Early Christian legends of monastic women disguised
as men have recently been the object of psychological,
literary, sociohistorical, anthropological, and theological
study. In this article, I will raise new questions
about these legends from the perspective of the poststructuralist
theory of intertextuality. What are the cultural "texts"
that these legends "play upon"? What does
this intertextuality tell us about how such legends
participated in late antique cultural discourse on
gender and the female body? Here, I examine five cultural
"texts" reworked in the legends: 1) the
lives of earlier transvestite saints like St. Thecla;
2) the Life of St. Antony; 3) late antique discourse
about eunuchs; 4) the story of Joseph and Potiphar's
wife from Genesis; and 5) the textual deconstruction
and reconstitution of the female body in early Christian
literature. These "intertexts," along with
key christomimetic elements in the legends, suggest
how binary conceptions of gender identity were ultimately
destabilized in the figure of the transvestite saint.
This is an essay about the peculiar ways in which
women's identity and piety were portrayed in late
antique hagiographical texts. In early Christian saints'
lives, women are alternatively castigated as fallen
daughters of Eve and lauded as heroic models for pious
imitation. On the one hand, they are depicted by male
writers as sources of temptation and objects of lust;
on the other hand, a select number of them are celebrated
as somehow having transcended the limitations of their
sex. In light of these conflicting images, how did
the authors of saints' lives seek to shape [End Page
1] ancient perceptions of women? How did they, in
effect, help "construct" women's gender
for early Christian readers? 1
I will begin with a slight indiscretion--by eavesdropping
on a conversation between a father and his daughter:
He therefore began to speak to her and said, "Child,
what I am to do with you? You are a female, and I
desire to enter a monastery. How then can you remain
with me? For it is through the members of your sex
that the devil wages war on the servants of God."
To which his daughter responded, "Not so, my
lord, for I shall not enter the monastery as you say,
but I shall first cut off the hair of my head, and
clothe myself like a man, and then enter the monastery
with you." 2
Coming away from this conversation, one might wonder
what exactly is going on here. Who are these people?
When and where does this dialogue take place? At first,
this seems like it could be a peculiar variation on
the modern-day themes of parent-child conflict and
teenage rebellion: "Child, what am I to do with
you?" After all, what is a father to do with
a daughter who won't let him go off to become a monk
in peace, but wants to cut off her hair, dress in
men's clothes, and join a monastery with him?
In fact, this conversation is an ancient one. It comes
from the spiritual biography of a female saint from
the early Byzantine era--the Life of St. Mary/Marinos.
3 This (fictionalized) interchange between Mary and
her [End Page 2] father occurs near the beginning
of her Life, right after the death of her mother.
It does not take long before the father is persuaded
by his daughter's appeal: he himself cuts her hair,
dresses her in men's clothing, and changes her name
to Marinos. Then the two enroll in a men's monastery
together. Mary/Marinos advances to sainthood, but
not before she has to endure a series of hardships:
a false accusation of rape and paternity by a local
innkeeper's daughter, her expulsion from the monastery
as a result of that charge, and finally the necessity
of raising the abandoned orphan while homeless and
exposed to the elements. Throughout these difficulties,
she never reveals her identity in order to prove her
innocence. After three years, her endurance of suffering
earns her (and her adopted son) readmission to the
monastery, but it is not until after her death that
her true identity is revealed and her fellow monks
recognize the depth of her sanctity.
The story of Mary (a.k.a. Marinos) in many ways typifies
the ambivalent attitude of the early church toward
women. At the beginning of the story, Mary's own father
condemns her sex as an instrument of the devil--the
primary means by which "the devil wages war on
the servants of God." And yet, by the end of
her Life, the author counsels his readers (both male
and female) to emulate Mary's patient endurance of
suffering, "so that on the day of judgment we
may find mercy from our Lord Jesus Christ." 4
This same ambivalence toward women also is reflected
in the manuscript tradition of the Life of St. Mary/Marinos.
Only three Greek manuscripts of the Life survive,
all in the monastic libraries of Mount Athos in northeastern
Greece. Located on a small peninsula that juts out
into the Aegean Sea, Mount Athos has been regarded
as the center of Greek monasticism since at least
the tenth century. Today, it is home to twenty monastic
houses. The monasteries at Mount Athos are especially
known for their rigidly exclusive policy toward women.
No women are allowed to set foot upon the peninsula--it
is reserved for men only. This policy of exclusion
extends even to female members of animal species.
It would seem ironic then that the Life of St. Mary/Marinos--
the story of a woman who disguises herself as a monk
in order to enter a male monastery--should have been
preserved and copied at monasteries that forbid the
[End Page 3] presence of women. Why would the Greek
monks at Mount Athos have had an interest in this
story? In such a setting, why would Mary, a "crossdressing"
female saint, have been lauded as an exemplary model
for the male monastic life? For a largely patriarchal
(and often misogynist) church, the image of the transvestite
female saint was certainly full of contradictions:
a compelling sign of the hostility and yet at the
same time lurid fascination with which early Christian
men viewed their female counterparts.
The Life of St. Mary/Marinos is not the only legend
of a transvestite female saint that survives from
early Christianity. In fact, during the late fifth,
sixth, and seventh centuries, church writers produced
a whole series of monastic legends about women disguised
as men: at least eleven vitae of transvestite female
saints were published during this period. Within this
group of texts may be included the vitae of Saints
Anastasia (Anastasios), Apolinaria (Dorotheos), Athanasia
(wife of Andronikos), Eugenia (Eugenios), Euphrosyne
(Smaragdus), Hilaria (Hilarion), Mary (Marinos), Matrona
(Babylas), Pelagia (Pelagius), Susannah (John), and
Theodora (Theodoros). 5
These Lives each exhibit subtle variations on the
same theme. Some of the heroines (Apolinaria, Eugenia,
Euphrosyne, Hilaria) take on male dress in order to
escape their parents' inflexible expectations of marriage
and to travel incognito to monastic areas. Others
leave already existing marriages, sometimes with their
husbands' consent (Athanasia), and sometimes against
their husbands' wishes (Matrona, Theodora). Still
others, like the prostitute Pelagia, disguise themselves
as men in order to mark their conversion to Christianity
and the monastic life, and their break from a sinful
past. In all cases, the act of crossdressing enables
the women to enter the monastic life unhindered by
binding familial or social prejudices.
As in the case of Mary, who endured a false accusation
of rape and paternity, most of these transvestite
saints' legends also involve a "complication"
that disrupts the monastic life of the heroine and
poses the threat of discovery. In the Life of Hilaria,
after the heroine (disguised as [End Page 4] the monk
Hilarion) is called upon to heal her demon-possessed
sister, she is questioned about her unusual "displays
of affection" shown toward her sister. In the
Life of Apolinaria, the same scenario is complicated
by the demon-inspired illusion of pregnancy in the
sister, for which Apolinaria (disguised as the monk
Dorotheos) is initially blamed. Other disguised saints,
like Eugenia, Susannah, and Theodora, resist the sexual
advances of female visitors, only to be accused by
the women of initiating the encounter and brought
to court to defend themselves against the charges.
In the Life of Theodora, the female accuser becomes
pregnant by another man and accuses Theodora (Theodoros)
of actually fathering the child, a scenario reminiscent
of the Life of St. Mary/Marinos. In some cases, such
accusations result in the public revelation of the
saint's sexual identity. In other cases (like that
of Mary), the saint's identity remains secret until
after her death. Regardless of when the identity of
the heroine is revealed, this discovery invariably
causes pious wonderment on the part of the observers,
and ultimately leads the hagiographer to celebrate
and publicize the woman's secret sanctity.
This corpus of transvestite saints' lives has attracted
renewed interest among scholars in the last few decades.
These scholars have raised a variety of questions
regarding these hagiographical texts: What was the
social setting for the production of this literature?
How does one account for the literary and thematic
crosscurrents within the corpus? How does this body
of literature relate to early Christian theology?
And finally, what do these legends tell us about ancient
understandings of gender and of women's religiosity?
Brief History of Scholarship: Approaches and Methods
In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries,
the few scholars who studied these legends of transvestite
saints tended to dismiss them as merely romantic,
edifying stories with little historical value--essentially
the pulp fiction of late antiquity. 6 These conclusions
reflected Victorian assumptions about what constituted
"serious" literature and what did not. For
historians of that time period, the miraculous elements
of saints' lives disqualified them for serious consideration
as historical sources to be studied in their own right.
Instead, the hagiographical stories would only [End
Page 5] be studied as derivative developments on earlier
classical and mythological themes. For example, one
scholar in the late nineteenth century saw a similarity
between the names of the Christian transvestite saints
and the "nicknames" given to the goddess
Aphrodite. Because of this, he argued that these saints'
lives were, in fact, Christian developments on the
legend of the bisexual, bearded Aphrodite (renamed
Aphroditos), who was worshiped on the island of Cyprus.
7 Another scholar suggested that these transvestite
saints' lives derived from a different source--the
ancient Greek novel entitled Ephesiaca. 8 In that
novel, the heroine (named Thelxinoe) disguises herself
as a man in order to avoid an unwanted marriage and
to elope with her true lover. Others have since argued
more broadly for the influence of Greek novels on
the theme of female crossdressing in early Christian
hagiography. 9 However, despite the value of identifying
classical antecedents for the legends of transvestite
saints, these early attempts were limited in that
they ultimately devalued the significance of this
image in early Christianity.
The last forty years have seen renewed interest in
this corpus of hagiographical legends. Several articles
have been published, approaching this literature from
various methodological perspectives: psychological,
literary, sociohistorical, anthropological, and theological.
What has unified these new studies has been a concerted
effort to understand the significance of these legends
within the context of early Christian thought and
One of the first scholars to revisit the question
of the early Christian transvestite saint was Marie
Delcourt in her book Hermaphrodite: Myths and Rites
of the Bisexual Figure in Classical Antiquity (1961).
In the appendix to that book ("Female Saints
in Masculine Clothing"), Delcourt approaches
the issue of the transvestite saint from the perspective
of Freudian psychology. 10 Specifically, what does
the psychology of the heroine tell us about the setting
of these stories in early Christianity? Delcourt argues
that the heroine's act of taking on male dress signifies
a thorough [End Page 6] break with her "feminine
past." In the stories this "break"
typically manifests itself in two ways: the rejection
of family and authority structures, and the renunciation
of the sexual life. The heroine's masculine disguise
is seen as an outward symbol of these social and familial
tensions. How did this symbol relate to its early
Christian context? For Delcourt, the "psyche"
of the transvestite saint should not be located in
earlier Greek mythology; instead, it was rooted in
the psychology of early Christian asceticism, which
in its most rigorous form "preached total renunciation
of material possessions and all sexual life."
In this context, she identifies the female act of
crossdressing as psychologically equivalent to the
male act of self-castration. 11
John Anson was the next to take up the question of
the transvestite saint in his article, "The Female
Transvestite in Early Monasticism: The Origins and
Development of a Motif" (1974). In that article,
he analyzes the literary structure of these legends
and argues that they were "products of a monastic
culture written by monks for monks." 12 Anson
rejects the possibility that the legends (at least
potentially) reflected the psychology of actual early
Christian women, and instead treats the stories as
just that, stories. For Anson, the psychological significance
of the legends is not primarily to be found in the
characterization of the heroine, but in the literary
structure and the social setting of their composition.
