I first heard about the Library of Alexandria when I was in high school. Unfortunately, being a captive of our current education system I really wasn’t given the opportunity to ponder the implications of the creation of the largest library – at the time – known in human existence or its eventual destruction. I was herded into the next classroom and forced to change my train of thought to whatever subject matter was at hand.
I had intended to look up the history of Alexandria further when I had more time, but youth being what it is, I never got around to it, not until I was reminded to do so through Carl Sagan’s thirteen-part television masterpiece “Cosmos: A Personal Voyage”.
“It covered a wide range of scientific subjects including the origin of life and a perspective of our place in the universe…. The series was first broadcast by the Public Broadcasting Service in 1980, and was the most widely watched series in the history of American public television until …. As of 2009, it was still the most widely watched PBS series in the world. It won an Emmy and a Peabody Award and has since been broadcast in more than 60 countries and seen by over 500 million people.”
The importance of the Library of Alexandria is implied in Sagan’s work as he opens and concludes Cosmos by taking us back to this ancient city and recounting its history.
In the first episode, “The Shores Of The Cosmic Ocean”, Sagan introduces us to the library and states that if he “could travel back into time, this is the place that [he] would visit”. As to why Sagan has brought us to this place? As he states:
“But why have I brought you across two thousand years to the Library of Alexandria, because this was when and where we humans first collected seriously and systematically the knowledge of the world.”
In the final episode of the series, “Who Speaks for Earth?”, Sagan tells us of the destruction of the Library and the murder of one of its most renowned stewards, Hypatia, an Alexandrine philosopher “who was one of the earliest mothers of mathematics.”
Below you will find a short video providing some excerpts from both episodes of the series (the full episodes are available on Vimeo at the moment: Episode 1 and Episode 13). Suffice it to say, in my opinion, the entire series should be mandatory viewing for everyone coming of age.
The Frailty of Knowledge: Sagan on the Library of Alexandria, Hypatia
I did my research into the Library of Alexandria after finishing Cosmos, and since mathematics is very close to my heart, after finding out about Hypatia, I did some research into her martyrdom as well. Fury is an understatement to describe how I felt after I found out what took place and why.
Below you will find one of the best accounts that I have come cross on what happened to Hypatia in 415 A.D. in the city of Alexandria. The four short pages are the full text that comprise Lon Milo DuQuette’s Chapter VI from “Angels, Demons & Gods of the New Millennium: Musings on Modern Magick”. The chapter is entitled, “Devil Be My God”, and it’s a timely read considering the recent revelations of the horrors that have been visited upon humanity by our religious institutions [sic] and the proposed horrors that are set to befall us thanks to our totalitarian governments (2, 3, 4, 5, 6).
“In A.D. 415, Cyril, the Bishop of Alexandria, Egypt, found himself in a most awkward position. Not only was he burdened with the task of concocting viable doctrines from the muddled and conflicting traditions of the young Christian cult, he was required to do so in the most sophisticated and enlightened pagan city on earth.
“Long before the alleged virgin birth of the crucified savior, Alexandria, with her celebrated schools and library, nurtured the greatest minds of the Mediterranean world and Asia. Here, religion and philosophy were lovers, and their union gave rise to dynamic environment of dialog and debate. On more than one occasion Cyril tried to glean converts from the student body of Neo-Platonic Academy, only to be stricken dumb by the discomforting realization that the fledgling philosophers were far more knowledgeable than he about the subtleties and shortcomings of his own faith. Uncomfortable as such moments were His Grace bore them dutifully. They afforded him the opportunity to suffer for his faith. His patience came to an end, however, when his faith and reputation were challenged by a brilliant and charismatic luminary of the Alexandrian School of Neo-Platonism, Hypatia-the greatest woman initiate of the ancient world.
“Hypatia of Alexandria was without question the most respected and influential thinker of her day. The daughter of the great mathematician Theon, she took over her father’s honored position at the Academy and lectured there for many years. She more than any other individual since Plotinus, the father of Neo-Platonism, grasped the profound potential of that school of thought. Her lectures were wildly popular and attracted a stream of scholars who saw in Neo-Platonism the possibility of a truly universal spiritual order-a supreme philosophy- an enlightened religion to unite all religions. Such was the golden promise of Neo-Platonism, and Hypatia of Alexandria was its virgin prophetess.
“Troubled by the continued degeneration of the Christian movement, its intolerance of other faiths and its dangerous preoccupation with miracles and wonders, Hypatia began a series of public lectures dealing with the cult. She revealed the pagan roots of the faith and systematically unmasked the absurdities and superstitions that had infected the movement. Then, with power and eloquence surpassing that of any Christian apologist, she elucidated upon what she understood to be the true spiritual treasures found in the purported teachings of the ‘Christ’.
“Her arguments were so persuasive that many new converts to the cult renounced their conversions and became disciples of Hypatia. Her lectures stimulated enormous interest in Christianity, but not Christianity as it was presented by Cyril, the Bishop of Alexandria.
“Not blessed with the strength of character necessary to suffer a personal confrontation with Hypatia, Cyril embarked upon a campaign of personal vilification by preaching to his unwashed and fanatical flock that Hypatia was a menace to the faith, a sorceress in league with the Devil. These diatribes seemed to have little effect upon the sophisticated population of urban Alexandria who were beginning to realize that Bishop Cyril’s Christianity was a cult that didn’t play well with other children. Deep in the Nitrian dessert, however, Cyril’s hateful words eventually reached the crude monastery of Peter the Reader.
“Years of preaching to the wind and converting scorpions had uniquely qualified Peter to be the cleansing sword of the Prince of Peace, and the thought of a devil-possessed woman attacking his savior was more than this man of God could stomach. Mustering a rag-tag collection of fellow hermits, he marched to Alexandria where they met with officials of the Caesarean church who informed him that each afternoon the shameless Hypatia drove her own chariot from the Academy to her home. Armed only with clubs, oyster shells, and the Grace of God, Peter and his mob ambushed Hypatia in the street near the Academy. Pulling her from her chariot they dragged her to the Caesarean church where they stripped her, beat her with clubs, and finally (because of an on-going debate over the soul’s eternal status if the corpse remained whole) scraped the flesh from her bones with the oyster shells. The scoops of flesh and the rest of her remains were then carried away and burned.
“The reaction of the Alexandrian community was one of confusion and shock, and the Neo-Platonist school was dealt a blow from which it never recovered. Although he went to great lengths to distance himself from the incident, Cyril took full advantage of the situation and used the terror of the moment to further intimidate the city and establish that the will of the Christian God was to be resisted an one’s own risk.
“The martyrdom of Hypatia was certainly not the first example of truth resisting evil and losing, but it did mark the beginning of a prolonged spiritual delirium tremor from which Western Civilization has never fully recovered. Even the bright souls who did not succumb to the universal madness were forced to blossom against the twisted projections of the collective nightmare.
“Spiritual growth is not impossible in such an environment. But where wisdom is perceived by the world to be ignorance; love is considered sin, and all that is best in the human spirit is condemned and repressed, the road by which a seeker of enlightenment must travel takes many curious turns. On such a journey one’s companions are outlaws and rebels; sacredness breeds in blaspheme, truth falls from the lips of false prophets, heaven is sought in hell, and God is the Devil himself.”