Wednesday, July 11, 2012

She died for mathematics

     Hypatia of Alexandria (in Greek: Υπατία) (c. 370 C.E. – 415 C.E.) was a popular Egyptian female philosopher, mathematician, astronomer/astrologer, and teacher in Egypt. Her father Theon, a mathematician and the last librarian of the Museum at Alexandria, educated her in literature, science and philosophy, and gave her credit for writing some of his mathematical treatises. 
     Hypatia's prominence was accentuated by the fact that she was both female and pagan in an increasingly Christian environment. Shortly before her death, rumors blamed Hypatia for a conflict between her friend Orestes, a prefect, and Cyril, newly appointed Christian bishop of Alexandria. In the spring of 415 C.E., it is said that a band of Christian monks seized Hypatia on the street, beat her, and dragged her body to a church where they mutilated her flesh with sharp tiles and burned her remains.  "Shells" by Anne Harding Woodworth offers a window onto this tragedy.

     Shells     by Anne Harding Woodworth

     It’s in the tissue, not color so much
     as the loose mesh of my skin and the way it falls
     floorward like window drapery,
     keeps on distancing from the source,
     overlaps itself like rain off a roof.
     And so a person stays inside.

               They peeled sixty-year-old Ypatia,*
               keeper of shapes and form,
               with oyster shells.
               What had she done to incite them
               to skinning her alive
               to slashing the nerve-cell endings
               in her fingers and arms,
               up over her shoulders, neck, her breasts
               and hips still wide, her still-long legs trimmed raw?
               Paring doesn’t find answers.

     With room at last to move around,
     my fingers are learning how to warm, to yearn, to climb,
     seek, hold, rub, pry, count, point,
     to delve and cup a wave.

              Yet oyster shells—
              how they can rip away at an outline
              at any moment.

        *Ypatia (author of treatises on geometry and algebra, Alexandria, 355-415 CE)

     "Shells" is found in Woodworth's collection, The Mushroom Papers, (Northwoods Press, 2002).

     Was Hypatia the first math martyr? Was she killed because she was a woman who refused to stay behind the scenes?

1 comment:

  1. The poem is sad, but quite scary. I am not sure what is my feeling right now, because there are many things that I don't understand.
    The most confusing part, to me is the first paragraph. It talks about shells in a way like a metaphor for thing that killed Hypatia. I noticed that in the second paragraph Hypata was a shell oyster, maybe that is why the author use that image. Many actions about the position of those shells are described here: falls, floorward, distancing, overlap, inside. Those describing are creepy, because in some extent I feel like that killing thing falls everywhere on the body, inside around outside. This may present the horrific death of Hypata.
    The second paragraph is the describe of what people did to Hypata. Many terrible actions are described here: skinning alive, slashing nerve endings, trimmed. The story really show how horrible and stereotyped ancient people to innovative and innocent people, especially female and pagan. The whole paragraph 2 is a question, and the last sentence is a short answer. "Paring doesn't find answers", that is what it said. It is like an accuse to those people who dare killed such a person.
    The third paragraph is a link to the author's opinion and feeling. The way she describes her fingers' actions, with many action verbs like the second paragraph, somehow is linked to the death of that woman. Maybe she wants to tell that she has more fortunate than Hypata to do many things that Hypata could not do. However, the last paragraph, she express her regret and madness toward the people who killed Hypata, a innovative woman, because of simple reason, stereotype.