Holy Mothers of Orthodoxy


Eva Catafygiotu Topping

Belittling Eve

The Eastern Orthodox Church possesses a magnificent treasury of hymns, which I have been studying for more than a decade. These hymns reflect the unique splendor and spirituality of Byzantine Christianity. At the same time they document many facets of Byzantium's historical, cultural and religious experience. As a result, this complex hymnic mosaic has proved to be an endlessly fascinating subject. Of particular interest to me as an Orthodox woman is the image of Eve and woman. It is a portrayal of woman that was shaped and inspired by patriarchal prejudice and pride. This sexist image of Eve and woman is too well articulated, too extensive and too deeply embedded in the tradition of our church to be brushed aside lightly. It deserves our attention.

After my first rude encounter with this image of Eve I began to take notes each time I found mention of Eve and "woman"; in the hymns. As I worked my way through the more than two dozen thick volumes of Greek liturgical poetry, my notes quickly accumulated, revealing a pattern and startling evidence of an entrenched ideology which put down Eve and her daughters. For one thousand years Byzantine liturgical poets composed hymns heaping opprobrium on Eve and denigrated the entire female sex - with a single exception, as we shall later see.

Members of a choir that was predominantly male (only four women hymnographers are known to us), hymn writing emperors, patriarchs. bishops, monks, deacons and laymen composed hymns for the liturgies of the church. In their hymns these male hymnographers unanimously denigrated Eve and all women. First in the order of sin, they said, women were condemned to subordination, sorrow and silence. Second in the order of creation, according to the primitive creation story in Genesis 2, Eve and her whole sex were considered inferior to the male and therefore subject to his rule.

Such androcentric, anti-woman attitudes did not, however, originate with the composers of hymns. Credit belongs to Christianity's founding fathers, Greek and Latin. Their voluminous and authoritative writings furnished Byzantium's church poets with a sexist theology of woman, and provided them with Biblical proof-texts, typology and exegesis. When this theology was set to verse and music by hymnographers, choir stalls joined pulpits to project within the church a stereotyped image of Eve and woman. To this day this demeaning image remains intact, preserved in the liturgical books of the church.

Named only three times in the Bible, Eve achieved superstar status in the hymns, where she symbolizes her sex, half of the human race. Eve appears everywhere, in more hymns than can be counted. Even so, I was surprised to find her in a beautiful 7th century funeral hymn. An unknown poet blames Eve for the long list of ills that plague humankind. His accusation begins, "Eve transmitted the curse to everybody."

She figures prominently in hymns sung on major holy days like Easter and Christmas. As the first sinner, Eve is inevitably present, along with reformed harlots, in the penitential hymns of Lent. For example. in the "Grand Kanon" St. Andrew of Crete, a hymn writing hierarch, laments that, alas, his soul "resembles Eve", like Eve, has "tasted the deceptive food." That Adam too had tasted the forbidden fruit is overlooked. Like the theologians, the hymn writers prefer not to implicate Adam in the disaster that occurred in Eden. Instead of rebuking Adam for his disobedience to God, one poet chastises him for "obeying his rib," an unforgivable lapse by the first representative of the superior sex.

It is, however, in hymns to women that we most frequently encounter Eve. Since Eve was believed to be reincarnated in every female, her dark shadow forever haunts women.No woman can escape the stigma of Eve's sinful past. Not even female saints are spared. Adorned by the church with halos and enrolled in the liturgical calendar, these heroines of Christianity nevertheless bear the onus of being Eve's daughters.

A few examples chosen out of many will illustrate my point. On September 1st the hymnographers praise forty brave women martyrs. They congratulate the women for reversing the "defeat of the mother" at the hands of Satan and for transcending the inherited "feebleness of the female nature." Hymns to female saints almost invariably refer to woman's innate inferiority implicit in the commonplace phrase "female nature." A church poet in his hymn to St. Ripsimia (September 30), a martyr who endured incredible tortures, reminds us that "female nature has been weak from the beginning in the first mother." St. Matrona (March 27), the slave-girl martyr, is praised because "neither the yoke of slavery nor the emptiness of the female nature" caused her to flinch in the face of persecution. A more famous saint, Marina the Great Martyr (July 17), is hailed as "marvelous" for her "strengthening of female rottenness." In contrast to the linkage of female saints to sinful Eve and to inherited inferiority, Adam is seldom, if ever, evoked in hymns to male saints. Since males reflect the glory of God, Adam's delinquencies are buried in discreet silence. Eve's, on the other hand, are well publicized from pulpit and choir.

