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Hypatia of Alexandria: A Woman Before Her Time

Hypatia was respected by many officials of her great city. One such man, Orestes, the Prefect of Alexandria, was her friend and often sought her counsel on administrative affairs. Many sources state that he too was pagan, though there are references he was baptized Christian.

The other key player in Hypatia's demise is the Patriarch Cyril, the Bishop of St. Mark. He was installed as bishop in October of 412. It was his mission and his quest to bring Christianity to Alexandria, to rid the city of pagans and Jews. He fought his battle for Christian purity by moving against groups that did not follow his beliefs. Cyril was a power-hungry man, who was later canonized by the Catholic Church.

One Saturday, Orestes was talking at a theater about the politics of the city. There were many Jews and Christians present, and they detested each other. There was one Christian in particular, Hierax, a loyal supporter of Cyril, that caused an uproar in the crowd. It was thought he was there to spy on Orestes. Orestes stopped his speech and ordered Hierax brought to him. He then had Hierax tortured in full view of the crowd.

When Cyril heard of this, he was furious. Calling the Jewish leaders together, he warned that there was trouble in the air.

The Jewish leaders, in turn, planned their own retribution, an ambush. On the agreed upon night, the Jews ran through the city yelling, "The Church of Alexander is on fire!" All the Christians that came to save their church were slaughtered by the Jews.

Cyril's fury reached new heights, the resolve of his mission reinforced. He had every Jew to be found thrown out of the city and turned their synagogues into churches. He also enlisted the aid of the desert Monks of Nitria.

On one eventful day, some 50 monks came upon Orestes. One of them, Ammonius, threw a rock and hit him on the head. Ammonius was arrested, brought before Orestes, and tortured until he died.

At this point, Cyril made efforts to reconcile his differences with Orestes, but the prefect would have nothing to do with it. Cyril then turned his attention to Hypatia, blaming her for Orestes's refusal to reconcile.

Hypatia's denunciation is reported by Socrates Scholasticus. He says, "men 'of the Christian population' started to spread a slanderous rumor that Hypatia was the lion in the path to a reconciliation between the bishop and the prefect. It was astronomy that sealed her fate--understood, of course, as astrology alloyed with black magic and divination."

On a spring day in March 415, Hypatia was riding serenely in her carriage, a picture of grace and wisdom in her philosophical robes. It was a day of Lent, a grave day for Hypatia.

Following the lead of Peter, a reader for the church, the Monks of Nitria pulled Hypatia from her seat and dragged her through the city to Caesarium, the Church of Caesar. There, they stripped her naked, and beat her with broken pieces of pottery and scraped the skin from her body. Even though she was now dead, they were not yet finished. They tore her body, limb from limb, and took it to a place outside the city called Kinaron. There, they burned the remains of this noble lady upon a great pyre.

No person was ever punished for this brutal murder. But humankind paid dearly. The end of ancient science is symbolized by Hypatia's death. Although the decline had been in progress for several centuries, for the next one thousand years after Hypatia there was only chaos and barbarism. These were the Dark Ages.

Hypatia was an extraordinary woman for her time. It has been said that she is the most famous of all women scientists until Madam Marie Curie, and that she was the Ralph Waldo Emerson of her day. Where would we be today had her science and philosophies been allowed to survive and flourish?

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Additional Reading

bullet Hypatia, by Charles Kingsley. Hurst & Company, 1928.
bullet Hypatia of Alexandria, by Maria Dzielska, translated by F. Lyra. Harvard University Press, 1995.
bullet Hypatia's Heritage, by Margaret Alic. Beacon Press, 1986.
bullet Medieval Portraits from East and West, by Eleanor Shipley Duckett. University of Michigan Press, 1972.
bullet 100 Women, by Gail Meyer Rolka. Bluewood Books, 1994.

Updated 17.10.2023
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