06 October 2009

Hypatia Hits the Big Screen

And who (if we may ask) is Hypatia?

Philosopher, mathematician, lecturer, astronomer. A pagan. And a woman.

An uppity woman.

Born before 370 CE in Alexandria in Egypt.

The ancient sources tell us little about Hypatia, the female astronomer and mathematician who was so much admired by her fellow pagans and so despised by the Christians.

A pagan poet, Palladas,who lived in Alexandria at about the same time as Hypatia, wrote this epigram, the first contribution to her literary legend.

Searching the zodiac, gazing on Virgo,
Knowing your province is really the heavens,
Finding your brilliance everywhere I look,
I render you homage, revered Hypatia,
Teaching’s bright star, unblemished, undimmed.*

But a Christian source remembers it differently:

AND IN THOSE DAYS there appeared in Alexandria a female philosopher, a pagan named Hypatia, and she was devoted at all times to magic, astrolabes and instruments of music, and she beguiled many people through (her) Satanic wiles.

The Background

Hypatia was the daughter of Theon, a mathematician who was the last attested member of the Museum (the "shrine of the Muses"). In its glory days, the libraries of the Museum had held some half a million books. Those days were long over and the last books probably went up in flames in 391 when the great temple of Serapis was razed to the ground and a Christian church built over its ruins.

She was taught mathematics by her father, but reached an excellence far above her teacher, especially in astronomy, and she instructed many [pupils] in mathematical studies.

She helped her father prepare his big book on Ptolemy's planetary models, the Almagest: Theon's second edition of this astronomy classic proudly acknowledges the contribution of "the philosopher, my daughter Hypatia."

Hypatia herself was a follower of the Neoplatonic tradition. We know that she taught publicly in Alexandria -- perhaps in the Museum and certainly in the Agora -- where (although a woman) she appeared dressed in a philosopher's cloak, expounding in public to those willing to listen on Plato or Aristotle or some other philosopher. She wrote a treatise on what we would today call 'numbers theory' and another on geometry.

All of her own works are now lost but we can glean something of her teaching from seven letters written to her by her most famous pupil, Synesius, who converted to Christianity and became Bishop of Cyrene in Libya. He had studied under Hypatia in the early 390's and his surviving letters span the years from 399 to 413. Indeed, she was the recipient of his final letter, penned from his deathbed:
I am dictating this letter to you from my bed, but may you receive it in good health, mother, sister, teacher, and benefactress, and whatsoever is honoured in name and deed. (Ep. 16)
A Neoplatonic Sanitary Napkin

Hypatia was "honest and chaste and throughout her life remained a virgin." Almost certainly she never married -- although she was "exceeding beautiful and fair of form". But boys will be boys and, needless to say, one of her pupils fell in love with her. Despite his best efforts, he could not control his passions and made his affections obvious to her.

Bringing out one of her [bloodstained] menstrual towels, she thrust it a him; and having displayed the evidence of her unclean nature said: "It is this you love, young man, not beauty."

Another version has her say , "In truth, this is the focus of your yearning, young man, but it is nothing beautiful!"

Whatever her exact words, the young man was seized with shame and horror and was brought to a change of heart and a return to chastity.

This is a difficult but well-reported scene, one which most scholars have ignored (or left in the original Greek so as not to have to deal with it). But Hypatia is not saying that her vagina is unclean, but that a philosopher -- and especially a Neoplatonist -- is above things of the body and should focus only on the soul's journey towards the infinite Truth. They must not descend into corporeality or allow themselves to be ensnared by lust. This may be implied by the Alexandrian-Greek word she uses for 'sanitary napkin', phylakeia ("shieldcloths"), which carries the added charge of preserving virginity, rather as a 'shield' for celibacy.

(Neo)Platonic Friendships

Another of her pupils, and a personal friend, was Orestes, the imperial prefect of Egypt and governor of the city, and nominally a Christian.
And the governor of the city [Orestes] honoured her exceedingly; for she had beguiled him through her magic. And he ceased attending church as had been his custom....And he not only did this, but he drew many believers to her, and he himself received the unbelievers at his house.
She had many other friends in high places, both private individuals and magistrates. Adherents of philosophy generally at this time were aristocrats. They formed a group unsympathetic to Christianity and potentially hostile to it. It was from these friends that Hypatia's danger came. In the eyes of the Church, and especially of the city’s patriarch Cyril, she was too big for her boots.
Cyril ... was passing Hypatia's house and noticed a hubbub at the door, 'a confusion of horses and of men', some coming, others going, and yet others standing and waiting. He asked what was the meaning of the gathering and why there was a commotion at the house. Then he heard from his attendants that they were there to greet the philosopher Hypatia and that this house was hers. This information gave his heart such a prick....

