The Herstory of Hypatia

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A couple of millennia and a few centuries ago, a terribly eager successor of Alexander the Great established the Ancient Library in Africa. Then, the decorated Macedonian general dedicated the sacred building to nine goddesses of the arts, known as the Muses. As a result, the monument served as an essential part of a much larger research institution, called the Museum of Alexandria. In this way, the illustrious repository of planetary wisdom housed millions of scrolls and contained a collective understanding of the entire world. It was quite marvelous, there was a continuous supply of manuscripts coming in and out of the facilities on any given day, including Jewish, Turkish, and Babylonian texts alike.

After several hundred years of that rather utopian kind of interdisciplinary exchange of ideas, a sort of peculiar little girl named Hypatia was born in ancient Greece circa 370. Fortunately, she was the only daughter of an acclaimed mathematician named Theon, who tutored her quite well in the subject. He was a very loving father, who made sure that she received the finest education she could get, in the best place available. Athens was home to the most sophisticated society in the classical world, and that’s where she was destined to come of age.

Theon had such high hopes for her, and she definitely didn’t disappoint him, not one bit. Hypatia trained as much as she could, as often as possible, both mind and body. As a result of all of the amazing abilities she acquired in the process, Hypatia excelled at running, swimming, and horseback riding, among countless other sports. Plus, she was unimaginably and incomparably intelligent, being incredibly literate and tremendously well versed in philosophy. After all, Theon did want her to be perfect in every way.

Mind you, Theon was no ordinary man himself. In the year 391, archbishop Theophilus acted on the orders of Emperor Theodosius and tore down the Serapeum, which served as an annex for the long lost Library. This was very important because each and every scroll was a hand-written papyrus, many of which were cherished original copies. So, sadly the bitter civil war between monotheists and pagans led to the outright obliteration of much of the invaluable content. However, as the senior resident scholar, Theon fought hard to keep a great deal of the most important of those remaining documents intact, in a heroic attempt to preserve as much of the precious knowledge as possible. Granted, it was his duty as the last living member of the Museum, but he would have done the right thing no matter what. Nonetheless, in spite of his valiant efforts, the Dark Ages had begun.

As you might imagine, due to all that talent and privilege, Hypatia grew up to be wildly successful at so many different things, including becoming a naturalist, a physicist, and a feminist, to name only but a few of her incredible accomplishments. She was also an inventor and an astronomer, and so much more. Thus, as the fourth century of the common era grew to an end, she became employed as a professor of philosophy and mathematics. Then, after being influenced by great minds like Plotinus, Diophantus, and Aristotle, she finally took over as head of the Neoplatonic school at Alexandria, in 400, which was, not surprisingly the same year that her father died. Regardless, there in that renowned facility, Hypatia gave highly acclaimed lectures to pupils from all over the world, regarding anything and everything there was to know, and more.

As one of the original cosmopolitan people, she was truly something to behold. Unlike the other women of her time, Hypatia could move and speak freely among the men. Her brilliance was far too overpowering. So, of course, she had endless suitors, but the thing is that she never really wanted to get married. Hypatia was a strong independent woman. As a kind of Vestal Virgin for Truth, she would not be pressured into expecting and nursing children. She even stood proudly in defiance of the church and state, whenever she disagreed with anyone about anything of any kind.

She was a master of the spoken and written word, but sadly so little of her work remains. There is still a letter from a correspondence lesson to Synesius in which she clearly demonstrated her command of the astrolabe, which was a very sophisticated portable astronomical calculator, similar to modern GPS. Moreover, she collaborated on Theon’s commentary of Book III of Ptolemy’s Almagest. In the true fashion of the day, she was also an expert in Neoplatonic teachings, believing that everything emanates from the One. The woman was simply amazing, in every single way, and people were completely drawn in by her charisma.

Over the years she kept in touch with all the interesting characters she had come to know, and these lifelong friends benefited her in several different ways. For instance, in 410 Synesius became bishop of Ptolemais. Furthermore, as a highly prestigious woman, she regularly appeared in the presence of the magistrates, and she was on nearly every council and committee in the city. Hypatia of Alexandria was a very influential Greek woman in Roman-occupied Egypt. As a result, she had tremendous sway in the world, but she was also at the epicenter of some of the biggest social conflict in early civilization.

Unfortunately, even with all her clout, just two or three generations after Christianity went mainstream, she quickly became the last of her kind. In 415 she was accosted by a ruthless band of religious terrorists known as the Parabalani. On her way to work, that heinous mob of fundamentalist zealots, led by Peter the Lector, ripped her from her chariot and tore off all of her clothes in public disgrace. Then, the Christian extremists dragged her into a church and proceeded to flay her alive. They sliced Hypatia to pieces with broken pots and roofing tiles. The savage radicals even burned her corpse on a pyre, treating her as though she were a wicked high priestess being condemned for unforgivable sins against their established faith. They essentially tried her for witchcraft, but in reality, she had only caused problems between bishop Cyril and the prefect Orestes.

Her teachings didn’t even conflict with the dogma of the prevailing theology of Biblical scriptures, but they murdered her in cold blood nonetheless. That horrendous moment was, without a doubt, one of the most significant turning points in the whole of human history. Although Hypatia is unquestionably a deserving romantic heroine, and a martyr for liberated women the world over, her death at the hands of Cyril’s sympathizers tragically signified the end of Classical Antiquity. As if that wasn’t bad enough, the last of the scrolls from the Library were all destroyed within months of her demise. Ironically, scant remains now reside in Christ Church College, of all places. Then, to make matters worse, Cyril even got recognized as a saint. It’s an absolute outrage. That vicious act of brutal murder has caused such profound longstanding damage that it’s almost impossible to describe how devastating it really was. The world lost so very much the day she died.

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