Holy Mothers of Orthodoxy


Eva Catafygiotu Topping

Heroines and Haloes

these: Euanthia (Sept. 1, 11); Kalliste (Sept. 1); Vasilissa (Sept. 3); Vevaia (Sept. 4); Charitine (Sept. 4); Melitene (Sept 16); Theopiste (Sept. 20); Epicharis (Sept. 27); Ia (Sept. 11); Myrsine (Sept. 9); Euphrosyne (Sept. 25). It is worth noting that on September 1, the first day of the new liturgical year, our church commemorates 5 male and 43 female saints.7 September, moreover, is by no means exceptional in the number of women saints. The other eleven months are also richly graced with heroines and halos.

Because the calling to sainthood never recognizes national or ethnic boundaries, September's women saints constitute a strikingly cosmopolitan group. Wherever Christian communities existed women heard and answered the call to holiness, in ancient lands stretching eastward from the Pillars of Heracles in the west to the distant Tigris and Euphrates. Our holy women were born, lived and died in Spain, Italy, Greece, Egypt, Syria, Palestine, Cappadocia, Arabia. Armenia and Persia.

Likewise, the calling to sainthood recognizes no social classes, or distinctions between rich and poor. Our women saints belong to all social strata, the highest, as well as the lowest. On September 17 and 18, two women martyrs are commemorated. Both were slaves. Agathocleia8 was martyred at the hands of her pagan mistress. Without faltering in her faith the slave girl endured 8 years of daily harassment and persecution. Ariadne9, a slave in the house of a Phrygian nobleman, died a martyr's death because she refused to participate in her young master's birthday celebration in a pagan temple. Many other women saints are described as belonging to the upper classes, from which indeed came a large number of the first women converts to Christianity (Acts 17:4, 12).

The September calendar of saints also includes three women of royal blood, a Persian princess, the martyr Kasdoa (Sept. 29), and two empresses of Byzantium.The first wife of Theodosios the Great (reg. 379-395 A.D.), Spanish-born Plakilla (Sept. 14)10 added a halo to her imperial crown by her zeal for the faith, her humility, and above all by her love for people. With her own hands this pious empress attended to the needs of the sick and poor in the hospitals which she had built.

St. Pulcheria (Sept. 10th)11 imitated her grandmother's piety. Throughout her long career in imperial and church politics (414-453 A.D.) Pulcheria lived the austere life of a nun. Her exercise of power and her personal participation in the ekklesia are extraordinary, even for a Byzantine empress. Pulcheria's image was painted above the altar of Hagia Sophia. On Easter she entered the sanctuary of the Megale Ekklesia and received Holy Communion with the patriarch, two priests and her brother the emperor.

In 451 A.D. St. Pulcheria convened the Council of Chalcedon12 in the basilica of a local female martyr, St. Euphemia. Hailing the empress as the "light of Orthodoxy" and "protectress of the faith," the 520 fathers of the council adopted Pulcheria's ecclesiastical policy. And although she was a female they allowed her to appear before the assembly of bishops. This epoch-making fourth ecumenical council had a "mother" along with "fathers."

Taken together, the women saints of September span at least 1800 years, that is, most of the Christian era. The earliest come from the New Testament: St. Elizabeth(Sept.5), the mother of St. John the Forerunner; the Theotokos, whose nativity is celebrated on Sept.8th;13 St. Hermione (Sept. 4), a woman-prophet mentioned in Acts 21:7-9. The most recent is the Greek neo-martyr Akylina (Sept. 27).14 When she was still an infant her father had apostatized. Just over two centuries ago, in 1764, Akylina was martyred in Thessalonike. Encouraged by her mother to resist her father's pleas and to endure tortures by the Turks, this young woman, aged I8, chose a martyr's death over betrayal of her Orthodox faith.

Called "god-bearing" "brides of God", "gloriously victorious" and "all-most-blessed", martyrs formed by far the largest group of women saints not only in September but in the other months as well. This should not surprise us, for, from the beginning, whenever Christians were persecuted, women were among the martyrs. In the first recorded persecution, Saul, later to become Paul, arrested women along with men and dragged them off to jail (Acts 8:1-3). In every persecution women endured imprisonment, physical and mental tortures. Loyal unto death, many women have paid blood tribute to the Church. Martyrdom is a great equalizer and recognizes no gender discrimination.

In the Greek sources female martyrs appear both as equals and as leaders. "Imitating the Cross, death and voluntary sufferings of Christ,"15 40 women (Sept. 1), shared martyrdom with their didaskalos, the deacon Ammon. Kasdoa (Sept.29)16 and Kalliste (Sept. 1)17 gained martyr's crowns with their brothers. In a hymn18 to the latter the hymnographer emphasizes that Kalliste, like a mother, led her two brothers to martyrdom.19 This trio is praised for being "firm of mind".20 But Kalliste, clearly the leader of the three martyrs, alone is called "all-wise".21 Wives and mothers shared martyrdom with male members of their families. Theopiste (Sept. 20)22 was martyred along with her husband an ex-general and their two sons; Dominata a Roman matron (Sept. 10)23 along with her three sons. In other instances, mothers, daughters and sisters faced martyrdom together: Sophia and her three daughters, Elpis, Pistis and Agape (Sept. 17),24 the three sisters Menodora, Metrodora and Nymphodora (Sept. 10).25