Holy Mothers of Orthodoxy

by

Eva Catafygiotu Topping


Make a Joyful Noise!

manifested in the Incarnation, God become human. Kassia's famous troparion, for example, is a hymn to divine love extended to a fallen woman. Likewise, they sang with confidence of theosis, the deification of fallen humanity. One of our women hymnodists, Theodosia, proclaims that she herself is becoming like God. Furthermore, the hymnographers of Byzantium formed one harmonious choir to exalt the Theotokos, the woman from whom God took on human flesh. In that choir there exists one female voice, that of Thekla. Finally, all the liturgical poets composed hymns in honor of the saints, filling volume after volume.

Faithful servants of God, Byzantium's men and women hymnographers dedicated their souls and talents to the Church enriching with their songs the services of all its liturgical cycles. In return, the Orthodox Church honors its sacred poets, enrolling many of them among the saints. To cite only a few, Saints Andrew of Crete (July 4), John Damascene (December 4), Kosmas of Maiouma (October 14), Romanos the Melodos (October 1). In icons and frescoes the canonized poets carry scrolls inscribed with verses from their hymns. Golden halos encircle their heads.

Although the long list of poet-saints includes some minor and mediocre figures, no woman hymnographer appears in it. Even Kassiane is excluded, despite the fact that the Byzantines recognized her as a hymnographer of the first rank, and despite the fact that her hymns, along with those of her sister hymnographers, are unimpeachably Orthodox.

Both the denial of canonization to Kassia and the disproportionately small number of women can be explained by the second-class status of women in Byzantine society and culture. One of Christendom's most prestigious dogmatic theologians, St. Cyril of Alexandria, had bluntly proclaimed that "the male must always be in command, and in second class the female everywhere." Thus women in Byzantium were discriminated against legally, socially, economically and ecclesiastically as well.

Women endured segregation in church standing apart from their fathers, sons, brothers and husbands. Because the Church strictly enforced the apostolic prohibition against women's voices being heard in church, women were sentenced to eternal silence. Confirmed by the dual authority of the Scriptures and the Church Fathers. ecclesiastical teaching and practice asserted and justified woman's inferiority and her subordination to man. Denied letters, learning and voices, women were categorically confined to home and family. Illiteracy was inevitably the fate of the masses of Byzantine women.

Few women, those fortunate enough to be members of the aristocracy or imperial families, enjoyed the privilege of Greek letters and learning. Anna Comnena, the world's first woman historian, was the daughter of an emperor. The name of one of our four women hymnographers, Palaiologina, testifies to her imperial lineage. Kassia, according to the sources, belonged to an aristocratic family in Constantinople. We may assume that Theodosia and Thekla came from the same privileged social class. All four were educated privately at home by tutors.

Piety and mere literacy, however, did not suffice for the successful writing of hymns. In addition to thorough knowledge of liturgy and Scriptures, literary skills that could be attained only by careful education and practice were required. To write hymns one had to be logios or logia (educated, erudite). It is not therefore surprising that women constitute such a tiny minority among Byzantium's sacred poets.

Besides a common social and educational background, our quartet of hymnwriting women shared a common vocation. They were all nuns. Being monachai, they lived in convents that sheltered them from the distractions of life in the world. In the convents, furthermore, women gained freedom from the restrictions and obligations which ancient customs and laws imposed upon them as daughters, wives and mothers. Equally important is the fact that women in the religious community were liberated from the discriminatory restraints placed upon them by canon law and practices in parish chapels and churches. In Byzantine convents women regained their voices, to teach, sing and pray aloud. Elsewhere it was "decreed that woman shall not speak in church, not even softly or an undertone, nor should they sing along or take part in the responses…" Only in nunneries could pious and talented women like our four hymnographers find opportunity and encouragement to add to the church's repertory of hymns.

Three of our women hymnographers were contemporaries living in the same city. Theodosia, Thekla and Kassia lived in convents located in Constantinople. From this "God-protected" capital with its seven hills crowded with palaces and churches, a monarch ruled the empire, while a patriarch governed the church. Thus our hymnographer-nuns dwelled close to the center of imperial and ecclesiastical power.

To some extent the lives of Theodosia, Thekla and Kassiane must have overlapped. They were equally fortunate to have been alive in the ninth century. During these critical decades Byzantine women, especially those in Constantinople, assumed exceptionally prominent and activist roles in the affairs of government and Church. When the ninth century began, a woman ruled the empire in her own right. Athenian-born Eirene signed herself "Great Basileus and Autokrator of the Romans." Except for the army no one expressed outrage. Earlier in 787 Eirene had restored Orthodoxy and the veneration of