Religious tension in Alexandria was already running high with conflicts between Christian and pagan, between Christian and Jew, between orthodox and heretical views. Although the Christians were by now the dominant party and no longer persecuted, they were all too ready to persecute others. In 391, the Emperor Theodosius had forbidden all pagan cults everywhere in the Empire. That same year, rioting and civil disorder broke out when the temple of Serapis was destroyed. Violence erupted between Christians and Jews as well, so Cyril led a mob against the synagogues and drove the Jews out of Alexandria, a flagrantly illegal act and an usurpation of Orestes' authority as governor. Both men now became embroiled in a struggle for political power as Orestes resisted ecclesiastical encroachment upon his civil jurisdiction.

Prelude to Murder

When the prefect rebuffed any attempt at reconciliation, he was himself assaulted by armed monks "of a very fiery disposition" who had come into the city in support of the patriarch.
About five hundred of them therefore quitting their monasteries, came into the city; and meeting the prefect in his chariot, they called him a pagan idolater, and applied to him many abusive epithets.... A certain one of them named Ammonius threw a stone at Orestes which struck him in the head, and covered him with blood that flowed from the wound. All the guards with a few exceptions fled [but] the populace of Alexandria ran to the rescue of the governor, and put the rest of the monks to flight; having secured Ammonius they delivered him up to the prefect. He immediately put him publicly to the torture, which was inflicted with such severity that he died under the effects of it.
Orestes was lucky to escape with his life, but escape he did. In reply, Cyril recovered the body of Ammonius, deposited it in a church and, calling him the "Marvellous", enrolled him among the holy martyrs. But the more sober-minded Christians didn't buy this story and Cyril was forced into silence. The intense hostility between the civil and church authorities continued to simmer.

Meanwhile, fanatical monks were roaming Alexandria, prepared to murder if necessary.

Died March 415, a date set in horror

Hypatia was around 60 at the time and no longer the tantalizing beauty of earlier days.

What exactly happened on that day of doom depends of which source you believe: the 10th-century Suda Lexicon (quoting an early 6th C biography), the 5th C Ecclesiastical History of Socrates Scholasticus, or the 7th C Chronicle of the Coptic Bishop, John,Bishop of Nikui -- the negative voice in our records, who claims that she deserved everything that she got: as Cyril, too, would have put it (and probably did), she was a sorcerer and an enemy of Christ.

The version by Socrates Scholasticus (who, after all, lived through the events [c 379-450]) burned its way into literary legend. A mob of frenzied monks, certainly devoted to – and possibly acting under the orders of – the bishop Cyril ambushed Hypatia:
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 with roofing tiles (or sharpened oyster shells). After tearing her body in pieces, they took her mangled limbs to a place called Cinaron, and there burnt them.
"In this way the dream of Hellenic Reason ended, In this way, on the floor of Christ."**

For good measure, as we are told elsewhere, While she was still feebly twitching, they beat her eyes out. The extreme brutality of the monks may have been aggravated by fasting (it was during Lent that the murder occurred), which some consider a mitigating factor.

Whether Cyril was guilty or not, no-one was ever brought to trial for the crime and the Church authorities saw fit to canonize him in 1822.

Even though there shall be utter forgetfulness of the dead in Hades 'even there shall I remember thee,' my dear Hypatia.(Synesius, Ep. 124)

Fast forward to 2009

It's time for Agora.

A history pic telling the story of Hypatia is scheduled to be released to theatres.

The film is by Academy Award Winner Alejandro Amenábar (The Others, 2001, The Sea Inside 2004). After its showing at the Toronto International Film Festival in September, it is now scheduled to be released on December 18.

From what I've seen, Amenábar is way out of his depth.

British Oscar-winning actress Rachel Weisz is a smoldering, lipsticked Hypatia, juggling two fabricated love interests: Orestes (played by Oscar Isaac) and an entirely fictitious Davus, a Christian monk (Ashraf Barhom), a hairy-cloaked sizzler who never existed. That's the first clue that this is historical fiction.

According to promotional materials: "The brilliant astronomer Hypatia and her disciples fight to save the wisdom of the Ancient World." And the luscious Rachel has this to say, "The film is definitely the story about a woman who refuses to compromise her ideals .... She believes in reason and doubt and she is not willing to step down from that. It's pretty bold."

We shouldn't blame the actress for the words put in her mouth, but still, this is pretty grim. While shrieking mobs race across the screen, Hypatia utters the unlikely line: "Whatever may be going on in the streets, we are brothers."

Phew! And the 'voice over' rubs it in: "In the last days of the Roman Empire, at the fall of civilization, one woman, ahead of her time, stood to unite mankind."

She did? I hadn't noticed before just how modern Neoplatonists really were. Her knowledge of astronomy is equally trite: "Though the heavens should be simple, they are not."

No, I guess not. But she may not have had time to learn more since, as the photo shows (just above, left), she was awfully young at the time of her murder. No sagging 60-year-olds here.

A lesson for our time.

From the press release:

"Working on a grand scale with great confidence, Amenábar follows his characters through epochal changes. Christianity sweeps across Alexandria not just as a force of enlightenment but also simply as force. As Davus falls under the sway of extremism and Orestes struggles with his new faith, Agora takes up big themes of religion and allegiance, and how violence can enforce both. Driven by a questing intelligence, this film dramatizes ideas that are as relevant today as they were in Hypatia's lifetime."

That's all right then. It's relevant.

But it is not History.

Still, if the trailer is anything to go by, I can hardly wait for December 18th.

* Palladas, Poems a selection translated and introduced by Tony Harrison (London: Anvil in association with Rex Collings, 1975), 67. It can be argued that the epigram refers to another Hypatia entirely because Palladas may have lived earlier than our philosopher. Since the dating is unsure, we can only go by the poem itself. To my mind, it best fits a philosopher and astronomer who is also a virgin (Virgo); that is, Hypatia of Alexandria.

** Mario Luzi, Libro di Ipazia (Milano, 1978)

Thanks so much to Jone's History Women's blog for first notice of this film.

More information on Hypatia at the
Penelope page , University of Chicago; on Hypatia as a feminist and racial icon, see the excellent Overheard blog post. Two books review the meagre evidence: Maria Dzielska, Hypatia of Alexandria (Harvard Univ. 1995), especially good on Hypatia in the literary tradition; Michael Deakin, Hypatia of Alexandria: Mathematician and Martyr (New York, 2007).


  1. I think you mean "born before 370" not 470.

    Otherwise, fascinating!

  2. Thanks Ridger. Amazing how many times you can overlook a stupid typo.

  3. Hi Judith. This is Ramiro, publisher of www.historiaclasica.com, where you stopped by the other day. I must say I am a follower of yours since that moment. I love your blog.

    Let me tell you that following this post of yours about Hypatia, I have made my own version...


    Hope you like it!

  4. Visually it might be quite a treat -- comparable to "Rome."

  5. Anonymous26/3/10 00:38

    How great to see this! I have written a historical novel about Alexandria a few years earlier than these events, when Theophilus burns down the temple of Serapis. Can't seem to interest a publisher in it, but if anyone wants to read it, send me an email to bluejeepsd@aol.com, and I will send you the word.doc of it. I cant wait to see this movie. The best image of Alexandria so far has been in the horrible movie "Alexander the Great"

    1. Anonymous20/7/14 04:40

      If still possible could you please send me a copy of your book.

  6. Thank you for posting this! I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. I watched the movie today, and I was a bit dissapointed after reading about Hypatia online - the facts are not the same as in the movie :-(
    But still, I enjoyed the movie - but I enjoyed reading your post more!
    Thank you.

  7. Nice blog post - thanks! Just watched Agora last night on DVD and this helped put things in the right perspective.

  8. Anonymous2/11/12 22:39

    Thanks for this post! It's a wonderful, well-researched piece on Hypatia--so helpful to people trying to learn more about this inspiring woman.

  9. Thank you for your comment on a Scientific American page linking to this blog. My family will watch this film on video/dvd/online, and my daughters can learn from history that not all women were just childbearing window dressing.


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