Thursday, May 28, 2009

General Addenda

Hypatia: The Mythmaking Continues

Thanks to those who appreciated my article on Hypatia and the new movie Agora (below). The premiere of the film at Cannes got quite a bit of coverage, most of which dutifully parroted the film-maker's distortions of history, some of which decided to declare Hypatia "an atheist" and a bit of which added some tantilising details:

There is also no question as to what side the filmmakers are on. The Christians in "Agora" are more preoccupied with slaughtering than spirituality and the only truly principled character is Hypatia the atheist, who may have come close to proving that the Earth revolves around the sun 1,200 years before Johannes Kepler. She is the only one who never sacrifices her unwavering "faith," in reason and intellectual freedom, for personal gain.
(Film Review: Agora by Natasha Senjanovic,

At first I thought that snippet about Hypatia discovering heliocentrism might have been a fevered addition of the journalist's, but on reading some other synopses of the film it seems that the movie depicts her being murdered by the dreadful, Dark Age-inducing fundies just as she's on the brink of "a major discovery". Guess which one. I suppose that's one way to really rub in the whole "Dark Age that set human progress back by over 1000 years" thing, with the help of a truck load of "poetic licence" (also known as "making shit up").

And even the pre-release publicity is already working its magic on people's grasp of the history. Over at they have not only swallowed the stuff about her being an atheist hook, line and sinker but have also begun to absorb other bits of the film and present them as real history:

Hypatia was a little-known but brilliant woman — a mathematician, astronomer, philosopher, librarian… and atheist. When Christians tried to take over Alexandria, it was Hypatia who saved a number of rare books from their destructive hands. The Christian mob later labeled her a witch, stripped her, and set her on fire. She’s a hero and martyr for atheists if ever there was one.
(Rachel Weisz to Play Atheist in New Movie)

There's at least five errors of historical fact in those two sentences, not least of which is the cute bit about how Hypatia "saved a number of rare books from their destructive hands " - a detail that appears nowhere in any historical source and which seems to have been gleaned from, you guessed it, the trailer for the movie.

At the other end of the spectrum, it seems neo-pagans are also claiming Hypatia as their own. That has a bit more credibility than claiming she was an atheist, but they are also claiming her as a martyr for paganism, which is about as ahistorical:

[Agora], more than any other recent film set during the classical period, will be closely watched by modern Pagans (especially Hellenic reconstructionists). Many of whom consider Hypatia to be one of the primary martyrs of pre-Christian pagan religion.
(Hypatia Comes to the Screen, The Wild Hunt)

And the faithful are getting the message, judging by comments on another article about the movie on the same blog:

May the Queen of the Underworld continue to heap blessings upon the brave and beautiful Hypatia. May the injustice that took her from this world- and the monstrous spiritual imperialism which still exists, and which destroyed the progress of humankind- be taken swiftly away by the hand of Fate and given its just desserts ....

The thing about this story is you can't whitewash what happened to this Great Lady at the hands of Christians, because even the Christian telling of her martyrdom is gruesome and damning. Christian feather-ruffling by the naked truth is something that is too rarely done these days.

I'm beginning to wonder who is going to claim Hypatia as their own next. UFOlogists? Scientologists? Mormons?

New Arrivals

Thanks to the wonders of the internet and the global economy, my copy of Dan Jones' Summer of Blood: The Peasants' Revolt of 1381 arrived on my desk yesterday, less than week after ordering. Jones is a postgrad Medieval historian and journalist on a mission to revive interest in what he regards as a shamefully neglected period of history. The Uprising of 1381 is certainly a good place to start and if the glowing recommendation of David Starkey is anything to go by ("Bold. Surprising. Unputdownable"), it will be a good book to have by the fire with a glass of red at my weekend trip to the Blue Mountains in a couple of weeks. And yes, of course I'll be reviewing it here. Jones and his publishers are billing it as "the first full popular account (of the Revolt) in a century", which makes me wonder if Alastair Dunn's The Peasants' Revolt: England's Failed Revolution of 1381 or Mark O'Brien's When Adam Delved and Eve Span: A History of the Peasants' Revolt of 1381 weren't "full" enough or simply weren't "popular", since both were published only five years ago. Still, another book on the subject isn't going to go astray.


