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The Hymn of Kassiani

Byzantine poetess Kassiani goes popular

Kassia becomes a symbol for women that go beyond what is expected or predicted.
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Last year, musician Frank Turner released his album "No Man's Land", which is “dedicated to telling the fascinating stories of women whose incredible lives have all too often been overlooked.”  Among these women is the Byzantine poetess Kassiani, who composed the popular hymn sung during the service of Holy Tuesday evening. After rejecting (according to the myth?) the proposal of Emperor Theophilos to be his wife, Kassiani withdrew as a nun to a monastery and devoted herself in writing hymns. She is one of the few women of the Byzantine period (along with Anna Comnena), we have information for.

In the spring of 2019, Frank Turner gave us an interview. To the question about his upcoming album, Turner had then answered: "I have a new album in the can, yes, it should be out by the end of the summer this year I think. It's exciting for me. It's very different (hopefully!) - it's a history record, 13 songs about different female historical figures who are not well known. I actually have a Greek subject in there, the Byzantine princess Kassiani. I can't wait for people to hear it".

After the release of the album, he did not stop there; he created a series of podcasts in which he discussed his songs with academics. The Byzantinist Liz James from Sussex dedicated half an hour to talk about our Kassiani.

As a Byzantinist myself, as well, I got inspired by Turner’s work and asked four distinguished colleagues of mine how they perceive Turner’s concept and how they feel about introducing such topics to a broader more neutral audience.

You can read the Greek version here.

by Dr. Mihail Mitrea, University of Newcastle, Marie Sklodowska-Curie fellow

Kassiane’s hymns and, through them, her voice, soul, and literary genius, enrich and adorn the living literary and liturgical tradition of the Eastern Church. As a child, I often came across her well-known troparion sung on Holy Tuesday, although I was not aware of her authorship at that time. Kassiane’s Magdalene, or more precisely Kassiane’s speech from the perspective, ek prosopou as it were, of Mary Magdalene, is credible and masterfully constructed. Her cry — often inviting virtuosos to display their musical talents — not only draws the curtains to a dramatic scene, instilling emotions in those witnessing the visceral metanoia of Magdalene in front of Christ, but also places everyone momentarily in ninth-century Constantinople. Listeners are transported to that mesmerizing place to listen to the fascinating tale of a woman who daringly refused to marry Emperor Theophilos, preferring instead to become a lover of God (theophiles) and marry the Heavenly Emperor. In a Byzantine society that laid great store by the written word and where women’s voices would hardly be heard, Kassiane carved for herself an everlasting name with ink and parchment that would survive well beyond her time, until the end of time. She willingly left the spotlights of her time for a timeless glory, weaving hymns of unparalleled beauty, as it were aural glittering tesserae, that adorn churches up to the present day. Kassiane not only shares her genius in an ecclesiastical space and context, but she also lives on and is present on stage in front of the whole world, through her hymns performed at contemporary Byzantine Music Festivals and concerts (e.g. Iași 2019, London 2004); she even made it into television through the Vikings drama series. Hearing her story retold by the songwriter Frank Turner in his Hymn of Kassiani is a further testament to her timeless talent. Are you curious to (re)discover and befriend Kassiane? You will only need to listen.

by Florin Filimon, University of Münster, PhD candidate

As a caveat, I must confess that except for this song chanting the deeds of Kassiani (according to her monastic name that replaced Kassia) I did not listen to any of Turner's previous work. When a dear colleague of mine sent me the song, the first thought that I had was that I need to hear it through my good headphones. Only on the next day have I realised why. Although a luminary of Byzantine religious lyric, the ninth century abbess Kassiani of Constantinople (nowadays Istanbul) does not receive the emphasis that she certainly merits. Oftentimes, it comes as a surprise when she gets mentioned en passant within the circles of Byzantine history enthusiasts, and even more so, by a neutral public. Therefore, Turner's idea of allotting her a spot within the constellation of female characters that he chose to praise is truly remarkable (after all, he could have gone for facile alternatives, such as Hypatia –not that she would be a lesser choice). I was certain that the lyrics would draw on the memorable biographical vignette that has Kassiani addressing the young emperor Theophilus and yet I waited until I reached home to get the best out of Turner's take on it. And it was totally worth it. The lyrics are playful and full of allusions. I still wonder if Turner formulated "the darkness to me is my ecstasy" as a theologically charged line since in this respect it may have come out of Kassiani's pen as well.

by Dr. Vicky Manolopoulou, University of Princeton, Hannah Seeger Davis Postdoctoral Research Fellow

Kassia is one of the few women in Byzantium for whom we have evidence regarding her work and life in general. As a woman who “hate[s] silence when it is time to speak” she was abused for her beliefs and actions in helping Iconophiles. We are now training the next generation of historians to consciously seek out the underrepresented, marginalised or silenced in order to tell their stories. Kassia becomes a symbol for women that go beyond what is expected or predicted.  What Frank Turner does with this song and podcast is to continue Kassia’s myth in a remarkable way by making her story accessible and relevant beyond academia.

by Dr. Thomas Arentzen, Uppsala University, Leader of the research project “Beyond the Garden: An Ecocritical Approach to Early Byzantine Christianity”

I have entered that dark night with the rain dripping outside my door. I have let my fingers roam along the tender landscapes of skin, into the dark places of the body, in the shadows of pleasure. I have flown through hair, tasted salt, and swam through waves. I have encountered new peaks strutting with deep longing. I have been a peak. And I have rested in the shade where the deep-seated moisture of the soil has not yet evaporated... This is what Kassia exclaims, what she and other Byzantine hymnographers proclaim. If there is wild sexual transgression, it is mine. That is, I think, the depth of her dark and moonless night. While Frank Turner, in a generous knightly gesture, comes to her rescue –riding in on that earliest wave– I am not sure Kassia is the frustrated maiden Turner expects her to be. Kassia was indeed capable of speaking for herself. What worries me slightly in his version, then, is the “I’ve heard that they call me ...” and the “They made me bear myrrh …” and the “They dragged me away …”, which threaten to turn the undaunted woman into an object from the outset, an object of our desire to save a repressed maiden. Kassia confesses her sin, and thereby acknowledges responsibility, but she goes further than that: she expresses her sinfulness through the mouth of the sexual transgressor who rubbed Christ’s body with aromatic oils. While other hymnographers – and arguably the evangelist Luke (Luke 7:36–50) –make this woman a prostitute, Kassia only portrays her, in her own voice, in the pose of a lustful woman who never apologizes for her intimacy with Jesus, but boldly embraces his body with kisses, caressing him with her hair. The fact that sexual transgression –and especially female sexual transgression – reeks with the smell of social taboo and stigma (much more than other forms of transgression) adds to the potency and power of Kassia’s confession.  

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