In his article, Anson identifies a grouping of six
to eight transvestite legends that share a common
geographical and social setting in Egypt (specifically
the famous monastic settlement at Scetis, or the Wadi
Natrun) and a common plot structure. Because of this,
he suggests that the works may, in fact, have been
a "literary cycle" that was "mass-produced
by a school of Egyptian scribes at a time when the
desert of Scetis had become the acknowledged center
of the monastic movement." 13 Anson analyzes
a group of these legends according to their basic
three-part plot structure: 1) flight from the world,
2) disguise and seclusion, and 3) discovery and recognition.
By showing how each of the legends offers variations
on that basic schema, Anson tries to describe an evolution
of this hagiographical "genre" within its
monastic setting. In the end, he reads the legends
as evidence for early Christian monastic psychology,
especially for the palpable tensions between, on the
one hand, monastic hostility toward women [End Page
7] as the source of their sexual desire, and on the
other, the monks' suppressed longing for female presence.
The transvestite female saint is understood as the
literary product of this tension--the product of the
monks' desire to raise up heroic examples of women's
piety to atone for female guilt, as well as to atone
for the guilt of the monks themselves. 14
With the publication of Evelyne Patlagean's article,
"L'histoire de la femme deguisee en moine et
l'evolution de la saintete feminine a Byzance"
(1976), the study of this hagiographical corpus took
a new turn--away from psychological readings, and
toward a social-historical description of how these
legends reflected Christian thought and practice in
late antiquity. Cataloguing and dating relevant sources
and manuscripts, Patlagean tries to sketch the textual
and historical development of this literature. According
to her analysis, the earliest versions of these legends
(Mary, Pelagia) date to the fifth century, while the
full series of legends in Greek was composed and collected
in the sixth and early seventh centuries. This group
of works also began to be translated into other languages--into
Coptic and Syriac during the sixth century, and into
Latin after the seventh century. The production of
these Lives waned in the eighth century, but in the
ninth, tenth, and eleventh centuries there was a revival
of the genre: manuscript evidence from this period
attests an increase in the copying of earlier legends
as well as the production of new Lives of monastic
women disguised as men. 15
Patlagean, too, identifies a three-part structure
to the legends (ascetic retreat, transvestitism, revelation
of sexual identity), but analyzes these features according
to the anthropologist Levi-Strauss' structuralist
analysis of myth. 16 In particular, she tries to describe
how the formal elements of the stories would have
functioned within the social context of early Byzantine
culture. For example, she argues that the central
motif of transvestitism would have challenged late
antique social models of male authority and female
subjection. The image of the transvestite saint was
[End Page 8] an image of female independence and autonomy:
the act of taking on male disguise allowed the women
to travel and to live as monks without being detected
or observed. (Indeed, they often passed for male eunuchs,
whose presence within late antique society and within
Byzantine monasticism is well documented.) For Patlagean,
the stories themselves present a model of "transgressive
sanctity" that challenges male authority in marriage.
As such, she locates these stories of holy women disguised
as men within the social and intellectual context
of early Christian monasticism. The attitude toward
women in this literature reflects the monastic fear
that the female sex represented a fundamental obstacle
to salvation. By portraying heroines who "became
male" both in dress and in physical appearance,
the monks were proposing a model of female sanctity
in which "the female" was negated (at least
in part). While men could theoretically flee the presence
of women by entering the desert at an early age, women
for their part were called in this literature to flee
their own nature through ascetic practice. 17
Patlagean's study of the transvestite saint legends
was significant not just for her documentation of
the sources and their historical development, but
also for the way that she began to apply sociological
and anthropological theory in her analysis of the
legends. More recent studies that propose alternative
social or anthropological readings of early Christian
transvestitism are in many ways indebted to her work.
One example is a recent article by Nicholas Constas
(1996) where the author also employs anthropological
language to describe the basic plot of the transvestite
legends as a ritual of initiation and transformation,
"a mysterious rite of passage marked by three
characteristics: separation, liminality, and reaggregation."
18 For Constas, transvestite disguise is the focal
point of this ritual structure--it symbolizes the
"liminal" or marginalized status of the
female monk as she moves from an old set of social
values to a newly defined role within a monastic setting.
By producing this ritual of transformation, early
Christian monastic culture was defining itself as
it tried to resolve its own inconsistencies and ambivalence
regarding the spiritual status of women. [End Page
In the past decade, other methods besides anthropological
theory have been applied to the study of transvestite
saints' lives. In particular, some scholars have begun
to reconsider the image of the transvestite saint
in the context of early Christian theology and ancient
discourse on the female body. In her article "Women
in Early Byzantine Hagiography" (1990), Susan
Ashbrook Harvey argues that the transvestite saint
functioned as a theological symbol of "reversal"
in late antiquity. In the stories, the sanctification
and redemption of the heroines take place in two stages:
first in their role as "men" (that is, in
the guise of men), and only later truly as women (the
heroines are always granted sainthood as women). The
women's bodies are "symbols of purity and perdition,"
and as such, they not only signify the human condition,
but also reenact the drama of humanity's salvation.
Viewed as fallen daughters of Eve, "women could
display this grace more than men because they deserved
it less." Thus, for Harvey, the transvestite
female saint ultimately embodies the theological paradox
of redemption. 19
Two other recent studies have focused even more closely
on how these transvestite saints' lives fit within
the patterns of ancient discourse on the female body.
In her article "'I Will Make Mary Male'"
(1991), Elizabeth Castelli argues that the acts of
dressing in men's clothing and cutting one's hair
short functioned in this literature as "bodily
signifiers"--signs of how early Christian society
was reevaluating (and destabilizing) traditional gender
differences in the context of a theology that called
for personal and corporate transformation. 20 Finally,
Terry Wilfong (1998) examines transvestite saints'
lives in the context of Coptic Christian conceptions
of the female body. In the Coptic legend of Saint
Hilaria, the heroine's identity is hidden from observers
not only because she wore male monastic garb, but
also because her body underwent radical, de-feminizing
physical changes as the result of her life in the
For her breasts, too, were not as those of all (other)
women: above all, she was shrunken with ascetic practices
and even her menstrual period had stopped because
of the deprivation. 21 [End Page 10]
For Wilfong, such descriptions were part of a larger
cultural and hagiographical discourse on the female
body. In that discourse, the female body--often a
source of worry and concern to male authors--was in
various ways deconstructed, obscured, disjointed,
and fragmented. 22
As I have shown, the study of early Christian transvestite
saints' lives has moved considerably in the past century
from the relatively naive search for historical "sources"
to the more critical application of social, anthropological,
theological, and (some) discourse theory. In this
article, I want to take the study of these texts a
step further. While my interest will still be on understanding
this literature in the context of ancient discourse
on gender and the female body, I will be asking new
questions of the texts from the perspective of poststructuralist
theory and the study of intertextuality. But first,
I need to define these terms.
A Poststructuralist Approach: The Theory of Intertextuality
In the past few decades, scholars who study early
Christian texts have increasingly turned to the fields
of literary criticism and discourse analysis for alternative
ways of reading history. Yet, during this time period,
the discipline of literary studies itself has undergone
radical changes, as relatively recent theories have
been challenged and replaced by newer critical methods.
Such is the case with poststructuralism, a body of
recent theory that has challenged conclusions drawn
by earlier structuralist theorists.
The theory of structuralism itself arose during the
early part of the twentieth century as a critique
of prevailing liberal humanist views about the nature
of language and meaning. Previously in the study of
literature, it had been assumed that both language
and meaning were direct products of an author's mind.
Structuralist theorists like Saussure in the field
of comparative linguistics and Levi-Strauss in the
field of anthropology challenged this assumption.
23 They argued that the source of meaning in [End
Page 11] language and texts was not the author; instead,
they proposed that meaning be understood as the product
of preexisting, universal structures within language
itself. Levi-Strauss defined this shift in focus as
one away from "conscious linguistic phenomena"
(e.g., the intent of the author) to "their unconsciousinfrastructure"--that
is, the "system" and "general laws"
that govern speech and language. 24 Thus, structuralists
typically seek to analyze all narratives as variations
on universal narrative patterns. 25 While literary
structuralism reached its heyday in the 1960s, it
was not until the 1970s and early 1980s that a number
of scholars began to apply structuralist theory to
the study of the New Testament and other early Christian
literature. 26 Indeed, it was in the midst of this
upsurge in structuralist criticism of early Christian
texts that Evelyne Patlagean wrote her 1976 article
on the history of early Christian women disguised
as men (see above).
However, during the 1960s and 1970s, other philosophers
and literary theorists had already begun challenging
certain assumptions of structuralism. This critical
challenge heralded the rise of "poststructuralism"--a
term that describes an assortment of theories unified
by their common critique of structuralism's universalizing
tendencies. While structuralists have insisted that
all language has at its core a basic, universal structure
that generates meaning, poststructuralists argue that
this core, this basic structure, is illusory--it is
only a false "trace" or facade, the result
of language's attempts to hide its own contradictions
and incompleteness. 27 Take for example, the binary
structures that exist in language--light/dark, good/evil,
black/white, etc. For the poststructuralist, each
element in these pairs can only be understood in terms
of the other. One can only understand "light"
if one already knows what "dark" is. However,
by the same token, one can only understand "dark"
through a prior acquaintance with the concept of "light."
In this way, these binary structures of language (identified
by structuralists as the building blocks of meaning)
are exposed as circular and ultimately self-contradictory.
Thus, for some poststructuralist theorists, like Jacques
Derrida, language can ultimately be said to "deconstruct"
itself. A text is not simply "a finished corpus
of [End Page 12] writing . . . but a differential
network, a fabric of traces referring endlessly to
something other than itself." 28
This notion of texts as contingent and interdependent
gave rise to the poststructuralist theory of intertextuality.
At its most basic level, intertextuality can simply
refer to how authors quote or allude to earlier sources
in writing their own texts. However, as it was coined
by the French philosopher Julia Kristeva and later
developed by the literary theorist Roland Barthes,
the poststructuralist concept of "intertextuality"
also embraces a larger philosophy of how language
works. 29 This philosophy specifically critiques the
structuralist claim that individual texts are "discrete,
closed-off entities," 30 and instead argues that
any particular text can only be read within the context
of prior texts and larger cultural discourses that
give it meaning. As one theorist put it: "[E]ach
text becomes itself in relation to other texts, no
text is self-contained." 31 Texts, by their very
nature, play upon other texts.
Ever fond of word play, poststructuralist theorists
have mined the etymology of the word "text"--"a
tissue, something woven"--for a metaphor to describe
the phenomenon of intertextuality. Thus, the text
has been compared to a piece of fabric woven together
by many different strands. It is the interpreter's
job not so much to unravel those strands, but to examine
the texture of that fabric, "the interlacing
of codes, formulae, and signifiers." 32 Ultimately,
by tracing the texture of this fabric, the interpreter
can begin to see how a text has reworked prior texts
and thereby participated in an ongoing cultural discourse.
Poststructuralist (or postmodern) literary theory
is often bewildering to the uninitiated. Its radical
questioning of objectivity in the search for meaning
poses enormous challenges to traditional conceptions
of theology and history. Theologians and biblical
scholars have only relatively [End Page 13] recently
begun to apply poststructuralist insights to their
own disciplines; 34 historians of early Christianity
have noticeably dragged their feet, lagging behind
their colleagues. How can this body of theory be applied
fruitfully in the study of early Christian texts?
In this article, I propose to make a foray into this
area, as I reevaluate early Christian transvestite
legends from the perspective of intertextuality and
poststructuralist discourse analysis.
