Hypatia Miscellanea

Author’s Note: This is the third and last of a series of posts. Though they can be read independently, they were written with this order in mind: The Rape of Cassandra, Mice on a Galley: A Review of Agora, Hypatia Miscellanea

The Great Library of Alexandria, O. Von Corven, 2001

Everything is gestation and then birthing.

– Rainer Maria Rilkes

Incredulous you may be, but in my previous two posts, The Rape of Cassandra and Mice on a Galley, I was unable to call upon the whole of the collectanea I assembled for their writing. Before I bring to a close my investigation of Hypatia, her world, and her legacy, I would like to offer several additional facts, observations, and quotations that, though interesting, I was unable to work into the earlier posts. Here then is the Hypatia Miscellanea:

Hypatia’s Name

Agora was original titled “Hypatia”, however Amenabar felt that audiences would have difficulty pronouncing her name, and that the name, “Hypatia”, wasn’t particularly beautiful. The pronunciation is something I should have introduced earlier; several people who have read the post have asked me about it. Her name is pronounced “High-Pay-Shuh”, not “High-Pat-Ia” or “High-Pay-Tia.” As for the film’s title, Agora is probably a more fitting, for, as I discussed, its focus is ever expanding. As for beauty, I think Hypatia is a wonderful name. It is Greek and means “highest.”

Aristarchus of Samos

The first known heliocentric model of the solar system was presented by Aristarchus of Samos (310-230 BCE) a Greek astronomer and mathematician. His original discovery of and presentation of this model is lost to history. What we do know of it comes to us by way of Archimedes (287-212 BCE) who references it in his lyrically titled book The Sand Reckoner in which he wondrously estimates the number of grains of sand it would take to fill the universe ( He arrives at a value of 10^63 grains or  1 viginitillion. For comparison the current estimated number of atoms in the universe is 10^80 or 100 quinvigintillion. I am not making these names up.) In The Sand Rekoner Archimedes writes of Aristarchus:

You (King Gelon) are aware the ‘universe’ is the name given by most astronomers to the sphere the center of which is the center of the Earth, while its radius is equal to the straight line between the center of the Sun and the center of the Earth. This is the common account as you have heard from astronomers. But Aristarchus has brought out a book consisting of certain hypotheses, wherein it appears, as a consequence of the assumptions made, that the universe is many times greater than the ‘universe’ just mentioned. His hypotheses are that the fixed stars and the Sun remain unmoved, that the Earth revolves about the Sun on the circumference of a circle, the Sun lying in the middle of the Floor, and that the sphere of the fixed stars, situated about the same center as the Sun, is so great that the circle in which he supposes the Earth to revolve bears such a proportion to the distance of the fixed stars as the center of the sphere bears to its surface

It is unknown exactly how Aristarchus arrived at a heliocentric theory, but it is theorized that he developed it out of a logical dilemma he had discovered in another one of his works – the only surviving book of Aristarchus, On the Sizes and Distances of the Sun and Moon. In this treatise, he accurately calculates the Moon’s size and distance from the Earth, but incorrectly estimates the Sun’s size and distance from the Earth. He writes that the Sun is about 18 to 20 times further away from the Earth than the Moon, and that it is about 300 times the volume of the Earth. In reality, the Sun’s distance from the Earth is 400 times that of the Moon and its volume is about 1,300,000 times that of the Earth. Aristarchus’s errors were due to poor observation and measurements. His logic and mathematics were sound.

It is thought that when he realized the Sun was so much larger than the Earth, he had trouble reconciling its bulk with its supposed orbit around the Earth, and then contemplated alternative models. As with many astronomers after him, he realized that a heliocentric model provided a simpler mathematical explanation of astronomical observations, and was therefor more likely true. He was right.

On the Sizes and Distances of the Sun and Moon, Aristarchus

Hypatia, Marriage, and Women in the Hellenic World

There is a scene early on in Agora in which Hypatia rejects a suitor by giving him a gift of a blood stained napkin and explaining: “It is the blood of my cycle. You say that you have found harmony in me. Well, I am suggesting that you look elsewhere because I think there is little harmony or beauty in that.”  This is historically accurate. It depicts a well-documented exchange that typifies Hypatia’s consistent rejection of suitors, and she is rumored to have had many suitors. Hypatia never married, and, as far as we know, was never romantically or sexually involved with anyone. This act is very telling of Hypatia and her time.

