Hypatian Perspectives

Statements concerning Hypatia of Alexandria

 

One: Synesius of Cyrene.

I was a pupil and disciple of Hypatia during the year 393, as was my brother, Euoptius. By way of her special understanding, she taught a form of neo-Platonism, not dissimilar to certain forms of Christianity. There was, she believed, a supreme deity, and everything in the universe was in a kind of sympathetic harmony, with all of Creation the focus of this god’s attention. I assumed the god in question was male, but I never asked. As for the contentious issues of the soul’s existence, of literal resurrection, and of the final day of reckoning, Hypatia refrained from comment. I had my doubts, in any case, as regards all three. Quite how I came to be appointed Bishop of Ptolemais in the year 410, given my doctrinal uncertainties, was – and remains – a mystery to me, since my Christianity was never much pronounced. However, the decision proved to be a popular one, and I think my association with the wise woman of Alexandria helped.    

Not only was Hypatia an inspiration as a philosopher, she was a mathematician and astronomer of great repute, and her practical skills were renowned throughout the civilised world. Her father, Theon, was also a scholar, and, via some strange alchemy, he transferred his several abilities to his supremely able daughter, who proceeded to transcend her father’s achievements and reputation in every regard – which is not to say Theon wasn’t a great mathematician and astronomer in his own right. As well as editing Euclid’s Elements and Optics, and Ptolemy’s Handy Tables, he also wrote an original treatise on the astrolabe, and on catoptrics. However, it was his daughter who transformed the Alexandrian school, and placed it above and beyond the Academy of Athens, which was disappointing in comparison. She managed this, in no small part, due to her extraordinary physical presence as a woman. Dressed in the tribon, her scholar’s robe, she lectured in public places throughout the city, and wherever she went, she attracted great crowds. There was always a crush around her house, with people waiting to hear her wise words, no matter if the subject was Plato, or Aristotle, or the mathematical sciences, or the astronomical canon. For her private students, she constructed astrolabes and hydrometers. She wrote commentaries on ancient texts by Diophantes, Apollonius of Perga, and on Ptolemy’s Almagest, clarifying certain obscurities within the script. Perhaps her greatest skill lay in the ability to make accessible to all what had once seemed complex and difficult. Her pupils at the school were, naturally, in awe of her, and they loved her as much as they respected her. I must confess if circumstances had allowed, the particular love I felt towards Hypatia might have manifested itself in something other than deep friendship, but it was not to be.

For the last sixteen years of my life, I’ve kept in touch with her by way of countless letters; letters always responded to, and always full of sound advice, support, and great consolation. That this sublime woman continues to educate her students, and the citizens of Alexandria, makes me think that perhaps the world is not as coarse and violent as it so often seems. In my more private, reflective moments, a particular thought often occurs to me: what if the Christ-child had been born a woman? Scandalous and heretical, I know, but only a thought. However, I believe I know the answer to my question.  

 

Two: Artemas, student of Hypatia’s.

For almost two years, between 397 and 399, I studied at the school in Alexandria. As much as I was interested in the sciences, it was philosophy and rhetoric which intrigued me most of all. Although the formal classes were inspiring, it was Hypatia’s throwaway remarks and seemingly casual observations that so captivated me. I took notes during all of my classes, most of which I’ve subsequently lost. A good thing, perhaps, since out of context, the words might have appeared obvious, even trite, but at the time they seemed to distil and contain the essence of a great wisdom. It was almost as if Hypatia’s very existence, her way of being-in-the-world, confirmed the validity of her comments.  Of all the things she said, it was her insistence on the primacy of thought that affected me most. It was, if you will, her battle cry: ‘Never stop thinking, even when and if you’re wrong – think again, and again, and again, and never let others think for you. Don’t blindly trust those in Authority, just because they’re in Authority. Challenge everyone, question everything, and – most of all – question and challenge your teachers, including me. Especially me!’