Within the same hymn a female saint is extolled as "all blessed," or as "all wise" and the "Bride of God," while her sex is harshly denigrated and her humanity denied. Hymns to female saints feature the phrase the "weakness of women." Admiring the spectacular ascetic feats of St. Euphrosyne (September 25), a hymnographer exclaims in surprise, "What an unusual sight! How did you conceal the weakness of women?" The identification of sanctity and spirituality exclusively with maleness often appears in hymns to women saints. The highest praise bestowed upon these women is that they have triumphed over the obstacles of their sex and become men. "Liberated" from femaleness, they exhibit "male" virtues, strength, courage; they also gain souls and minds which females naturally lack.

St, Eudokia (March 1), a reformed harlot, is eulogized for "preaching like a man." Similarly, St. Eugenia (December 24) wins praise for turning to "male activities" like "explaining to everyone the truth of the Scriptures." Since preaching and teaching in the church are still restricted to males, the existence in the past of women preachers and teachers is good news. Orthodoxy's most glorious women saints, however, were generally denied female dignity and worth. According to her enthusiastic eulogist, St. Catherine the Great Martyr (November 25), a learned and skilled debater, triumphed over Alexandria's leading philosophers by "changing the weakness of female nature to masculinity."

Eve, our much maligned foremother, appears, however, most conspicuously in hymns to Mary her unique and most exalted daughter. Byzantine Christians express limitless veneration for the Mother of God in churches, icons, sermons and a vast repertory of hymns. In Marian hymns Eve again functions as a foil. The archetypal embodiment of female imperfections, Eve sets off Mary's perfections. Like the church fathers, Byzantium's sacred poets ascribe evil and vice to the "first Eve," virtues and blessings to the "second Eve," Mary. Disobedience, death, sin and sorrow are associated with Eve; obedience (from the androcentric perspective and the cardinal female virtue), life, purity and joy with Mary. The constant juxtaposition of sinful Eve and sinless Mary exalts a single woman at the expense of all other women, and disparages an entire sex. Inevitably, Mary's immaculate shining image reinforces the negative image of her sisters. More than one scholar has in fact noted that Mary's glory grew brighter in inverse proportion to the downgrading of the female sex. Indeed, Mary stands alone in sublime isolation. In the hymn writers' words. she is "above women," and "alone among all the generations of women." The celestial Mother of God occupies holy space in the apses of countless Orthodox churches, while daughters of hers are only very rarely permitted access to the Altar. Her holiness has yet to trickle down to women of the Church.

To fashion their sexist image of Eve and woman, the hymnographers employed a rich and colorful vocabulary whose orthodoxy the authority of the church fathers guaranteed. Stretching through the Greek alphabet from alpha to omega (from amartia to odines), these words are harsh, vivid, blunt. Their meanings are never obscure. Together they create a sharply defined monolithic sexist profile of Eve and woman.

The most important word in this distorted and negative profile is "sin" (amartia). Choosing in this instance to ignore St. Paul, who credited Adam with the origin of sin (II Corinthians l l:3, Romans 5:12), Orthodox theologians and hymnographers pin the blame exclusively on Eve. They further implicate all women in Eve's alleged crime against humanity. Thus, sin defines woman. And a poet, singing of Christ's birth, denounces all women as the "instrument of sin."

Likewise, responsibility for the existence of death (thanatos) is charged to Eve alone. Through many centuries Byzantium's sacred songs reverberate with the accusation, "Eve is the cause of death." One hymn writer sadly names Adam as the first casualty of "death-bringing Eve." Another reflects on his own mortality, blaming his death on "Eve my first mother." Originally named Eve, the "mother of all the living" (Genesis 3:20), the first woman is ironically transformed into the "instrument of death." Even the life-bringing and nurturing functions of Eve and her daughters are impugned. Moreover, the identification of woman with sin and death serves to justify man's domination of woman.