I do not think that we should regard Hypatia as homosexual or asexual. I do not think that is what her celibacy or maidenhood indicate. Hypatia understood, as many great women have understood throughout history, that marriage represented something of a legal sentence to her. She often claimed that she was married to her studies. She loved her academic life and knew that a marriage in ancient Alexandria would indicate the end of it. In many traditions of marriage, the woman’s identity is subsumed by the institution (consider the implications of the western traditional name change). Many outstanding women have noticed this and refused marriage likewise: Emily Bronte, Florence Nightingale, Clara Barton, and Susan B. Anthony are some examples that spring to my mind. The loss of identity, loss of individuality, loss of family history, and sublimation of independence are unfortunately aspects of the institution of marriage across many cultures and with long histories that we have only recently, as a species, begun to address. Henrik Ibsen perhaps best frames the dilemma for the twentieth and twenty-first centuries in the climax of his landmark 1879 play, A Doll’s House, in which Nora informs her husband that she must leave their marriage to discover herself- this was a shocking scene at the time:

Helmer: You blind, foolish woman!

Nora: I must try and get some sense, Torvald.

Helmer: To desert your home, your husband and your children! And you don’t consider what people will say!

Nora: I cannot consider that at all. I only know what is necessary for me.

Helmer: It’s shocking. This is how you would neglect your most sacred duties.

Nora: What do you consider my most sacred duties?

Helmer: Do I need to tell you that? Are they not your duties to your husband and your children?

Nora: I have other duties just as sacred.

Helmer: That you have not. What duties could those be?

Nora: Duties to myself.

Helmer: Before all else, you are a wife and a mother.

Nora: I don’t believe that any longer. I believe that before all else I am a reasonable human being, just as you are- or, at all events, that I must try and become one. I know quite well, Torvald, that most people would think you right, and that views of that kind are to be found in books; but I can no longer content myself with what most people say, or with what is found in books. I must think over things for myself and get to understand them.

For Hypatia, marriage and reproductive sexuality represented an even grimmer fate. In ancient Rome and Greece, infant mortality rates were exceptionally high. To compensate for this, couples strove for many pregnancies. With each successive pregnancy and labor, the risk to the mother increased. As such married woman tended to die young, leaving there husbands who would often go on to remarry several times. This cycle was aggravated by the fact that only male children were able to inherit. For this reason husbands would insist on children until a male was conceived and then survived the childhood gauntlet of disease.

I have wondered about Hypatia’s judgment of menstruation and the implications of her remarks that it is unharmonious and not beautiful. I think I have come to an understanding of her attitude beyond that of the childish inhibitions regarding menstrual blood that linger in our culture sixteen hundred years after Hypatia’s time and manifest as anomalous blue fluid in commercials for “feminine hygiene products” (the puritanism of the euphemism makes me nauseous). A repugnance for menstruation is a repugnance for a defining characteristic of femininity. If Hypatia’s comment, “I think there is little harmony or beauty in that,” is indicative of a devaluation of herself as a woman, it is important that we understand where she acquired this notion. Hypatia was schooled in classic Greek thought, and her teachers and textbooks were definitively misogynistic. I will let two giants of Greek thought provide support for this assertion:

It is only males who are created directly by the gods and are given souls. Those who live rightly return to the stars, but those who are cowards or lead unrighteous lives may with reason be supposed to have changed into the nature of women in the second generation. This downward progress may continue through successive reincarnations unless reversed. In this situation, obviously it is only men who are complete human beings and can hope for ultimate fulfillment; the best a woman can hope for is to become a man

– Plato (regarding his theory of reincarnation), Timaeus

It is the best for all tame animals to be ruled by human beings. For this is how they are kept alive. In the same way, the relationship between the male and the female is by nature such that the male is higher, the female lower, that the male rules and the female is ruled.

– Aristotle, Politics

The sexism displayed here was not confined to academia. Aristotle and Plato truly believed they were logically describing natural laws when they wrote these passages, and they had much empirical evidence to support their claims for the entire ancient Greek world’s social structure was built on extremely misogynistic principles. Sarah B. Pomeroy fully describes Hellenist gender bias in her 1975 book, Goddesses, Whores, Wives, and Slaves. Women in Classical Antiquity, from which I’ll summarize:

  • Confined within the parental home until a husband was chosen for her- at which time she would be in her mid-teens, he at least fifteen years older- the Athenian woman of the citizen class would then be transferred to the home of her husband where she was to fulfill her principal function, of bearing and rearing children.
  • Of those children (on the average, four or five in number, one or two of whom might die at birth), the sons would be raised within the family – particularly in post-war years when there was a shortage of men – but ordinarily only one daughter, at most, would be reared (infanticide and abandonment of female children was common).
  • Other girl children would probably be exposed; if they did not die, they might be picked up by slave dealers or prostitutes and prepared for a life of slavery, prostitution, or both.
  • Athenian men had a variety of opportunities to satisfy their sexual drive: boys and other men, courtesans or hetairai, prostitutes or their own slave women, and wives. The wife’s function was, however, primarily that of carrying on the family line and tending the family hearth.
  • The wife did not socialize with her husband and his friends; men’s social gatherings, even if held in her own home, were off-limits to her. As for going to the marketplace or communal well, that was an activity reserved for men or for women slaves.

