St. Kassia and the Mary Magdalene Complex

by Thomas Arentzen | български | ქართული | ελληνικά | Română | Русский | Српски

Kassia in the series "Vikings"
Karima McAdams portrays Kassia in the TV series “Vikings”

It seems to me, we live in Kassiani times. Holy Week is approaching and with it the singing of the sticheron on the sinful woman, followed shortly by the Holy Saturday kanon, which is at least partly by the same poet. But not only that: just a couple of years ago, the English singer-songwriter Frank Turner wrote a song about Kassiani and her unfulfilled love affair with Emperor Theophilos. The TV series Vikings features the same poetic saint as a beautiful Byzantine seductress engaged in a secret romance with Amir Ziyadat Allah. She has entered twenty-first-century pop culture, cast as an object of modern hopes and fantasies. And an even more recent event: a few days ago, Cappella Romana released a full CD with Hymns of Kassiani. These are indeed Kassiani times. Or maybe instead of “Kassiani” we should say “Kassia,” which was her historical name? In fact, that is really what I want to ponder in this brief essay, in this time of the beautiful composer’s comeback on the world stage: what do we call her?

Frank Turner begins his song by letting her introduce herself: “I’ve heard that they call me the woman who has fallen into many sins…” He draws on a long line of more of less legendary traditions that are spun around her life. There is love and unreciprocated love. Kassia was still in love with Theophilos after the renowned bride show, longing for him despite her life as a nun, but, as Wikipedia and many online sources will tells us, “She did not want to let her old passion overcome her monastic vow.” She decided not to act on her erotic fantasies and her deep yearning. Kassia is one of relatively few saints—mostly women—who are explicitly associated with sex and lust. Not bad for a nun! But there is something about the balance. Whose is her passion? I think she must be gravitating toward the Mary Magdalene complex.

Mary Magdalene was a devoted follower of Christ, as we know, the first to see him resurrected, and the first to bring the Paschal gospel to the other disciples: Christ is risen! (John 20) The Church calls her the “apostle of the apostles.” Both the canonical gospels and other early Christian texts attest to the fact that Mary had authority in the early church, and she must have been a prominent figure (e.g. Luke 8:1–3). As many scholars have pointed out, it was only much later that people started paying attention to her looks and ultimately identifying her with harlotry.

An unnamed woman who was allowed to anoint Christ, despite her sinful reputation (esp. Luke 7:36–50), became increasingly lustful as her fame grew. And gradually this woman’s story started sticking to Mary Magdalene’s skin. Her sex drive intensified, as did her reason to repent. Eventually the female disciple with authority emerged as a full-fledged prostitute in the religious lore of Latin Christianity. Compared to the male apostles, there was something distinctly naked about her. And this complex expands even into our own time, with stories by the German singer Sandra or the novelists Nikos Kazantzakis and Dan Brown and various other attempts to marry Mary to Jesus. What I call the Mary Magdalene complex is the pull to stretch Christian women’s lives out on a rack between promiscuity and chastity, between sexual decency and debauchery. Many followed in Mary’s footsteps. St. Pelagia the Harlot and St. Mary of Egypt are two well-known examples. They certainly went all in. And it is not my intention to diminish the sex lives of these women, so brilliantly studied by Virginia Burrus in The Sex Lives of Saints, nor to belittle the excitement of Christian storytelling, but merely to highlight the obvious: sometimes sex can be too good—even too good to be true. Sometimes nudity is not what it seems. Sometimes sex can stand in for other desires.

For Kassia, we have the unique historical source of three letters written to her by St. Theodore the Studite. Although only a teenager, Kassia appears to have participated actively in the underground resistance to iconoclasm, and according to Theodore, she herself was physically tortured for it. The other historical sources we have consist of her own outstanding poetry. Contemporary sources attest, in other words, to the fact that she had authority in the ninth-century church; she must have been a prominent figure. It was later that people started paying attention to her looks and ultimately identifying her with harlotry. [I’ll admit, in case you wondered or felt you had read this before, that the previous sentences I basically copy-and-pasted from the Mary Magdalene part—the stories were so similar anyway.] Now, even a woman who has written a text about a woman anointing Christ grew increasingly beautiful and lustful. And gradually Mary Magdalene’s story (or whose story?) started sticking to Kassia’s skin. In the modern edition by Antonia Tripolitis, Kassia’s Holy Wednesday hymn is called “her famous penitential hymn on Mary Magdalene”—it is in other words the remorseful harlot’s tale. And Tripolitis also reproduces the legendary story that merges the feet of Emperor Theophilos with the hymn’s divine feet of Christ. The legend simultaneously conflates Kassia’s own longing with the longing of the hymn’s anointing woman, insinuating the Emperor’s penetration into Kassia’s cell and into her poetry.

Tripolitis admits that the story “does not appear to be true.” Yet the truth of the matter is that the penetration has already taken place. The sinful woman who anointed Christ had been praised in song by Kassia’s male colleagues for centuries when she wrote her piece. They had contemplated the “sinful woman” as a prostitute who turned her eros from other men to Jesus. Kassia, in turn, played down the eroticism of this tradition, never calling her heroine a prostitute, but leaving the nature of the woman’s sin open to interpretation. Kassia’s sinful woman may have filled with erotic desires, yet there is no trace of prostitution or explicit sex. None of Kassia’s male colleagues have been thought to write about themselves when they describe the erotic desire of their first person singular. Kassia, on the other hand, has been pulled into her own text by the magnetic forces of the Mary Magdalene complex.

I do not wish to put ideas into anyone’s head—and I realize this would be bad news to directors of TV series and modern authors of more or less secular vitas—but it is perfectly conceivable that Kassia was both unattractive and uninterested in romance. An intimate relationship with royalty may, for all we know, have been the last thing she wanted. Or: it shouldn’t really matter. Tripolitis is not the only modern-day narrator—scholarly or not—who has contributed to this reception of the famous hymnographer, letting a desirous gaze, rather than lashes for her bravery, fall on her skin and write itself into it. Caught up in the Mary Magdalene complex, Kassia becomes the hostess of others’ desires, when in fact she herself stressed that she “hate[d] the shameless person speaking candidly” (from Kassia’s non-liturgical iambic verses).

With the timely release of Cappella Romana’s recording, perhaps it is again apt and truly meet simply to call Kassia one of Byzantium’s great poets and composers, whether or not she had sex?

 Thomas Arentzen is a Researcher in the Department of Linguistics and Philology at the University of Uppsala. He is Reader (docent) in Church History from Lund University.