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Bold, Beautiful, and Byzantine: A Brief Study of the Life and Poetry of Kassia the Nun
by Katherine Schneider

hen exploring the anthologies of poetry by Christian women through the ages, a fascinating voice emerges and resounds from ninth-century Constantinople. This is the voice of Kassia, a nun, poet, and hymnographer, whose great religious faith and literary and musical talents make her one of the most unique and prominent Greek woman poets of the Byzantine era. Although few facts are known about her life, when they are reviewed alongside her youthful correspondence with Theodore the Studite, the legend passed down concerning her interaction with Emperor Theophilos, and poetry that has undisputedly been attributed to her, we are introduced to a captivating woman who lived from approximately 810 to 865.

Early Life

So what is known about this famous Byzantine woman? Her name has been recorded many different ways—Kassiane, Cassia, Kasia, Eikasia, Ikasia—but they refer to the same woman who was born around the year 810 to an aristocratic family in Constantinople (Silvas 17) and became a nun, scholar, hymnographer, and poet.

When Kassia was growing up in the early ninth century in Constantinople, her aristocratic social status gave her access to a good education (Silvas 18). She likely was able to achieve both "a high degree of literacy in Greek language" and to study "Scriptures, Patristic classics…sacred music, poetry and metre, and probably some Hellenic classics" (Silvas 18). Her keen intellect and her religious passion and conviction were evident from a young age. She became a child confessor of the faith1 when she was beaten with a lash for supporting iconodules2 and imprisoned monks during iconoclasm3.

As a young teenager she corresponded with Saint Theodore the Studite whom she "regarded as a spiritual hero and sought as a guide" (Silvas 19). In that correspondence we find Kassia's deep desire to become a nun as well as an acknowledgement of her being beaten for aiding iconodules during imperially enforced iconoclasm. In Theodore's responses he expressed how impressed he was by the quality of her writing in her letters. He also commended her Orthodox zeal and compassion for imprisoned monks and offered encouragement and guidance dense with Scripture verses and Biblical images (Silvas 20).

Kassia would have been in her late teens when she participated in the bride show of 829 where Emperor Theophilos chose his wife. The event was first documented by Symeon the Logothete in the tenth century (Silvas 20) and has been retold with some slight variations through the ages.

The Bride Show Legend

In 829, Emperor Theophilos had just succeeded his father, Michael of Amorion, as emperor of the Byzantine Empire. Theophilos' stepmother, Euphrosyne, organized a bride show in order to find a suitable wife for him. Of the extraordinarily beautiful young women who participated in this bride show, it came down to six semi-finalists. These semi-finalists stood before him—and one of them was Kassia.

Theophilos would make his final choice using the ancient bride show custom of handing a golden apple to the woman who he decided would be his wife. Theophilos, struck most with Kassia's beauty while also aware of her intellect, approached her first. He said to her, "'From woman flowed corruption,'" (Holy Apostles Convent 372) referring to Eve eating first from the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden. Now, this was hardly an endearing statement, but it was one that could be deemed acceptable at a time in Christian cultures when Eve—and therefore woman—was largely blamed for original sin. Kassia replied, "'But also from woman sprung forth what is superior,'" (Holy Apostles Convent 372) referring to Mary giving birth to the Christ. Reportedly, Theophilos was speechless upon hearing this and withdrew from Kassia with some chagrin to offer the golden apple to Theodora.

So goes the famous bride show legend in which Kassia is rejected by Theophilos for her retort. According to most retellings, Kassia was not dejected or upset in the least about being rejected by him; rather, she was truly eager to pursue "monastic life and spiritual scholarship" (Holy Apostles Convent 373).

Monastic Life and Literary Works

Silvas perhaps puts it best when she proposes that Kassia's participation in the bride show was perhaps "sufferance to oblige her parents" (Silvas 21). If Kassia was as utterly committed to pursuing monastic life as she had expressed in her letters to Theodore the Studite, it was probably the case that she had little need to worry about a potential marriage. At some time after the bride show she entered monastic life and began her training as a nun. Then after becoming a tonsured nun and the relief of "the final collapse of iconoclasm in 843," she founded her own convent on Xerolophos, the seventh hill of Constantinople (Silvas 22).

Kassia was the Superior to the nuns in her convent. Among the many things that she did there, she composed "both sacred chants and non-liturgical verse for the use of her community and circle of friends" (Silvas 22). These compositions included many hymns, epigrams, and gnomic verses. Kassia's friendship with the nearby Studite monks at the monastery of Stoudion essentially ensured the honor of publication and literary survival of her hymns and poems. These monks ran a scriptorium and played an important role in re-editing the Byzantine liturgical books where they included a selection of her hymns (Silvas 22). She remains the only woman to have her hymns admitted into the liturgical books of the Eastern Orthodox Church.

