Australian Lefty on Politics, Governance, Science and Info Management

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.


14 Responses to “Athena, Hypatia, et al”

  1. Dave Bath said

    I’ve done some more digging looking for fragments from Hypatia’s works (I’d known that there are no extant books). I found the following quotation attributed to her at a number of academic sites, so I’ll consider it unlikely to be merely apocryphal:

    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.

    Wow!!! No wonder the Christians hated her and she hasn’t been made a heroine!!!

  2. Dave Bath said

    Another couple of Hypatia quotes (I haven’t yet verified at academic sites):

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

    All formal dogmatic religions are fallacious and must never be accepted by self-respecting persons as final.

  3. Awesome post. I enjoyed it.

    Sometimes, Athena was definitely on the side of the patriarchy rather than the matriarchy (perhaps, as Aeschylus explains, because she was born from her father’s thigh rather than a mother). Consider her decision vis a vis Orestes (who killed his mother Clytaemnestra after she killed her husband Agamemnon after he killed their daughter Iphignea…)

    My work is here, to render the final judgement.
    Orestes, I will cast my lot for you.
    No mother gave me birth.
    I honour the male, in all things but marriage.
    Yes, with all my heart I am my Father’s child.
    I cannot set more store by the woman’s death –
    She killed her husband, guardian of their house.
    Even if the vote is equal, Orestes wins.

    Aeschylus, The Eumenides, Penguin Classic translation.

  4. Dave Bath said

    LE: Good pickup. I’ll admit I was thinking more of the “folk tradition” from earlier times than the Periclean, such as the Homeric, where I view the speeches of the various gods as being an aspect of the hearer’s personality: thus speeches to Odysseus being more his “gender-balanced” intellectual side influencing his thinking, in a way the hindu pantheon (apart from Krishna) represents different aspects of personality in many progressive hindus.

    Agamemnon deserved all he got IMHO after “Iphigeneia in Aulis“, and his portrayal in the recent movie “Troy” was pretty well done (his death needed to be portrayed to audiences, and waiting until he got home would have been dramatically unsustainable).

    I always thought Athena sprang from Zeus’ head, after he’d eaten her, as “I Claudius” afficionados will remember from squirming through the Caligula episodes.

    (My only criticisms of the movie was the absence of the wonderful Kassandra, and the youthfulness of Achilles whose son, the brutal Neoptolemos, killed Priam at the altar. But the movie DID get across the central and impossible-to-film theme of the book, which I see as the chapter “The Shield of Achilles” which contrasted “city at war” with “city at peace”)

    It’s also worth thinking about the two virgin goddesses, Athena and Artemis/Diana. Personally, I was never a fan of Artemis, and I think most males in ancient greek culture shared my view. And I HATED the character of Aphrodite.

    But my point still stands: 3000 years ago, the most admirable human qualities (apart from the one episode of bitchiness to Arachne) were assigned by males to a female character. Father Zeus, on the other hand, who evolved into Deus Pater along Chomskyan lines, could be a right bastard.

    I think the standard aggressive feminist narrative does itself a disservice by ignoring the advances in classical times, which did not completely reject the possibility of female accomplishments, where Roman matrons held pretty strong rights to property, and, but for the rise of Christianity, might have allowed Eleanor of Aquitane to be a head of state, and recognized the achievements of Hildegard von Bingen in many more fields other than music.

    Again, I’ll make a key point from my post: “But for Christianity, the need for an International Women’s Day might have passed a millenium ago.”

  5. Hmm, maybe it was from Zeus’ head rather than his thigh. I don’t remember. It’s a long time since I studied that. Yes, I agree, Aeschylus’ Athena is more patriarchal than earlier Homerian Athena.

    I don’t like Artemis much either. I think a female hunter could be so much more exciting. Aphrodite is unpleasant too. Very fickle (oh, thou inconstant woman).

