Holy Mothers of Orthodoxy


Eva Catafygiotu Topping

Thekla the Nun: In Praise of Woman

Orthodox believer, hymnodist and nun, Thekla was above all a confident, strong-minded woman. She possessed in good measure self-esteem. She took pride in herself and in her sex. From her hymn emerges a positive image of Eve and her daughters, so long maligned by male preachers and church poets in the Christian East and West. Rejecting the shame and guilt traditionally attached to her sex, she claimed for women respected and an honorable place in the Byzantine polity and Church.88 Women had established a record that earned them recognition. Thekla salutes nuns and women martyrs, recalling that their history reached back to Christian beginnings, to the glorious deeds and death of her namesake Saint Thekla.

Thekla's joyful kanon reflects her serenity. Secure in her faith, called to be a nun and hymnographer, Thekla accomplished her diakonia. The kanon to the Theotokos is her testament to a life spent in harmony with God.


1 The Theotokarion is a liturgical containing kanons in the eight tones, composed in honor of the Theotokos and sung during vespers. For a history of this collection see N. B. Tomadakes, "Epimetron A': Peri tou theotokariou tou Nikodemou," Epeteris Hetaireias Byzantinon Spoudon 32 (1963), pp. 15-25.
2Quoted from Spyridon Choraites, "Theotokarion" in He Threskeutike kai Ethike Enkyklopaideia VI (Athens, 1965), Col. 316.
3In most of the brief notices and lists of Byzantine hymnographers e.g. C. Emereau, Hymnographi Byzantini, Echos d'Orient 24, (1925), P. 176. For relevant bibliography consult Enrica Follier, Initia Hymnorum Ecclesiae Graecae V (Vatican City, 1966), p. 266; Josef Szoverffy, A Guide to Byzantine Hymnography: A Classified Bibliography of Texts and Studies II (Brookline, Mass., and Leyden, 1979), p. 44.  These two valuable works will henceforth be cited by the authors' names.
4The hymn De S. Theclae published by Joannes Baptista Petra, Analecta Sacra: Spicilegio Solesmensis 1 (Paris, 1876), pp. 636-37, cannot be securely attributed to Thekla.
5Unfortunately a satisfactory text has not yet been established, two tests available to me were Nikodemos Monaches ho Naxios, Theotokarion: Neon Poikilon kai Horaiototon Oktoechon (Volos, 1949), pp. 34-37; and Sophronios Eustratiades, Theotakarion A (Chennevieres-sur-Marne, 1931), pp. 166-68. All references, numbers and citations in this essay are to latter. These two editions will henceforth be cited by the authors' names. For criticism of Eustratieades see E. P. Pantelakes, "Metrikai Paratereseis eis to Neon Theotokariou," Theologia 13 (1935), pp. 296-322; "Philogikai Parateresies eis to Neon Theotokarion," Eperteris Hetaireias Byznatinon Spoudon 11 (1935), pp. 73-104.
6Described by Eustratiades pp. ια'-ιστ'
7It is generally accepted that Thekla belongs to the ninth century. Cf. Egon Wellesz, A History of Byzantine and Hymnography, 2nd ed. (Oxford 1961), p. 444.
8The most famous woman hymnodist and the only one whose hymns are used by the Orthodox Church, Kassia is the subject of a model study by Ilse Rochow, Studien zu der Person, den Werken und dem Nachleben der Dichterin Kassia (Berlin 1967).
9Very little is know about this hymnodist. See Sophronios Eustratiades, "Poietai kai Hymnographoi tes Orthodoxou Ekklesias," Nea Sion 53 (1958), pp. 295-97; Follier, 5, p. 266; Szeverffy p.48.
10See Hans-Georg Beck, Kirche und Theologische Literatur im Byzantinishen Reich (Munich 1977), p. 797; Szoverffy, p. 75.
11Joannes Baptita Pitra, Hymnographie de l'Eglise Grecque (Rome 1867). Both seemed to have been know to Theodore the Studite.
12Vv. 41-45, Joachim also appears in the oldest extant biography of the Theotokos, composed during the iconoclastic era. See PG 120:189.
13Vv. 49-50.
14Vv. 53-60.
15Vv. 111-14, 127-30.
16Christ appears almost as frequently as his mother. He is identified as Theos (12, 25, 36, 56, 71, 74, 76); Christos (13, 23, 31, 81, 150, 160); Logos (58, 112); Despotes (123); Kyrios (147); Kistes (71).
17Vv. 37-40, 84-88, 101-04.
18Vv. 28-36, 65-69, 89-92, 105-10, 171-77, 185-91. All but two odes (Γ', Ε) contain prayers, doxology, and petitions being inseparable elements in liturgical poetry.
19For the function of the liturgical poet see the discussion by E. C. Topping, "The Poet-Priest in Byzantium, Greek Orthodox Theological Review 12 (1966), pp. 92-111.
21Of the four Gospels women figure most prominently in Luke. See the interesting comments of Constance F. Parvey, "The Theology and Leadership of Women in the New Testament," in Religion and Sexism, ed. Rosemary Radford Ruether (New York, 1974), pp. 138-42.
22Vv. 48, 85, 159, 82, 101, 161.
23Vv. 87-88, 187-91.
24I have underway a study of the image of woman in Byzantine hymnography. It appears from this study that only the Theotokos was untouched by the guilt and shame which women inherited from Eve. Not even female saints, martyrs, and ascetics were exempt from this legacy.
25Edward Gibbon, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire V, ed J. B. Bury (London, 1901), p. 276.
26Steven Runciman, "The Empress Irene the Athenian," in Medieval Women, ed. Derek Baker (Oxford, 1978), pp. 101-19, redresses the shabby treatment that Irene usually receives.
27Gibbon, The History, p.253.
28See Nikodemos Hagioreites, Synaxaristes 2 (Athens, 1868), pp. 172-73; Constantine Akropolites, PG 140:893-935; R. Janin, La Geographie ecclesiastique de l'empire byzantin, Pt. I, vol. 3, 2nd ed. (Paris, 1969), pp. 143-45.
29Rochow, Studien…Kassia, pp.20-26.
30See the above references in n. 9.
31A good account of this elaborate poetical form is to be found in Wellesz, A History, pp. 198-239.
32Women composers in Byzantium are even fewer than women hymnodists. Besides Kassia one other is known. See Milos Velimirovic, "Byzantine Composers in MS Athens 2406," in Essays Presented to Egon Wellesz, ed. Jack Westrup (Oxford, 1960), pp. 12, 16.