She was passionately committed to the idea that Philosophy, the play of ideas, and of what lay beneath the surface, transcended all other pursuits. Unfortunately, such obvious passion was misinterpreted by some of her students, and by one young man in particular. So fired up was he when she appeared to direct her remarks specifically in his direction, he promptly declared his love for her on the spot. Initially, I think, Hypatia was somewhat embarrassed, and sought to cool his ardour by gently playing a soothing melody on the lyre – but to no avail. He declared she was so beautiful and so fine of form, he adored everything about her; everything she was. Upon hearing this, she smiled, turned her back on him, placed a hand between her thighs, and turned to face the young man, thrusting her bloodied menstrual rags in his face. ‘This is the truth of my beauty’, she said. ‘This is what you love, the reality of a woman.’ Blanching at the sight, the young man fled the hall, and never returned. A practical lesson in philosophy, then. Of sorts.

 

Three: Orestes, Praefectus augustalis.

At about the same time I was appointed Praefectus, the young bishop Cyril succeeded to the Patriarchate of Alexandria. From the very beginning we didn’t see eye to eye. He was determined to exert his form of Christian control on all matters within the city, even those which were clearly secular – and therefore my responsibility – and none of his damned business. As a recent convert to Christianity, for expedience’s sake, I had no particular issue with his faith; just the heavy-handed, intrusive, and sometimes brutal methods he employed. We clashed on a number of issues; none more so than our different attitudes to the Jews and Pagans who lived and worked within the city’s boundaries. Cyril took it upon himself to expel a number of Jews, after they’d rioted in response to a deliberate provocation instigated by the bishop in the first instance. It wasn’t Cyril’s place to expel anyone; that was part of my civil remit, and I made it perfectly plain I was far from impressed. In response, I was physically assaulted by a group of Nitrian monks; monks who suddenly appeared from out of their desert enclave, former colleagues of Cyril himself, with one of their number – a certain Ammonius – giving me great injury. I might have died, had it not been for the intervention of the Alexandrian citizenry. The guilty monk was arrested and tortured unto death, which prompted Cyril to declare him a Christian martyr, which he most certainly was not. In fact, the Christian population of the city was revolted by the miscreant’s assault, and by the bishop’s proclamation, which obliged him to keep quiet – if only for a season.   

As for the Pagans, I never met one of their number who wasn’t kind, courteous or decent – men and women alike. It occurred to me that only a fool, or a bigot, would dismiss their accumulated wisdom out of hand; a wisdom acquired after almost a millennia of philosophical and scientific investigations. Bishop Cyril was both fool and bigot. For him, human wisdom was no match for the truth of Holy Scripture, provided it tallied with his version of such truth. In this regard, he was far from unique, since religious zealots of whatever stamp seem to view the world through a sort of blurry tunnel vision. It was hardly a surprise when he questioned my decision to appoint Hypatia as chief mediator between us, although her moral authority and deep knowledge were the talk of Alexandria and beyond. In fact, students from wealthy and influential families right across the Empire came to the city to study privately with this most pre-eminent of women, with many of her pupils attaining important positions in both government and the Church. She had no issue with teaching Christians, and the Christians who attended her classes clearly had no issue with her background as a Pagan philosopher. A pity, then, that Cyril saw her as a threat to his authority, and set about spreading barefaced lies, in order to discredit her. The notion that Hypatia was some kind of witch, with her diabolic diagrams and constructions, both mathematical and astronomical, was absurd; and Cyril’s mutterings, suggesting a pact between the philosopher and Satan himself were, quite frankly, risible – or, at least, they would have been, had not his thuggish followers decided to act upon them. And thus it was the outstanding, sublime Hypatia was savagely murdered by the parabalini: an infamous act, which will, or should, stain Cyril’s name for all eternity. May God have mercy on his soul, but only a little.”        

 

Four: Socrates  of Constantinople (Socrates Scholasticus).