In particular, I want to argue that the typical structure
of these transvestite saint legends--ascetic retreat,
transvestitism, revelation of sexual identity--is
more variable (less consistent) than structuralist
interpreters like Patlagean and Anson have suggested.
Especially given the significant variations observed
from legend to legend, this structure should not be
considered a fundamental or universal feature of the
texts, but rather the result of interpreters' attempts
to impose upon the texts a structural unity where
one does not necessarily exist. Thus, instead of viewing
the legends primarily in terms of these structural
elements, I want to shift the focus to how the texts
themselves--their plots and their characterizations
of the heroines--are in fact composites of intertextual
references. In this sense, the structural elements
of ascetic retreat, transvestitism, and revelation
of sexual identity may be included in a larger set
of cultural signs, allusions, and echoes that shift,
change, and replay from one legend to the next. What
are the "texts" that these legends "play
upon"? And finally, what does this intertextual
play tell us about how this group of legends participated
in late antique cultural discourse on gender and the
female body? These two questions will guide my steps
through the rest of this essay.
in Early Christian Legends of Holy Women Disguised
In reading the legends of female saints disguised
as men in intertextual terms, I want to argue that
the characterization of these saints is not cohesive,
not coherent, and, ultimately, not unified. That is,
the characterization of these women does not stand
on its own, but rather is composed of bits and pieces
of prior cultural texts, images, and discourses. One
might compare the characterization of the transvestite
saint to an image seen through a kaleidoscope--as
we "turn" the text, different fragments
of cultural data merge, are diffracted, recombine,
and separate once [End Page 14] again. The transvestite
female saint was (quite literally) the embodiment
of various oblique cultural discourses--an intertextually
constructed body. Thus, for the late antique reader,
intertextual allusions--the fragments of various cultural
discourses--would have offered clues for understanding
the enigmatic figure of the female transvestite saint.
What were the primary cultural discourses at work
in the figure of the holy woman disguised as a man?
How did the transvestite saint legends rework and
re-present earlier texts in the characterization of
their heroines? Here, I will identify five cultural
"texts" (or groups of "texts")
reworked in the legends--five key intertextual elements
that impinge upon the characterization of the female
saint: 1) the lives of earlier transvestite saints
in the church, especially St. Thecla; 2) the lives
of famous early Christian holy men like St. Antony;
3) late antique cultural discourse about eunuchs,
including the story of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch
in Acts; 4) the story of Joseph and Potiphar's wife
from Genesis, and other later variations on the theme
of the spurned female temptress; and finally, 5) early
Christian discourse on the female body, in particular,
its textual fragmentation and intertextual reconstitution
in the context of wo/men's community. I do not mean
to present these five elements as a new structural
basis for understanding the legends--they are far
too variable to fulfill such a function. In fact,
no single legend in the corpus contains all five elements.
Instead, I want to portray the characterization of
the transvestite female saint within the larger corpus
as a ragged patchwork of these intertextual elements.
The saint's body is effectively clothed in this patchwork,
a patchwork of texts and images that present her in
sexually ambiguous or male terms--the female saint
who is not female, and yet still is.
as Intertextual Sign:
Re-presenting St. Thecla and Her Sisters
The act of transvestitism--taking off women's clothing
and putting on men's--is the unmistakable "sign"
or image that links this group of hagiographical narratives,
and as such, it often prompts the most questions from
the modern critical reader. What is the narrative
function of this act for the heroine? What would it
have signified for an ancient community of readers?
For those looking for satisfying answers to these
questions, the texts themselves are not very forthcoming.
In many of these Lives the heroine's change of dress
is virtually left unexplained. The Life of Susannah
is a typical example. In that legend, after Susannah
is baptized a Christian, she begins to resist her
parents' plan for her to marry. In order to escape
their expectations, she suddenly leaves her home by
night, [End Page 15] releases her servants, gives
her money to the poor, cuts her hair short, and dresses
herself in men's clothes. The last two actions are
narrated with no special commentary or explanation.
35 As a result, within the text, the act of transvestitism
has no explicit signification other than a straightforward,
pragmatic one--to facilitate the heroine's desire
to escape the notice of her family and (eventually)
enter a male monastery without being recognized.
The absence of interpretation offered within the Life
of Susannah and other legends of female saints disguised
as men would have prompted the ancient reader to look
elsewhere for the significance of this act. This absence
of interpretation may even suggest that the hagiographers
actually presumed that their ancient readers were
already acquainted with other "texts"--other
discourses--that would have helped make sense of the
transvestite motif within these saints' lives. If
so, what were these other "texts" and how
would the act of transvestitism have been read intertextually?
One of the legends, the Life of Eugenia, provides
us with an answer to this question. In that account,
Eugenia's act of disguising herself as a man is modeled
after St. Thecla, the most popular female saint in
the early church after the Virgin Mary. St. Thecla
is also recognized as the first transvestite saint
in early Christianity. The second-century Acts of
Paul and Thecla, 36 the basis of Thecla's legend,
portrays her as a disciple of the apostle Paul in
Asia Minor. Persecuted by her family and society for
leaving her fiance in order to follow Paul, Thecla
survives two martyr trials, the first by fire and
the second by beasts in the arena. During the second
martyr trial, she baptizes herself; and then, after
her release, she dresses herself like a man and begins
to travel and teach the gospel she had learned from
The Life of Eugenia and the other transvestite saint
legends written three or four centuries after the
Acts of Paul and Thecla were hagiographical attempts
to reappropriate Thecla's story in a new context.
However, unlike in the other legends, where the connection
with Thecla remains implicit, this "reappropriation"
in the Life of Eugenia is explicit and purposeful.
37 In the story, Eugenia, the wealthy daughter of
a Roman [End Page 16] governor assigned to Alexandria,
actually obtains a copy of the Acts of Paul and Thecla
("the book of the story of the discipleship of
Thecla the holy virgin, and of Paul the Apostle").
38 One day, while traveling in a litter outside Alexandria,
she studies passages from this "book of Thecla."
39 Eugenia's reading has an immediate effect on her:
imitating Thecla's example, she cuts her hair and
dresses herself like a man. (In the Acts of Paul and
Thecla, even before her change of dress, Thecla had
offered to cut her hair short as a sign of her commitment
to Paul's ministry.)
This intertextual connection with Thecla is reinforced
later after Eugenia has abandoned the litter and secretly
joined a monastery. Eugenia's absence causes an uproar
in her family, and the author describes their reaction
by borrowing a turn of phrase from the Acts of Paul
and Thecla: "For her parents were mourning for
their daughter; and her brothers for their sister;
and her servants for their mistress." 40 In the
Acts, it is Thecla's family (her mother, fiance, and
maidservants) who mourn a similar loss. 41 These allusions
to the Acts of Paul and Thecla provide the reader
with an intertextual context for understanding Eugenia's
own actions. Just as in the case of Thecla, Eugenia's
change of appearance facilitates her break from her
family and pursuit of an ascetic vocation. [End Page
The Acts of Paul and Thecla was not the only basis
for this intertextual bond between Eugenia and Thecla.
The author of the Life also had access to other nonliterary
"texts" connected with the cult of St. Thecla
in late antiquity--a reservoir of visual artifacts
that could also be utilized for intertextual ends.
Later in the Life, Eugenia is forced to go to court
in order to defend herself against a false accusation
of sexual assault. This accusation was brought against
her by a woman whom Eugenia had earlier healed of
disease. Brought to the court in chains, Eugenia decides
that she must confess her identity--that she must
reveal her biological gender--in order to protect
the reputation of the Egyptian monks. First, she explains,
"I became a man for a short time, being emulous
and imitating my teacher Thecla: she who despised
and rejected the desires of this world, and became
worthy of the good things of heaven by means of her
chastity and her life." 42 Then, as visible proof
of her sex, Eugenia rips open her garment to reveal
her breasts to the crowd. 43
In the story, this act exonerates Eugenia from the
woman's false accusation. However, given her explicit
self-identification with Thecla, Eugenia's act would
also have had other associations for readers--especially
Egyptian readers--in late antiquity. According to
the text, she "rent the garment which she wore
from the top as far as her girdle . . . and the chaste
breasts which were upon the bosom of a pure virgin
were seen" 44 (my italics). Here, the Life of
Eugenia presents a visual tableau that conforms remarkably
to the iconography of pilgrim flasks associated with
Thecla's cult in Egypt. 45 On these flasks Thecla
appears stripped naked to the waist, with the curves
of her breasts revealed. Her hands are tied behind
her back and she is flanked by two bulls, a bear,
and a lion. The scene represents a conflation of martyr
scenes from the life of Thecla, incorporating [End
Page 18] images most notably from Thecla's second
martyr trial in the arena. 46
In the Life of Eugenia, the verbal imagery describing
Eugenia's own trial at court evokes this scene. It
is as if the image of Thecla stamped in clay has actually
imprinted itself on the bodily posture of Eugenia.
Here we see how the writer of the Life has used not
only the Acts of Paul and Thecla as a subtext, but
also the discourses and practices--the art and artifacts--associated
with her pilgrimage cult. While Eugenia's disguise
as a male monk is to be read in terms of Thecla's
transvestitism in the Acts, the undoing of that disguise
is to be read in terms of Thecla's cultic iconography
(an iconography that itself was an intertextual reading
of Thecla's martyr trials in the Acts ).
In this way, the undoing of Eugenia's transvestite
disguise is synonymous with the narrative "undoing"
(or deconstruction) of the Acts of Paul and Thecla
through multiple layers of intertextual rereading.
In the Acts, Thecla survives martyr trials and then
dresses as a man (thereby "undoing" her
status as a woman) in order to travel as an itinerant
apostle. In the Life of Eugenia, this plot movement
is reversed. Having traveled to the outskirts of Alexandria,
Eugenia disguises herself as a man and enters a male
monastery; later, she is forced to reveal her identity
(thereby reestablishing her identity as a woman, i.e.
"undoing" what was earlier undone) in a
trial before the Roman governor. The image of Eugenia's
revealed and exonerated body functions as an icon
to St. Thecla; yet, at the same time, in this image
the texts and discourses of Thecla's cult have been
subverted--subtly "undone" through a process
of intertextual revision.
Despite their importance, the literature and art associated
with St. Thecla were not the only subtexts for the
early Christian legends of monastic women disguised
as men, nor was the act of transvestitism the only
locus for such intertextual play. In these legends,
other stereotypical elements in the characterization
of the heroines also betray traces of intertextuality.
Call to Be a Holy Man:
Overhearing Scripture with St. Antony
In the Coptic Life of Hilaria, 47 the heroine is raised
in Constantinople as the daughter of the emperor Zeno;
and yet, despite the comfort of her [End Page 19]
upbringing, she yearns for a life of monastic renunciation.
Her sense of monastic calling is reinforced by a visit
to church, where, having asked God to "let me
hear from the scripture-lessons readings suited to
my aim," she hears a series of scriptural readings
disparaging the trappings of worldly wealth. 48 Because
her royal status effectively bars her from pursuing
this calling, she disguises herself as a knight and
flees by boat to Alexandria. There, entering the church
of St. Mark, she again asks the Lord to direct her
through the words of Scripture. And again, she hears
a series of readings advocating the renunciation of
family and riches for the sake of the gospel. Immediately
after this, she resolves to travel to Scetis (the
ancient Wadi Natrun) and join one of the monastic
settlements in that region. There she quickly earns
renown for her ascetic endurance and self-renunciation.