Kassia's Works for the Liturgy

Kassia wrote forty-nine hymns which can be found in the two liturgical books of the Eastern Orthodox Church, the Menaia and the Triodion (Tripolitis xvii). Forty-seven of them are idiomela troparia, "short metrical hymns with their own melodies", and two are canons which are composed of "complex cycles of stanzas" (Silvas 27).

The troparion, as Tripolitis explains, is actually "the earliest form of Greek Christian religious poetry" dating from the fourth century (xvii). Most of Kassia's hymns were troparia in honor of saints while the rest were in honor of other feasts. Like all troparia, they were written with a "pronounced laudatory and lyrical character" (Tripolitis xvii). In the Greek Orthodox liturgy Kassia's troparia, like other troparia, have a fixed place and particular function (Tripolitis xvii) in the liturgy.

Kassia's two canons were for Easter Vigil and the Dead. The canon form "is a hymn-cycle of eight odes, numbered one and three to nine" which originated in the second half of the seventh century (Tripolitis xvii). However, during Lent canons contain only two to four odes. Accordingly, Kassia's Tetraodion for Holy Saturday before Easter, as the name implies, is composed of four odes. Triplolitis succinctly expounds upon the length and intricacy of this form, explaining that "[e]ach ode in a canon is made up of metrically identical stanzas or troparia, from three to twenty and sometimes more" (xviii). For example, Kassia's canon for the Dead, her longest work, is composed of 252 verses (xviii).

The Troparion of Kassiane

Although Kassia produced many notable troparia, perhaps her most famous of these is her hymn about The Harlot, the woman introduced in the gospel of Luke in chapter 7 who weeps on Jesus' feet, pours perfume on them, and then dries his feet with her hair. In this hymn, well known as The Troparion of Kassiane, she meditates deeply on the Harlot's perspective as she repents of her sins and worships Jesus. In the midst of it, Kassia draws a number of subtle yet brilliant parallels between the details of this Biblical scene and those of others, emphasizing the interconnected symbols and cycles of sin, Jesus' incarnation and death for sinners, and the sinner's repentance. Kassia, writing as a Christian woman about another woman of the faith and speaking from her perspective, also testifies to the depth, passion, and beauty of female Christian faith and worship and uses images that illuminate the Christian woman's perspective.

In the opening lines of the hymn she writes,

Lord, the woman who
committed so many sins:
as soon as she became aware of Your divinity
she assumed the trappings of a myrrh-bearer,
and weeping brought You
myrrh before Your funeral. (Liapis 306)

The first parallel Kassia makes is between the harlot and a female mourner, like the women disciples who wept and brought spices to Jesus' tomb to adorn his body. The harlot in the grief of her repentance is unknowingly adorning Jesus for burial in the same way the myrrh-bearers do. Kassia makes the connection between how both the harlot and the myrrh-bearing women choose to adorn and bless Jesus in the midst of their grief. It is an intriguing parallel to meditate upon at the forefront of this piece and gives the reader, singer, and hearer of this troparion two pictures of female expressions of grief. They are also powerful timeless pictures of female tenderness in Christian worship.

Speaking from the harlot's perspective, Kassia later writes,

Accept my streams of tears,
You who mingle the waters of the ocean
with the clouds. (Liapis 309)

This petition, as well as the one immediately following it in the hymn, illustrate cyclical patterns between God and His creation and the infinite interconnectedness between them. At the heart of these cycles is the emphasis that the sovereign, creator-God desires the love and worship of human beings who repent of sin and wholeheartedly embrace the gift of salvation through His Son, Jesus. Here the tears of guilt and repentance—and the release from grief—flow down the repentant harlot's face. With the direction and rhythm of this cycle in the hymn, the tears seem to flow down to the oceans of the Earth which receives the outflow of rivers and the moist run-off of things both clean and toxic. God is the one who causes evaporation and condensation, mingling "the waters of the ocean / with the clouds," accepting the repentant tears and relieving the sinner's burden of guilt.

The next cycle of movement Kassia evokes follows in another petition from the harlot,

Bow to the moans of my heart,
You who made the heavens bow
when You poured Yourself into a human body
in a way that defies description. (Liapis 309)

Here, the harlot is asking God to be near and listen in to her inner ache of grief and shame while stating her faith in His ability and willingness to do so by likening this action to His incarnation in a human body. She asks God to bend to her in her individual lowliness while believing and acknowledging how God has already bent to humanity's lowliness. In fact, she explains how He has done something infinitely more thorough and grand than bending by pouring Himself "into a human body / in a way that defies description" (Liapis 309). Kassia illuminates here the flow of God's love, grace, and mercy from His perfection and purity in Heaven to humanity's earthly lowliness in sin and fleshly, mortal need. Kassia, from the perspective of the harlot, thus parallels the universal demonstration of this to the individual demonstration of it.