The sublime Hypatia – philosopher, mathematician and astronomer – was  murdered during the Christian season of Lent, in the year 415, by an organised mob of assassins, the parabalani; bishop Cyril’s thuggish personal bodyguard, and his very own hit squad. Originally established to care for the sick, they were employed by Cyril to intimidate and silence his opponents, from both within and without the Church. Under the barking command of a dog named Peter, a supposed lector, the parabalini stopped the chariot carrying Hypatia home from her daily lectures, hauled her to the ground, dragged her through the streets of Alexandria, before entering the kaisarion; a church, and once a Roman temple. Throughout her ordeal, the divine Hypatia made no sound. She neither screamed nor cried for help, almost as if she accepted her fate with stoic resolve, such was her strength of character. This venerated woman, long past the first flush of youth, a beacon of light in a city overcast by Abrahamic darkness, bore her savage indignity with a fortitude beyond human understanding.

What happened next is hard for me to describe, but describe it I must. Once within the sacred building, the terrorists (for such they were), tore off the woman’s robes, leaving her naked on the stone floor. An unspeakable act of desecration, made more unspeakable by what followed. As Hypatia lay shiv’ring, one of the men took a piece of jagged stone and gouged out her eyes, yet still she made no moan. Incensed by her silence, and taking it as their cue for further action, they began hurling ostraka – roof tiles – at the helpless creature, until, quite bloodied and broken, she lay still and lifeless. At this point, in a kind of frenzy, her body was ripped limb from limb, and her flesh scraped from the bones using sharp-edged oyster shells, in a determined effort to utterly destroy any semblance of her human form. Finally, as if to prove the entire exercise was planned from start to end, the dismembered remnants were taken beyond Alexandria’s walls, to a place called Cinarion, and burnt, in order to purify the city, as if she was little more than the vilest of criminals.

All this I know, and all is true: I swear on my life. However, why the parabalini acted in such a grotesque manner, I’m not certain. Orestes, Alexandria’s  Praefectus, and bishop Cyril had long been in dispute; a power struggle, in short. Hypatia was asked by Orestes to mediate between them, something which Cyril strongly objected to. After all, why should he listen to a Pagan and – worse still – a mere woman? Had not Timothy himself made it plain that no woman was to have authority over a man, and that all women should keep their silence? In order to undermine Hypatia’s position, Cyril had it put about that she was deliberately sabotaging discussions, on behalf of Satan himself. Whether he directly ordered his thugs to commit murder is not known, but it’s likely he was exceeding satisfied when the flames finally consumed the last of Hypatia’s remains. Eternal shame on them all.

 

Five: Peter the lector.

Yes, we killed her, and there’s nothing you or anyone can do about it. We’ve got the bishop covering our backs. Not that he actually asked us to kill her. No, we didn’t need him to do that. It was obvious the woman was a witch, and she was causing all good Christians a lot of grief, what with her whisperings in the ear of the Praefectus, and her Pagan idolatory, and the Satanic machines she built to try and usurp God Almighty Himself. If Cyril had been allowed to have his way in the first place, she’d have been hounded out of Alexandria a long time ago, along with the rest of her kind, and the Jews.

Anyway, it’s too late now. She’s gone for good, burnt to a crisp. Not sure if her sort have souls, but if they do, she’ll be burning again now, in Hell itself. Now there’s a thought to put a smile on the faces of all righteous men and women.

That was the other thing, of course. Along with being a puffed-up, strutting, smart-arse, too clever by half, bloody Pagan devil worshipper, she was a woman. A fucking woman, who Orestes trusted to call the shots, over and above the good bishop, the good Christian bishop, the upright, devout male bishop. O yes, she got what she deserved. Asking for it, she was. So don’t expect apologies or remorse from us. If we hadn’t done it, someone else would have. Eventually. This is our world, a man’s world, a Christian world, and the privileged unbelieving bitch overstepped her prerogatives.

You get my point?  

 

Six: Cyril, Patriarch of Alexandria.

