Goddess of the Month - Hypatia of Alexandria


Hypatia of Alexandria by unknown artist, image is public domain
Hypatia of Alexandria, image is public domain

Hypatia of Alexandria was a philosopher and mathematician who lived in Egypt during the early Christian Era (Birthdate sometime before 370CE). Daughter of the renowned mathematician Theon, she was educated as few womyn were during her time. Her father was a teacher at the renowned Academy of Alexandria, and she was educated there as well as at various academies in Athens and parts of Italy. Her education included rhetoric and oratory, Platonic and Aristotelian philosophy, astronomy and astrology, and mathematics. Eventually she returned to Alexandria where she became head of the Platonist school teaching philosophy and mathematics to people from all over the Roman Empire. She became friends with many prominent Christians of the time who were her pupils and respected her greatly.

Among Hypatia's many accomplishments are the development of a form of astrolabe, which is an astronomical and navigational tool, and a treatise on astrolabes and their use co-authored with her father. Her pupil Synesius, bishop of Cyrene, did credit her with creation of the astrolabe, but they were in use prior to her birth in various forms. Her other accomplisments include:
Authored a commentary on the 13-volume Arithmetica by Diophantus.
Authored a commentary on the Conics of Apollonius.
Edited the existing version of Ptolemy's Almagest.
Edited her father's commentary on Euclid's Elements
Authored a text "The Astronomical Canon"

Few accounts of her life remain to us, but we do have her correspondences with her pupil Synesius as well as accounts by another pupil, Damascius. Another good source is one of her contemporaries, the Christian historiographer Socrates Scholasticus. "There was a woman at Alexandria named Hypatia, daughter of the philosopher Theon, who made such attainments in literature and science, as to far surpass all the philosophers of her own time. Having succeeded to the school of Plato and Plotinus, she explained the principles of philosophy to her auditors, many of whom came from a distance to receive her instructions. On account of the self-possession and ease of manner, which she had acquired in consequence of the cultivation of her mind, she not unfrequently appeared in public in presence of the magistrates. Neither did she feel abashed in going to an assembly of men. For all men on account of her extraordinary dignity and virtue admired her the more." - Socrates Scholasticus, Ecclesiastical History.

Chaucer Astrolabe from the British Museum
Chaucer Astrolabe from the British Museum

As Christianity became more and more prominent in Egypt, there was some political conflicts between Orestes, the Imperial Prefect, and Cyril, bishop of Alexandria. Orestes was known to be friends with Hypatia, where Cyril (later St Cyril in the Christian faith) roundly denounced her on account of her Paganism, her public prominence, and her refusal to defer to men. This conflict, of which she was an unwilling focal point, eventually led to her violent death in March 415. "Yet even she fell a victim to the political jealousy which at that time prevailed. For as she had frequent interviews with Orestes, it was calumniously reported among the Christian populace, that it was she who prevented Orestes from being reconciled to the bishop. Some of them therefore, hurried away by a fierce and bigoted zeal, whose ringleader was a reader named Peter, waylaid her returning home, and dragging her from her carriage, they took her to the church called Caesareum, where they completely stripped her, and then murdered her by scraping her skin off with tiles and bits of shell. After tearing her body in pieces, they took her mangled limbs to a place called Cinaron, and there burnt them." - Socrates Scholasticus, Ecclesiastical History. Contempory accounts of the assassination by her pupils lay the responsibility for her death at the feet of Cyril. "Such was Hypatia, as articulate and eloquent in speaking as she was prudent and civil in her deeds. The whole city rightly loved her and worshipped her in a remarkable way, but the rulers of the city from the first envied her, something that often happened at Athens too. For even if philosophy itself had perished, nevertheless, its name still seems magnificent and venerable to the men who exercise leadership in the state. Thus it happened one day that Cyril, bishop of the opposition sect [i.e. Christianity] was passing by Hypatia's house, and he saw a great crowd of people and horses in front of her door. Some were arriving, some departing, and others standing around. When he asked why there was a crowd there and what all the fuss was about, he was told by her followers that it was the house of Hypatia the philosopher and she was about to greet them. When Cyril learned this he was so struck with envy that he immediately began plotting her murder and the most heinous form of murder at that. For when Hypatia emerged from her house, in her accustomed manner, a throng of merciless and ferocious men who feared neither divine punishment nor human revenge attacked and cut her down, thus committing an outrageous and disgraceful deed against their fatherland. The Emperor was angry, and he would have avenged her had not Aedesius been bribed. Thus the Emperor remitted the punishment onto his own head and family for his descendant paid the price. The memory of these events is still vivid among the Alexandrians." - Damascius, Life of Isidore.

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