Hypatia – c.351/370 – 415 – Alexandria, Egypt

Ancient Egypt

Hypatia

In the centuries since her death, Hypatia has become an icon for women in education and scientific thought. Her story has been told and retold, casting her as a pagan seductress, a prim school ma’am, an enlightened philosopher and a tragic heroine. Her brutal and untimely death is often told in gory detail without recounting the facts of her life.

This is largely because (as with so many women in this era) little is known about the life of Hypatia which can be confirmed. We know that she was a highly intelligent woman with a first class classical Greek education. She lived in Alexandria, Egypt, and headed the Neoplatonic School there, teaching philosophy and astronomy. Most remarkably of all, Hypatia was a woman in charge of her own life and who made her own choices.

A gifted mathematician, she inherited her passion for the subject from her father, Theon Alexandricus. Following her education in Athens, she relocated to Alexandria, at the time the home of the world’s largest and most comprehensive library. She taught Greek philosophy, including the works of Plato and Aristotle to students from all walks of life.

Hypatia occupied a respected position in Alexandrian society. Most sources report that she was well respected and admired for her wisdom and dignity. She refused to marry, though there are stories in which she turns down proposals from her enamoured students. Hypatia’s single status and dedication to her career enabled her to move more freely through male dominated environments than other women at the time.

Socrates Scholasticus, a contemporary of Hypatia’s, describes her self-assured nature and how her advice was well regarded and sought after by the leading minds of Alexandria:

“On account of the self-possession and ease of manner which she had acquired in consequence of the cultivation of her mind, she not infrequently appeared in public in the presence of the magistrates. Neither did she feel abashed in going to an assembly of men. For all men on account of her extraordinary dignity and virtue admired her the more.”

Though no surviving work is attributed to Hypatia, classical scholars make mentions of a number of texts and commentaries which she may have collaborated on with her father.

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“Death of the philosopher Hypatia, in Alexandria” (Source)

Hypatia’s murder took place in 415 in Alexandria. At the time there was an ongoing feud between the Roman Prefect of Alexandria, Orestes, and the Bishop of Alexandria, Cyril. Cyril had demanded that all of the Jewish citizens of Alexandria be banished. Alexandria was a city of multiple faiths at the time – Hypatia’s students included pagans, Jews and Christians – and Orestes was outraged by Cyril’s violent actions.

As previously mentioned, Hypatia was often asked for advice by prominent citizens of the city, and in this case Orestes asked for her input. Unfortunately, by this point the feud would not be solved with reason or debate, and Cyril’s followers felt that Hypatia was siding against them. A mob attacked her and dragged her through the streets to their church, where they brutally killed and mutilated her.


In Fiction:

Literature and theatre:

  • Hypatie et Cyril is a French poem by Charles Marie Rene Leconte de Lisle

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    An actress, possibly Mary Anderson, in the title role of the play Hypatia, circa 1900. (Source)

  • Hypatia – or New Foes with an Old Face – Charles Kingsley (novel)
  • In the 1893 performance of the play Hypatia by Stuart Ogilvie (based on Kingsley’s book) Hypatia was played by Julia Neilson, then by Mary Anderson in 1900.
  • The Heirs of Alexandria series by Mercedes Lackey, Eric Flint and Dave Freer portrays am alternate history in which Hypatia is converted to Christianity, saving her life.
  • Fable of Venice by Corto Maltese has Hypatia as an intellectual in pre-fascist Italy.
  • Ipazia, scienziata alessandrina(Hypatia: Scientist of Alexandria) by Adriano Petta
  • Hypatia y la eternidad(Hypatia and Eternity) by Ramon Galí is also set in an alternate history.
  • Azazil by Dr Youssel Ziedan
  • Francis Itty Cora by D. Ramakrishnan
  • Remembering Hypatia: A Novel of Ancient Egyptby Brian Trent
  • Flow Down Like Silver, Hypatia of Alexandriaby Ki Longfellow
  • In The Plot to Save Socratesby Paul Levinson and the sequel Unburning Alexandria, Hypatia turns out to have been a time-traveller from 21st century America.
  • Heresy: the Life of Pelagiusby David Lovejoy includes Hypatia’s death.

