I decided to have these parts reduced to a single post because let’s face it, nothing written here is even remotely close to being as important as the story told so far. I decided not to add to the long list of conspicuous and inconspicuous people who used Hypatia’s name and life in order to tell a different story. I won’t do that to her. All this started as a search for knowledge and a tribute to the person behind the legend and I want it to stay that way.
I know these posts are nothing compared to the tremendous amount of information and legitimate research existing in the web about Hypatia, but if my small drop into the ocean of a study, can give some semblance of justice to Hypatia’s name and some knowledge to that small group of people reading these words, I’m more than satisfied with it.
3,4) Myths, Literature and people’s opinions
Let’s start with the history of history. Main historical source:
►Socrates Scholasticus (his work The Ecclesiastical History [meaning the history of the church] is important, he was one of her contemporaries, though his reference to Hypatia is short)
(fun fact: Scholasticus [as in Socrates Scholasticus] is σχολαστικός in Greek and it means fastidious)
►Philostorgius (another one of her contemporaries, he also gave us a small description of Hypatia in his own history of the church, titled Historia Ecclesiastica)
►John of Nikiu (he wrote an account of Hypatia’s activities during her life and of the circumstances surrounding her death in his Chronicle)
►Hesychius of Milesius (his work Onomatologus, a lexicon of Greek writers, included Hypatia. It is not preserved in its original form, but it has been remade using excerpts, which were given as references to his work by other writers)
►Damascius (Life of Isidore, is the most important account we have concerning the paganistic life of 5th century Alexandria and it includes an extensive description of Hypatia)
►Sudae Lexicon (very important Byzantine lexicon, it was the main source of information about Hypatia for the 19th and 20th century authors and researchers. It is mainly based on Hesychius and Damascius’ reports but was also influenced by Socrates and Philostorgius’.)
And of course,
►Synesius of Cyrene (the letters he sent to Hypatia herself and to her other students).
Let me add here, that even those sources are not what one would call dependable in their entirety. Specifically: Philostorgius was somewhat contradictory in his accounts. John of Nikiu is the only source we have with a somewhat negative perspective on Hypatia, he reported her as a pagan philosopher who was involved with astronomy, witchcraft, fortune-telling and used to walk around the city talking about philosophy to anyone willing to listen. We know his main source was Socrates, who makes no mention of witchcraft or that kind of public speaking, therefore that sort of information is baseless and generally disregarded. Hesychius of Milesius gives us a list of Hypatia’s work and also informs us that Hypatia was married to the philosopher Isidore of Alexandria (make of that what you will). Lastly, Damascius gives us the longest description of Hypatia, along with commentary on her talents and virtues, but his work as a whole is also contradictory at some points and therefore should be treated with caution.
Here I must comment that when examining each and every one of the existing sources, one can easily spot a difference of opinions concerning various areas of Hypatia’s life, personality and work. It’s not necessarily that those early historians were deliberately not being honest or objective (although sometimes they might have been). It’s that their perspectives varied. In an era when people were divided in very different groups with different (and sometimes opposing) goals and agendas, one’s actions (in this case Hypatia’s) could be worded, or understood, in very different terms (e.g. Hypatia using the astrolabe, or having a closed group of students could be interpreted as ritualistic by a person unfamiliar with the scientific and philosophical nature of her activities). Also, let’s not forget the fact that most of these texts were written centuries after the facts, which means that alterations could easily occur, due to ignorance, deliberate obscuration of the facts for whatever reason, falsified information etc.
Which brings us to the realisation that in order to uncover what really happened, one would have to study each and every one of these texts, try to view them with an objectively critical eye and uncover what was a blatant error (e.g. Hypatia’s marriage to Isidore) and what was actual fact. It is also what all medieval and most modern historians didn’t do (also for a grand variety of reasons).
That conclusion, is one of the reasons why Hypatia’s life has been retold in a hundred different ways, by a hundred different people who had a hundred different agendas. If one doesn’t do a full revision and analysis of all texts available, then depending on which source one chooses to follow different conclusions can be drawn. For example, it is true that up until Hypatia’s time, women scholars were not that uncommon. But the rise of Christianity, while it gave certain liberties to women, also wanted them to be submissive. It’s easy (although not truthful or right) to draw certain conclusions when a brilliant, liberated, beautiful, single, (who may or may not have been a pagan) woman, who freely and easily conversed with the governors of the city and had great influence over the society of the time got brutally murdered by a put off christian mob. And that’s what all those people in and after the 1800s did. They asked themselves the great big “Why?” question we humans adore, they searched for source material and when things turned out to be vague and mixed they drew their own conclusions, added some ideas of their own for spice and to support their causes and spread their stories.
