Holy Mothers of Orthodoxy


Eva Catafygiotu Topping

Kassiane the Nun and the Sinful Woman

Two women, famous for different reasons, will be discussed here.1 Kassiane the Nun enjoys high honor in the history of Byzantine hymnography, 2 while the Sinful Woman, whom the Evangelist Luke introduced into Christian literature, is associated with shame. The Sinful Woman is the subject of the Byzantine nun's most celebrated hymn and, as a result, the bad name or notoriety of the subject has rubbed off on the hymnographer. An old tradition, unfortunately still widely accepted today, identifies Kassiane the Nun, as a fallen woman. Sexist prejudice is the likely source of this unfounded identification. It is my intent here to clarify and to end this misunderstanding.

Kassiane the Nun is Byzantium's most famous woman hymnographer. Her literary fame rests on her sticheron or troparion, formally known by its first line: Κυριε, η εν πολλαις αμαρτιαις (Lord, she who had fallen in many sins). In the manuscripts medieval scribes entitled it: Εις την Πορνην (To the Harlot). To many generations of Greek Orthodox it is familiarly known as Το Τροπαριον της Κασσιανης (The Troparion of Kassiane). Admired, popular and beloved, this hymn is universally acknowledged to be a masterpiece of religious poetry.3 Published in many anthologies of Greek verse, it was rendered into demotic Greek by Kostis Palamas (1859-1943) and later set to music by Dimitri Mitropoulos.

Originally composed for the Orthros of Holy Wednesday, Kassiane's troparion is now sung on the evening of Holy Tuesday.4 The text is included in the Triodion, the service book for the ten weeks preceding Easter. Sacred poets from the sixth to the sixteenth centuries contributed hundreds of Lenten hymns to this book. These include numerous monks and bishops, two emperors of Byzantium, and a single woman, Kassiane. Twenty-nine of these hymnographers are pictured in the front piece of a Triodion printed in Venice in 1601.5

Kassiane the Nun was, in every respect, a worthy daughter of Byzantium. Born in the imperial city sometime before 805, she belonged to an aristocratic family. Her father held the high rank of candidatus at the imperial court. Kassiane was well educated. She received instruction in both sacred and profane learning, studying not only Scripture but also classical Greek authors. Saint Theodore the Studite, the erudite abbot and champion of Orthodoxy, praised Kassiane's learning and literary style as exceptional.

Saint Theodore also praised Kassiane's character and piety. When still a young woman, she defied imperial edicts forbidding the veneration of icons. She endured persecution, and for her defiance was beaten with the lash. Undaunted, however, the devout young woman continued openly to resist the emperor's policies by visiting imprisoned Orthodox monks, comforting Orthodox exiles and by writing letters and sending gifts to them. This crisis of the Church tested and proved Kassiane's faith and zeal.

Kassiane's loyalty to Orthodoxy was not uncommon, for she belonged to a large company of women who defended the traditions and teachings of the Church during a turbulent period of religious crisis which lasted nearly a century and a half (729-843). At that time laywomen and nuns emerged from the safe seclusion of the home and convent to risk their lives in defense of Orthodoxy. In Constantinople within the shadow of the imperial palace they participated in demonstrations against iconoclastic edicts. Some of them were not only persecuted, but were also martyred for their Orthodox faith. One of the first martyrs of iconoclasm was a nun named Theodosia who led a group of nuns in an attempt to prevent the desecration of an icon of Christ at the Chalke Gate in 729. Theodosia knocked down the ladder, which caused the death of the soldier trying to remove the icon. Martyred for her resistance, Theodosia soon became the center of a popular cult in Constantinople.6 Her heroic example provided Orthodox women with a model for activism.

Nor had Saint Theodosia of Constantinople died in vain. Modern historians credit the triumph of Orthodoxy to an alliance of monks and women.7 These women of iconophile sympathies came from all sections of Byzantine society. Two imperial Orthodox women played decisive roles in the struggle against iconoclasm.8 Proudly claiming the title of Basileus, Athenian-born Eirene (797-802) reestablished Orthodoxy in 787. Five decades later, in 843, another empress, "the Blessed Theodora," engineered the final victory, which is annually commemorated on the Sunday of Orthodoxy.9 In addition to the imperial women, countless other women of Byzantium proved themselves loyal to the faith of their mothers and fathers.

Early in life the learned and devout Kassiane had resolved to become a nun. Her religious vocation, however, could not be fulfilled until after 843. At that time she built a convent in the western part of the Queen City, near the old Constantinian walls, and was tonsured a nun. Until her death sometime in the second half of the ninth century, Kassiane lived in the cloister bearing her name.

