Athena, Hypatia, et al
Posted by Dave Bath on 2008-03-08
International Women’s Day comes in the same week as the Australian Literary Review had a bias towards classical literature: it’s a good time to look at something a little strange about western culture given that for most of the last 1600 years of Christian supremacy, it has viewed women as worthless.
But for Christianity, the need for an International Women’s Day might have passed a millenium ago.
Consider this: of the Olympians, the most likeable, the cultivator of all that was admirable in mortals, the only decent role-model for civilized men, was female.
When we think of our Greek heritage, the two powers that have dominated Western thought for millenia are Athens and Sparta. Both had the patronage of Athena. Other cities, supposedly founded by males, are only remembered by dilettantes: Corinth, Delphi and Thebes.
Athena was goddess of wisdom and the practical arts. Apollo might give occasional inspiration, but like his gifts, Apollo was fickle. Athena, on the other hand, always rewarded hard work.
Athena was not only goddess of the "womanly" arts like weaving, but the "manly" arts including warfare. While Ares was god of bloodthirsty war and carnage, Athena was deity of military arts and discipline used with just cause.
So, we are left with at least one paradox. In a male-dominated world, it was a female deity that was most respected, not merely feared, that gave inspiration in all facets of life men deemed admirable. While uncommon, women in the classical world could gain immense respect in fields that have since been considered exclusively male domains, such as:
- Artemisia I, Xerxes’ greatest admiral,
- Artemisia II, builder of one of the seven wonders of the ancient world,
- Dido, the semi-mythical (and later deified) founder of Carthage,
- Hatshepsut, perhaps Egypt’s most successful (but least warlike) pharoah, and
- (my favorite) Hypatia, a "professor" of mathematical astronomy and perhaps the most notable scientific martyr in history. See below in the notes for more details on Hypatia.
Despite all this, and more, in classical literature and history, a tradition known in great detail by all educated males since, women were treated as recently as a century ago as being incapable of voting wisely!
Perhaps that’s the other paradox: the majority of ardent churchgoers are female. (Homer might go to church, but it’s Marge who drags him along!)
It is perhaps appropriate that the death of Hellenic thought, which at least allowed and was unsurprised by female excellence, died with the victory of patriarchal Christianity, and is sometimes pinpointed as the day the Christians brutally slaughtered the noble Hypatia.
See Also / Notes
- Hypatia’s murder by Christians jealous of her many virtues was a violation of a temple, perhaps the most unforgivable sin of the ancient world. From Gibbon:
On a fatal day, in the holy season of Lent, Hypatia was torn from her chariot, stripped naked, dragged to the church, and inhumanly butchered by the hands of Peter the Reader and a troop of savage and merciless fanatics: her flesh was scraped from her bones with sharp oyster-shells and her quivering limbs were delivered to the flames.
- The 1915 lecture on "The Matyrdom of Hypatia" sets the scene but doesn’t get into details about Hypatia’s life until half-way through. It’s worth taking a few excerpts:
- To pursue her studies, she persuaded her father to send her to Athens, where her earnest work, her devotion to philosophy, the readiness with which she sacrificed all her other interests to the cultivation of her mind, earned for herself the laurel wreath which the university of Athens conferred only upon the foremost of its pupils. Hypatia wore this wreath whenever she appeared in public, as her best ornament. Upon her return to Alexandria, she was elected president of the Academy, which at this period was the rendezvous of the leading minds of the East and West.
- Judging by the chronicles of the times, it appears that her beauty, which would have made even a Cleopatra jealous, was as great as her modesty, and both were matched by her eloquence, and all three surpassed by her learning.
- Hypatia eclipsed the glory of God. She was murdered because only “the poor in spirit” — the intellectual babes, are the elect of Heaven.
- Biographies of Hypatia can also be found here and here.
- Apparently Hypatia’s life is the subject of an upcoming film. The problem is, kids, especially young girls, should see it, but her martyrdom, such an important part of her story, is soo violent it would need to be R-rated.
- While I’m annoyed by what I consider glaring omissions, "Uppity Women of Ancient Times" (good review here) gives a reasonably accurate and witty account of about 200 ancient women (about a page each) who’ve been unjustly put in the shadows since the rise of Christianity.
- It’s also worth looking at the way Aristophanes treated the need for a "feminine" side to politics, as I outline in "Founding father of femmo-bolshevism" (2008-02-09).
- I’m not saying that Classical and Hellenistic civilizations treated women as equals, but pointing to the trajectory of the acceptance of women’s capabilities by men during those times, and how that trajectory drastically altered for the worse as Christianity dominated Europe.
- I’ve avoided others of note who played "behind the scenes", such as Aspasia and Livia.
- It’s also notable that many heroes relied on females to achieve their goals. Theseus would still be wandering the labyrinth without Ariadne’s ball of string. Without Medea’s knowledge of herbs, Jason would have been roasted by fire-breathing oxen or gobbled up by a dragon.
- I might have included Cleopatra, had not her undeniable intelligence lowered as she raised her skirts to the despicable Marcus Antonius.