The Ancient History of Sexism Begins with Hypatia’s Murder

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Hypatia Of Alexandria

Hypatia was born in Alexandria, Egypt, in 355. She was murdered there by a Christian mob. Her story is eloquently told in the 2009 film, Agora.

Hypatia invented the plane astrolabe, the graduated brass hydrometer, and the hydroscope. Alejandro Almenábar captures her story and her time in Agora.

It was not unusual then for women to teach science, mathematics, astronomy, and philosophy. Hypatia sought to revive the glory of Greece, when Socrates and Plato were followed by the greatest group of intellectuals the world has ever seen. She was the daughter of Theon, who taught mathematics at the Museum of Alexandria, the center of Greek intellectual and cultural life and home to the great library of Alexandria. Theon, a dogmatic liberal, set out to make his daughter the perfect human being.

Only 100 years before Hypatia’s birth, the ruler of the Roman Empire, Constantine, embraced Christianity and from that moment everyone in the empire became a Christian by his edict. But they remained Pagans by character, despite his order that made every Pagan temple a Christian church and every Pagan priest a Christian preacher.

Hypatia, a Pagan, was First to Realize Planets Orbit the Sun in Ellipses, Not Circles

She was 5’9” tall and weighed 135 pounds when she was 20 and easily walked 10 miles without fatigue, rowed, drove her own chariot, rode bareback, and climbed mountains. She was said to have had “a body of rarest grace.” Rachel Weisz, who plays her in the film, apparently bears a close resemblance.

As director of the Library’s Neo-Platonist school of philosophy, Hypatia studied conic sections to understand the motions of the planets. She appears to have been the first to realize, long before Kepler, that the sun is the focus, not the center, of the universe, and that planets therefore orbit the sun in ellipses, not circles.

Simple Faith-Based Acceptance vs. Scientific Investigation

When she was just a girl, Theon taught Hypathia that to know but one religion is to know just one superstition whereas to know one philosophy is to know no absolute truth. Religions are accepted passively in faith, but science demands constant doubt to motivate the investigation necessary to discover new knowledge.

Hypatia wrote, “Neo-Platonism is a progressive philosophy, and does not expect to state final conditions to men whose minds are finite. Life is an enfoldment, and the further we travel the more truth we can comprehend. To understand the things that are at our door is the best preparation for understanding those that lie beyond.”

As Elbert Hubbart wrote about Hypatia in his 1908 book, Great Teachers: “A man living in a certain environment, with a certain outlook, describes the things he sees; and out of these, plus what he imagines, is shaped his philosophy of life. If he is repressed, suppressed, frightened, he will not see very much, and what he does see will be out of focus.”

Organized Religion’s Suppression of Women Begins with the Murder of Hypatia

Alexandria was ruled by a Roman Prefect, or Governor, named Orestes, a Pagan like Hypatia. Rome exercised great religious tolerance. As a Pagan, Orestes was an adversary of the new Christian bishop, Cyril, and he vigorously objected to Cyril’s expulsion of the Jews from the city. For this opposition, he was murdered by Christian monks.

Cyril next began to plot against his other major Pagan opponent in Alexandria, Hypatia. As a woman who represented heretical teachings, including experimental science and pagan religion, she made an easy target.

He preached that Christ had no female apostles, or teachers. Therefore, female teachers had no place in Christianity. This sermon incited a mob led by fanatical Christian monks to attack Hypatia as she drove her chariot through Alexandria. They dragged her from her chariot and, according to accounts from that time, stripped her, killed her, chopped and cut away the flesh from her bones, scattered her body parts through the streets, and burned what was left in the library of Caesareum.

The Dark Ages Begin

Hypatia’s students fled to Athens. The Neo-Platonism school she headed continued in Alexandria until the Arabs invaded in 642. When they burned the library of Alexandria, using it as fuel for their baths, the works of Hypatia were destroyed. Her writings are only known today through the works of others who quoted her along with a few letters written to her by contemporaries.

Cyril, the fanatic Christian who incited her destruction, was made a saint. With the supreme reign of Christian and then Muslim religious dogmatism came the suppression of women.

References:

  1. Amenabar, Alejandro, director and script, Agora, 2009.
  2. Hubbard, Elbert, Little Journeys to the Homes of Great Teachers,”Hypatia,” The Roycrofters,East Aurora, N.Y., 1908
  3. Dzielska, Maria, Hypatia of Alexandria, First Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, 1995