How to tell a male from a female?  Well, you probably already know how to do that with humans, so that is not my topic today.  Instead it is how to tell a “Male” cross from a “Female” cross.

This applies specifically to what is called a нательный крест/natel’nuiy krest — literally an “on-body” cross, so named because it is worn around the neck and under the clothes and against the skin.  This is the cross that every Russian Orthodox believer is expected to wear on a cord around the neck for life.  It is never supposed to be removed, but if for some extenuating circumstance one must remove it, then a special prayer must be said.

When we speak of “Male” and “Female” crosses, we are speaking of terminology that was used among the Old Believers — that group from which the State Orthodox Church separated in the middle of the 17th century.  Before that time ALL Russians were “Old Believers,” but with the changes instituted by Patriarch Nikon, the Russian Orthodox Church split into two main factions — those who kept the old ways, and so were called “Old Believers” or “Old Ritualists,” and those who accepted Nikon’s changes and became the majority State Russian Orthodox Church.

It is important to keep in mind that while in this discussion I am speaking primarily of the practices among the Old Believers, research has shown that the on-body crosses of the Old Believers were widely used by ordinary members of the State Church between the 17th and 19th centuries as well, perhaps due largely to their availability.   So while one may speak of an Old Believer-style cross, one cannot always be certain that any particular cross was worn by an Old Believer and not by a member of the State Church.  One can be more certain of making that distinction in the case of pectoral crosses worn by State Church clergy, which were more likely to follow the accepted revisionist State Church iconography.

Now, on to how to distinguish a “Male” on-body cross from a “Female” cross:

A “Male” cross (мужской крест/muzhskoy krest)  — also known as a “straight” (прямой/pryamoy) cross —  is an eight-pointed “Golgotha” cross with sharp corners.  It is traditionally worn by a male.  Here is an example:

Note that even though the “outer” cross may be four-pointed (one vertical and one horizontal beam), an Old Believer casting will always have the “true” cross depicted inside it, which in the Old Belief is the eight-pointed cross (one vertical beam, one large horizontal beam, one small “titulus” horizontal beam, and one angled “footrest” beam).  They believe this was the form of the supposed “true” cross said to have been discovered in Jerusalem by St. Helena/Elena.

It is also important to note that an on-body cross in the Old Believer tradition will never show the body of Jesus on the cross.  The cross will be bare.  The reason is that it was believed when one depicted the body of Jesus on it, that made the cross an icon, and the on-body cross without the body of Jesus is not considered an icon, but rather a symbol.  It was thought that to wear an icon under the clothing was wrong because it was like wearing a “pagan” amulet.  The Old Believers could quote the words of St. Basil, who said that anyone who wore an icon like an amulet must be forbidden communion for three years (Всякий, носящий на себе в качестве паданки какую-либо икону, подвергаться должен отлучению от причастия на три года).

Further, a traditional Old Believer on-body cross will have the ЦАРЬ СЛАВЫ/TSAR SLAVUI inscription at the top, and not the IНЦI, / I N TS I — which abbreviates the Church Slavic words for “Jesus (I) of Nazareth (N), King (TS) of the Jews (I) — Iisus Nazoryanin’ Tsar Iudeiskiy, which was adopted into State Church Orthodoxy in the 17th century.  The omission of that inscription is apparently due to the Pomortsui/ Поморцы Old Believers — a “priestless” group — who held that the use of Pilate’s mocking title for Jesus was one of the “novelties” introduced by Patriarch Nikon, whom they considered a heretic.  Similarly, they refused the use of the dove to represent the Holy Spirit.  The Feodosiyevtsui/феодосиевцы Old Believers also used the Tsar Slavui inscription up into the 19th century.

An Old Believer on-body cross will also have the IC XC abbreviation for “Jesus Christ,” and may have the СЫНБ БОЖИЙ/SUIN BOZHIY abbreviation as well.  You can see that the above example is typical in showing the so-called “Golgotha Cross,” represented as on Mount Golgotha, and we see by the spear the letter K, abbreviating КОПИЕ — KOPIE, meaning “lance,” “spear.”   And by the sponge is the letter T, abbreviating  ТРОСТЬ — TROST’, meaning the reed/rod.  Note also the NIKA — “He conquers” inscription.  The skull of Adam is visible at the base in this example.  This example also has — just above the main crossbeam — the abbreviations for КРЕСТЪ ХРАНИТЕЛЬ / KREST KHRANITEL’ — “The Cross is the Protector ….”, the beginning words of a common inscription on the reverse of countless large cast metal “icon” crosses:

Krest’ Khranitel’ Vsei Vselennei — [The] Cross [is] Protector of All the World
Krest’ Krasota Tserkovnaya  — [The] Cross [is the] Beauty of the Church
Krest’ Tsarem’ Derzhava  — [The] Cross [is the] Might of Kings
Krest’ Vyernuim’ Utyverzhdenie  [The] Cross [is the] Comfort of the Believers Krest’ Angelom Slava — [The] Cross [is the] Glory of Angels
Krest’ Besyom Yasva — [The] Cross [is the] Plague of Demons

Also important is the inscription on the reverse side of Old Believer on-body crosses, which in the case of most will be the “Let God arise…” text:


Da Voskresenet’ Bog’ i Razuidyutsya Vrazi Ego, I da Byezhat’ Ot’ Litsa Ego Vsi Nenavidashchey ego…

Let God Arise, and Let his enemies be scattered. Let them also that hate him, flee before him.” On some crosses it continues: “As smoke is driven away, so drive them away: as wax melts before the fire, so let the wicked perish at the presence of God.” The whole inscription comes from Psalm 67:1-2 in the Old Testament (68:1-2 in the King James Version). The beginning portion — with additions — is commonly referred to in Russian Orthodoxy as the Молитва Честному Кресту — Molitva Chestnomy Krestu — “The Prayer of the Honorable Cross.”

So that is the “Male” cross.

The “Female” cross (женский крест/zhenskiy krest) — also called a “leaf” (листик) cross — is recognized by its rounded outlines in contrast to the sharp corners of the “Male” cross.  It is traditionally worn by a female.  Here is an example.

First, the front:

Notice the twining foliage around the edges.  In the Old Belief, that is considered symbolic of the traditional role of women as expressed in Psalm 127:3 (128:3 KJV):

Жена твоя, яко лоза плодовита в странах дому твоего
Zhena tvoya, yako loza plodovita v stranakh domu tvoego
“Your wife is as a fruitful vine at the sides of your house…”

As you can see, the face has a number of abbreviations.

At the top we find:

Ц С for Царь Славы/Tsar Slavui — “King of Glory”
IС ХС for  Исус Христос/Isus Khristos — “Jesus Christ”
С Б for Сын[ъ] Божий/Suin Bozhiy — “Son of God”

In many antique Old Believer crosses, that is the extent of the inscriptions on the face.  However, some have an additional inscription, like the one illustrated.  Above the crossbeam is:

РАСПЯТ БЫСТЬ/Raspyat Buist’ — “[He] was crucified …

And below the crossbeam we find a date in Cyrillic letter numbers.  It may be given as:


In that case the significance of the joined crossbeam inscriptions is:

[He] was crucified 5534 Year March 30

There was an old system of dating held by Julius Africanus and supported by Hippolytus of Rome.  In it, the Creation of the World supposedly took place 5,500 years before the birth of Jesus, on March 30.  By one old view, Jesus lived 33 years and was crucified also on March 30, making the date of his crucifixion 5533 (҂ЄФЛГ) in that chronology, but here it is given as 5534 (ЄФЛД), making him — one would think — 34 years old (in this inscription Є (5) was apparently used in place of the correct А to signify the number 5,000). However some hold that Jesus was born in December of 5500, and given that one ancient chronology began the year on March 1, Jesus would have died on March 30 in the year 5534.  There is much uncertainty involving date variations on old on-body crosses, and the reasons for these varying dates on Old Believer crosses are still not fully understood.  It is best in translating to just go with what is on the cross, recognizing that odd variations may reflect errors and misunderstandings or differences of opinion in early chronologies.

One example is that we sometimes we find “Female” Old Believer on-body crosses with this inscription below the crossbeam in place of the [҂]ЄФЛД year date:

24  Year         March 30

There is a lot of controversy about it, because the “24 year” part is thought to make no sense.  The general consensus of opinion at present seems to be that at some point this incorrect year date was mistakenly used on a cast on-body cross, and then the same pattern was copied uncritically and repeatedly, resulting in quite a number of old crosses bearing that confusing date.

As mentioned previously, further odd variations in the date letters are sometimes found, and given the confusion surrounding them, it is not surprising that a great many Old Believer female crosses eliminate the Crucifixion date inscriptions entirely, and instead have above the crossbeam:

IC     XC  for “Jesus Christ”

And below it:

СНЪ БЖIЙ for Сынъ Божий/Suin Bozhiy — “Son of God”


Instead of the common “Let God arise…” text, this example uses the text:

Господи, Iсусе Христе, Сыне Божий, благослови, и освяти, и сохрани мя силою Живоноснаго Креста Твоего.
Gospodi, Isuse Khriste, Suine bozhiy, blagoslovi i osvyati i sokhrani mya siloiu [zhivonosnago kresta tvoego].

The version actually written on this cross reverses two of the last three words, writing instead:

… креста живоноснаго т[воего]

kresta zhivonosnago tvoego.

“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, bless and sanctify and protect me through the power of your life-giving cross.”

Now as for the matter of dating Old Believer on-body crosses, it is often very difficult, because the same styles were used in the 18th and 19th centuries — some even from the 17th century onward.  The State Orthodox Church, by contrast, is at present much more variable in the styles of crosses being worn, with some obviously showing western European influence and using iconographic variants that would not at all be acceptable to traditional Old Believers.

Now you know how to distinguish a “Male” Old Believer on-body cross from a “Female” on-body cross.  Will it change your life, or get you a date on Friday night?  Probably not, but you can be certain to bore your friends and relations with this esoteric knowledge.

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