The foundress of the cloister was its strict and energetic abbess. Within the walled peace of the convent Kassiane supervised the nuns and composed sacred and secular poetry. Her writings have survived in a number of manuscripts dating from the eleventh to the sixteenth centuries.

The secular writings project Kassiane's forceful personality. A series of statements, all beginning with Μισω (I hate), reflects her strong dislikes and convictions.10 Mindful that "God is no respecter of persons" (Acts 10.34), Kassiane opposed discrimination: "I hate the judge who respects persons." Pretense aroused her scorn: "I hate the fool who acts the philosopher." She had contempt for all sham: "I hate the rich man who laments his poverty." Above all, Kassiane condemned lack of commitment and courage: "I hate silence when it is time to speak."

Kassiane's sacred poetry bears the stamp of the true poet and believer. She not only wrote hymns, but also composed musical settings for them. A gifted composer, Kassiane earned the title "Melodos." The nuns in her own convent were the first to sing Kassiane's hymns. These included longer compositions known as kanons, as well as the shorter troparia.

Twenty-three of Kassiane's hymns for various holy festivals and saints days have been admitted into the liturgical books of the Eastern Orthodox Church. Besides the famous troparion for Holy Wednesday, these include a kanon for the dead; hymns for Holy Saturday, Christmas, Hypapante, the Synaxis and Nativity of Saint John the Baptist (Forerunner); and hymns in honor of the martyrs Eustratios and Auxentios and the apostles Peter and Paul. Thirty-seven other hymns in the service books are attributed to Kassiane the Nun, a few of which may be genuine.11

Through these hymns Kassiane gained unique honor and distinction. She is the only woman represented in the vast corpus of hymns sung by the Orthodox Church. The hymns of other known Byzantine women hymnographers have been excluded from Orthodoxy's multi-volume treasury of liturgical poetry. Overshadowed by the fame and glory of Kassiane, they remain neglected names in catalogues of Byzantine hymnographers: Thekla and Theodosia, two hymn-writing contemporaries of Kassiane; and Palaiologina, an imperial princess of the fifteenth century who wrote hymns in honor of Saint Demetrios.12

Despite the fact that her hymns are sung by the Church, Kassiane, unlike many other hymnographers, has not been canonized. The author of a masterpiece of liturgical poetry has been denied the saint's halo which encircles the heads of many Byzantine hymnographers, among them, Romanos the Melodos, Andrew of Crete, Kosmas of Maiouma, John Damascene, and lesser, uninspired hymnodists.

The hymn-writing nun does, however, possess a legend which, in addition to the anti-feminine bias of the Church, accounts for the Church's failure to canonize Kassiane. Within a century after her death, the legend of Kassiane began to circulate. Already in the tenth century, Byzantine chroniclers were narrating the romantic story of the beautiful, learned hymnographer who almost became the empress of Byzantium. Transmitted by pen and word of mouth, this Byzantine legend of Kassiane was inherited by Balkan and Modern Greek folklore and literature.

The earliest extant account of this legend was written by Symeon the Logothete.13 Wishing to enable her step-son Theophilos to find a suitable wife, the Empress Euphrosyne arranged a bride show.

She assembled maidens of incomparable beauty. Among them was Kassiane, an extraordinarily beautiful maiden. There was also another named Theodora. Giving Theophilos a golden apple, Euphrosyne told him to give it to the maiden who pleased him most. Overwhelmed by Kassiane's beauty, Emperor Theophilos said: 'From woman come evils.' She replied, though with modesty 'But from woman spring many blessings.' Wounded to the heart by these words, Theophilos passed her by and gave the golden apple to Theodora, who came from Paphlagonia.

Theodora was crowned empress and then married to Theophilos in the palatine chapel of Saint Stephen. "As for Kassia," the chronicler concludes, "having lost out on an earthly kingdom, she built a convent, was shorn a nun, and until her death, led a philosophical life pleasing to God."

Kassiane's spirited defense of women cost her an imperial husband and the throne of Byzantium. Nevertheless, right was on her side. Theology and recent history justified Kassiane's reply to Theophilos' slur on women. The Theotokos had compensated for Eve's disobedience. The Mother of God had reopened Eden closed by Eve's transgression. Furthermore, the activist Kassiane had not forgotten the significant role of women in the defense of Orthodoxy. For Kassiane to have remained silent would have been to bring discredit to herself and to her sex.

