contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Tag: Paganism

VIRTUES AND VOWS

Pagan philosopher Brendan Myers describes virtue ethics as the branch of philosophy that investigates character and identity (1). To live a fulfilling and happy life, we need to install ways of understanding and being in the world that support our aim: these are the virtues. Specifically, he talks about the virtues of wonder, such as open-mindedness, curiosity, creativity; the virtues of humanity, such as care, courage, respect and generosity; and the virtues of integrity, like reason, acknowledged vulnerability, forgiveness and the will to let go.

The approach of the Buddhist inspired Center for Mindful Self-Compassion – https://centerformsc.org/ – is remarkably similar. The Center teaches a process for identifying “core values”, where we ask ourselves what values we embody that give our life meaning. Center suggestions resemble those of Brendan Myers, and include compassion, generosity, honesty, courage, family, loyalty, service, curiosity and nature. The designers of my Four Noble Truths course – https://learn.tricycle.org/ – are on a similar track. Stephen Batchelor says: “Buddha’s vision was centrally ethical. I’m not referring to the moral precepts here”, but rather a way of life in which “you try to become the person you aspire to be and try to create a world that you aspire to live in”. He says more about this in a series of podcasts taken from a seminar sponsored by the Western Chan Fellowship in Bristol, England on 4 March 2017 and available on YouTube.

I’ve been prompted to look again at my MSC course in June/July of this year. I found the work on vows very valuable and wrote about it in a blog post at the time – https://contemplativeinquiry.wordpress.com/2017/07/26/making-personal-vows/ . I have developed them a little more. I continue to find the process of identifying core values very helpful. But in all cases I went straight to a ‘doing’ statement. I didn’t isolate nouns that nominate virtues. These, even words like love, courage and wisdom, can seem both static and vague. These are the vows:

  • May I honour and enjoy the gift of life – through sensation, feeling, thinking, and intuition
  • May I be loving and compassionate towards myself and others
  • May I experience abundance in simplicity
  • May I work for the welfare of all beings, using the loving forces that work from individual to individual, as well as supporting larger projects

In terms of organized spiritual movements, I find myself in a debatable zone between neo-Paganism and modern Buddhism. It’s just as well that both traditions have open borders, able to accommodate people who are not signed up. The four vows to myself are the product of multiple influences, as well as my inner sense of direction.  The first owes much both to C. G. Jung and to modern Druidry (especially OBOD – www.druidry.org -); the second to the Buddhist tradition; the third and fourth to all the above. In the last vow, I owe the piece about ‘using the loving forces that work from individual to individual’ to the late C19th/early C20th American psychologist William James at a time when he was fed up with public life.

These vows are a work in progress, and will guide me in my inquiry going forward.

(1). Brendan Myers Reclaiming Civilization: a case for optimism for the future of humanity Winchester, UK & Washington, USA: Moon Books, 2017 See also https://contemplativeinquiry.wordpress.com/2017/08/24/book-review-reclaiming-civilization/

 

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NATURALISTIC ANIMISM: SEEING THE TREES FOR THE ENTS

Great contribution by John Halstead to the re-visioning of Animism.

Humanistic Paganism

The Tree or the Spirit of the Tree?

Those who believe in personal gods sometimes have difficulty understanding non-theistic nature worship. I have heard it said that we cannot possibly be worshipping natural phenomena, like the sun or trees; we must be worshiping a divine force “within” or “behind” the natural phenomena, something like Greek dryads or J.R.R. Tolkien’s fictional Ents, the personification of the spirits of the trees.

From a theistic perspective this makes sense. After all, Orthodox Christians do not worship their icons, and Pagan polytheists do not worship the statues that represent their gods. So some theists have difficulty understanding the non-theistic worship of physical nature. They assume that worship requires a conscious person on the other end that appreciates the worship. And if you start with that assumption, then it seems absurd to worship unconscious nature.

On the other hand, many Naturalistic Pagans are uncomfortable with…

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BOOK REVIEW: RECLAIMING CIVILIZATION

Publication date 25 August 2017. Highly recommended. Contemporary Pagan philosopher Brendan Myers offers a nuanced and reflective discussion of civilization, its evident dysfunction, and how to respond. Overall, he takes the view that: “civilization is not an unambiguously good thing. The ‘shining city on a hill’ is a mirage. It lessens the suffering of one group by entrenching the suffering of others; and it promises things to the protected and privileged that it can never entirely deliver. Nevertheless, civilization may yet be a salvageable enterprise”.

Reclaiming Civilization: a case for optimism for the future of humanity is a study of the sacred, from a socio-political perspective. The book is presented musically, with an overture leading on to three movements punctuated by interludes. The overture – a ‘meditation upon a lake’ begins with a personal question: ‘why should I return to the city?’ given that this entails going back to debts, responsibilities and ‘absurdities’.

These absurdities go well beyond the personal level. they include: modern working and consumerist lifestyles; rampant economic inequalities; double-speak in politics and religion; a pervasive sense of alienation and division; war and the effects of war; and the accelerating effects of climate change. So Myers’s first, personal, question leads on to three other, general ones: what is civilization? what’s wrong with civilization? What, if anything, should be done for civilization? These questions are explored in the three movements that follow.

To answer the first, Myers looks at human innovations like fixed houses, settled farming and the domestication of animals, and the subsequent appearance of cities and their walls – designed to keep some people out and other people in. He suggests that ‘civilization’ has been a long experiment by which we resolve what it means to be human “not by discovery, but by invention”. Civilized people are those whose qualities are their civilization’s virtues. Myers calls civilization humanity’s ‘most metaphysical project’ – humanity ‘realizing itself’ (for some people) by living up to a ‘civilized’ ideal.

The second, ‘what’s wrong’, question identifies the intensification of social hierarchy and domination with increasing economic surplus overall. Myers discusses the accompanying ideology in terms of “illusions which exalt us” (i.e. those of us who are ‘winners’). These include: the permanent self; notions of ‘higher’ and ‘lower’ men and of the virtuous prince; the devious enemy; the self-made man; a human birthright of dominion over the earth. In part, such illusions enable exploitation with an easy conscience. More deeply, they help to fend off nihilism and despair – themselves not an “existential condition of human life” but “a feature of reason and rationality”. There has been something essentially distressed about civilization as a project. Its distortions aren’t just accidents or mistakes.

Myers’ response to the third question (‘what should be done’) makes political suggestions, supported by the author’s ethical lens. Virtue ethics is the branch of philosophy that investigates character and identity. To live a fulfilling and happy life, according to Myers, we need to install ways of being in the world that support this aim: these are the virtues. For Myers, we develop virtues in the face of existential ‘immensities’. Awakening to the earth, we respond with the virtues of wonder – and take a stance of open-mindedness, curiosity and creativity. Awakening to people and relationship, we respond with humanity – with care, courage, respect and generosity. Awakening to solitude and the certainty of death, we respond with integrity – reason, acknowledged vulnerability, forgiveness and the will to let go.

Myers is encouraged by what he calls four lamps:

  1. Human nature is malleable – so culture and society can and do change.
  2. Empathy, co-operation and compassion are among the qualities that are embedded in our species and have helped to build civilization so far.
  3. Casting away illusions is hard, yet on the other side of despair lies a greater depth and life.
  4. We are already doing most of the things we need to do.

Reclaiming Civilization is a valuable addition to our literature. If the above account has stimulated any interest in the questions, I recommend getting the book. The issues are more fully explored, and Myers also shares something of his personal journey, especially in the Interludes.

Brendan Myers Reclaiming Civilization: a case for optimism for the future of humanity Winchester, UK & Washington, USA: Moon Books, 2017

A BIRD OF RHIANNON

“They went to Harlech, and sat down and were regaled with food and drink. As soon as they began to eat and drink, three birds came and began to sing them a song, and all the songs that they had heard before were harsh compared to that one. They had to gaze far out over the sea to catch sight of the birds, yet the song was as clear as if the birds were there with them. And they feasted for seven years”. (1)

The three birds are blackbirds, known as the birds of Rhiannon. They are at least partly of the Otherworld, for Rhiannon is a potent deity, linked to the moon and sovereignty. In the story of How Culhwch won Olwen (2), the giant Yspadadden Pencawr demands that the hero Culhwch capture Rhiannon’s birds to entertain him on the night before his death – a death which will immediately follow his daughter Olwen’s marriage to Culhwch, to whom his kingship will be passed. Yspadadden describes the birds as “they that wake the dead and lull the living asleep”.

Hence, in The Druid Animal Oracle (3). The blackbird is understood as “a being who can send us into the dreamtime and who can speak with discarnate souls”. The Oracle also points out that “Blackbirds are fond of rowan berries, one of the sacred trees in Druid tradition. …. Eating these berries, the blackbird is able to connect us with his healing song to the regenerative powers of the Otherworld and the Unconscious”.

In How Culhwch won Olwen, a blackbird also figures as one of the oldest animals who need to be consulted in a quest to rescue the Mabon, the divine youth of Brythonic tradition, from imprisonment. As the Jungian scholar John Layard (4) says, “all these figures conduct us back into the past, which is the equivalent to psychic depth … into the heart of the mother-world below, the matrix out of which all life grew up and the ever-renewing source of it”. The blackbird is in fact the youngest and most accessible of these helpful animals, “functions of instinct that assist if we are humble enough to ask their help”. For Layard, the blackbird is the bearer of “a maternal spirit-message”.

In the apparent world, my wife Elaine and I share our back garden with a pair of blackbirds, and sometimes chicks, for some months of the year. They are here now. They do sing both at dawn and dusk, with the twilight song for me the most notable. They have chosen a slightly hidden space and our willingness to have a relatively unkempt garden is partly for their sake.

I have recently been visited by another blackbird, also in a garden. This garden is both familiar and unfamiliar, known and not known. It appeared to me in a state of mild to moderate trance, and resembles the Sophia’s garden I used to work with as an innerworld nemeton. But much has changed. Sophia’s garden had a link to a temple and was well kept. Generally, it was a noonday kind of place, bright sun flashing on the fountain at the centre, illuminating the water. There were rose beds surrounding it, and fruit trees trained up mature brick walls. Alternatively, it was a place of magical silence in black night, lit up by full moon and stars. Now there is no temple. The fountain and rose beds, whilst still in place, show signs of reduced maintenance. It is twilight, liminal, with limited visibility.

A blackbird appeared and sang to me in this space, meeting me on mutually safe and accessible ground. Its message was one of availability and reassurance. I returned it in a spirit of openness and friendly affirmation. And then I was back in everyday reality. Now I simply wait, tentatively expectant, open to further connection.

  • Sioned Davies The Mabinogion Oxford University Press, 2007 The second branch of the Mabinogi
  • Sioned Davies The Mabinogion Oxford University Press, 2007 How Culhwch won Olwen
  • Philip & Stephanie Carr-Gomm The Druid animal oracle: working with the sacred animals of the Druid tradition New York: Fireside, 1994
  • John Layard A Celtic quest: sexuality and soul in individuation Dallas, TX: Spring Publications, 1985

BOOK REVIEW: THE CRANE BAG

The Craane BagThe Crane Bag, Joanna van der Hoeven’s forthcoming book*, offers an introduction to the ritual tools and practices found in the Druid tradition. It achieves this briefly, simply and with a light touch – as books in the Pagan Portals series are designed to do. Yet it much more than a tick box guide. It provides context and meaning, showing the modern evolution of the Druid tradition itself.

The author makes it clear that she wants readers “to develop their own path in their own time in their own fashion”. Re-enchantment is both path and goal. With proper use, the crane bag “can further the Druid in working with the tides of nature, finding his or her own place in the environment, living in balance, harmony and peace”. The movement overall is “toward reintegration with the natural world”.

At its simplest, the crane bag is the container for Druid ritual tools and as such enables the practices. Bag and tools provide the practitioner with “something tangible to express the spiritual”, acting as a portable “map of the soul”. Behind the crane bag lies an ancient Irish story beginning with the contention between two sisters and the transformation of one of them, Aoife, into a crane. The story is beautifully told and its relevance clearly explained in the first chapter of the book.

In ritual, a period of time and an area of space are set apart and dedicated. This is not to create a lasting duality of sacred and mundane, but a step on the way to experiencing everything as sacred. “Ritual helps us to step back from the busyness, into another way of being. It is a change of consciousness, where we can shift our perception away from a singular view to a more plural view, realising that we are part of an ecosystem”. There is a clear preference for working outdoors, where awareness can shift more readily, though this is not insisted on.

A Druid’s tools will vary with the Druid. The book identifies the following: a silver branch; a staff; cups/bowls/cauldrons; drums; a sickle or knife; robes; altars; fire/candles; incense. People may make or buy them. Ethical sourcing of tools and materials is discussed in some detail, in line with the values of The Crane Bag overall.

What goes into a ritual is explored under the headings of call for peace; preparing the nemeton; honouring spirits of place, three worlds, four directions, ancestors, deities; ritual action; prayers and magic; offerings; eisteddfod; sacrifice; feast; closing. There’s encouragement to practitioners to craft what is right for them from within this set of suggestions and beyond it. The author adds, “I have been in circles with Christian Druids and Buddhist monks, as well as other religions from all over the world”. What matters in ritual is being present and performing the ritual with mindfulness, so that “any words that you speak, any gesture or movement you make will flow more easily, be more graceful and filled with meaning”.

There’s a final chapter on ‘altered states’. I don’t use the term myself, because it makes an ‘altered’ vs ‘normal’ distinction that doesn’t really work for me in my own life. But I recognise it as a term that is widely and usefully employed. Here, it facilitates valuable discussions of meditation, drumming, chanting and song, sensory deprivation, sacred landscape and sitting out. Three kinds of meditation are distinguished: calming the mind and re-tuning the body, journeying and problem solving. Guidance is offered on each kind. Different suggestions are also explored within the other topics. For sensory deprivation, there are two. One is the Celtic version of the sweat lodge, called teach an alais. The other is total immersion in darkness for a considerable period before being brought out into the light. The author refers to early medieval accounts of this, where it was done in aid of Bardic inspiration and prophesy: imbhas forosna.

I found The Crane Bag a very useful contribution to its topic and highly recommend it.

 

Joanna van der Hoeven The Crane Bag: a Druid’s guide to ritual tools and practices Winchester UK & Washington USA: Moon Books, 2017

*According to the publisher, the book is due for release on 28 July, and can be pre-ordered through Amazon US & UK, Indiebound and Hive.

REBLOG: SCIENCE IN SERVICE TO MOTHER EARTH

Science is, after all, an endeavor of humans and our machines. What would it mean to put this endeavor at the service of Mother Earth? Presumably, our efforts must always be guided by human discernment, in all its fallibility. Who decides what best serves this vision of the Greater Good?

via [A Pedagogy of Gaia] Science in Service to Mother Earth, by Bart Everson — Humanistic Paganism

POEM: GREEN MAN

William Anderson’s classic Green Man poem has thirteen verses of four lines each, and follows the wheel of the year from the Winter Solstice. As I write we have just reached the sixth verse, which has an off with my head theme. The honey of love is over and speaking through the oak is yet to come.

Like antlers, like veins in the brain, the birches

Mark patterns of mind on the red winter sky;

‘I am thought of all plants’, says the Green Man,

‘I am thought of all plants’, says he.

The hungry birds harry the last berries of rowan

But white is her bark in the darkness of rain;

‘I rise with the sap’, says the Green Man,

‘I rise with the sap’, says he.

The ashes are clashing their bows like sword-dancers

Their black buds are tracing wild faces in the clouds;

‘I come with the wind’, says the Green Man.

‘I come with the wind’, says he.

The alders are rattling as though ready for battle

Guarding the grove where she waits for her lover;

‘I burn with desire’, says the Green Man,

‘I burn with desire’, says he.

In and out of the yellowing wands of the willow

The pollen-bright bees are plundering the catkins;

‘I am honey of love’, says the Green Man,

‘I am honey of love’, says he.

The hedges of quick are thick will May blossom

As the dancers advance on their leaf-covered king;

‘It’s off with my head’, says the Green Man,

‘It’s off with my head’, says he.

Green Man becomes grown man in flames of the oak

As its crown forms its mask and its leafage his features;

‘I speak through the oak’, says the Green Man,

‘I speak through the oak’, says he.

The holly is flowering as hay fields are rolling

Their gleaming long grasses like waves of the sea;

‘I shine with the sun’, says the Green Man,

‘I shine with the sun’, says he.

The hazels are rocking the cups with their nuts

As the harvesters shout when the last leaf is cut;

‘I swim with the salmon’, says the Green Man,

‘I swim with the salmon’, says he.

The globes of the grapes are robing with bloom

Like the hazes of autumn, like the Milky Way’s stardust;

‘I am crushed for your drink’, says the Green Man,

‘I am crushed for your drink’, says he.

The aspen drops silver on leaves of earth’s salver

And the poplars shed gold on the young ivy flower heads;

‘I have paid for your pleasure’, says the Green Man,

‘I have paid for your pleasure’, says he.

The reed beds are flanking in silence the islands

Where meditates Wisdom as she waits and waits;

‘I have kept her secret’, says the Green Man,

‘I have kept her secret’, says he.

The bark of the elder makes whistles for children

To call to the deer as they rove over the snow;

‘I am born in the dark’, says the Green Man,

‘I am born in the dark’, says he.

 

From:  William Anderson Green Man: archetype of our oneness with the Earth Harper Collins: London & San Francisco, 1990

SOPHIA AND GUANYIN

 

The Moon rising on the indigo sea,

A pearl like a seed.

Open your heart to compassion and change:

The protector will blossom there.

 

Sophia journeyed along the Silk Road to the wild west of China and became the Bodhisattva Guanyin*. In Mahayana Buddhism, a Bodhisattva vows to wake up and work for the happiness of sentient beings. At the point of entry to nirvana, or ‘no-wind’, where the hot winds of desire and compulsion are forever stilled, you choose to remain in the world of samsara, the world of illusions that we all inhabit, and fulfil your promised role. This pledge is inaugurated by the Prajnaparamita Heart Sutra, in which the Buddha’s disciple Avolokitesvara addresses another disciple, Shariputra. Guanyin emerges in history as Avolokitesvara’s female manifestation some hundreds of years later. Her emergence may well be owed to the influence of Sophia, who in that time and place is looked to as a Gnostic redeemer. I am grateful to Stephen Karcher for taking me through the history (1).

“Between 400-600 CE, various sects associated with the ‘great heresy’ of Gnosticism entered Northwest China, driven out of the Mediterranean area by the violent persecution of the Orthodox Church. Gnostics were not really heretic Christians; they were pseudo-Christian just as they were pseudo-Jewish and pseudo-Pagan. They represented an ancient strain of thought that attached itself to various symbol systems and ‘deconstructed’ them to orient us towards the gnosis or direct ‘acquaintance with the spirit’, a practice that may have originated in an old, pre-Rabbinic form of Jewish worship. This Gnostic stream flows through Manichean and Mandaean thought into the great melting pot of North West China, the beginning and end of the Silk Road. …  The Gnostic figure of Sophia the Redeemer who reaches out to awaken the divine spark in each being may have been the catalyst that produced Kuan Yin, the compassionate one, out of her male form Avolokitesvara”.

Once born, Guanyin takes on non-Buddhist characteristics local to the region, including powers such as that of the Mare associated with the K’un Field in the I Ching. She has strong Dragon associations. “These animal powers are still with us in dreams and visions as representatives of the sources of life. They speak with gigantic voices, the movers of the world”. She is also “clothed in the mystery of the Tao, the Taoist valley spirit or ongoing process of the real that nourishes all the myriad beings. … There are many images for this: flowing water, the uncarved block, child, female, mother, valley spirit, dark door, empty vessel, for it is the womb of creation. We can open this space within ourselves and return to the source of all things … [When] we have become empty within, we can return to the source and … watch the Tao shaping the universe out of chaos, while yin and yang continually transform it. When we grasp this process, our whole identity becomes fluid. We become like a spirit, a shen”.

Karcher concludes: “Born from this great spiritual melting pot, partaking of its many traditions, Kuan Yin, the One Who Sees and Hears the Cries of the World, walked forth among the beings she vowed to cherish and enlighten, breaking all sectarian boundaries. She is equally at home with Buddhists, Taoists, Pagans and Gnostics. The stories of her miracles of healing, deliverance and enlightenment have proliferated in East and West. Her compassion and wisdom offer an exit from the compulsive worlds of greed, lust and power and a return to the true thought of the heart.”

One of my attractions to this story is that it identifies the spiritual traditions that have at different times, and indeed the same time, influenced my heart and imagination: Gnosticism, Buddhism, Paganism and Taoism. By implication, it excludes the ones that haven’t: the essentially God fearing Abrahamic traditions and God drunken Vedic ones, including their ‘non-dualist’ presentations. This is a matter of feeling and attraction, not of cosmology or belief. Although I can’t make a complete assimilation of Sophia and Guanyin, their iconography does, for me, help to bind these influences together. “Return to the true thought of the heart” is not a bad summary. I have bought a statue of Guanyin, as a birthday present to myself for later this month. In this statue she sits on a crescent moon, playful and androgynous. It is the note that I am looking for.

  • I use the form Guanyin. Stephen Karcher uses Kuan Yin.

(1) Stephen Karcher The Kuan Yin Chronicle: The Voice of the Goddess of Compassion London: Piatkus, 2009

 

BOOK REVIEW: LESSONS IN MAGIC

 

In a seemingly artless little book*, Philip Carr-Gomm celebrates a kind of magic that is “supremely natural”, like conceiving a child or planting seeds in the earth. He defines it as “the art and science of bringing ideas into form, of making what is intangible tangible. It is, in essence, the creative process – but informed with spiritual understanding”.

Lessons in Magic is organized into six chapters and ends with a list of resources. The first chapter, Apprenticed to Magic, describes the author’s own journey and sets the tone for what follows. The other five are a series of lessons. The resources include poems, songs, films, books and meditations.

The author describes his life-long attraction to magic, beginning in childhood, and nourished in youth by apprenticeship to the Druid magician Ross Nichols. His understanding was later extended by Jungian analysis, the study and practice of esoteric spiritualities from around the world and a training in modern psychology. To capture the essence of life lived magically, he quotes Fiona Macleod: “there are moments when the soul takes wing; what it has to remember, it remembers; what it loves, it loves still more; what it longs for, to that it flies”.

The stance is unrepentantly romantic and transcendentalist, whilst earth and life loving as well: we are here because we are meant to be. This is our theatre of becoming. Thus, the five ‘how to’ chapters show us how to align ourselves with what our soul wants, rather than what we think we want as average sensual folk. How do we tell the difference? One suggestion is to draw up lists of what we want to have, to do and to be – and then reverse cultural custom and tackle them in the order of be, do, and have. Going first for what we want to be may save distracting levels of concern with doing and, more especially, having. Another recommendation is to look for unsuspected strengths in our apparent weaknesses and failures. They may be the key to our flourishing.

Through such means, the book suggests, we find passion and purpose. Following our bliss, in this sense, is experienced as the best and most natural way of serving a higher purpose, and of bringing healing and joy into the world. To achieve this, we will need to draw both on an open receptive capacity and on the powers of focus and intention. The author takes us through the processes of finding and establishing our magical purpose, letting it gestate and grow, and asking for help at all levels (including prayer and divination). We are also warned not to over-specify outcomes once the work is under way. In this magic, we are always serving a higher purpose as well as our own. We are working in a larger context than we can expect wholly to own or control. Eventually we find that magic is happening around us. Unsuspected possibilities present themselves. The quality of our experience changes. We are in partnership with the living cosmos.

Philip Carr-Gomm speaks with the authority of someone who has walked the talk. Just under thirty years ago he re-founded the Order of Bards Ovates and Druids (OBOD) [1] based on a visionary prompting. It has been a highly successful venture, both itself and as a catalyst for others, playing a major role in the modern Druid and Pagan revival. One of OBOD’s key offerings has been the distance learning course offered to its members. This isn’t just a training in knowledge and skills about Druidry. It includes a thread of personal development work understood in magical terms, which students may follow at their own pace and in accordance with their own inclinations. A kind of apprenticeship, made more widely accessible, to meet modern needs in modern conditions.

Although this book is an introduction, it clearly presents a significant lens on magic, as understood by Philip Carr-Gomm and within OBOD Druidry. Highly recommended to anyone with even a passing interest in the subject.

*Philip Carr-Gomm Lessons in magic: a guide to making your dreams come true Lewes, East Sussex, England: Oak Tree Press, 2016

[1] www.druidry.org

HYPATIA

March 15 is a day of remembrance for Hypatia, philosopher, mathematician and astronomer from Alexandria in Roman Egypt. Hypatia is claimed both as a Pagan and an Atheist martyr, for in 415 or 416 a mob of Christian zealots dragged her into a church, stripped her and beat her to death with roofing tiles. Then they tore her body apart and burnt it. Her crime was a combination of her gender, education, non-Christian views and role as a publicly respected teacher.

In an article for Smithsonian.com (1), Sarah Zielinski says, “though she is remembered more for her violent death, her dramatic life is a fascinating lens through which we may view the plight of science in an era of religious and sectarian conflict”. Hypatia’s life (350/70? – 415/16?) was devoted to the Alexandrian Academy, where she was the pupil and subsequently colleague of her father Theon. She became the head of the Academy on his death and as a teacher is best remembered for her contribution to mathematics.

Hypatia has been described as “the first recognizably Neoplatonic teacher in Alexandria” (2), which links her into a belief system in which everything emanates from the One, but where the One is not the personal God of popular religion. Her pupils included Synesius of Cyrene, who later became a Christian Bishop of Ptolemais. Her public lectures were popular and drew crowds. “Donning the robe of a scholar, the lady made appearances around the centre of the city, expounding in public to those willing to listen on Plato and Aristotle”, wrote the philosopher Damascius after her death.

She was also admired by Orestes, the Roman Governor of Alexandria. But this was less of a protection than it might seem. For many years, the city had been beset by fighting among Christians, Jews and Pagans, as the pressure for religious uniformity grew. Notable casualties included the city’s once famous Library and Museum. The last remnants “likely disappeared … in 391, when the Archbishop Theophilus tore down the temple of Serapis, which may have housed the remaining scrolls, and built a church on the site” (1). Hypatia’s father, Theon, was the last known member of the Museum. The Academy continued, with Theon and Hypatia working together, and then with Hypatia by herself taking pupils at home. Lessons included instruction on how to design an astrolabe, a kind of portable astronomic calculator that continued in use until the nineteenth century. Hypatia also wrote commentaries on important texts of the day.

In 412 Alexandria got a new Archbishop – Cyril, nephew to Theophilus. The hostile pressure on other faiths, now including Christian heresies, continued. One of Cyril’s first actions was to close and plunder the Churches of the Novatian sect. It became a fight over who controlled Alexandria. The Governor Orestes was a Christian, but not in this bigoted form, and in any case did not want to cede power to the Church. In 415 a three-sided feud broke out over the regulation of Jewish dancing exhibitions in Alexandria (3), with the Jewish community, Cyril’s Christian faction and the civil power all taking different positions. It seems that Orestes consulted Hypatia for neutral advice. The situation escalated. Orestes tortured one of Cyril’s followers on suspicion of instigating an anti-Jewish riot; Cyril then threatened “utmost severities” against the whole Jewish population; a group of Jewish extremists responded by killing several of his followers. At this point Cyril “rounded up all the Jews of Alexandria, then ordered them to be stripped of all possessions, banished them from Alexandria, and allowed their goods to be pillaged by the remaining citizens of Alexandria”.

Orestes was incensed and wrote to the Emperor, “excessively aggrieved that a city of such magnitude should have been suddenly bereft of so large a portion of its population”. Cyril, too, wrote to the Emperor. Then he changed tack and tried to restore relations with Orestes, but Orestes refused. Cyril changed tack again and brought down 500 monks of “a very fiery disposition” from the mountains of Nitria into the city. They attacked Orestes’ chariot in the street and tried to stone him to death, but they were driven off. One of the monks, who had struck the Governor on the head with a rock, was arrested and executed. Cyril’s people had come off worst and needed a counter blow.

Hypatia was an easier target than Orestes. A rumour was spread that she was preventing Orestes and Cyril from settling their differences. A contemporary, Socrates Scholasticus of Constantinople, tells of “the fierce and bigoted zeal” with which she was waylaid, and the great public revulsion against the Alexandrian Christian community that followed her brutal murder. He laments, “surely nothing can be farther from the spirit of Christianity than the allowance of massacres, fights, and transactions of that sort” (3). But 200 years later, in a world of deepened Orthodoxy, John of Nikiu celebrates the final defeat of Pagan idolatry “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 Satanic wiles … a multitude of believers in God arose under the guidance of Peter the Magistrate … and they proceeded to seek for the Pagan woman who had beguiled the people of the city and the Prefect through her enchantments”. John seems entirely at ease as he goes on to recount the story of Hypatia’s death.

Even in later times Hypatia remained controversial. The Deist/Pantheist scholar John Toland defended her in the early eighteenth century. but got a spirited reply from Thomas Lewis, in a 1721 tract The History of Hypatia, a most Impudent School-Mistress of Alexandria, Murder’d and torn to Pieces by the Populace, in Defence of Saint Cyril and the Alexandrian Clergy, from the Aspersions of Mr. Toland. In 1853 Charles Kingsley needed to adjust history. Hypatia; or New Foes with an Old Face initially portrays the scholar as a “helpless, pretentious and erotic heroine”, though later she is redeemed her through her conversion by a Jewish Christian character, Raphael Aben-Ezra, having supposedly become disillusioned with Orestes.

More recently, Hypatia has attracted more favourable attention from people as diverse as Carl Sagan and Judy Chicago. Iain Pears features a Hypatia-like figure in his novel A Dream of Scipio. Maria Dzielska published Hypatia of Alexandria, a scholarly study of her life, in 1995 and Michael Deakin wrote a book of the same name in 2007. The Indiana University Press publishes Hypatia: a Journal of Feminist Philosophy. The Spanish film Agora tells a fictional story of Hypatia (Rachel Weisz) struggling to save the library from Christian zealots, which is nonetheless faithful to the issues raised by her life and death. For me Hypatia’s is a living story, with lessons still to offer. It is well worth a day of remembrance.

 

  • Pauliina Remes Neoplatonism Stocksfield: Acumen Press, 2008