Holy Mothers of Orthodoxy


Eva Catafygiotu Topping

Heroines and Halos

I was once asked what I do. The answer was brief, but not very informative -"I read and write." This did not sound like much, and there was no second question. Had there been I would have explained in this way. "For some time I have been reading and writing about Byzantine hymnography. More recently I also read and write about women in the Church." I would have added that both subjects are vast in scope and time, both interesting and important to understanding Orthodox traditions, history and spirituality.

Strange as it may seem, Byzantine hymns and women in the church are not unconnected subjects.Orthodox hymnography includes thousands of hymns to women, to the Theotokos and to women saints. In fact, what I read about women in the hymns of our church first turned my attention to the subject of Eve's daughters and the ekklesia. Until then it was entirely outside my research interests. Nor had I, a birthright Greek Orthodox woman, given any thought to the history and position of women in Eastern Christianity. As it has turned out, the study of Greek hymns in honor of females has proved most instructive. Not only do they reveal the grandeur of the church's heroines and the brightness of their halos. They also reflect an ingrained tradition of negative and demeaning attitudes of church and society concerning women.1

This complex challenging subject, can, of course, be studied from various perspectives, scriptural, historical, theological or sociological. To my great delight I soon discovered that the study of the lives and hymns to women saints illumined and enlivened this subject in many ways. In addition, from my reading in the relevant Greek sources I became acquainted with an Orthodox sisterhood that transcends time and place. I haven't been the same since.

These haloed heroines of Orthodoxy number in the thousands. Together they form an unbroken golden chain, binding the past, present and future. Needless to say, the centerpiece of this golden chain holds the most exalted position among all the saints. No female or male saint can match the divine glory2 of the Theotokos.

In every respect our female saints are the match of their brothers, sons or fathers. There is even a female counterpart to St. George, Our Blessed Mother Elizabeth the Miracle-Worker (April 24)3 also killed a dragon. But unlike St. George she did not use a weapon. When Leo I gave her convent a property inhabited by a dreadful dragon, this fifth-century Constantinopolitan abbess approached the monster, armed only with a cross. St. Elizabeth killed the dragon by spitting on his head and trampling on him with her feet.4 (What a marvelous icon this would make!) I am, however, still searching for a female double of Hosios David of Thessalonike who lived for years in an almond tree.

Like males, females achieved sanctity and halos in different ways, there being no single royal road that leads to God and holiness. Narrated in synaxaria, menologia and sermons, and praised in countless hymns, these saints provide endlessly fascinating, priceless documents of Christian women's history.

From these Greek sermons and hymns we quickly learn that from the beginning women have played crucial and creative roles in the church; that women of the church have not always been segregated, silent and subordinate. With admiration I often reflect on St. Theodosia of Constantinople (May 29).5 In the eighth century this brave nun led a group of women in a public demonstration against the emperor's religious policy. After preventing the removal of Christ's icon from the Chalke Gate the women continued their protest by marching on the patriarchate. For her fidelity to Orthodoxy Theodosia paid with her life. But immediately this woman-martyr became a powerful symbol of resistance and heroism.

Within the ever-expanding galaxy of Orthodox saints we find women who were disciples of Christ, apostles, evangelists, deacons, teachers, preachers, healers, prophets, founders of Christian communities, builders of convents and churches, and conveners of ecumenical councils. These holy women remind us, lest we forget, that God includes women in the divine image (Genesis I:27), and that in the new creation inaugurated by Christ there is neither male nor female (Galatians 3:27-8). They also remind us that the Holy Spirit calls females6 and males equally to be saints, to serve God and humankind. Contrary to the stereotype of female weakness, dependence and submission, our women saints are models of strength, self-determination and resolution, which patriarchal tradition assigned only to males.

These church mothers and heroines of ours do not, however, receive from their Orthodox daughters and sons the honor they deserve. With a few notable exceptions, most female saints remain obscure names inscribed in liturgical books. These remarkable women remain lifeless forgotten shadows, relics of the past. One summer in Athens, I asked a devout woman lawyer to name ten female saints. She was ashamed and surprised that she could not.

