Holy Mothers of Orthodoxy


Eva Catafygiotu Topping

Patriarchal Prejudice and Pride in Greek Christianity

Like other major themes associated with Eve this one figures conspicuously in the rich corpus of Marian hymns. For example, in the troparion whose first line was just quoted above, the poet explains that the Theotokos is "deservedly hymned" because, in contrast to Eve who brought death into the world, she is the "agent (προξενος) of immortality and life."

Inaugurated by the Fathers, an intricately developed typology became the foundation of the antithesis between Eve and Mary, the "first mother" and "God's mother." This typology uniformly exalts the latter and degrades the former. Joy, life, redemption and incorruptibility are associated with Mary; with Eve, sorrow, death, condemnation and corruption.

Judicial metaphors, καταδικη (condemnation) and κατακριμα (judgment) convey the idea of Eve's crime and punishment. An extensive vocabulary for "grief" describes her permanent condition: δακρυα, λυπη, οδυνη, στεναγμος, σκυθρωπος, συντριμμα, ωδινες (tears, sorrow, pain, sighing, gloomy, ruin, pangs of childbirth). Used repeatedly they create an indelible image of woman bowed down by sorrow and bondage that, according to the Christian myth of Eve, she has brought upon herself.

From woman's perspective it is ironical that Christianity's antifeminist stance should manifest itself so dramatically in encomia and hymns to a woman. Mary is glorified in part at the expense of Eve and her other daughters. The unique destiny and glory of the Theotokos effectively separates her from her lesser sisters. In the phrases of numerous Marian hymns the Theotokos stands "above women" "above nature," "alone among women." While Mary is adored as the "only" good, pure, blameless and holy woman all other women continue to be oppressed by burdens of shame and inferiority which they have inherited on account of Eve. Although the Theotokos is hailed as woman's λυτροσις (deliverance), history reveals otherwise. Woman still waits for her liberation from the restrictive bonds imposed upon her by patriarchal prejudice and pride which are perpetuated by the Church.

It is difficult, even impossible, to measure fully the cumulative effect of this sexist theology on Greek society and culture. Unchallenged since its formulation in the early centuries of Christianity and hence unreformed, it has exerted powerful pressures in support of patriarchal attitudes, practices and institutions in Greece, as well as in all of Orthodoxy. The statistical study to which I referred in the opening sentences of this essay, however, indicates one measure of its continuing effect. The "traditionalist influence" of the Church upon the condition of the female population of Greece apparently has not diminished significantly enough. To raise the issue of woman in relation to a religious system is by no means irrelevant to the problem of her struggle for equality and dignity. Rather it is to understand and to challenge fundamental assumptions and entrenched traditions that discriminate against Greek women.


1“But Adam accuses Eve.” From a primitive kontakion on paradise lost, P. Maas, Frűhbyzantishche Kirchepoesie (Bonn, 1910), 14. The first to blame it on Eve, Adam was not the last. (I wish to thank Professor Elizabeth A. Clark of Duke University for her helpful reading of this essay.)
2On the significance of religion for the "woman question" see the valuable essays in Rosemary Radford Ruether, ed., Religion and Sexism: Images of Woman in the Jewish and Christian Traditions (New York, 1974)
3Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex, trans. and ed. H. M. Parshley (New York, 1974), 109.
4Migne, Patrologia Graeca 68. 1068 C. (hereafter cited as PG)
5Genesis 1:26-27, in the theological account of creation by the “Priestly” writer. It is repeated in Genesis 5:1-2
6Genesis @:7, 21-22, in the narrative account by the "Yahwistic" writer.
7De Generatione Animalium 728 A.17ff. For the widespread influence of Aristole's "scientific" proof of female inferiority see Vern L. Bullough, "Medieval Medical and Scientific Views of Women," Viator 4 (1973):485-501.
8E.g., Basil PG 30, 33 C-36 A, discussed by Maryanne Cline Horowitz, "The Image of God in Man-Is Woman Included?" Harvard Theological Review 72 (1979): 198-199.
9PG 8. 581 A-B. Clement excluded women from intellectual pursuits, believing that spinning and weaving were suited to their limited capacities.
10E.g., the Apostolic Father Clement of Rome, PG 1. 220-221; St. John Chrysostom, PG 50.687.
11PG 74. 689 B, 691 C-692 C-D., The women of Eqypt enjoyed a high status unique in the ancient world. Cf. Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex, 997-98.
12PG 62. 500
13PG 50. 635.
14E.g., Clement of Alexandria, PG 8,.1260 C; Gregory of Nazianzus, PG 35. 797 C; Basil of Seleukia, PG 85. 44 B.
15PG 65. 420 D. Sara is one of the several "Desert Mothers" whose ascetic accomplishments were admired and thus rescued from oblivion. Women's acceptance of the male standard of superiority can further be illustrated by the words of a twelfth-century Byzantine empress, Eirene Ducas. When she founded a monastery in Constantinople she prayed that the Theotokos would endow the nuns "those feminine souls with virile virtues." Quoted from C. Diehl, Byzantine Empresses (London, 1963),211.
16PG 46. 960 B.
17PG 61. 316; 62. 543.
18PG47. 510-511.
19Origen, PG 12, 296, D-297 A.
20PG 42. 740 D, 745 B.
21PG 42. 752 D-753 A.
22PG 35. 800 A