Holy Mothers of Orthodoxy


Eva Catafygiotu Topping

Belittling Eve

Within the same hymn a female saint is extolled as "all blessed," or as "all wise" and the "Bride of God," while her sex is harshly denigrated and her humanity denied. Hymns to female saints feature the phrase the "weakness of women." Admiring the spectacular ascetic feats of St. Euphrosyne (September 25), a hymnographer exclaims in surprise, "What an unusual sight! How did you conceal the weakness of women?" The identification of sanctity and spirituality exclusively with maleness often appears in hymns to women saints. The highest praise bestowed upon these women is that they have triumphed over the obstacles of their sex and become men. "Liberated" from femaleness, they exhibit "male" virtues, strength, courage; they also gain souls and minds which females naturally lack.

St, Eudokia (March 1), a reformed harlot, is eulogized for "preaching like a man." Similarly, St. Eugenia (December 24) wins praise for turning to "male activities" like "explaining to everyone the truth of the Scriptures." Since preaching and teaching in the church are still restricted to males, the existence in the past of women preachers and teachers is good news. Orthodoxy's most glorious women saints, however, were generally denied female dignity and worth. According to her enthusiastic eulogist, St. Catherine the Great Martyr (November 25), a learned and skilled debater, triumphed over Alexandria's leading philosophers by "changing the weakness of female nature to masculinity."

Eve, our much maligned foremother, appears, however, most conspicuously in hymns to Mary her unique and most exalted daughter. Byzantine Christians express limitless veneration for the Mother of God in churches, icons, sermons and a vast repertory of hymns. In Marian hymns Eve again functions as a foil. The archetypal embodiment of female imperfections, Eve sets off Mary's perfections. Like the church fathers, Byzantium's sacred poets ascribe evil and vice to the "first Eve," virtues and blessings to the "second Eve," Mary. Disobedience, death, sin and sorrow are associated with Eve; obedience (from the androcentric perspective and the cardinal female virtue), life, purity and joy with Mary. The constant juxtaposition of sinful Eve and sinless Mary exalts a single woman at the expense of all other women, and disparages an entire sex. Inevitably, Mary's immaculate shining image reinforces the negative image of her sisters. More than one scholar has in fact noted that Mary's glory grew brighter in inverse proportion to the downgrading of the female sex. Indeed, Mary stands alone in sublime isolation. In the hymnwriters' words. she is "above women," and "alone among all the generations of women." The celestial Mother of God occupies holy space in the apses of countless Orthodox churches, while daughters of hers are only very rarely permitted access to the Altar. Her holiness has yet to trickle down to women of the Church.

To fashion their sexist image of Eve and woman, the hymnographers employed a rich and colorful vocabulary whoseorthodoxy the authority of the church fathers guaranteed. Stretching through the Greek alphabet from alpha to omega (from amartia to odines), these words are harsh, vivid, blunt. Their meanings are never obscure. Together they create a sharply defined monolithic sexist profile of Eve and woman.

The most important word in this distorted and negative profile is "sin" (amartia). Choosing in this instance to ignore St. Paul, who credited Adam with the origin of sin (II Corinthians l l:3, Romans 5:12), Orthodox theologians and hymnographers pin the blame exclusively on Eve. They further implicate all women in Eve's alleged crime against humanity. Thus, sin defines woman. And a poet, singing of Christ's birth, denounces all women as the "instrument of sin."

Likewise, responsibility for the existence of death (thanatos) is charged to Eve alone. Through many centuries Byzantium's sacred songs reverberate with the accusation, "Eve is the cause of death." One hymnwriter sadly names Adam as the first casualty of "death-bringing Eve." Another reflects on his own mortality, blaming his death on "Eve my first mother." Originally named Eve, the "mother of all the living" (Genesis 3:20), the first woman is ironically transformed into the "instrument of death." Even the life-bringing and nurturing functions of Eve and her daughters are impugned. Moreover, the identification of woman with sin and death serves to justify man's domination of woman.

The agent of sin and death, and Satan's ally, Eve is turned from woman into a malevolent power or curse. Two words for curse (ara, katara) are repeatedly attached to her name. On account of Eve all women are doomed to suffer the curse of painful childbirth.Because of Eve, "chains of the curse" bind the human race. Haunted by the "ancestral curse," the composer of a hymn for Christmas rejoices that Christ is born "dissolving the curse of Eve."

The hymnographers further depict the first woman as a creature of shame (aischos, aischyne, oneidos). Uninterruptedly they echo the phrase "the shame of Eve." St. Romanos the Melodos, Christendom's greatest liturgical poet, presents a vivid image of abject Eve, overwhelmed by her disgrace. In a hymn for Christmas she says:

I can no longer endure the reproaches and shame. I bend down my head until you raise me up again, Mary full of grace.