Film and Television:

  • 1987 Doctor Who serial Time and the Rani features a brief appearance from Hypatia.
  • Cosmos: A Personal Voyage (1980 and 2014).
  • Agora (2009) stars Rachel Weiss as Hypatia in a fictionalised version of her last years.

Art:

  • Hypatia has a place setting at Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party.

Science:

  • 238 Hypatia is a main belt asteroid named after the philosopher.
  • Lunar crater Hypatia.
  • A genus of moth.

References:

Rejected Princesses: Hypatia

Women Philosophers in the Ancient Greek World: Donning the Mantle – Kathleen Wider

Medieval Sourcebook: The Murder of Hypatia (late 4th Cent.) from Ecclesiastical History,Bk VI: Chap. 15 – Socrates Scholasticus

On Wikipedia:

 

Maria the Prophetess – c. 1st Century CE – Egypt

Ancient Egypt

 

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Like so many women of her time, the details of the life of Maria Prophetissima are hazy at Prophetissabest. We cannot even be certain of her name, as she is referred to in turns as Maria Prophetissima (in Latin) Mary the Jewess and Miriam the Prophetess.

The little we do know about Maria is passed down to us by Zosimos of Panopolis, who authored the earliest known book on alchemy in the early 4th century. Zosimus describes Maria as ‘one of the sages’, and talks about her living in the past – so we can assume she lived between the 1st and 3rd centuries.

Most importantly, Zosimos describes Maria as not only a woman alchemist, but as an inventor. Alchemy was an early form of chemistry concerned mainly with purifying certain elements to create gold, medicines and even immortality. Though alchemy is generally no longer practiced, the inventions credited to Maria are still in use today.

The tribikas:

This instrument was a kind of still used to obtain substances purified by distillation. A metal or element would be placed inside the pot and heated so that the alchemist can

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An alemic – very similar to a tribikas

collect vapours from one of the three tubes.

Maria made the recommendation that the tubes used with this equipment to extract the purified substance should be copper or bronze and the thickness of a frying pan. She also advised to seal the still-head using flour paste – an early kind of glue.

Zosimos credits Maria with the first written description of the tribikas, though it is not known whether she was its inventor.

The kerotakis:

Also used for collecting vapours, the kerotakis was a container with a sheet of copper on its upper side.

If used correctly, the kerotakis should be airtight and form a vacuum. The aim was to create the same conditions in a laboratory as when gold is formed naturally deep in the earth.

The bain-marie:
This apparatus bears the name of its inventor – Mary’s Bath. Also known as a double boiler, it consists of two separate chambers, one inside the other. The outer chamber is filled with liquid – usually water – and heated to boiling point. This regulates the temperature of the inner chamber and its contents.

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A bain-marie illustration

The bain-marie continues to be used in chemical processes today, as well as in the kitchen where it is commonly used for foods requiring a gentle heat.

Join the male and the female, and you will find what is sought.- The Axiom of Maria

Though all of our information on Maria’s inventions and experiments in alchemy comes from male gnostic writers centuries later, we know that she authored alchemic texts herself – though they have since been lost.

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Medieval illustration of a mandrake root

One anonymous philosopher recorded an extract, known as The Dialogue of Mary and Aros and the Magistery of Hermes. This excerpt describes a number of operations which formed the basis of alchemy including the whitening and yellowing of elements. It is also the first document to mention an acid salt, and contains recipes for gold using mandragora (also known as mandrake).

As there is such sparse information on Maria Prophetissima, her life and contributions are often disputed. She is sometimes conflated with Moses’ sister, Miriam, placing her centuries earlier than Zosimos suggests. The popularity of the names Mary, Maria and Miriam in this time suggest that there might even have been more than one woman with this way in alchemical circles.

Regardless, Zosimus’ inclusion of Maria in his history of alchemy demonstrates some evidence of women working in science during the early Christian era.

