Holy Mothers of Orthodoxy


Eva Catafygiotu Topping

Thekla the Nun: In Praise of Woman

In the prologue of the Theotokarion published in Venice in 1796 Nikodemos Hagioreites listed and described twenty-two holy and inspired melodes, the authors of the sixty-two kanons in honor of the Theotokos included in his collection.1 Beginning with the name of Saint Andrew of Crete, whom Byzantine tradition credited with the creation of the kanon, this list included many of Byzantium's most illustrious hymnographers. Among them are named Saints John Damascene, Theodore the Studite, Joseph the Hymnographer and John Mauropus of Euchaita. In this thiasos of hymn-writing monks, abbots, and bishops, two figures stand out conspicuously: one emperor, Theodore II Laskaris of Nicaea (reg. 1254-1258), and one woman, Thekla. Nikodemos ends his list with her name: χαι Θεκλα η γλυχυτατη Ηχω.2

Thekla the Nun, as she is most frequently identified,3survives in a single a hymn,4 a kanon in honor of the Theotokos.5 Thanks to this hymn found in a number of manuscripts,6 this ninth-century nun joins an exclusive group of Byzantine women hymnographers.7 Three contemporaries, Kassia,8 Thekla, and Theodosia,9 along with Palaiologina, who probably lived in the fifteenth century,10 comprise this small group. All four composed kanons. All four were nuns. Kassiane and Theodosia were 'pieuses abbesses' of convents in the imperial city of Constantinople.11 It is probable that Thekla was also an abbess. Judging from the strong personality projected in her kanon, Thekla too might have governed a convent while composing sacred poetry.

In fact, Thekla's kanon reveals that she was more than a sweet echo, the author of hymns. She was a self-confident woman, proud not only of herself, but also of her sex. In her encomium to the Theotokos the most exalted of all women, Thekla did not hesitate to praise other lesser women, the women martyrs and the consecrated virgins of the Church.

Women indeed, dominate Thekla's hymn. It was written by a woman, about women and for women. The few masculine figures who appear in it are related to the Theotokos: Joachim, her father;12 Moses,13 Jacob,14 and Gideon,15 whose experiences of the deity prefigured God's birth from a virgin mother; Christ, Mary's divine Son.16

From the first to the last verse the Theotokos is the principal figure, the object of Thekla's encomium. She is the 'Thou'to whom the poet addresses all but three strophes.17 With a graceful image the encomiast introduces her subject at the beginning of the first ode. It is a ceremonial presentation to the Theotokos of Thekla's hymn:

Εγκωμιων σοι
νυν εξυφαινει πνευματι
η εκκλησια,σεμνη
Now, O Holy One,
The church spiritually weaves for you
an everlasting crown of praises.
The church, humble
—vv. 1-4

The ekklesia (another feminine figure) formally presents to the Theotokos an everlasting crown of praise. Likewise, all six prayers of the kanon are addressed to the Mother of God.18 Throughout the reader is aware of the benevolent power and presence of the Theotokos.

The second ubiquitous feminine presence is that of the sacred poet herself. Thekla stands always before the Theotokos, offering to her both praise and prayer.19 Seldom does she withdraw from the foreground. Her voice is heard in the liturgical 'we' as well as in the first person singular. Thekla signs the kanon with her name in the acrostic. She also proudly pays homage to her patron saint, Thekla the Protomartyr.

In addition, women from the Scriptures and apocrypha are named in this kanon. Ann, the mother of the Theotokos is mentioned once.20 Thekla alludes to three episodes from the New Testament in which women are the protagonists. These allusions were undoubtedly immediately recognized by Thekla's congregation of nuns. In vv. 61-64 she echoes the acclamation of the unknown woman in Luke 1l.27-28. The refrain of Ode Ζ', repeated four times, is derived from Elizabeth's salutation to Mary on the occasion of her visit after the Annunciation, recorded in Luke 1.46. Finally in a personal prayer Thekla likens herself and her hymn to the widow who gave her mite, as related in Mark 12.41-44 and Luke 21.1-4.21

Nor are references to women in general lacking. There are at least a half dozen references to the female sex. The word γυναχες and the phrase η φσις του θηλεος each occurs three times.22 Nuns are specifically referred to twice.23

In several respects Thekla's kanon is unique in the extensive published corpus of Byzantine hymnography. I know of no comparable hymn. Although for a millennium male hymnographers in Byzantium sang the praises of the Theotokos, this hymn isthe only one by a woman which has survived. Women martyrs were also hymned by male bards in Byzantium. Masculine prejudice and condescension, however, all too often marred their hymns. In Thekla's canon women are treated with the respect which was usually denied them in the sacred poetry of the Church.24