Science, Now + Beyond

6 stellar women who mapped the universe as we know it

These women show us that the lowest thing we should reach for is the stars.

Women have always been significant members in science, despite history’s constant erasure of their contributions. Women in astronomy, in particular, are almost unheard of in ancient times. They were even looked down upon by the medieval Christian Church, as well as Aristotle, who famously thought females were nothing more than deformed males. These women, and many others, render these notions incredibly stupid. And they prove that nothing can keep women from excelling at science other than their own choice.

In their times, the only things they were expected to reach for were pans and pots high up in kitchen cupboards. Now, they show us that the lowest thing you should reach for is the stars.

Here are six women who first mapped the stars as we know them.

1. En’Hedu’anna (Mesopotamia — ca. 2285-2250 BCE)

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En’ Hedu’anna was the chief astronomer-priestess and head of the great temple complex, Ziggurat of Ur during Mesopotamia’s Sumer civilization, now modern Iraq. Her real name remains unknown, but her name “Hedu’anna” means “ornament of the moon”, and ‘En’ was her title of leadership. She studied the stars and traced the moon cycles which also meant that she was in control of all activities centered around the liturgical year, such as agriculture. Her works contributed to the development of modern liturgical calendars which, to this day, help us date Easter, Passover and Ramadan. En’hedu’anna was a woman of diverse talent and great power. She was officially the Priestess of the Moon and a great poet who spread her astronomy related ideas through her beautifully written hymns.  She described her work in one of her poems saying:

“The true woman who possesses exceeding wisdom,

She consults a tablet of lapis lazuli

She gives advice to all lands…

She measures off the heavens,

She places the measuring-cords on the earth.   “

2. Theano ( Greece — ca. 600 BCE)

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Like many influential people in antiquity, Theano was not just a cosmologist. She was a philosopher with many contributions to philosophy, and an excellent healer who formulated a number of medial concepts taken up by physiologists in later centuries. She proposed the theory of the human body as a microcosm copy of the macrocosm, which was also adopted in the Middle ages by the Abbess Hildegard of Bingen, coming later in this list. Being the most famous cosmologist in the Pythagorean school, Theano’s described a universe built through numbers and simple proportions according to the perceptions of Pythagorean philosophy in two of her books: “Cosmology” and “Construction of the Universe”.

3. Aglaonike (Greece — BCE)

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Historians are not certain when she lived. Some have said the 1st, 2nd, or even 5th century BCE; others said more precisely around 200 BCE. She was born and lived in Thessaly, Greece where women at her time did not enjoy the same educational rights as men. Nevertheless, Aglaonike pursued her interest in studying Babylnoian astronomy mastering the art of predicting Lunar and Sun eclipses and determining their exact times and locations. Some referred to her as a sorceress and called her “The Witch of Thessaly” who would make the moon disappear on will.

4. Hypatia ( Egypt & Greece —ca. 370 – 415 CE)

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Hypatia was an Egyptian born Greek philosopher, mathematician and astronomer. She constructed tables for the movements of planets and stars based on the Ptolemaic model and developed numerous instruments, one of which was a plane astrolabe for measuring the positions of the sun, stars and planets. Hypatia was head of the Neoplatonist school in Alexandria where she lectured hundreds of Christian and pagan students on the doctrines of Plato and Aristotle. As a supporter of the separation between knowledge and religion, Hypatia was murdered by a group of Christian fanatics linked to the Patriarch of Alexandria Bishop Cyril in 415 CE.

5.  Hildegard of Bingen (ca. 1136 CE)

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Although Medieval universities were closed for women, they still had a shot in the context of convents and abbeys. Hildegard was a nun-scientist who had her own version of cosmology; a mixture of Ptolemaic teachings and her proprietary methods inspired by her mystic dreams. Hildegard’s universe was about concentric spheres and the “terrestrial sphere” that’s composed of the four elements of life earth, air, fire and water. She started seeing cosmic visions at the age of three and started writing them down at the age of 42 upon a vision she believed to be instruction from God. Her documentation of the visions eventually produced her book entitled Scivias (know The Way), in which she described her struggles saying  “But I, though I saw and heard these things, refused to write for a long time through doubt and bad opinion and the diversity of human words, not with stubbornness but in the exercise of humility, until, laid low by the scourge of God, I fell upon a bed of sickness…And I spoke and wrote these things not by the invention of my heart or that of any other person, but as by the secret mysteries of God I heard and received them in the heavenly places.”

6- Mariam Al-Ijliya (Syria ca. 10th Century)

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Also known as Mariam Al-Astrolabiyya, Mariam  was a famous astronomer known for her innovative astrolabe designs and constructions. She lived in 10th century Aleppo, Syria where she made these global positioning instruments and kind of antiquity smart phones used for telling the time and navigation by finding location by latitude and longitude. They were also used in the fields of astronomy, astrology and horoscopes by determining the position of the sun and planets. Mariam was employed at the court of Sayf al-Dawlah (944-967 CE), one of the powerful Hamdanid rulers in northern Syria who guarded the frontier with the Byzantine empire.