    Hildegard was an accomplished artist, scholar and mystic in her time. She rocks. She drew some really freaky pictures of the temptations of the devil. There were some other very strange female mystics in medieval times – eg, Julian of Norwich. I’m sure her fantasies were the product of some deep frustration.

  6. Dave Bath said

    LE: “Aphrodite is unpleasant too. Very fickle (oh, thou inconstant woman).”

    As I said in the main post, Apollo was very fickle (oh, thou inconstant ponce). Hard to tell which of the two siblings was the worst offender.

    Perhaps the ancient Greeks were equal opportunists when it came to assigning to their gods the worst parts of human nature… more so than male chauvinist pigs and female chauvinist sows of modern times.

    I’d always thought Julian of Norwich was male because I’m used to the name “Julian” in a male context (eg Julian the Apostate, who, probably like Hypatia, was murdered by Christian conspiracy because of his attempts to stop Christian theocracy and violence [even between Christians]).

    That said, Hildegard’s intellectual scope was MUCH wider than Julian of Norwich, not a mere mystic (“scholar” too is so limiting, she wrote on medicine, particularly the use of herbs), and therefore she rocks more. She even wrote letters that between the lines were SCATHING about the then pope…. and managed to get away with it! And her melodies! (Non-medievalists would most easily appreciate a rendering that overlays modern instruments and harmonies in the CD Vision. And many artworks from her abbey made under her direction are IMHO best classified as “mandalas“, although I think few see it that way – see this)

  7. Dave Bath said

    There are definitely a few more posts worth writing on these subjects, and I /do/ think this is one of my better posts, particularly as it is contrary to general perceptions.

  8. I actually have Hildegard on my i-Pod – could she have ever imagined that? I would definitely class her artworks as mandalas; it’s interesting to see parallels between her work and other mystical traditions.

    Poor old Julian of Norwich ended up with a male name because she was associated with a church of that name. I had always assumed she was a man too until I studied medieval history. I’m trying to remember some of the other interesting females from that course – again, contrary to general perspective, there were more than one would think.

  9. Dave Bath said

    Property rights for females in Rome were pretty good, perhaps because divorce was so common!

  10. Dave Bath said

    LE “studied medieval history”

    Here’s a cheat: downloadable couse materials on
    WGS.514 Medieval Literature: Medieval Women Writers from Gender Studies courtesy of MIT Open Course Ware (yes, the real MIT gives it all away!)

    Includes Chaucer’s WoB which strikes a chord with me!

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  14. John Greenfield said


    Athena is the LAST of the Greek gods you should invoke as some sort of proto-feminism!! Greek mythology had to invent the Clash of the Titans to serve as theology for the emerging patriarchy of the post Dark-Ages, Archaic period.

    Masterfully, Zeus – until then no more powerful or prestigious than the other gods – swallowed Metis (a Titan), Athena’s mother. Why? Because, he got wind of a prophecy that any off spring he had with Metis would kill him.

    Metis was a Titan goddess, who according to post-patriarchy-emerging Hesiod, was originally Zeus’ equal. Metis loosely transliterates to “wisdom/wiles/crafts/ability” which we see later in the social status of the metic.

    Thus, the Olympian Zeus takes the ‘brains of the operation off the Titan’s battlefield. He turns Metis into a bug and swallows her. However, too late. Metis is already pregnant with Athena.

    When Athena is born out Zeus’ head, two huge patriarchal origin myths begin:

    1. Athena is the only person not soiled by birth from a woman – Athena has bypassed the old powerful chthonic female gods.

    2. As Athena is Metis’ daughter, Athena inherits all the intellectual wiles, but Metis built her all her war-making abilities, while gestating in Zeus’ mind. Zeus not only circumvents the curse, but is the only parent of the first born of the most clever Titan

    3. From now, Zeus will be numero in Greek mythology, right up to the first societies to wave bye-bye to patriarchy; that is, the Heir to Greek civilisation, mid twentieth western liberal democratic capitalism – US.

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