Holy Mothers of Orthodoxy


Eva Catafygiotu Topping

Make a Joyful Noise!

Women Hymnographers of Byzantium
But let us also, like the young women, sing unto the Lord - Kassia

For one thousand years many men and a few women wrote hymns in Byzantium. Their contribution to world literature and to Greek letters constitutes a vast and priceless treasure of sacred poetry. It is impossible to exaggerate the value of this hymnography, since it expresses, as nothing else can, the spiritual riches, faith and beauty of Eastern Christianity. Some of these hymns are still sung today in many languages in Orthodox churches in every part of the world. Others remain unknown. Hidden in manuscripts stored in monastic libraries, they wait to be discovered.

We have the names of hundreds of Byzantine hymnodists. They came from all parts of the oikoumene, from Greece, Italy, Palestine and Syria, as well as from the islands of Cyprus, Crete and Sicily. Likewise they represented all classes of Byzantine society, from the obscure man who signed his hymn o amartolos (the sinner) to the Emperor Justinian (527-565), who wrote in imperial red ink the troparion "0 monoyenes yios" and then ordered its insertion into the Divine Liturgy. The names of the hymnographers stretch through the alphabet, beginning with alpha (Avvas) and ending with psi (Psellos). Problems of identity rise when poets share a name. For example, at least thirty-six church poets are named Ioannis.One of them, St. John, an 11th century bishop of Euchaita, administered a diocese and wrote hundreds of hymns. These include hymns for the Feast of the Three Hierarchs (January 30), a holiday that he originated. Much less confusing are the eight hymnographers who share the name Nikolaos.

No comparable problem, however, troubles the investigator of Byzantium's women hymnographers. For the most recent and comprehensive catalogue contains only six feminine names: Grigoris, Martha, Theodosia, Thekla, Kassiane and Palaiologina. Unless you are looking for them you are likely to miss them altogether.

From this short list two names must be eliminated at once: Grigoris, the first, the product of a Greek scholar's imagination, never existed. Martha, the second, did in fact exist in the 6th century and is a saint of the church (July 4). But there is no evidence that she composed hymns. Martha is mistakenly identified as a hymnographer because of her son, St. Symeon the New Stylite (521-592), who lived on top of a column near Antioch, performed miracles and wrote hymns. Thus only four women remain to be counted among the numerous monks, abbots, bishops, patriarchs and laymen who composed hymns for the Church.

Most of the hymnwriters belonged to monastic or clerical orders. Yet their life styles present interesting variations. One of the earliest Greek hymnwriters, St. Auxentius, led a hermit's life in Bithynia. He composed short easy-to-learn troparia which he then taught to the pilgrims who flocked to his hermitage. In contrast to him, St. Romanos the Melodos, Christendom's greatest liturgical poet, composed magnificent cathedral hymns while serving as deacon in a Church of the Theotokos in suburban Constantinople.

Sometimes the sacred poet belonged to a group of hymnographers located in a monastery. St. John Damascene, theologian and poet, belonged to such a group that flourished during the 8th century in the Monastery of St. Savas near the Dead Sea. During the 9th and 10th centuries the Stoudios Monastery of St. John in Constantinople became the center of a hymnographical renaissance, inspired by its hymnwriting abbot, St. Theodore the Studite (759-826).

Most often, however, hymnographers wrote as individuals wherever they lived, whether on column top, in a cave, palace or monastery. Monasteries, indeed, housed the majority of sacred poets, including our four women hymnographers in Byzantium. Theodosia, Thekla. Kassiane and Palaiologina each lived and wrote her hymns in a convent. It is unlikely that a school or center of hymnwriting nuns ever existed since women writers were at all periods rare in Byzantium. Women were in fact discouraged from writing anything. Didymus of Alexandria actually forbade women from writing books"without restraint and on their own authority." Critics accordingly treated women writers with condescension. The Patriarch Photios judged the literary work of the Empress Eudokia to be "rather good for a woman and a pampered empress."

A single hymnographic tradition sustained all the sacred poets, the many men and the few women. Regardless of their ethnic origins, Latin, Greek, Slav or Semitic, their common language was Greek, prized as the idiom of classical antiquity and revered as the speech of the Bible. In the Bible, which they knew by heart, the hymnographers found their themes, plots, imagery and vocabulary. Therefore the hymns of the Orthodox Church are intensely scriptural. They are also rooted in the teachings and dogmas of the Church. Hymnographers were always required to sing the praises of God orthodoxos—in an Orthodox way, with correct belief.

In a variety of forms ranging from the short simple troparion of a single strophe to the long complex kontakion and kanon of multiple strophes, Byzantine hymnographers contributed to Greek letters countless thousands of new songs and hymns on Orthodox Christianity's major themes. With one voice they hymned the philanthropia of God,