Hypatia - an Ancient Story of Intolerance

"Reserve your right to think, for even to think wrongly is better than not to think at all." - Hypatia of Alexandria


My purpose in writing this essay is not to trash a particular church - in this case the Roman Catholic. Instead, it is to show how a person who resisted the established church (in many ways besides music) eventually became a victim of dogmatism by some bad leaders in that church.

Hypatia's Story

The following passage is adapted from lectures by Mangasar Mugurditch Mangasarian (1859-1943). This man definitely had an agenda of his own, one that was almost a deification of Hypatia. I have edited those parts of his lectures out, and left just historical information.

The city of Alexandria was one of the greatest intellectual centers in the days when Athens and Rome still ruled the world. The capital of Egypt received its name from the man who conceived and executed its design -- Alexander the Great. Under the Ptolemies, a line of Greek kings, Alexandria soon sprang into eminence, and, accumulating culture and wealth, became the most powerful metropolis of the Orient. Serving as the port of Europe, it attracted the lucrative trade of India and Arabia. Its markets were enriched with the gorgeous silks and fabrics from the bazaars of the Orient. Wealth brought leisure, and it, in turn, the arts. It became, in time, the home of a wonderful library and schools of philosophy. At one time it was the general belief that the mantle of Athens had fallen upon the shoulders of Alexandria.

But there was a stubborn and superstitious constituency in the city which would not blend with the foreign element -- namely, the Greeks and the Romans. This antagonism between the Egyptian born and the children of Hellas and Rome, who were Alexandrians only by adoption, was frequently the occasion of street riots, feuds, massacres, and civil wars.

About the year 400 A.D., Alexandria, enjoyed a population of 600,000 inhabitants. The city limits encompassed a circumference of fifteen miles. It enjoyed the distinction of being quite free from the curse of poverty. No beggars could be seen loitering in its streets. No one was idle, and work brought good wages. Such was the demand for labor that even the lame and the blind found suitable occupation. The Alexandrians understood the manufacture of papyrus, a kind of vegetable paper used extensively by the authors, and they knew how to blow glass and weave linen.

When Christianity gained the upper hand in Alexandria, it set out to destroy two of the principal monuments of its powerful rival, Paganism -- the library and the temple of Serapis. Alexandria, at a very early period, became one of the foremost strongholds of the Christian religion. Of the five capitols of the new faith -- Jerusalem, Constantinople, Carthage, Alexandria, Rome -- Alexandria at one time led Constantinople, and was not second even to Rome.

Theodosius was at the time the Christian ruler of the Empire. In reply to a request by the Archbishop of Alexandria, he sent a sentence of destruction against the ancient religion of Egypt. Both the Pagans and the Christians had assembled in the public square to hear the reading of the Emperor's letter, and when the Christians learned that they may destroy the gods of the Pagans, a wild shout of joy rent the air. The Christians proceeded to destroy the Temple of Serapis, while the pagans left in fear. Some of them tried to mount a defense of what was left of the library and of the Temple of Serapis, but they were quickly and brutally defeated.

When the archbishop under whose influence the monuments and libraries of Pagan civilization were pillaged and pulled down died, he was succeeded by his nephew, St. Cyril. The new archbishop directed his efforts against the living monuments of Paganism -- the scholars, the poets, the philosophers -- the men and women who still cherished a passionate regard for culture and civilization beyond just the Christian world. The most illustrious representative of Greco-Roman culture in Alexandria about this time was Hypatia, the gifted daughter of Theon, a mathematician and a philosopher of considerable renown. It is said that Theon would have come down to us as a great man had not his daughter's fame eclipsed his.

Hypatia was a remarkably gifted woman. Her example demonstrates how all difficulties yield to a strong will. Being a girl, and excluded by the conventions of the time from intellectual pursuits, she could have given many reasons why she should leave philosophy to stronger and freer minds. But she had an all-compelling passion for the life of the mind, which overcame every obstacle that interfered with her purpose. The example of a young woman conquering tremendous difficulties, and becoming the undisputed queen of an intellectual empire, ought to be a great inspiration to us faint hearts. She won the prize which was denied her sex, and became "the glory of her age and the wonder of ours."

To pursue her studies, she persuaded her father to send her to Athens, where her earnest work, her devotion to philosophy, the readiness with which she sacrificed all her other interests to the cultivation of her mind, earned for herself the laurel wreath which the university of Athens conferred only upon the foremost of its pupils. Hypatia wore this wreath whenever she appeared in public, as her most prized ornament. Upon her return to Alexandria, she was elected president of the Academy, which at this period was the rendezvous of the leading minds of the East and West. In fact, it was in this academy that the effort of the advanced thinkers to bring about a pacification between the culture of Europe and that of Asia originated. They wished to make Alexandria, situated midway between the Europe and the orient, the point of confluence of the two streams of civilization. It was their plan to make Alexandria a sort of intellectual distillery, refining and fusing the two civilizations into one.

