top of page

Black History Month Should be a Universal Celebration, Part 2

Before the rise of Eurocentrism in the 16th and 17th centuries as an ideology that provided the impetus to bury Ancient Egyptian or other African culture, there was an Egyptian woman named Hypatia. Hypatia and her father, Theon were equally famous for their achievements in philosophy, astronomy, and literature. Despite their popularity, Hypatia’s mother was never identified or revealed in history which I found confounding.

Who was Hypatia and why is she relevant to the Black History Month celebration?

First of all, lest I’m misunderstood, some clarifications are in order to establish the Black ancestry of Hypatia. Many people are probably not aware that she was Black because in Greek literature and Hollywood movies such as Agora, portrayed her as White. Agora was a fiction based on true stories. Watching the movie, one can really feel the greatness and Hypatia’s impact on modern civilization.

Just a side note since I opened the door to Hollywood, I’m glad that Michael Jackson’s “Remember the Time” official video brings us back to Ancient Egypt when it was part of Kemet, or the Land of the Black People. Mind you, some scholars even argue that all black people are descended from ancient Egypt. In Michael Jackson’s video, Queen Ahmose-Nefertari, who was the first Queen of the 18th Dynasty of Ancient Egypt, is shown prominently.

There is really no existing picture of Hypatia, therefore, sculptures in Greece and Egypt that depict her as white should be taken at face value because she’s been “Europeanized,” meaning owned by virtue of her amazing accomplishments. The fact that her mother was never identified in history books tells me that she could have been a slave.

It is important to remember that race in our contextual understanding of the word, is more or less, a modern albeit medieval invention. Ancient civilizations never looked at race as “race” in our current context. In simple terms to relate it to racism, ancients were not concerned about the color of the skin other than the medical theorist Hippocrates mentioning a baby’s skin color or pigmentation being affected by climate.

Early Christians believed that skin pigmentation can be altered during baptism, but race definition took a turn in the 15th century when Spain applied the “Purity of Blood” concept to disqualify Jews and Moors from becoming Christians. Under this concept, Christians believed that group identity cannot be altered even with the use of baptismal water. This was of course, the period of religious wars between Christians and Moors (North African Muslims), and Christians against Jews.

Hypatia was from Alexandria, Egypt which is located in Lower Egypt next to the Mediterranean Sea and geographically close to Greece. People there were light skinned when compared to the Middle and Upper Egypt. Both Hypatia and Theon were light skinned. According to ancient archeological findings and recent mitochondrial DNA and melanin testing of Egyptian mummies, ancient Egypt were predominantly Black, and their Sub-Saharan ancestry has been traced to the ancient Near East and the Levant. Mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) is inherited exclusively from the mother.

Hypatia, the first female philosopher and a profound orator is described this way in Chapter 15 of the Ecclesiastical History of Socrates Scholasticus, “There was a woman at Alexandria named Hypatia, daughter of the philosopher Theon, who made such attainments in literature and science, as to far surpass all the philosophers of her own time. Having succeeded to the school of Plato and Plotinus, she explained the principles of philosophy to her auditors, many of whom came from a distance to receive her instructions.”

For a woman to excel in philosophy at a time when such a field was dominated by men was truly remarkable. Hypatia clearly took after her father, a Greek scholar who was also an accomplished philosopher and mathematician. Both father and daughter taught philosophy, math, and astronomy but Hypatia was way better. She was credited with having invented a hydroscope used to visualize objects below the water and to measure water densities.

She also constructed astrolabes. As a mathematician and early cosmologist, she used an astrolabe as a tool to measure the positions and charted the courses of the stars and planets. Her acumen in cosmology, philosophy, and mathematics combined made her teaching of Neoplatonic philosophy even more convincing and powerful.

Neoplatonism espoused the Pythagorean philosophy of “love of wisdom” whose doctrine of metempsychosis believed in reincarnation, the transmigration of the soul after death into a new body, human or animal. Her Neoplatonism involved religious thinking laced with a strand that is strongly mathematical that made it more real, more meaningful, and deeper thus a sacred pursuit for “The One.”

Hypatia’s venture into the religious realm that early Christians called paganism, however, did not go unnoticed. Egyptian Coptic Bishop John of Niku: ““And in those days there appeared in Alexandria a female philosopher, a pagan named Hypatia, and she was devoted at all times to magic, astrolabes and instruments of music, and she beguiled many people through her Satanic wiles. And the governor of the city honoured her exceedingly; for she had beguiled him through her magic. And he ceased attending church as had been his custom… And he not only did this, but he drew many believers to her, and he himself received the unbelievers at his house.”

Hypatia was about 60 years old when she was brutally murdered during the Lenten season for her beliefs, by a mob of Christian fanatics led by a church lector, a private militia of the local bishop in Alexandria, Cyril. Cyril’s thirst for more power in the secular world governed by Orestes, the Roman Prefect of Alexandria created tension among their followers.

A confident public speaker, Hypatia attracted quite a following that included famous people like Orestes, a Christian. Much like Bishop Niku, Cyril suspected Hypatia of poisoning Orestes mind because of their closeness. The conflict between the bishop and the prefect is a fascinating political story in itself except that their rivalry turned the city into a tinderbox and Hypatia became collateral damage.

The manner in which she was tormented and killed was repulsive. She was dragged from her chariot as she was headed home, took her to the church where they completely stripped her, and sliced her body with tiles. After tearing her body in pieces, they took her mangled limbs to a cremation oven and burnt.

Hypatia was clearly ahead of her time, an early feminist and a Black martyr. A genius emulated by people who would later become Catholic theologians and canonized saints. Bishop Cyril became pope and was canonized for his defense of the Trinitarian God.

Hypatia lived a celibate life and died a virgin. She became popular in Greek culture much like a goddess like Minerva. They remembered and honored Hypatia as St. Catherine of Alexandria, patron saint of philosophers and scholars. The fictitious name was to hide Hypatia’s true identity and how she died. They made her a Christian murdered by a pagan emperor. (To be continued)

bottom of page