Thursday, July 21, 2016

Women Hymnographers of the Orthodox Church

Women Hymnographers of the Orthodox Church

By Dimitris Salapatas

(Orthodox Outlook, June/July 2016, Issue 120, pp.13-15
The role of women in the Orthodox Church is of increasing interest. What is evident in a number of publications and conferences is the fact that we need to hear not only what the Church proclaims on this issue, but how women themselves understand the theology and the tradition of their role in Orthodoxy.[1] Quoting verses from Holy Scripture such as Galatians 3:28 – “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” can only take us so far. In order to understand the role of women in Orthodoxy we need to go further; we need to establish their role today, identify the true Orthodox Tradition and examine the history of this matter, practically, historically and theologically. Here we will examine the role of women by looking at women hymnographers in the Byzantine Tradition.

 When looking at the history of Byzantine Hymnography and Music we can see that it is dominated primarily by men. However women are not totally absent, but they are ‘the exception to the rule.’ The most famous woman hymnographer is of course Kassiani the Hymnographer (known also as Kassia or Eikasia). She is known for the Troparion of Kassiani which is chanted during Matins of Holy Wednesday.

Lord, the woman who had fallen into many sins, perceiving your divinity, took up the role of myrrh-bearer, and with lamentation brings sweet myrrh to you before your burial. ‘Alas!’, she says, ‘for night is for me a frenzy of lust, a dark and moonless love of sin. Accept the fountains of my tears, you who from the clouds draw out the water of the sea; bow yourself down to the groanings of my heart, you who bowed the heavens by your ineffable self-emptying. I shall kiss you immaculate feet, and wipe them again with the locks of my hair, those feet whose sounds Eve heard at dusk in Paradise, and hid herself in fear. Who can search out the multitude of my sins and the depths of your judgements, my Saviour, saviour of souls? Do not despise me, your servant, for you have mercy without measure.’

It is considered to be one of the greatest masterpieces of the Byzantine hymnographic tradition.

She was born between 805 and 810 AD in Constantinople, during the reign of Emperor Nikephoros I (802-811). She was known for her beauty and her cleverness. Three Byzantine Historians: Symeon the translator, Georgios Amartolos and Leon Grammatikos, claim that she was part of the ceremony for the bride choice for the Emperor Theophilus (829-842), which was organised by his step-mother Euphrosyne. During this ceremony the emperor would choose his wife by giving her a golden apple. Dazzled by the beauty of Kassia, the young emperor approached her and said:  “All the bad things came to this world from a woman” referring to the sin and suffering that resulted from Eve. Kassia then answered: “And all the good things came from a woman,” referring to the Theotokos and to the hope of salvation from the Incarnation of Jesus Christ. The emperor’s egoism was injured, which resulted in his rejection of Kassiani. Instead he chose Theodora as his wife.

We know that Kassiani founded a cenobium in Constantinople in 843 AD, near the western walls of the City, where she became the first abbess. It was at this monastery that she began writing hymns and poems. “St Kassiani also wrote secular songs and poems on moral themes which were witty, often crass, sometimes funny, and usually defended women’s rights.”[2] She was in close contact with the Studion Monastery, which played a key role in the re-publications of Byzantine Liturgical Books during the 9th and 10th centuries.

This great poet, hymnographer and melodist of the Orthodox Church, Saint Kassiani, is commemorated on the 7th September. Having a special talent, intelligence, and sensitivity she excelled in the creation of melodies; this was due to her high education and noble lineage. Her work is timeless moving everyone within the Orthodox world.

Forty-nine of her hymns are still used in the Orthodox Church: though “only twenty-three of those have been proven by scholars to be genuine.”[3] The reason why modern scholars are not 100% sure of the authenticity of a number of hymns, by both men and women, is due to the issue of anonymity within the Orthodox hymnographic tradition. This practice was maintained during the Byzantine period due to moral and spiritual reasons. “It was believed that spiritual anonymity would supersede any earth-given praise.”[4]

Many of Kassiani’s hymns have been set to music by various hymnographers. The majority of her musical works are in sticheron form, i.e. pieces chanted during Matins and Vespers. She wrote many idiomela: hymns which have their own unique melody, doxastika (longer hymns which begin with ‘Glory to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit, Both now and forever and to the ages of ages. Amen,’ which tell the stories of the lives of the saints). “St. Kassia has numerous doxastika following the lives of St. Mary of Egypt, St. Christina, St. Eudokia, St. Agathe, St. Barbara, St. Pelagia, St. Thekla, and others.”[5] Additionally, “she is also credited with writing the odes for the Tetraodion for Holy Saturday, widely appreciated for their beautiful, programmatic imagery.”[6]

She has, additionally, written the idomelo doxastikon of Christmas:

‘Glory. Both now. The same Tone. By Kassia.