Long before the time of Kassiane, the Sinful Woman had become a familiar, almost proverbial, figure in Eastern Christendom. Although an old tradition identified her with Mary Magdalene, she had no name. The story of the anonymous woman is told only in the Gospel of Saint Luke the Evangelist who, like Christ was "the friend of sinners" (Luke 7.34), always sympathizing with women, the lost and least.14

Luke 7.36-50 relates the story of the Sinful Woman who anointed Christ at the beginning of His public ministry. A Pharisee named Simon invited him to a meal. "When he arrived at the Pharisee's house and took his place at the table, a woman who had a bad name in the town came in. She had heard that he was dining with the Pharisee and had brought with her an alabaster jar of ointment. She waited behind Him at his feet, weeping, and her tears fell on his feet, and she wiped them away with her hair; then she covered his feet with kisses and anointed them with the ointment (Luke 7:36-38).15

Shocked by the woman's intrusion, Simon wondered if his guest was indeed a prophet. Would a true prophet allow a sinful woman to touch him? But Christ reprimanded Simon, and he forgave the penitent woman her many sins, saying to her, "Your faith has saved you; go in peace" (Luke 7.50).

With this Lukan story began the Sinful Woman's long career in Christian literature. Although Christ had promised a mnemosynon (Matt. 26.l3, Mark 14.9) to the good woman who anointed him in Bethany just before the Crucifixion, the "memorial" fell instead to the bad woman the hamartolos, "sinner" (Luke 7.37, 39) of the third Gospel.

Together with the Publican and the Prodigal Son the Sinful Woman became a principal paradeigma or "example" of Lenten metanoia or "repentance." Her story was elaborated by theologians, preachers and hymnographers, and repeated in the prose and poetry of countless sermons and hymns. Most of these, including Kassiane's hymn, were entitled: Εις την Πορνην, for it had early been decided that the woman whom Luke had simply designated as αμαπρωλος was a harlot. Consequently, the harsh condemnatory word, πορνη, appears prominently in Lenten sermons and hymns. Kassiane's hymn is a conspicuous exception. In the fourth century Saint Ephraim Syros preached a colorful sermon on the penitent harlot.16 Two centuries later Saint Romanos the Melodos wrote a long hymn on the same interesting theme.17

In the course of centuries the repertory increased without interruption. The Orthros of Holy Wednesday includes a number of representative hymns on the subject of the Sinful Woman or harlot. ;Besides Kassiane's troparion it includes a triodion by Saint Kosmas of Maiouma (seventh century), a kontakion and oikos, four stichera. several kathismata. and four aposticha. None of these possesses either the originality or the power of Kassiane's hymn. In none is the Lenten drama of metanoia more strikingly portrayed than in this hymn written by one woman about another.

Tradition and medieval manuscripts both attribute the troparion Κυριε, η εν πολλαις αμαρτιαις to Kassiane, the Constantinopolitan, hymn-writing nun of the ninth century. It bears the imprint of her poetic talent and profound religious faith. This troparion possesses both beauty and richness of meaning. One scholar/critic appreciated "The way in which dramatic and narrative elements are blended, and the final prayer, wherein the need of one sinner is absorbed into the cry of a whole suffering world…"18

The language of the troparion is a mosaic composed of words, phrase, and echoes from the Scriptures, especially the Psalter. Imagery minted by Kassiane unfolds the psychological inner world of the Sinful Woman at a moment of crisis. The hymn is concentrated, intense and brief, consisting of a little more than one hundred words. Yet the Byzantine nun-hymnographer portrays in it universal human emotions, the fundamental Christian drama of sin and salvation.

The structure and style of Kassiane's troparion are influenced by the seven Penitential Psalms (6, 31, 37, 50, 101, 129, 142), three of which (37, 50, 142) are chanted during the Orthros of Holy Wednesday. Like these Psalms, the troparion is addressed to God, praises His mercy and contains confession and prayer. Kassiane, however, was no mere imitator of the Psalmist. Her troparion is more complex in structure, more subtle in its psychology and more dynamic in movement. Hers is a new song, a distantly Byzantine Lenten psalm, inspired by the prose of Saint Luke.

Kassiane's celebrated troparion consists of a single strophe in which two different voices are heard. First, the sacred poet herself speaks in a brief introduction. Then in the longer dramatic portion we hear the voice of the Sinful Woman disclosing the pathos of her life, the change from harmartia (sin) to soteria (salvation).