I became Patriarch of Alexandria in the year 412, following the death of my uncle, Theophilus. My succession wasn’t as straightforward as it should have been, since my rival for the position, Archdeacon Timotheus, instigated violent riots in the city; riots I was obliged to counter by calling on my faithful followers, the parabalini. Sometimes, the Word alone isn’t enough; muscle helps. Once I was enthroned, I closed the churches of the Novationists – heretics all, and seized their sacred vessels. I usually had my own way, howsoever brutal I needed to be.

The city’s Praefectus, Orestes, was a Pagan in Christian garb, or so it seemed to me, and I didn’t much care for him from the start. His determination to wield secular power over and above my holy power was an affront to Mother Church and to myself, and I determined to undermine him at every possible turn, even if that meant laying myself open to charges of sedition. In the year 415, Orestes issued an edict concerning the mime shows and dance exhibitions which took place in the city. In order to stir up a little trouble, I sent my grammaticus, Hierax, to discover the content of the edict, and then to read it aloud to the Jews, who most benefitted via the revenue from such events. Inevitably, the new regulations stirred up a hornet’s nest of trouble, and Orestes had Hierax arrested, and publicly tortured for his provocation. In turn, I promised to retaliate by threatening the utmost severities against the Jews; a threat which caused much violent resentment, and the murder of many Christians. On hearing of this, I marched on the synagogue with my supporters, banished as many Jews as I could, and confiscated their goods and properties. Orestes was incensed by my actions, since only he was in a position to legally banish people, and besides, the city required the Jews in order to properly function, apparently. Realising that, perhaps, I might have overstepped the mark on this occasion, I attempted mediation with the Praefectus, but without success. Orestes’s chief advisor was a Pagan philosopher, and a woman to boot. She was well respected in the city, and even across the Empire, as a charismatic lecturer. However, that meant nothing to me, and I suspected she was deliberately hampering negotiations between us, so I determined to bring her down, one way or another. Undermining her reputation was easy enough, certainly among my more enthusiastic, bone-headed supporters. I suggested that the only way a woman could possibly wield such influence and power was if she was in league with the Devil. I further suggested she designed and built strange demonic machines, intended to challenge the existence of God Himself. Naturally, she was bound to be a witch, and probably a wanton midnight whore into the bargain. The parabalini lapped it up with juicy relish, and began to make plans. Not that I ever ordered them to do what they did, although I may have posed a rhetorical question within the earshot of Peter the lector, along the lines of ‘who will rid me of this turbulent woman?’   

Of course, it’s of no consequence now. She’s dead, and Orestes has moved on, worn down by my determination to have my own way; something I always do, in the end, howsoever brutal I need to be.

 

Seven: John, Bishop of Nikui (from the year 690).

“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.

“And the governor of the city honored her exceedingly; for she had beguiled him through her magic. And he ceased attending church as had been his custom. But he went once under circumstances of danger. And he not only did this, but he drew many believers to her, and he himself received the unbelievers at his house…

“And thereafter a multitude of believers in God arose under the guidance of Peter the magistrate — now this Peter was a perfect believer in all respects in Jesus Christ — and they proceeded to seek for the pagan woman who had beguiled the people of the city and the prefect through her enchantments.

“And when they learnt the place where she was, they proceeded to her and found her seated on a (lofty) chair; and having made her descend they dragged her along till they brought her to the great church, named Caesarion. Now this was in the days of the fast.

 “And they tore off her clothing and dragged her [till they brought her] through the streets of the city till she died. And they carried her to a place named Cinaron, and they burned her body with fire.

“And all the people surrounded the patriarch Cyril and named him ‘the new Theophilus’; for he had destroyed the last remains of idolatry in the city.”

 

Postscript 

In the year 1982, at Ipswich crown court, Judge Bertrand Richards fined John Allen £2,000. Allen had been found guilty of raping a 17-year-old girl, who had been hitchhiking home to a rural area. Allen was fortunate to escape with a mere fine, but Judge Richards had his reasons. “I am not saying that a girl hitching home late at night should not be protected by the law, but she was guilty of a great deal of contributory negligence.”

      ‘Contributory negligence’…

Words to chill every woman’s blood.   

 

Dafydd Pedr


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