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Hypatia: The Female Greek Philosopher Killed for Her Beliefs

Death of the Greek philosopher Hypatia. Unknown artist. Public Domain

Hypatia, one of the greatest philosophers of Alexandria, was admired for her groundbreaking ideas but was brutally murdered for them by Christian fanatics in the fourth century AD.

Born around the year 360, Hypatia was a female Greek philosopher, astronomer and mathematician who went completely against the norms of the time, yet gained tremendous respect for her great mind and accomplishments.

Her father, Theon, was a mathematician and astronomer who never tried to curb his daughter’s thirst for knowledge.

Hypatia was a member of the Neoplatonic school of philosophy. She would appear draped in the robes of the academic elite — something that only men were allowed to do at the time.

One could safely say that by today’s standards she was a feminist, and definitely one of the first in recorded history.

Her love for astronomy led her to build astrolabes, which are used for examining and measuring celestial bodies in the night sky, and she charted the courses of stars and planets.

Hypatia studied philosophy in Athens and returned to Alexandria, where she taught philosophy, mathematics and astronomy to the young people of the city.

Among her students were the offspring of the most powerful families of Alexandria, who later progressed to assume high positions in Alexandrian society.

Loved and respected in Alexandria

In Alexandria, Hypatia taught Platonic philosophy, the Ptolemaic system of celestial movement, and the advanced mathematics of Euclid.

She was known as a gifted teacher, and was undoubtedly one of the greatest thinkers of the time.

Two of Hypatia’s students were the Bishop of Kyrenia, Synesius, and the Prefect of Alexandria, Orestes.

Hypatia kept up a continuous correspondence with Synesius, parts of which have miraculously survived and reveal the enormous admiration that the Bishop had for Hypatia.

“Even if Hades is a place of complete oblivion, even there I will remember you, dear Hypatia”, he wrote in one of his letters.

The brilliant woman would often head to the city center and give orations on her thoughts regarding Plato. Audiences were captivated, not just by her ideas but by her looks as well.

Hypatia was respected by the the city’s intellectuals and scholars. She was equally respected by Christians, who used her as an example of chastity.

An anecdote that survives about her chastity begins by stating that once a young man had expressed his love for her. In response, she showed him a handkerchief soiled with her menstrual blood to emphasize the impurity of carnal relationships.

Hypatia was celibate, and historians believe she remained a virgin until her death.

Her chastity made her very popular in Greek society, which prized celibacy as a virtue, and therefore she was acceptable and viewed as respectable to both men and women.

Portrait of Hypatia by Elbert Hubbard (1856-1915). Public Domain

Christian fanatics killed Hypatia

Hypatia practiced paganism at a time when Christianity was in its infancy and growing, and therefore some of its followers were more fanatical.

The female philosopher did not try to conceal her pagan beliefs and continued to practice paganism, something that infuriated the city’s Christians.

It was widely believed that Cyril, a notable Alexandrian bishop, made it his mission to eliminate the influence of the idol-worshipping female philosopher and astronomer.

The bishop accused Hypatia publicly as an idol-worshipper, then allegedly ordered a mob of fanatics to kidnap her.

The Christian fanatics indeed kidnapped the woman and dragged her through the streets while torturing her horribly.

It is said that the tortures were extremely cruel, including scraping Hypatia’s flesh with oyster shells.

Then the mob took her to a church where they stripped her naked, lashed her, and tore her limbs from her body.

Rachel Weisz as Hypatia of Alexandria n the motion picture Agora (2009). Credit: Focus Features, Newmarket Films/Telecinco Cinema

Was Hypatia a victim of politics?

According to historian Socrates the Scholastic, the death of Hypatia was the result of a political dispute between the Prefect of Alexandria, Orestes, and the Bishop of Alexandria, Cyril.

In 415 AD, Orestes issued a decree regulating the public feasts of the Jews, as they usually celebrated in large crowds and caused riots. The Jews opposed the regulations.

The decree was affixed to a wall, and a Christian named Hierax loudly supported the new arrangements.

Hierax was a very enthusiastic listener to bishop Cyril’s sermons, and made himself conspicuous by his forwardness in applauding the decree.

The Jews took the act of Hierax as an insult and a provocation to incite sedition, and addressed Prefect Orestes, urging him to order his arrest and have him tortured in public.

Orestes was angered that the Bishop was sending spies to his proceedings, and by his power to influence the Christians, and proceeded with the torture.

The cruel punishment of a Christian citizen angered Bishop Cyril — especially when Orestes acted this way to please the Jews — and in retaliation he launched an attack on the Jews of the city.

After a series of fights, during which both camps suffered heavy losses, Bishop Cyril exiled all the Jews from Alexandria and allowed the Christians to usurp their property.

The Prefect became furious with Cyril and the tension between them peaked. Then 500 fanatical monks arrived to fight on the side of Cyril.

One of them, Ammonius, threw a stone at Orestes, which wounded him in the head. Ammonius was arrested on the spot, then tortured and executed.

Hypatia was a close friend and advisor of the Prefect. According to Socrates Scholasticus, the female philosopher was actually a victim of political rivalries, as she was unfoundedly accused by Christians of turning Orestes against them.

The mob, led by the clergyman Petros, abducted her and took her to a church, where she was stripped naked and beaten. When she died, they dismembered her body and threw every limb into the fire.

Clearly, the fourth century was an era of great political and religious turmoil, with the two intermingling most of the time.

Religious doctrines were at times interpreted according to one’s best interests, and a crowd could be easily manipulated to turn into a mob.

Hypatia’s ideas about philosophy and astronomy were far ahead of her time, winning the admiration of academics and intellectuals, and her achievements will live forever.

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