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Hypatia of Alexandria.

If her name doesn't ring a bell ... you haven't been paying attention. Some of us have had a crush ever since reading Gibbon, who was very angry about what happened in March 415 A.D.: "On a fatal day, in the holy season of Lent, Hypatia was torn from her chariot, stripped naked, dragged to the church, and inhumanly butchered by the hands of Peter the reader and a troop of savage and merciless fanatics: her flesh was scraped from her bones with sharp oyster-shells, and her quivering limbs were delivered to the flames."

Hypatia--the fourth-century Neoplatonist, astronomer and mathematician, about whom either Palladas or Panolbios is supposed to have written a reverential ode; the "immaculate star of wise learning" and the Virgin-Scientist who invented an astrolable to calculate the zodiac's ascendant sign and a hydroscope to measure the weight of liquids; "the last of the Hellenes," whose gruesome demise is said by Martin Bernal to have marked "the end of Egypto-Paganism and the beginning of the Christian Dark Ages"--has gotten a good press since at least 1720, when the zealous English Protestant John Toland published his inflammatory Hypatia or, the History of a Most Beautiful, Most Virtuous, Most Learned and in Every Way Accomplished Lady; Who Was Torn to Pieces by the Clergy of Alexandria, to Gratify the Pride, Emulation, and Cruelty of the Archbishop, Commonly but Undeservedly Titled St. Cyril. After which Voltaire himself couldn't shut up about the "bestial murder ... by Cyril's tonsured hounds, with a fanatical gang at their heels," of such a young and lovely paragon of pre-Enlightenment rational thought.

She shows up in a Henry Fielding novel, as "a young lady of greatest beauty and merit" done in by "those dogs, the Christians," and in one of the last fevered dreams of the symbolist Gerard de Nerval, before he hanged himself from a lamp-post. Charles Leconte de Lisle and Contessa Diodata Roero di Saluzzo wrote poems about her; Maurice Barres, a short story; and the clergyman-novelist Charles Kingsley, a long polemic. In our own century, there have been plays by Mario Luzi; historical novels by Andre Ferretti, Jean Marcel and Arnulf Zitelmann; and a prose-poem portrait by Ursule Molinaro. British and American positivists like J.W. Draper claim her as a heroine of science. Feminists in Athens and in Indiana have taken her name for their scholarly journals. And Judy Chicago has invited her to dinner. All that's missing is an opera, a ministeries and a sneaker commercial. Like Cleopatra, Mary Magdalene, Joan of Arc and your pick of the litter of Madonnas, Hypatia has been retailored to suit the psychic needs of anybody retrospecting her, rational, romantic, nostalgic or loony. Usually she's young and beautiful; mostly a virgin, though on occasion married off to the philosopher Isidore; always a pagan, ganged up on by the beastly Christians; invariably, as Bertrand Russell put it, "lynched."

What Maria Dzielska, a scholar on the cultural life of the Roman Empire at Krakow's Jagiellonian University, has done to this pretty picture is what Lucy Hughes-Hallett did to the Queen of the Nile in Cleopatra: Histories, Dreams, and Distortions (1990). When Hughes-Hallett was done with Cleo, we knew that she wasn't Egyptian but Greek; that the asp that bit her was really a cobra, and bit her on an arm instead of a breast; that she was otherwise fully clothed, in royal robes as befits a working queen who spoke nine languages, wrote some books and cut a deal with the Nabateans for oil rights in the Dead Sea. So Dzielska demystifies Hypatia, sifting patiently through the original sources, from the Sud lexicon to the correspondence of Synesius of Cyrene.

Dzielska finds, first of all, that Hypatia was about 60 years old when she died, "certainly was not endowed with an enticing, pleasing or sympathetic personality" and was actively disliked by the local rabble for her elitist airs. That what she knew about hydroscopes and astrolabes she probably got from her father, Theon, who got it from Ptolemy, and what they used them for, anyway, was fortune-telling. That she was less an Enlightenment philosophe than a transcendentalist-astrologer, and while she may have trifled with Chaldean, Orphic and Hermetic texts, and was doubtless a Pythagorean mystic, she was no more devoted to Thoth, the baboon-headed god, than, say, John Updike. That her circle of aristocratic young men included more Christians than it did pagans, and there wasn't a pipsqueak out of any of them when goons attacked the Serapeum, in 391 or 2, and shattered the Bryaxis statue with an ax. That her quarrel with Cyril, the newly invested bishop of St. Mark's so busy expelling Novatians and Jews from the city, was party-political, rather than religious. Hypatia backed the prefect Orestes (also a Christian). Thus her martyrdom was "murder for a political purpose"--a kind of power grab: "They killed a person who was the mainstay of the opposition against [the patriarch], who through her authority and political connections provided support for the representative of the state authority in Alexandria contending against Cyril."

But she did die a virgin. She found the body repugnant. According to Damascius, one of her regular students fell in love with her: "Unable to control his feelings, the young man confessed his love. Hypatia resolved to punish him, and she found an effective method of chasing him away. As a symbol of the female body's physicality she showed him her sanitary napkin, remonstrating: 'This is what you really love, my young man, but you do not love beauty for its own sake.'"

There's much, much more. And, I suppose, we need to know all of it. But compared with our dream of Hypatia, it seems somehow sort of ... tacky.
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Author:Leonard, John
Publication:The Nation
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jul 3, 1995
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