Holy Mothers of Orthodoxy


Eva Catafygiotu Topping

Belittling Eve

The Eastern Orthodox Church possesses a magnificent treasury of hymns, which I have been studying for more than a decade. These hymns reflect the unique splendor and spirituality of Byzantine Christianity. At the same time they document many facets of Byzantium's historical, cultural and religious experience. As a result, this complex hymnic mosaic has proved to be an endlessly fascinating subject. Of particular interest to me as an Orthodox woman is the image of Eve and woman. It is a portrayal of woman that was shaped and inspired by patriarchal prejudice and pride. This sexist image of Eve and woman is too well articulated, too extensive and too deeply embedded in the tradition of our church to be brushed aside lightly. It deserves our attention.

After my first rude encounter with this image of Eve I began to take notes each time I found mention of Eve and "woman"; in the hymns. As I worked my way through the more than two dozen thick volumes of Greek liturgical poetry, my notes quickly accumulated, revealing a pattern and startling evidence of an entrenched ideology which put down Eve and her daughters. For one thousand years Byzantine liturgical poets composed hymns heaping opprobrium on Eve and denigrated the entire female sex - with a single exception, as we shall later see.

Members of a choir that was predominantly male (only four women hymnographers are known to us), hymn writing emperors, patriarchs. bishops, monks, deacons and laymen composed hymns for the liturgies of the church. In their hymns these male hymnographers unanimously denigrated Eve and all women. First in the order of sin, they said, women were condemned to subordination, sorrow and silence. Second in the order of creation, according to the primitive creation story in Genesis 2, Eve and her whole sex were considered inferior to the male and therefore subject to his rule.

Such androcentric, anti-woman attitudes did not, however, originate with the composers of hymns. Credit belongs to Christianity's founding fathers, Greek and Latin. Their voluminous and authoritative writings furnished Byzantium's church poets with a sexist theology of woman, and provided them with Biblical proof-texts, typology and exegesis. When this theology was set to verse and music by hymnographers, choir stalls joined pulpits to project within the church a stereotyped image of Eve and woman. To this day this demeaning image remains intact, preserved in the liturgical books of the church.

Named only three times in the Bible, Eve achieved superstar status in the hymns, where she symbolizes her sex, half of the human race. Eve appears everywhere, in more hymns than can be counted. Even so, I was surprised to find her in a beautiful 7th century funeral hymn. An unknown poet blames Eve for the long list of ills that plague humankind. His accusation begins, "Eve transmitted the curse to everybody."

She figures prominently in hymns sung on major holy days like Easter and Christmas. As the first sinner, Eve is inevitably present, along with reformed harlots, in the penitential hymns of Lent. For example. in the "Grand Kanon" St. Andrew of Crete, a hymnwriting hierarch, laments that, alas, his soul "resembles Eve", like Eve, has "tasted the deceptive food." That Adam too had tasted the forbidden fruit is overlooked. Like the theologians, the hymnwriters prefer not to implicate Adam in the disaster that occurred in Eden. Instead of rebuking Adam for his disobedience to God, one poet chastises him for "obeying his rib," an unforgivable lapse by the first representative of the superior sex.

It is, however, in hymns to women that we most frequently encounter Eve. Since Eve was believed to be reincarnated in every female, her dark shadow forever haunts women.No woman can escape the stigma of Eve's sinful past. Not even female saints are spared. Adorned by the church with halos and enrolled in the liturgical calendar, these heroines of Christianity nevertheless bear the onus of being Eve's daughters.

A few examples chosen out of many will illustrate my point. On September 1st the hymnographers praise forty brave women martyrs. They congratulate the women for reversing the "defeat of the mother" at the hands of Satan and for transcending the inherited "feebleness of the female nature." Hymns to female saints almost invariably refer to woman's innate inferiority implicit in the commonplace phrase "female nature." A church poet in his hymn to St. Ripsimia (September 30), a martyr who endured incredible tortures, reminds us that "female nature has been weak from the beginning in the first mother." St. Matrona (March 27), the slave-girl martyr, is praised because "neither the yoke of slavery nor the emptiness of the female nature" caused her to flinch in the face of persecution. A more famous saint, Marina the Great Martyr (July 17), is hailed as "marvelous" for her "strengthening of female rottenness." In contrast to the linkage of female saints to sinful Eve and to inherited inferiority, Adam is seldom, if ever, evoked in hymns to male saints. Since males reflect the glory of God, Adam's delinquencies are buried in discreet silence. Eve's, on the other hand, are well publicized from pulpit and choir.