Kassia the Hymnographer lived in the 9th century during the last outbreak of iconoclasm. Coming from a noble family, she was well-educated and, if legend is to be believed, was considered a marriage prospect by Emperor Theophilus but was passed over in favor of Theodora. Later she became a monastic and, as is fitting for a monastic coming from the noble caste, she founded her own monastery in Constantinople. In her monastic endeavor she closely followed the reforms of Theodore the Studite and was a part of the continuation of the Studite revival,[1]

Kassia’s exact relationship with Theodore is difficult to determine. There exists a short letter from Theodore to Kassia in which he extols her spiritual life and praises her in her choice to become a monastic.[2] If Kassia was born in 810 as scholars have supposed[3] then she could be, at most, sixteen years old when Theodore died in 826. While the letter has the style of an old man writing to a young protégé, it questions the reliability of the legend of Kassia being propositioned for marriage by Theophilus and at what point after that she decided to become a monastic. The chroniclers place her decision  to become a monastic in her thirty-third year, which would be around 843, though this is obviously impossible if Theodore, indeed, did send her a letter congratulating her new monastic life before he died.

Kassia’s style of hymnography, is, to be sure, largely dependent upon Theodore’s monastic reforms and his emphasis on renewing the classic forms of rhetoric and learning in new ways. Theodore had popularized, for both religious and secular use, the mostly abandoned hymnographic form of epigram, and Kassia was more than happy to model this style. Unlike other hymnographers at this time, however, Kassia used simple and direct language, and she also was unashamed of writing her poems and hymns on feminine matters.[4]

One of the most interesting aspects of her religious hymnography is her odes for female saints. Female sanctity was at this time still a questionable matter of gender-bending. In the Lives of many female saints there was the notion that in achieving holiness they gave up their femininity and “became male”. This is even stated as coming from the mouths of many female saints themselves, such as Amma Sarah’s statement “I am a woman by nature, but not by reason.” Athanasius instructs women to give up the “feminine mentality” so that they may be advanced by God to the rank of males. And John Chrysostom said of his friend Olympias “Don’t say ‘woman’ but ‘what a man!’ because this is a man, despite her physical appearance.”[5] There are also the numerous female saints who took the instruction to “become male” literally, and lived most of their lives dressing as a man and fooling others to think that they were, in fact, a man.[6] While such cross-dressing was condemned by the Church, there continued on the notion that the truly holy woman would, to a certain extent, lose her femininity, tied as it was to overt sexuality and temptation, and become manly, that is, constant and brave.

Kassia, however, does not shy away from attributing female characteristics to the female saints whom she is praising in her hymns. One example of this is Saint Barbara. In the current kontakion Barbara is called upon as “O brave one”, a decidedly masculine title in Greek. Kassia, however, chooses the occasion of the commemoration of Barbara to emphasize the feminine overthrow of Satan. Kassia begins by recounting how the “First-Mother” was defeated by Satan (lines 1-4) but that the Logos, by becoming flesh by a Virgin, has removed that curse (lines 5-9) and therefore Christ crowns Barbara and offers her to the world as a conduit of atonement and mercy.[7]

Very similar to Saint Barbara is Saint Christina. Christina, according to legend, had as one of her tortures her breasts being cut off. Even so, Kassia in her Orthos hymn for the commemoration of Saint Christina praises Christina on account of her abandonment of “the error of idol-mania” (line I.3),[8] clearly implying that Christina, as a woman, was smart enough to leave behind paganism, while men such as her father were unable to do so. Because Christina took “the power of the cross” (line I.4) she, and by extension all women (the verb here changes to the third person plural referring back to gunaikes, women), “trampled the deceiver” (line I.5) and “were strong to follow” Christ (line I.6). Here, Kassia attributes to women power, victory over Satan, and strength, without ever questioning the impact this has upon their gender.

Kassia then continues describing the virtues of Christina in her martyrdom. Having “the armour of faith” (line II.3) and “the weapon of the Cross” (line II.4) she amazes the angels who say that through her “the enemy has fallen, defeated by a woman” (line II.6), obviously another case of the overcoming the curse of Eve being applied to more female saints than just the Virgin Mary. In the next section Kassia does describe Christina as “throwing off the weakness of her nature” and bravely withstanding her oppressors (lines III.5-6) but nowhere does she describe the weakness as being due to female, or if it is simply connected to being human. Indeed, it is difficult to see this as an instance of the female saint “becoming male” since in the last section of this hymn Kassia vividly describes Christina’s “maidenly beauty” (line V. 2) and on account of this she is now the bride of Christ (line V.3) who is crowned with the double wreath and is placed at Christ’s right side as his queen. Kassia is obviously playing off the fact that Christina is the feminine form of the name Christ, and hence pains to set Christina as a type of female model of Christ (see lines III.4 and II.6-10). Because of this, the feminine characteristics, and the fact that Christina was, in fact, a woman, are emphasized all the more.

