No true likeness remains of Hypatia. What we have is imagined. The most famous "portrait" is in the work of Raphael: his astonishing "The School of Athens." Painted on a wall in the Vatican a thousand years after her lifetime, Hypatia is the only woman represented in a gathering of the West's greatest ancient philosophers and scholars. Draped in pure white, she stares out at us over the centuries: young, beautiful, alone.
Perhaps Raphael saw Hypatia as curious about us as we are about her. But to paint her looking directly out of his picture, he betrays his own intense interest. Or perhaps he was trying to tell us something? If so, whatever that is remains with Raphael...and with speculation.
Did he also paint her endangered? Though the world has forgotten her life, there was once a time everyone remembered her death.
A Greek born and raised in Alexandria, Egypt, the daughter of the city's leading mathematician, Theon of Alexandria, her work was once found in every library in the ancient world. Immediately after her death, every book she wrote was made to "disappear." If there were works written about her during her lifetime or soon after, they also disappeared. To know anything at all about Hypatia of Alexandria, today's scholars depend on the efforts of other men writing long after her death, and none of these used original source material simply because there wasn't any. Or more accurately, there was very little and none of it in her own hand. Lacking anything else, older "scholars" resorted to hearsay and tradition and the ardent attempts of Christian apologists to whitewash what was very black indeed. Only her most devoted student, Synesius of Cyrene, left us first hand information in the form of letters to his beloved teacher, Hypatia. In them we see a Bishop of the Christian Church besotted with a Hellenistic mind, perhaps even a Hellenistic body. His need for her attention and respect overflows his pages. His complaints (you don't answer, you leave me alone, bereft, lost without the sound of your exalted voice or the sight of your exalted words) tells us that her time was filled with teaching and studying and the constant visits of important men whose first task upon reaching Alexandria was an audience with Hypatia. It also seems to say that Synesius asked for far too much. Without her letters to Synesius (or, for that matter, to or from anyone else: more interesting "disappearances" since she was said by Synesius to have been a copious letter writer), all is guesswork.
We have what we think of as "facts." Virtually all of these facts are taken from writers working with the Suda, a 10th century encyclopedic lexicon, much of which was culled from Christian sources. To believe that a learned teacher of ancient mysteries was disdainful of the delights of the body stems from those who lived in a later time where virtue meant chastity. In Hypatia's time chastity was rare and laughable. Those who practiced it were the small but growing number of desert ascetics who believed that abusing and neglecting the body pleased their god. The truth is we have few facts and all come from Synesius, the dubious Suda, and legend.
But one thing is true and undeniable: Hypatia was murdered. Brutally, publically, and shamefully.
To believe she was old when she died falls apart when one considers the fairly well known date of her father Theon's birth. If he was born in 335 CE, then Hypatia being born in 350 CE (as a few serious scholars seriously maintain, making her 65 at death) means Theon was 15 years old when his famous daughter was born. Hardly likely. Her more probable date of birth was 370 CE. From the letters of Synesius we know she wore a philosoper's robe as a male would. We know her father taught her not only mathematics and philosophy, he also required her body be as well honed as her mind. She could ride and sail and walk great distances. We know she was given Alexandria's Chair of Mathematics before the death of Theon who'd held it...and from this alone we can surmise she surpassed her father.
To some she was a witch, deserving of her fate. To some, her death signaled the end of Hellenism, of reason, of asking questions and searching for answers. To some, she was criminally put to death at the hands of fanatical Christians and their jealous bishop. To some, her murder was mere bad luck: wrong place, wrong time. And some wish to believe she was the last of the "pure" scientists. Whatever pure science is, it did not exist in 400 CE. Mathematics mingled with divination, cosmology and astronomy went hand in hand with astrology. Alchemy was a secret "science" that did indeed work with the transmutation of metals, but its deeper truer purpose was the transmutation of the spirit. In the mystery teachings, and Hypatia was a leading teacher of the ancient mysteries, alchemy was practiced with her inner circle in an attempt to reach the Divine.
What then can a novelist say of Hypatia? In my case, I studied what she studied, researching her time and her place, read the letters of Synesius...and imagined myself Hypatia. If the woman who invented herself under my hand is anything like the woman who invented herself in an Alexandria fast dimming under vast black wings hovering over bright cosmopolitan streets, I shall be surprised but very pleased. What I knew for sure about her told me who she might be and how she might have conducted herself. What I knew for sure of her times told me what she endured. That she taught for as long as she did in these circumstances speaks of public love and private courage.
If she was not anything like in my pages, then she is my Hypatia and I came to love her with a sister's love and to grieve even now at the passing of so brilliant a beacon.
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