SYMEON AND THE LESBIAN: AN UPDATED TALE

The title got your attention, did it not?  Well, it is not as interesting as it sounds.  Symeon is Symeon Metaphrastes, the noted 10th century compiler of the Greek Menologion, which gives “lives” of the Eastern Orthodox saints in ten volumes.  He was not a critical writer, but rather unquestioningly accepted his sources as he found them, one reason why there is so much nonsense in the Orthodox lives of the saints.  Scholars assert that some of the lives in the collection were added after Symeon.

The “Lesbian” is an apparently fictional saint (though regarded as genuine in Eastern Orthodoxy) whose tale is recorded in the Greek Menologion, apparently re-worked there from an earlier account written about 920 c.e. by Niketas Magistros.   She is  ὉΣΙΑ ΘΕΟΚΤΙΣΤΗ Ἡ ΛΕΣΒΙΑ/HOSIA THEOKTISTE HE LESBIA — Theoktiste the Lesbian, but “Lesbian” is used here in its original sense, meaning simply someone from the Isle of Lesbos in the northeastern Aegean Sea.

Her story in brief is this:

She was born in Mithymna (Methymna) on Lesbos, but was orphaned early in life, and given to a monastery, where she was happy and pious in the monastic life.  In 846 c.e. at age 18 she went to visit her sister in another village on the Feast of the Resurrection.  The night after she arrived, Muslim pirates took all the people of the village — Theoktiste included — captive, and sailed off southward with them to the then mostly deserted Isle of Paros, where they intended to sort them by value for eventual sale as slaves.  Theoktiste somehow managed to escape, and spent the next 35 years on Paros, living as a pious and ascetic hermitess, with her dwelling being an old church dedicated to Mary — The Church of the All-Holy One of the Hundred Gates (Παναγία η Ἑκατονταπυλιανή Panagia he Hekatontapyliani)

Eventually a group of hunters came to the island, and one of them entered the church.  There he saw a strange figure in a corner near the altar.  The figure spoke, telling him not to approach, because she was ashamed to be seen as a nude woman.  He offered his cloak, and dressing herself in it, she came all grey and shriveled out into the light, and began to tell her story.  Then she asked the man to bring her a bit of the “Presanctified Gifts” — portions of the Eucharistic bread and wine — if he were to visit the island again in that year.  He eventually came back to the island, bringing the Eucharistic portions she had requested.  She received and consumed them in tears.  He left to do some hunting on the island, and on returning, he found Theoktista had died.  He dug a shallow grave, but on burying her, he cut off one of her hands to take as a holy relic.  Then he boarded and sailed away.  But when the morning came, he and his companions were shocked to find the ship seemed not to have moved at all,  but was still off the shore of Paros, and he decided this was a divine way of telling him the hand was not to leave the island.  He returned the hand to the body in the grave, and the ship sailed off with no further trouble.  While on the voyage, he told his story to his shipmates, and they all insisted on returning to Paros to venerate the relics of Theoktiste.  But when they arrived, her body was nowhere to be found.  Church tradition gives the year of her death as 881 c.e.

Now it is not hard to see that there are elements in this story that seem suspiciously reminiscent of the tale of of the desert ascetic St. Mary of Egypt.

You will recall that in that other tale, the Elder Zosima goes out into the desert and finds there a naked and grey-haired ascetic woman who is Mary of Egypt.  He gives her his cloak, and she comes to him and they talk.  She tells her story  in which she had gone by ship to Jerusalem for the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross.  She tries to go into a church there, but a mysterious force will not let her enter.  She repents and then is able to enter the church.

Mary asks Zosima to bring her some of the Eucharistic bread and wine a year from the time of their meeting.  She takes the Eucharist, and asks him to come again the following year.  When he returns a year later, he finds only her dead body.  He buries the body with the aid of a lion, who digs the grave with his claws.

So all these elements are common to both the tale of Mary of Egypt and the tale of Theoktiste the Lesbian:

The finding of an ascetic, grey-haired woman in a deserted place;
The giving of the cloak and the telling of the story of her life;
The presence of a ship in the tale;
A journey involving a Church feast (one the Exaltation of the Cross, the other the Resurrection);
A mysterious force that will not permit something to be done until there is repentance (in one case Mary unable to enter a church, in the other a ship unable to get away from the island);
The request by the ascetic female for portions of Eucharistic bread and wine to be delivered within a year’s time;
The finding of the body of the saint, and its burial by the discoverer of the ascetic female.

It is generally held by scholars that the tale of St. Theoktiste was simply a borrowing of the story of Mary of Egypt, updated by changing its setting to the Greek Isles and the time of the Saracen raids.

If one goes to the Hekatontapyliani Church on Paros, one still finds there a depression the marble floor that is identified as the “footprint of St. Theoktiste.”

The icons one is likely to encounter of Symeon Metaphrastes tend to be both uncommon and recent, and his iconography is often confused with that of another Symeon — Symeon the New Theologian, whose icons are more common.


Icons of Theoktiste are also generally recent, like this example with a Greek inscription identifying the rather “Goth”-like figure as Ἡ ὉΣΙΑ ΘΕΟΚΤΙΣΤΗ Ἡ ΛΕΣΒΙΑ/He Hosia Theoktiste he Lesbia.  You will recall that Hosia is the title used for a female monastic saint.

 

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