After writing about St Theodore, I was sent a copy of an icon of St Theodora, whose feast is on 11th September, a very different saint, though, to the Empress found in mosaics around the Church of Agia Sophia in Istanbul. There are very few images of this Theodora. This is my version here-
A few years ago I was in Northern Albania searching for the women who dressed as men in local villages. Maybe they no longer exist, but that tradition goes back some way and seems, from this story, to have Christian precedence. (in contradiction of Deut 22.5 and maybe of 1 Tim 2.9) I think St Theodora is a model for the Twenty-first Century!
St Theodora was an early ascetic from the Fifth Century, during the reign of the Emperor Zeno. She was among 10 women who lived and dressed as men in Oktodeka, one of the many monasteries surrounding Alexandria. The abbot simply assumed she was a eunuch.
At some point, she was accused and presented with a child that she was supposed to have fathered with some serving wench. Together they were expelled from the Monastery. Now, the hagiography makes a great point of telling us that the child was not hers and that the tales were fabricated; it is also not at all clear at thispoint that any of the other monks actually realised she was a woman. However, there is also a story of an adulterous affair that she had while she was still married to her god-fearing husband, Paphnutios. She seemed to have been told by a fortune-teller that if a sin was committed during the dark and that if no one else could see, then God would not see it either. She was distraught and sought the advice of an abbess who heard her confession, and reminded her that Mary had washed Christ’s feet with her tears. It was repentance for this affair that drove her into the monastery in the first place.
A period of repentence passed while she and the child wandered around the desert and they were then readmitted to the monastery. She had brought the child up as her own and while he seems unnamed, he is recorded to have been a godly and good boy in all respects. When she died, the abbot was astonished to find that Theodora was a woman and not a man after all.
What happened to Paphnutios? After his wife’s death, he seems to have been inspired to become a monk as well. Oh! And her “son” ultimately became abbot.
While the story is riddled with holes, it nevertheless makes very good reading and St Theodora emerges rather well as an early Christian version of Victor/Victoria or Mulan. Whether she had illicit sex once or twice does not seem to matter much- she took responsibility for the child who had been given to her (think of the teacher in “the Corn is Green” by Emlyn Williams- do you remember Toyah Wilcox as the naughty girl who leads Morgan Evans astray?) and seems to have kept herself to herself so much that even her supposed gender remained unknown.
It is tempting to see in St Theodora some sort Patron of the modern age, perhaps more clearly than the highly colourful and embellished story of the soldiers St Sergius and St Bacchus (or of Juventinus and Maximus martyred about 50 years’ later). Their story is improbable and the actual text (the passion) is full of anachronisms. Their humiliation when they refused to sacrifice to Jupiter was to be paraded in women’s clothing and beaten to death – that happened to others too. A “John Boswell” from Yale fairly recently suggested that Sergius and Bacchus were in fact lovers, described in a martyrology as erastai. He argues that before their execution, they were married in a rite called adelphopoieis and had received some form of Church blessing. All this is a bit spurious. John Boswell’s claims, nevertheless, make fantastic reading, but that, I am afraid is where it ends. He describes a civil ceremony for the emperor Basil I and a mass gay wedding taking place in the Lateran. Even if his claims were about a Wagnerian-style “Blut–Brüderschaft“, I find it odd that it should ever have taken place in the Lateran. But as the present incumbent of the Lateran might now say, “Who are we to judge?” Indeed!