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Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Wise Women Throughout the Ages




For many female philosophers there is little textual evidence for their philosophical work. Hypatia and Theistoclea are examples. Much speculation surrounds them. Were they philosophers, prophets or priestesses?

They certainly were not priests in the sense that they offered blood sacrifices. The famous women of the Greek and Alexandrian temples did not. Rather, these were seers and "wise women." Diogenes calls Themistoclea a "priestess" while describing her as a philosopher.

Theistoclea was the Pythia of Apollo at the Delphi temple in the 6th century B.C. She was reputed to be wise in math, natural science, medicine and philosophy. She was one of Pythagoras' teachers. Diogenes stated that "Aristoxenus asserts that Pythagoras derived the greater part of his ethical doctrines from Themistoclea, the priestess at Delphi."

Themistoclea has a later parallel in Hypatia who was at the Temple of Serapis in Alexandria. The Church Father Tertullian wrote in AD 197 that the temple housed a great library which contained the Old Testament in Greek (Septuagint). Hypatia was the daughter of the famous mathematician Theon Alexandricus (AD 335-405). Like Themistoclea, she too was a mathematician as well as an astronomer and philosopher. 

Around AD 400, Hypatia became the head of the Platonist school at Alexandria. She imparted knowledge to people who came to Alexandria to study. One of her students, Synesius of Cyrene, became bishop of Ptolemais in AD 410. He was an exponent of the doctrine of the Holy Trinity.

In the Judeo-Christian tradition, women have been acknowledged as fountains of wisdom. Deborah served as judge over the people of Israel. Huldah of Jerusalem was consulted by the King's advisers. She is mentioned in 2 Kings 22:14–20 and 2 Chronicles 34:22–28. According to Jewish tradition, she was one of the "seven prophetesses", with Sarah, Miriam, Deborah, Hannah, Abigail, and Esther.

A Judean queen named Salome Alexandra ruled from 76-67 BC. She was one of two women to exercise sole rule over Judea. Archaeologists have uncovered her palace in Jericho. Salome is the only woman mentioned in the Dead Sea Scrolls. Some of the religious reforms that shaped second-Temple Judaism were implemented under her rule. Her reign is viewed as a golden age in the Talmud. Queen Salome Alexandra was so admired that generations of mothers named their daughters "Salome" in her honor.

Peter Adamson, Professor of Late Ancient and Arabic Philosophy at Ludwig Maximilians Universit├Ąt, has written an interesting piece about women philosophers in which he explores the role of wise women in the ancient world and in Christianity. Here is an excerpt:
The place of women in ancient philosophy looks rather different, though, if we turn our attention to late antiquity. Especially among Christian authors, we have texts by men that present women as full-blown philosophers, without implicitly tying these women to household tasks. 
The two best examples of this are Augustine, writing in Latin around the turn of the 5th century AD, and Gregory of Nyssa, writing in Greek a generation or two earlier. Both of them exalted female members of their immediate family for their wisdom. In Augustine’s case this was Monica, whose patient and pious influence helped bring him to Christianity, and who appears as an interlocutor in the philosophical dialogues that are among Augustine’s earliest works.
But it is Gregory of Nyssa who gives us the most remarkable yet little-known portrayal of a female philosopher from all of Greek and Roman antiquity.


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