Holy Mothers of Orthodoxy


Eva Catafygiotu Topping

Thekla the Nun: In Praise of Woman

When Mary, a daughter of Eve, gave birth to God, she bestowed freedom and honor on her sex. Woman's disgrace was erased forever. The cause of woman's bondage and dishonor, Eve is mentioned twice in passing by Thekla.73 Unlike Byzantium's male hymnographers who could never resist blaming Eve for every ill that besets mankind, Thekla does not heap opprobrium on the first sinner. Instead of dwelling on the time of Eve which had now passed away, Thekla emphasizes the time of Mary, a new era for women. The Theotokos theia doxa reflected, inevitably, honor on her sex.74 A woman, our poet felt herself freed from the primeval shame inherited from Eve. But even more, she felt herself graced with honor because of the Theotokos. We can imagine that Thekla was not alone in appreciating the new condition of women inaugurated by the coming of Christ.

Once liberated from inherited sorrow and shame, women assumed new roles in the broader world outside the domestic domain. Established by Mary's divine Son, the ekklesia opened new opportunities for activity to women who heretofore had been confined to the home.75 With obvious feminine pride and gratitude Thekla acclaims the Theotokos as woman's emancipator:

Ετεκεν υιον Παρθενος
και ευτολμουσι γυναικες
κατα του εχθρου εμφανως
και ταυτη ακολουθουθσι
νεανιδες παρθενιαν ασκουσαι
The Virgin gave birth to a son
and women dare openly
to oppose the evil one.
And young women following her
practice virginity.
—vv. 84-88

The virgin mother gave women courage to act and witness publicly for their Christian faith.76 Women heroically resisted the "enemy," whether Satan or an emperor. In the century before Thekla, Saint Theodosia had demonstrated against an iconoclastic emperor and disobeyed his commands. Already in the annals of Christianity were recorded the martyrdoms of countless women from the earliest days of persecutions to the most recent. Their history was well known to Thekla. She therefore pays them tribute in her encomium to the Theotokos.

In the third strophe of the seventh ode Thekla returns to the twin themes of woman's emancipation by the Theotokos and women martyrs:

Ελευθερουται δια σου
η προμητωρ, Θεοτοκε καταδικης
και ιδου νυν γυναικες
υπεραθλουσι Χριστου
και χαιρει η φυσις του θηλεος
ως η πρωτομαρτυς
βοα παρθενος Θεκλα
Through you, Theotokos,
The first mother is freed from condemnation.
And behold, now women strive
on behalf of Christ.
And the female sex rejoices,
as the first martyr,
the virgin Thekla proclaims.
—vv. 157-163

These seven verses constitute Thekla's memorial to women's sacrifices for the Church. The Theotokos freed women from Eve;s sentence of guilt. In return women proved with their lives loyalty to their faith.77 All four verbs in this strophe are in the present tense, suggesting contemporary events in the empire, where women endured persecution and death in defense of Orthodoxy. The adverb νυν reinforces the present tense and emphasizes Thekla's point.

In Thekla's time women were continuing a tradition of active witness that stretched back to apostolic times when women accompanied the first Christian missionaries. Among these Saint Thekla has first place of honor. Our hymnographer openly takes pride in her namesake, the virgin martyr whom Paul had converted in Iconium. Risking her life, Thekla followed Paul and shared in his mission of preaching the Gospel.78 Widely honored in the Christian East, "The First Martyr among Women and Equal to the Apostles," Saint Thekla was the subject of numerous legends and sermons, the inspiration and model of zealous Christian women.79 To be called a "second Thekla" was to win the highest praise. Her cult flourished in Constantinople where several churches were dedicated to her, including a basilica built by the Emperor Justinian.80

Imperial princesses of the ninth century bore her illustrious name. Thekla was the name of the eldest daughter of Theophilos (829-842), the last iconoclastic emperor.81 And it was the name chosen by our hymnographer when she took the veil and became a nun. Her hymn, along with her choice of a monastic name, testifies to deep personal devotion to Christianity's first woman martyr.

The monastic vocation, the possibility for a new way of life, was also a gift of the Theotokos to women. Venerated by women in the convents of Byzantium, Mary was the model to be imitated:

και ταυτη ακολουθουσι
νεανιδες παρθενιαν ασκουσαι.
And following her,
the young women practice virginity.
—vv. 87-88