Tuesday, April 27, 2010

The Real Wonder Woman: Hypatia of Alexandria

I was waiting to see this film Agora, based on the life and death of Hypatia of Alexandria, but it never seemed to get a theatrical release. It's also very hard to find on DVD. Why is that? Well, it seems to have kicked up a controversy over its alleged anti-Christian bias and had a hard time finding an American distributor. Why?

Well, Hypatia was horrifically tortured and murdered by a Christian mob at a time when such events were business as usual. That's not a question of any kind of bias, it's simply a fact. Some apologists try to spin her murder as a result of political intrigue, but it's clear to any rational individual her death was a religious crime. Again, simply a fact.

The fact is that the Fifth Century was not a very enlightened time for the Church, especially in Egypt with its marauding monks wiping out what was left of the pagan world. Not only the temples and the statues, but also education, science, medicine, philosophy and the arts, all of which were seen as afronts to God.

To its credit, the Vatican has asked for forgiveness for many of these kinds of abuses in the past. But the lay groups that condemn movies like Agora are usually made of the kinds of people who are secretly nostalgic for heretic-cleansing. And that's where the trouble begins.

Here's an account of her death in the words of an early Church father (John, Bishop of Nikiu), who speaks quite glowingly of the event:
“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 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 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.”
In fact, a Fifth Century historian recorded that Hypatia's murder took place in a newly-built church, like some psychotic consecration:
(I)t was calumniously reported among the Christian populace, that it was she who prevented Orestes from being reconciled to the bishop. Some of them therefore, hurried away by a fierce and bigoted zeal, whose ringleader was a reader named Peter, waylaid her returning home, and dragging her from her carriage, they took her to the church called Caesareum, where they completely stripped her, and then murdered her by scraping her skin off with tiles and bits of shell. After tearing her body in pieces, they took her mangled limbs to a place called Cinaron, and there burnt them.
As brutal as that sounds, it wasn't unusual at all- it was policy. Not only pagans but Gnostics and other heterodox Christians were treated in a similar fashion as Hypatia from the time of Constantine on. And as was always the case in the ancient world- particularly in the absolute theocracy of the Roman Empire in the Fifth Century, those "political machinations" the apologists point to were religious at their core. Professor Michael Deakins:

This is the background to Hypatia's murder. In the year 412 Archbishop Theophilus died and was succeeded by his nephew Cyril. Although Theophilus had razed the temple of Serapis, he had never, in over 30 years, moved against Hypatia. In part this may very well have been a result of his friendship with Hypatia's influential and adoring pupil, Synesius of Cyrene. Synesius himself died in 413 or thereabouts, and so Hypatia was suddenly left without her powerful protectors.

Cyril, making use of a 500-strong private militia, began to exert his authority in the temporal as well as in the spiritual sphere, and thus he came into conflict with the civil governor, Orestes, in the course of a series of increasingly violent confrontations between the various factions in the city.

"Militia." Yeah, that's comforting, given current events. You see, that's the thing about history- it has lessons for us.

So who was Hypatia? Deakins again:

Imagine a time when the world's greatest living mathematician was a woman, indeed a physically beautiful woman, and a woman who was simultaneously the world's leading astronomer.
From another biography:

Throughout her childhood, Theon raised Hypatia in an environment of thought. Historians believe that Theon tried to raise the perfect human. Theon himself was a well known scholar and a professor of mathematics at the University of Alexandria. Theon and Hypatia formed a strong bond as he taught Hypatia his own knowledge and shared his passion in the search for answers to the unknown. As Hypatia grew older, she began to develop an enthusiasm for mathematics and the sciences (astronomy and astrology).

Most historians believe that Hypatia surpassed her father's knowledge at a young age. However, while Hypatia was still under her father's discipline, he also developed for her a physical routine to ensure for her a healthy body as well as a highly functional mind....

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.

Here are some of the teachings of Hypatia, more relevant today than ever:

“Fables should be taught as fables, myths as myths, and miracles as poetic fancies. To teach superstitions as truth is a most terrible thing. The mind of a child accepts them, and only through great pain, perhaps even tragedy, can the child be relieved of them.”

“Reserve your right to think, for even to think wrongly is better than not to think at all.”

“To rule by fettering the mind through fear of punishment in another world is just as base as to use force.”

“All formal dogmatic religions are delusive and must never be accepted by self-respecting persons as final.”

“Men will fight for superstition as quickly as for the living truth – even more so, since superstition is intangible, you can't get at it to refute it, but truth is a point of view, and so is changeable.”


