August 6, 2012

Connecting Elena Piscopia and Hypatia



After reading about her in Stephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve: How the World Became Modern, I have been pondering the story of Hypatia. Sensing some parallels between Hypatia’s life and Elena Piscopia’s, I researched further to clarify my suspicions.

Many of the facts of Hypatia’s life in the 4th century are disputed, lost in historical records, reported from both pagan and Christian viewpoints. What is certain is that she was murdered. A learned woman, she wore scholar’s robes rather than women’s clothing and may have driven her own chariot. A pagan, as Christianity spread through Alexandria, she publicly sided with the civil authorities against Cyril, the presiding bishop.

Angered, Cyril preached against her and subsequently, whether at his prodding or not is uncertain, a mob of Christians attacked her and dragged her to the church. Her skin was flayed (either with “tiles” or oyster shells), then she was dismembered; her body was scattered throughout the city and burned.

The Church later made Cyril a saint, just as they sanctified Cardinal Barbarigo who denied Elena a theology degree. [See “An Irony of Sainthood,” March 31, 2011 on this blog.] My question is: Did the Church reward anti-feminist behavior or simply ignore these behaviors as irrelevant?

Words attributed to Hypatia:
Reserve your right to think, for even to think wrongly is better than not to think at all.

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