International Women’s Day: Ancient Female Scientists

Pixabay

This last week was International Women’s Day, and I fully intended to get something up on the actual day, but, alas, I got caught up doing other things.

Typical me, I guess.

Anyway, I had two articles in mind: one reminded people that there’s still one woman (Tulsi Gabbard) left in the Democrat’s race, the other a commemoration of accomplished women in the ancient world.

Since politics has gotten dangerous lately, I decided to first do the article on women in the ancient world. I can do the other later if I finish my research, and the words “I” and “finish” are usually not found in the same sentence.

There are lots of books, articles, and movies about more recent accomplishments of women. Women like Harriet Tubman, Margaret Thatcher (if we count her…), Kate Warne, and many others. Their accomplishments shouldn’t be sneezed upon, but I feel that it’s important to remind ourselves of the names that have faded into obscurity. History is an interesting thing. It reminds us of how we are but drops in the ocean, most of us knowing that we will eventually fade, forgotten by history. How many people can name from one thousand years ago? Probably not many.

History can also be so fickle. When researching many of these names, I discovered a plethora of inconsistencies. History is prone to be written and rewritten time and time again. Was someone a monster or just misunderstood? Was so-and-so really a wonderful and victorious leader, or was he/she only considered such because of their contemporaries’ culture? It’s amazing how agendas can so readily taint a record, and we see it happening all around us all the time. The past is no different.

As such, it’s sometimes hard to track down all of these people and what they really accomplished. Nevertheless, I’ve done my best, and I hope you get something good out of this.

Enheduanna

Pixabay

Can you name the first female astronomer, or perhaps the first poet known by name? You probably couldn’t before reading this article, but now you can: Enheduanna, daughter of Sargon of Akkad, whom you may have heard of (not the annoying YouTube personality). She was the high priestess of the moon god Nanna in the Temple of Sumer. Despite this, she felt far more of a connection with Inanna, goddess of the moon, and wrote vast amounts of poetry dedicated to her, including her famous Exaltation of Inanna.

Enheduanna was known for quite a few things, her Sumerian Temple Hymns retaining their use and popularity long after her death.

  • Scholars believe her hymns and poetry were inspirational to the composers of the Hebrew Hymns of the Bible as well as the Homeric Hymns of Greece.
  • She melded the Sumerian gods with the Akkadian gods, most especially Inanna with Ishtar.
  • Wrote bluntly and with strong personal touch, allowing us to look at the lives of herself and her contemporaries.
  • Created the first recorded liturgy.

She was born some 4,300 years ago to King Sargon of Akkad, the man widely accredited with building the first civilization in Mesopotamia, though this has been disputed. She was placed as the head priestess, which was a very high office of the day, and evidence suggests that she managed the city of Ur’s temples for more than 35 years. She survived the reign (and overthrow) of her father, the rule of two brothers, and must’ve survived partially into the reign of a nephew.

One of her tasks was to syncretize the country’s various religious sects, of which there were many that eventually splintered off. How she did this was quite ingenious, composing 42 hymns dedicated to the individual temples of both Sumeria and Akkadia’s cities, facilitating their integration in worship. Each hymn honored a city temple, wherein a patron deity resided, and Enheduanna making the voyage to each and every temple to consecrate her hymns.

Her official responsibilities included attending deities, weaving, agriculture, and the care of animals. It also included overseeing seasonal rituals, as people of the day attributed all natural phenomena (the changing of seasons, rains, droughts, etc.) to divine and supernatural forces that must be appeased.

She also oversaw the temples, which provided a space for people to pray, worship, and provide sacrifices. These compounds employed thousands of people, all of whom would have been answerable to her.

Enheduanna herself was cast out during a rebellion during her brother, Rimush’s, reign, but she was later reinstated. She details her exile and prayers to Inanna, whom she credits with being reinstated, in her composition The Exaltation of Inanna.

Agnodike

Pixabay

We tend to have a tendency to believe that the further back you go, the more sexist and misogynistic the world becomes. That’s definitely true, especially according to the late Jack Holland’s book A Brief History of Misogyny: The World’s Oldest Prejudice, which lays a lot of Western sexism at the feet specifically at the Athenians. In fact, despite arguing that the Minoans may have had a period of matriarchy or that some early Neolithic peoples were matriarchal, most of history seems to be wrought with patriarchy, the female banished from the public sphere and relegated to the domestic. She was usually seen but not heard, sometimes kept as unseen and unheard as humanly possible.

