Flow Down Like Silver

Read:   2012

Author:  Ki Longfellow

Published:  2009

Genre:  Historical Fiction

Pages:  301 (paperback)

Selected By:  Elle Tea

Elle’s Score:  Scoring Great Book

“From the dawn of history, countless women have marked their times in extraordinary ways.  Women have been warriors, pharaohs, popes, queens and kings, philosophers, poets, mathematicians, composers, painters, writers, revolutionaries, and ‘witches.’ 

“But there was only one Hypatia.

“As the Roman Empire fights for its life and emerging Christianity fights for our souls, Hypatia is the last great voice of reason.  A woman of sublime intelligence, Hypatia ranks above not only all women, but all men.  She dazzled the world with her brilliance, was courted by men of every persuasion, and was considered the leading philosopher and mathematician of her age – yet mathematics, her inventions, the story of her life in all its epic and dramatic intensity has gone untold for over 17 centuries.  A heart-breaking story, an heroic struggle against intolerance, a tragedy and a triumph, Hypatia walks these pages fully realized, while all around her Egypt’s Alexandria, the New York City of its day, strives to remain a beacon of life in a darkening world.”  – adapted from the Amazon and Goodreads summaries.

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Elle’s Review

This was a beautiful tribute to the world’s first notable female philosopher, astronomer, and mathematician.  Tragically, much of her story (save her violent and senseless death) has been lost – “lost” being the age-old code for attempting to utterly erase from the annals of history all information regarding this educated, “godless” woman.

“Reserve your right to think, for even to think wrongly is better than not to think at all.”

Ki Longfellow has done a wonderful job of weaving together a beautiful tale that focuses on one woman’s personal discovery – of herself, and of the divine.  The fall of Hypatia is the fall of a world, of a way of thinking – it is the death of intelligence beneath the blade of fanaticism, the end of compassion in the flames of ignorance.  In reading Flow Down Like Silver, I was disconcertingly aware of the parallels that can be made within our own time, when knowledge and logic are so broadly – and even violently – opposed by those who are woefully uninformed and blindly happy to continue being so.

“Fables should be taught as fables, myths as myths, and miracles as poetic fantasies.  To teach superstitions as truth is a most terrible thing; the child mind accepts and believes them, and only through great pain and perhaps tragedy can he be in after years relieved of them.”

My only reservation about giving this novel five cups is in the fact that Longfellow puts so much focus on Hypatia the Woman that the very things for which Hypatia laid down her life – the right to believe as she wished, her philosophies, astronomy, and mathematics – are left in the margins, footnotes to a life of learning, love, and loss.  I can be very sentimental about history and historical figures, but I personally think that anyone who believes fiercely enough in any cause that they are willing to fight and die for it would probably prefer for that cause to be the focus of any reference made to them in the future.  Thus, it’s my opinion that Hypatia herself would have rather had additional emphasis placed on her achievements, her contributions in those fields typically reserved for men, rather than the addition of a fictional love interest.  The real Hypatia no doubt did feel strongly for someone in her life at some point – she was human and lived at least into her forties, after all – but she also remained unmarried and celibate; since she herself held her philosophy above romance, I would have preferred if at least some of that side story had been replaced with more of Hypatia in her element (the movie Agora achieved this quite well but then opted to lessen the horror of her death with a fictional act of mercy).  But, as I said, this is a small complaint; it is a lovely book, written by an author who obviously cares for and deeply admires her subject and who has the rare gift of being able to give us flesh and blood where historical evidence provides only bones.

“In fact, men will fight for a superstition as quickly as for a living truth – often more so, since a superstition is so intangible you cannot get at it to refute it, but truth is a point of view, and so is changeable.”

If you are Christian and have avoided this novel because of rumors pertaining to its anti-Christian undertone, then let me be the first to tell you that you’re making a huge mistake: this book gives us a desperate and much-needed lesson in tolerance and cautions us only on what we lose when we permit our own biases, hatred, intolerance, ignorance, and fanaticism to overrule our common sense.  We cannot change the fact that the men who were responsible for Hypatia’s torture and death were Christian any more than we can change the fact that it was the Christian Emperor Theodosius I who ordered the destruction of Alexandria’s temples and Great Library; it is not the fact that they were Christian that is the issue – it is that they, like many other fanatics (regardless of which god they follow or which time period they live in) have used their religion as a means to eradicate utterly that which they have failed to comprehend or which contrasts with their own opinions and beliefs.  The only way I can see that this novel might be offensive to a Christian is if that Christian finds it easy to relate to and sympathize with the sort of people who commit the atrocities referenced in this novel.  As the Greek historian Socrates Scholasticus, himself a Christian, stated rather mildly when recalling the brutality with which Hypatia was treated (which included not only dragging her through the streets and stripping her naked, but ripping the flesh from her body with tiles, beating her to death with said tiles, then tearing her body apart and burning the limbs):

Surely nothing can be farther from the spirit of Christianity than the allowance of massacres, fights, and other such transactions.”

As the tragic demise of Hypatia herself attests, the violent opposition of any idea or opinion – no matter how much we disagree – is a practice that should terrify the hell out of all of us.

Elle read the Amazon Kindle version of this book.

* All quotes have been attributed to the historical, real, flesh-and-blood Hypatia.  I’m a bit of a fan of hers, obviously.  

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