The calling to the monastic life that Hilaria experiences
would have been familiar to literate Christians in
late antiquity, especially in the Egyptian context.
Her overhearing of Scripture passages that seem to
speak directly to her situation evokes the famous
monastic calling of St. Antony, narrated in Athanasius'
spiritual biography, the Life of Antony. After the
death of his parents, Antony finds himself walking
to church reflecting on "how the Apostles left
everything and followed the Savior" (Matt 19.27).
Arriving at church, he hears another verse from Matthew
19 being read--the words Jesus says to the rich man
who asked him how he might obtain eternal life: "If
you would be perfect, go, sell all of your possessions,
and give them to the poor; and come, follow me, and
you will have treasure in heaven" (19.21). In
response to these words, Antony gives his land away,
sells most of his possessions, and distributes the
money to the poor. However, it is only when he returns
to the church again, and hears another passage from
Matthew ("Do not be anxious for the morrow"
[6.34]) that he makes a total break from his former
life: he gives the rest of his possessions away to
the poor, places his sister in a nunnery, and enters
the desert to pursue the monastic life. 49
This account of Antony's monastic calling serves as
the subtext for Hilaria's own call. 50 Like Antony,
she visits the church on two occasions, [End Page
20] and each time hears passages of Scripture read
that confirm her desire for monastic renunciation.
Hilaria's very act of "overhearing" Scripture
accentuates the intertextual character of the narrative
at this point: it is interesting that, while Antony
hears only one verse each time he visits the church,
Hilaria receives a surplus of biblical teaching--six
passages on each occasion. The connection between
Hilaria and Antony is also subtly reinforced by the
final verse she hears during her visit to the church
of St. Mark in Alexandria. The verse is from Matthew
19.29--Jesus' summary of his teaching to the rich
man: "Ye who have left house and wife and child,
in the generation to come ye shall receive them manifold
and ye shall inherit life everlasting." For a
late antique reader well-versed in Scripture, this
verse would have sent him or her on an intertextual
pathway that would have led, first to the larger context
of Matthew 19 and then inevitably to the famous citation
of that context in the Life of Antony. Through such
an intertextual reading, Hilaria was presented as
a new Antony, a new holy wo/man of the desert.
In effect, by portraying the Hilaria as heir to the
monastic calling of St. Antony, the Life of Hilaria
subtly presents the transvestite saint in male gendered
terms. In late antiquity, while female saints were
often privileged as models for women, male heroes
and saints were frequently invoked as models for men.
In the Life of Antony itself, Athanasius remarks that,
"for monks, the life of Antony is a worthy model
for the ascetic life." 51 Thus, in retracing
the footsteps of her intertextual model Antony, Hilaria
is understood to be actualizing a distinctively male
Third Gender? Becoming Eunuchs
for the Sake of the Kingdom of Heaven
I have already highlighted the ambiguity of the transvestite
saints' gender status. This ambiguity is nowhere more
evident than in their association with eunuchs in
the legends. In late antiquity, eunuchs occupied a
unique social position--one that was culturally constructed
as a "third gender." 52 Their status as
a "third gender" was established not only
on the basis of their physiological differentiation
from men and women and their exclusion [End Page 21]
from procreative functions, but also on the basis
of acculturated behaviors, mannerisms, and social
roles. Eunuchs were often identified because of their
distinctive dress and their stereotyped speech patterns
and body language. They also performed particular
social functions, especially ones that involved mediation
across social boundaries. In this way, eunuchs were
really liminal figures in ancient society. This perception
of eunuchs extended to the early church as well. Both
Clement of Alexandria and Gregory of Nazianzus classify
them as a third category apart from men and women.
In the words of Gregory, eunuchs are "of dubious
Given the ancient perception of eunuchs as liminal
figures, it is significant that, in their legends,
transvestite female saints are often mistaken for
eunuchs during their life as monks. After many years
as a desert solitary, the transvestite holy woman
Apolinaria is invited to join Abba Macarius' monastic
community in Scetis because she is thought to be a
eunuch. 54 In the Life of St. Mary/Marinos (the story
with which I introduced this article), Mary is mistaken
for a eunuch because "she was beardless and of
delicate voice." 55 In the Life of Hilaria, Hilaria's
fellow monks likewise assume that she is a eunuch
because she has no beard. 56 Finally, the former prostitute
Pelagia, after she is converted to Christianity by
the bishop Nonnus, dresses herself in Nonnus' spare
clothes and flees to Palestine to become a monastic
hermit; there the church community in Jerusalem comes
to know her as Pelagius the eunuch. 57
In other legends, the heroines intentionally cultivate
the impression that they are eunuchs. For example,
the transvestite saint Euphrosyne schemes to enter
a male monastery outside Alexandria disguised as "a
[End Page 22] eunuch from the palace." 58 In
the Life of Matrona, Matrona cuts her hair and actually
dresses herself "as a eunuch" before she
enrolls in a male monastery. 59 Later, her assumed
identity as a eunuch holds her in good stead when
one of her fellow monks asks her why both of her ears
were pierced. In response, she explains that, in her
former life as a eunuch, she used to be in the employ
of a woman who would adorn her "so that many
of those who saw me said that I was a girl."
60 Pierced ears were, in fact, a common form of self-adornment
for eunuchs. 61 In any case, Matrona's cover story
worked and her true identity as a woman was kept secret
(at least for the time being). This association of
the female transvestite saint with eunuchs comes to
a very different expression in the Life of Eugenia.
In that work, Eugenia leaves her home accompanied
by two eunuchs, and after cutting her hair and dressing
as a man, she presents herself at a local monastery
as one of their brothers. 62 The implication for the
reader is that Eugenia, too, is to be viewed as a
eunuch--as one whose piety is no longer "female"
(nor, for that matter, fully "male").
This representation of Eugenia as a eunuch is reinforced
by intertextual elements in the story. As I discussed
earlier, Eugenia's reading of the Acts of Paul and
Thecla while being transported in her litter prompted
her call to the monastic life. In the text, Eugenia's
act of reading is set off--bracketed--by an inclusio
that emphasizes the presence of the eunuchs who were
accompanying her on her journey.
Now there went with her many eunuchs and servants
for her honour.
Now as the litter in which she was sitting with the
pomp of noble women was going along, Eugenia was reading
within it the book of Thecla, and was meditating on
a passage in it.
And she said to the two eunuchs who were with her.
. . . 63 [End Page 23]
The picture of Eugenia riding in her litter and reading
a sacred text, along with the narrative's emphasis
on the presence of eunuchs, would have called to mind
for an early Christian reader the biblical story of
Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8.26-40. In
that story, the Ethiopian eunuch sits in his chariot
reading the book of Isaiah, when the apostle Philip
approaches and explains the meaning of the scripture
to him. After being instructed in the faith by Philip,
the Ethiopian eunuch gets down from his chariot and
is baptized by Philip.
In the Life of Eugenia, Eugenia is placed intertextually
in the role of the Ethiopian eunuch. Like the Ethiopian
eunuch, Eugenia's act of reading initiates a series
of events that lead to her conversion to Christianity.
After dressing herself like a man (and thereby taking
on the appearance of a eunuch), she ends up meeting
the bishop Helenus, who instructs her in the faith
and eventually baptizes her and her companions. Helenus,
a surrogate for the apostle Philip, is featured in
another episode that confirms Acts 8 as a key intertext
for Eugenia's spiritual biography. When Eugenia first
encounters Helenus, she is told a story about his
recent encounter with a magician named Iraus, "who
approached the people of the Christians with the wicked
artifice of his magic." 64 The apostle Philip
has a similar encounter in Acts 8.9-25 with a magician
named Simon who "amazed [the people] with his
magic." Significantly, this story of Simon the
magician immediately precedes that of the Ethiopian
eunuch in Acts.
As intertexts for the Life of Eugenia, these stories
from Acts subtly reinforce Eugenia's characterization
as one who has attained the status of eunuch for the
kingdom of heaven. Eugenia, in her path toward conversion
and a life of monastic renunciation, dramatizes the
biblical model of "eunuchhood," and, in
the process, enables herself to overcome the limitations
of her sex. Eugenia later tries to describe this process
in terms of a (temporary) shift in gender from female
to male: "And being a woman by nature, in order
that I might gain everlasting life, I became a man
for a short time. . . ." 65 Ultimately, however,
the intertextual representation of Eugenia as a eunuch
undermines such bipolar (male-female) descriptions
of gender categories, highlighting the ambiguity of
Eugenia's status as a transvestite saint. [End Page
Androgynous Hero: Inverting the Story of Joseph and
Another prominent intertextual feature in several
of the transvestite saint legends involves the false
accusation of sexual impropriety, a theme inspired
by the story of Joseph and Potiphar's wife from Genesis
39. 66 In the biblical story, Joseph spurns the sexual
advances of his master's wife only to have her accuse
him of trying to seduce her. His master, Potiphar,
then has Joseph thrown into prison on the basis of
this false charge. The legends of Eugenia, Susannah,
and Theodora all feature a similar scenario, with
the subtle twist that the female transvestite saints
are cast in the role of Joseph.
In the Life of Eugenia, the wife of a prominent senator
asks Eugenia (who is in the guise of a monk named
Eugenius) to heal her from the effects of a lingering
fever. Eugenia complies, and then returns quickly
to her monastery. However, the woman (Melania), attracted
by Eugenia's appearance, calls her back on several
occasions and tries to convince her to abandon her
commitment to sexual chastity and enjoy "the
good things of this world." Later, Melania visits
Eugenia at the monastery, hoping "to embrace
her secretly." When Eugenia spurns her advances,
Melania flies into a rage and goes to the Alexandrian
governor with the charge that the monk Eugenia had
tried to seduce her with "shameful and vile words"
and then tried to rape her. 67 It is this charge that
eventually leads Eugenia to reveal herself and her
identity before the Alexandrian court. The Life of
Susannah, perhaps derived from Eugenia's legend,records
an almost identical encounter with a female temptress.
In the Life of Theodora, 69 one can observe a very
different variation on the Joseph and Potiphar's wife
motif. At the beginning of the story, Theodora, a
married woman living in Alexandria, is misled and
seduced by a rich man living in Alexandria. As a result
of her sin, Theodora grieves the loss of her soul.
Wracked with guilt, she cuts off her hair, dresses
like a man, and flees to a monastery eighteen miles
west of Alexandria. There she lives a life of piety
for many years. One day, returning to the monastery
after an errand to the city, she meets a woman on
the road who approaches her and tries to seduce her.
While Theodora rejects [End Page 25] her advances,
shortly thereafter the woman becomes pregnant and
takes the opportunity to accuse Theodora of fathering
the child. However, in contrast to the legends of
Eugenia and Susannah, Theodora does not respond by
revealing her identity, nor does she try to defend
herself against the accusation in any other way. The
child is left with her and she is cast out of the
monastery. For seven years, she raises the child in
the wild before her fellow monks, satisfied by her
penance, finally welcome her back into the community.
Theodora's innocence is only ascertained after her
death, when her identity as a woman is discovered.
Theodora's story closely resembles that of Mary/Marinos.
In the Life of St. Mary/Marinos, the transvestite
saint is accused of impregnating a local innkeeper's
daughter--the only difference is that this accusation
is not prompted by an act of sexual rejection. The
innkeeper's daughter is simply portrayed as a wayward
young woman who, having been "deflowered"
by a soldier, pins the blame for her pregnancy on
the monk Marinos. The rest of Mary/Marinos' legend
follows according to form. Refusing to defend herself
against the false accusation, Mary is thrown out of
her monastery and left to raise the child on her own.
