April 1st, 2010

The woman who went against the norm – in the 4th century

She was the first woman astronomer, and the first woman to make a major contribution to the development of mathematics. But the achievements of Greek philosopher Hypatia were forgotten and buried under the ‘heroics’ of his-story.CONSTANCE SINGAM did some research into Hypatia and tells her story.

The movie Agora, which was screened in Singapore recently, is based on the life of the Greek philosopher Hypatia, a woman whose achievements were forgotten and buried under the ‘heroics’ of his-story. This denial of achievements happens especially to women whose world view and actions challenge dominant cultural norms and political powers

I had never heard of Hypatia and after the movie I did some research and discovered that she was not just a Hollywood fantasy but an actual person, and that in the 1970s the second wave feminists restored Hypatia to her rightful place in history. This is her story.

Hypatia was a woman of grace and eloquence, of beauty and wisdom who lived in the late 4th and early 5th centuries, a time of great change. She was the first woman to make a substantial contribution to the development of mathematics. She was also regarded as the first woman astronomer, an inventor, and a philosophy teacher who specialized in the works of Plato and Aristotle.

Hypatia’s father was Theon of Alexandria, who was a mathematics teacher at the Museum of Alexandria in Egypt. Hypatia became the head of the Neo-Platonist school of philosophy at Alexandria. Her eloquence combined with her remarkable intellectual gifts attracted a large number of pupils and she corresponded with and hosted scholars from other cities.

She became the salaried director of this school in 400AD. She wrote on mathematics, astronomy and philosophy, covering topics such as the motion of the planets, number theory and conic sections. From the little historical information about Hypatia that survives, it appears that she invented the plane astrolabe, the graduated brass hydrometer and the hydroscope, working with Synesius of Greece who was her student and later colleague.

Christianity was becoming a powerful force then and was trying to take control of pagan Alexandria. At that time Alexandria was a centre of Greek intellectual and cultural life, which included many independent schools and the great library of Alexandria where Hypatia was highly influential and a respected scholar and teacher. But it was the wrong place and time for a woman of Hypatia’s calibre as she got caught up in a power struggle between three very powerful men.

Like Hypatia, Orestes, the governor of Alexandria, was a pagan (non-Christian) and one of her students and admirers. Another of her students was Synesius of Cyrene, afterwards bishop of Ptolemais (c. 410) who often consulted her. It is through their letters, which still exist, that we are able to get some sense of her achievements and importance.

Orestes was an adversary of the new Christian bishop, Cyril, a future saint. Cyril objected to Hypatia on a number of counts: She represented heretical teachings, including experimental science and pagan religion. She was an associate of Orestes. And she was a woman, as far as Cyril and his fundamentalist followers were concerned, who didn’t know her place.

Hypatia dressed in the clothing of a scholar or teacher, rather than in women’s clothing. She moved about freely, driving her own chariot. This was not the norm for women then.  She exerted considerable political influence in the city.

It was Cyril’s preaching against Hypatia, according to records, that incited a mob led by fanatical Christian monks in 415 to attack Hypatia as she drove her chariot through Alexandria. They dragged her from her chariot and, according to accounts from that time, stripped off her clothes, killed her, stripped her flesh from her bones, scattered her body parts through the streets, and burned some remaining parts of her body in the library of Caesareum. The movie was less graphic and a little kinder in its depiction of the murder.

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