Women’s History Month: Kassia

Picture this: 9th Century Constantinople. Byzantine music playing softly in the background. Candlelight. A table laid out as if for a feast. Young women paraded in front of rich men who are looking for the prettiest dang filly to bring home as a trophy…I mean wife!

A young, beautiful woman catches the eye of an Emperor-to-be by the name of Theophilos. He approaches her and tries out his best line. Thy Byzantine equivalent of “You come here often?” One can envision him practicing it in the mirror at home:

“Through a woman {came forth} the baser things…”

Oh, Theo, you sweet talker! Has that line worked before?

Theo thinks he can woo the young woman by referring to Eve’s “transgression” and the resulting sin and suffering imposed on the world (as if Adam had no agency in THAT story–but that’s another post).

Now imagine Theo’s surprise when the woman turns around and responds:

“And through a woman {came forth} the better things.”

The Emperor-to-be storms off in a huff and chooses someone else. Kassia, the woman in question, was unbothered.

Kassia was a Byzantine poet, composer, and hymnist (who knew?), born sometime between 805 and 810 in Constantinople into a wealthy family. After her epic takedown of Theopholis, Kassia went off and founded an abbey, of which she became the first abess. And because history is history and mostly written by men, and because rumors have been a thing since the beginning of time, they assumed it was because she had been rejected by Theopholis.

Uh huh. Ok.

Let’s pause. Should we consider any other reasons that a rich, beautiful, intelligent, religious woman might choose to live a life whereby she is unencumbered and does whatever she wants? No? None? Right. It must be that Tehophilos, in a Byzantine snit, chose someone else.

Fast forward.

Theopholis, still presumably sulky, is now Emperor. Whatever. Kassia’s living her best life in her abbey, writing and praying and composing. At least 50 of her hymns have survived, including 23 which are still used in the Greek Orthodox liturgy, including the Hymn of Kassia, used during Easter services.

Theopholis, however, apparently had a bee in his bonnet about worshipping icons. So much so, there’s an era named after it: The 2nd Iconoclast. And just in case you thought Theo might have some residual feelings for our girl, he had Kassia scourged with a lash for her defense of the veneration of idols. Bastard.

(As an aside, when the Emperor died, his wife, the consolation prize after Kassia’s rejection, acting as regent, helped end the period known as the 2nd Iconoclast. Women. We get the job done.)

What is so remarkable about Kassia is not only that we have evidence of her work, but also that in Kassia’s Hymn, she gives voice to Mary Magdalene. She gives voice TO THE WOMAN. A woman giving voice to a woman. It’s something we struggle with, even today, and here was our favorite Byzantine abbess doing it way back in the 9th century. Kassia breathed life into a female character that is almost always rendered, in art, in praise, in religious texts, as a sinner, and in some–with zero evidence fwiw–a prostitute. In Kassia’s Hymn, she places a woman at the center of the story. Or rather, the story is told through the eye of a woman. Particularly in organized religion, where women generally either temptresses or a handy repository for sin, it’s remarkable.

“The woman who had fallen into many sins recognizes Thy Godhead, O Lord. She takes upon herself the duty of a myrrh-bearer and makes ready the myrrh of mourning, before Thy entombment. Woe to me! saith she, for my night is an ecstasy of excess, gloomy and moonless, and full of sinful desire. Receive the sources of my tears, O Thou Who dost gather into clouds the water of the sea;”

Saith SHE

History being history, there is also a “legend” that has Theopholis riding, probably at sunset, to see Kassia in her abbey and ADDING A LINE TO HER HYMN. “Thy feet at whose sound Eve hid herself for fear when she heard Thee walking in Paradise in the cool of the day.”

Pffft. One, this isn’t Bridgerton and Two, back off, Theo. It’s that old trope: surely a girl didn’t write this herself, did she? Nay, not possible! (Isn’t it funny how we never assume male writers had help from the women in their lives? Oh, Zelda F–you’ll get your due some day…)

I don’t think that Kassia intentionally set forth to craft a feminist hymn. I DO think she wrote from a place of knowing, woman to woman. And this, I repeatedly argue, is what is missing from our history, from our art, and from our lives. The view through a feminine window onto the world.

“And through a woman {came forth} the better things.”

Kassia is evidence that these windows have always existed. We just keep slamming them shut.

Let’s open more.

Saith I.

Happy Women’s History Month!

Talk to me, Goose.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.