Readmitted to the monastery after three years, she
keeps her true identity (and her innocence) secret
until her death. 70
Similar false accusations of sexual impropriety and/or
paternity appear in other transvestite saint legends
as well, instances where the Joseph and Potiphar's
wife motif has been adopted in abbreviated or modified
form. In the Life of Apolinaria, the heroine (disguised
as the monk Dorotheos) heals her sister of demon-possession;
however, when the sister returns home the devil makes
it appear as if she is pregnant and causes her to
accuse Apolinaria of fathering the child. 71 A similar
episode in the Life of Hilaria (without the simulated
pregnancy) has Hilaria under suspicion for unseemly
sexual behavior toward her sister. 72 In the Egyptian
legend of St. Margaret, when a nun becomes pregnant,
Margaret is accused and is put out of her monastery.
She is only exonerated on her deathbed, when she writes
a letter to the abbot revealing her identity. 73 [End
What do these variations on the story of Joseph and
Potiphar's wife tell us about the intertextual construction
of gender in these legends? At first glance, the identification
of the female transvestite saint with Joseph would
simply seem to be yet another way to emphasize the
saint's assimilation of male virtues: by resisting
the seduction of the female temptress, the female
monk was understood to be vanquishing her own female
weakness. However, a study of late antique traditions
about Joseph suggests that his reputation was more
complex than this: as a result, the intertextual characterization
of the transvestite saint as Joseph has more ambiguous
consequences for the reading of gender in the legends.
Joseph was the subject of much commentary in early
Christian, Jewish, and Islamic tradition, and some
of this commentary focuses on his androgynous reputation.
The biblical narrative (Gen 39.6) and subsequent commentaries
on that narrative emphasize Joseph's physical beauty,
a beauty that seems to cross gender lines. The Hebrew
term used to describe Joseph's beauty ( yafeh / yafah
) is, in fact, applied to women more often than to
men (see, for example, Song of Songs 4.1). 74 Jewish
Midrashic writers and early Muslim commentators compare
Joseph's beauty to that of his mother Rachel. 75 Indeed,
Joseph's fair appearance is often described in feminine
terms: in several sources, he even is said to have
adapted an affected gait, coifed his hair, and applied
make-up to enhance the natural beauty of his eyes.
76 The androgynous characterization of Joseph extends
to ancient legends about his sexual attractiveness
not only to women but to men as well. The church father
Jerome claims that Potiphar himself was sexually attracted
to Joseph; 77 a similar tradition is preserved in
the Babylonian Talmud. 78 This tradition of same-sex
attraction connected [End Page 27] with Joseph provides
a fascinating intertextual context for reading the
transvestite saint legends, where the story of Joseph
and Potiphar's wife is effectively inverted and reenacted
as the attempted seduction of one woman (disguised
as a man) by another. For a late antique or Byzantine
reader (especially in Egypt where the Joseph cult
was most active), these traditions of androgyny and
same-sex attraction would undoubtedly have resonated
in the intertextual portrayal of the female transvestite
saint as Joseph.
Bodies and Communities:
Textual Fragmentation and Intertextual Re-collection
In the transvestite saint legends that I have been
discussing, the body of the transvestite saint is
contested space--the locus of competing intertextual
discourses that vie for the reader's notice. The result
of these competing discourses is, in effect, the intertextual
fragmentation and defeminization of the saint's body:
she is alternately cast as a "female man"
in the image of St. Thecla, a holy man of the desert
who follows the call of St. Antony, a holy eunuch
like that of the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts, and a chaste,
androgynous hero modeled after Joseph.
The intertextual fragmentation and defeminization
of the transvestite saint is frequently mirrored in
the actual physical deterioration of the saint's body
through ascetic practice. While the woman's body is
obscured--elided--by the act of transvestitism, it
is often physically deconstructed through the rigors
of asceticism. Thus, one reads in the Life of Hilaria
that her breasts became "shrunken with ascetic
practices" and her menstrual flow dried up. 79
Apolinaria's body turns hard and rough like the hide
of a tortoise: the narrator describes her body as
having "melted away" through self-renunciation.
80 Recounting a visit to Pelagia's cell, her hagiographer
recalls that her face had become "emaciated by
fasting" [End Page 28] and her eyes "had
sunk inwards like a great pit." 81 In these descriptions,
one observes what Terry Wilfong has termed the "textual
fragmentation" of the female body in late antique
The physical transformation that the saints' bodies
undergo in the legends (along with the intertextual
strategy of linking these female saints with male
or gender-ambiguous prototypes) contributes to the
disjointed, defeminized image of the transvestite
saint. At the same time, however, the legends themselves
never quite allow their readers to forget that the
transvestite saint is still a woman by nature. This
is exemplified in the Life of Susannah, where the
saint's body is mutilated through torture, but then
is miraculously restored. That legend, set in the
era of the martyrs, describes how Susannah, after
living a heroically faithful life in the guise of
a male monk, is persecuted on account of her faith
by a pagan prefect named Alexander, who subjects her
to a series of lurid tortures, including having her
breasts slashed off and thrown to the birds. 83 While
this act clearly plays into the larger narrative strategy
of defeminizing the saint, the act is immediately
"undone" when an angel recovers Susannah's
breasts and restores them to her body. In this case,
the fragmented body of the saint is reassembled and
the saint herself is reinscribed as "female."
This process of reinscribing the female identity of
the transvestite saint could also take place on an
intertextual level: the Life of Matrona is a prime
As in the other transvestite saint legends, various
intertextual elements in the Life of Matrona represent
the heroine in male or gender-ambiguous terms. After
Matrona flees her abusive husband, disguises herself
as a eunuch named Babylas, and enrolls in a male monastery
in Constantinople, she is said to have been "completely
transformed into a man," and is [End Page 29]
compared to exemplary holy men like her adopted namesake
St. Babylas of Nikomedeia, and the Maccabean martyr
Eleazar. 84 The deconstruction of Matrona's female
identity continues in a later episode that suggests
intertextual connections with the Acts of Paul and
Thecla. When Matrona's abusive husband interrogates
one of her friends about her whereabouts, the friend
answers: "Who this woman is of whom you speak,
I know not (EEg~, tfiw §stin ? gunO ?nper l°geiw,
oEk o‰da)." 85 These words echo the apostle Paul's
response when questioned about Thecla in the Acts:
"I do not know the woman of whom you speak (OEk
o‰da t?n guna?ka ?n l°geiw)." 86 In each case,
while the response is intended to dissimulate, it
also alludes to the fact that, within the context
of the narrative, the heroine's identity as a woman
has been (at least temporarily) erased from memory.
Cast as a "holy man" like St. Babylas and
Eleazar, identified with the transvestite St. Thecla,
and rhetorically denied her status as a "woman,"
Matrona's character is intertextually fragmented;
her gendered identity is dislocated, displaced.
And yet, throughout the Life of Matrona, this defeminizing
agenda is offset by a competing intertextual agenda
in which Matrona is increasingly defined within the
context of women's community. Early in the narrative,
two female friends named Eugenia and Susannah support
Matrona's monastic aspirations. Eugenia brings Matrona
to the male monastery headed by the monk Bassianos
and enrolls her there disguised as a eunuch. 87 Susannah
provides Matrona safe haven from her abusive husband,
and later takes custody of Matrona's infant son so
that Matrona can freely pursue her monastic calling.
Within the context of Matrona's legend, the names
of these two friends--Eugenia and Susannah--recall
the traditions of the two famous transvestite saints
who bore the same names. 89 In this way, the Life
intertextually [End Page 30] links Matrona with other
legends of holy women disguised as men. This theme
is reinforced later when Matrona travels to Syria
and resides at the monastery of "the blessed
Hilara"--probably an oblique reference to the
Syrian tradition connected with the transvestite saint
Hilaria. 90 Through these allusions, Matrona's piety
is framed by the intertextual presence of a larger
"community" of female transvestite saints.
This emphasis on women's community in the Life of
Matrona is later expressed as an eschatological hope
in Matrona's vision of a heavenly mansion and garden
where she converses with a group of women, "marvelous
in their attire and appearance." 91 This vision
alludes not only to New Testament teachings comparing
heaven to a "house with many rooms" (John
14.2), but also to Methodius' Symposium (ca. 300 c.e.),
an ascetic work in which the author details his own
vision of a heavenly banquet held in honor of a choir
of female virgins with St. Thecla at their head. 92
This eschatological vision of women's community is
finally realized for Matrona in the foundation of
her monastery in Constantinople, where she served
as head of a group of nuns who dressed in male monastic
garb. According to the author of the Life, it was
this community that initially preserved Matrona's
memory and recorded the events of her life. 93 On
more than one level, both intertextually and extratextually,
the fragments of Matrona's identity were re-collected
within the context of a women's community (albeit
a crossdressing one). Thus, at the same time that
it calls her female status into question, the Life
reinscribes Matrona as a female saint.
Crossings: Gender, Christology, and Mimetic Plurality
in the Legends of Monastic Women Disguised as Men
The creative tension in the transvestite saint legends
between "manly" piety and female sexual
identity is consistently fostered on an intertextual
[End Page 31] level by the interplay of competing
cultural discourses about gender--discourses that
operate simultaneously, but function at cross purposes.
94 Thus, in the case of Matrona, the transvestite
saint can be compared to the household woman in Jesus'
parable who "hid three measures of meal till
the whole was leavened" (Luke 13.21), and yet
later in the same work can be said to function in
the public male role of "overseer" or "bishop"
(§pfiskopow) for her community of female monks. 95
While these two discourses "cross," they
do not cancel each other out. As a result, the bipolar
view of human gender--while tacitly endorsed--is ultimately
Perhaps nowhere is this ironic subversion of gender
categories more evident than in a scene from the Life
of St. Mary/Marinos (the story with which I began).
When the superior of the monastery comes to Mary/Marinos
with the accusation that s/he deflowered the innkeeper's
daughter, we are told that "Marinos fell upon
his face, saying, 'Forgive me, father, for I have
sinned as a man.'" 96 Mary/Marinos would seem
to be falsely confessing a sin s/he did not commit,
but the reader is left to detangle a snarl of logic
hidden behind this apparent lie. If Mary/Marinos did
not sin, did s/he "not sin" as a man, or
as a woman--or both? For the transvestite saint, which
gender identity (male or female) is the real "lie"?
Or do both options somehow fall short of the truth?
The cryptic character of Mary/Marinos' "double-voiced"
confession illustrates again how the transvestite
saint legends destabilize conventional (bipolar) gender
The destabilization of gender categories in the text
is further highlighted by contemporary readings and
misreadings of a later scene in the Life of St. Mary/Marinos
where the monks discover the saint's female identity
and are said to "shriek" in surprise. 98
The English translators of the vita originally suggested
that the Greek (§yro?yhsan) ought to be [End Page
32] translated, "they shrieked like women, "
a reading that would have highlighted the "double-voiced"
gender reversal implicit in the scene. However, the
editors of the volume rejected this translation: they
told the translators it was redundant since "only
women shriek anyway[!]" 99 The translators (and
we) are left to ask, "Who is represented as "male"
and who is represented as "female" in this
scene?" Does the revelation of the Mary's identity
as a woman somehow reshape the monks into a sympathetic,
female chorus (who cry out in a single voice, "Lord,
have mercy!")? Or, by way of contrast, is this
depiction of the monks' "female" reaction
subtly meant to reinscribe Mary's true "male"
piety after all? Is the textual revelation of Mary's
female identity itself finally textually deconstructed?
