Hypatia of Alexandria: Philosopher and the First Notable Woman Mathematician

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Death by Oyster Shells - Believed to be Hypatia's fate for her eminence among men. Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons.

Death by Oyster Shells – Believed to be Hypatia’s fate for her eminence among men. Image by David Monniaux.

Why is Hypatia, who lived in Alexandria, a rarity merely for being a female philosopher in the ancient world?  In fact, why have there been so few female philosophers throughout history – just a few in Egypt – at least until the birth of feminism when women began to find their voices?

When we learn what happened to this fabulous woman, it’s not surprising few cared to follow in her footsteps.

We have no written evidence from Hypatia herself, so it can be difficult pinning down what is true. Other anecdotes about her can be found in the “Sources” at the end of this article.

Diving into the Wreck of Women’s Lost Past

Hypatia was an early victim to the myth that women cannot, or are not entitled, to achieve excellence and receive accolades in academic study. It is claimed she was extremely beautiful and shapely, and, unfortunately this did not help her cause. She was married to Isidorus.

In her poem, Diving into the Wreck, the American poet, Adrienne Rich, presents a challenge to women everywhere to recover the evidence of the brilliance of their lost “grandmothers.” For there are many great women like Hypatia whose stories still lie buried.


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The title Diving into the Wreck is, in fact, a metaphor for the long and painstaking project to find the hidden evidence of women of the past and to recognise the price they paid for their resistance to the negative conditions of their environment.  The truth is that we stand on their shoulders.

In a nutshell, Rich is struggling to find her way to reality, by blazing a trail through the myths of the past. We must achieve understanding, and in its wake, redemption. With Rich, we struggle to engage and become involved with our past and to discover the truth behind the names we barely know and to which we owe so much.

Hypatia’s Background

Despite the terrible trials for the women of the past, Hypatia’s life story is especially chilling, even though accolades preserved from her time are full of admiration for her dignity and virtue.

Hypatia was the daughter of the philosopher, Theon Alexandricus, (335-405 AD) and she was fortunate in that her father nurtured her intelligence and encouraged her to feel confident amongst her peers. He treated her exactly as other good fathers would treat their sons.

Theon’s progressive ways led to Hypatia attaining knowledge in science, logic and astrology; we remember her as the first notable female mathematician. She and her father followed in the footsteps of the great philosophers, Plato and Plotinus.

The following quote from the Ancient and Classical History website explains one of her great gifts to mathematics:  “By writing a commentary on The Conics of Apollonius of Perga, which divided cones into sections by a plane, Hypatia made geometry intelligible to her students and ultimately transmissible to the modern world.”

Hypatia, philosopher and challenger of assumptions, died a terrible death at the hands of Peter the Reader and his cohorts. Drawing by Jules Maurice Gaspard.

Hypatia, philosopher and challenger of assumptions, died a terrible death at the hands of Peter the Reader and his cohorts. Drawing by Jules Maurice Gaspard.

The Insidious Effects of Professional Jealousy

People came from near and far to engage with her philosophical teachings. As a result of her self-possession, she was often required to appear before the magistrates and consort with men of importance. Inevitably, the excellence of her mind led to political jealousy among some of the men, who circulated defamatory stories about her. These stories led to a terrible conclusion.

A nasty piece of work called Peter the Reader led the group of ‘Christians’ ultimately responsible for Hypatia’s fate. Orestes, a governor, had quarrelled with the bishop, St. Cyril of Alexandria, who was, allegedly, a patriarch afflicted with a strong and bigoted temperament. This disagreement had become the cause of great disharmony.

Peter the Reader and his cohorts erroneously reported that Hypatia was intentionally preventing the two men from becoming reconciled.

They had secured a crime and they were going to act upon it.

Hypatia is Savagely Massacred

Peter and his co-conspirators ambushed Hypatia as she was walking home to her husband, Isidorus. They dragged her out of her chariot, and into a church, known as the Caesarium. Here, within this holy place, they committed an outrage so terrible it is almost beyond comprehension.

They stripped Hypatia of all her garments, and tore into her with sharp oyster shells, scraping away strips of her flesh. Then, they bore her limbs to another place, known as the Cinaron, and there they burnt them.

Realising they had perpetrated a most savage massacre, the killers offered gifts to the authorities to avoid any punishment.

(According to Socrates Scholasticus, the Greek word for oyster shells, which is “ostrakois” can also mean brick tiles as applied to house roofs.  Oysters shells, however, seem a more efficient and, therefore, more likely method.)

Honouring the Spirits of Women from the Past

When Adrienne Rich wrote her poem, Diving into the Wreck, she was speaking to women of Hypatia’s ilk. Rich, as the poem’s narrator, “is looking for “…a book of myths / in which / our names do not appear.”

Our grandmothers may have suffered, but we can honour their spiritual truth by discovering, by remembering and by naming them.

Sources:

Arnold, Roxane & Chandler, Olive. Feminine Singular. (1975). Femina Books Ltd.

Russell, Bertrand. History of Western Philosophy. (1946). George Allen & Unwin, Ltd.

Socrates Scholasticus. The Life of Hypatia. (305-445 AD). Ecclesiastical History. Accessed  October 13, 2013.

Rich, Adrienne. Diving into the Wreck: The Fact of a Doorframe. (1984). W.W. Norton and Company.

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