. Hypatia excelled in astronomy, philosophy and mathematics. She built an astrolabe for measuring celestial bodies, donned academic robes and passionately orated her thoughts on Plato in the city squares, and became a popular lecturer and writer.
Described as wise, beautiful, virtuous, articulate, brilliant, fair of form and bold, Hypatia was respected and welcomed in elite circles at a time when women were oppressed and segregated. She was a friend and advisor to the governor, Oreste, and the pagan government.
Christianity was in its infancy and growing in strength and political power. Jewish, Christian and pagan groups were viciously fighting each other for supremacy and rule over the city. Many Jews and pagans were forced to convert to avoid persecution. Hypatia, a pagan, did not convert. She was protected by Alexandria’s government for some time until the violence in the city caused the pagan government to reconsider its position. Hypatia, an influential woman, was drawn into a power struggle between the pagan government and the expanding Christian church.
Unable to unseat and assassinate Oreste, a man named Cyril, the acting bishop of Alexandria, decided to remove one of the governor’s most powerful assets… Hypatia. Cyril made her a target by accusing Hypatia of being a satanic witch, spouting non-christian philosophy and making reconciliation impossible between Oreste and Cyril. In 415 AD, the bishop ordered his monks to assassinate Hypatia. She was pulled off her carriage and dragged through the streets to a church where she was stripped naked and hacked to death with shards of tile.
This was a very sad and primitive time for the Roman (Catholic) Christian church. Cyril was acting in accordance with the roman edict forcing all within the empire to convert to Christianity. He appeared to also be acting from his own small self and his dualistic need for power, as many others did over the centuries. Christianity, previously a bottom up religion that was based on love, inclusivity for all (especially the marginalized people), forgiveness, healing, and standing up against unfair, rigid institutions, became a top down religion when the roman empire under Constantinople made Christianity the official religion of the empire. From this point, the needs of the emperor and the empire became intertwined with the founding principles and the beliefs of the religion. Under the emperor Theodosius I, pagans and Jews were massacred, all pagan temples were destroyed, the library at Alexandria was burned down and pagan rituals were banned under the penalty of death.
I am reminded of the bible verse, Luke 6:46, “And why do you call me, Lord, Lord, and not do the things which I say?” It has taken discerning eyes and many years to thresh out Jesus’ Word of love, forgiveness and unity from the man-made hierarchy of subjugation, the fear based acts of separation and the misogyny that were superimposed on the Word and the church by powerful political regimes.
Hypatia was a victim of the hijacking of a religion by an empire. As history would have it, by assassinating Hypatia, Cyril immortalized her. Much of what is known about Hypatia's genius was written after her brutal and barbaric death.
Questions to ponder as you let Hypatia's story sink into your depths...
Hypatia was a "woman unto herself". Birth control, menopause and the later years of our lives can put us in this space without the chastity that was necessary in Hypatia's time. How can we use this time to learn new things, to discover our truths and to teach others from our experience?
Hypatia promoted and believed in people's right to think, even if it was 'wrong' thinking. Considering the religious and political turmoil in her time (and in our time), that is a big assertion. How can we learn from Hypatia and create tolerance in ourselves for other people's rights to their own thoughts?
It is difficult to read about our oppressive and barbaric history. It is the shadow side of our humanity and our institutions. This darker side is often psychologically suppressed and projected onto others rather than consciously owned... so it is destined to repeat itself. To begin owning our shadow for the betterment of our planet (and starting with baby steps), can we practice just holding a negative aspect of someone else with some compassion long enough until we can see how it mirrors something in our own world?
For more information on Hypatia and the political and religious climate at the time, please see the links below.
Also check out the 2009 film, Agora, starring Rachel Weisz as Hypatia.