Women in Astronomy: Philosophers and Priestesses

Nuwanthika Fernando is an astronomy guide at Sydney Observatory. She recently completed her PhD at the University of Sydney studying the dynamics of satellite galaxy planes. To celebrate International Women’s Day in 2018 Nuwanthika looks at early female philosophers and priestesses.

‘She measures off the heavens, She places the measuring-cords on the Earth.’ – poems of En Hedu’anna

The interest of humans in the sky crosses the boundaries of time and civilisation, and makes astronomy one of the oldest fields of science. Just as the history of astronomy extends through thousands of years, so does the history of women in astronomy. However, these women may not have been called ‘scientists’ or ‘astronomers’ throughout the ages. Today’s post will explore the some of the titles given to the earliest women in record who studied the celestial bodies.

En Hedu’anna (Sumer – circa 2354 BCE)

Enheduanna’s record. Alabaster, c. 2350-2300 BC J.-C. Ur. Diameter: 25.6 cm, thickness: 7.1 cm. Description of the bas-relief: ritual scene, a priest makes a libation in front of a four-storey altar (left), accompanied by three people, including the priestess Enheduanna in prayer pose (third person coming from the right).
Image Credit: Zunkir [CC BY 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

The first documentation of an occupation similar to a scientist or engineer in history comes to us from ancient Sumer. The Sumerians were an ancient agricultural society that depended on the river Tigris, and lived in the region of modern day Iraq. It is there that we find the works of En Hedu’anna, or ‘she who is the chief ornament of heaven’, written on clay tablets in Sumerian, the oldest writing system ever known. Although we do not know her given name, En Hedu’anna was the only daughter of the king Sargon of Akkad, and was just one in a long line of astronomer-priestesses of Sumeria. As head priestess of the temple of the Moon Goddess in the city of Ur, En Hedu’anna was in charge of determining when crops should be planted and harvested, and when important religious festivals would take place. To do this she would have observed the Moon and tracked its position across the sky through the year, to calculate the Lunar calendar, while maintaining a record of the seasons and the Sun for a second calendar that was more in line with the orbit of the Earth around the Sun. En Hedu’anna was not just an influential astronomer, but a prolific literary figure as well. She is known as the ‘Shakespeare of Sumeria’ for 42 poems that has survived over four millenia, to teach us, among other things, about her role in society and the life of her people.


Aglaonice of Thessaly (Greece – circa 1st/2nd century BCE)

Aglaonice of Thessaly
Image Credit: Alzinous (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Aglaonice was so famous in her time that she was the subject of an ancient Greek proverb ‘as the Moon obeys Aglaonice’. The biographer and essayist Plutarch mentions how her knowledge of astronomy gives her the ability to predict lunar eclipses and positions of the Moon was so precise, that it seemed like she had the Moon under command. This was a testimony to her mathematical capabilities and skill in taking constant observations of the sky as well. This also earned her and several other women associated with her from 1 – 3 BCE (likely a group of female astronomers), the title of ‘the enchantresses of Thessaly’. Apart from being honoured in writings of Plato and Apollonius of Rhodes, she also has a crater in Venus named after her.


Hypatia (Egypt- circa 350-415 AD)

Image Credit: Drawn by Jules Maurice Gaspard (1862–1919) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Hypatia was one of the most celebrated women of the antiquities. People flocked from great distances in the Roman Empire to Alexandria, Egypt, to hear her lectures and teachings as a philosopher, mathematician and astronomer. In addition to writing a 13 volume commentary on Diophantus’s Arithmetica, she co-wrote and edited the works of her father, Theon (also a philosopher)and Euclid’s ‘Elements’ and Ptolemy’s ‘Almagest’. Hypatia was consulted on all sorts of matters, from making the calendar for the city by observing the equinox, and making astronomical instruments like plane astrolabes, an instrument which keeps track of the Sun, Moon and stars. Her works are mostly survived through translations and commentary, as the originals would have been lost in the in the great fire in the library of Alexandria. Her role as an advisor to the Roman ruler of the city eventually lead to her death, but she’s immortalised as a ‘universal genius’ in many stories about work by historians. You will also find a lunar crater, and a comet remnant named after her as well.

These are just three of the countless women throughout antiquity that would have been involved in astronomy through mathematics, philosophy and astrology. In the next post we’ll explore the many assistants and instrumentalists who have aided astronomical observations throughout the ages.


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MAAS Mabo Day Address 2018

1 June 2018, 3-5pm

The 2018 MAAS Mabo Day address will be delivered by Gail Mabo – honouring her father and focusing on the remarkable contribution of her mother – Aunty Bonita Mabo AO.