I have just finished reading this book - much too soon! Like its subject, the mathematician, astronomer and philosopher Hypatia of Alexandria, it beguiles at first with its brilliance and high drama, then demands the attention of the mind, the understanding of the heart, and finally, it touches the soul, with mingled pain and discovery, and the glimpse of something precious - a vision of gnosis, if not its experience. Longfellow's characterization is in the heroic rather than realistic style - all her characters are larger than life, higher, lower, etched like Egyptian tomb drawings (for the "higher") and newspaper caricatures (for the "lower"), and hits with as much impact. She weaves together public and private history, the dying years of an extraordinary civilization, city and woman; and the intellectual, emotional and spiritual struggles that all who lived through that time went through. Above all, she recreates - part imagination, part spiritual understanding, part historical reconstruction - the intimate path to Light of a woman who rose to be a public figure more feted than some of the greatest men of her time, friend to exceptional minds, Christian, Jew and Pagan, during a period when tolerance died and a single, overwhelming, fanatical version of a single belief system arose and plunged the Mediterranean world in darkness for centuries.
The parallels with our own century, when questioning and intelligence are so widely devalued and opposed with powerful and violent stupidity (not least by the Catholic Church, who want to stop people from seeing a recent film of Hypatia's life and death, Agora), are not a coincidence. But for all that, the culmination of the novel is not a rant or a lament, but Hypatia's gnosis, a mirror of Innana's descent and rebirth. Though Hypatia's ending is well known - tragically better than her works and life - in coming after such a stellar experience as her personal discovery of the divine, it seems to concern more the world she loved, and which was dying with her, than Hypatia herself: the ultimate symbol of the victory of fanaticism over intelligence, compassion or even good sense. Hypatia herself died a free and accomplished woman.