Is St Catherine of Alexandria a Fictional Person Based on Hypatia of Alexandria?
Saint Catherine of Alexandria, also known as The Great Martyr Saint Catherine, is one of the most important saints of the Middle East. Tradition says that she was a virgin who was martyred at the beginning of the 4th century at the hands of Maxentius, a pagan Roman emperor. According to historiography, she was a princess or a noblewoman and a noted scholar.
Saint Catherine is said to have converted to Christianity when she was about 14 years old. Her new religion inspired her to convert as many people as possible. She was apparently killed when she was about 18 years old. Christian resources claim that she paid for her love of the religion with her death. French bishops said that Joan of Arc identified Saint Catherine as her inspiration.
Catherine’s feast day is on November 24 or 25 in the Eastern Orthodox Church. Her day was also once an important day for the Catholic Church, but it didn't survive the test of time. Shortly after some historians started to suggest the connection between Catherine and Hypatia, the Catholic Church removed the feast day of Catherine from the General Roman Calendar. In 2002 her feast day was restored to the calendar but nowadays it's an optional celebration.
Hypatia of Alexandria was born c. 350 AD as a daughter of the famous mathematician Theon Alexandricus (c. 335 – 405 AD). The name of her mother is unknown. Hypatia grew up amongst the wisest men of her time and she was sent to school in Athens, where she could experience all the wisdom of ancient times.
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Around 400 AD she became the head of the school of Plato in Alexandria. She was fascinated with the knowledge which came from Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. Her passion and charisma attracted people of all religions to listen to her. Among her students were pagans, Christians, and many foreigners who traveled thousands of kilometers to listen to her. Hypatia allowed everybody who had a willingness to listen to enter her school. History doesn't say anything about her love life, and it seems that she decided to sacrifice her romantic life for great ideas and serving people.
Portrait of Hypatia. (Public Domain)
A follower of Hypatia, Socrates Scholasticus, wrote about her in his book Ecclesiastical History:
“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. On account of the self-possession and ease of manner which she had acquired in consequence of the cultivation of her mind, she not infrequently appeared in public in the presence of the magistrates. Neither did she feel abashed in going to an assembly of men. For all men on account of her extraordinary dignity and virtue admired her the more.”
Hypatia was also a philanthropist, she wanted to help everybody in need that she could. The personality and biography of Hypatia could have been a perfect base for making her an early Christian saint - but she was a pagan.
Her popularity in Alexandria was a strong contender against the newly growing religion. Her most powerful enemies became the governor of the city Orestes and the Bishop of Alexandria. The Christians started to call her a witch and asked people to beware Hypatia, saying she collaborated with the devil. Similar to Saint Catherine, she was martyred because of the things she believed in.
"Death of the philosopher Hypatia, in Alexandria" from Vies des savants illustres, depuis l'antiquité jusqu'au dix-neuvième siècle, 1866, by Louis Figuier. (Public Domain)
A few centuries after her death, the Egyptian Coptic bishop, John of Nikiu, identified her in the 7th century AD as a Hellenistic magician who beguiled many people through her ''Satanic wiles''. Nonetheless, even the attempts of the Christian priests didn't destroy her as a symbol of virtue. Hypatia remained an important symbol of her city. In tradition, she appears as a virgin scientist, fully focused on great ideas, research, and science.
Mental Twins or the Same Woman?
Hypatia, at the moment of death, was much older than Catherine. However, the two stories of the women have many similarities. These uncanny resemblances in their lives led scientists to wonder if the two stories were connected with each other. When Hypatia was murdered, people were angry. Not only pagans, but all the community of Alexandria. She was a very popular person in the city and around. She began to be worshiped almost as a goddess, and with that she became a nightmare for the Catholic Church.
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In the opinion of the bishops, people needed a similar person to Hypatia, but as a good Christian girl. At the same time Catherine appeared in writings by the Christian historians. There is no archaeological evidence for the life of Catherine. She appears only in inspired religious texts or in books related to the Christian religion. Perhaps the first time when the legend of St Catherine was recorded was about a century after the murder of Hypatia.
St Catherine of Alexandria. (Public Domain)
Catherine was very similar to Hypatia with her views on teaching, charisma, having a good heart and position in society. She didn't have her own school, but she is said to have taught people exactly like Hypatia did. The descriptions of her popularity and importance to the society in Alexandria sound the same as in the biography of Hypatia. She was portrayed as a person who was important for the Christian people and a very influential person in the Christian world.
A painting of Saint Catherine of Alexandria by Juan Correa. (Public Domain)
If Christianity really copied the life of Hypatia and transformed her into Catherine, it wouldn't be anything new. Nowadays, in many churches one may find ancient pagan symbols and people, changed into Christian saints, or the signs which are memories of the first known civilizations taken by Christians as theirs. It wouldn't be a surprise if one of the ancient Christian saints was based on Hypatia of Alexandria.
M. Dzielska, Hypatia z Aleksandrii, 1996
M. Alic, Hypatia's Heritage: A History of Women in Science from Antiquity through the Nineteenth Century, 1986
P. J. Teruel, Filosofía y Ciencia en Hipatia, 2011
U. Molinaro, A Christian Martyr in Reverse: Hypatia, 1990