At the end of the narrative, the reader seems to be
left in a whirl of unanswered questions, caught in
a tangled web of ancient (and modern) assumptions
about gender identity.
This modern tale of misreading finally raises the
question of how the transvestite saint legends would
have been read in late antiquity. What function would
stories like that of Mary/Marinos have had for early
Christian readers? Sebastian Brock and Susan Ashbrook
Harvey have argued that all early Christian hagiography
was ultimately grounded in the life and death of Christ
and was motivated by an ethic of imitation. 100 Were
ancient readers called to seek out the example of
Christ in the lives of transvestite saints?
The Life of St. Mary/Marinos, at least, gives us hints
of such a christomimetic function. At the very end
of her Life, the hagiographer calls the reader to
"emulate the blessed Mary" and thereby to
"find mercy from our Lord Jesus Christ."
101 At first glance, this christological reference
would simply seem to be formulaic, but in fact it
would have called the reader's attention back to the
scene at the beginning of the narrative when Mary
was trying to persuade her father not to abandon her
in his desire to enter a monastery. In the midst of
admonishing him, she appeals specifically to Christ's
example, "Do you not know what the Lord says?
That the good shepherd giveth his life for his sheep?
[John 10.11]." 102 These are the only two explicit
references to Christ in the entire vita; however,
given [End Page 33] their placement at the beginning
and end of the Life, they function as a rhetorical
inclusio that focuses the reader's attention on how
the actions of Mary/Marinos reenact Christ's Passion.
In the narrative, Mary quotes the teaching about the
good shepherd as an exhortation to her father, but
it functions intertextually as a christological paradigm
for Mary's own life and sufferings: like Christ, she
takes on the crimes of another; and like Christ, her
identity is fully revealed only after her death (on
"the third day"). 103 These themes are common
to many of the transvestite saint legends, where other
intertextual elements (especially the allusions to
the lives of Antony and Joseph) reinforce this christological
undercurrent--the Life of Antony itself was one of
the first works to present the monastic life as an
expression of imitatio Christi, and Joseph was viewed
by various Christian writers as a type of Christ and
his Passion. 104
How then does this christomimeticism function in relation
to the various gender discourses in the Lives? In
antiquity, the discourse of imitation had a political
function--namely, the "valorization of sameness"
and the "repression of difference" within
communities. 105 Is the gospel of Christ (writ large)
to be viewed then as an intertextual trump card--a
kind of meta-narrative into which all other narratives
are subsumed? Does the call to imitate Christ homogenize
the various gender discourses in the lives?
To the contrary, I would suggest that the intertextual
presentation of Christ as a mimetic model actually
contributes to the destabilization of bipolar gender
categories in the representation of the transvestite
saint. At the same time that the ethic of imitation
tries to inculcate "sameness," it takes
as its presupposition the prior existence of difference.
106 In this case, [End Page 34] the attempt to present
Christ's life and death as a (unified) paradigm cannot
fully suppress the divergent discourses about Christ's
identity in late antiquity. Such discourses are evident
not only in the christological debates about his divine
and human nature, but also in representations of Christ's
body. Among different early Christian communities,
Christ was viewed as an androgynous or gender-ambiguous
figure: he was variously identified as the incarnation
of the female, divine Wisdom, 107 pictured in eschatological
visions as a woman, 108 and depicted in early Christian
art in the form of Orpheus, the androgynous figure
of Greek myth. 109 Virginia Burrus has also recently
called attention to the sexually ambiguous representation
of Christ in two fifth- and sixth-century mosaics
in Thessalonica and Ravenna, where the figure of Christ
in each case manifests "a manhood that has already
incorporated the feminine." 110
In the legends of monastic women disguised as men,
the intertextual play on the Passion of Christ is
particularly embodied in the transvestite gesture
itself. Here, the act of changing garments evokes
another christological intertext, the Pauline baptismal
formula of Galatians 3.27-28: "As many of you
as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves
with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there
is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male
and female; for you all one in Christ Jesus"
(NRSV). When read in light of this intertext, the
female saint's crossdressing [End Page 35] would seem
to function as a metaphor for her being "one
in Christ Jesus." However, at the same time that
Galatians 3.28 envisions a "unification of opposites"
in Christ, 111 its language ultimately subverts that
vision and suggests a complete overturning of the
traditional binary conception of gender identity.
At the same time that Paul's language deconstructs
the division of humanity into "male (on the one
hand) and female (on the other)," it also deconstructs
the unification of those opposites: "there is
no longer male and female (conceived as a unit)".
The Pauline intertext itself turns out to be "double-voiced."
Thus, the figure of the transvestite saint does not
simply undo human sexual division and reinscribe the
primal, bisexual prototype of Genesis 1.27 ("he
created them male and female"), 112 rather, as
the intertextual embodiment of "no longer male
and female," the figure of the transvestite saint
actually destabilizes binary gender categories by
undermining even the fundamental opposition of sexual
In the place of this binary opposition, the reader
is left with an eclectic array of competing intertextual
discourses that bob and weave throughout the texts,
a multiplicity of mimetic models for conceptualizing
and embodying gender in late antiquity. Thus, my poststructuralist
reading of early Christian transvestite saint legends
ultimately reasserts the polyphony of gender discourses
in the texts--a fugal chorus of competing voices that
echo in the ear of the reader. 113 In the person of
the transvestite saint, cultural discourses collide
and coalesce; fragments of previous "texts"
are re-collected and reconfigured. As I have suggested,
contemporary theories of intertextuality provide a
form-fitted model for analyzing the enigmatic result.
Stephen J. Davis is Professor of New Testament
and Early Church History at the Evangelical Theological
Seminary in Cairo
1. Recent studies in the areas of gender and the human
body have struggled with the issue of how the discursive
representation or cultural "construction"
of gender identity relates to "the emotional
and experiential reality of inhabiting a body"
(Dominic Montserrat, "Introduction," Changing
Bodies, Changing Meanings: Studies on the Human Body
in Antiquity, ed. D. Montserrat [London: Routledge,
1998], 4; cf. Gilbert Herdt, "Preface,"
Third Sex, Third Gender: Beyond Sexual Dimorphism
in Culture and History [New York: Zone Books, 1996],
esp. 17-19). This is an issue with which postmodern
sociologists and anthropologists continue to wrestle,
and one that I do not presume to resolve here. In
this article, I use the terms "gender" and
"body" specifically to refer to the ways
in which cultural discourses helped shape ancient
perceptions of what it meant to be "male,"
or "female," or (alternatively) someone
whose gender identity was not so easily classified
according to the traditional bipolar model. In the
study of Christianity in late antiquity, it is certainly
important to recognize how these different gender
identities were "embodied" in terms of biological
and genital experience, but my concern here is primarily
on a social and textual level: namely, how did the
gendered discourses of early Christian texts reshape
and challenge previously held social assumptions?
2. Life of St. Mary/Marinos 3; tr. N. Constas, in
Holy Women of Byzantium, ed. Alice-Mary Talbot (Washington,
D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks, 1996), 7.
3. For the critical edition of the Greek text, see
M. Richard, "La vie ancienne de Sainte Marie
surnommee Marinos," in Corona Gratiarum: Miscellanea
patristica, historica et liturgica Eligio Dekkers
O.S.B. XII Lustra complenti oblata, I (Brugge: Sint
Pietersabdej, 1975), 83-94. For a complete English
translation of the Greek text, see Holy Women of Byzantium,
4. Life of St. Mary/Marinos 4 and 21; Richard, "Vie
ancienne de Sainte Marie," 88, 99.
5. E. Patlagean ("L'histoire de la femme deguisee
en moine et l'evolution de la saintete feminine a
Byzance," Studi Medievali, ser. 3, 17 :
600-602) lists and catalogues twelve vitae of female
transvestite saints: Anastasia Patricia, Anna/Euphemianos,
Apolinaria/Dorotheos, Athanasia (wife of Andronikos),
Eugenia/Eugenios, Euphrosyne/Smaragdus, Hilaria/Hilarion,
Mary (1)/Marinos, Mary (2), Matrona/Babylas, Pelagia/Pelagios,
Theodora/Theodoros. However, two of these legends
clearly date later than the seventh century (Anna/Euphemianos,
ninth; Mary , eleventh or twelfth). To Patlagean's
list may be added the vita of St. Susannah/John, also
from the sixth or seventh century.
6. H. Delehaye, Les legends hagiographiques (Bruxelles:
Societe des Bollandistes, 1927), 177, 192.
7. H. Usener, Legenden der heiligen Pelagia (Bonn:
Adolph Marcus, 1879).
8. L. Radermacher, Hippolytos und Thekla: Studien
zur Geschichte von Legende und Kultus, Kaiserliche
Akademie der Wissenschaften in Wien, Philosophisch-historische
Klasse, Sitzungsberichte 182.3 (Vienna: Alfred Holder,
9. Rosa Soder, Die Apokryphen Apostelgeschichten und
die romanhafte Literatur der Antike (Stuttgart: S.
Kohlhammer, 1932; repr. Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche
Buchgesellschaft, 1969), 127-28; Gillian Clark, Women
in Late Antiquity (Oxford: Oxford University Press,
10. M. Delcourt, Hermaphrodite: Myths and Rites of
the Bisexual Figure in Classical Antiquity (London:
Studio Books, 1961), 84-102.
11. Delcourt, Hermaphrodite, 96, 99-101.
12. J. Anson, "The Female Transvestite in Early
Monasticism: The Origin and Development of a Motif,"
Viator 5 (1974): 5.
13. Anson, "Female Transvestite in Early Monasticism,"
12-13; cf. E. Amelineau, "Histoire des deux filles
de l'empereur Zenon," Proceedings of the Society
of Biblical Archaeology 4.10 (1888): 181-206.
14. Anson, "Female Transvestite in Early Monasticism,"
15. Patlagean, "Histoire de la femme deguisee
en moine," 600-604.
16. For an example of Claude Levi-Strauss' use of
structuralist theory in linguistics and anthropology,
see his book, Structural Anthropology (Garden City:
Doubleday, 1967), ch. 2. Patlagean's article on transvestite
saints' lives was an extension of her previous work
in the structuralist study of early Byzantine hagiography
in her article "Ancienne hagiographie Byzantine
et histoire sociale," Annales 23 (1968): 106-26.
For an English translation of this article, see "Ancient
Byzantine Hagiography and Social History," in
Saints and Their Cults: Studies in Religious Sociology,
Folklore and History, ed. Stephen Wilson, tr. J. Hodgkin
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983), 101-21.
17. Patlagean, "Histoire de la femme deguisee
en moine," 610-16.
18. Nicholas Constas, "Life of St. Mary/Marinos,"
in Holy Women of Byzantium, 4-5. For his analysis
of the legends as "rites of passage," Constas
depends on the anthropological work of A. Van Gennep,
The Rites of Passage, tr. M. B. Vizedom and G. L.
Caffee (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1960). For
an application of these concepts to the study of Christian
pilgrimage, see Victor and Edith Turner, Image and
Pilgrimage in Christian Culture: Anthropological Perspectives
(New York: Columbia University Press, 1978).
19. Susan Ashbrook Harvey, "Women in Early Byzantine
Hagiography: Reversing the Story," in 'That Gentle
Strength': Historical Perspectives on Women in Christianity,
ed. L. Coon, K. Haldane, and E. Sommer (Charlottesville:
University Press of Virginia, 1990) 36-59, esp. 45-51.
20. Elizabeth Castelli, "'I Will Make Mary Male':
Pieties of the Body and Gender Transformation of Christian
Women in Late Antiquity," in Body Guards: The
Cultural Politics of Gender Ambiguity, ed. J. Epstein
and K. Straub (New York: Routledge, 1991), 29-49,
21. Life of Hilaria, ed. J. Drescher, in Three Coptic
Legends (Cairo: Imprimerie de l'Institut francais
d'archeologie orientale, 1947), 6. The translation
here is by T. Wilfong, "Reading the Disjointed
Body in Coptic: From Physical Modification to Textual
Fragmentation," in Changing Bodies, Changing
22. Wilfong, "Reading the Disjointed Body in
Coptic," 116-36, esp. 127-30. For other examples
of the textual fragmentation of the female body in
Christian literature, see C. W. Bynum, Fragmentation
and Redemption: Essays on Gender and the Human Body
in Medieval Religion (New York: Zone Books; Cambridge:
MIT Press, 1991), 11-26, 181-238.
23. Ferdinand de Saussure, Third Course of Lectures
on General Linguistics (1910-1911) (Oxford: Pergamon
Press, 1993); Claude Levi-Strauss, Structural Anthropology.
24. Levi-Strauss, Structural Anthropology, ch. 2.
25. Mary Klages, "Structuralism/Poststructuralism,"
available at http://www .colorado.edu/English/ENGL2012Klages/1derrida.html
(17 September 1997).
26. On the application of structuralism to biblical
studies, see The Postmodern Bible: The Bible and Culture
Collective, ed. G. Aichele, F. Burnett, E. Castelli,
et al. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995), ch.
2, esp. 82-83.
27. Aichele et al., Postmodern Bible, 120.
28. Derrida, "Living On: Border Lines,"
tr. J. Holbert, in Deconstruction and Criticism, ed.
Harold Bloom, et al. (New York: Seabury Press, 1979),
83-84; cf. Derrida, Of Grammatology, tr. G. C. Spivak
(Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976),
29. For a history of this term and its theoretical
application, see Graham Allen's recent publication
Intertextuality (London: Routledge, 2000).
30. David Chandler, Semiotics for Beginners, available
at http://www.argyroneta .com/s4b/sem09.html, last
revised 19 April 1999.
31. Mark Taylor, "Deconstruction: What's the
Difference?" Soundings 66 (1983): 400.
32. Roland Barthes, "Theory of the Text,"
in Untying the Text: A Post-Structuralist Reader,
ed. Robert Young (Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul,
33. Jonathan Culler, "Presupposition and Intertextuality,"
in The Pursuit of Signs: Semiotics, Literature, Deconstruction
(Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1981), 101-3.
34. The best introduction to the use of poststructuralism
in biblical study is Stephen D. Moore's Literary Criticism
and the Gospels: The Theoretical Challenge (New Haven:
Yale University Press, 1989).
35. Life of Susannah 3-4, AASS, September 4: 154.
36. For the most comprehensive critical edition of
the Acts of Paul and Thecla, see Acta Apostolorum
Apocrypha, ed. Richard A. Lipsius and M. Bonnet (Leipzig:
Hermann Mendelssohn, 1891), 235-72.
37. Portions of the following analysis of the Life
of Eugenia have been adapted from chapter four of
my book, The Cult of Saint Thecla (Oxford: Oxford
University Press, 2001), and a previous article, "Pilgrimage
and the Cult of Saint Thecla," in Pilgrimage
in Late Antique Egypt, ed. David Frankfurter (Leiden:
Brill, 1998), 303-39.
38. Life of Eugenia 2; tr. Agnes Smith Lewis, Select
Narratives of Holy Women, Studia Sinaitica 10 (London:
C. J. Clay; New York: Macmillan, 1900), 2 (fol. 22a);
see also the Armenian version edited by F. C. Conybeare,
The Apology and Acts of Apollonius and Other Monuments
of Early Christianity (London: Swan Sonnenschein;
New York: Macmillan, 1894), 158. The mention of Acts
of Paul and Thecla appears only in the Syriac and
Armenian versions; the Latin substitutes "the
teaching of that most blessed Apostle Paul" (
eius beatissimi Pauli apostoli doctrina; PL 59:607B).
In fact, the Latin omits any and all references to
the female saint. In this context, the textual tradition
seems to support the hypothesis that the Syriac and
Armenian versions offer an earlier reading. Given
the apocryphal reputation of the Acts of Paul and
Thecla in the Latin church, it is more likely that
Thecla would have been deleted from the original text,
rather than added to it at a later time.
39. Life of Eugenia 3; tr. Lewis, Select Narratives
of Holy Women, 3 (fol. 22b); cf. Conybeare, Apology
and Acts, 158. In the Latin version, Eugenia travels
out to the suburbs of Alexandria for the express purpose
of mingling with the Christians (PL 73:607C).
40. Life of Eugenia 8; tr. Lewis, Select Narratives
of Holy Women, 12 (fol. 31b); cf. Conybeare, Apology
and Acts, 168. The Latin and Greek editors retain
this reading: lugebant universi confusi: parentes
filiam, sororem fratres, servi dominam (PL 73:610D-611A);
§pebo«nto pikr«w, ofl pat°rew thn yugat°ra, ofl edelfoi
thn gnhsfian, ofl doEloi thn d°spoinan (PG 116:624B);
cf. Acts of Paul and Thecla 10.
41. Acts of Paul and Thecla 10: "And they wept
bitterly, Thamyris missing his betrothed, Theocleia
her child, the maidservants their mistress" (kai
ofl men flklaion dein«w, Yamuriw men gunaikow estox«n,
Yeoklefia de t°knou, afl de paidfiskai kurfiaw).
42. Life of Eugenia 15; tr. Lewis, Select Narratives
of Holy Women, 20 (fol. 39a); cf. Conybeare, Apology
and Acts, 176-77.
43. A similar scene appears in the Acts of Apolinaria
where Apolinaria (disguised as a monk named Dorotheos)
reveals her breasts to her parents in order to prove
to them that she is their daughter, and to defend
herself against a false charge of paternity ( Acts
of Apolinaria, f. 218 v.; ed. Drescher, Three Coptic
44. Life of Eugenia 15; tr. Lewis, Select Narratives
of Holy Women, 21 (fol. 39b); cf. Conybeare, Apology
and Acts, 177; PL 59:614D.
45. The date and provenance of these flasks and the
Life of Eugenia are almost identical. The flasks were
produced in the vicinity of Alexandria during the
late fifth and sixth centuries (Zsolt Kiss, Les ampoules
de Saint Menas decouvertes a Kom el-Dikka (1961-1981)
[Varsovie: PWN-Editions scientifiques de Pologne,
1989], 14-18). The Life of Eugenia also seems to have
been originally written in or around Alexandria during
the sixth century (Anson, "Female Transvestite
in Early Monasticism," 12).
46. Acts of Paul and Thecla 28, 33, 35.
47. The Coptic Life of Hilaria has been edited and
translated by James Drescher, in Three Coptic Legends,
48. Life of Hilaria; tr. Drescher, Three Coptic Legends,
49. Athanasius, Life of Antony 2-3; PG 26:841-45.
50. The use of Antony's call as a model for spiritual
conversion and monastic commitment is found elsewhere
in early Christian literature, most notably in Book
8 of Augustine's Confessions. There, Augustine recalls
how, in a state of spiritual turmoil, he was compelled
to open his Bible and read the first chapter he encountered
there, in much the same way that Antony, "accidentally
coming in whilst the gospel was being read . . . received
the admonition as if what was read were addressed
to him" (Augustine, Confessions 8.29; tr. J.
G. Pilkington, NPNF, 1st ser., 1:127).
51. Athanasius, Life of Antony, Prologue; PG 26:837.
See also the Life of Antony, chapter 7, where Antony
himself identifies the prophet Elijah as his own ascetic
role model, "a mirror in which to study his own
life" (PG 26:853).
52. Kathryn M. Ringrose, "Living in the Shadows:
Eunuchs and Gender in Byzantium," in Third Sex,
Third Gender, 85-109, esp. 94ff.
53. Clement of Alexandria, Stromata 3.15 (ed. Otto
Stahlin and Ludwig Fruchtel, in Stromata 1-4 [Berlin:
Akademie, 1985], 97-99); Gregory of Nazianzus, In
Praise of Athanasius (PG 35:1106). For other similar
early Christian attitudes toward eunuchs, see Ringrose,
"Living in the Shadows," 89.
54. Life of Apolinaria, f. 216 v.-217 r.; ed. Drescher,
Three Coptic Legends, 157.
55. Life of St. Mary/Marinos 5; ed. Richard, "Vie
ancienne de Sainte Marie surnommee Marinos,"
88, line 37; tr. Constas, Holy Women of Byzantium,
56. Life of Hilaria; ed. Drescher, Three Coptic Legends,
6, 75. This scenario corresponds to ancient social
realities. A lack of facial hair and other secondary
male sexual traits (body hair, fully developed masculine
musculature, deep vocal range) was characteristic
of eunuchs who were castrated before puberty (Ringrose,
"Living in the Shadows," 91). Many such
eunuchs were dedicated to monasteries as young boys.
57. Life of Pelagia 12-13; tr. Benedicta Ward, Harlots
of the Desert: A Study of Repentance in Early Monastic
Sources (London: Mowbray, 1987), 73. Ward makes her
translation from the Latin text (PL 73:663-72). The
Syriac text of the Life of Pelagia has been translated
by Sebastian P. Brock and Susan Ashbrook Harvey, Holy
Women of the Syrian Orient, updated edition (Berkeley:
University of California Press, 1998), 40-62.
58. Life of Euphrosyne 9; AASS, February 2:538 (Latin
text). For an English translation made from a Syriac
manuscript of the Life of Euphrosyne, see Lewis, Select
Narratives of Holy Women, 46-59. During the Byzantine
era, eunuchs were regularly employed as advisors and
confidantes in the imperial court: Shaun Tougher,
"Byzantine Eunuchs: An Overview, with Special
Reference to their Creation and Origin," in Women,
Men and Eunuchs (London: Routledge, 1997), 168-84,
59. Life of Matrona 4; AASS, November 3:792; tr. Featherstone,
Holy Women of Byzantium, 22.
60. Life of Matrona 5; AASS, November 3:792-93; tr.
Featherstone, Holy Women of Byzantium, 23-24.
61. Ringrose, "Living in the Shadows," 95.
62. Life of Eugenia, f. 30a; tr. Lewis, Select Narratives
of Holy Women, 11.
63. Life of Eugenia, f. 22b; tr. Lewis, Select Narratives
of Holy Women, 3 (my italics).
64. Life of Eugenia, f. 26a; tr. Lewis, Select Narratives
of Holy Women, 6.
65. Life of Eugenia, f. 39a; tr. Lewis, Select Narratives
of Holy Women, 20.
66. Anson, "Female Transvestite in Early Monasticism,"
67. Life of Eugenia, f. 34a-37b; tr. Lewis, Select
Narratives of Holy Women, 15-19.
68. Life of Susannah; AASS, September 4:151-60, esp.
155ff.; Anson, "Female Transvestite in Early
69. Life of Theodora; PG 115:665-89.
70. Life of St. Mary/Marinos; Richard, "Vie ancienne
de Sainte Marie surnommee Marinos," 83-94; tr.
Constas, Holy Women of Byzantium, 7-12. For other
examples of false charges of paternity in hagiographical
literature, see Paul Canart, "Le nouveau-ne qui
denonce son pere. Les avatars d'un conte populaire
dans la litterature hagiographique," AB 84 (1966):
71. Life of Apolinaria, f. 218 r.; ed. Drescher, Three
Coptic Legends, 158-59.
72. Life of Hilaria; ed. Drescher, Three Coptic Legends,
73. Life of Margaret; AASS, July 4:287; Anson, "Female
Transvestite in Early Monasticism," 11. The date
of Margaret's legend is uncertain.
74. Shalom Goldman, The Wiles of Women/The Wiles of
Men: Joseph and Potiphar's Wife in Ancient New Eastern,
Jewish, and Islamic Folklore (Albany: State University
of New York Press, 1995), 79-90.
75. Genesis Rabbah 86:6; tr. H. Freedman and M. Simon,
Midrash Rabbah, 3rded. (London: Soncino Press, 1983),
2:805. Among the Muslim writers who suggest that Joseph
inherited his beauty from his mother Rachel are al-Tabari
, Ta'rikh al-rusul wa'l-muluk (The History of al-Tabari),
SUNY Series in Near Eastern Studies (Albany: State
University of New York Press, 1987), 2:148, and al-Tha'labi,
Qisas al-Anbiya' ('Ara'is al-majalis) (Cairo: Shirkat
al-Shamarli, 1994), 109-11.
76. Genesis Rabbah 84.7; tr. H. Freedman and M. Simon,
Midrash Rabbah, 2:774; cf. Louis Ginzberg, The Legends
of the Jews (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication
Society of America, 1909-38/1937-66), 2:44 and 5:338
n. 106; and S. Goldman, Wiles of Women, 82.
77. Jerome, On Genesis 37.36 (CCL 72:45).
78. Babylonian Talmud, Sotah 13b: "And Potiphar,
an officer of Pharaoh's bought him, Rab said: 'He
bought him for himself; but Gabriel came and castrated
him, and then Gabriel came and mutilated him [pera'
], for originally his name is written Potiphar, but
afterwards Potiphera" (tr. I. Epstein, The Babylonian
Talmud; Seder Nashim [London: Soncino Press, 1935],
3:69-70; for other sources that preserve this tradition
of Potiphar's desire for Joseph, see Ginzberg, Legends
of the Jews, 2:43 and 5:337-38 n. 101). A number of
early Jewish commentaries interpret Potiphar's title
of saris as indicating that he was a eunuch, and therefore
of elastic sexual proclivities (Goldman, Wiles of
Women, 84-85). The writers of Jubilees and The Testament
of the Twelve Patriarchs also identify Potiphar with
Potiphera, named in Gen 41.45 as the parent of Asenath,
Joseph's future wife ( Jubilees 40.10 and The Testament
of the Twelve Patriarchs, Joseph 18.3; ed. and tr.
R. H. Charles, The Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha of
the Old Testament [Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1913],
79. Life of Hilaria; ed. Drescher, Three Coptic Legends,
80. Life of Apolinaria, f. 216 v.; ed. Drescher, Three
Coptic Legends, 157.
81. Life of Pelagia 14; tr. Ward, Harlots of the Desert,
74. For a recent treatment of this passage that emphasizes
its reworking of biblical subtexts, see Lynda L. Coon,
Sacred Fictions: Holy Women and Hagiography in Late
Antiquity (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania
Press, 1997), 82-83.
82. Wilfong, "Reading the Disjointed Body in
83. Life of Susannah 13; AASS, September 4:158. This
episode in the Life of Susannah closely resembles
the Coptic Martyrdom of SS. Paese and Thecla, where
Thecla--an Egyptian namesake of the more famous Greek
Thecla--suffers similar tortures (having her breasts
cut off, having burning oil poured down her throat:
Martyrdom of SS. Paese and Thecla 75 R i.20ff.; ed.
E. A. E. Reymond and J. W. B. Barns, Four Martyrdoms
from the Pierpont Morgan Coptic Codices [Oxford: Clarendon
Press, 1973], 64ff.). The similarities between the
two accounts may suggest an intertextual connection
between the Life of Susannah and the Martyrdom. The
Martyrdom of SS. Paese and Thecla itself is intertextually
dependent on the Acts of Paul and Thecla (Davis, Cult
of Saint Thecla, 177-90).
84. Life of Matrona 4; AASS, November 3:792; tr. Featherstone,
Holy Women of Byzantium, 22-23.
85. Life of Matrona 10; AASS, November 3:795; tr.
Featherstone, Holy Women of Byzantium, 29.
86. Acts of Paul and Thecla 26; Lipsius and Bonnet,
Acta Apostolorum Apocrypha, 253-54.
87. Life of Matrona 4; AASS, November 3:792; tr. Featherstone,
Holy Women of Byzantium, 22.
88. Life of Matrona 3; AASS, November 3:791-92; tr.
Featherstone, Holy Women of Byzantium, 21.
89. Eva Catafygiotu Topping, "St. Matrona and
Her Friends: Sisterhood in Byzantium," in KAYHGHTRIA
: Essays Presented to Joan Hussey, ed. J. Chrysostomides
(Camberley: Porphyrogenitus, 1988), 215 n. 28; C.
Mango, "Life of St. Matrona of Perge," in
Holy Women of Byzantium, 20-21 nn. 29 and 32.
90. Life of Matrona 11; AASS, November 3:796; tr.
Featherstone, Holy Women of Byzantium, 30-31. The
Syriac version of Hilaria's life has been edited by
A. J. Wensinck, The Legend of Hilaria, vol. 2 of Legends
of Eastern Saints (Leiden: Brill, 1913), 9-89.
91. Life of Matrona 49; AASS, November 3:811; tr.
Featherstone, Holy Women of Byzantium, 61-62.
92. For a critical edition of Methodius' Symposium,
see the text edited by Herbert Musurillo, SC 95.
93. The author of the Life reports that it was a nun
named Eulogia from Matrona's monastery who originally
recorded the details of Matrona's life ( Life of Matrona
50; AASS, November 3:812; tr. Featherstone, Holy Women
of Byzantium, 62).
94. My emphasis on intertextuality in the legends
prioritizes synchronic readings over diachronic ones:
indeed, as one theorist has put it, the phenomenon
of intertextuality "introduces a new way of reading
that destroys the linearity of the text" (Laurent
Jenny, "The Strategy of Forms," in French
Literary Theory Today: A Reader, ed. T. Todorov [Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press, 1982], 44).
95. Life of Matrona 6 and 51; AASS, November 3:793-94,
812; tr. Featherstone, Holy Women of Byzantium, 26,
96. Life of St. Mary/Marinos 11; Richard, "Vie
ancienne de Sainte Marie surnommee Marinos,"
90, lines 89-90; tr. Constas, Holy Women of Byzantium,
97. The concepts of "double-voiced" discourse
and "polyphony" originated in the work of
the Russian literary theorist M. M. Bakhtin. For a
cogent analysis of Bakhtin's thought and its implications
for theories of intertextuality, see Graham Allen,
Intertextuality, 14-30, 159-73.
98. Life of St. Mary/Marinos 18; Richard, "Vie
ancienne de Sainte Marie surnommee Marinos,"
93, line 145; tr. Constas, Holy Women of Byzantium,
99. I am indebted to one of the external readers for
JECS for this anecdote, which illustrates the deconstructive
perils of modern publishing ( per litt., May 2, 2001).
100. Brock and Harvey, Holy Women of the Syrian Orient,
14; cf. Harvey, "Women in Early Byzantine Hagiography,"
101. Life of St. Mary/Marinos 21; Richard, "Vie
ancienne de Sainte Marie surnommee Marinos,"
94, lines 174-78; tr. Constas, Holy Women of Byzantium,
102. Life of St. Mary/Marinos 2; Richard, "Vie
ancienne de Sainte Marie surnommee Marinos,"
87, lines 13-15; tr. Constas, Holy Women of Byzantium,
103. Life of St. Mary/Marinos 18; Richard, "Vie
ancienne de Sainte Marie surnommee Marinos,"
92, line 136; tr. Constas, Holy Women of Byzantium,
11. Again, I must thank the external reader for JECS
for suggesting that I explore the intertextual dimensions
of christology in the legends.
104. J. Quasten, Patrology, (Utrecht: Spectrum, 1950),
3:43; Robert C. Gregg, "Introduction," in
Athanasius: The Life of Antony and the Letter to Marcellinus
(New York: Paulist Press, 1980), 4-5. For an interpretation
of the Life of Antony as a mythic story of the Incarnate
Word, see David Brakke, Athanasius and Asceticism
(Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998),
216ff. In early Christianity, Joseph was referred
to widely as a type of Christ: see, for example, Justin
Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho 91; Cyprian, Epistle
54 and Treatises 9 and 12; John Chrysostom, Homily
84 on Matthew 26:51-54 and Homily 16 on Acts 7:6-7;
Athanasius, Festal Letter 10.4 (338 c.e.); Jerome,
Letter 48.4-5 and Letter 145 (on the imitation of
Joseph as a way of taking up Christ's cross).
105. Elizabeth A. Castelli, Imitating Paul: A Discourse
of Power (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press,
106. Ibid., 126.
107. Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza, In Memory of Her
(New York: Crossroad, 1983), 230-40.
108. Epiphanius ( Panarion 49.1) describes a vision
experienced by the Montanist prophetess Quintilla,
in which Christ appeared to her in female form; for
a discussion of this vision, see Christine Trevett,
Montanism: Gender, Authority and the New Prophecy
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 167-70.
109. On the depiction of Orpheus as a type for Christ
in early Christian art, see Henri Leclercq, "Orphee,"
in Dictionnaire d'archeologie chretienne et de liturgie
12.2 (Paris: Librairie Letouzey et Ane, 1936), 2735-55.
One of the more famous examples is a fourth-century
wall painting in the Catacomb of Domitilla (the cubiculum
of Orpheus): Umberto Maria Fasola B., Die Domitilla-Katacombe
und die Basilika der Martyrer Nereus und Achilleus,
3rd ed., Romische und italienische Katakomben 1 (Vatican
City: Pontificia Commissione di Archeologia Sacra,
1989), 63-64. The typological connection between Orpheus
and Christ was made by both pagan and Christian authors
in late antiquity: see, for example, Origen, Against
Celsus 7.53 (where the Greek philosopher Celsus draws
a parallel between Orpheus and Christ as two divinely
inspired men who both died a violent death) and Eusebius,
Life of Constantine 4.14 (where Orpheus' ability to
charm ferocious beasts with his lyre is compared with
how the divine Word used human nature as an "instrument"
to soothe and heal the passions of the human soul).
Finally, for a discussion of Orpheus as an androgynous
figure, see Delcourt, Hermaphrodite, 67-72.
110. Virginia Burrus, "Begotten, Not Made":
Conceiving Manhood in Late Antiquity (Stanford: Stanford
University Press, 2000), 190-92.
111. As argued by Wayne Meeks, "The Image of
the Androgyne: Some Uses of a Symbol in Earliest Christianity,"
History of Religions 13.3 (1974): esp. 165-66.
112. Ibid., 185ff.
113. Describing the interplay of discourses within
a text, Roland Barthes also adopts a musical metaphor:
"The plural of the Text depends . . . on what
might be called the stereographic plurality of its
weave of signifiers" ( Image-Music-Text, tr.
Stephen Heath [London: Fontana, 1977], 159).