  1. That title's misleading! I watched the youTube video and kept waiting for her to leap up and tackle those invaders with a Xena-like yodel and some serious bullets-and-bracelets action!

    As it is, the articles were very informative and well worth my while to read. Thanks!

  2. Note: Sphinxie's comment was posted a while back, when I accidentally posted this article before it was finished.

  3. Checked Netflix for i and sure enough it's not available at the moment. Very interesting post. The quotes are incredible. Where did you find them?

  4. You can find it here:


  5. Flossirella,

    Professor Knowles, I am humbled.

    "Imagine a time when the world's greatest living mathematician was a woman, indeed a physically beautiful woman, and a woman who was simultaneously the world's leading astronomer."

    I have just filed for later perusal, Polyxena's famous death caused at the end of the Trojan War by the same Patriarchal system as I suspect in reality, caused the death of the very real woman Hypatia.

    Other than that connection, I wanted to know whether you had heard of, or knew 'ought about' The Bani Hilal; Arab epic of the 11th Century? It is considered a MMOIHH.(?) This means Mankind's Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity'. This alone was enough to Alert My Attention.
    PSYNCH spot.......the Wickipedia pages said that they were modified on the 17th December, 2009, 14.38 AND the 17th April 2010, 12.12.

    Nuff said.

    (Apart from being in deep regard of your thinking!)

  6. Well said Chris, Xtians are a dangerous lot. Pie in the sky, death cult. Dennis

  7. Caleb- On a bio site somewhere. When I get a moment, I'll add a link. VERY interesting about Netflix.

    Echoes- Cheers.

    Flossatia- No, I hadn't heard of it. Thanks for bringing it up. =)

    Dennis- Not the point of the piece. The problem isn't religion, it's stupidity. The problem isn't Christianity, it's the dumbed-down, tribalized version of Christianity that appeals to the dim-witted.

    A lot of credible scientists have argued that the late Imperial period saw an exponential decrease in basic intelligence, possibly because of the widespread use of lead in cooking utensils. And lead increases violence as well. And most of the smartest people in Christian Rome locked themselves away in monasteries and nunneries and didn't have children. I think there was a combination of factors that flatlined average intelligence in Europe from the 4th Century to the 12th.

    But I often wonder if higher levels of intelligence -and civilization itself- aren't alien to this planet. Stupidity breeds superstition and fear, which in turn breed genocide.

  8. I know I've mentioned it here before, but I greatly enjoyed John Lash's book, Not in his Image. He discusses Hypatia and Gnosticism. Highly recommend


    1. February 17 2015 @ 1:43 amI just finished watching Agora on YouTube. At first I was curious. Then I became intrigued. Then the anger came. And finally, the tears. As much as I enjoyed this epic story about an absolutely extraordinary woman who was both a student as well as a teacher, I had no idea how horrible it would end. The hypocrisy of the christians and their total disregard for anything against “their way of life” brought me to such a state of anger that I seriously contemplated if I wanted to watch any further. But, like I said I was intrigued and wanted to see, as many have noted, how she invented the Astrolabe. Unfortunately, that part of the story was not in the script. It appalls me that in the name of Jesus, the most valuable library in the world was destroyed. That the rights of Jews and Pagans were not respected and furthermore that when these “christians” were ambushed by the Jews who had been subjected to the greatest of intolerance, the christians did not see the irony of their behavior. I am a proud Native American Elder and I know firsthand how the Christ faith can be misinterpreted by fundamental leaders to read in or out what suits them at any given moment to support their hysterical beliefs that there is only one God. I appreciate the actors who took the time to make this piece, capturing a moment in time. And had they not stayed true to the facts set in history we would not know how the injustice of non-christians at least in some extent began, and how after all the years later the message of the Christ is still apathetically being considered as the norm.
      Thank You for your time in reading my thoughts and feelings. Whether or not you agree with me or not, I am grateful that I can write opinions with a certain degree of safety. Or can I?
      Sioux Nation Elder

  9. whoa you gotta check out this report on the moon from yahoo.

    tons of 17 synchs.


    great blog today. im just sinking my teeth into it.


  10. and by tons i mean 3. 2 17's one 71.

  11. Birnbaum from Goldman Sachs calls Senate committee members "earthlings"


    Also, you probably already know about this, but the release of the Malcolm X shooting suspect this week got me thinking about the claims of UFO abduction by Elijah Muhammad and Louis Farrakahn.