Therefore let us together on this occasion recall and honor the women saints of September, the first month of the ecclesiastical year. September has 30 days and at least 150 female saints. Their names enchant our ears and imaginations. Listen to

these: Euanthia (Sept. 1, 11); Kalliste (Sept. 1); Vasilissa (Sept. 3); Vevaia (Sept. 4); Charitine (Sept. 4); Melitene (Sept 16); Theopiste (Sept. 20); Epicharis (Sept. 27); Ia (Sept. 11); Myrsine (Sept. 9); Euphrosyne (Sept. 25). It is worth noting that on September 1, the first day of the new liturgical year, our church commemorates 5 male and 43 female saints.7 September, moreover, is by no means exceptional in the number of women saints. The other eleven months are also richly graced with heroines and halos.

Because the calling to sainthood never recognizes national or ethnic boundaries, September's women saints constitute a strikingly cosmopolitan group. Wherever Christian communities existed women heard and answered the call to holiness, in ancient lands stretching eastward from the Pillars of Heracles in the west to the distant Tigris and Euphrates. Our holy women were born, lived and died in Spain, Italy, Greece, Egypt, Syria, Palestine, Cappadocia, Arabia. Armenia and Persia.

Likewise, the calling to sainthood recognizes no social classes, or distinctions between rich and poor. Our women saints belong to all social strata, the highest, as well as the lowest. On September 17 and 18, two women martyrs are commemorated. Both were slaves. Agathocleia8 was martyred at the hands of her pagan mistress. Without faltering in her faith the slave girl endured 8 years of daily harassment and persecution. Ariadne9, a slave in the house of a Phrygian nobleman, died a martyr's death because she refused to participate in her young master's birthday celebration in a pagan temple. Many other women saints are described as belonging to the upper classes, from which indeed came a large number of the first women converts to Christianity (Acts 17:4, 12).

The September calendar of saints also includes three women of royal blood, a Persian princess, the martyr Kasdoa (Sept. 29), and two empresses of Byzantium.The first wife of Theodosios the Great (reg. 379-395 A.D.), Spanish-born Plakilla (Sept. 14)10 added a halo to her imperial crown by her zeal for the faith, her humility, and above all by her love for people. With her own hands this pious empress attended to the needs of the sick and poor in the hospitals which she had built.

St. Pulcheria (Sept. 10th)11 imitated her grandmother's piety. Throughout her long career in imperial and church politics (414-453 A.D.) Pulcheria lived the austere life of a nun. Her exercise of power and her personal participation in the ekklesia are extraordinary, even for a Byzantine empress. Pulcheria's image was painted above the altar of Hagia Sophia. On Easter she entered the sanctuary of the Megale Ekklesia and received Holy Communion with the patriarch, two priests and her brother the emperor.

In 451 A.D. St. Pulcheria convened the Council of Chalcedon12 in the basilica of a local female martyr, St. Euphemia. Hailing the empress as the "light of Orthodoxy" and "protectress of the faith," the 520 fathers of the council adopted Pulcheria's ecclesiastical policy. And although she was a female they allowed her to appear before the assembly of bishops. This epoch-making fourth ecumenical council had a "mother" along with "fathers."

Taken together, the women saints of September span at least 1800 years, that is, most of the Christian era. The earliest come from the New Testament: St. Elizabeth(Sept.5), the mother of St. John the Forerunner; the Theotokos, whose nativity is celebrated on Sept.8th;13 St. Hermione (Sept. 4), a woman-prophet mentioned in Acts 21:7-9. The most recent is the Greek neo-martyr Akylina (Sept. 27).14 When she was still an infant her father had apostatized. Just over two centuries ago, in 1764, Akylina was martyred in Thessalonike. Encouraged by her mother to resist her father's pleas and to endure tortures by the Turks, this young woman, aged I8, chose a martyr's death over betrayal of her Orthodox faith.

