Byzantine women composers: Thekla the Nun

Saint Thekla

Who were the women composers of antiquity?

Some names keep popping up. According to this essay by Diane Touliatos-Miliotis, now only available through the Internet Archive, the list includes Martha the mother of Symeon the Stylite, Theodosia, Thekla, Kouvouklisena, “the daughter of Ioannes Kladas.”, Palaeologina, and of course Kassia. Orthodox scholar Eva Catafygiotu Topping lists six: Grigoris, Martha, Theodosia, Thekla, Kassia and Palaiologina, but immediately dismisses Grigoris and Martha as spurious. 

But all the sources agree that Thekla did exist and that she only has one work that has survived, a hymn to Mary that women in the Orthodox tradition can find quite moving.

Women martyrs were also hymned by male bards in Byzantium. Masculine prejudice and condescension, however, all too often marred their hymns. In Thekla’s canon women are treated with the respect which was usually denied them in the sacred poetry of the Church.

Thekla, sometimes called Thekla the Nun, was probably a prioress of a monastery near Constantinople during the 9th century. She is described as confident and proud of her sex. The Canon is the only hymn to Mary composed by a woman that has been preserved in the thousand years of the  Byzantine Empire.  It is regarded as demonstrating literary skill both in knowledge of literature and scripture. The major theme is that the Mother of God emancipated Byzantine women from Eve’s guilt and gave women respect and honor in the Byzantine church.  The hymn also recognizes the martyred women, saints, and virgins of the Orthodox Church.

Thekla’s encomium is a conventional kanon composed of nine odes (actually eight in number since the second ode is almost always omitted). Set in the second tone, it was composed to be sung at vespers on Tuesday. Unlike Kassia who sometimes composed new melodies for her hymns, Thekla used older well known heirmoi for the odes of her kanon. Together with the kathisma, the kanon consists of one hundred ninety-eight verses, divided into strophes of varying lengths, the shortest being four verses long and the longest, nine.

Twenty-seven of the thirty-two strophes appear to be original compositions by Thekla. The other five, the final strophes of Odes Γ’, ΣΤ’, Ζ’, Η’, Θ’, are also found in a kanon attributed to Klement, thus producing a difficult problem of authorship. Formed by the initial letters of the strophe, the acrostic varies according to the arrangement of the strophes. In the text published by Eustratiades the name of Klement appears along with that of Thekla in the acrostic Εγχ[ωμι]αζει την Θεοτχον Θεχλα Κλημεντος.

In the text of Nikodemos, however, the strophes are so arranged that only Thekla’s name appears in the acrostic, formed by the initial letters of the last two odes.Despite the confusion and uncertainties which result from the inclusion of the five strophes attributed to Klement, there seems to be no reason to deny Thekla’s authorship of the kanon.

Saint Thekla

There is some confusion between Thekla the 9th century hymnist and Saint Thekla, Thekla the Protomartyr, or Thecla, (Russian: Фекла) (Romanian monahia Tecla), the legendary companion of St. Paul. The life of Thekla the saint was written in the 5th century — the usual story of a young girl discovering a religious vocation just as she is about to be married off — but even before that, there was a pilgrimage site dedicated to her, first recorded in 384, with a nearby community of virgins, it was also a recruiting ground for bishops. Another shrine in Seleucia, now in Turkey, had a sacred well, sacred woods, and miraculous thermal baths.

There is an excellent exegeses of the hymn here, done by Eva Catafygiotu Topping (see her interview, advocating for the use of English in Greek orthodox churches), in both Greek and English, and I’ll put an excerpt below.

In 1796, Nikodemos Hagioreites (or St. Nicodemus of the Holy Mountain) compiled a list of some Byzantium’s most illustrious hymnographers, published in Venice as Theotokarion; Thekla’s name is last on the list: χαι Θεκλα η γλυχυτατη Ηχω. (Text in Romanian from internet archive as Noul Theotokarion Canoanele Aghiorite Ale Maicii Domnului).

There is also supposed to be one or more surviving manuscripts, the first mention of this is by Eva Catafygiotu Topping, but very little information exists about that.  It is probably too much to hope that someone has made some musical notation for this hymn and recorded it.

Ελυσας πικρας δουλειας
το γενος απαν, Παρθενε,
και ελευθερια Χριστου
την φυσιν του θηλεος
ετιμησας εν τω θειω τοκω σου.
You released the whole race from
bitter slavery, O Virgin and by the freedom
and by the freedom of Christ
you honored the female sex
by your divine birth-giving.
—vv. 79-83


Ελευθερουται δια σου
η προμητωρ, Θεοτοκε καταδικης
και ιδου νυν γυναικες
υπεραθλουσι Χριστου
και χαιρει η φυσις του θηλεος
ως η πρωτομαρτυς
βοα παρθενος Θεκλα
Through you, Theotokos,
The first mother is freed from condemnation.
And behold, now women strive
on behalf of Christ.
And the female sex rejoices,
as the first martyr,
the virgin Thekla proclaims.
—vv. 157-163

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