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.