Given my recent reviews of James O'Donnell's The Ruin of the Roman Empire and Chris Wickham's The Inheritance of Rome: Illuminating the Dark Ages, 400-1000, I think I will have to add Adrian Goldsworthy How Rome Fell: Death of a Superpower and Tom Holland Millennium: the End of the World and the Forging of Christendom to my review wishlist. Both Goldsworthy and O'Donnell cover similar ground; as do Holland and Wickham. It's great to see that, after years of neglect, there's a veritable plethora of accessible and scholarly books on the end of the Empire and the first half of the Middle Ages. Wickham has also recently reviewed Holland's book for History Today in an interesting article entitled "In the Medieval Moment", where he makes some judicious criticisms.


Humphrey said...

Here is a nice synopsis of the film:

The story starts in 369AD as tensions in the city market area (“agora”) between polytheistic Pagans and Jesus-worshipping Christians have reached new highs. The director of the library Theon (Lonsdale) is hoping to hand over control to his daughter Hypatia, but the religious leaders of the city are reluctant to let a woman take over in such a volatile religious climate.

Indeed it is the religious leaders who incite an attack on the Christians as they gather in the agora to hurl abuse at the pagan gods. The massacre leaves many Christians dead but the pagans underestimate the Christian numbers, they are overcome and barricade themselves into the library compound.

Hypatia is among those trapped inside with her pupil Orestes (Isaac) and slave Davus (Minghella) both of whom are in love with her. But the three are torn apart when the openly Christian Roman emperor Valentinian decrees that the pagans must surrender the Library to the Christians, who proceed to sack it. Davus, who has been inspired by the tenets of Christianity, stays behind with the Christians, leaving Hypatia and Orestes to flee.

If this were 1951, Amenabar could have inserted an intermission at this point in the story since he then moves the plot forward several years. Orestes is now the prefect of the region and a Christian convert, Hypatia lives in Alexandria unhampered in her astronomical research and Davus has joined the Christian city militia the Parabolani.

But more trouble is ahead. Under the tyrannical leadership of the bishop Cyril (Sammy Samir), the Christians start to wage war on the Jewish population of Alexandria, stoning them during a music performance on the Sabbath and launching a full-scale massacre after the Jews retaliate.

Meanwhile Hypatia, who is close to making a breakthrough in her theories about the universe, is the next target for the Christians as Cyril has her declared unclean and a sorceress, causing the Prefect and the Parabalanus to choose between their church and the woman they love.

Endre said...

Your blog has landed in my regular bookmarks, Tim. Good stuff, as always.

History has sadly always been distorted (or "creatively interpreted") by people for own their ideological ends, but I do wonder when - if ever - myths such as the one this movie is perpetrating are going to let slip. In this case, it is particulary sad (in relation to the atheist website you linked to) because if the offended party is supposed to be reason and science, it would really be more helpful if reason ands science was actually applied and consulted by the filmmakers themselves.

Not being a believer myself, but like you not having a particulary aggressive attitude toward religion either, I lament the sheer stupidity of people who attempt to attack "unreason" with what is, essentially, another form of unreason.

Anonymous said...

I thought you were going to be reviewing The Closing of the Western Mind

Tim O'Neill said...

"I thought you were going to be reviewing The Closing of the Western Mind"

I am.

Bill said...

Hi Tim,

I've only just discovered your blog, after having been led here by a debate about the Hypatia movie elsewhere.

The debate about that movie aside, though, I'm curious to know what your thoughts are in general about historical inaccuracy in film and literature. Demanding 100% accuracy is, I think, too much to ask, and would really just stifle creativity. Very few historical films would EVER get made if filmmakers were prohibited from taking liberties.

So I wonder how you define an acceptable level of historical inaccuracy? What things are okay to change or make up, and what things aren't?

Just curious what your thoughts are.

Tim O'Neill said...


As someone who does some historical and "historicalish" (eg alternative history) fiction writing myself, this is something I've given a lot of thought. As it happens, I'm pretty tolerant of people using some poetic license or even changing things substantially, so long as they make it clear that they are not claiming accuracy.

The HBO series Rome took real events and historical people and created a highly fictionalised story set in the fall of the Roman Republic. As entertainment it was great. As history it varied from wrong to nonsense. But they never claimed it was accurate.