Though this portion focuses on the downward movement of God's bending to humanity, the cycle is completed and echoed in the statements and sentiments in the rest of the hymn where the harlot receives God's mercy and with her faith offers up praise and thankfulness in response. The next lines are,

I will shower kisses on Your immaculate feet,
and I will wipe them
with the locks of my hair. (Liapis 309)

Since God has "poured" Himself "into a human body," the harlot is able to literally kiss God's feet and wipe them with her hair. Kassia's keen sensitivity to infinite cyclical patterns and parallels is natural and subtle. As God has blessed humanity with pouring Himself into physical incarnation, the harlot—in "shower[ing] kisses" on His feet—blesses God by worshipping Him in response to the blessing of His mercy.

The feet of God are featured elsewhere in Scripture with a different woman, and Kassia knew the story well. After Adam and Eve ate of the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil in the book of Genesis, they became aware of their nakedness and hid from God. More specifically, they hid from God when they heard his footsteps in the Garden. In the story in Genesis that illustrates the initial breaking of humanity's relationship with God, what is revealed is a cycle incited by the serpent, Satan, of deceit, selfishness, and anxiety-filled shame. The serpent deceives Eve, who eats the fruit believing that she will gain things she deserves that God has withheld from her. However, upon consuming the fruit, she is awakened to the shame of mistrusting and disobeying God and responds not with repentance but with fearful hiding from God. The harlot testifies to previously living in this cycle of sin and hiding from God. The first words the harlot speaks in the hymn are:

Woe that I am shrouded
in darkness…
in the mad fury of lechery,
in the gloomy and moonless
lust for sin. (Liapis 309)

However, the harlot also testifies to the breaking of this cycle incited by sinful desire by God's transformative mercy and her response of repentance and worship. Kassia is drawing a fairly cosmic parallel here, and does so with clear, unencumbered passion and directness. With her faith, the great leaps between the subjects of her parallels feel logical, plain, and visceral—which is quite an accomplishment when considering how belabored and confusing drawing such parallels can be. However, when reading Kassia's hymns and poetry, one gets the sense that her passion funneled through her directness of tone would not have had it any other way.

Speaking from the harlot's perspective, she has the harlot express the new cycle of God's mercy which allows humans to escape the cycle of sin and shame. Anchoring the reader, or the hymn's singer or hearer, in the physical image of Jesus' feet, Kassia speaks with the harlot's voice,

It was the sound of those feet
that evening in Paradise
that struck terror in Eve
—she hid herself in fear.
Who will track down
the multitude of my sins
and the abyss of my crimes,
Lord, savior of souls?
Do not reject me, Your servant,
in Your great, unfathomable mercy. (Liapis 310)

Kassia illuminates how Jesus' feet have become the central image of the broken cycle of sin in this contrasting parallel between Eve and the harlot. Eve ran and hid from the feet of God, representing the break in humanity's relationship with God whereas the harlot repents and kisses Jesus' feet with worship and thankfulness, representing the restoration of humanity's relationship with God by His mercy.

This hymn has been renowned in the Greek Orthodox Church among both clergy and lay people and both men and women alike. It was composed in the fourth plagal tone and is chanted to this day on the evening of Holy Tuesday before Easter during Great Lent.

Epigrams and Gnomic Verse

Aside from her troparia and canons for church services that lift and direct the worshiper's mind and heart toward great saints and Biblical events, Kassia also wrote many epigrams. These epigrams, as opposed to the liturgical works, were meant to dwell with the reader or hearer of them for their practical, everyday application or consideration. Thus, they provide the reader with a more intimate sense of Kassia's actual life in the convent and her culture. Although the epigrams were not written for the liturgy, they were nonetheless permeated by her Byzantine Orthodox Christian worldview.

The Western reader might be most well acquainted with the epigram as defined by the epigrams of Martialis that were rediscovered during the Renaissance (Lauxtermann 23). This definition causes us to expect a poem that is very short and witty. However, this definition does not quite fit Byzantine epigrams, which can be rather long and "are not structured so as to bring about the effect of a big bang at the end" (Lauxtermann 23). Byzantine epigrams bring about "poetic closure" more subtly (Lauxtermann 23).

Kassia's epigrams mainly commented upon various aspects of monastic life and, Silvas explains, "were intended as a kind of easily remembered catechism on the nature of monastic life" (23). Her more personal gnomic epigrams were an opportunity for her to voice her own opinions—particularly in sharp and directed social commentary on a variety of subjects from personal moral concerns to her views on friendship and beauty. One example is, "It is better to possess grace from the Lord, than beauty and wealth that does not gain grace" (Tripolitis 121). Her epigrams are very much modeled after Theodore the Studite's epigrams on "various moods and aspects of life" (Tripolitis xix).

