Wednesday, April 2, 2014


Nearly sixteen centuries separate Hypatia of Alexandria and Malala Youfsaszai of Pakistan. Luckily fate has been kinder to Malala, So far.

I’ve been doing some net surfing trying to find out if other pagan philosophers suffered fates similar to Hypatia. One of the few women in the early centuries AD or BC for that matter who has gone down in history as a teacher and philosopher.

Well, there’s Justin Martyr. But he was a Christian so I'm not having much luck. 

That leaves Hypatia. Traditionally she was head of the NeoPlatonic school at one of the libraries in Alexandria. She was born sometime between 350 and 370 AD and was brutally murdered in 415 AD by a as a Christian mob lead by someone known as Peter the Reader and possibly inspired by Cyril the bishop of Alexandria. A seventh century Coptic bishop, John of Nikiu described her as “being devoted at all times to magic, astrolabes and instruments of music, and she beguiled many people through her Satanic wiles.” Apparently he wasn't a fan. 
An astrolabe is an elaborate instrument used to locate or predict the sun, moon and stars. It was used for surveying, navigation, determining the time and to cast horoscopes, among other things. Did the bishop think she was an astrologer? Not that astronomer and astrologers became separated for centuries.And what do you have against musical instruments? Just general ascetic disdain for anything that might make life a little more pleasant?

I’m not sure about the magic. This link leads to the section on Ancient Egypt. Looks like the bishop couldn’t make up his mind. Was she a Hellenic pagan or an Egyptian pagan? As for Satanic? From what I’ve read of the old sun baked desert dwellers, they apparently found Satan behind every bush and under every rock.

What we know is that she was a woman in a world where the public life of women was usually restricted. We know that her father Theon, who had a reputation as a mathematician, saw to it that she was well educated. She has the reputation of teaching anyone who asked questions. She never married although history ties her to the Roman prefect of the city, Orestes. Reliable rumor has Orestes and Cyril at loggerheads over a rising tide of violence in the city with Hypatia blamed by some Christians for the impasse. Remember this was time when the power of the Christian bishops was increasing and the power of the secular leaders decreasing.

Various versions have her hauled down from her chariot or just kidnapped off the street, dragged  to a local church, stripped and battered death, probably with roof tiles and broken pottery. Her body was burned. The news of the murder did eclipse Cyril, at least for awhile, but he ended up a saint anyway.

Honestly I can’t find any stories of male philosophers subjected to same brutality. Although it was getting harder and harder for pagans to coexist with their Christian neighbors and they were slowly losing their civil rights. Within a century the pagan academies were closed at the order of the emperor Justinian. How quickly the persecuted (who reportedly weren’t that persecuted at least not for purely religious reasons) become persecutors. And much better at it.

So, was Hypatia murdered because she was a pagan teacher? A martyr to philosophical truth? Or was it much simpler? Was she just the  first uppity female who dared to believe she had the right to walk in the world of men. She sure as hell wasn’t the last. Looks like there’s a straight line from Hypatia to Malala Yousafzai. The Pakistani teenager targeted by the Taliban because she dared to believe she should be able to go to school. Malala survived. With a lot of help and at least for now. 

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