Our fundamental obligation when confronted with such bigotry is to acknowledge and remember it, because the only way to move forward is to know what we are moving from. We are nowhere near journey’s end yet, and we must never content ourselves that we have arrived.

Against the philosophical sexism quoted above, I will offer another philosopher, because philosophers are at their best when they are at their throats. In our corner then is the great philosopher, mathematician, logician, historian, pacifist, and a personal hero of mine: Bertrand Russell:

When we come to compare Aristotle’s ethical tastes with our own … we find … an acceptance of inequality which is repugnant to much modern sentiment. Not only is there no objection to slavery, or to the superiority of husbands and fathers over wives and children, but it is held that what is best is essentially only for the few-proud men and philosophers

Almost every serious intellectual advance has had to begin with an attack on some Aristotelian doctrine; in logic, this is still true at the present day

Aristotle could have avoided the mistake of thinking that women have fewer teeth than men, by the simple device of asking Mrs. Aristotle to keep her mouth open while he counted.


Hypatia (Rachel Weisz) Frantically Tries to Save Books in Agora

Views of Hypatia in the Middle Ages

I have tried to use academically authoritative sources whenever I can, and have only used Wikipedia as a source of personal guidance and inspiration when planning these posts. However I must praise the writers of Wikipedia’s Hypatia entry for cleverly juxtaposing two early historic accounts of her death. I think the selections are very telling of the opposing ways her death was viewed:

Yet even she fell a victim to the political jealousy which at that time prevailed. For as she had frequent interviews with Orestes, it was calumniously reported among the Christian populace, that it was she who prevented Orestes from being reconciled to the bishop. Some of them therefore, hurried away by a fierce and bigoted zeal, whose ringleader was a reader named Peter, waylaid her returning home, and dragging her from her carriage, they took her to the church called Caesareum, where they completely stripped her, and then murdered her by scraping her skin off with tiles and bits of shell. After tearing her body in pieces, they took her mangled limbs to a place called Cinaron, and there burnt them. –Socrates Scholasticus (5th Century)

And in those days there appeared in Alexandria a female philosopher, a pagan named Hypatia, and she was devoted at all times to magic, astrolabes and instruments of music, and she beguiled many people through Satanic wiles…A multitude of believers in God arose under the guidance of Peter the magistrate…and they proceeded to seek for the pagan woman who had beguiled the people of the city and the prefect through her enchantments. And when they learnt the place where she was, they proceeded to her and found her…they dragged her along till they brought her to the great church, named Caesareum. Now this was in the days of the fast. And they tore off her clothing and dragged her…through the streets of the city till she died. And they carried her to a place named Cinaron, and they burned her body with fire. – John of Nikiû (7th Century)


The plan of the thing is always simpler than the thing itself. The last two posts were conceived as a simple rebuttal to the left-brain right brain myth and as review of a math related movie respectively. Only when I began writing the posts did I realize the amount of concerns I wished to address and how I had connected them internally. I do not think experience is compartmentalized (perhaps the impetus for attacking the brain myth), and I truly believe that passing observations (like the layout of a room, the questionable casting of a film, the change of a woman’s last name) do not fall through the vast web of a person’s consciousness without plucking a chord, tangling the connections, or snapping a line. What I’ve presented is clearly not a cohesive theory, but a snapshot of how I conceive the situation, why I do, and the implications for related concepts.

Since the creation of this site, I have wanted to write about Hypatia. I found her on my own in a footnote in a math book several years ago and have wanted to address the injustice I felt at her marginalization. These three posts have been my tribute to her for now, and I hope that with them I have raised awareness of this remarkable woman, even if just by a little. Thank you for reading. – Webster Batista-Lin October 22, 2010

Concern should drive us into action and not into a depression.



About Webster

Transitionally, I’m a math student and tutor en route to becoming a math professor. Permanently, I’m a mathematics enthusiast. I study mathematics professionally, and as a leisure activity. At the time of writing this, I’m a generalist. I have let to reach the depth of understanding that requires specialization. Though I eagerly await that time, I do enjoy the ‘now’ and find there is bountiful food for thought at any level.
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4 Responses to Hypatia Miscellanea

  1. Pingback: The Rape of Cassandra | Spherical Cow

  2. Pingback: Mice on a Galley: A review of Agora | Spherical Cow

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