Cyril, the Archbishop of Alexandria, persuaded himself that Hypatia's good name and talents were giving the cause of Paganism a dangerous prestige, and thereby preventing the progress of the new faith. Hypatia was indeed a great power in Alexandria. She was the most popular personage in the city. When she appeared in her chariot on the streets people threw flowers at her, applauded her gifts, and cried, "Long live the daughter of Theon." Poets called her the "Virgin of Heaven," "the spotless star," "of highest speech the flower." Judging by the chronicles of the times, it appears that her beauty, which would have made even a Cleopatra jealous, was as great as her modesty, and both were matched by her eloquence, and all three surpassed by her learning.

Her renown as a lecturer on philosophy brought students from Rome and Athens, and all the great cities of the empire, to Alexandria. It was one of the great events of each day to flock to the hall in the academy where Hypatia explained Plato and Aristotle. Cyril, the Asiatic archbishop, passing frequently the house of Hypatia, and seeing the long train of horses, litters, and chariots which had brought a host of admirers to the female philosopher's shrine, conceived a terrible hatred for this Pagan girl. He did not relish her popularity. Her learning was rubbish to him. Her charms, temptations for the ruin of man. He hated her because she, a frail woman, dared to be free and to think for herself. He argued in his mind that she was competing with Christianity, taking away from Christ the homage which belonged to him. With Hypatia out of the way the people would turn to God, and give him the love and honor which they were wasting upon her. She was robbing God of his rights, and she must fall; for He is a jealous God. Such was the reasoning of Cyril, whom the Church has canonized.

Moreover, Orestes, the Prefect of Alexandria, respected Hypatia, and was a constant attendant at her lectures. Cyril believed that she influenced the Prefect and tainted him with her Paganism. With Hypatia crushed, Orestes would be more responsive to Christian influences. Unfortunately Cyril was a barbarian, and the doctrines of his religion only sharpened his claws and whipped his passion into a rage.

One morning, when Hypatia appeared in her chariot in front of her residence, suddenly five hundred men, all dressed in black and cowled, five hundred half-starved monks from the sands of the Egyptian desert -- five hundred monks, soldiers of the cross -- like a black hurricane, swooped down the street, boarded her chariot, and, pulling her off her seat, dragged her by her hair into a church! Some historians intimate that the monks asked her to kiss the cross, to become a Christian and join the nunnery, if she wished her life spared. At any rate, these monks, under the leadership of St. Cyril's right-hand man, Peter the Reader, shamefully stripped her naked, and there, close to the alter and the cross, scraped her quivering flesh from her bones with oyster shells. The marble floor of the church was sprinkled with her warm blood. The alter and the cross, were spattered, owing to the violence with which her limbs were torn, while the hands of the monks presented a sight too revolting to describe. The mutilated body, upon which the murderers feasted their fanatic hate, was then flung into the flames.

As I indicated above, Mangasarian's original essays contained a lot of additional (and irrelevant) material. He admired pagan religions, and pretty much dimissed Christianity. He was also majorly hung up on the beautiful Hypatia. Unfortunately for him, she was born 1500 years too early. Also, unfortunately, he would have probably been disappointed had he seen her in person.

Was she as beautiful as history says?

Incredibly, we do have a good idea of what Hyaptia looked like:


Noble families of the ancient world would often commision statues or at least busts of themselves. These are generally strikingly accurate, unless the person commissioning the work wanted an idealized version of themself. In Hypatia's case, this obviously not necessary.

The reason for the unusual angle of the frame above is that this picture is usually rendered with her face looking down, as though in shame or regret for a life terminated too soon. I chose to straighten her face up - she had nothing to be ashamed of, and made the best possible use of the years she had. What is immediately evident is a mixture of Greek and Roman facial features, but no Egyptian. The hairstyle is also typical of Roman women. Undoubtedly she had considerable Roman and Greek ancestry. For those that long for a full length view, notice the trace of a double chin. Unfortunately for those of you with more idealized notions of what she looked like, she was probably overweight by today's standards. The Romans and Greeks had a different standard of beauty. In spite of Alexandra Tydings representation of Aphrodite on TV, beautiful women of ancient times would not be considered beautiful today if they appeared on a beach today in a bathing suit. They would garner only forlorn comments that they should go on a diet from today's testosterone soaked males who prefer anorexic, flat stomachs.