    Elijah Muhammad stated in Message To The Blackman (which I think was written in the 30s):

    “The present wheel-shaped plane known as the Mother of Planes, is one-half mile by a half mile and is the largest mechanical man-made object in the sky. It is a small HUMAN BUILT PLANET made for the purpose of destroying the enemies of Allah. The cost to build such a plane is staggering! The finest brains were used to build it. It is capable of staying in outer space six to twelve months at a time without coming into the earth’s gravity.”

  12. Hypatia's accomplishments are another example not just of the potential for women but for human beings in general. I believe we've discussed the possibility that our present and relatively short recent development of electronic communications and technological accessories to our nervous systems (PDAs, the Internet, etc) are unintentionally (or intentionally) turning us into more of a hive society than a pack mammal in family groups. It may be a natural development of urban life, but members of urban societies in antiquity seem to far surpass most individuals today in accomplishment, understanding and even physical ability.

    We're becoming a hive - but a hive filled mostly with drones.

  13. 77M- Cool. Thanks for the link.

    DDJ- Wow- Luna 17! Stranger than fiction.

    AA- Yeah- the NOI is a lot stranger than a lot of people think.

    Anony- Very true. I've always thought humanity will one day evolve into two basic archetypes- the ants and the bees.

  14. Hi,

    My name is Rev Robert Wright, Editor for Christian.com, a social network made specifically for Christians, by Christians. We embarked on this endeavor to offer the entire Christian community an outlet to join together and better spread the good word of Christianity. Christian.com has many great features like Christian TV, prayer requests, finding a church, receiving church updates and advice. We have emailed you to collaborate with you and your blog to help spread the good word of Christianity. I look forward to your response regarding this matter. Thanks!

    Rev. Robert Wright

  15. Oh sure, I'll get right on that.


  16. I too have been awaiting the film Agora, but am not surprised at the delay. I have never really had a hero before, but Hypatia of Alexandria is quickly becoming mine! Thank you so much for this article. I have only recently discovered her, through John Lash's book Not in His Image and most recently in a fictionalized account of the life of Hypatia Flow Down Like Silver by Ki Longfellow. Ki was recently interviewed by Miguel Connor on his podcast Coffee, Cigarettes and Gnosis, which he's renamed, and I can't recall the new one ... Recently got a copy of Manly P. Hall's The Secret Teachings of All Ages, and the last full color plate in that wonderful book is of Hypatia driving her team of white horses in her chariot, being attacked by the mob. I appreciate so much the quotes you have posted here from Hypatia. May I ask you what is the source? If you could provide the name of the book or a link, would greatly appreciate.

    Pax. Kimberly

  17. I respect the fact that this site isn't religious per se, and so I don't want to trigger anything heated, but it's fascinating to me how some Christians deny the violent history of their faith, yet condemn across the board, Muslims, when we are dealing with a faction of Muslim zealots. It's also fascinating to watch the bile against writers like Philip Pullman, over a couple of fictional books. Does it ever occur to these type of Christians why a writer like Pullman is an atheist? Do they ever stop to ask what would drive anyone to become an atheist? I have always doubted that someone just wakes one day and decides to be an atheist, it's more likely past experiences have colored those individuals away from Christianity, yet they just don't want face that reality do they? Funny.

    No offense intended, just had to be said.

  18. Samantha- Yeah, Hypatia is a hero for anyone who values the life of the mind. There are a whole host of martyrs throughout history, who were persecuted for trying to raise humanity out of the muck of stupidity. I'll be posting on some of them in the future. The quotes came from this page: http://www.newbanner.com/AboutPic/athena/raphael/nbi_hypa.html

    Matt: Well, reading about the Egyptian monks is not a whit different than the Muslim Brotherhood or similar groups today. But by the same token, we see the same kind of dogmatic and aggressive absolutism among some of the atheists and skeptic groups as well, though certainly without the violence.

  19. I attended the Toronto premiere, and before the show, the director (Alejandro AmenĂ¡bar) gave a little spiel. I believe he was quoting Carl Sagan or some other astronomer who insisted that if the library of Alexandria hadn't been burned, along with the killing of Hypatia et al... we would be colonizing Mars by now. As it seems, these "heretic" freethinking philosophers (from the 5th century) were aware of elliptical planetary orbits...something only to be (re)"discovered" centuries later by Johannes Kepler (17th century). Anyways...the movie was powerful and pertinent to this day and age...and as you say its hard to find?!! Hmmm...well at least in the digital age you can't exactly "burn" a movie....or can you?