Let’s get introduced with those 18th, 19th and 20th century authors and historians:
►John Toland (one of the early ones; he wrote two essays about Hypatia in 1720)
►Thomas Lewis (who wrote his own essay titled “The History of Hypatia” in 1721, as an answer to Toland’s work)
►Voltaire (makes a short reference to Hypatia in his “Philosophical Dictionary”)
►Edward Gibbon (wrote about her in his book “The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” in a very similar manner to Toland and Voltaire)
►Leconte de Lisle (here we have a famous reference to Hypatia through his homonymous poems, written in 1847 and 1874 and also his play “Hypatia and Cyril”)
►Charles Kingsley (one of the main authors behind the legend, he wrote a fictionalised version of Hypatia’s life, entitled “Hypatia” or “New Foes with an Old Face”)
►John William Draper (1869, “History of the intellectual Development of Europe”)
►Bertrand Russell (1946, “History of Western Philosophy and Its Connection with Political and Social Circumstances from the Earliest Times to the Present Day”)
►Carlo Pascal ( 1908, “Figure e Caratteri”)
►Mario Luzi (1978, “Libro di Ipazia”)
►Ursula Molinaro ( 1989, “Christian Martyr in Reverse: Hypatia, 370-415 AD, Hypatia: A Journal of Feminist Philosophy”)
Succinctly, both Toland and Lewis used Hypatia’s story to support their respective causes, Toland against the ecclesiastical circles and Lewis in behalf of them. Both Voltaire and Gibbon used her as well, in order to write their own digs against the patrons of the Christian church. Leconte de Lisle was one of the first to clearly fictionalize her story and was followed by Charles Kingsley who is almost single-handedly responsible for the great spread of baseless facts about Hypatia. John William Draper and Bertrand Russell both focused on the scientific nature of Hypatia’s life and they as well used it, this time to support their cause concerning the damage religion can do to science. The last wave of Carlo Pascal, Mario Luzi and Ursula Molinaro focused on the fact that Hypatia was a woman living in a man’s world and how that played a part in her life and in its end.
We can clearly see some motifs in the way all these people wrote about Hypatia. During the 18th century, the main cause behind their many references was their rebellion against the authoritarian character of the church and its rigid principles that worked against their need for intellectual and scientific advancement. We see that when we move on to the late 19th and early 20th century that cause reforms itself and is now a battle between scientific minds and old-fashioned religious ideals. And lastly, when we reach the late 20th century, Hypatia becomes a symbol for feminism. If you want to take it a step further, the 2009 movie Agora shows yet another view where Hypatia becomes a symbol against fundamentalism.
What becomes painfully obvious through those transitions is how Hypatia lost her identity and was reduced to having the stereotypical characteristics appropriate for the model woman of each time frame. A virtuous virgin, a brilliant scientist, a sensual femme fatale, a modern logical thinker and humanitarian. The characteristics that made her unique got lost in all her supposed causes against all things imaginable that have plagued humanity in the last centuries.
It makes one wonder, why all the fuss? Why make such a big story out of her life? Well firstly, her strong and unique personality and her important work is appealing and has all the right ingredients for an intriguing hero. The circumstances of her death give a hell of a reason to fight for. We empathize with her and we all see what we want to see when we read about her. Plus the few information we have provide a good environment for endless speculations. Those elements make her the perfect protagonist for any story. After a couple of them were written it didn’t take long for her to turn from an interesting character to a symbol. If you’ve ever studied semantics you know from Charles Sanders Peirce that a symbol doesn’t have only one meaning. Symbols don’t remain stationary. They evolve dynamically, according to their environment and the definition given to them by their interpreter. Which means that today, Hypatia is whatever one wants her to be.
The goal of these posts was to dig past all the stories and the symbolism and find who Hypatia was before humanity took over. She was a truly singular and awesome lady and she deserves to be remembered as she was. No stereotypes or dramatizations needed. Personally, I still have a dozen questions and doubts in regards to the picture I myself have created of her inside my head. But as I said before, if through all this even one of you out there got the idea of who she might have really been, I’m more than satisfied with the result.
I should mention that since we proudly entered the 21st century, more and more people have started seeing this story with a more critical eye, which means that there’s still hope for us; and if we are extremely lucky and some heroic researcher out there comes up with new material, who knows how this story will end.
If you’ve read so far, I thank you from the bottoms of my heart. I will bid you farewell with all the sweet, sweet tributes humanity has offered Hypatia over the years.
►The first one I stumbled upon, is that there is a crater on the Moon named Hypatia. I found this piece of information through an internet article titled “Hypatia on the Moon”. If that’s not romantic and at the same time the most utterly sappy sentence there ever was, I don’t know what is. I love it.
►There is also 238 Hypatia, a C-type asteroid belt
► And last but not least, The Hypatia Catalogue, which is the largest catalog ever produced for stellar compositions. Awesome.
► I almost didn’t mention it because yuck, but there is a type of moth named Hypatia. Don’t ask me why, I didn’t want to find out, this information got here for the sake of accuracy.