Thursday, November 16, 2017

Of Numbers and Stars by D. Anne Love

Of Numbers and Stars is a picture book about a famous Greek mathematician who lived over 1500 years ago in Alexandra, Greece. Hypatia was the daughter of Theon, a professor of mathematics at the University of Alexandria. Alexandria was considered the center of learning at this time and Theon chose a different path for his daughter. At a time when Greek women were schooled in the arts of the domestic home, she was allowed to study and eventually became an academic at the university. She became a highly respected thinker who delved into science, philosophy and mathematics. 

Hypatia's death is a source of great controversy today. Many books, including unfortunately the Author's Note at the back of Of Numbers and Stars, claim that, St. Cyril, the bishop of Alexandria, urged a mob to attack and murder Hypatia. Unfortunately, many historical events are often interpreted with a very anti-Catholic bias.

It is important to understand the political and social environment which existed in the 5th century in Alexandria. Alexandria was the center of learning at this time, with many important thinkers and a library at the University of Alexandria that was renowned throughout the known world for its large collection of books. At the time of Hypatia's death, Alexandria was a city embroiled in violence between the pagan, Jewish and Christian populations. The Jewish population in 430 A.D. Alexandria was very militant against Christians. The Jews in Alexandria had burned down Christian churches and were determined to persecute Christians and force them out of Egypt. Hypatia, along with the pagan population of Alexandria, sided with the Jews.  St.Cyril, bishop of Alexandria at this time was responsible for ensuring the safety and viability of the Christian church in Egypt.To that end, St. Cyril ordered the burning of the Jewish synagogues in an attempt to halt Jewish aggression. While today this would be considered a crime, in St. Cyril's time such actions were considered necessary to protect the Christian population.

Historical sources, specifically from Socrates, whose writings are considered reliable, indicate that Cyril did not instigate nor participate in the murder of Hypatia. Instead, Socrates states that Hypatia was murdered by a lector (reader) of the Christian church named Peter who led a mob to attack her. Socrates Scholasticus in his book, The Life of Hypatia writes, "Some of them, therefore, hurried away by a fierce and bigoted zeal, whose ringleader was a reader named Peter, waylaid her returning home, and dragging her from her carriage, they took her to the church called Caesareum, where they completely stripped her, and then murdered her with tiles. After tearing her body in pieces, they took her mangled limbs to a place called Cinaron, and there burnt them. This affair brought not the least opprobrium, not only upon Cyril, but also upon the whole Alexandrian church.

Of Numbers and Stars does not delve into this controversy but instead focuses on imagining Hypatia's early life and her work as a philosopher and mathematician. Sadly there are few primary sources to draw on regarding Hypatia's life but author D. Anne Love weaves a story to inspire young girls.  Love begins her story with a colourful map, locating Alexandria in relation to Egypt and the Mediterranean.  Fleshing out the text are the illustrations of Pam Paparone, rendered in acrylics. The artwork has a decidely classical look which meshes nicely with the story.

Book Details:

Of Numbers and Stars: The Story of Hypatia by D. Anne Love
New York: Holiday House       2006

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