Called "god-bearing" "brides of God", "gloriously victorious" and "all-most-blessed", martyrs formed by far the largest group of women saints not only in September but in the other months as well. This should not surprise us, for, from the beginning, whenever Christians were persecuted, women were among the martyrs. In the first recorded persecution, Saul, later to become Paul, arrested women along with men and dragged them off to jail (Acts 8:1-3). In every persecution women endured imprisonment, physical and mental tortures. Loyal unto death, many women have paid blood tribute to the Church. Martyrdom is a great equalizer and recognizes no gender discrimination.

In the Greek sources female martyrs appear both as equals and as leaders. "Imitating the Cross, death and voluntary sufferings of Christ,"15 40 women (Sept. 1), shared martyrdom with their didaskalos, the deacon Ammon. Kasdoa (Sept.29)16 and Kalliste (Sept. 1)17 gained martyr's crowns with their brothers. In a hymn18 to the latter the hymnographer emphasizes that Kalliste, like a mother, led her two brothers to martyrdom.19 This trio is praised for being "firm of mind".20 But Kalliste, clearly the leader of the three martyrs, alone is called "all-wise".21 Wives and mothers shared martyrdom with male members of their families. Theopiste (Sept. 20)22 was martyred along with her husband an ex-general and their two sons; Dominata a Roman matron (Sept. 10)23 along with her three sons. In other instances, mothers, daughters and sisters faced martyrdom together: Sophia and her three daughters, Elpis, Pistis and Agape (Sept. 17),24 the three sisters Menodora, Metrodora and Nymphodora (Sept. 10).25

The first woman martyr is celebrated by the Orthodox Church on September 24. St. Thekla First-Martyr and "Equal-to-the-Apostles"26 was perhaps the most revered heroine of the early church. She inspired generations of women in the Greek East. To be called a "second Thekla" was to receive the supreme compliment. In ninth-century Constantinople Thekla, a hymn writing nun, boasted of the long catalogue of female martyrs, headed by her first-century namesake.27 In Byzantium where imperial princesses bore her name, St. Thekla enjoyed high honor. Hymnographers sang her glories 28 and learned bishops recorded her many miracles.29 This one I like best. When an illiterate woman received a Bible as a gift, St. Thekla miraculously granted her the power to read.30

St. Euphemia (Sept. 16)31 Great-Martyr and Worthy-of-all-praise is the second most illustrious female saint celebrated in this month. A victim of Diocletian's persecutions in the third century, Euphemia was martyred in Chalcedon her hometown. Before long a magnificent basilica was built in the martyr's honor.32 In 451 St. Pulcheria chose this church as the meeting place for the fourth ecumenical council, confident that St. Euphemia, the local spiritual powerhouse, would assist her. The empress' confidence was not misplaced. And St. Euphemia the Great-Martyr gained renown as the guardian of Orthodox dogma and as Preacher-of-Christ.33 Thus the collaboration of two women, one in heaven and the other on earth, secured the success of the Council of Chalcedon and the triumph of Orthodoxy over heresy.

The superior numbers and fame of martyr-saints should not however, overshadow the halos of women who took other paths to sainthood. Monasticism and asceticism offered women other routes to holiness. Behind convent wails and in solitary cells women found freedom to pursue spiritual perfection, to become "friends of God." The halos of women who achieved sanctity as nuns, virgins, or ascetics shine no less brightly than those of martyrs. Such a saint is called "Blessed" and is recognized as "our Mother".

This group of women saints is well represented on the September calendar. Our Blessed Mothers include Martha (Sept. 1)34, mother of the Syrian fifth-century stylite, St. Symeon; Euanthia (Sept. 1)35, about whom nothing is recorded except her floral name; Athanasia (Sept. 18 or Oct. 9)36, the ideal wife who became a nun. Unlike Eve, she gave her husband good advice, persuading him to become a monk. Andronikos was luckier (more blessed?) than Adam.

More dramatic are the lives of three women-monks who are commemorated this month. Our Blessed Mother Euphrosyne (Sept. 25)37, an Egyptian female ascetic, lived for 38 years in a male monastery. Dressed like a man and calling herself Smaragdos, she surpassed her fellow-monks in ascetic austerities and virtues. Our Blessed Mother Theodora of Alexandria (Sept. 11)38 was a married woman who left home, donned male garb and entered a male monastery in the desert. Repenting her sins and "making herself a gift to God," Theodora lived there the rest of her life. The true sex of Euphrosyne and Theodora was not discovered until after their deaths.

Susanna (Sept. 19)39, our third woman-monk, is called "Blessed-Martyr" because she was both an ascetic and a martyr. The child of a mixed marriage, she was born in Palestine. Rejecting the religion of her pagan father and Jewish mother, Susanna became a Christian. She then cut her hair, put on male clothing, adopted the name John and entered a male monastery near Jerusalem. A few years later her true sex was discovered. She should have been punished for violating canon laws. Instead, the Bishop of Eleutheropolis ordained Susanna a deacon.40 Between 361 and 363 Deacon Susanna was martyred during Julian the Apostate's persecution of Christians in the empire.

Our Blessed Mothers Euphrosyne, Theodora and Susanna and other women monastics and ascetics received high praise from enthusiastic hagiographers and hymnographers.They are admired for their spiritual attainments which often outshone those of men.41 But most of all they are commended for having overcome the weakness and flaws inherent in their sex and for having become men. The holiness of females being traditionally considered inferior to that of males42, this was a great compliment.

In September the Orthodox Church also pays tribute to women-apostles, remembering the great actions of women in the days when the church was young, alive and spreading the evangelion throughout the oikoumene. This was the golden age for women in the church. In the new creation women assumed roles of leadership. The New Testament preserves the names of female apostles, deacons, prophets and teachers, women touched by the fire of the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:3-4). As a matter of historical truth the Christian Church has founding mothers as well as fathers.

Since, according to the Scriptures, the Holy Spirit bestows charismata without discrimination between female and male, the Orthodox Church recognizes as saints a number of women-apostles: Junia (May 17), hailed by St. Paul as "outstanding among the apostles" (Romans 16:6-8); Priscilla (Feb. 13), praised by Paul for her inspired

teaching (Acts 18:26); Photeine (Feb. 26)43, converted by Christ at the well (John 4:1-42), the first apostle to the Samaritans; Mariamne (Feb. 17), sister of the Apostle Philip and missionary in the cities of Asia Minor; Mary Magdalene (July 22), widely honored as the "apostle to the apostles;" Horaiozele (July 26)44, converted by St. Andrew the First-Called, the continuer of his apostolikon ergon.

During the first month of the liturgical year, four women-apostles are commemorated. Saints Xanthippe and Polyxena (Sept. 23)45, aristocratic sisters from Spain, were converted by St. Paul. Xanthippe's apostolic career was confined to her native land, but Polyxena's extended from one end of the Mediterranean world to the other. The latter is associated with the apostolates of two males46, St. Andrew who baptized her and St. Onesimos (Feb. 15), known from the New Testament.

St. Thekla the Great-Martyr (Sept. 24)47 is also honored for her apostolic life and work. She too was converted by St. Paul.Despite her mother's tears and her fiance's threats, Thekla cut her hair, donned male clothing and ran away to join Paul. She was first his disciple and then his co-worker in the mission field. Then Christ, through St. Paul, commissioned Thekla to be an apostle. On her own she preached and baptized in the provinces of Asia Minor until her death. In many Byzantine hymns and sermons this woman who defied the ancient gender taboos of her time is given the exalted title and rank of apostolos.48

In defiance of a patriarchal culture that inflicted silence on women and restricted them to private domestic roles, the woman-apostle of the first century led a public life whose success depended on her spoken word, the logos. It is hard for us in the twentieth century to imagine how revolutionary and unconventional this life-style was for a woman at that time.