In contrast to these two hymns are Kassia’s two hymns on two of the more famous “gender-bending saints”, Saint Thekla and Saint Pelagia. Both are, according to their various Life’s, said to have donned male clothing in order to pass themselves off as men. In both of these hymns Kassia fails to use any gender-specific imagery except for referring to Thekla as having taken “the heavenly bridegroom” (line 3),[9] which is an obvious image taken from her Life.

Also intriguing is the way Kassia gives what are feminine attributes in hagiography to male saints. In the Orthos hymn for the commemoration of Saint Eustratius and his fellow martyrs Kassia uses the fact that these saints who were martyred together numbered five to make a typological connection between them and the five wise virgins in the Parable of the Ten Virgins (Matthew 25:1-13).[10] Kassia praises each in turn then says “Hail, evenly balanced chorus of wise virgins (phronimon parthenon)” (line I.27). While male saints are commemorated for many things, virginity is not usually among them. That Kassia felt comfortable enough applying this terminology to Eustratius and his fellow-martyrs, typological as it might be, shows that when it comes to “gender-bending” saints Kassia did not seem to think it was a simply feminine issue.

Furthermore, Kassia did not seem to see any problem in applying feminine imagery to Christ either. In her troparian for the Nativity at vespers she begins her second ode commenting on the fact that Christ was “made flesh from a woman” (line II.1-3) and this woman was “astounded” and asked “how can I nourish (trepho) with milk you who nourish (trephonta) the whole of creation” (line II.7). The typological connection between a mother feeding her child and Christ feeding the world is here cast in the context of lactation. Putting Christ into such a feminine role is highly unusual, though it can be noted that this can be simply a stylistic device used by Kassia in her hymns for the great Christological feasts. In her hymn of the Forefeast of Theophany there is yet another set of rhetorical questions, this time between John and Christ, in which John asks “How will the waters of the river receive you…the inexhaustible source of life?” (lines III.3-5).[11]  And again in the hymn for the Meeting of the Lord there is a set of rhetorical question and here Mary asks Christ “How do I deliver you to the arms of the elder, who sits in the bosom of the Father?” (lines III.4-5).[12] This maternal imagery should not be given an extensive interpretation, for it is only a small part of her hymns on the whole, and their presence are probably due to the fact that Kassia uses language according to tropes and metaphors which are close to her as a woman.

Kassia’s openness to describe female saints in feminine terms and to celebrate their lives precisely as women is a radically new turn in events in Byzantium. To be sure, the freedom Kassia felt to do this was dependent upon her own historical and social situation. Single and wealthy, she was free to pursue an independent monastic life where she could form her own ideas. More than that, however, was her situation as a part of the Studite reforms, which doubtless encouraged her studies and ability to write without tying her down to a set of traditional expectations. Furthermore, Kassia lived at a time when strong Empresses such as Irene and Theodora lived and became the undisputed protectors of Orthodox faith and practice. Doubtless, their achievements gave Kassia the impetus that herself, as well as women, all women, could “trample the deceiver” and achieve the final victory while still being women.

[1] See Antonia Tripolitis, Kassia: The Legend, the Woman, and Her Work, (New York: Garland, 1992) pp. xiii-xxi.

[2] Letter to the Poetess Casia, http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/source/theopoem.html, accessed 14 December 2006.

[3] See K. Krumbacher, Kasia, Sitzungsberichte der philosophish-phililogischen und der historischen Klasse der bayerischen Akademie der Wissenschaften, III (Munich, 1897).

[4] Antonia Tripolitis, Kassia: The Legend, the Woman, and Her Work, p. xix.

[5] See Elizabeth Castelli, “’I Will Make Mary Male’: Pieties of the Body and Gender Transformation of Christian Women in Late Antiquity,” Body Guards: The Cultural Politics of Gender Ambiguity, Julia Epstein and Kristina Straub, eds. (New York: Routledge, 1991) p. 45.

[6] Elizabeth Castelli, “’I Will Make Mary Male’” Body Guards, p. 44.

[7] Antonia Tripolitis, Kassia: The Legend, the Woman, and Her Work, p. 13.

[8] Antonia Tripolitis, Kassia: The Legend, the Woman, and Her Work, p. 57.

[9] Antonia Tripolitis, Kassia: The Legend, the Woman, and Her Work, p. 5.

[10] Antonia Tripolitis, Kassia: The Legend, the Woman, and Her Work, p. 17.

[11] Antonia Tripolitis, Kassia: The Legend, the Woman, and Her Work, p. 33.

[12] Antonia Tripolitis, Kassia: The Legend, the Woman, and Her Work, p. 41.