Following the pattern of Psalms, this Byzantine psalm begins by invoking God with a single word, Kyrie. Addressing the Lord, the sacred poet presents her hymn to Him. At the same time she summarizes the story first told by St. Luke, all the while subtly refining and deepening it.

With a long dignified phrase Kassiane the Nun introduces her subject: εν πολλαις αμαρτιαις περιπεσουσα γυνη (the woman who had fallen into many sins). More delicate and less cruel than the hymnographers who insisted on calling the sinner a πορνη. Kassiane, nevertheless, vividly describes the woman's utter degradation.

A second phrase, την σην αισθομενη θεοτητα (recognizing Your divinity), further describes an important facet of the sinner's personality. The Sinful Woman is unusually perceptive and intuitive. In contrast to Simon who doubted that Jesus was a true prophet, the woman had perceived God in His person. Burdened though she was by her multiple sins, the irony is that the social outcast alone had recognized God and responded to His presence in Simon's house.

A third phrase advances and refines still further Kassiane's version of the traditional story of the Sinful Woman. By means of three words, μυροφορου αναλαβουσα ταξι, the nun elevates the sinner to sanctity. By perceiving God and honoring Him, the Sinful Woman joined the holy ranks of myrrh-bearers, Christ's faithful women followers, who carried spices to anoint His body in the tomb and were the first to learn that He had risen from the dead.19 Thus, in Kassiane's interpretation of Saint Luke's story, the Sinful Woman becomes a saint and the first myrrhophoros. With her feminine insights and sympathies the Byzantine nun-hymnographer enriches an old familiar story. Thanks to Kassiane the Nun it acquires new dimensions of spiritual significance.

After this brief yet suggestive introduction, the second voice enters the troparion. From the lips of the Sinful Woman herself we hear her confession and prayer. In the inspired poetry of the Byzantine nun, the speechless woman of Saint Luke unburdens her soul in search for redemption. Kassiane translates the sinner's tears into passionate words. Through the device of the dramatic monologue the hymn becomes a poem of experience, enabling us to share the Sinful Woman's progress from sin to grace.

A piercing cry of despair is the Sinful Woman's first word. Οιμοι introduces a high pitch of emotion and intensity into the troparion. While the tragic pain-filled cry still rings, the sinner begins her confession. As all penitential prayers require, it begins with a confession of guilt. With a cascade of sharp, dark images she describes her spiritual desolation:

στι νυξ με συνεχει
οιστρος ακολασιας
ζοφωδης τε και ασεληνος
ερως της αμαρτιας
For night holds me in its grip
the goad of lust.
murky and moonless
the love of sin

The Sinful Woman admits responsibility for her transgressions, for her failure to control her passions. This passionate and unconditional confession is unmatched either in the Triodion or in the Psalter.

By her confession the Sinful Woman begins to emerge from the "moonless night" of her sins. She now pleads for God's mercy and pardon. Her tensions and anguish reduced, she speaks more calmly. Her three petitions mark the three stages of her Lenten journey of metanoia the "turning around" from darkness to light.

In the first petition the sinner invokes God, the Lord of nature who empties the clouds to fill the seas. To Him the Sinful Woman offers her tears, the outward visible sign of repentance. To symbolize the chasm which separates the sinful creature from the Creator, Kassiane draws a contrast between human tears and the vastness of the clouds and seas. Lesser hymnographers contented themselves with stock references to the "harlot's tears."

In the second petition the Sinful Woman moves inward from the visible and physical, to the invisible and spiritual. She asks God to "bend" toward her sorrowing heart. Instead of addressing God in terms of grandeur, transcendence and power, she appeals to God in terms of His humility and compassion, bending heaven to earth when He became human. Because Christ reconciled humanity and God, the Creator is no longer distant and beyond approach. Christ brought God to the Sinful Woman.

Confession, tears and prayer to a merciful God begin to heal the Sinful Woman to liberate her from her sin-filled past. Looking now to the future, she gratefully promises Christ to kiss His feet again and to dry them with her hair. Divine love has erased the "moonless night" of guilt and sin.

At this point Kassiane's Sinful Woman recalls Eve, the first woman who sinned. Her allusion to the episode related in Genesis 3.8-11 implies a contrast between the Sinful Woman and Eve. After Adam and Eve had eaten the forbidden fruit, they fled and hid at the sound of God's footsteps. Eve had run from God, the Sinful Woman to Him. Her trust had vanquished all fear.

