Saturday, 2 May 2015

Victoria Leonard: Bleeding Women and Gender Construction in the Ancient World: Hypatia of Alexandria

A famous reference to menstruation is found within the biography of Hypatia of Alexandria, the philosopher and mathematician who lived in the early fifth century AD. In response to an amorous student, Hypatia is supposed to have displayed her underwear stained with menstrual blood, remarking ‘This is what you are in love with, young man, and not a thing of beauty'. Hypatia is depicted by ancient writers as idealised and flawless, the epitome of erudite femininity: she is beautiful but modest, wise and respected, and an abstemious virgin. However the romanticisation of Hypatia, shaped significantly by the hindsight knowledge of her brutal murder, is too absolute; the lines between fantasy and reality are blurred in the construction of a female paradigm. Hypatia is ultimately weak, demonstrated by her self-deprecating exhibition of menstrual blood, and is doomed to die horribly. This tragic and erotic narrative has gripped ancient and modern minds alike, reflected in Charles Kingsley's novel Hypatia (1853) and the pre-Raphaelite production of highly sexualised images of Hypatia. Hypatia was an important figure in the ancient world and has become a feminist role model of sorts, but modern critical thought has not acknowledged, challenged or deconstructed the trend established by ancient writers which views Hypatia through the distorting patriarchal lens where the female, when represented at all, is tragic and ill-fated. This paper intends to contribute a more critical feminist reading to the representation of Hypatia in the ancient textual sources and her subsequent reception in modern culture.

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