The agent of sin and death, and Satan's ally, Eve is turned from woman into a malevolent power or curse. Two words for curse (ara, katara) are repeatedly attached to her name. On account of Eve all women are doomed to suffer the curse of painful childbirth.Because of Eve, "chains of the curse" bind the human race. Haunted by the "ancestral curse," the composer of a hymn for Christmas rejoices that Christ is born "dissolving the curse of Eve."

The hymnographers further depict the first woman as a creature of shame (aischos, aischyne, oneidos). Uninterruptedly they echo the phrase "the shame of Eve." St. Romanos the Melodos, Christendom's greatest liturgical poet, presents a vivid image of abject Eve, overwhelmed by her disgrace. In a hymn for Christmas she says:

I can no longer endure the reproaches and shame. I bend down my head until you raise me up again, Mary full of grace.

The hymnographers brand the whole female sex with Eve's "most burdensome shame," sparing only the Virgin Mary. Other female saints are not exempted from this unfortunate legacy. A 14th century hymn to the Myrophoroi, the faithful women disciples who were the first witnesses and apostles of the Resurrection, begins with these words: "The shame of their nature." Aischos(shame) is this hymn's first word.

Byzantium's hymn writers followed the theologians in describing the many flaws and failings of Eve's "female nature." In Eden the first woman had displayed lack of understanding (anoia) as well as moral and spiritual instability (to olistheron). Eve's female progeny inherited these characteristics. Eve also bequeathed another female trait to her daughters—women are creatures of deception. Deceived by the serpent, Eve then deceived Adam. Her daughters, generation after generation, have done the same.

The hymnographers do more than just put down Eve. They dehumanize her. On the basis of the aetiologicaltale narrated in Genesis 2, the sacred poets not infrequently designate Eve and woman with the word "rib." The phrase "Adam and his rib" occurs in one hymn. The male is dignified with a name and recognized as a person. The female has no name. Eve's person-hood is thereby effectively denied. Woman is reduced to a superfluous bit of anatomy. A fractured, flawed and derivative being, Eve depends on Adam for existence and identity. She has none of her own.

No wonder then that from our hymns Eve emerges a pitiful and wretched figure. For this facet of our first mother's image I have counted no fewer than nine synonyms for "sorrow." Phrases like the "tears of Eve," "the grief of Eve," the "lament of Eve," or the "distresses of Eve" are endlessly repeated, creating the indelible image of women oppressed and depressed, forever weeping. It was of course understood that women deserve this fate, because "Eve planted sorrow in Eden." Behind this portrait in the Greek hymns lies the rabbinic teaching that Eve must forever mourn on account of her sins. That the founder of Christianity showed liberating sympathy for all women, as the Gospels record, seems not to have impressed the patriarchal-minded creators of the church's anti-woman ideology.

Clearly, the sexist image of Eve and woman which I have described is not a fleeting or incidental phenomenon in the history of the church. It cannot be dismissed as occasional flights of rhetorical hyperbole or of a few monks' overheated imagination. The sources fail to corroborate such claims. Byzantine hymns composed over a millennium document the vitality and durability of androcentric theology, the creation of church fathers who believed in woman's divinely designed inferiority.

Beyond the testimony of the written words in canon laws, patristics and hymnography, there is also the eloquent witness of the church's praxis. On the basis of sex it discriminates against women, denying them full participation in the life of the ekklesia. Today it is no longer possible to conceal the existence and influence of patriarchal prejudice and pride. Nor is it possible to claim validity for appeals made to traditions which are founded on the androcentric premises of woman's inferior and sinful nature.

Surely the time has come for open, serious and informed examination of Orthodoxy's traditional attitudes and stance in regard to women. It is time at last to recognize Eve's dignity and humanity. She too was created in the divine image. Eve's Orthodox daughters know that they have names, and that they are people, not ribs.

St. Matrona

St. Matrona

Return to Top