Hypatia – The Secular Patron Saint of LibrariansBy Womble on comment
I’m not often jealous of religious people. I mean, yes, they have a faith community that’s sometimes nice, and they have the whole “consolation of the afterlife” thing, but almost all of the time I’m fine accepting the reality with which I’m presented and not having to invent more of it in the form of fanfic. However, one area in which I really do think that religious people have it figured out is that of saints, or specifically patron saints.
A patron saint in a religion like Christianity, and especially in its business wing the Catholic church is a figure who embodies entirely a particular place or a particular virtue, to the point where instead of praying to God about that thing you pray to the saint. I think of them as being God’s cabinet, or maybe his collection of regional vice presidents. A form of heavenly middle management. So, if you’re having a problem getting online, you drop a quick prayer to Saint Isidore, patron saint of the Internet, and… well, let’s be honest, bugger all will happen but you might feel better about the bugger all that’s happening.
Of course, some of these patron saints have at best a tenuous link to the thing they’re sainting in a patronlike manner (or is it patronizing in a saintlike manner?) . Saint Isidore died more than 1300 years before the series of tubes was turned on. At no point did Saint George ever visit England. As far as we know, Saint Fiacre never contracted a sexually transmitted disease. Still, though, the idea of having someone who symbolizes a particular subject you care about is a good one, and so I’ve decided to do what a lot of religions do when they encounter a good idea: nick it and claim it as my own.
So, I would like to introduce you all to my new patron saint: Hypatia, the secular patron saint of librarians.
Hypatia was a fourth and fifth century Greek scholar, born in Alexandria, Egypt, and head of the Platonist school there. She was also the last librarian on the famed Library of Alexandria, the largest of the great libraries of the ancient world. The library of Alexandria was part of the Musaeum of Alexandria, a sort of model for the modern university. It was a great research site and academy that hosted thinkers such as Euclid, Eratosthenes, Hipparchus, Archimedes, and of course Hypatia.
Hypatia, like many Greek scholars of her time, was a polymath. She made contributions to mathematics, to philosophy, to astronomy, and to the natural sciences. Amongst her writings, she made the following statements:
“Reserve your right to think, for even to think wrongly is better than not to think at all.”
“Fables should be taught as fables, myths as myths, and miracles as poetic fancies. To teach superstitions as truths is a most terrible thing. The child mind accepts and believes them, and only through great pain and perhaps tragedy can he be in after years relieved of them. In fact, men will fight for a superstition quite as quickly as for a living truth — often more so, since a superstition is so intangible you cannot get at it to refute it, but truth is a point of view, and so is changeable.”
“Life is an unfoldment, and the further we travel the more truth we can comprehend. To understand the things that are at our door is the best preparation for understanding those that lie beyond.”
“Men will fight for a superstition quite as quickly as for a living truth – often more so, since a superstition is so intangible you cannot get at it to refute it, but truth is a point of view, and so is changeable.”
Hypatia died in 415 AD. Like many saints, she was martyred, or at least she was murdered. She was a prominent figure in Alexandria, and known to not be Christian. In March of 415, on an evening in Lent, her chariot was waylaid by Nitrian monks, led by a man known as “Peter the reader”. She was stripped naked as a form of humiliation, and dragged through the streets to the Cathedral of Alexandria, what had been the Caesareum, reputed to have been the site of Cleopatra’s suicide. There, she was flayed with shards of broken pottery, and then burned alive.
Her crime was to speak out against religious dogma in a time when religious dogma was a huge and inescapable force. Her crime was to be a woman who thought for herself and wrote for herself. Her crime was to seek knowledge and reason, and not to be satisfied with half truths and fairy tales. Had she been a Christian, had indignities been thrust upon her by pagans, she would have been sainted by the Church.
Slightly more than a century before Hypatia’s murder, Catherine of Alexandria was killed for her faith, Christian tradition claims she was to be broken on a wheel, but that the wheel broke when she touched it. She is remembered by Christians as Saint Catherine, and amongst her many patronages, she is the patron saint of librarians.
For that and other reasons, I choose to celebrate Hypatia: a woman of reason, a woman of intelligence and nobility, someone who died because others put hate and violence above reason and thought. From one librarian to another, I salute her.
A “skeptic” passing off a bunch of fabricated quotes, made up in 1908 by the soap salesman Elbert Hubbard, as historical. The irony! Also, the paragraph about the Library of Alexandria is complete woo-woo. Hypatia was not a librarian, nor did the library still exist in her lifetime, nor was the Musaeum in any way a model for the modern university. Oh, and the part about the “Cathedral of Alexandria” is nonsense, too. And Hypatia was not burned alive. FYI: Being gullible enough to copy-paste anything you find on the internet as long as it confirms your preconceived views on things is not a sign of skepticism (or intelligence, for that matter).
I will let the auther of this blog post know about your comments and ask them to respond.
I’m not sure why you’re being quite so hostile. If you have information that contradicts this blog post, I would be delighted to see it as it will increase my knowledge of the subject further. However, I’m not going to respond further until you start addressing this in a more polite manner.
Fake edit: re-reading socrates scholasticus, you have a point. He body was burned rather than her being burned alive. I concede that point immediately. Now, if you feel like communicating in a polite manner, perhaps we can talk about your other complaints.
The spirit of what T.A.R. has written is correct; it is the details of Hypatia’s life that miss the mark. However, as with all hagiography, they are subsidiary to and probably irrelevant to the spirit.
What Baerista responded to the post is more in line with what we know or think we know. There are no surviving writings from Hypatia — and this from a time when the epistolary medium was just coming into its own as a means of communicating among scholars. It also coincided with what we might call the birth of propaganda. Hypatia never held the post of Librarian, though the man considered to be her father, Theon, did. She may or may not have been a Neo-Platonist (we have only the word of Synesius of Cyrene from a letter that may never have been sent; hence, could have been planted in his personal files). There was no one Cathedral of Alexandria at the time. As for the Library and the Mousieon, there are conflicting reports about when and how it met its demise.
The bottom line is that everything we accept about Hypatia’s life and her times is pure legend and speculation, coming to us from the writings of others who lived decades to centuries after her death. It is quite possible that the seeds of that legend were planted by the Church, as a warning to those who would question Church dogma, which was coalescing during the 4th and 5th centuries. St. Theophilus and his nephew, St. Cyril, figured largely into Hypatia’s life and the distortion of that life that has come down to us.
Those times were every bit as dark as the Inquisition, though the Church was just learning and had yet to refine its techniques for suppressing dissent.
Contrasting this with St. Catherine — who seems to have been a fictitious person, invented to offset Hypatia — we gain further insight into the mind of the Church. Catherine is but one of the “patron saints of libraries.” Before she was invented, there was St. Jerome, who was a 3rd rate scholar at best; his main accomplishment having been to codify the Vulgate Bible. He competed with St. Augustine and St. Ambrose to see who would have the biggest impact on doctrine. Catherine was needed though to contrast with Hypatia, another woman.
I have researched Hypatia and her time for well over a decade. It becomes clear to anyone who seriously looks at what passes for scholarly material covering that period that it has been radically tampered with. But, we have to expect that the victors get to write history according to their own lights.