Will the real Hypatia of Alexandria please speak up.

12/13/2011 at 4:25 am (Hypatia of Alexandria, Writing) (, , , , )

Dear you and me,

Since we barely know ourselves, it’s hardly surprising to find we don’t know anyone else at all. We pretend we do, but in our hearts we know we don’t. And just as we create ourselves on the fly, we create others; those we invest the most in are those who make us feel very good or very bad. To some we give all the wonder we deny ourselves. And to some we accord all we think ourselves guilty of.

And to some we give divinity. We call them saints or gurus or avatars or a hundred other names. We are sure they know what we can never know, that they are what we can never be. And to them we hand over our very souls.

Writing Flow Down Like Silver,” I went looking for Hypatia of Alexandria…and found a dozen Hypatias, two dozen. Were any Hypatia herself? Were any even close? I doubt it. Those who have heard of her, revere her. And those who revere her do so for reasons that may never have had a single thing to do with the woman who knew herself as the daughter of Theon of Alexandria. Was she chaste as so many want her to be? Was she a “pure” scientist as those who believe in pure science insist she was? Was she young when she died? And lovely? Or was she, as others confidently assert, older, fading, no beauty at all, at best a commentator on the work of her betters come before her?

Known facts are like bone. If there are enough, we have a skeleton on which we can hang all the flesh we wish. But there are few known facts about Hypatia. Her date of birth, her physicality, her family beyond her father, whether she traveled or never left Alexandria, whether she was a Hellentist in body as well as mind, her actual work…none of these things are ours.

I muse on this as I remember my Hypatia. What do I know? What does anyone know? But as one of my heroes, Socrates, said: “To know one knows nothing is the beginning of wisdom.”

Oh, how wise I am.



  1. Shane Roberts said,

    Great post!

  2. faithljustice said,

    Lovely, insightful essay. I, too, went in search of Hypatia and found a plethora of literary embroideries and a very few dry bones. I started with an idealized vision and ended with something that more resembles life. I have no illusions that I have discovered “the truth,” but I like the more complicated, flawed woman better than the idealized martyr. Hypatia: a remarkable woman.

    • kilongfellow said,

      And this is a lovely reply. Sending words into the aether, and then to have the words of others float back. And what would Hypatia do with such a magic box?

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