Holy Mothers of Orthodoxy


Eva Catafygiotu Topping


Patriarchal Prejudice and Pride in Greek Christianity
Some Notes on Origin

Κατηγορει ο Αδαμ δε τη Ευα
But Adam accuses Eve1

A telling article in The New York Times (September 13, 1981) stated that the women of Greece are "statistically shown to be more socially and economically discriminated against than their counterparts in any other Western country." This conclusion could hardly surprise anyone who is familiar with the contemporary Greek scene. Still it was shocking to read in this report that 78 percent of the illiterates in Greece were women in such recent times.

The article mentions several factors that had contributed to this situation. Among them are "the heavily patriarchal nature of Greek society the traditionalist influence of the church and a social outlook that values a woman according to her subservience and housework abilities." The critical role of the Church, a powerful social institution in Greece, is barely suggested, although the article points out that "By law women are forbidden participation in the councils of the Greek Orthodox Church." The Church has, however, played a key role in defining the female image and bolstering the values incorporated in the social and economic structures which discriminate against women.2 By its centuries-old antifeminist attitudes and practices the Church has officially in effect sanctioned the patriarchal prejudices and pride which, when institutionalized, are responsible for woman's low estate in Greece. As elsewhere in the Western world, it is true also in Greece that "Christian ideology has contributed no little to the oppression of woman."3 The "traditionalist influence" of the Greek Church on the status of women, moreover, rests on an anti-woman theology whose tenacious roots extend back into Church history for almost two thousand years and reflect the prevailing patriarchal structures of the early Christian centuries.

In this brief essay I wish to discuss the theological origins of the ideology in the Greek tradition. I must emphasize at once that the sexist theology of the Greek Church is neither a unique nor an isolated phenomenon. On the contrary it is shared historically and to varying degrees by all branches of Christianity. Together the Greek and Latin Church Fathers appealed to the same Biblical texts, such as Genesis 2:7-3:24 or I Timothy 2:11-14, for proof of male superiority and female inferiority. From them they drew identical conclusions and produced the same negative derogatory image of woman. Christian theology concerning woman belongs to a single scriptural and patristic tradition.

My observations on this subject are based primarily on my reading in Greek patristic writings and on my studies in Byzantine hymnography. As much as possible in these notes I shall let the creators of this antifeminist tradition In the Greek Church speak for themselves.

By examining the teachings of the Greek Church Fathers of the first five Christian centuries we shall better understand the background of woman's second-class status in modern Greece. That this is woman’s proper and natural place in the scheme of things, has never been more plainly and bluntly stated than by one of Orthodoxy’s most prestigious dogmatic theologians, St. Cyril of Alexandria: ηγεμονικωτατον δε αρσεν αει, και εν δευτερα ταξει το θηλυ πανταχη (for most capable of commanding is the male always, and in second class the female everywhere).4 This sweeping statement of woman’s subordinate status assumes the force of immutable eternal law, a permanent ruler-subject relationship between man and woman. With teachings similar to this the Church ratified and sanctified existing social and economic structures that oppress women.

The Fathers' anti-woman theology was founded on their conviction that woman possesses a special nature, designed for her by the Creator. In the beginning, at creation, her inferiority was made explicit. Sexist selection and interpretation of Biblical texts buttressed this basic doctrine. Generally ignoring the account of creation according to which God created male and female in His likeness and image,5 the Fathers unanimously preferred the more primitive aetiological folk-tale according to which God created Adam first and then Eve.6 Eve's creation from one of Adam's ribs therefore placed her second in the order of creation. This was interpreted to mean that not only was woman different from man but also inferior to him. This belief presented no advance on the accepted Aristotelian theory that woman was a defective male.7

Influential Fathers like Sts. John Chrysostom and Basil of Caesarea occasionally did not hesitate to refer to and even to quote the text which affirmed woman's equality with man.8 But they never utilized it in formulating their theology of woman. Instead they developed a complete ideological system on the basis of the text which could be accommodated to support patriarchal biases against women. This can be illustrated by a passage from St. Clement of Alexandria, the Christian philosopher of the second century. When God removed a rib from Adam to create Eve, Clement writes, He purged man of all softness and weakness. Consequently males are whole rather than emasculated, perfect rather than imperfect. The woman Eve was made to be man's partner in procreation and

his helper in household management. Thus the female occupies a position of secondary worth and authority. Finally, man's beard, which is "older than Eve," betokens his "superior nature."9 In this manner selected texts viewed exclusively from a male perspective served Greek Christianity's most influential teachers as incontrovertible proof of woman"s God-given inferiority. A derivative, incomplete being, totally dependent on man, and created to serve his needs, she presumably having none of her own, woman was fated from the start for second class in society and in the Church

From the voluminous corpus of Greek patristic writings that survive in the form of sermons, letters, tracts and commentaries there emerges a sharply articulated image of woman's alleged inferior nature. The description of woman as the "weaker vessel" in I Peter 3:7 provided the Fathers with a cornerstone for their theory of a γυναικαια φυσις (feminine nature). "Weakness" they declared, afflicts all women, affecting their moral as well as their physical qualities. Very rarely is woman mentioned without an accompanying reference to her inherited female liability. The Fathers lavished praise on women martyrs as much for their triumph over "female weakness" as for their heroism.10 Byzantine hymnographers later echoed this theme. There hardly exists a hymn in honor of a female saint (of whom there are many) in which a phrase like των γυναικων το ασθενες (the frailty of women) does not occur. The more disparaging phrase, to χαυνος του θηλεος (the emptiness of the female), frequently found in the hymns, accentuates the notion of "softness" which was attributed to the second sex. In the sexist vocabulary of theologians, preachers and liturgical poets alike, "woman" equals "weakness." Furthermore, even the most heroic and admired female saints did not escape the stigma of this stereotype. They had earned respect and honor because they had overcome the formidable obstacle of their "feminine nature."

This alleged female ασθηνεια (weakness) that included woman's mental abilities. Compared to man's, doomed them to be considered limited and inferior. Although St. Cyril of Alexandria was a contemporary and fellow townsman of Hypatia, the brilliant woman pagan teacher, philosopher and mathematician, yet he believed that woman's understanding was defective.11 Likewise, although St. John Chrysostom enjoyed the company of cultivated pious women disciples, he nevertheless had a low opinion of woman's mental capacity. Because of this incapacity for reason and thought he deemed it wise and necessary for women to be restricted to unimportant, undemanding domestic roles.12 Exceptional women were praised by Chrysostom for possessing ανδρων φρονημα (the will of men).13

Always in patristic writings the male provides the sole measure of worth, virtue and excellence. Celibate women were lauded for their ανδρικοι πονοι (manly labors), which often surpassed the ascetic attainments of males; holy women for their ανδρικος λογισμος; women martyrs for enduring persecution and tortures ανδρικως (in the manner of men). To become like a man (ανδριζεσθαι) represented for woman the only possible escape from the inherent inferiority of her sex.14 This patriarchal standard prevailed universally and was accepted by women as well. The famous anchoress Sarah, it is recorded, boasted to two monks that she was "a woman in body but not in spirit."15 In fact, the words γυνη (woman) and θηλυς (female) acquired such pejorative connotations that in the eulogy for his remarkable sister, St. Macrina, St. Gregory of Nyssa confessed that he hesitated to call her "woman" since she had gone "beyond the nature of a woman."16

The founding Fathers of the Church discovered and described other defects in "feminine nature." Despite the fact that the woman deacon Olympias proved herself Chrysostom's most loyal friend, the golden-tongued Archbishop of Constantinople characterized the whole female sex as fickle, superficial, lightheaded, and compulsively garrulous.17 Woman's servile mentality also did not escape his notice.18 In the view of another theologian, the female creature is so base and imperfect that "God does not stoop to look at what is feminine."19

Other Fathers added refinements to this misogynist portrait of woman. St. Epiphanies, Bishop of Constantia in Cyprus, attributed to the female sex instability, weakmindedness, frenzy, and vanity.20 (The Fathers lavishly embroidered in their sermons the theme of female vanity.) To the mind of this vigilant episcopal defender of Orthodoxy, heresies and women constituted the two chief evils which endangered law and order in the world and in the church. Epiphanius connected the two because in paradise Eve had plotted the first "heresy."21 St. Gregory of Nazianzus, honored by the Church with the title "Theologos," believed that women were naturally "ostentatious and self-indulgent."22

By their eloquent and often repeated axiomatic declarations of female faults and woman's innate inferiority the Greek Fathers, particularly the eminent Alexandrians and Cappadocians, created the negative image of woman that was to dominate in the Christian East. When the Greek Fathers were translated into the languages of the Slavs who had been evangelized by the Church of Constantinople, this image was transmitted beyond the Greek-speaking oikoumene. It is not difficult to recognize the theological ancestry of the well-known Russian proverb, "A chicken is not a bird; a woman is not a person." Many Greek proverbs are not less revealing.23

This Orthodox dogma of a special inferior "feminine nature" has not yet been relegated to the relics of the past. In the twentieth century a Russian Orthodox priest and theologian added his voice to those of the venerable Fathers when he declared that woman is a "vessel of infirmity" characterized by "inadequate self-control, irresponsibility, passion, blind judgments…"24 The point of this description is identical to that which a popular preacher made in the fifth century. Using more picturesque language, Hesychius of Jerusalem proclaimed that every female who is born is "an unsound instrument, a weak vessel, a shattered pot."25 Firmly anchored in selected sacred texts and in the authoritative pronouncements of the Greek Fathers, this pejorative and degrading icon of woman seems to have survived in spite of science, socioeconomic changes and the passage of more than a thousand years.

The same primitive creation story which is recorded in Genesis 2:13-20 and which provided the proof-text and origin of Christendom's doctrine of woman's inferiority also furnished Biblical justification for her subjection to man. For her part in the first disobedience, God sentenced Eve to pain in childbirth and to subservience to her husband: "he will rule over you."26 What was originally descriptive of the human condition in general and of woman's situation in particular became prescriptive for the Church early in its history, as is evident from the Epistles of the New Testament. On the basis of Genesis 3:16 the writers of these Epistles proclaimed woman's subjection to man as God's immortal design for the relationship between male and female. Because Eve was the first to eat the forbidden fruit, women were doomed to "complete subjection." For, it is explained, "Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor.27 Concluding from this evidence that Eve was to blame for the appearance of evil in the world, the Fathers designated her the "mother" or the "author" of sin.28 Thus is woman's enslavement to man justified, a consequence of Eve's disastrous misbehavior in Eden. Chrysostom imagines a scene in which God sternly tells Eve she must accept responsibility for her fate.29

Already strictly enforced by ancient customs and law codes the suppression and debasement of half of the human race gained religious sanction at the hands of the Church. The Apostle commands all Christian women to be subservient to men "in all things."30 Υπσταγη (submission) and υποτασσεσθαι (to be obedient) are the key words in the relevant passages.31

With one accord the Fathers accepted and taught this oligarchic relationship as normative. Being the "head" of woman, the male commands, and the female submits.32 Chrysostom describes woman's status as essentially subordinate υποτακτικος.33 St. Gregory of Nyssa declares that by "divine commandment" a wife is "not mistress (κυρια) of herself. So complete is woman's subservience and dependence on her husband that Gregory concludes "if she is separated from him even briefly it is as if she has been deprived of her head."34

Woman's subordination to man further entailed unconditional silence in public. The Fathers quoted with approval35 and rigorously enforced the mandate of I Corinthians 14:34-35: "Women are to be quiet in church, for they have no permission to speak. They are to be submissive… for it is a shame (αισχρον) for women to speak in church."36 As a result, for almost two millennia women remained not only silent but illiterate as well. The few women who were educated and brave enough to defy this apostolic prohibition encountered harsh patriarchal disapproval. One such spirited woman was a nun named Theodosia who lived in the fifth century. To this bold nun St. Nilus, the prominent abbot of a monastery near Ancyra, wrote the following letter, "It happens," he reminds her, "that your body makes you a woman, whether you like it or not. So stop teaching men in the church. For the Apostle made it clear that this is shameful, even though you may say ten thousand times that you have transcended the female condition, and that you are more steadfast than men…37 Because by her διδασκαλια (instruction) Eve had caused Adam to go astray, women were forever barred from teaching in the Church.38

Some Fathers nevertheless worried that women who had been deprived of their voices might circumvent the Apostle by resorting to the pen and the written word. Didymus the Blind, a learned Christian teacher in cosmopolitan Alexandria, voiced this fear when he wrote that women must not write books "without restraint and on their own authority."39