Compare that to total garbage, like Braveheart or The Patriot where the makers mangled history and then had the gall to claim it was accurate. So when Amenabar makes statements about Hypatia being an "atheist" or claims she witnessed the burning of the Great Library by a Christian mob and says this stuff is significant because it's historical, he deserves to be held accountable for propagating nonsense.

Javier Chacón said...

"who may have come close to proving that the Earth revolves around the sun 1,200 years before Johannes Kepler"

That's not true. What the movie suggest (it's just a macguffin of course) was not discovering Heliocentrism, first, because in the movie they have an argument much first than that and lots of theories appear from the past, one of them of course, Aristarchus' one. In the movie some believe that, others are geocentric, and some (of course, less educated ones) even think Earth is flat (but well, still today some colectives think that and people that have no studies). Anyway, that's not the real point of the Hypathia's discover.

In the movie they try to make Hypatia obssesed with the idea that planets can only move in a circle orbit, as she thinks they move in the most perfect way. At some point, she has to refuse that belief, as she find out that it could be really eliptical (this is an alegory of something fundamentalism doesn't do, refuse previous beliefs when reason show anything else). But anyway, she has no time to really prove it, just to suggest the hipothesis that could explain much better the move of heavenly bodies that those before.

I wouldn't belief much of the things people say about the science in the movie anyway, most people still think the library destroyed is the one of Alejandría, when the movie don't say that in any moment. And that heliocentristic thing is written but someone that absolutely missed the circle/eliptic thing (he might had his eyes closed, because it's impossible to miss), as well as the fact I commented in the other post that she is not killed by her discoveries or love to science, but just being a woman that has influences in Orestes, something I guess everyone should have clear when Cyril reads a passage of the Bible where they talk about women and the position they have to be. The fact was that Orestes was very close to a woman and not christian they said was fooling him, and that was used to suggest Cyril that maybe Orestes was not a real christian, something Orestes couldn't allow so he couldn't even try to save Hypathia, as his own ¿honor? was in doubt.

I'm not saying this movie is perfectly acurate, of course, but I would prefer people to talk about real mistakes instead of creating them from nothing.

I've read much better critics to the historical facts than those you read (I'm not saying it's your fault as surely you didn't even have the chance to watch that movie), the sources you're using are quite horrible. I would suggest you some others, but are in Spanish and very fragmented in several critics.

Javier Chacón said...

I've just read your previous comment and I have a doubt.

Of course, as long as they don't claim to be accurate, it's ok. But... what things could you consider ok when they claim it? As it's impossible to make something perfectly accurate, and every book/movie that tries to make narrative from history or any other real life event has to add and modify things... that's the real point of the question "what would you allow?", isn't it?

By the way, as long as I remember, Hypathia appears as pagan the whole movie, at least, I don't remember her claiming to be "atheist", just "not to interested in gods things" and oficially pagan. I do remember Amenábar saying atheist in interviews, but not in the movie itself.

Philipp said...

The attempt to whitewash Amenábar's blatantly agenda-driven film by pointing out that Hypatia is portrayed as being after elliptical planetary orbits rather than heliocentrism seems rather pointless to me.

To begin with, I find it hard to conceive what sense elliptical orbits would make within the non-heliocentric, Ptolemaic model, which Hypatia, as a daughter of Theon (Ptolemy's foremost "proliferator") and presumed commentator on (parts of) the Almagest, doubtlessly adhered to.
Clearly, the writer/director was not interested in a correct portrayal of the astronomical state of play in late antiquity (when Aristarch, for all we know, was dead as a doornail), but in passing off Hypatia as a proto-Kepler and a proto-Galilei (witness the scene where she anachronistically performs a Galilean "ship mast" experiment). The audience is supposed to 1) marvel at how close this women supposedly came to the discoveries of early modern astronomers and 2) became enraged about the destructive effects of "Christian fundamentalism" which, in Amenábar's crude worldview, is to be blamed for mankind's failure to live on Mars by now (or something to the effect).

As someone who's trying to pursue a career in the history of science, I am grateful to Tim O'Neill for having the patience to speak out (in such a well-informed and thoughtful manner) against popular distortions of history of this kind. As some comments even on his blog go to show, it is extremely difficult to change popular conceptions about these things, seeing how they are continuously fed disinformation by writers and directors with an axe to grind, such as Amenábar and the man who wrote this garbage: