Thursday, April 27, 2017

W for Witch-hunt Victim, Hypatia: Female Scientists Before Our Time

Actress, possibly Mary Anderson in play
"Hypatia" circa 1900
Hypatia of Alexandria (c. 355-415 AD) was the only daughter of astronomer and mathematician, Theon of Alexandria. Educated in Athens, Hypatia excelled in mathematics, astronomy and philosophy.

In Egypt, she went on to head the Neoplatonic school at Alexandria, where she taught astronomy and philosophy based in the teachings of Plato and Aristotle.

She was quite popular as a spiritual leader and had a following in Alexandria that included Christian, pagan and foreign students alike. Her home soon became an important gathering place and learning center.

Her teachings were rather mystical and dwelt on the “mystery of being.” In letters, she wrote of “the eye within us” as a “divine guide.” In sync with her father’s understanding of the world, she viewed astronomy “as the highest science, opening up knowledge of the divine.”

Unfortunately, Hypatia did not fit into the societal mold as perfectly as one might think. When she was brutally murdered in 415 AD by a mob of Christian extremists, outrage and centuries of debate have continued in the wake of her death. Some have called it a witch hunt.

Apparently, Hypatia’s interest in divination and astrology, at times concentrating on “magic, astrolabes and instruments of music,” and her position as a pagan philosopher, scientist, and mathematician bothered Cyril, the new Bishop of Alexandria. The bishop before him had permitted violence against Jews, and pagans and their leaders, destroying their shrines, temples and images.

However, Hypatia had become a civic leader and was adored by both Christians and non-Christians. Cyril must have prickled inside watching her stroll through town with confidence in her philosopher’s cloak as she spoke openly to the crowds. Hypatia was a perpetual thorn in Cyril’s  flesh.

Astrolabe of Jean Fusoris; made in Paris, 1400.
(Putnam Gallery)
The astrolabe was used by navigators and
astronomers to measure altitude of celestial bodies 
and to calculate latitude.

Cyril's fight to remove Jews and nonconforming Christian groups in Alexandria had recently escalated into a blood thirsty feud, dividing the city. Those opposing Cyril sided with Orestes, the Roman Prefect of Alexandria.

Orestes (himself a Christian) also happened to be a close friend of Hypatia. Cyril saw an opportunity and began lashing out at Hypatia, openly accusing her of sorcery. A church chronicler (John of Nikiu) later restated this accusation as “she beguiled many people through satanic wiles.” She was “the pagan woman who had beguiled the people of the city and the prefect through her enchantments.”

But it was Cyril’s first accusation that led to the crime. A mob of Christian extremists known as the parabalonoi kidnapped Hypatia, dragged her to a church, stripped her naked, and ripped open her flesh with pot-shards. After dismembering her body, they burned her remains. Another chronicler (Hyesychius) later wrote: “her body [was] shamefully treated and parts of it scatter all over the city.” 

"Death of the philosopher Hypatia, in Alexandria" from
Vies des savants illustres, depuis l'antiquité jusqu'au dix-neuvième siècle,
1866, by Louis Figuier.
The parabalonoi were never punished. The bishop spread a rumor announcing Hypatia had moved to Athens. Some historians claim her death was symbolic of the end of ancient Greek/Roman influence and the end of Alexandria’s intellectual life. But another source states it was Hypatia's femaleness that was under attack. It "made her a special target, vulnerable to the accusation of witchcraft.” Further, she had long fought against Jewish and other religious repression.


Sharon M. Himsl

Writer/Author. Blogging since 2011. 
Published with Evernight Teen: 
~~The Shells of Mersing


  1. How awful she was murdered. This was one remarkable lady.


    1. I found this pretty shocking. I don't recall ever hearing this story before. Thanks Yvonne!

  2. I discovered this story when researching for Potions To Pulsars. A nasty thing, but those Christian monks would kill each other over a difference of interpretation let alone a pagan who was doing better than they were. They would have slaughtered Jesus if they met him!

    I think there was a biopic about her a few years ago, can't remember who was in it.

    X is for eXtras

    1. I'm glad you point this out. The extremists were a group of hell bent monks. What a terrible time in the history of Alexandria!

  3. Hi Sharon - what a dreadful story ... and relevant to today sadly. I'd heard of Hypatia .. but never in this context ... and as Sue above says ... there was a biopic - if that comes to the fore I'll watch it ... cheers Hilary

    1. Also looking forward to the biopic if it comes out.

  4. How jealousy, fear and power can create such a murderous mob hell bent on destroying a person and in such a disgusting fashion. Sadly, it happens today and so few know about this lady and how famous she was

    1. Cyril's jealousy has been written about in accounts. A sad example of how destructive jealousy can be when it takes root!

  5. And another reason I have no use for religion. They can justify anything that suits their message.

    1. I hear you, Denise. As a Christian I have faith in a just, loving God, but unfortunately faith and religion are not always the same.


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You could call me an eternal optimist, but I'm really just a dreamer. l believe in dream fulfillment, because 'sometimes' dreams come true. This is a blog about my journey as a writer and things that inspire and motivate me.