Today, looking for the person behind the story. The
University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
Even the pronunciation of
today's name is troublesome. In Greek it's
Ipateeah. A reasonable
Americanization is Hipahtyah. The
English give the Greek name the peculiar
pronunciation of 19th-century school Latin. They
call her Highpayshya.
Hypatia was the daughter of a fourth-century-AD
director of the famous Library at Alexandria. She
was an extraordinary scholar who taught philosophy,
mathematics, and mechanics. Most of what we know of
Hypatia comes from letters written by one of her
students, Synesius of Cyrene. Synesius went on to
become an early Christian bishop, and his letters
are full of admiration for Hypatia's knowledge. He
was one of a close circle of her students.
Many early Christians were among her students, yet
it was a Christian mob that murdered her in 415 AD.
They'd been stirred up by the power-hungry
patriarch Cyril. They dragged her from her chariot
one day as she went to the Library. They scraped
flesh from her body with pottery shards and
sea-shells. Then they burned what remained of her.
Cyril was later made a saint, and Hypatia has often
been represented as a martyr to the old pagan
Polish historian Maria Dzielska goes looking for
the truth of the story. But first she traces the
myth. Hypatia was a favorite of the 18th-century
Enlightenment. The rationalist, agnostic Voltaire
portrayed her as a victim of superstition and
The 19th century made her into a voluptuous pagan
priestess, younger than she really was. A liberal
Charles Kingsley, wrote the most famous version
of her story in 1853. He published it in
Fraser's Magazine after his regular
publisher, the Christian Socialist, failed.
Kingsley's romantic tale of the pagan, converted at
the end, spins out against a world of deceit and
cabals. It went through countless editions and
translations. It was wildly popular in 19th-century
England, whence comes the bowdlerization of her
name into Highpayshya.
When Dzielska combs the scant records and pieces
together the real Hypatia, we meet a less
theatrical but far more impressive woman. She was a
highly disciplined follower of Plato. Her
scholarship was valid for Christian and pagan
alike. She had no formal involvement with either
religion, although she was clearly conversant with
both. She probably contributed to fourth-century
editions of the works of Ptolemy and Diophantus --
works on astronomy and math.
Hypatia was about sixty when Cyril spread the word
that she was practicing witchcraft. His assault had
nothing to do with pagan worship. Rather, her
influence thratened his own ambitions. He may not
even've meant for her to be killed. But going after
her made the surest testimony to her vast presence
and influence, sixteen hundred years ago. That's
how you and I know that Hypatia was far more than
the romanticized figure people still try to make of
her. (I wonder how her story will play when they
make the movie.)
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Dzielska, M., Hypatia of Alexandria. (tr. By
F. Lyra) Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press,
Kingsley, C., Hypatia. (Choose any of a vast
number of editions.)
For a good on-line biography of Hypatia, see
I did a very early program on Hypatia (Episode No. 215) long before
Dzielska's study corrected several points.
An artist's impression of Hypatia from 1908.
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2000 by John H.