Cassia of Constantinople: The Sinful Woman (From Greek)

While the early Byzantine Greek hymn was indeed the vehicle of some poetry of indisputably high quality, such as the anonymous Akathistos Hymn of the 5th century and that of the hymnodic genius Romanos, the liturgy has not been kind to most such work. The outbreak of the iconoclastic controversy resulted in a new fervor of hymn-writing, much of it bad poets who wrote more to fill out the music than to exploit language. These hymns seem to have been the ones that mainly found their way into the Orthodox liturgy, replacing much of the old school's work with cheap knockoffs. It is a testament to the sad state of affairs that the mediocre verse of St. John the Damascene is among the most admired of this period.
But it's not all bleak. Coming upon the work of Cassia of Constantinople (also known as Abbess Kassiani) one finds an actual poet rather than a mere versifier. Her best (and best-known) poem, a penitential troparion for a sinful woman, is here translated.
Cassia composed music to go along with the words, and I was originally going to sing it in the recording, redubbing my own voice for four parts, before I realized that to do justice to the music she composed requires at least one singer with a gargantuan vocal range, which I do not have. (Most church choirs probably don't have anyone who could pull this off either come to think of it.) And I wasn't going to stoop to using music from one of the many later kiddy-versions written for this hymn. So instead, you get what you always get: a recording of me reading the original text in a reconstruction of what it might have sounded like in the author's time and place: in this case, the formal register of educated early 9th century Constantinopolitan Greek.
I've also included the best specimen I could find of the hymn being sung to Cassia's original melody (in modern Greek pronunciation, obviously), by the Byzantine choir group Οι Καλοφωνάρηδες I Kalofonarides meaning roughly "The Benevocalists," lead by George Remoundos.

The Sinful Woman: A Troparion
By Cassia of Constantinople
Translated from Byzantine Greek by A.Z. Foreman
Click to hear me recite the original in a reconstruction of 9th century Constantinopolitan literary pronunciation
Click to hear the hymn chanted by Οι Καλοφωνάρηδες

O Lord, this woman fallen away into manifold sins,
Perceiving at last the God within Thee,
Turned Thy way to bring Thee ointment
In tears she brings Thee myrrh  on this eve of Thine unworlding.
"Oh" she cries "what a night!  What a night has fallen upon me,
Such dark extravagance, such moonless mania
Of flesh athirst for sin!
Receive now this spring of my tears,
Thou who wringest the seawater  out of the clouds.
Bend down to me,   to the bewailment in my heart.
Thou who madest the heavens   bow when Thou beyond words
Didst empty Thyself into flesh.
Long shall I kiss Thine immaculate feet,
Wash them, and dry them with the hair of my head;
Those selfsame feet whose steps Eve heard
In the dusk of Eden,  and hid in her dread.
Savior of souls and me!  Who can fathom
The surfeit of my sins,   the abyss of Thy judgment?
Forsake not me, Thy rightful slave,
In all Thy measureless mercy."

The Original:

Το Τροπάριο της Κασσιανής

Κύριε, ἡ ἐν πολλαῖς ἁμαρτίαις περιπεσοῦσα γυνή,
τὴν σὴν αἰσθομένη θεότητα, 
μυροφόρου ἀναλαβοῦσα τάξιν, 
ὀδυρομένη, μύρα σοι,   πρὸ τοῦ ἐνταφιασμοῦ κομίζει.
Οἴμοι! λέγουσα,   ὅτι νύξ μοι ὑπάρχει,
οἶστρος ἀκολασίας,   ζοφώδης τε καὶ ἀσέληνος
ἔρως τῆς ἁμαρτίας. 
Δέξαι μου τὰς πηγὰς τῶν δακρύων, 
ὁ νεφέλαις διεξάγων    τῆς θαλάσσης τὸ ὕδωρ
κάμφθητί μοι   πρὸς τοὺς στεναγμοὺς τῆς καρδίας,
ὁ κλίνας τοὺς οὐρανοὺς   τῇ ἀφάτῳ σου κενώσει. 
Καταφιλήσω τοὺς ἀχράντους σου πόδας, 
ἀποσμήξω τούτους δὲ πάλιν 
τοῖς τῆς κεφαλῆς μου βοστρύχοις 
ὧν ἐν τῷ παραδείσῳ Εὔα τὸ δειλινόν, 
κρότον τοῖς ὠσὶν ἠχηθεῖσα,   τῷ φόβῳ ἐκρύβη.
Ἁμαρτιῶν μου τὰ πλήθη   καὶ κριμάτων σου ἀβύσσους
τίς ἐξιχνιάσει, ψυχοσῶστα Σωτήρ μου; 
Μή με τὴν σὴν δούλην παρίδῃς, 
ὁ ἀμέτρητον ἔχων τὸ ἔλεος. 

