Monday, January 10, 2011

Hypatia revisited

Written 12 January 2008:

Dzielska, Maria. Hypatia of Alexandria, translated by F. Lyra. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1995.

Interesting little book on the great mathematician/astronomer/philosopher Hypatia, torn to pieces by Christians in Alexandria, 415 AD. Much accepted as fact about Hypatia is actually the repetition of legend. This book reviews the literary history of Hypatia. She was a hero of the Enlightenment. Several writers of the period blamed St. Cyril for complicity in her assassination. (The first English writer to honor her was the heretical John Toland.) Hypatia became a symbol of Hellenism defiled by Christian fanaticism. She was also the subject of a novel in the 19th century by Charles Kingsley (of which I have two editions), a Protestant clergyman who wanted to sock it to the Catholics. In more recent years she has become a heroine of the feminists.

After reviewing this history, Dzielska assembles ascertainable historical data about her and her belief system, based on what can be learned by her disciples. I don't recall her relation to Christianity, but I believe she was most likely a Platonist who headed an esoteric circle rather than a public or itinerant teacher.

I paused after this point. The third chapter I think is about the circumstances of her death, and the fourth is the conclusion.

17 January 2008:

After reviewing the literary history of Hypatia and the ascertainable facts about her circle, the subsequent chapter is about her life and death, then a conclusion, finally a bibliographical supplement.

While portrayed as a beautiful young woman in literature, in reality Hypatia was probably born circa 355 AD and thus was murdered by a Christian mob at the age of 60. Her father was a noted mathematician and astronomer, and she carried on his work and added her own achievements. In addition, she was, as were other scientifically minded individuals of her time, heavily involved in hermeticism and esoteric teachings. An elite, upper class group constituted her circle. She was neither popular with the masses, nor was she a particularly avid defender of the traditional "pagan" religion.

Hypatia got caught up in the vicious religious politics of her time. When the patriarch Cyril (later sainted, natch) took over from Theophilus, he made aggressive efforts to wipe out paganism and Judaism, which destabilized an inherently precarious situation. Cyril incited violent, homicidal warfare between Jews and Christians, which ultimately resulted in an anti-Jewish pogrom devastating the Jewish presence in Alexandria. Furthermore, he locked himself into a power struggle with the pagan leader Orestes. Hypatia has friends in high places, both with Orestes and in the center of empire. Aloof from public life, she was set up as a scapegoat for the city's tensions. She was portrayed as a witch casting a spell over Orestes, preventing a rapproachment with the Christians. Cyril is known to have incited the climate of hate, but there is no evidence directly linking him to her assassination. However, a cabal of Christian leaders whipped up a lynch mob against her among the poor and ignorant yet obedient to the priesthood, and these people attacked and dismembered her in 415 AD.

Nothing like that Christian love, n'est ce pas?

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