References:

History of Alchemy podcast

The Jewish Alchemists: A History and Source Book – Raphael Patai

On Wikipedia:


Image credits:

Maria Prophetissima By Michael Maier (1566-1622) – Symbola Aurea Mensae Duodecim Nationum, Frankfurt, 1617 Public Domain

An alemic from a medieval manuscript. The original uploader was Makemake at German Wikipedia – Own work (Original text: Eigenes Foto), Public Domain

An alchemical balneum Mariae, or Maria’s bath, from Coelum philosophorum, Philip Ulstad, 1528, Chemical Heritage Foundation.

Hortus Sanitatis; mandrake Wellcome L0008134” by . Licensed under CC BY 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

 

Aspasia the Physician – 1st Century – Greece

Ancient Greece

Aspasia

Not to be confused by the earlier scholar and hetaera of the same name, Aspasia was a physician who worked in obstetrics and gynaecology.

There is nothing recorded about Aspasia’s life outside of a fragment cited by the physician to a Byzantium Emperor. This mentions her contribution to midwifery as she apparently developed a technique for rotating a foetus in a breech presentation.

It is also mentioned that Aspasia promoted preventive medicine for pregnant women, though there is no specific detail.

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These two bare facts about Aspasia portray a very practical woman who sought common sense solutions to common problems faced by women. This differs from many celebrated male physicians of the time who often took a theoretical approach to healthcare.


References:

Women in science: antiquity through the nineteenth century: a biographical dictionary with annotated bibliography – Marilyn Bailey Ogilvie

Women, Science, and Myth: Gender Beliefs from Antiquity to the Present – Sue Vilhauer Rosser

On Wikipedia:


Image credits:

Ancient Roman relief carving of a midwife Wellcome M0003964” by http://wellcomeimages.org/indexplus/obf_images/29/0b/9da1fcb26bad168d8787912e39b5.jpgGallery: http://wellcomeimages.org/indexplus/image/M0003964.html.

Licensed under CC BY 4.0 via Commons

 

 

Salpe – 1st Century BCE – Lemnos, Greece

Ancient Greece

Salpe

Salpe was a midwife from the Greek island of Lemnos. Her name and methods are known to us through the writing of historian Pliny.

As well as midwifery, Salpe offered a number of cures and remedies for other ailments including sunburn, stiffness and dog bites. Her main ingredients were saliva and urine which were believed to have natural healing powers.

Greek physician and their patient

Greek physician and their patient

Salpe was probably not a well-educated woman – she probably couldn’t read and had little contact with leading medical professionals of the time. Her brand of medicine was based on a mix of superstition, herbal cures, prayer and sympathetic magic.

As physicians were expensive, the common people of Lemnos relied upon women like Salpe to provide them with healthcare.  Whoever she was, Salpe’s remedies must have been widely known for her to have caught the attention of Pliny.

Some of Salpe’s remedies (do not try these at home!):

  • To cure the bite of a wild dog, wear the flux of the wool of a black ram contained in a silver bracelet.
  • For a numb (stiff) limb, spit into the bosom of the patient, or touch the upper eyelids with salvia
  • To strengthen the eyes, apply urine.
  • To cure sunburn, mix urine and egg white (preferably ostrich) and apply to the skin every two hours.
  • Feed a dog a live frog to stop it from barking.

References:

Woman’s Power, Man’s Game: Essays on Classical Antiquity in Honor of Joy K. King edited by Joy K. King, Mary DeForest

The Biographical Dictionary of Women in Science: Pioneering Lives From Ancient Times to the 20th Century – Marilyn Ogilvie, Joy Harvey

Women in Science: Antiquity Through the Nineteenth Century – Marilyn Bailey Ogilvie

Hypatia’s Heritage: A History of Women in Science from Antiquity through the Nineteenth Century – Margaret Alic


Image credits:

Medicine aryballos Louvre CA1989-2183 n2” by English: Clinic Painter (name-piece) – Marie-Lan Nguyen (2011).

Licensed under CC BY 3.0 via Commons

 

 

Aglaonice – 2nd or 1st Century BCE – Thessaly, Greece

Ancient Greece

Known as the ‘Witch of Thessaly’ Aglaonice was considered a sorceress for her ability to predict the movements of the moon.