Thoughts on the Poem

Cassia is one of a very few Byzantine female poets who have survived (and one of still fewer of merit.) She is furthermore thrice-blessed: (1) that the texts she produced survived somehow under her own name, even though she was a woman, (2) that she was writing at a time when at least a smidgen of her work could find its way safely into Eastern Orthodox services undisturbed rather than having to wait for some bibliolatrous researcher to happen upon it in some monastery and (3) that, of her work, her best poem -a penetential troparion- would be fortunate enough to be accorded prominence in Orthodox services.

That is why it is a singularly depressing fact - at least to me - that this poem, the best surviving bit of verse from the greatest woman poet of Byzantium, is in the voice of a harlot pouring shame on herself.

When she refers to herself as being in the throes of a debauched οἶστρος oîstros "frenzy, maddness, desire", she also calls to mind the word's meaning of "being in heat, lust, the urge to procreate".

Then, she uses the word στεναγμα τῆς καρδίας "the sighing/groaning of the heart" to describe her state. στεναγμα (and its variant στεναγμός) is a word especially typical of Greek tragedy, most often applied to the grief one feels at the death of a loved one. It is also found in the New Testament, in Romans and in Acts. Interestingly enough, in the latter, it is the word used by Stephen, when recounting the Exodus myth to the High Priest in a debate, to characterize the tribulation from which God delivered the Jews:
ἰδὼν εἶδον τὴν κάκωσιν τοῦ λαοῦ μου τοῦ ἐν Αἰγύπτῳ, καὶ τοῦ στεναγμοῦ αὐτοῦ ἤκουσα,
I have seen the affliction of my people which is in Egypt, and I have heard their groaning, and am come down to deliver them.
(Acts 7:34)
Now, after this, Cassia has the speaker kissing Christ's feet and wiping them with her hair. This image, and the words used in it, are lifted from the gospel of Luke:
Καὶ ἰδοὺ γυνὴ ἥτις ἦν ἐν τῇ πόλει ἁμαρτωλός, καὶ ἐπιγνοῦσα ὅτι κατάκειται ἐν τῇ οἰκίᾳ τοῦ Φαρισαίου; κομίσασα ἀλάβαστρον μύρου καὶ στᾶσα ὀπίσω παρὰ τοὺς πόδας αὐτοῦ κλαίουσα, τοῖς δάκρυσιν ἤρξατο βρέχειν τοὺς πόδας αὐτοῦ καὶ ταῖς θριξὶν τῆς κεφαλῆς αὐτῆς ἐξέμασσεν, καὶ κατεφίλει τοὺς πόδας αὐτοῦ καὶ ἤλειφεν τῷ μύρῳ.
And, behold , a woman in the city, which was a sinner, when she knew that Jesus sat at meat in the Pharisee's house, brought an alabaster box of ointment, and stood at his feet behind him weeping , and began to wash his feet with tears, and did wipe them with the hairs of her head, and kissed his feet, and anointed them with the ointment
Luke (7:27-38)
The word μύρον at the time could mean any kind of ointment, (but usually that produced by the myrrh tree.) Use of the word in Cassia's poem (among the Byzantine erudite elite readership) would not only invoke this passage from the Gospel overtly, but covertly suggest the legend of the origin of the myrrh-tree. In that legend, the woman Myrrha falls in love with her father Cinyras and tricks him into having sex with her. After discovering that he has been tricked into incest, Cinyras draws his sword and pursues Myrrha. She flees and, after nine months, turns to the gods for help. They take pity on her and transform her into a myrrh-tree. The perfume exuded myrrh tree was, according to Hellenistic folklore, Myrrha's wept tears.

Cassia brings it all together in an allusive web. ὀδυρομένη, μύρα σοι ...κομίζει Weeping I bring you Myrrh evokes the Myrrha myth and the tree's tears early on. The myth and this poem also share the theme of a woman suffering the consequences of sexual indulgence and the act of crying out to the divine for deliverance from that suffering.

This is all hammered home by Eve hiding from God in dread. The contextual implication is that Eve's reason for fearing God had something to do with sexual impropriety. We end with the image of Eve bearing responsibility for Adam's sin. The situation between Christ and the woman, with the woman turning from her many lovers to Christ alone, is just reminiscent enough of monogamy to call to my mind the Christ-worship found in the works of pious female mystics such as Ann Griffiths and St. Teresa of Avila, though for various reasons neither of them goes as far as Cassia does in vilifying female sexual indulgence.

For the sake of completeness I should mention that, according to a popular Byzantine legend (which has since been granted legitimacy by Orthodox hagiographic mythology) Cassia argued against the notion of female responsibility for sin in a debate with Emperor Theophilus. The legend goes on to claim that Theophilus actually authored the portion about Eve (the details of how this is to have happened need not detain us here.) I leave it to the reader to decide on whether to buy the tale or not.

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