Throwback Feminist Superhero: Hypatia

You might have heard about or seen the new Spanish-produced movie Agora if you happened to attend recent international film festivals such as Toronto or Cannes. It portrays the life and times of Hypatia, the most prominent woman philosopher of the ancient world known to us.

It is surprising and thrilling to find Hypatia committed to celluloid, particularly as she is frequently maligned and neglected by philosophy textbooks and classes. This film goes some way toward mitigating this unjustified and sexist skewing of the history of philosophy, as Hypatia is depicted as the influential and important intellectual she undoubtedly was.

Having lived from approximately 370 to 415 A.D. in Alexandria, Egypt, Hypatia followed in her father Theon’s footsteps as a mathematician and an astronomer. She quickly exceeded all expectations, however, and became a respected and admired teacher of science and philosophy. Students traveled from all over the world to study with her and she was purportedly paid by public funds, eventually heading the Neoplatonic School at Alexandria. (Hypatia’s school tended toward objective, scientific readings of Plato and Aristotle rather than the speculative readings of the Athenian School). There is some debate about whether Hypatia’s writings are lost, or whether they have become integrated, at least in part, into the works of other thinkers. If you want to find out more about this and other intriguing issues on Hypatia’s life and works, perhaps this can quench some of your curiosity.

To say that Hypatia’s achievements were unprecedented for a woman is putting it mildly. She was so highly esteemed that she thrived within the Christian Alexandrian regime despite being a pagan. Tensions between Jewish, Christian and pagan factions were rife at the time, and Hypatia’s influence must have been a thorn in many a side. One such side belonged to the bishop of Alexandria, Cyril, who came into conflict with the civil prefect, Orestes. Knowing that Orestes was advised by Hypatia, it is conjectured that Cyril played a direct role in Hypatia’s eventual murder, although whether it was he who gave a group of monks the order to viciously skin, quarter and burn her, is not known.

The movie certainly takes this line, with Cyril taking the lead as chief “bad guy,’ Orestes portrayed as a love-sick admirer and the fictional character of Davus serving as Hypatia’s slave. Having fallen in love with Hypatia (played  by Rachel Weisz), Davus tries to spare her  the real, brutal death for which she is usually remembered–but you’ll just have to see the ending for yourself.

And North Americans  might soon be able to do so, as Newmarket Films will be releasing the movie, already a box-office hit in Europe, on this side of the Atlantic. Although the movie liberally avails of dramatic license–Hypatia shows her menstrual rags to Orestes, rather than to an unknown admirer (as the story usually goes)–I would urge all to see this fascinating film by Alejandro Amenábar. It brings Hypatia and her world back to to life, thereby adding to feminist efforts to have women philosophers recognized as major figures of Western philosophical thought.

VIDEO: Agora trailer.


  1. Wow! Can’t wait to see this on in a theater near me. Thanks for the heads up.

  2. I really want to see this!

  3. I’d never even heard of Hypatia until now- I can’t believe how much history gets rewritten to suit a certain agenda. Looking forward to seeing it soon.

  4. It’s rare indeed to have an epic movie with a female lead and for that reason alone this film is to be applauded. Irrespective of the overall quality of the film ,although it does look good, the skewed version of Hollywood history that abounds will have at least one reference point for the role of woman in shaping societal thought and action. The dearth of stories that engage and excite in such a manner are a reflection of our unwillingness to have female heroines at the centre of films….apart from Mulan 🙂

    nice blog too.

  5. Sounds like a great story I hope Rachel Weisz does it justice!

  6. Interesting, I’ll be keen to see how her story is depicted by a director like Amenábar. Perhaps with the success of directors like Kathryn Bigelow this year more female directors will get to tell these kind of historical stories.

  7. I hadn’t heard about this film yet but after reading this article I would be interested to see it!

  8. Nice article, short and to the point, but also highly informative. I have a degree in Philosophy and I am ashamed to admit I was not aware of Hypatia until I read this article (for shame, I know!). However, her life and movie of it sound interesting so I think I’ll go and see it if I can.

  9. Really great movie! 😉

  10. Well done. A very interesting article, and I am looking forward to seeing the movie.

  11. @ Charlie: to see a rewrite of history pay attention to what is happening in Texas now regarding student text books and the response of book companies putting sales first – integrity a distant second.
    We have a modern philosopher who took all kinds of beatings from Boston University – a Jesuit college.
    Her name was Mary Daly. She just died recently. Her body of works is fantastic. Read them before they get burned out of print!

  12. @ Paula – let’s go together to see this movie…Love, Mom

  13. I was reading about this earlier, and she was pushing for her character to have more sexuality. That would have been interesting, I mean, men display sexuality, and sexual gestures in film. Anyways, here’s the link!

    Just an add on, I was going for, men are allowed to sexually pleasure themselves, not just attract a partner, or please the partner, in film.

  14. This is very interesting – like opening a cupboard in a newly found room in an attic and finding something that points towards the truth— excellent

  15. Mika Lumi says:

    what a great subject and introduction to it! however, i wish amenábar had given a less romantic image/story – and a more precise description of truth/beauty – of this much too much ignored intellectual, philosopher and lover of life as it is… as we know, many wo/men of a true intellect/passion often go alone and unnoticed, as it was the faith of hypatia later on, after the “hey days” of admiration and execution…

  16. This movie sounds great! I definitely want to see it!

  17. Carl Goodman says:

    It looks like a fascinating view on events from an unusual perspective; Rachel Weisz always turns in a creditable performance – even in the Mummy and the deeply flawed Constant Gardener! – and although it’s bound to be a ‘Hollywood History’ the fact that its been made at all is an encouraging sign. Great review Clara.

  18. Excellent introduction to what promises to be an exciting film. Thank you Ms. Fischer!

  19. Sound like a good movie, i love rachel weisz too!

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