Holy Mothers of Orthodoxy


Eva Catafygiotu Topping

Thekla the Nun: In Praise of Women

Thekla the Nun was fortunate in the time of her life. In the history of the ninth century, women figured prominently in various ways. Empresses, hymnographers, nuns, and lay women helped secure the victory of Orthodoxy over iconoclasm. A disapproving historian gave them due credit: "The idols, for such they were now held, were secretly cherished by the order and sex most prone to devotion; and the fond alliance of the monks and females obtained a final victory over the reason and authority of man."25

When the century opened, a woman ruled the empire in her own right, boldly signing herself Basileus. Athenian-born Eirene was Europe's first woman, monarch.26 In 787 she had restored Orthodoxy and the veneration of icons, ending five decades of tumultuous conflict. Iconoclasm was finally liquidated by another empress in 843. After the death of her husband, Theophilos, Theodora returned Church and empire to the path of Orthodoxy. Eirene and Theodora are both commemorated on the Feast of Orthodoxy when a grateful Church acknowledges its debt to two imperial Orthodox women.

From the beginning of the iconoclastic controversy in the eighth century women of all social classes, nuns and laywomen alike, had proven themselves to be staunch iconophiles, loyal to the traditions of the Church. They endured persecutions and suffered martyrdom in defense of icons. Theodosia of Constantinople, a nun, was one of the first iconoclastic martyrs. When the first iconoclastic emperor, Leo the Isaurian, ordered in 729 the removal of the icon of Christ from the Chalke Gate, a "crowd of zealots and women"27 led by Theodosia tried to prevent the desecration. Martyred for her faith, this activist nun quickly became the object of a popular cult in Constantinople.28

During this crisis women went beyond their conventional pursuits, whether private or religious, and participated publicly in the defense of traditional Orthodox beliefs and practices. It is no accident that three of the four women hymnographers of Byzantium belong to this period. Kassia, Thekla, and Theodosia all responded to the challenge and threat of iconoclasm. From the correspondence of Theodore the Studite we learn that Kassia suffered persecution because she assisted iconodule prisoners and exiles.29 Theodosia composed a canon in honor of Saint Ioannikios soon after the death of this iconophile champion.30 In her kanon Thekla proclaims the triumph of Orthodoxy and honors the women of the Church who made it possible.

At the same time Thekla's kanon discloses her own autobiography. This Byzantine woman, typical of her time, was a devout Orthodox believer. She was also a sacred poet and nun, dedicating herself entirely to the ekklesia. Accepting the Christian vision of women and the position assigned to them, Thekla fulfilled herself. In the course of this essay we shall discover the woman behind the sweet echo described in Nikodemos' prologue.

Thekla's encomium is a conventional kanon composed of nine odes (actually eight in number since the second ode is almost always omitted).31 Set in the second tone, it was composed to be sung at vespers on Tuesday. Unlike Kassia who sometimes composed new melodies for her hymns,32 Thekla used older well known heirmoi for the odes of her kanon.33 Together with the kathisma,34 the kanon consists of one hundred ninety-eight verses, divided into strophes of varying lengths, the shortest being four verses long and the longest, nine.

Twenty-seven of the thirty-two strophes appear to be original compositions by Thekla. The other five, the final strophes of Odes Γ', ΣΤ', Ζ', Η', Θ', are also found in a kanon attributed to Klement, thus producing a difficult problem of authorship.35 Formed by the initial letters of the strophe, the acrostic varies according to the arrangement of the strophes. In the text published by Eustratiades the name of Klement appears along with that of Thekla in the acrostic Εγχ[ωμι]αζει την Θεοτχον Θεχλα Κλημεντος.36

In the text of Nikodemos, however, the strophes are so arranged that only Thekla's name appears in the acrostic, formed by the initial letters of the last two odes.37 Despite the confusion and uncertainties which result from the inclusion of the five strophes attributed to Klement, there seems to be no reason to deny Thekla's authorship of the kanon. A feminine point of view prevails throughout, distinctive and clear.

Although Thekla's voice is the only one heard, it does not become monotonous. She varies her voice by speaking sometimes in the liturgical 'we,' and at other times in the individual 'I.' Here, as in many Byzantine hymns, the liturgical and individual voices coexist harmoniously. Within a single hymn the sacred poet may speak both for the Church and for himself. To these two frequently heard voices Thekla adds a third, seldom heard in Byzantine hymnography. In the final ode she speaks in behalf of a particular group inside the larger community of the Church, in behalf of women consecrated to God. Exceptionally, the Byzantine convent is heard in Thekla's kanon. The same rare voice again is heard in Kassia's hymn for Holy Saturday.38