Far from being a 'pedantic' intrusion in Kassiane's penitential troparion, Eve's appearance is natural, even inevitable.20 Early in the Christian era, Eve, not Adam, had been settled upon as the principal first sinner. Henceforth in sermons and hymns all women, good and bad alike, were destined to be tainted with the guilt of their first mother.21 From this taint only the Theotokos was exempt. Therefore, it is not surprising that the story of one sinful woman should suggest that of another, in this case the archetypal sinful woman. Eve and the repentant harlot appear together in many Lenten sermons and hymns, the disobedience of the first to be avoided, the metanoia of the second to be imitated.22

The troparion then concludes with the Sinful Woman's third petition. The final appeal is less formal than the preceding two petitions, its tone more direct and intimate. The Sinful Woman now addresses God as her personal Redeemer, ψυχοσωστα, Σωτηρ μου (Savior of souls, my Savior). The final words of Kassiane's troparion are spoken by the Sinful Woman.They shine with confidence and trust in God's love and mercy:

μη με την σην δουλην παριδης
ο αμετρητον εχων το μεγα ελεος.
do not ignore me, your handmaiden
for You have mercy that is beyond measure.

Thus the prayers, which began with a cry of despair and guilt, ends with a statement of faith and hope. The hymn which began with an image of a lost soul ends with the image of that soul redeemed by God's infinite loving mercy.

In between this beginning and conclusion Kassiane traces the course of a Lenten pilgrimage from the murky night of sin to the brightness of salvation, the conversion of sinner to saint. To read this troparion with understanding is to experience the sinner's exodus from anguish to peace, the passover from death to life.

Across more than ten centuries Kassiane the Nun communicates her serene belief in the transforming grace of Christ's love. The Sinful Woman of her troparion embodies Kassiane's affirmation of Lenten hope and joy. It turns out that her Sinful Woman was a true saint.

1With slight modifications this paper was given at Hellenic College on 12 November 1980.
2Of the several variants of her name I have chosen Kassiane, the one most widely used by Greek Orthodox.
3The text with a translation may be found in E. Wellesz, A History of Byzantine Music and Hymnography, 2nd ed. (Oxford, 1961), pp. 353-54; C. A. Trypanis, The Penguin Book of Greek Verse (1971), p. 435.
4Thus service has been translated by Mother Mary and Archimandrite K. Ware, The Lenten Triodion (London and Boston, 1978), pp. 535-41.
5Reproduced in Acta Sanctorum, Iunii II, (Paris and Rome, 1867), p. xx.
6Commemorated on May 29, her life was written by Constantine Acropolites, PG 140:893-935.
7C. Mango, "Historical Introduction" in Iconoclasm, ed. A. Bryer and J. Herrin (Birmingham, 1977), p. 4.
8For the careers of Eirene and Theodora see C. Diehl, Byzantine Empresses (London, 1964), pp. 65-113.
9The feast days of Eirene and Theodora fall on August 9 and February 11.
10See K. Krumbacher, Kasia (Munchen, 1897), pp. 363-64.
11All the hymns are listed and discussed by I. Rochow, Studien zu der Person, den Werken und dem Nachleben der Dichterin Kassia (Berlin, 1967), pp. 35-58.
12See my article "Thekla the Nun: In Praise of Woman" in The Greek Orthodox Theological Review 25 (1980), 353-70.
13PG 109:685 C-D. The translation is my own.
14For the prominence of women in the third Gospel, see C. F. Parvey, "The Theology and Leadership of Women in the New Testament," in Religion and Sexism, ed. R. R. Ruether (New York, 1974), pp. 138-42.
15Translation from The Jerusalem Bible.
16Translated in A Select Library of Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, 13, Pt. 2 (Grand Rapids, Mich., 1956), pp. 336-41.
17Probably the earliest hymn on the subject. See the text in P. Maas and C. A. Trypanis, Sancti Romani Melodi Cantica: Cantica Genuina (Oxford, 1963), pp. 73-80.
18H. J. W. Tillyard, "A Musical Study of the Hymns of Cassia," Byzantinische Zeitschrift 20 (1911) p. 433.
19See Mt 28.1-10. Mk 19.1-10, Lk 24.1-10, Jn 20.1-10.
20Pace Tillyard, "A Musical Study of the Hymns of Cassia," p. 432.
21I have a study underway of Eve’s image in Byzantine Hymnography.
22For example, Saint Andrew of Crete in the Great Kanon upbraids his soul for imitating Eve rather than the porne.

St Kassiane

St. Kassiane the Hymnographer

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