The Library of Alexandria and the Martyrdom of Hypatia

hypatia_2via chycho

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 [1990]…. 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.”

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  • http://egregores.blogspot.com Apuleius Platonicus

    Does Duquette provide any sourcing for these lectures by Hypatia on Christianity?

    • salviad

      He provides no footnotes in this chapter.

      • http://egregores.blogspot.com Apuleius Platonicus

        I think that part of Hypatia’s story might be legendary. I have done some looking around and can’t find anything (reliable) to corroborate it. Don’t get me wrong. I think that the story of her murder by Cyril and his thugs was a horrific crime, and it is representative of a much larger pattern of intolerance and violence on the part of the Christians.

        • salviad

          I don’t think we’ll ever know what really transpired in the past, especially during these periods. Take it look at the last 20 years, people can’t even agree why the US invaded Iraq or Afghanistan. And don’t get me started on evolution.

          As for religious institutions, take it look at what they have done in the past and what they continue to do (Nigeria gay laws being one). I wouldn’t put anything past these psychopaths.

          • http://egregores.blogspot.com Apuleius Platonicus

            I do not put anything past them. But I also think that to the extent possible we should stick to things for which we have some historical documentation. I was actually being generous when I referred to Duquette’s stories about Hypatia’s lectures on Christianity as “legendary”. It would be more accurate to say that he is simply making shit up and hoping no one will notice.

  • salviad

    My pleasure, James. Peace :)

  • BuzzCoastin

    by the time Hypatia
    Alexandria was a pale shadow of it’s former self
    interesting to note
    that about the time of the founding of the library (200 bceish)
    a Chinese emporer burned several thousand years
    of Chinese historial records kept on bamboo

    • http://egregores.blogspot.com Apuleius Platonicus

      The “Burning of Books and Burying of Scholars”, as horrible as it was, was only a brief, and anomalous, event in Chinese history lasting a grand total of 3 years. The Christian campaign to suppress all varieties of freedom of thought lasted over 1500 years.

  • http://just-john.com just john

    If ever I could write an opera, the events described here sound like something to base it upon.

    … or has that already been done?

    • Oginikwe

      No opera but there is a movie: Agora.
      Rachel Weisz plays Hypatia.

      • http://just-john.com just john

        Thanks for the heads-up.

  • InfvoCuernos

    who needs the Library of Alexandria when we have teh internets?

    • Justin_Khase

      You HAVE to be joking !!!!!

  • http://armariummagnus.blogspot.com/ Tim O’Neill

    “That blog is basically just a pro-Christian propaganda site …. ”

    Ummm, no it isn’t.

    “oops – actually it turns out to be next best/worst thing – another pompous atheist know-nothing blog”

    I see. There’s quite a bit of information in there, with direct references to the original source material (unlike the article above, which seems to have got all its information second or third hand). So how exactly is it “know nothing” again?

    And given that I’m an atheist, I’m hardly going to be defending Christianity, am I? So I’m just looking at this *objectively*.

    “Both Hypatia and her father are well attested historical figures … ”

    Quite lightly attested, actually. But attested certainly. Why you found this necessary to note I have no idea, since no-one is claiming Theon and Hypatia didn’t exsit.

    ” … as is the proto-fascist Cyril and his gang of late-antique brownshirts.”

    Yes. No-one contested the existence of them either.

    “Cyrils violent persecution of Jews and Pagans, and the general climate
    of religious intolerance and violence against all those viewed as
    religious enemies by the Orthodox, is also a well-established historical
    fact.”

    BUt why don’t you mention the fact that the persecution of the Jews began after an attack by Jews on Christians? Why not mention the violent attacks by pagans on their rivals, using the Serapeum as a base for their terrorism? Could it be that pesky details like this don’t fit your neat narrative of “Christians bad/everyone else good”? History isn’t neat. And history needs to be looked at objectively, not forced into ideologically-driven narratives of “goodies” vs “baddies”.

    “A while back I collected together extensive excerpts from the three most
    important historians who have written about Hypatia: Ramsay MacMullen,
    J.B. Bury, and Edward Gibbon”

    Gibbon wrote 238 years ago, before modern historical analysis was even developed and had a clear polemical and anti-Christian agenda. His version of the story is one of the points of origin of the myths about Hypatia, not a reliable and objective source. Bury’s account is actually pretty accurate, but he simply says that Hypatia was the victim in the tit-for-tat political killings that marked the civic politics of the time and doesn’t buy into any of the nonsense about Hypatia being killed because she was a pagan/a scholar/a woman etc. MacMullen is at least a modern and current historian, though his analysis here is dubious. Simply noting that Hypatia was a non-Christian and then implying (though not, you’ll notice, directly concluding) that her death was at least partially motivated by this goes well beyond anything the sources say or even imply.

    And the only full monograph on Hypatia is by Maria Dzielska. I notice you missed her analysis. Perhaps it’s because she is a careful and objective scholar and points out that the story of Hypatia being killed because she was a pagan/a scholar/a woman etc is a baseless myth. And that doesn’t fit your *agenda*.

    History is about objective analysis, not your agenda.

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