Holy Mothers of Orthodoxy


Eva Catafygiotu Topping

Kassiane the Nun and the Sinful Woman

The secular writings project Kassiane's forceful personality. A series of statements, all beginning with Μισω (I hate), reflects her strong dislikes and convictions.10 Mindful that "God is no respecter of persons" (Acts 10.34), Kassiane opposed discrimination: "I hate the judge who respects persons." Pretense aroused her scorn: "I hate the fool who acts the philosopher." She had contempt for all sham: "I hate the rich man who laments his poverty." Above all, Kassiane condemned lack of commitment and courage: "I hate silence when it is time to speak."

Kassiane's sacred poetry bears the stamp of the true poet and believer. She not only wrote hymns, but also composed musical settings for them. A gifted composer, Kassiane earned the title "Melodos." The nuns in her own convent were the first to sing Kassiane's hymns. These included longer compositions known as kanons, as well as the shorter troparia.

Twenty-three of Kassiane's hymns for various holy festivals and saints days have been admitted into the liturgical books of the Eastern Orthodox Church. Besides the famous troparion for Holy Wednesday, these include a kanon for the dead; hymns for Holy Saturday, Christmas, Hypapante, the Synaxis and Nativity of Saint John the Baptist (Forerunner); and hymns in honor of the martyrs Eustratios and Auxentios and the apostles Peter and Paul. Thirty-seven other hymns in the service books are attributed to Kassiane the Nun, a few of which may be genuine.11

Through these hymns Kassiane gained unique honor and distinction. She is the only woman represented in the vast corpus of hymns sung by the Orthodox Church. The hymns of other known Byzantine women hymnographers have been excluded from Orthodoxy's multi-volume treasury of liturgical poetry. Overshadowed by the fame and glory of Kassiane, they remain neglected names in catalogues of Byzantine hymnographers: Thekla and Theodosia, two hymn-writing contemporaries of Kassiane; and Palaiologina, an imperial princess of the fifteenth century who wrote hymns in honor of Saint Demetrios.12

Despite the fact that her hymns are sung by the Church, Kassiane, unlike many other hymnographers, has not been canonized. The author of a masterpiece of liturgical poetry has been denied the saint's halo which encircles the heads of many Byzantine hymnographers, among them, Romanos the Melodos, Andrew of Crete, Kosmas of Maiouma, John Damascene, and lesser, uninspired hymnodists.

The hymn-writing nun does, however, possess a legend which, in addition to the anti-feminine bias of the Church, accounts for the Church's failure to canonize Kassiane. Within a century after her death, the legend of Kassiane began to circulate. Already in the tenth century, Byzantine chroniclers were narrating the romantic story of the beautiful, learned hymnographer who almost became the empress of Byzantium. Transmitted by pen and word of mouth, this Byzantine legend of Kassiane was inherited by Balkan and Modern Greek folklore and literature.

The earliest extant account of this legend was written by Symeon the Logothete.13 Wishing to enable her step-son Theophilos to find a suitable wife, the Empress Euphrosyne arranged a bride show.

She assembled maidens of incomparable beauty. Among them was Kassiane, an extraordinarily beautiful maiden. There was also another named Theodora. Giving Theophilos a golden apple, Euphrosyne told him to give it to the maiden who pleased him most. Overwhelmed by Kassiane's beauty, Emperor Theophilos said: 'From woman come evils.' She replied, though with modesty 'But from woman spring many blessings.' Wounded to the heart by these words, Theophilos passed her by and gave the golden apple to Theodora, who came from Paphlagonia.

Theodora was crowned empress and then married to Theophilos in the palatine chapel of Saint Stephen. "As for Kassia," the chronicler concludes, "having lost out on an earthly kingdom, she built a convent, was shorn a nun, and until her death, led a philosophical life pleasing to God."

Kassiane's spirited defense of women cost her an imperial husband and the throne of Byzantium. Nevertheless, right was on her side. Theology and recent history justified Kassiane's reply to Theophilos' slur on women. The Theotokos had compensated for Eve's disobedience. The Mother of God had reopened Eden closed by Eve's transgression. Furthermore, the activist Kassiane had not forgotten the significant role of women in the defense of Orthodoxy. For Kassiane to have remained silent would have been to bring discredit to herself and to her sex.

Long before the time of Kassiane, the Sinful Woman had become a familiar, almost proverbial, figure in Eastern Christendom. Although an old tradition identified her with Mary Magdalene, she had no name. The story of the anonymous woman is told only in the Gospel of Saint Luke the Evangelist who, like Christ was "the friend of sinners" (Luke 7.34), always sympathizing with women, the lost and least.14