There is no better date to remember Hypatia of Alexandria than 8 March, International Women’s Day. She lived approximately between 370-417 AD and will remain one of the most eminent people of humanity. She was a teacher at the Library of Alexandria, where the essence of all the expressions of thought, art and science of her time were concentrated; in other words, everything that was incompatible with the Christian obscurantism that was already showing signs of the massacre of lives and dissident thought that it would later unleash.
By Osvaldo Durán-Castro
Her universal intelligence and training as a Neoplatonic philosopher, mathematician, astronomer and researcher went beyond all the parameters of her time and space. And she did all this in absolute dissidence because she was a woman and did not submit to Christianity. Not renouncing the pursuit of knowledge provoked the inordinate hatred against her.
When Hypatia walked in Alexandria, says Carl Sagan, it was a time when “…slavery, the cancer of the ancient world, had robbed classical civilisation of its vitality”. The other scourge that was already taking hold was the merger of Roman power with Christianity, the extent of which would become clear after the Council of Nicaea in 324.
Accounts and writings confirm that the Bishop of Alexandria, Cyril who assumed that office in 412, despised Hypatia as an intellectual, a pagan/atheist and simply for being a woman and for not conforming to and fulfilling the “word of god” as to what a woman should do and be. Cyril invoked the bible to declare her outside of God’s law and provoked her murder, which was consummated by a mob of angry Christians. She was stoned, beaten and skinned alive. She was then dismembered and burned. In the film “Agora” by Alejandro Amenábar, she is strangled to death by a slave in love with her, but even this “softened” version of death is brutally violent. As soon as she died, Cyril was declared a “Saint and Doctor” of the church.
It was well over 1,200 years before Johannes Kepler, by adding Tycho Brahe’s experiments to his theories, confirmed the elliptical orbit of the “wanderers”/planets that Hypatia had visualised. This lethargy reaffirms that humanity can live ruled by an error for more than a thousand years. But in reality, we can say that in many respects that lethargy endures to this day, largely due to the overwhelming weight of the many derivations of Christianity. In his famous “On the shoulders of giants” Stephen Hawking (2004), he reviews the contributions of some eminent scientists such as Galileo, Kepler, Copernicus, Newton, Einstein, but does not even mention Hypatia, although her experiments to discover elliptical orbits helped to open a new era in astronomy, in which the movements of the planets could be predicted.
Galileo Galilei’s experiments on gravity in the Tower of Pisa had already been devised and partly carried out by Hypatia. Her legacy is also directly related to the overcoming of Ptolemy’s geocentric universe that prevailed until the European Renaissance. In other words, the history of science and of humanity in general, to this day, is still written from the patriarchal point of view. Although Carl Sagan does not mention Hypatia when he talks about Kepler’s elliptical orbit, he does spend a lot of time explaining her abundant contributions in many fields of knowledge and deals with her life in a comprehensive way.
The murder of Hypatia and the disappearance of the Library of Alexandria were only the first scenes of an unusual and delirious tragedy that installed and multiplied ignorance with the inquisition of the Catholic Church both in Europe and America. The Catholic “witch-hunt” caused all its female victims to be annihilated by torture and burning at the stake. All these crimes, like that of Hypatia, were femicides.
The same church that had murdered Hypatia would also ban the knowledge of Kepler and Copernicus in 1620. And of course, it was the same church that on 19 February 1600 set fire to Giordano Bruno after the heretic ex-curate (who never recanted, as Galileo Galilei did half-heartedly to his inquisitors), defied it until the last minute by telling them “You are more afraid to pronounce my sentence than I am to hear it”, as James Reston Jr. recounts in his biography of Galileo (1996, p.90). “Triumphant beast” Giordano Bruno called Pope Paul V, the highest authority of the “Company of mercy and piety”, who tortured him and lit him at the stake.
After Hypatia’s death, the Library of Alexandria was completely destroyed after being turned into a stable for all kinds of beasts, thanks to the Roman Empire’s concessions to the Christians. Carl Sagan said that “…the last remnants of the library were destroyed within a year of Hypatia’s death. It is as if an entire civilisation had had a kind of radical brain surgery so that most of its memories, discoveries, ideas and passions were irrevocably erased”. The worst of all is that the same verses that Cyril recited against Hypatia are still being repeated today, when patriarchal, misogynist, Christian men of any stripe, dressed in cassock or tie, and unfortunately also patriarchal women, pretend to continue defining what women’s rights are and to decide even over their own bodies.
Osvaldo Durán-Castro, Sociologist ITCR, ecologist FECON