Fables should be taught as fables, myths as myths, and miracles as poetic fantasies. To reach superstitions as truths is a most terrible thing. The child mind accepts and believes them, and only through great pain and perhaps tragedy can the grown-up child be in after years relieved of them. – Attributed to Hypatia
This being the day after International Women’s Day, let us recall Hypatia (350–415 CE), the first woman in the Western World to have taught and written on the sciences of her day. Since she lived almost eighteen hundred years ago, some of the episodes about her that have come down to us are based on ancient authors and hearsay, or embellished by historical fiction. But on this all agree: that Hypatia was a much respected mathematician in the great Alexandria of the ancient world. Her father was the Greek mathematician Theon who is reckoned as the last major member of the Alexandrian school which had flourished for many centuries..
Hypatia studied under her father and wrote some mathematical works. She was the author of a commentary on Ptolemy’s Syntaxis. Her edition of Euclid’s Elements served as a standard for many centuries. She is said to have discoursed on the philosophies of Plato and Aristotle, and won the respect and admiration of many men in the Alexandrine school.
During her lifetime an intellectual battle was raging in Alexandria between the Greek philosophical tradition and fast propagating Christian world views. Hypatia was a pagan and was not looked upon with favor by many orthodox Christians.
In the nineteenth century the Armenian American historian M. M. Mangasarian propagated a story of dubious authenticity to the effect that the Patriarch Cyril (who later became a saint) was responsible for Hypatia’s death. Apparently, Cyril once saw a crowd of admirers thronging near Hypatia’s home to see and listen to her. This filled him with so much envy that he wanted her killed. Instigated by him, a mindless mob brutally murdered Hypatia, her body was ripped to pieces right in front of her house; and then burnt. This version of her death has been challenged by other historians. According to another version, the great teacher was murdered in the very hall where she was teaching. Doubt has been cast on this too. No matter how the crime occurred, there is no doubt that Hypatia was mercilessly murdered. This gruesome episode appropriately coincided with the period of the setting of the sun in the glory days of Alexandria.
Many episodes in ancient history are not pleasant to read. Some are bad enough. In others, blame for the event is burdened on one group or another. Where the matter is beyond a reasonable doubt this may be fine. But occasionally questionable versions are presented on some matters as the truth. The only purpose or effect of this is to generate rancor towards particular groups which the historian-author does not like.
In any event, in the nineteenth century, Charles Kingsley wrote a historical romance on the life and death of this illustrious woman, entitled Hypatia; somewhat like what T. S. Eliot did about the Murder in the Cathedral of Thomas à Becket. In this story, a Christian monk called Philommon is converted to her Pagan philosophy, and learns from her death about what religious intolerance can do.
According to the 2009 Spanish movie Agora, Hypatia worked on the heliocentric model of Aristarchus of Samos, and even proposed that planets move around the sun in elliptical orbits – a discovery that is historically attributable only to Johannes Kepler of the 16-17 century. Her assertion of the heliocentric model provoked the anger of Christian theologians who planned to have her stoned to death by a mob. But while the mob went out to collect stones for this, Hypatia’s father’s slave suffocated her to death to protect her from the torture of being stoned.
All these fictions pale in comparison to the legend of St. Catherine of Alexandria. Many scholars now regard this saint as a fabrication based on the personage of Hypatia. St. Catherine who may not have existed at all was much revered during the Middle Ages. Her statues were worshipped in many churches. She came to be listed among the fourteen most important saints who who play a major role in Heaven. She was regarded as a scholarly woman who impressed an emperor by her learning and intelligence and eloquence, but imprisoned and tortured. In his Philosophical Dictionary Voltaire says, with his usual touch of sarcasm on matters religious: “Poor Joan of Arc having been captured by the English, despite her prophecies and her miracles, maintained first of all in her cross-examination that St. Catherine and St. Marguerite had honored her with many revelations. I am astonished that she never said anything of her talks with the prince of the celestial militia. These two saints apparently liked talking better than St. Michael…”
One effect of such stories was that in the Middle Ages St. Catherine was chosen as the patron saint of the University of Paris, also known as La Sorbonne. In 1969, the Catholic Church removed the name of St. Catherine of Alexandria from the list of saints. Such are the impacts of ancient legends on the minds of the people. The stories of historical figures, both real and imaginary, sometimes jolt us. Stories of saints and sages have an effect on the cultural feel-good state of peoples much more than the cold facts and dates of history.
With Hypatia, we are happy to see the scientific and mathematical talents of women which, until recently, were not given full freedom to express itself.
March 9, 2016