Despite Kassia's epigrams participating in a tradition of encapsulating morals in poetry in Byzantine culture, Lauxtermann proclaims that Kassia's gnomic epigrams stand out as being unique and innovative. He explains that there is evidence in her gnomic epigrams that highlights her inspiration from both great secular and monastic literary works. The synthesis of these sources of inspiration as represented in her poetry help to reveal the fabric of the morality of Byzantine culture. Lauxtermann writes, "[s]he combined profane and religious maxims into a sparkling amalgam of her own—an osmosis of ancient wisdom and monastic truth that represents the very essence of Byzantine ethics" (241).

Kassia's gnomic epigrams are generally composed of one to four lines with twelve syllables per line and are made up of series of hemistichs and whole verses. The syntax and structure of the verses is decided by the parallelism and antithesis present in the epigram. Although it is quoted here in English, here is an excellent example of one of Kassia's gnomic epigrams where her deft use of parallelism and antithesis is displayed: "A little is the most, if the friend is grateful, but to the ungrateful the most is the least" (Tripolitis 107).

Kassia's Enduring Legacy

It was fortunate for Kassia that Emperor Theophilos chose Theodora—perhaps chiefly because Theophilos was a staunch iconoclast while Kassia stood in uncompromising, public, passionate support for the veneration of icons. Kassia's personal spiritual convictions and her rich and intelligent literary expression of them could not have been honored to the extent that they were had she been an Empress. As Theophilos' wife, Theodora quietly hid her veneration of icons from the Emperor, but took the opportunity after his death to restore the veneration of icons when she was named the regent for Michael III. This restoration was celebrated on the Sunday of Orthodoxy and is commemorated in Eastern Orthodox Churches to this day.

In the well-known Sunday of Orthodoxy icon, an icon of the Virgin and the Christ child is featured front and center carried by angels (Holy Apostles Convent 380). Beside the icon are Empress Theodora, Michael III, and St. Methodios, the patriarch, among a select number of other saints and ascetics. Of the few figures represented on this special icon is Kassia, holding an icon, and holding her place in history and in the Eastern Orthodox memory as an honored woman of faith and brilliant artistic talent. Kassia's memory is celebrated by the Orthodox Church on the seventh of September, and her life and artistic output continues to be studied and celebrated in both secular and ecclesiastical settings.

The Harlot

Lord, the woman who
committed so many sins:
as soon as she became aware of Your divinity
she assumed the trappings of a myrrh-bearer,
and weeping brought You
myrrh before Your funeral.
“Woe that I am shrouded
in darkness,” she says,
“in the mad fury of lechery,
in the gloomy and moonless
lust for sin.
Accept my streams of tears,
You who mingle the waters of the ocean
with the clouds.
Bow to the moans of my heart,
You who made the heavens bow
when You poured Yourself into a human body
in a way that defies description.
I will shower kisses on Your immaculate feet,
and I will wipe them
with the locks of my hair.
It was the sound of those feet
that evening in Paradise
that struck terror in Eve
—she hid herself in fear.
Who will track down
the multitude of my sins
and the abyss of my crimes,
Lord, savior of souls?
Do not reject me, Your servant,
in Your great, unfathomable mercy.”

Translated by Vayos Liapis and reproduced with his kind permission.

Works Cited

Kassia. "The Harlot." Trans. Vayos Liapis. The Greek Poets: Homer to the Present. Ed. Constantine, Peter, and Robert Haas. New York: W.W. Norton &, 2010. 309-13. Print.

Kassia, and Antonia Tripolitis. Kassia: the Legend, the Woman and Her Work. New York [etc.]: Garland, 1992. Print.

Lauxtermann, Marc Diederik. Byzantine Poetry from Pisides to Geometres. Wien: Verl. Der Österreichischen Akademie Der Wissenschaften, 2003. Print.

"The Life and Struggles of Our Holy Mother Among the Saints, Cassiane of Constantinople." The Lives of the Spiritual Mothers: an Orthodox Materikon of Women Monastics and Ascetics throughout the Year, According to the Church Calendar. Buena Vista, Co.: Holy Apostles Convent, 1991. 371-80. Print.

Silvas, Anna M. "Kassia the Nun c.810-c.865: an Appreciation." Byzantine Women: Varieties of Experience 800-1200. Burlington: Ashgate, 2006. 17-39. Print.

1 A "confessor of the faith" is one who is persecuted for defending the faith but not to the point of martyrdom.

2 An iconodule was a supporter of the veneration of icons in Orthodox Christian worship.

3 Iconoclasm was an imperially enforced movement to destroy icons and prohibit the veneration of icons in Orthodox Christian worship. It began during the reign of Emperor Leo III in 726 and only finally ended in 843 after the reign of Emperor Theophilos.

Years: 810-865
Language(s): Greek
Forms: troparia and canons for the Orthodox liturgy, epigrams
Entry By: Katherine Schneider
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