Every Lent is a very sad anniversary of an event that very, very few people have any awareness of. This event is the horrible and tragic murder of a great woman pagan intellectual, Hypatia of Alexandria, by a mob of Christian monks. There are all kinds of reasons to remember this anniversary, but those of us on the monastic journey especially need to be aware of how even the monastic path can be coopted by very dark forces.
Hypatia was born in Alexandria around 370 A.D., the daughter of a mathematician and philosopher named Theon. He obviously thought of her very highly and loved her because he educated her to the highest extent possible. She became his closest collaborator but eventually completely eclipsed him. She became a scholar in mathematics, astronomy and philosophy, and she traced her intellectual heritage back to Plato and Pythagoras, not through the Christian Church. She studied in Athens for a while, where she earned the laurel wreath, bestowed upon only the best of Athens’ pupils, and on her return she wore this wreath whenever she appeared in public. Hypatia is said to have been very attractive and a charismatic lecturer; she held widely attended public lectures on Plato and Aristotle. At the end of many a day, she would mount her chariot, which she drove herself, and ride to the lecture hall at the academy, a highly adorned room, with swinging lamps of perfumed oil and a large rotunda handpainted by a Greek artist. Hypatia, wearing a white robe and her ever present laurel, would face the large crowd and transfix them with her eloquent Greek. Even as a pagan, Hypatia was respected by many intelligent Christians in Alexandria, of whom some became her students–one of them, Synesius of Cyrene, became a bishop. As a true Neoplatonist, she lived a life of exemplary virtue, and she scorned the “frivolities of the flesh” remaining a virgin to the end. According to Damascius, the whole city “doted on her and worshipped her.”
Around 400A.D. Alexandria was one of the greatest strongholds of Christianity. However, it was also a time when there were many social disturbances and conflicts between Christians and non-Christians such as Greek Neoplatonists and Jews. In 391, a Christian mob attacked and burned most of the library at Alexandria. Around 412, Cyril became archbishop of Alexandria–so now we know him as St. Cyril of Alexandria, one of the Fathers of the Church. Cyril had a fanatical group of followers and supporters in the desert monks living outside Alexandria. At a notice from him, implied or direct, a mob would show up in Alexandria to do some “dirty deed”–like burn down a synagogue or chase some poor Jews out of Alexandria–recall that they had been there for centuries: Philo, the Septuagint was translated there, etc. Cyril wrote some beautiful theology, but he seems to have been one nasty SOB, which makes you wonder about the whole canonization thing in the Catholic and Orthodox churches. In any case, you have to remember that the “desert movement” in early Egyptian monasticism included droves of all kinds of people, very many of them just a mob seeking escape from Roman taxation or a bit crazy or something else. The true monks were a small minority even then. Considering the violence of the times, the sayings of the great Desert Fathers are even more noteworthy and challenging than usually supposed.
On one day in March of 415, in Lent, Hypatia was making her way home when she was waylaid by this kind of mob. There is no evidence that Cyril directly ordered this attack, yet there is also no sign that he denounced this act or condemned the perpetrators. The silence is deafening! Hypatia was seen as a threat to the authority and influence of the Christian bishop. Hypatia was beaten, dragged into a church, skinned alive there, then her body cut up and burned. Apparently anything was ok if it was “for God,” or done “in the name of God.” This was no “normal assassination.” One has the feeling that if she were a man, simply killing would have been enough, but a woman who stood before a bishop as an equal, this was not to be tolerated. A message had to be sent. These last sentences are, of course, an editorial opinion on my part, but I feel that was the case. The Church never has liked and barely tolerated women intellectuals who challenge male dominance. Oh yes, there is Catherine of Siena and Teresa of Avila, both of whom were named Doctors of the Church, but neither of whom were well-educated and therefore not a real threat. Most women have not fared so well in the Church.
This was written in homage to Hypatia by someone seeking to be on the monk’s path and to keep her memory alive.