St. Hermione (Sept.4)49, prophet, healer, teacher and preacher, illustrates the public career of the woman-apostle. One of the four prophet-daughters of St. Philip the Deacon (Acts 21:8), she is vividly portrayed in a kanon composed for her feast day by the ninth-century hymnographer St. Joseph the Hymnographer.50

Empowered by the Holy Spirit with many gifts, Hermione is a virtuoso healer51, the envy of her medical colleagues, presumably all male. With her "speaking-of-God tongue"52 she is able to heal sick souls. Like Christ and the male apostles, St. Hermione used words to cure physical and spiritual ills. But in this case the healing words fall from a woman's lips.

An inspired teacher and preacher, Hermione relied on the right use of words to communicate a new faith to an unbelieving pagan world.53 The admiring hymnographer describes her words as full of wisdom, "shining like flashes of lightning in the dark"54 and winning many souls for Christ.

The divine Logos and the Holy Spirit indeed never deserted St. Hermione. A condemned Christian woman standing before Roman judges, Hermione "preached the incarnation of the Word."55 And at the end, in the face of a martyr's death, this woman-apostle triumphs once more and "proclaims things divine."56

The lives of Hermione and other women saints are more than interesting stories. To remember these daughters of light is to pay them deserved honor and at the same time to relive epic moments of Christianity's history. But beyond this, Orthodoxy's women saints pose a question that demands an honest answer. By what prejudices are Christian women in 1985 denied equal dignity and full participation in the life of the church?

Finally, what do these heroines and halos really mean to us Orthodox, for today and for tomorrow?

Chicago Diocesan Clergy-Laity Banquet September 26, 1985.


1See E. C. Topping, "Patriarchal Prejudice and Pride…," Journal of Modern Greek Studies 1 (1983), 7-17; "Belittling Eve," Greek Accent 5 ((1984), 23-27, 49, 51.
2A frequent phrase found in Byzantine hymns to the Mother of God
3See Nicodemos Hagioreites, Synaxaristes, 2 vols. in 1 (Athens, 1868), II, 107. Hereafter cited as Nicodemos.
4For a fuller account see F. Halkin, "Sainte Elisabeth d' Heraclee, Abbesse a Constantinople. Analecta Bollandiana 91 (1973), 248-264.
5Nikodemos. II, 172-173
6Acts I:14 states that a "group of women" were in the "room upstairs" when the Holy Spirit descended as promised by Christ.
7Hosia Martha. the martyr Kalliste. the Forty Virgins and Ascetics. See Nikodemos. 1, 4-5
8Ibid. 50.
9Ibid. 52
10Ibid., 42-43. This empress-saint was eulogized by St. Gregory of Nyssa after her death in 387 A.D. K.G. Holum, Theodosian Empresses (Berkeley, Los Angeles and London, 1982) 23-26, quotes from the eloquent eulogy.
11Nikodemos. 1. 31. My brief discussion of this imperial woman saint is based on Holum, op. cit., 79-111, 175-216.
12Holum, op. cit., 213-216. Later, two other empresses who convened holy synods were also canonized: Saints Eirene and Theodora, August 9 and February 11 respectively.

