Holy Mothers of Orthodoxy


Eva Catafygiotu Topping

Patriarchal Prejudice and Pride in Greek Christianity

his helper in household management. Thus the female occupies a position of secondary worth and authority. Finally, man's beard, which is "older than Eve," betokens his "superior nature."9 In this manner selected texts viewed exclusively from a male perspective served Greek Christianity's most influential teachers as incontrovertible proof of woman"s God-given inferiority. A derivative, incomplete being, totally dependent on man, and created to serve his needs, she presumably having none of her own, woman was fated from the start for second class in society and in the Church

From the voluminous corpus of Greek patristic writings that survive in the form of sermons, letters, tracts and commentaries there emerges a sharply articulated image of woman's alleged inferior nature. The description of woman as the "weaker vessel" in I Peter 3:7 provided the Fathers with a cornerstone for their theory of a γυναικαια φυσις (feminine nature). "Weakness" they declared, afflicts all women, affecting their moral as well as their physical qualities. Very rarely is woman mentioned without an accompanying reference to her inherited female liability. The Fathers lavished praise on women martyrs as much for their triumph over "female weakness" as for their heroism.10 Byzantine hymnographers later echoed this theme. There hardly exists a hymn in honor of a female saint (of whom there are many) in which a phrase like των γυναικων το ασθενες (the frailty of women) does not occur. The more disparaging phrase, to χαυνος του θηλεος (the emptiness of the female), frequently found in the hymns, accentuates the notion of "softness" which was attributed to the second sex. In the sexist vocabulary of theologians, preachers and liturgical poets alike, "woman" equals "weakness." Furthermore, even the most heroic and admired female saints did not escape the stigma of this stereotype. They had earned respect and honor because they had overcome the formidable obstacle of their "feminine nature."

This alleged female ασθηνεια (weakness) that included woman's mental abilities. Compared to man's, doomed them to be considered limited and inferior. Although St. Cyril of Alexandria was a contemporary and fellow townsman of Hypatia, the brilliant woman pagan teacher, philosopher and mathematician, yet he believed that woman's understanding was defective.11 Likewise, although St. John Chrysostom enjoyed the company of cultivated pious women disciples, he nevertheless had a low opinion of woman's mental capacity. Because of this incapacity for reason and thought he deemed it wise and necessary for women to be restricted to unimportant, undemanding domestic roles.12 Exceptional women were praised by Chrysostom for possessing ανδρων φρονημα (the will of men).13

Always in patristic writings the male provides the sole measure of worth, virtue and excellence. Celibate women were lauded for their ανδρικοι πονοι (manly labors), which often surpassed the ascetic attainments of males; holy women for their ανδρικος λογισμος; women martyrs for enduring persecution and tortures ανδρικως (in the manner of men). To become like a man (ανδριζεσθαι) represented for woman the only possible escape from the inherent inferiority of her sex.14 This patriarchal standard prevailed universally and was accepted by women as well. The famous anchoress Sarah, it is recorded, boasted to two monks that she was "a woman in body but not in spirit."15 In fact, the words γυνη (woman) and θηλυς (female) acquired such pejorative connotations that in the eulogy for his remarkable sister, St. Macrina, St. Gregory of Nyssa confessed that he hesitated to call her "woman" since she had gone "beyond the nature of a woman."16

The founding Fathers of the Church discovered and described other defects in "feminine nature." Despite the fact that the woman deacon Olympias proved herself Chrysostom's most loyal friend, the golden-tongued Archbishop of Constantinople characterized the whole female sex as fickle, superficial, lightheaded, and compulsively garrulous.17 Woman's servile mentality also did not escape his notice.18 In the view of another theologian, the female creature is so base and imperfect that "God does not stoop to look at what is feminine."19

Other Fathers added refinements to this misogynist portrait of woman. St. Epiphanies, Bishop of Constantia in Cyprus, attributed to the female sex instability, weakmindedness, frenzy, and vanity.20 (The Fathers lavishly embroidered in their sermons the theme of female vanity.) To the mind of this vigilant episcopal defender of Orthodoxy, heresies and women constituted the two chief evils which endangered law and order in the world and in the church. Epiphanius connected the two because in paradise Eve had plotted the first "heresy."21 St. Gregory of Nazianzus, honored by the Church with the title "Theologos," believed that women were naturally "ostentatious and self-indulgent."22

By their eloquent and often repeated axiomatic declarations of female faults and woman's innate inferiority the Greek Fathers, particularly the eminent Alexandrians and Cappadocians, created the negative image of woman that was to dominate in the Christian East. When the Greek Fathers were translated into the languages of the Slavs who had been evangelized by the Church of Constantinople, this image was transmitted beyond the Greek-speaking oikoumene. It is not difficult to recognize the theological ancestry of the well-known Russian proverb, "A chicken is not a bird; a woman is not a person." Many Greek proverbs are not less revealing.23