When Augustus reigned alone on the earth, the many kingdoms of mankind came to an end; and when you became man from the pure Virgin, the many gods of idolatry were destroyed; the cities of the world passed under one single rule; and the nations came to believe in one single Godhead; the peoples were enrolled by decree of Caesar; we the faithful were enrolled in the name of the Godhead, when you became man, O our God. Great is your mercy, Lord; glory to you!’

From the above we understand why she is the only memorable female Byzantine poet.

Kassiani was not the only female monastic hymnographer. We also know about Thekla, Martha, Theodosia, who were all abbesses during the 9th century. The music they composed was primarily intended for use by the female monastic choirs within their monasteries. “Kouvouklisena was a domestikena, or director and lead chanter for female choir in a monastery who lived during the 13th century.”[7] Palaeologina, who was a nun and a hymnographer (15th century) was related to the Imperial family in Constantinople and was well educated. She also composed hymns. The daughter of Ioannes Kladis (an accomplished chanter in the Imperial city)[8] is the other hymnographer (15th century), whose writings appear together with her father’s, making it apparent that she was also his student. Egon Wellesz in his important book A History of Byzantine Music and Hymnography, has a list of the best-known hymnographers from the 5th until the 15th century. In it we find two women Kassiani and Thecla (the Nun).[9]

Irmoi from the Canon at Matins on Great Saturday
by Kassiani
3. When it saw you, who had hung the whole earth freely on the waters, hanging on Golgotha, creation was seized with great amazement and cried, ‘None is holy but you, o Lord’.’
4. Foreseeing your divine self-emptying on the Cross, Avvakoum, amazed, cried out, ‘You cut off the might of the powerful, O Good One, you speaking with those in Hell as all-powerful’.’
5. Isaias, as he watched by night, O Christ, saw the light which knows no evening of your theophany, which in your compassion came to pass for us, and he cried, ‘The dead will arise and those in the graves will rise, and those in the earth will rejoice.’
6. Jonas was held, but not held fast in the belly of the whale; for being a type of you, the One who suffered and was given over to burial, as from a bridal chamber he leapt forth from the beast and cried to the guard, ‘You who vainly and falsely keep guard, you have forsaken your own mercy’.’
7. Ineffable wonder! He who in the furnace delivered the holy youths from the flame, is laid in the tomb a lifeless corpse for the salvation of us who sing, ‘God, our Redeemer, blessed are you!’
9. Do not weep for me, Mother as you see in a tomb the Son whom you conceived in your womb without seed; for I shall arise and be glorified, and I shall exalt in glory without ceasing those who with faith and love magnify you.’

[1]There have been a number of important conferences on the role of women in the Orthodox Church. See   

[2] Dianne Touliatos-Miles, ‘Kassia’, in James R. Briscoe (ed.), New Historical Anthology of Music by Women, Bloomington, IN, 2004, p. 6.
[3] Antonia Tripolitis, Kassia: The Legend, the Woman, and Her Work, New York, 1992, p. xii.
[4] Rachel Nicolas Brashier, Voice of Women in Byzantine Music Within the Greek Orthodox Churches in America, Southern Illinois, 2012, p. 14.
[5]. Ibid, p. 14.
[6] Diane Touliatos, The Traditional Role of Greek Women in Music from Antiquity to the End of the Byzantine Empire, in Kimberly Marshall (ed.), Rediscovering the Muses: Women’s Musical Traditions, Boston, 1993, p. 81.
[7] Rachel Nicole Brashier, Voice of Women in Byzantine Music Within the Greek Orthodox Churches in America, Southern Illinois, 2012, p. 14.
[8] More information: ibid. p. 118.
[9] Egon Wellesz, A History of Byzantine Music and Hymnography, Oxford, 1961, pp. 442-444. 

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