13The first major feast of the liturgical calendar. Because Mary's sainthood requires special treatment it cannot be discussed in this essay.
14Nikodemos l, 79 and Neon Martyrologion 3rd ed. (Athens, 1961), 86-188. In addition to Akylina and Philothee of Athens (February 19), the best known female neo-martyr, there are other women who remained faithful to Orthodoxy even unto death.
15From a hymn sung On September l in their honor, published in Menaia tou holou eniautou, 6 vols. (Rome, 1888-1901), I, 15. Hereafter cited as MR.
16Nikodemos, I, 83-86.
17Ibid., 5.
18Published for the first time in Analecta Hymnica Graeca, ed. Shiro, I: Canones Septembris, ed. A.D. Gonzato (Rome, 19|66), 41-51. Hereafter cited as AHG I
19Ibid., 46, 51
20Ibid., 48
21Ibid., 45.
22Nikodemos, 1, 54-55. See also the hymns in MR I, 210-219.
23Nikodemos does not mention her and her sons; but see the hymns in AHG I, 168-177 and the commentary, 423.426. Prokopios the hymnographer mentions a church built in their honor (AHG I, 175), thus suggesting the existence of a cult.
24Nikodemos, I, 48-49
25Ibid., 29-30. See MR I, 116-122 for the hymn to this trio of fourth-century female martyrs, composed by St. Joseph, the distinguished ninth-century hymnographer.
26Nikodemos, I 63-64. For the hymns of her feast day see MR I, 238-246.
27E.C. Topping,"Thekla the Nun: In Praise of Woman," Greek Orthodox Theological Review 25 (1980), 353-370.
28Anatolios, St. Andrew of Crete and Ioannes Monachos are among writers of hymns to Thekla.
29For example, Basil, Bishop of Seleukia (c. 440-459), PG 85, 477-617.
30Translated by A.J. Festugiere, 0.P., Sainte Thecle, Saints Come et Damien. . . (Paris, 1971), 81-82
31Nikodemos, I 47. For the hymns of her feast day see MR I, 178-187.
32See C. Mango, The Art of the Byzantine Empire 312-1453: >Sources and Documents (Englewood. NJ, 1972).
33From the canon to Euphemia by Ioannes Monachos, MR I, 185.A
34Nikodemos, I, 4, merely lists her name along with a distich. Her sainthood derives primarily from her motherhood. Her famous son, by contrast, is praised by Nikodemos in 2 long columns.;Mother and son are celebrated on the same day.
35Ibid., 4
36Nikodemos, I, 114-116, assigns the feast of Andronikos and Athanasia to October 9, although other authorities give September 18 as the date.
37Nikodemos, 1, 64, relates how Euphrosyne revealed her true sex and identity on her death bed. For 38 years her father had been searching for his lost daughter. As she lay dying he came to her monastery. When she saw him, she said, "Father," her last word. Whereupon the old man followed his daughter's example and "forsook the world." Hosios Paphnoutios is celebrated on the same day as his daughter.
38For a description of Theodora's triumphs over Satan see Nikodemos, I, 32. She is sometimes identified with Amma Theodora who is quoted in the Apophthegmata Patrum. For the text of these sayings of the desert mother see P. K. Chrestou, Apophthegmata Geronton (Thessalonike, 1978), 288-293.
39Nikodemos, I, 306, assigns her feast to December, although the Synaxarium ;Ecclesiae Constantinopolitanae, 58-59, dates it to September l9, Preserved in 6 manuscripts, the hymn to St. Susanna by St. Joseph the Hymnographer is found in AHG I, 269-279 with commentary, 443.
40Nikodemos, I, 306.
41From the numerous examples of this attitude expressed in the hymns and in the church fathers I refer to a few; AHG I, 272, 276; Nikodemos, I, 22, 32. 65.
42These 3 "women->monks" are not unique. Among others, Hosia Anastasia the Patrikia (March 10, Nikodemos, II, 25-27); Hosia Maria (February 12, Nikodemos, II, 415) and Hosiopartheno-martyrs Eugenia (December 24, Nikodemos, I, 333-334) illustrate women's internalization of the masculine ideal.
43She is also commemorated on the Sunday of the Samaritan Woman, See E. C. Topping, "St Photeine, the Woman at the Well," The Churchwoman 49 (Winter 1983-84, 23-24.
44Nikodemos, II, 278-280.
45Nikodemos, I, 62-63, 7.
46Polyxena's career follows the model of team work by a male and female apostle, first recorded in Romans 16:3, 7.
47See above Heroines3 - St Thekla and notes 26, 27. 28.
48See, for example, MR I, 239, 245
49Nikodemos, I. 16-17
50AHG I, 88-97, with commentary, 412-413.
51Ibid., 89, 90, 96.
52Ibid., 89.
53Ibid., 89, 90, 92.
54Ibid., 89.
55Ibid., 91.
Addendum. For Mariamne see E. C. Topping, "St. Joseph the Hymnographer and St. Mariamne Isapostolos," Byzantina 13 (1985), 1034-1052.

St Hermione

St. Hermione
Sept. 4

St Aelia Pulcheria

St. Aelia Pulcheria the Empress
Sept. 10