However, ancient Egypt breaks this trend by being a bit more on the egalitarian side. Egyptians believed the feminine to be as sacred as the masculine, allowing women to study medicine, albeit separately from the men. An Egyptian woman wanting to become a physician may have to jump through a few more hoops than a man, but it was doable.

All of this leads me to the tale of Agnodike, a young Athenian woman who dreamed of becoming a physician, motivated (according to some sources) because the high numbers of women dying in childbirth. There was a huge stumbling block, though: it was illegal, and a woman caught studying medicine could be sentenced to death! That, my friends, is what we call “institutionalized misogyny”.

Anyway, Agnodike wasn’t about to let her dream die. Remember how Randy Pausch described “the brick wall” in his fantastic Last Lecture? Agnodike decided to get around it by moving to Egypt to study. Egyptian women could initiate divorce, own land, own businesses, and (gasp!) become physicians!

When she’d finished her studies at Alexandria, she returned to Athens to practice medicine in the guise of a man. Unfortunately, the men of Athens thought this new doctor was seducing women and tried to stop her, but when they discovered her true identity they realized that had way more dirt than they realized! Now they could bring her to trial for pretending to be a doctor and practicing medicine illegally.

Most of the time these stories have an unhappy ending, but not here! The women of Athens rallied to her defense, storming the proceedings. She was finally released and allowed to continue her practice. The laws were also changed, allowing women to practice medicine in Athens. Score one for ancient women’s lib! Now, why is Hollywood so reluctant to make movies about people from this time period? You can get away with making a lot of stuff up without history buffs calling you out and still be completely in line with what we know about these people and places.

Hypatia

Creative Commons

I’ll never pass up an opportunity to promote a movie that actually does center around one of these ancient inspirations, so allow me to introduce you to Hypatia of Alexandria. Hypatia was last director of the Mouseion, the university at Alexandria. She was a philosopher, mathematician, and astronomer whose life was tragically cut short whens she was murdered.

Hypatia was the daughter of mathematician and astronomer, Theon, likely born sometime between 350–370 AD. There is no record of who her mother was, unfortunately. She was a teacher as well, and also a devotee of Neoplatonism — a philosophy based on Plato’s work that sees all of creation as spawning from one supreme being. As far as philosophy, she, like most philosophers of her day, most commentated on previous works as opposed to setting out to reinvent the wheel. She primarily made works more accessible for her students, and perhaps acted as a sort of ghostwriter for her father.

She was extremely popular in her day, almost like a celebrity scientist of antiquity. Unfortunately, her popularity also brought on her downfall. It is believed that the bishop Cyril (canonized as a Saint for his assertion that God and Jesus were one and the same) became jealous of the influence she had over the city. Cyril was a contentious man in Alexandria, especially becoming disliked after he drove the Jewish population from the city.

Hypatia had more influence than him, and she backed his political rival, Orestes. According to the historian Damascius, he organized the Christian mob that would murder her. Riding home one day, the mob seized Hypatia and dragged her to a church. Using bits of pottery and roof tiles, they flayed her alive, cut off her limbs, and burned her to prevent a proper burial. To this day, she remains the only martyr for science.

In her lifetime, however, she was well-loved by most people. Many of her students were Christians who would go on to hold high positions within the Church. She also wrote Astronomical Tables, which attempted to calculate the movement of the heavens. Unfortunately, the heliocentric model hadn’t caught on yet, so she was mostly working within Ptolemy’s model, which held that the Earth was the center of the solar system.

There is a movie about her life, Agora, which is quite historically accurate for the time. There are some major deviations from what we know about her life, particularly the way it tames her murder, but comes highly recommended from me. If you want to see how historically accurate it is, see the video (there are spoilers!) below.

And for anyone who enjoys wearing philosophy out in public, I found a shirt during my research that will let you wear one of Hypatia’s most famous quotes. There were other shirts with other quotes, too, but this one was my favorite.

Guy Andersin spends his time writing, learning languages playing video games, creating games for PC and iPhone, binge watching movies and TV shows, and camping.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store