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In fact, Aglaonice (sometimes Aglaonike) was an astronomer. Her apparent ability to ‘pluck [the moon] down from heaven’ is taken to mean that she could predict lunar eclipses.

We know about Aglaonice mostly from the writings of Plutarch who said that she was ‘thoroughly acquainted with the periods of the full moon when it is subject to eclipse, and, knowing beforehand the time when the moon was due to be overtaken by the earth’s shadow, imposed upon the women, and made them all believe that she was drawing down the moon.’

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Plato later wrote about a group of women astronomers, associates of Aglaonice, who were active from the third to the first century BCE, calling them ‘the Thessalian enchantresses’.

Little is known about the life of Aglaonice, other than that her father was Hegetor of Thessaly (and we don’t have any details on him either).

It is suggested that she encouraged the perception of herself as a sorceress and perhaps boasted about her powers – giving rise to the Greek proverb: ‘Yes, as the moon obeys Aglaonice.’

‘Aglaonice… being skilful in astrology, made the vulgar believe, whenever the moon was eclipsed, that by means of some charms and enchantments she brought it down from heaven.’ – Plutarch

Whether she was a serious astronomer, a powerful witch or simply an excellent performance artist, Aglaonice is honored today in the field of astronomy; one of the craters on Venus is named after her.


References:

De defectu oraculorumPlutarch

Journal of the British Astronomical Association: The Witch Aglaonice and Dark Lunar Eclipses in the Second and First Centuries BC Peter Bicknell

On Wikipedia:


In Fiction:

Aglaonice is a character in the Jean Cocteau film Orpheus, in which she is a friend of Eurydice and leader of the League of Women.


Image Credits:

FullMoon2010” by Gregory H. Revera – Own work.

Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons

Agnodice – 4th Century BCE – Athens, Greece

Ancient Greece

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Agnodice was born into a wealthy Athenian family and had one ambition; to become a doctor. Intelligent, rich and hardworking, the only thing that stood in her way was the law. In 4th Century Athens, it was a capital crime for a woman to study or practice medicine.

Being blessed with a can-do attitude and enough money to travel abroad, Agnodice left Greece for Egypt, where women actively took part in healthcare. She studied anatomy and midwifery in Alexandria under famous doctor and scientist Herophilos. Eventually she was ready to return to Athens. Knowing the law, Agnodice cut her hair short and wore men’s clothes when she arrived home, where she began to treat the women of Athens.

Agnodice engraving - Licensed by Wikimedia Commons

Agnodice engraving – Licensed by Wikimedia Commons

The story goes that one day Agnodice was passing a house when she heard a woman in the throes of labour. She immediately came to the woman’s aid, but was turned away because women in Athens were ashamed to have a male doctor attend them. Agnodice then revealed that she was, in fact, female, and was able to treat the woman successfully.

This experience was typical for Athens at the time, where women often suffered and died needlessly rather than see a male doctor. Soon, word got out that Agnodice was practicing, and she became the most popular physician in the city.

The men of Athens became suspicious. The male doctors accused Agnodice of seducing their female patients and taking away their trade, and she was brought to trial before the husbands of the women she treated. Seeing no way out, Agnodice revealed her true sex – unfortunately this now meant that her crime warranted execution. Before judgement could be passed, a mob of women arrived at the trial. They berated their husbands and praised Agnodice, who had saved many of their lives.

Following a debate, Agnodice was acquitted and the law of Athens was changed to permit female physicians. Agnodice became a symbol for the trust and comfort shared between women, and in the 17th century her story became used by midwives defending their trade against other male-dominated areas of medicine.


References:

Fabulous Female PhysiciansFlorence Kirsh and Sharon Kirsh

Women in Medicine University of Virginia

The Art and Artifice of Agnodice Jackie Rosenheck

Hypatia’s Heritage: A History of Women in Science from Antiquity through the Nineteenth Century – Margaret Alic (pg. 29-28)

On Wikipedia: