Holy Mothers of Orthodoxy


Eva Catafygiotu Topping

Thekla the Nun: In Praise of Woman

In the prologue of the Theotokarion published in Venice in 1796 Nikodemos Hagioreites listed and described twenty-two holy and inspired melodes, the authors of the sixty-two kanons in honor of the Theotokos included in his collection.1 Beginning with the name of Saint Andrew of Crete, whom Byzantine tradition credited with the creation of the kanon, this list included many of Byzantium's most illustrious hymnographers. Among them are named Saints John Damascene, Theodore the Studite, Joseph the Hymnographer and John Mauropus of Euchaita. In this thiasos of hymn-writing monks, abbots, and bishops, two figures stand out conspicuously: one emperor, Theodore II Laskaris of Nicaea (reg. 1254-1258), and one woman, Thekla. Nikodemos ends his list with her name: χαι Θεκλα η γλυχυτατη Ηχω.2

Thekla the Nun, as she is most frequently identified,3survives in a single a hymn,4 a kanon in honor of the Theotokos.5 Thanks to this hymn found in a number of manuscripts,6 this ninth-century nun joins an exclusive group of Byzantine women hymnographers.7 Three contemporaries, Kassia,8 Thekla, and Theodosia,9 along with Palaiologina, who probably lived in the fifteenth century,10 comprise this small group. All four composed kanons. All four were nuns. Kassiane and Theodosia were 'pieuses abbesses' of convents in the imperial city of Constantinople.11 It is probable that Thekla was also an abbess. Judging from the strong personality projected in her kanon, Thekla too might have governed a convent while composing sacred poetry.

In fact, Thekla's kanon reveals that she was more than a sweet echo, the author of hymns. She was a self-confident woman, proud not only of herself, but also of her sex. In her encomium to the Theotokos the most exalted of all women, Thekla did not hesitate to praise other lesser women, the women martyrs and the consecrated virgins of the Church.

Women indeed, dominate Thekla's hymn. It was written by a woman, about women and for women. The few masculine figures who appear in it are related to the Theotokos: Joachim, her father;12 Moses,13 Jacob,14 and Gideon,15 whose experiences of the deity prefigured God's birth from a virgin mother; Christ, Mary's divine Son.16

From the first to the last verse the Theotokos is the principal figure, the object of Thekla's encomium. She is the 'Thou'to whom the poet addresses all but three strophes.17 With a graceful image the encomiast introduces her subject at the beginning of the first ode. It is a ceremonial presentation to the Theotokos of Thekla's hymn:

Εγκωμιων σοι
νυν εξυφαινει πνευματι
η εκκλησια,σεμνη
Now, O Holy One,
The church spiritually weaves for you
an everlasting crown of praises.
The church, humble
—vv. 1-4

The ekklesia (another feminine figure) formally presents to the Theotokos an everlasting crown of praise. Likewise, all six prayers of the kanon are addressed to the Mother of God.18 Throughout the reader is aware of the benevolent power and presence of the Theotokos.

The second ubiquitous feminine presence is that of the sacred poet herself. Thekla stands always before the Theotokos, offering to her both praise and prayer.19 Seldom does she withdraw from the foreground. Her voice is heard in the liturgical 'we' as well as in the first person singular. Thekla signs the kanon with her name in the acrostic. She also proudly pays homage to her patron saint, Thekla the Protomartyr.

In addition, women from the Scriptures and apocrypha are named in this kanon. Ann, the mother of the Theotokos is mentioned once.20 Thekla alludes to three episodes from the New Testament in which women are the protagonists. These allusions were undoubtedly immediately recognized by Thekla's congregation of nuns. In vv. 61-64 she echoes the acclamation of the unknown woman in Luke 1l.27-28. The refrain of Ode Ζ', repeated four times, is derived from Elizabeth's salutation to Mary on the occasion of her visit after the Annunciation, recorded in Luke 1.46. Finally in a personal prayer Thekla likens herself and her hymn to the widow who gave her mite, as related in Mark 12.41-44 and Luke 21.1-4.21

Nor are references to women in general lacking. There are at least a half dozen references to the female sex. The word γυναχες and the phrase η φσις του θηλεος each occurs three times.22 Nuns are specifically referred to twice.23

In several respects Thekla's kanon is unique in the extensive published corpus of Byzantine hymnography. I know of no comparable hymn. Although for a millennium male hymnographers in Byzantium sang the praises of the Theotokos, this hymn is the only one by a woman which has survived. Women martyrs were also hymned by male bards in Byzantium. Masculine prejudice and condescension, however, all too often marred their hymns. In Thekla's canon women are treated with the respect which was usually denied them in the sacred poetry of the Church.24

Thekla the Nun was fortunate in the time of her life. In the history of the ninth century, women figured prominently in various ways. Empresses, hymnographers, nuns, and lay women helped secure the victory of Orthodoxy over iconoclasm. A disapproving historian gave them due credit: "The idols, for such they were now held, were secretly cherished by the order and sex most prone to devotion; and the fond alliance of the monks and females obtained a final victory over the reason and authority of man."25

When the century opened, a woman ruled the empire in her own right, boldly signing herself Basileus. Athenian-born Eirene was Europe's first woman, monarch.26 In 787 she had restored Orthodoxy and the veneration of icons, ending five decades of tumultuous conflict. Iconoclasm was finally liquidated by another empress in 843. After the death of her husband, Theophilos, Theodora returned Church and empire to the path of Orthodoxy. Eirene and Theodora are both commemorated on the Feast of Orthodoxy when a grateful Church acknowledges its debt to two imperial Orthodox women.

From the beginning of the iconoclastic controversy in the eighth century women of all social classes, nuns and laywomen alike, had proven themselves to be staunch iconophiles, loyal to the traditions of the Church. They endured persecutions and suffered martyrdom in defense of icons. Theodosia of Constantinople, a nun, was one of the first iconoclastic martyrs. When the first iconoclastic emperor, Leo the Isaurian, ordered in 729 the removal of the icon of Christ from the Chalke Gate, a "crowd of zealots and women"27 led by Theodosia tried to prevent the desecration. Martyred for her faith, this activist nun quickly became the object of a popular cult in Constantinople.28

During this crisis women went beyond their conventional pursuits, whether private or religious, and participated publicly in the defense of traditional Orthodox beliefs and practices. It is no accident that three of the four women hymnographers of Byzantium belong to this period. Kassia, Thekla, and Theodosia all responded to the challenge and threat of iconoclasm. From the correspondence of Theodore the Studite we learn that Kassia suffered persecution because she assisted iconodule prisoners and exiles.29 Theodosia composed a canon in honor of Saint Ioannikios soon after the death of this iconophile champion.30 In her kanon Thekla proclaims the triumph of Orthodoxy and honors the women of the Church who made it possible.

At the same time Thekla's kanon discloses her own autobiography. This Byzantine woman, typical of her time, was a devout Orthodox believer. She was also a sacred poet and nun, dedicating herself entirely to the ekklesia. Accepting the Christian vision of women and the position assigned to them, Thekla fulfilled herself. In the course of this essay we shall discover the woman behind the sweet echo described in Nikodemos' prologue.

Thekla's encomium is a conventional kanon composed of nine odes (actually eight in number since the second ode is almost always omitted).31 Set in the second tone, it was composed to be sung at vespers on Tuesday. Unlike Kassia who sometimes composed new melodies for her hymns,32 Thekla used older well known heirmoi for the odes of her kanon.33 Together with the kathisma,34 the kanon consists of one hundred ninety-eight verses, divided into strophes of varying lengths, the shortest being four verses long and the longest, nine.

Twenty-seven of the thirty-two strophes appear to be original compositions by Thekla. The other five, the final strophes of Odes Γ', ΣΤ', Ζ', Η', Θ', are also found in a kanon attributed to Klement, thus producing a difficult problem of authorship.35 Formed by the initial letters of the strophe, the acrostic varies according to the arrangement of the strophes. In the text published by Eustratiades the name of Klement appears along with that of Thekla in the acrostic Εγχ[ωμι]αζει την Θεοτχον Θεχλα Κλημεντος.36

In the text of Nikodemos, however, the strophes are so arranged that only Thekla's name appears in the acrostic, formed by the initial letters of the last two odes.37 Despite the confusion and uncertainties which result from the inclusion of the five strophes attributed to Klement, there seems to be no reason to deny Thekla's authorship of the kanon. A feminine point of view prevails throughout, distinctive and clear.

Although Thekla's voice is the only one heard, it does not become monotonous. She varies her voice by speaking sometimes in the liturgical 'we,' and at other times in the individual 'I.' Here, as in many Byzantine hymns, the liturgical and individual voices coexist harmoniously. Within a single hymn the sacred poet may speak both for the Church and for himself. To these two frequently heard voices Thekla adds a third, seldom heard in Byzantine hymnography. In the final ode she speaks in behalf of a particular group inside the larger community of the Church, in behalf of women consecrated to God. Exceptionally, the Byzantine convent is heard in Thekla's kanon. The same rare voice again is heard in Kassia's hymn for Holy Saturday.38

Since Thekla composed her encomium to the Theotokos for use in the liturgy, she appropriately speaks most often in the first person plural, which embraces the sacred poet and the congregation. Thus, 'we' the Church praise the Theotokos:

Μυστικως ανυμνουμεν σε
μητερ Θεον, φωναις δρθοδοξιας
Spiritually we praise you
O Mother of God, with voices of Orthodoxy
—vv. 65-66

From the frequent repetition of verbs of 'hymning' in the first person plural evolves a dynamic image of Thekla and the ekklesia singing the praises of the Theotokos.39 The sacred poet accomplishes her diakonia, enabling the Church to sing with Gabriel.40

Likewise, the same communal voice of the Church is heard in three liturgical prayers, each addressed to the Theotokos.41 In the first of these the people of the Church appeal to the Theotokos, their refuge and protector. This prayer expresses the unquenchable trust of the Byzantines in the Theotokos:

και σωτηριου πολιν σε
παντες πιστως πρεσβευομεν42
Μαρια μητηρ Χριστου
και δεομεθα θερμως
δεξαι τας δεησεις ημων των σων πιστων
With faith we all beseech you
the refuge and city of salvation
And we urgently beg you
Mary Mother of Christ
accept these prayers
of your faithful servants
—vv. 28-34

Byzantium's sacred poets, however, did not always conceal themselves within the solemn petitions which they pronounced for the corporate praying Church. Very often the poet prayed for himself alone. In these prayers he combined petitions for personal salvation with appeals for poetic inspiration. With such a prayer Saint Romanos the Melodos concluded one of his masterpieces, asking God to forgive his sins and to grant beauty and truth to his hymn.43

Thekla includes two private or personal prayers in her kanon. The first appears as the kathisma, at the end of Ode ΣΤ'. Modeled on the heirmos Ευσπλαγχνιας υπαρχουσα πηγη it is a penitential prayer.44 In contrast to the model which is a liturgical prayer, Thekla's prayer is intensely personal, concerned solely with the welfare of her own soul:

Ραθυμιαν ψυχης μου την χαλεπην
και καρδιας μου πωρωσιν, μητερ Θεου
The sad indifference of my soul
and the hardness of my hearts,
O Mother of God
—vv. 105-106

As an individual suppliant the poet addresses an intimate appeal to the Theotokos.45 Using the first person singular pronoun four times in the six verses, Thekla beseeches the Theotokos who is her only recourse,

Η μονη ελπις μου και παρακλησις my only hope and prayer
—v. 110

The tone of contrition which dominates the first prayer disappears completely from the second, with which the final ode begins. Here Thekla is the sacred poet bearing gifts of praise to the Theotokos. Notwithstanding the topos of modesty which is expressed in comparison to the widow and her mite, Thekla's words convey personal dignity and professional pride in her vocation as church poet:

Κλινον μοι το ους σου, Παρθενε
παναγια, ανυμνουση πιστως
Δι εγκωμιων λογων τον τοκον σου
και ωσ δωρα χηριακα
τους υμνους των χειλεων μου
προσδεχομενη αιτησαι
αμαρτιων μου την συγχωρησιν.
Incline your ear, O All-Holy Virgin
to me who faithfully glorifies your Son
with words of praise
and receiving hymns
of my lips
like the widow's gifts
grant forgiveness of my sins.
—vv. 171-177

At the beginning of the kanon it was the ekklesia which offered the hymn. At the end it is the hymnographer herself who steps forward alone and offers the hymn created by her faith and talent.

Nor did Thekla hesitate to project herself as an individual Orthodox believer. Twice with her personal conviction she buttressed Orthodox dogma on the Incarnation. In the first instance she shifts within the same strophe from the first person plural of the apostolic χηρυττομεν to the pronoun in the first person singular, thus separating herself from the community to which she belonged:

Θρονον σε Θεου του Λογου
κηρυττομεν, Θεοτοκε
εν φως βροτος δ Θεος
καθημενος ωπται μοι
We proclaim you the throne of the Word of God
O Theotokos
on which God sits
appeared as a human being to me.
—vv. 74-77

What the Church teaches, Thekla confirms on the basis of her experience.

A similar insistence and reliance on her own religious experience marks the second passage. But here there is no shift from the corporate to the individual. With the poetic and visionary language of a mystic Thekla insists on the truth of the Incarnation and on Mary's part in it:

Ουρανος ουρανων υψηλοτερος
ωφθης, Θεονυμφευτε, τη θεια δοξη σου.
εν σοι γαρ ο Θεος ημων
δλικως εποχουμενος ωφθη μοι.
You were seen, O Bride of God
O Theotokos, a heaven higher than the heavens
in your divine glory
For wholly contained in you, our God was seen by me.
—vv. 93-96

These words express Thekla's deeply felt beliefs, the Orthodoxy which iconoclasm had endangered.

Finally, Thekla speaks in her person as a nun. At the end of the kanon the third voice is heard when she identifies herself and her congregation as nuns. Her encomium was composed for performance in the convent. It contains hymns and prayers that belong to the world hidden behind the encircling walls of a convent.

From a rich hymnic and homiletic tradition Thekla borrowed the materials out of which she wove her 'crown of encomia' for the Theotokos. Orthodox theology of the Incarnation and of Mary's unique relationship to God provided the foundation of her kanon. Although Thekla's veneration of the Theotokos borders, by her own confession, on worship, she nevertheless does not exaggerate Mary's power.46 Nor does she isolate the mother from the Son, being always careful to associate Mary with Christ. In the personal prayers Thekla explicitly appeals to the Theotokos for her mediation.47

The vocabulary and themes which Thekla employed in the ninth century already had a long lineage of Byzantine hymnography. They can be traced back through the Akathistos Hymnos, the most famous of all Marian hymns, to an anonymous primitive kontakion written soon after the Council of Ephesos (431 A.D.), and to fifth-century Marian sermons as well.48 The same epithets, titles, images and typology used by Thekla are common to all the kanons found in the Theotokaria, whose dates of composition range from the eighth to the fifteenth century. From all these Marian hymns Thekla's kanon is distinguished only by its feminine accent and perspective. From an unknown convent, probably in Constantinople, comes a woman's joyful song of praise to the Theotokos and her spiritual daughters, the women of the Church.

From the verses of Thekla's encomium a luminous icon of the Theotokos becomes readily visible. The kanon begins with a reference to the Annunciation, when the angel appeared to Mary and she accepted her destiny, agreeing to become the mother of God.49 In the second ode two strophes are devoted to the Nativity of the Theotokos, the beginning of mankind's salvation.50 Numerous references to the Nativity of Christ point to the cause of Mary's glory. Nowhere is it forgotten that her doxa derives from the great mystery of her motherhood. The noun τοχος and verbs "to give birth" occur frequently.51 Seven times Thekla uses the word Theotokos, Mary's most exalted title.52 She is also called Meter Theou six times and once Meter Christou.53 Thekla recalls that Mary's maternity had been prefigured in the Old Testament. Moses and the burning bush on Sinai, Jacob's vision of the ladder joining earth to heaven, and the dew on Gideon's fleece had all foreshadowed God's birth on earth from a virgin.54

The hymnodist claims, however, that nothing in sacred history had ever equaled Mary's doxa.55 To describe this unparalleled glory Thekla resorts to comparisons. The first of the three is the longest. At the beginning of the fifth ode the poet triumphantly proclaims Mary's superiority to the old dispensation embodied in the Law and Ark:

Νομου σε τιμιωτεραν
της κιβωτου ανυμνουμεν.
τον γαρ παντων κτιστην και Θεον
ου πλακας εβαστασας.
πανυμητε Θεοτοκε Μαρια
We exalt you more than the Ark
of the Law.
For you bore the Creator
and God of all, not the ablest,
worthy of all praise, Theotokos Mary.
—vv. 69-73

The second comparison, in the same ode, sets the Theotokos above the cherubim.56 The third, in the sixth ode, declares Mary more sublime than the heavens.57

Other hieratic epithets and titles elaborate the theme of Mary's majestic maternity: γη αγια58 θρονον Θεου;59 νεος παραδεισος;60 γεωργησασα αμπελον61 αγια and σεμνη.62 Superlatives and theophoric compounds also occur: παναγια63 πανυμνητος; υπερενδοξος; θεοχαριτωτος; θεονυμφευτος.64

Thekla praises Mary not only as the Mother of God but also as mankind's benefactor. Her generations are many and universal. By giving birth to God, she reconciled man to God.65 Reconciliation leads to salvation. Gratitude for salvation made possible by Mary fills the second strophe of the eighth ode:

Θελγεται πασα η Χριστου
εκκλησια Θεοτοκε, σου τω τοκω
οτι σωζονται παντες
αμαρτωλοι και πτωχοι
οι ποθ
εν σοι καταφευγοντες
The whole church of Christ delights
in your birth giving, O Theotokos,
because all sinners and poor in spirit
fleeing to you longingly are saved.
For like a good calm harbor you rescued
them from a harsh storm.
—vv. 159-154

By means of a familiar nautical metaphor Thekla describes the protection which the Theotokos offers troubled humanity:66

λιμην ως ευδιος
διεσωσας εσ ζαλης πικρας
Like a calm harbor
saved from a bitter storm
—vv. 26-27

Byzantine hopes of security, collectively and individually, rested in the Theotokos. The Byzantines also looked to Mary as the source of eternal life,67 joy,68 and freedom.69 The bright gifts of heaven came to them through the mediation of the Theotokos.

From the Theotokos' blessings to humanity in general Thekla singled out those which relate particularly to her sex. Our hymn writing nun celebrates the Theotokos as the liberator of women. A major theme of the kanon and important to Thekla's love for the Theotokos, it is introduced in the third strophe of the third ode. The verb λυω which is associated with this theme appears first in this strophe:70

Εξ Αννης ν χαρα του γενους ηνθησας
και τικτεις Παρθενε, τον βασιλεα
Και συγχαιρουσι τω τοκω σου
αι γυναικες λυθεισαι δια σου της αρας.
From Anna blossomed the joy
of humankind. And you give birth
to the king, O Virgin. And women
by you from the curse, rejoice
together in your birth-giving.
—vv. 45-48

Although Mary's birth heralded the advent of joy to the entire universe, her maternity brought special joy to women. The Theotokos released women from the grief to which they had been condemned ever since their first mother ate the fruit from the forbidden tree. By giving birth to God, Mary freed her sisters from the sorrow inherited on account of Eve's disobedience.71 The present tense of συγχαιρουσι surely reflects Thekla's experience of liberation and joy. She rejoices, with other women, in the new paradise opened to them when Christ was born.

This theme of joy restored to women is restated more emphatically in the final strophe of the seventh ode:

Νυν η φυσις του θηλεος γεγηθε
νυν η λυπη πεπαυται χαρα δε ηνθησεν
οτι Μαρια ετεκεν
την χαραν του σωτηρα χαι Κυριον.
Now the female sex rejoiced.
Now sorrow has ended,
and joy blossomed because
Mary bore joy, the Savior and Lord.
—vv. 101-104

This strophe may have been composed by Klement and not by Thekla. If this is the case, we may credit him with sympathy and appreciation of women, an attitude which Theodore the Studite shared. In any case, the strophe accorded perfectly with Thekla's vision of woman's new improved status in the Christian dispensation.

In the fifth ode Thekla further expands her icon of the Theotokos as woman's liberator. As in the first passage discussed above,72 she begins with a statement of Mary's benefaction to humanity in general, and then turns to its specific application to women:

Ελυσας πικρας δουλειας
το γενος απαν, Παρθενε,
και ελευθερια Χριστου
την φυσιν του θηλεος
ετιμησας εν τω θειω τοκω σου.
You released the whole race from
bitter slavery, O Virgin and by the freedom
and by the freedom of Christ
you honored the female sex
by your divine birth-giving.
—vv. 79-83

When Mary, a daughter of Eve, gave birth to God, she bestowed freedom and honor on her sex. Woman's disgrace was erased forever. The cause of woman's bondage and dishonor, Eve is mentioned twice in passing by Thekla.73 Unlike Byzantium's male hymnographers who could never resist blaming Eve for every ill that besets mankind, Thekla does not heap opprobrium on the first sinner. Instead of dwelling on the time of Eve which had now passed away, Thekla emphasizes the time of Mary, a new era for women. The Theotokos theia doxa reflected, inevitably, honor on her sex.74 A woman, our poet felt herself freed from the primeval shame inherited from Eve. But even more, she felt herself graced with honor because of the Theotokos. We can imagine that Thekla was not alone in appreciating the new condition of women inaugurated by the coming of Christ.

Once liberated from inherited sorrow and shame, women assumed new roles in the broader world outside the domestic domain. Established by Mary's divine Son, the ekklesia opened new opportunities for activity to women who heretofore had been confined to the home.75 With obvious feminine pride and gratitude Thekla acclaims the Theotokos as woman's emancipator:

Ετεκεν υιον Παρθενος
και ευτολμουσι γυναικες
κατα του εχθρου εμφανως
και ταυτη ακολουθουθσι
νεανιδες παρθενιαν ασκουσαι
The Virgin gave birth to a son
and women dare openly
to oppose the evil one.
And young women following her
practice virginity.
—vv. 84-88

The virgin mother gave women courage to act and witness publicly for their Christian faith.76 Women heroically resisted the "enemy," whether Satan or an emperor. In the century before Thekla, Saint Theodosia had demonstrated against an iconoclastic emperor and disobeyed his commands. Already in the annals of Christianity were recorded the martyrdoms of countless women from the earliest days of persecutions to the most recent. Their history was well known to Thekla. She therefore pays them tribute in her encomium to the Theotokos.

In the third strophe of the seventh ode Thekla returns to the twin themes of woman's emancipation by the Theotokos and women martyrs:

Ελευθερουται δια σου
η προμητωρ, Θεοτοκε καταδικης
και ιδου νυν γυναικες
υπεραθλουσι Χριστου
και χαιρει η φυσις του θηλεος
ως η πρωτομαρτυς
βοα παρθενος Θεκλα
Through you, Theotokos,
The first mother is freed from condemnation.
And behold, now women strive
on behalf of Christ.
And the female sex rejoices,
as the first martyr,
the virgin Thekla proclaims.
—vv. 157-163

These seven verses constitute Thekla's memorial to women's sacrifices for the Church. The Theotokos freed women from Eve;s sentence of guilt. In return women proved with their lives loyalty to their faith.77 All four verbs in this strophe are in the present tense, suggesting contemporary events in the empire, where women endured persecution and death in defense of Orthodoxy. The adverb νυν reinforces the present tense and emphasizes Thekla's point.

In Thekla's time women were continuing a tradition of active witness that stretched back to apostolic times when women accompanied the first Christian missionaries. Among these Saint Thekla has first place of honor. Our hymnographer openly takes pride in her namesake, the virgin martyr whom Paul had converted in Iconium. Risking her life, Thekla followed Paul and shared in his mission of preaching the Gospel.78 Widely honored in the Christian East, "The First Martyr among Women and Equal to the Apostles," Saint Thekla was the subject of numerous legends and sermons, the inspiration and model of zealous Christian women.79 To be called a "second Thekla" was to win the highest praise. Her cult flourished in Constantinople where several churches were dedicated to her, including a basilica built by the Emperor Justinian.80

Imperial princesses of the ninth century bore her illustrious name. Thekla was the name of the eldest daughter of Theophilos (829-842), the last iconoclastic emperor.81 And it was the name chosen by our hymnographer when she took the veil and became a nun. Her hymn, along with her choice of a monastic name, testifies to deep personal devotion to Christianity's first woman martyr.

The monastic vocation, the possibility for a new way of life, was also a gift of the Theotokos to women. Venerated by women in the convents of Byzantium, Mary was the model to be imitated:

και ταυτη ακολουθουσι
νεανιδες παρθενιαν ασκουσαι.
And following her,
the young women practice virginity.
—vv. 87-88

Long restricted to private life, dominated by fathers, husbands and sons, women found in the convent an alternative that had never existed before.82 To serve the ekklesia as nuns was to enter a spiritual world. Dedicating themselves completely to God, women had enrolled in the service of the Church. Nor did the monastic ideal of earlier centuries cease to attract women. In Thekla's day thousands of nuns lived in παρθενωνες, both in the capital city and throughout the empire.83

In the final ode of her kanon Thekla the Nun admits us into the spirituality of the Byzantine convent, revealing its adoration of the Theotokos. Near the end comes the most lyrical strophe of the entire hymn, a panegyric to the Virgin who embodies the nun's ideal.

Λαμπει σου το καλλος αστραπτει
της αγνειας η λαμπροτης αγνη,
και υπερστιλβει τουτων σου η γεννησις
ο Θεος γαρ ο ποιητης
ηλιου και της κτισεως
ουτος εκ σου γεγεννηται
διο σε παντες μεγαλυνομεν.
Your beauty shines, the brightness
of your purity is like lightning,
O pure one. And your birth
outshines there. For God the maker
of the sun and creation
was born of you.
Therefore we all magnify you.
—vv. 178-184

As a nun Thekla extols the Theotokos, the epitome of the spiritual woman. Repeated images of dazzling light mark this paean to the virginal beauty and perfection of the Theotokos.

Throughout the kanon Thekla never fails to allude to Mary's paradoxical virginity. A cluster of hallowed titles and epithets occurs again and again to fashion the virginal image of the Mother of God. Nine times she is invoked as Παρθενος.84 Αγνη, a related title, is equally prominent, especially in the second half of the kanon.85 Αχραντος, αειπαρθενος, and αφθορος further sustain this attribute of particular relevance for nuns.86

The nuns not only hymn the Theotokos, they also pray to her, asking for strength to persist in the discipline of the monastic vocation. A nun's prayer, its invocation continues in the same exalted style of vv. 178-186. The first three verses betray the nuns'; fervor, kindled by the immaculate purity of the Theotokos:

Ανθος σε αγνειας και ραβδον
Παρθενιας και μητερα Θεου
Θεοπρεπως εν υμνοις εκθειαζουσαι
With hymns worthy of God venerating you,
the flower of purity and the staff of virginity
and the Mother of God
—vv. 185-187

The prayer ends with an appeal to their guardian saint for support in their askesis:

Θεοτοκε, μετα φωνης
αινεσεως δεομεθα
εν παρθενια στηριξον
και εν αγνεια ημας φυλαξον.
O birthgiver of God,
we entreat you with voices of praise:
support us in our virginity,
guard us in our purity.
—vv. 188-191

Thus the "sweet Echo" whom Nikodemos heard ends her encomiastic kanon to the Theotokos.

Probably of aristocratic family this Byzantine hymn wright of the ninth century was an educated woman, a lady of poise and culture. The competence and grace exhibited in her kanon indicate more than knowledge of the Scriptures and the teachings of the Church. She had been trained in letters and literature. The complex form of the kanon with its fugue-like variations on a central theme demanded not only talent but also literary skills acquired in a classroom.87

Thekla was a true Orthodox believer. A devout woman of her times, she cherished and defended Orthodox dogma and traditions. The Incarnation, the foundation of Christian belief, was a reality in her personal religious experience. She insisted on the value and validity of her convictions and experience.

Thekla the Nun valued the ideals and goals of her sacred vocation. The Theotokos was the focus of her monastic life, the mainspring of its spirituality. She honored Mary first as the Mother of God, secondly as the guardian spirit of women monastics, and thirdly as woman's emancipator.

Orthodox believer, hymnodist and nun, Thekla was above all a confident, strong-minded woman. She possessed in good measure self-esteem. She took pride in herself and in her sex. From her hymn emerges a positive image of Eve and her daughters, so long maligned by male preachers and church poets in the Christian East and West. Rejecting the shame and guilt traditionally attached to her sex, she claimed for women respected and an honorable place in the Byzantine polity and Church.88 Women had established a record that earned them recognition. Thekla salutes nuns and women martyrs, recalling that their history reached back to Christian beginnings, to the glorious deeds and death of her namesake Saint Thekla.

Thekla's joyful kanon reflects her serenity. Secure in her faith, called to be a nun and hymnographer, Thekla accomplished her diakonia. The kanon to the Theotokos is her testament to a life spent in harmony with God.


1 The Theotokarion is a liturgical containing kanons in the eight tones, composed in honor of the Theotokos and sung during vespers. For a history of this collection see N. B. Tomadakes, "Epimetron A': Peri tou theotokariou tou Nikodemou," Epeteris Hetaireias Byzantinon Spoudon 32 (1963), pp. 15-25.
2Quoted from Spyridon Choraites, "Theotokarion" in He Threskeutike kai Ethike Enkyklopaideia VI (Athens, 1965), Col. 316.
3In most of the brief notices and lists of Byzantine hymnographers e.g. C. Emereau, Hymnographi Byzantini, Echos d'Orient 24, (1925), P. 176. For relevant bibliography consult Enrica Follier, Initia Hymnorum Ecclesiae Graecae V (Vatican City, 1966), p. 266; Josef Szoverffy, A Guide to Byzantine Hymnography: A Classified Bibliography of Texts and Studies II (Brookline, Mass., and Leyden, 1979), p. 44.  These two valuable works will henceforth be cited by the authors' names.
4The hymn De S. Theclae published by Joannes Baptista Petra, Analecta Sacra: Spicilegio Solesmensis 1 (Paris, 1876), pp. 636-37, cannot be securely attributed to Thekla.
5Unfortunately a satisfactory text has not yet been established, two tests available to me were Nikodemos Monaches ho Naxios, Theotokarion: Neon Poikilon kai Horaiototon Oktoechon (Volos, 1949), pp. 34-37; and Sophronios Eustratiades, Theotakarion A (Chennevieres-sur-Marne, 1931), pp. 166-68. All references, numbers and citations in this essay are to latter. These two editions will henceforth be cited by the authors' names. For criticism of Eustratieades see E. P. Pantelakes, "Metrikai Paratereseis eis to Neon Theotokariou," Theologia 13 (1935), pp. 296-322; "Philogikai Parateresies eis to Neon Theotokarion," Eperteris Hetaireias Byznatinon Spoudon 11 (1935), pp. 73-104.
6Described by Eustratiades pp. ια'-ιστ'
7It is generally accepted that Thekla belongs to the ninth century. Cf. Egon Wellesz, A History of Byzantine and Hymnography, 2nd ed. (Oxford 1961), p. 444.
8The most famous woman hymnodist and the only one whose hymns are used by the Orthodox Church, Kassia is the subject of a model study by Ilse Rochow, Studien zu der Person, den Werken und dem Nachleben der Dichterin Kassia (Berlin 1967).
9Very little is know about this hymnodist. See Sophronios Eustratiades, "Poietai kai Hymnographoi tes Orthodoxou Ekklesias," Nea Sion 53 (1958), pp. 295-97; Follier, 5, p. 266; Szeverffy p.48.
10See Hans-Georg Beck, Kirche und Theologische Literatur im Byzantinishen Reich (Munich 1977), p. 797; Szoverffy, p. 75.
11Joannes Baptita Pitra, Hymnographie de l'Eglise Grecque (Rome 1867). Both seemed to have been know to Theodore the Studite.
12Vv. 41-45, Joachim also appears in the oldest extant biography of the Theotokos, composed during the iconoclastic era. See PG 120:189.
13Vv. 49-50.
14Vv. 53-60.
15Vv. 111-14, 127-30.
16Christ appears almost as frequently as his mother. He is identified as Theos (12, 25, 36, 56, 71, 74, 76); Christos (13, 23, 31, 81, 150, 160); Logos (58, 112); Despotes (123); Kyrios (147); Kistes (71).
17Vv. 37-40, 84-88, 101-04.
18Vv. 28-36, 65-69, 89-92, 105-10, 171-77, 185-91. All but two odes (Γ', Ε) contain prayers, doxology, and petitions being inseparable elements in liturgical poetry.
19For the function of the liturgical poet see the discussion by E. C. Topping, "The Poet-Priest in Byzantium, Greek Orthodox Theological Review 12 (1966), pp. 92-111.
21Of the four Gospels women figure most prominently in Luke. See the interesting comments of Constance F. Parvey, "The Theology and Leadership of Women in the New Testament," in Religion and Sexism, ed. Rosemary Radford Ruether (New York, 1974), pp. 138-42.
22Vv. 48, 85, 159, 82, 101, 161.
23Vv. 87-88, 187-91.
24I have underway a study of the image of woman in Byzantine hymnography. It appears from this study that only the Theotokos was untouched by the guilt and shame which women inherited from Eve. Not even female saints, martyrs, and ascetics were exempt from this legacy.
25Edward Gibbon, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire V, ed J. B. Bury (London, 1901), p. 276.
26Steven Runciman, "The Empress Irene the Athenian," in Medieval Women, ed. Derek Baker (Oxford, 1978), pp. 101-19, redresses the shabby treatment that Irene usually receives.
27Gibbon, The History, p.253.
28See Nikodemos Hagioreites, Synaxaristes 2 (Athens, 1868), pp. 172-73; Constantine Akropolites, PG 140:893-935; R. Janin, La Geographie ecclesiastique de l'empire byzantin, Pt. I, vol. 3, 2nd ed. (Paris, 1969), pp. 143-45.
29Rochow, Studien…Kassia, pp.20-26.
30See the above references in n. 9.
31A good account of this elaborate poetical form is to be found in Wellesz, A History, pp. 198-239.
32Women composers in Byzantium are even fewer than women hymnodists. Besides Kassia one other is known. See Milos Velimirovic, "Byzantine Composers in MS Athens 2406," in Essays Presented to Egon Wellesz, ed. Jack Westrup (Oxford, 1960), pp. 12, 16.

33The only rare heirmos is that of Ode Ε for which Follieri, 5, p. 41 cites only this occurrence.
34A troparion so called because the congregation sat while it was being sung. In Thekla's kanon it follows the sixth ode.
35The identity of Klement and the relationship of his strophes to Thekla's kanon present thorny problems that have not yet been satisfactorily solved. See S. Petrides, "Office inedit de Saint Clement, hymnographe," Byzantinishe Zeitschrift 12 (1903), pp. 571-81; W. Weyh, "Die Acrotishis in byzantinische Kanonesdichtung," ibid. 17 (1908), pp. 51-53; Sophronios Eustratiades, "Poietai kai Hymnographoi tes Ortodoxou Ekklesias," Nea Sion 53 (1958), p. 293, For additional bibliography see Szoverffy, p. 36.
36P. 166. See Follieri, 1, p.347, 1, 28.
37P. 34. See the discussion of W. Weyh, Die Acrostichis, pp. 52-53.
38Rochow, Studien…Kassia, pp. 37-38.
39See vv. 30,, 32, 64, 709, 75, 99. 116. 124, 184, 189. Characteristic of hymns composed during the iconoclastic controversy, ekklesia appears in vv. 4, 67, 151. The fourth ode ends with a prayer to the Theotokos that she safeguard the church's orthodoxy.
40Considered the first encomiast of the Theotokos, Gabriel is twice mentioned: vv. 7, 90. Every hymn to the Theotokos has as its prototype the angelic salutation of Luke 1.28.
41Vv. 28-36, 65-67, 89-92.
42Nikodemos' reading γινζσχοντες is perhaps to be preferred.
43Kontakion 16 On the Entry into Jerusalem, Paul Maas and C. A. Trypanis, Sancti Romani Melodi Cantica: Cantica Gehuina (Oxford, 1963), p. 122. Cf. E. C. Topping "Romanos, On the Entry into Jerusalem: A Basilikos Logos," Byzantion 47 (1977), pp. 84-85.
44See Follieri, 1, p. 558, 1. 25.
45For a sympathetic account of Marian piety, the intimacy existing between the suppliant and the Mother of God, see Theodoros Xydes, Byzantine Hymnographia (Athens, 1978), pp. 297-305.
46V. 187.
47Vv. 68, 107, 176.
48For the texts and introductions of the two hymns see C. A. Trypanis, Fourteen Early Byzantine Cantica (Wiener Byzantinishtische Studien, Band 5) (Vienna, 1968), pp. 17-27, 159-64. For a typical serman read Proclos, PG 65: 721-57.
49Vv. 6-8; Repeated in vv. 90, 99-100.
50This episode, referred to in vv. 41-45, is based on the infancy gospel in the apocryphal Protevagelium of James. See the translation by Montague Rhodes James, The Apocryphal New Testament (Oxford, 1955), pp. 39-40. Celebrated on September 8, the Nativity of the Theotokos was established in the liturgical calendar of the Eastern Church in the sixth century.
51Vv. 47, 50, 128, 151; 23, 46, 84, 103, 135, 183. References to Mary's womb occur in vv. 52, 61, 118, 126, 134, 142.
52Vv. 39, 73, 75, 144, 151, 158, 188. According to John Damascene this title contained the whole history of the divine economy in the world, PG 94:1029.
53Vv. 12, 66, 106, 121, 167, 186; 31.
54Vv. 49-50; 53-60; 111-115, 127-130.
55The rules of the encomium required the encomiast to claim superiority for his subject. Cf. Toivo Viljamaa, Studies in Greek Encomiastic Poetry of the Early Byzantine Period (Helsinki-Helsingfors), 1968), pp. 114-116.
56V. 78. Cf. Joseph Ledit, Marie dans la liturgie de Byzance (Paris, 1976), p. 41.
57Quoted above on p. 359.
58V. 14. A much used metaphor for the Theotokos. Cf. Follieri, 1, p. 252, 11. 3-6.
59V. 74. Cf. Ledit, Marie, pp. 86, 106, 161.
60V.. 143, Cf. Ledit, Marie, pp. 48, 96, 277.
61Vv. 10-11. Cf. Ledit, Marie, pp. 82-84, 106.
62Vv. 39; 4, 128.
63Vv. 144, 172. A title reserved exclusively for the Theotokos. Cf. Ledit, Marie, pp. 41-42, especially n. 75.
64Vv. 12, 41, 59, 61, 73; 197; 16; 94. For Mary the Bride of God see Ledit, Marie, pp. 180-193.
65Reconciliation is the theme of two strophes, vv. 37-40, 119-26.
66Cf. Ledit, Marie, pp. 286-90.
67Ζωη forms an important motif in Thekla's kanon: vv. 11, 17, 41, 63, 146, 149.
68A recurrent theme in Marian hymns and particularly associated with the Nativity of the Theotokos and the Feast of the Annunciation, joy constitutes a major statement in our kanon also: vv. 42, 44, 45 47, 89, 91, 101, 102, 104, 143, 161.
69Vv. 79-81, 157-58.
70Cf. Follieri, 2, pp. 351, 1.28, 359, 1.8.
71In Byzantine hymnody the words δαχρυα, λυπη and αρα are so constantly connected with the name of Eve as to become formulas.
72See above p. 357.
73Vv. 38, 158.
74Thekla speaks of Mary's "divine glory" in v. 94.
75See the discussion by Jean Danielou, S. J., The Ministry of Women in the Early Church (London, 1961).
76To describe woman's daring, Thekla chose a rare word, ευτολμεω, which does not occur in patristic writings. The adjective is used, however, in a hymn in honor of an early woman martyr, Saint Epicharis. Cf. Follieri, 1, 599, 1.14.
77Suggested by the strong verb υπεραθλεω. G. W. H. Lampe, A Patristic Greek Lexicon (Oxford, 1968), s.v., cites four passages in which it appears.
78Her trials and career are recounted in the apocryphal Acta Pauli et Theclae written at the end of the second century. See the translation by M. R. James, The Apocryphal New Testament (Oxford, 1955), pp. 272-81.
79A typical sermon is that of Basil of Seleukia, PG 85:447 A-617 D.
80R. Janin, La Geographie, pp. 141-43.
81The eldest child, she appeared on coins with her imperial parents, Theophilius and Theodora. See Philip Grierson, ed., Catalogue of the Byzantine Coins in the Dumbarton Oaks Collections 3, Pt. 1 (Washington, D.C., 1973), p. 428. Special devotion to her saintly namesake is indicated by the fact she built and dedicated a chapel to Thekla.Cf. Janin, La Geographie, p. 141.

82See the account of the virginal woman as a new cultural ideal by Rosemary Radford Ruether, "Misogynism and Virginal Feminism in the Fathers of the Church," in Religion and Sexism (New York, 1974), pp. 150-83.
83A word often used of convents, current in the ninth century; e.g. Theodore the Studite, PG 99: 1549 B.
84One of Mary's most significant titles; vv. 46,50, 54, 62, 80, 84, 115, 167, 171. Cf. Ledit, Marie, pp. 167-79.
85Vv. 18, 52, 118, 126, 134, 142, 164, 179, 193.
86Vv. 21, 132,; 89, 98; 115.
87For the state of education in Thekla's time see the study of Ann Moffatt, "Schooling in the Iconoclast Centuries," inIconoclasm, eds. Anthony Bryer and Judith Herrin (Birmingham, 1977), pp. 85-92.
88Jose Grosdidier de Matons, "La Femme dans l'empire byzantine," in Histoire mondiale de la femme, ed. Pierre Grimal (Pairs, 1967), pp. 11-42, discusses various aspects of woman’s condition in Byzantium.

Byzantine Music Notation

Byzantine Music Notation

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