Wednesday, April 1, 2020

St. Catherine of Alexandria and Hypatia

St. Catherine and the wheel
St. Catherine and the wheel
St Catherine of Alexandria, Virgin and Martyr

The Antikythera mechanism
St. Catherine of Alexandria
Let us praise Catherine the radiant bride of Christ,
Guardian of Sinai, our helper and supporter.
By the power of the Spirit, she silenced the arrogance of the ungodly.
Crowned as a martyr, she now implores great mercy for all.

—Troparion (Tone 5) in honor of the Great-martyr Saint Catherine of Alexandria

As I mentioned in a recent post, while researching St. Catherine of Alexandria for an ongoing project, I kept coming upon the story of the Neo-Platonist mathematician Hypatia and the claim that the fourth century martyr and the fifth century philosopher are one and the same person. First of all, let us visit the city of Alexandria in Egypt, unlike any other city in the ancient world. It was founded by Alexander the Great, who bestowed the governance of Egypt upon his childhood friend and general, Ptolemy. When Ptolemy became the new pharaoh, it was his goal, as a former pupil of Aristotle, to turn Alexandria into a center of learning, combining the mystique of ancient Egypt with the wisdom of the Greeks. The Ptolemies ruled Egypt for three hundred years. While they did not, until Cleopatra VII's time, fully take to the Egyptian language and religion, they did adopt the Egyptian practice of marrying close relatives, which many scholars believe contributed to both the decay and corruption of the dynasty. With the on-going incest being accompanied by murder, they had generations of assassinations of family members by other family members, so that it is amazing that the Ptolemy dynasty went on for as long as it did. They did, nevertheless, maintain an extraordinary lighthouse, as well as a great library which was connected to the royal palace. Every ship that came into the Alexandrian port had to surrender its books so that they could be copied for the library.

The great library of Alexandria was destroyed in 48 BC, during the reign of Cleopatra VII, when the Romans under Julius Caesar were fighting with pirates and lost control of the fire from the burning ships in the harbor. That left the smaller library called the Serapeum, which was destroyed during the civil unrest in 391 AD. We know that copies of the Septuagint, the Greek Old Testament, were probably destroyed in the burning of the original great library of Alexandria. We also know that Mark Antony, Cleopatra's second husband, brought 20,000 books from the library at Pergamon to Alexandria to make up for the books lost when the great library burned. For more on the details on the various upheavals of Alexandria, I cannot recommend highly enough The Rise and Fall of Alexandria by Justin Pollard.

Another aspect of Alexandria is that during the Hellenistic era there were known to be all kinds of mechanisms, including automatons, that were mostly used for temple worship and entertainments. Some were were of practical and scientific use, such as the water-clock of Ctesibius, invented in Alexandria itself. In 1900, some Greek sponge divers discovered a 2000-year-old shipwreck off of the island of Antikythera. Among the wreckage was a contraption made of wheels and dials which seemed almost like an ancient clock. It was christened the "Antikythera mechanism." According to Smithsonian:
The Antikythera mechanism was similar in size to a mantel clock, and bits of wood found on the fragments suggest it was housed in a wooden case. Like a clock, the case would’ve had a large circular face with rotating hands. There was a knob or handle on the side, for winding the mechanism forward or backward. And as the knob turned, trains of interlocking gearwheels drove at least seven hands at various speeds. Instead of hours and minutes, the hands displayed celestial time: one hand for the Sun, one for the Moon and one for each of the five planets visible to the naked eye—Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. A rotating black and silver ball showed the phase of the Moon. Inscriptions explained which stars rose and set on any particular date. There were also two dial systems on the back of the case, each with a pin that followed its own spiral groove, like the needle on a record player. One of these dials was a calendar. The other showed the timing of lunar and solar eclipses. (Read more.)
The last Ptolemaic ruler of Egypt was Cleopatra VII, whose famed beauty lay not so much in her physical appearance as in her charm, especially her melodious voice and scintillating intelligence and wit. She kept her capital city Alexandria a center of culture; it was the Paris of antiquity. Cleopatra received the best education available in the known world at the time. Her inherent thirst for knowledge made her enthusiastic for her own enlightenment. Among the nine languages she spoke was an ancient Egyptian dialect that sounded like the squeaking of bats. Cleopatra was fascinated with the native culture of her people, and was a scholar in her own right. She set a precedent for learned women in Alexandria that would last for centuries. With the suicides of Cleopatra and Mark Antony came the end of Egyptian self-rule and the beginning of Roman domination. But it was the early days of the Roman Empire that would see the birth of Jesus Christ and the dawn of Christianity.

 Egypt was important to Christianity from the very beginning, due to the Jewish presence there. The Jewish community in Alexandria was as old as the city itself, founded in the third century BC. It is highly probably that it was to Alexandria that Joseph and Mary with the Child Jesus fled from King Herod (Matthew 2:14). The Jewish community in Alexandria included many artisans and St. Joseph would have no doubt found work as a joiner. Christianity arrived as early as 33 AD with St. Mark the Evangelist, and for the next 700 years Alexandria was to be one of the greatest centers of the Christian world, the home of many martyrs, hermits, bishops, and holy penitents. 

Christians of Alexandria suffered from fierce pagan persecutions, spreading over several centuries. According to Tour Egypt:
The Egyptians before Christianity had always been a deeply religious people, and many readily embraced the young religion, having had their old beliefs effectively destroyed by the coming of the Roman Empire and the final dethroning of the god-king Pharaohs. Many of the concepts of Christianity were already familiar to the Egyptians from their ancient religion, such as the death and resurrection of a god, the idea of the judgment of souls and a paradisiacal afterlife for the faithful. The ankh too, the Egyptian symbol for eternal life, is very similar to that of the cross revered by Christians (especially in the form of the Coptic cross...), itself also a symbol for eternal life. Furthermore, the belief that God had chosen Egypt as a safe place for His infant son to hide him from Herod was a great source of pride to the Egyptian Christians. It was through Christianity that the Egyptian culture survived the Roman Dominion....
Yet the greatest persecutions on the young religion came at the hands of the Roman government. Emperor Nero had set the precedent in AD 64, about the same time as the martyrdom of Saint Peter. It was unusual, for the actual offense was simply to be a Christian or to profess the Christian faith, rather than any kind of criminal acts that might go along with it....An arrested Christian could receive a pardon simply by offering incense on a Roman altar, but many refused to do so, citing scripture passages urging faith in the one God. Thus the true "crime" of the persecuted Christians was their refusal to do homage to the Roman gods, including the emperor. Those who did refuse to bow to the Roman religion were imprisoned, often tortured, thrown to the wild animals in the coliseum, or suffered execution by any number of other means. Rather than discouraging the Christians, these actions encouraged them and reinforced their faith, echoing the words of Jesus that those who suffered persecution because of his name were truly blessed. These heroes of the Christians were called "martyrs," a word that means "witnesses." In the first century this persecution was largely done by the government, though after a few decades they seem to have lost interest (or become fearful of the sect) and in the second and early third centuries the mobs took over the persecutions. Decius and Diocletian, in the 250s and early 300s respectively, brought the imperium back into the persecution, but it was clear by this time it was a losing battle as Christianity had penetrated even into the highest levels of society.

It was in Egypt that some of the greatest defiances of the Romans by Christians were done. While their Roman counterparts worshiped in catacombs and underground vaults, the Egyptian Christians built their churches openly and performed their ceremonies in full view of the Empire. And for every one that the Empire struck down, more would be converted by the example of the martyr. Diocletian was particularly brutal, executing so many Christians in 284 alone that the Coptic Church dates its calendar, the Calendar of the Martyrs (Anno Martyri) from that time. Despite these persecutions, Christianity seems to have grown rapidly in Egypt, spreading to Fayoum in 257 via Anba Dionysius, and in 260 even down into the Thebaid. But in 306 something happened that would change the destiny of Christianity forever: Constantine became emperor. (Read more.)
Saint Catherine, born around 287, is said to have died circa 305 during the persecution of Maxentius,  later one of the co-emperors of the Roman Empire; although some scholars say she suffered under his father Emperor Maximian. It was under Maximian that Catherine's reputed father Costas (or Costus or Constantius) was Roman governor of Alexandria. Lorenzo Cavelli of the University of Venice has  researched the familial origins of St. Catherine, who it seems had connections to the island of Cyprus, where an ancient oral and architectural tradition has the young saint spending part of her childhood there. (Cavelli, Lorenzo. "Cypriot Origins, Constantinian Blood: The Legend of the Young St. Catherine of Alexandria." Identity/Identities in Late Medieval Cyprus. Nicosia, 2014, pp 361-390.) Her father was said to have either been a king or else have had royal relatives and so Catherine is described as having royal blood. Her legend is as follows:
According to the popular tradition, Catherine was born of a patrician family of Alexandria and from childhood had devoted herself to study. Through her reading she had learned much of Christianity and had been converted by a vision of Our Lady and the Holy Child. When Maxentius began his persecution, Catherine, then a beautiful young girl, went to him and rebuked him boldly for his cruelty. He could not answer her arguments against his pagan gods, and summoned fifty philosophers to confute her. They all confessed themselves won over by her reasoning, and were thereupon burned to death by the enraged Emperor. He then tried to seduce Catherine with an offer of a consort's crown, and when she indignantly refused him, he had her beaten and imprisoned. The Emperor went off to inspect his military forces, and when he got back he discovered that his wife Faustina and a high official, one Porphyrius, had been visiting Catherine and had been converted, along with the soldiers of the guard. They too were put to death, and Catherine was sentenced to be killed on a spiked wheel.
When she was fastened to the wheel, her bonds were miraculously loosed and the wheel itself broke, its spikes flying off and killing some of the onlookers. She was then beheaded. The modern Catherine-wheel, from which sparks fly off in all directions, took its name from the saint's wheel of martyrdom. The text of the  Acts of this illustrious saint states that her body was carried by angels to Mount Sinai, where a church and monastery were afterwards built in her honor. This legend was, however, unknown to the earliest pilgrims to the mountain. In 527 the Emperor Justinian built a fortified monastery for hermits in that region, and two or three centuries later the story of St. Catherine and the angels began to be circulated.
While the legend is not backed by contemporary source material, it must be remembered that the records of the many Alexandrian Christian martyrdoms, including that of St. Catherine, may have been destroyed in the burning of the Serapeum in 391. And what books were left were destroyed by the Arabs. The Arabs, who conquered the city in the seventh century, according to popular lore, used those books they did not approve of to heat their baths. Eusebius (circa 260-circa 340), Bishop of Caesarea and a father of the Church, would have been a contemporary of Catherine's, living through the persecutions and the eventual triumph of the Church under Constantine. According to EWTN:
Eusebius, 'father of Church history,' writing around the year 320, had heard of a noble young Christian woman of Alexandria whom the Emperor ordered to come to his palace, presumably to become his mistress, and who, on refusing, was punished by banishment and the confiscation of her estates. The story of St. Catherine may have sprung from some brief record such as this, which Christians writing at a later date expanded. The last persecutions of Christians, though short, were severe, and those living in the peace which followed seem to have had a tendency to embellish the traditions of their martyrs that they might not be forgotten. (Read more.)
Or perhaps the original documents were lost in a fire, as so many were. The young woman mentioned by Eusebius was named by some to be "Dorothea"; others say that Dorothea and Catherine were the same person, and that "Catherine" was Dorothea's baptismal name. According to scholar John Sanidopoulos, the oldest extant reference to the virgin martyr Catherine by name is in a seventh century Syrian liturgical text. The oldest surviving version of her life can be found in the eleventh century Menologion of Byzantine Emperor Basil II in which she is referred to as Aekaterine, which means "ever pure." The monastery on Mount Sinai, originally built in the sixth century to hold the relics of the Burning Bush, replacing an earlier chapel built by Empress St. Helena, was called after St. Catherine when her incorrupt body was discovered there around the year 800. Relics of the saint are preserved there to this day and are said to exude a miraculous healing oil. Like the Burning Bush (Exodus 3:1-7), which was burned but not consumed, Catherine was said to have endured a hideous martyrdom but neither the ravages of time nor the violence of men could destroy her body.

It was through the visits of medieval pilgrims and crusaders to the monastery on Mount Siniai, beginning in the eleventh century, that the cult of St. Catherine of Alexandria spread to Europe, where she became known as one of the Fourteen Holy Helpers. It was through the miracles wrought by her intercessory prayers that she became one of the most popular saints in the West, even as she had long been revered in the East.

Let us return to Alexandria and to the philosopher Hypatia, born between 350–370 and dying in 414. Hypatia was born 40 or 50 years after the death of St. Catherine and her own death was more than a century after Catherine's. With the legalization of Christianity came a shifting of the power structure in a city which, because of its great diversity, had always been prone to riots and mob violence. It was in the midst of such an upheaval that the philosopher Hypatia was murdered. Hypatia was a Hellenist neo-Platonist philosopher and mathematician who taught the sons of the elite of Alexandria, both Christian and pagan alike. People tend to see her as a sort of high school Algebra teacher, but she was more than that. In those days, mathematics and numerology were one and the same, as were astrology and astronomy, all of which were considered sciences well into the Renaissance. The fact that devout Christian families entrusted Hypatia with their children's education meant that they held her in high regard. She was known for her wisdom and virtue, and many of her students turned to her for advice later in life which, since her students became bishops and government officials, caused her to become caught in the midst of tense political struggles. From Renaissance Mathematics:
Of course the most well known episode concerning Hypatia is her brutal murder during Lent in 414 CE. There are various accounts of this event and the further from her death they are the more exaggerated and gruesome they become. A rational analysis of the reports allows the following plausible reconstruction of what took place.
An aggressive mob descended on Hypatia’s residence probably with the intention of intimidating rather than harming her. Unfortunately, they met her on the open street and things got out of hand. She was hauled from her carriage and dragged through to the streets to the Caesareum church on the Alexandrian waterfront. Here she was stripped and her body torn apart using roof tiles. Her remains were then taken to a place called Cinaron and burnt.
Viewed from a modern standpoint this bizarre sequence requires some historical comments. Apparently raging mobs and pitched battles between opposing mobs were a common feature on the streets of fourth-century Alexandria...What is more puzzling is the motive for the attack. (Read more.)
The parabalani, who were said to be responsible for burning the Serapeum library in 391 and murdering Hypatia in 414, have been described as monks but they were not under vows or holy orders. They were a gang of laymen who began as bodyguards for Christian prelates during the days of persecution but as Christianity became legal and a political force, the parabalani went more and more on the offensive.  By Hypatia's time they appear to have been no better than a bunch of Klan-like thugs. The political struggle between the Roman prefect Orestes, Hypatia's former pupil, and the Patriarch St. Cyril, led to the horrific murder of Hypatia, not because of her love of science and philosophy but because of her perceived political influence.

Murder of Hypatia
Let us consider again the Antikythera mechanism, the ancient hand-powered Greek analogue computer. As a philosopher, scholar and teacher, Hypatia may have had access to one. Was her association with the wheels of the device one reason why she became seen as the model for St. Catherine, traditionally associated with a wheel? On the other hand, St. Catherine, who was brought up in the Alexandrian tradition of high learning, might have used such a mechanism in her studies, too. It might be speculated that the "wheel" on which St. Catherine was tortured, which was said to have been a complex device with wheels and razors, might have been modeled on the Antikythera mechanism, as a  kind of "Antikythera of horror." Perhaps such a torture device had been intended to mock her study of the heavenly bodies. I am thinking that since torturing Christians was often public entertainment in the Roman times perhaps the wheel was like an "Antikythera of horror" which was designed to mutilate criminals but, according to the legend, it broke when Catherine touched it.

Were St. Catherine and Hypatia the same person? Let us examine the pros and cons. There are several aspects of their stories which are similar and favor the theory that they are one and the same. Both were 1.) from Alexandria, 2.) supremely well-educated philosophers, 3.) beautiful, 4.) chaste, 5.) elicited hatred from powerful opponents and 6.) died violently. However, the discrepancies between the two women outweigh the similarities. St. Catherine was a Christian; Hypatia was a pagan. They lived in different centuries. Catherine died a full hundred years before Hypatia during a time when many Christians were known to have been murdered. An essential part of Catherine's legend is that she was young whereas by all accounts Hypatia was a middle-aged or elderly woman. Their individual means of torture and execution were very different, and the means of death and instruments of torture were almost always a huge element in the Acts of the martyrs. Catherine's execution was the result of breaking the civil law and the carrying out of a sentence, while Hypatia's murder was the spontaneous result of a crazed, rampaging mob. 

But the main reason that I believe that St. Catherine of Alexandria was a real person and not just a Christianized version of Hypatia, is the centuries and centuries of a devoted following due to miracles wrought through her intercession and even visions of her, such as St. Catherine's appearance to St. Joan of Arc in the fifteenth century. In the medieval times, there was no formal canonization but a saint's popularity spread based upon their effectiveness. They became known as saints through the voice of the people. According to Lindsey K. Williams in Academia
Medieval saints were canonized for one of a few different reasons, but mainly if they were martyred or if they enacted miracles during their lifetime in the name of God. Miracles during the lifetime or after the death of the saint are proof that the saint is in heaven and interceding on behalf of people who are living. Her legend says that after she was beheaded, Catherine’s bones were transported to the monastery at Mount Sinai and began to ooze an oil that had healing properties. The miracles validated her holiness as the oil continued to exude from her bones to serve those in need.
St. Catherine became the patroness of many petitioners, including unmarried girls; apologists; wheelwrights; potters; spinners; archivists; dying people; educators; girls; jurists; knife sharpeners; lawyers; librarians; libraries;  mechanics; millers; milliners; hat-makers; nurses; philosophers; preachers; scholars; schoolchildren; scribes; secretaries; spinsters; stenographers; students; tanners; theologians. Churches and monasteries all over the East and the West have borne her name, as have many saints, scholars, queens and empresses. Not only is she an exemplar of purity and courage, but St. Catherine stands as a testimony of the long Christian tradition of education for women, education which when placed at the service of the Gospel has the power to defeat the machinations of the evil one.

Saint Joan visited by St. Catherine of Alexandria and St. Michael
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elena maria vidal said...

As a footnote, I would like to add another thought. Perhaps when St. Catherine came in contact with the machine that was supposed to destroy her, she knew how it worked. And when she "touched" it, she was able to decommission it, perhaps by pulling a lever a certain way, or something. Just an idea. It would make a great novel, that's for sure.

Elijahmaria said...

I for one vote for the novel...soon, right? Elena Maria may I congratulate you on a wonderful article about, perhaps, my most favored woman saint, or at least the most long-standing one in my little life. All is well here in Pennsylvania and I look forward to sharing this among my circle of friends., MEL

elena maria vidal said...

Thanks so much and thanks especially for your help with it! Love, emmy