Holy Mothers of Orthodoxy


Eva Catafygiotu Topping

Patriarchal Prejudice and Pride in Greek Christianity

The vitality and success of this sexist theology can be readily documented in Byzantine hymnography. In hymns throughout the liturgical cycle Eve appears as the most prominent symbol of womanhood. Whether monks, bishops, patriarchs, or hymn-writing emperors, the Byzantine hymnographers consistently disparaged women, Eve the "first mother" along with her female descendants. It was, in fact, the patent misogynism in the magnificent hymns of St. Romanos the Melodos that first attracted my attention to this aspect of Orthodox theology. Following the example of the Church Fathers, Christendom's prince of liturgical poets absolves Adam of all responsibility in the Fall, and expresses sympathy for him, Eve's first victim. In a particularly vehement passage, Romanos attacks Eve for being ";more serpent-like than the serpent."40 Elsewhere he accuses Eve of ;teaching Adam how to disobey God."41

Named only once in the Hebrew Bible and twice in the New Testament,42 Eve achieved stellar status in sacred poetry, a reflection of her prominence in the patristic discussions of women. In hymnic compositions spanning a millennium the same negative vocabulary and imagery is used to describe woman's nature and to validate her subjection to man. A survey of the words that are most frequently associated in the hymns with "woman" and with Eve will prove instructive. The terms that are mentioned below occur with the inevitability and regularity of the Homeric stock epithet, thereby establishing the characteristic features of the feminine ethos and condition.43

Αισχος and ονειδος (disgrace) are used to remind women that they are creatures of shame. With the single exception of Mary, the mother of Jesus, all women are implicated in the "disgrace of Eve." Απατη (deceit) suggests the dangers of woman's seductive powers. Hosios Lazarus, a male saint commemorated on November 7, is lauded by the hymnographer for successfully resisting, unlike Adam, "Eve's guile." Καταρα and αρα (curse) convey the malignant influences of the female species. "The curse of the first mother Eve" is a stock phrase in the hymns. Very rarely do we find the word "curse" attached to Adam's name.

Declared by the Fathers to be the first cause and the origin of sin, Eve is over and over again connected with the word αμαρτια (sin). A favorite expression is "Eve the instrument of sin." In Lenten hymns she is presented as the principal paradigm which the faithful must avoid imitating. Thus in Orthodoxy's most famous penitential hymn, the Great Canon of St. Andrew of Crete, the sacred poet laments that his soul "has become like Eve."44 In these Lenten hymns women sinners significantly outnumber the men, repentant harlots being a favorite subject.45

Several words occur frequently to emphasize that Eve is the protagonist in the tragedy of Eden and the loss of paradise. Παραβασις (transgression), derived from 1 Timothy 2:14, marks woman as the first person to violate God's commandments. In a hymn sung on November 21 we read this verse: "from her came transgression long ago to the human race." Παρακοη (disobedience) described in a popular troparion as an illness transmitted by Eve, also connects woman with the first act of willful insubordination to God. The sacred poets always underline Eve's disobedience, conveniently forgetting to mention Adam's. Likewise, πτωσις and εκπτοσις (fall) are repeatedly attached to Eve's name. This motif appears most commonly in hymns to female saints. The martyrdoms of these daughters of Eve cancel the "fall of the first mother." These blessed females win haloes and hymns for not imitating their first ancestress, and for surmounting the handicaps of their sex.

The contrast between Eve and these exceptional women is further developed in these hymns. Ηττα (defeat) is tied to Eve's name; νιχη (victory) to theirs. For example, this contrast appears in a hymn written by the patriarch Germanos in honor of the forty women martyrs whose memory is celebrated on September 1, at the beginning of the liturgical calendar.

The "defeat of Eve" is, however, most conspicuously canceled by her unique daughter, Mary the Theotokos. In a hymn honoring St. Bassa (August 21), martyred together with her three sons, we find a typical expression of this recurrent motif: "Now you have retracted the failure of the first mother Eve…O Mother of God, you who alone are blessed among women."

Repeating a popular patristic theme, the hymnographers charged Eve with responsibility for all the evils and troubles that afflict humankind. When Kassia, a spirited young lady in ninth-century Constantinople, rejected this doctrine of a Christian Pandora, she lost out in the competition for an emperor's heart and the imperial throne of Byzantium. Theophilos wanted a submissive wife, not an independent-minded champion of her sex. Kassiane should have held her tongue in apostolic obedience.

Among the multitude of evils which Eve bequeathed to her children death is her most dreaded legacy. A woman, the first sinner, was blamed for the introduction of death into human experience. Initially stated in Ecclesiastes 25:24, "thanks to her we must all die," this charge haunts Eve in countless Byzantine hymns. One well-known hymn begins with those words- Θανατου μεν αιτια η Ευα (the cause of death is Eve). Named "Eve" by Adam because she was the mother of all those who live,46 she is transformed by Christian myth into the bearer of death.