By the fifth century the Greek Fathers had established what has proved to be a durable Orthodox theology of women. There is no comparable theology of men. Equipped with appropriate sacred texts, exegesis, typology and vocabulary, all tilted against woman upon whom it enjoins silence, segregation and subjection, this theology served not only subsequent generations of preachers, prelates, and teachers, but the liturgical poets of Greek Christendom as well. From choir stalls and pulpits alike male voices formed a chorale, reiterating the traditional anti-woman icon of Eve and the whole female species. Because Eve is seen to be reincarnated in each of her daughters, all women are included in a single pejorative image.

The vitality and success of this sexist theology can be readily documented in Byzantine hymnography. In hymns throughout the liturgical cycle Eve appears as the most prominent symbol of womanhood. Whether monks, bishops, patriarchs, or hymn-writing emperors, the Byzantine hymnographers consistently disparaged women, Eve the "first mother" along with her female descendants. It was, in fact, the patent misogynism in the magnificent hymns of St. Romanos the Melodos that first attracted my attention to this aspect of Orthodox theology. Following the example of the Church Fathers, Christendom's prince of liturgical poets absolves Adam of all responsibility in the Fall, and expresses sympathy for him, Eve's first victim. In a particularly vehement passage, Romanos attacks Eve for being ";more serpent-like than the serpent."40 Elsewhere he accuses Eve of ;teaching Adam how to disobey God."41

Named only once in the Hebrew Bible and twice in the New Testament,42 Eve achieved stellar status in sacred poetry, a reflection of her prominence in the patristic discussions of women. In hymnic compositions spanning a millennium the same negative vocabulary and imagery is used to describe woman's nature and to validate her subjection to man. A survey of the words that are most frequently associated in the hymns with "woman" and with Eve will prove instructive. The terms that are mentioned below occur with the inevitability and regularity of the Homeric stock epithet, thereby establishing the characteristic features of the feminine ethos and condition.43

Αισχος and ονειδος (disgrace) are used to remind women that they are creatures of shame. With the single exception of Mary, the mother of Jesus, all women are implicated in the "disgrace of Eve." Απατη (deceit) suggests the dangers of woman's seductive powers. Hosios Lazarus, a male saint commemorated on November 7, is lauded by the hymnographer for successfully resisting, unlike Adam, "Eve's guile." Καταρα and αρα (curse) convey the malignant influences of the female species. "The curse of the first mother Eve" is a stock phrase in the hymns. Very rarely do we find the word "curse" attached to Adam's name.

Declared by the Fathers to be the first cause and the origin of sin, Eve is over and over again connected with the word αμαρτια (sin). A favorite expression is "Eve the instrument of sin." In Lenten hymns she is presented as the principal paradigm which the faithful must avoid imitating. Thus in Orthodoxy's most famous penitential hymn, the Great Canon of St. Andrew of Crete, the sacred poet laments that his soul "has become like Eve."44 In these Lenten hymns women sinners significantly outnumber the men, repentant harlots being a favorite subject.45

Several words occur frequently to emphasize that Eve is the protagonist in the tragedy of Eden and the loss of paradise. Παραβασις (transgression), derived from 1 Timothy 2:14, marks woman as the first person to violate God's commandments. In a hymn sung on November 21 we read this verse: "from her came transgression long ago to the human race." Παρακοη (disobedience) described in a popular troparion as an illness transmitted by Eve, also connects woman with the first act of willful insubordination to God. The sacred poets always underline Eve's disobedience, conveniently forgetting to mention Adam's. Likewise, πτωσις and εκπτοσις (fall) are repeatedly attached to Eve's name. This motif appears most commonly in hymns to female saints. The martyrdoms of these daughters of Eve cancel the "fall of the first mother." These blessed females win halos and hymns for not imitating their first ancestress, and for surmounting the handicaps of their sex.

The contrast between Eve and these exceptional women is further developed in these hymns. Ηττα (defeat) is tied to Eve's name; νιχη (victory) to theirs. For example, this contrast appears in a hymn written by the patriarch Germanos in honor of the forty women martyrs whose memory is celebrated on September 1, at the beginning of the liturgical calendar.

The "defeat of Eve" is, however, most conspicuously canceled by her unique daughter, Mary the Theotokos. In a hymn honoring St. Bassa (August 21), martyred together with her three sons, we find a typical expression of this recurrent motif: "Now you have retracted the failure of the first mother Eve…O Mother of God, you who alone are blessed among women."

Repeating a popular patristic theme, the hymnographers charged Eve with responsibility for all the evils and troubles that afflict humankind. When Kassia, a spirited young lady in ninth-century Constantinople, rejected this doctrine of a Christian Pandora, she lost out in the competition for an emperor's heart and the imperial throne of Byzantium. Theophilos wanted a submissive wife, not an independent-minded champion of her sex. Kassiane should have held her tongue in apostolic obedience.

Among the multitude of evils which Eve bequeathed to her children death is her most dreaded legacy. A woman, the first sinner, was blamed for the introduction of death into human experience. Initially stated in Ecclesiastes 25:24, "thanks to her we must all die," this charge haunts Eve in countless Byzantine hymns. One well-known hymn begins with those words- Θανατου μεν αιτια η Ευα (the cause of death is Eve). Named "Eve" by Adam because she was the mother of all those who live,46 she is transformed by Christian myth into the bearer of death.

Like other major themes associated with Eve this one figures conspicuously in the rich corpus of Marian hymns. For example, in the troparion whose first line was just quoted above, the poet explains that the Theotokos is "deservedly hymned" because, in contrast to Eve who brought death into the world, she is the "agent (προξενος) of immortality and life."

Inaugurated by the Fathers, an intricately developed typology became the foundation of the antithesis between Eve and Mary, the "first mother" and "God's mother." This typology uniformly exalts the latter and degrades the former. Joy, life, redemption and incorruptibility are associated with Mary; with Eve, sorrow, death, condemnation and corruption.

Judicial metaphors, καταδικη (condemnation) and κατακριμα (judgment) convey the idea of Eve's crime and punishment. An extensive vocabulary for "grief" describes her permanent condition: δακρυα, λυπη, οδυνη, στεναγμος, σκυθρωπος, συντριμμα, ωδινες (tears, sorrow, pain, sighing, gloomy, ruin, pangs of childbirth). Used repeatedly they create an indelible image of woman bowed down by sorrow and bondage that, according to the Christian myth of Eve, she has brought upon herself.

From woman's perspective it is ironical that Christianity's antifeminist stance should manifest itself so dramatically in encomia and hymns to a woman. Mary is glorified in part at the expense of Eve and her other daughters. The unique destiny and glory of the Theotokos effectively separates her from her lesser sisters. In the phrases of numerous Marian hymns the Theotokos stands "above women" "above nature," "alone among women." While Mary is adored as the "only" good, pure, blameless and holy woman all other women continue to be oppressed by burdens of shame and inferiority which they have inherited on account of Eve. Although the Theotokos is hailed as woman's λυτροσις (deliverance), history reveals otherwise. Woman still waits for her liberation from the restrictive bonds imposed upon her by patriarchal prejudice and pride which are perpetuated by the Church.

It is difficult, even impossible, to measure fully the cumulative effect of this sexist theology on Greek society and culture. Unchallenged since its formulation in the early centuries of Christianity and hence unreformed, it has exerted powerful pressures in support of patriarchal attitudes, practices and institutions in Greece, as well as in all of Orthodoxy. The statistical study to which I referred in the opening sentences of this essay, however, indicates one measure of its continuing effect. The "traditionalist influence" of the Church upon the condition of the female population of Greece apparently has not diminished significantly enough. To raise the issue of woman in relation to a religious system is by no means irrelevant to the problem of her struggle for equality and dignity. Rather it is to understand and to challenge fundamental assumptions and entrenched traditions that discriminate against Greek women.


1“But Adam accuses Eve.” From a primitive kontakion on paradise lost, P. Maas, Frűhbyzantishche Kirchepoesie (Bonn, 1910), 14. The first to blame it on Eve, Adam was not the last. (I wish to thank Professor Elizabeth A. Clark of Duke University for her helpful reading of this essay.)
2On the significance of religion for the "woman question" see the valuable essays in Rosemary Radford Ruether, ed., Religion and Sexism: Images of Woman in the Jewish and Christian Traditions (New York, 1974)
3Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex, trans. and ed. H. M. Parshley (New York, 1974), 109.
4Migne, Patrologia Graeca 68. 1068 C. (hereafter cited as PG)
5Genesis 1:26-27, in the theological account of creation by the “Priestly” writer. It is repeated in Genesis 5:1-2
6Genesis @:7, 21-22, in the narrative account by the "Yahwistic" writer.
7De Generatione Animalium 728 A.17ff. For the widespread influence of Aristole's "scientific" proof of female inferiority see Vern L. Bullough, "Medieval Medical and Scientific Views of Women," Viator 4 (1973):485-501.
8E.g., Basil PG 30, 33 C-36 A, discussed by Maryanne Cline Horowitz, "The Image of God in Man-Is Woman Included?" Harvard Theological Review 72 (1979): 198-199.
9PG 8. 581 A-B. Clement excluded women from intellectual pursuits, believing that spinning and weaving were suited to their limited capacities.
10E.g., the Apostolic Father Clement of Rome, PG 1. 220-221; St. John Chrysostom, PG 50.687.
11PG 74. 689 B, 691 C-692 C-D., The women of Eqypt enjoyed a high status unique in the ancient world. Cf. Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex, 997-98.
12PG 62. 500
13PG 50. 635.
14E.g., Clement of Alexandria, PG 8,.1260 C; Gregory of Nazianzus, PG 35. 797 C; Basil of Seleukia, PG 85. 44 B.
15PG 65. 420 D. Sara is one of the several "Desert Mothers" whose ascetic accomplishments were admired and thus rescued from oblivion. Women's acceptance of the male standard of superiority can further be illustrated by the words of a twelfth-century Byzantine empress, Eirene Ducas. When she founded a monastery in Constantinople she prayed that the Theotokos would endow the nuns "those feminine souls with virile virtues." Quoted from C. Diehl, Byzantine Empresses (London, 1963),211.
16PG 46. 960 B.
17PG 61. 316; 62. 543.
18PG47. 510-511.
19Origen, PG 12, 296, D-297 A.
20PG 42. 740 D, 745 B.
21PG 42. 752 D-753 A.
22PG 35. 800 A

23See the remarkable collection Παροιμιαι δημωδεις collected and edited by I. Venizelos, 2nd ed. (Hermoupolis: Syria, 1867), passim.
24Quoted from A Treasury of Russian Spirituality, ed. G.P. Fedotov (New York, 1965),430.
25Les Homelies festalies d' Hesychius de Jerusalem I, ed. M. Aubineau (Brussels, 1978), 26.
26Genesis 3:16
27I Timothy 1:14
28Theophilos of Antioch, PG 6. 1096 A; St. Athanasius of Alexandria, PG 27. 240 D.
29PG 54. 594.
30Ephesians 5:24
31Colossians 3:18; I Peter 3:1; I Timothy 2:11; Ephesians 5:24.
32I Corinthians 11:1-3
33PG 46.332 C.
34Homily 20.1 In Ephsios (II 144 A).
35PG 62. 543-545. Chrysostom represents patristic consensus on the subject.
36Repeated in I Timothy 2:12-14.
37PG 79. 249 D.
38PG 39. 989 A.
40Canticum 51 On Fasting, ι' 4. P. Maas and C. A. Trypanis, Sancti Romani Meoldi Cantica: Cantica Genuina (Oxford, 1963), 445.
41Canticum 19 Mary at the Cross, L' 4. ibid., 146.
42Genesis 3:20, I Timothy 2:13; II Corinthians 11:3.
43Since this vocabulary is so generously distributed in the hymns I shall not give references
44PG 97. 1332 A. In a Lenten sermon St. Basil instructs his congregation not to imitate Eve (PG 31, 168 B).
45Especially the sinful woman whose story is recorded in Luke 7:36-50. Another reformed harlot, St. Mary of Egypt, is celebrated on the fifth Sunday of Lent.
46Genesis 3:20.

Three Hierarchs

The Three Hierarchs:
St. Basil the Great, St. John Chrysostom, and St. Gregory the Theologian
Jan. 30

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