Holy Mothers of Orthodoxy


Eva Catafygiotu Topping

Belittling Eve

The hymnographers brand the whole female sex with Eve's "most burdensome shame," sparing only the Virgin Mary. Other female saints are not exempted from this unfortunate legacy. A 14th century hymn to the Myrophoroi, the faithful women disciples who were the first witnesses and apostles of the Resurrection, begins with these words: "The shame of their nature." Aischos(shame) is this hymn's first word.

Byzantium's hymnwriters followed the theologians in describing the many flaws and failings of Eve's "female nature." In Eden the first woman had displayed lack of understanding (anoia) as well as moral and spiritual instability (to olistheron). Eve's female progeny inherited these characteristics. Eve also bequeathed another female trait to her daughters—women are creatures of deception. Deceived by the serpent, Eve then deceived Adam. Her daughters, generation after generation, have done the same.

The hymnographers do more than just put down Eve. They dehumanize her. On the basis of the aetiological tale narrated in Genesis 2, the sacred poets not infrequently designate Eve and woman with the word "rib." The phrase "Adam and his rib" occurs in one hymn. The male is dignified with a name and recognized as a person. The female has no name. Eve's person-hood is thereby effectively denied. Woman is reduced to a superfluous bit of anatomy. A fractured, flawed and derivative being, Eve depends on Adam for existence and identity. She has none of her own.

No wonder then that from our hymns Eve emerges a pitiful and wretched figure. For this facet of our first mother's image I have counted no fewer than nine synonyms for "sorrow." Phrases like the "tears of Eve," "the grief of Eve," the "lament of Eve," or the "distresses of Eve" are endlessly repeated, creating the indelible image of women oppressed and depressed, forever weeping. It was of course understood that women deserve this fate, because "Eve planted sorrow in Eden." Behind this portrait in the Greek hymns lies the rabbinic teaching that Eve must forever mourn on account of her sins. That the founder of Christianity showed liberating sympathy for all women, as the Gospels record, seems not to have impressed the patriarchal-minded creators of the church's anti-woman ideology.

Clearly, the sexist image of Eve and woman which I have described is not a fleeting or incidental phenomenon in the history of the church. It cannot be dismissed as occasional flights of rhetorical hyperbole or of a few monks' overheated imagination. The sources fail to corroborate such claims. Byzantine hymns composed over a millennium document the vitality and durability of androcentric theology, the creation of church fathers who believed in woman's divinely designed inferiority.

Beyond the testimony of the written words in canon laws, patristics and hymnography, there is also the eloquent witness of the church's praxis. On the basis of sex it discriminates against women, denying them full participation in the life of the ekklesia. Today it is no longer possible to conceal the existence and influence of patriarchal prejudice and pride. Nor is it possible to claim validity for appeals made to traditions which are founded on the androcentric premises of woman's inferior and sinful nature.

Surely the time has come for open, serious and informed examination of Orthodoxy's traditional attitudes and stance in regard to women. It is time at last to recognize Eve's dignity and humanity. She too was created in the divine image. Eve's Orthodox daughters know that they have names, and that they are people, not ribs.

St. Matrona

St. Matrona