Hypatia herself would have been appalled, however, at being remembered for the most fleeting of all of her attributes - her beauty. She had no use for male suiters in her lifetime, persuading them with pure logic that she was not their ideal woman. Any contribution she could have made to the gene pool was lost long before her murder, because she had probably passed child bearing age.

Her accomplishments

The real tragedy here is the loss to the world of a brilliant mind, and the contributions she could have made to the world. The books she could have written, the insights she could have had, the inventions she could have invented. For those who mourn for Hypatia, I would instead propose a celebration of her life and her accomplishements. That is how she would want to be remembered, not as the frail beautiful flower whose life was never fulfilled.

Hypatia's studies included astronomy, astrology, and mathematics. References in letters by Synesius, one of Hypatia's students, credit Hypatia with the invention of the astrolabe, a device used in studying astronomy. However, other sources date this instrument back at least a century earlier. Claudius Ptolemy wrote extensively on the projection used on the plane astrolabe, and Hypatia's father wrote an astrolabe treatise that was the basis for much of what was written later in the Middle Ages. Hypatia did teach about astrolabes as Synesius had an instrument made that was argueably a form of astrolabe.

Hypatia was known more for the work she did in mathematics than in astronomy, primarily for her work on the ideas of conic sections introduced by Apollonius. She edited the work On the Conics of Apollonius, which divided cones into different parts by a plane. This concept developed the ideas of hyperbolas, parabolas, and ellipses. With Hypatia's work on this important book, she made the concepts easier to understand, thus making the work survive through many centuries. Hypatia was the first woman to have such a profound impact on the survival of early thought in mathematics.

If she had lived longer, would she have changed our world? The answer is probably not. By ancient standards, Hypatia had a full and wonderful life. She died at 45, a short life by today's standards, but not by ancient standards. In an era before antibiotics and modern sanitation, any illness or infection had the potential to be life threatening. It would be very hard to avoid illnesses in a city like Alexandria that was a center of commerce in the ancient world. Each ship docking at the port would have the potential to be carrying a plague. The bottom line is that Hypatia was probably nearing the end of her life. That does not diminish in any way the horrible nature of Cyril's crime against her, however.

What does this have to do with Christian Rock Music?

Here is the official Roman Catholic description of Hypatia:

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.

Why do I have a tribute to Hypatia in a series of essays defending Christian Rock music? In part, it was her use of musical instruments that the church called satanic. One wonders just what style of music she played ---? I sincerely doubt it was "rock". But the tired old chorus of "this music is satanic" echoes through 15 centuries. No doubt Dial the Truth would have been making statements against Hypatia if they had existed in her time.

But was Hypatia an Enemy of Christianity?

If anybody wants to cast Hypatia in the role of enemy of Christianity, they better think again. There is no record of her speaking out publically against Christianity, or accepting any religion INCLUDING pagan ones, for that matter. Her call was for free thought. Her background was one of tolerance for ALL PEOPLE, and ALL PHILOSOPHIES:

In her education, Theon (her father) instructed Hypatia on the different religions of the world and taught her how to influence people with the power of words. He taught her the fundamentals of teaching, so that Hypatia became a profound orator.

The knowlege of differing philosophies and religions would have been very important in a port that was a crossroads of international commerce - as would a tolerance for the existance of differing ideas. It is tough to trade or do business with people when they can see you clearly despise them and their beliefs!

Was Hypatia an Enemy of Cyril?

Thus it happened one day that Cyril, bishop of Alexandria, was passing by Hypatia's house, and he saw a great crowd of people and horses in front of her door. Some were arriving, some departing, and others standing around. When he asked why there was a crowd there and what all the fuss was about, he was told by her followers that it was the house of Hypatia the philosopher and she was about to greet them. When Cyril learned this he was so struck with envy that he immediately began plotting her murder and the most heinous form of murder at that.

ENVY! What a typical, common motivation for murder. We are admonished in scripture NOT TO COVET. Here we see a good reason to extend that concept to other religions and philosphies that may be more popular at a praticular time and place. Where Cyril failed utterly was in understanding that Christianity has to stand on its own in the marketplace of ideas. In spite of his best efforts, and the efforts of his church - you cannot convert ANYBODY to Christ by forcing them. Their "conversion" is meaningless, because it has to come from their hearts or it is not conversion at all. If he was afraid Christianity was losing the battle for Alexandrian minds, he should have repented of his own spiritual bankruptedness. Maybe then, empowered by the Holy Spirit, he would have had something to say that Alexandrians would have cared to hear.


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