  20. sagan on the library...and of course hypatia...


    enjoy :)

    p.s. many thanks for the article..
    i too, look fwd to agora.

  21. Speaking of powerful women, my friend was telling me about the new Batwoman comic being done by the Promethia artist.

    It seems Alan Moore must have rubbed off on him a bit, check out the Nephilim t-shirt and other fun iconography mixed in.

    Anyway, dudes got some serious chops, whatever the imagery.

  22. Hi,
    firstly thanks for your great posts. Each one of them is a pleasure to read. I discovered your site a long time ago, i visit it occasionally for specific pickings, recently a recent article on Caprica TV series. I was on a roll and came across hellboy (good article) and now Hypatia. I agree with everything you have said about Hypatia. There are alternate versions and reasons of her death. From what i have heard and reviews, critics have described Agora as more fictional and imagined. Her relationship with the Slave, and her character as an atheist rather than her true identity. Lastly Paganism has it's share of ritual sacrifices and killings in the name of God, monotheistic religions should be spared that accusation. Blame the people of the religion not the religion. It is the people who are corrupted not religion. If Hypatia's work survived we may have ended up living on Mars or kobol. Would we really have resolved our quarrels and wars and the killings and disagreements. I have nothing against atheists, neither the pagans but atheists are on a parade for seeking the truth. I have yet to see one great example set by the atheists. We hardly here from them when mother nature strikes, the great World war was started by atheist the Nazis and not to mention they were no where to be found when it comes to creating legislation or influencing a state of affairs that is not shaped by the morals mentioned in religions texts. we are in a never ending loop.
    Thanks for the great insight bro.

  23. Thanks for the tip on this movie,Chris...and you're right,this movie is hard to track down for some reason,but I managed to find a copy at CD Universe ;
    Which I will be buying to put into my CD collection.

    Cheers / Daz

  24. a year later and at last, the movie is available on a premium network. Wonderful article. The movie was well done. I am now off to the library as I have a craving to read more about Hypatia.

  25. Awesome topic! Hypatia has my outmost VOTE and VOICE ...
    I wrote a poem for her "For Hypatia With Love" while back.
    In today's blog-topic once again I pay tribute to her LIFE.

    If yous' wish to check it out pls visit: spiritspeaks-theofilia.blogspot.com

  26. Christopher Knowles said "Dennis- Not the point of the piece. The problem isn't religion, it's stupidity. The problem isn't Christianity, it's the dumbed-down, tribalized version of Christianity that appeals to the dim-witted."

    I must respectfully disagree. There is no good version of xtianity. It is acts as a virus on the minds of those who believe, leads them away from rational thought, common sense, individuality, bankrupts the imagination, and for all intents and purposes turns the believer into a zombie like creature who is lost to life and the world.

    It strips the believer of their humanity and stops any true human evolution in its tracks. The more one believes, the more one is removed from the oneness of all living things and the universe, and it abolishes any chance of the believer to ever experience true spirituality and all that goes with it.

    Please, for goodness' sake, dont feel that you have to defend any religion that you surely know in your heart is patently false and which has up to the present day caused so much harm, bloodshed, injustice, ignorance and evil done throughout history in its very name. How many works of art, sculpture, literature, etc where destroyed by Xtians, never to be seen again by anyone? How much KNOWLEDGE is the world deprived of because of the past and present actions of this horrible institution? If it wasnt because of the zealotry of christians who brutally murdered her its likely Hypatia would've lived a long life and perhaps influenced the world for the better much more than she already had. We would have records of her works and life that we are missing now. The same goes for countless victims of the church, or the mosque for that matter...

  27. I've never read any non-patristic primary sources concerning Hypatia. Where might these be found?

  28. I've been interested in Hypatia forever, and I loved Agora - yes, it 'tells it like it is' (or was) - the early monks were often former Roman soldiers and quite violent. This is why reformers among the monks, like Benedict and Pachomius are so valued in church history. Agora is a fabulous film, and I thought your comments, Feather Dancer, were really good! Thanks!

  29. All of this teach me, it's now My obligation to be a better human been, with respect to others and there's own creed, and help and serve the humanity seeking better times

  30. As human been, what matter is what you want to do to others? It's impossible for all of us to believe the same, if, any of us try to imposse our belief, we are on the same position who what we criticize! Why laugh at others? Are we better? Poor Hypatia, so sad... we will never understand??

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