Symeon the New Theologian overcame Christian gender disadvantage

Origen castrating himself, Empedocles throwing himself in fire

Christian men are gender-disadvantaged relative to Christian women. Mary, the first and preeminent Christian disciple, conceived and nurtured Jesus within herself, as all subsequent Christians, including men, were to do. Scripture and Christian tradition figure the Christian Church as feminine — the bride of Christ.[1] The fully masculine man Jesus calls both Christian women and men to love him personally and passionately. With gynocentrism and heterosexuality dominant in human societies, ordinary men tend to be marginalized in the Christian Church and struggle to understand personally God’s passionate love for them.

In eleventh-century Byzantium, Symeon the New Theologian understood personally the extreme abasement of God in becoming a male human being. As the revered Trojan epic cycle makes clear, thousands of men’s lives matter less than the life of one beautiful woman Helen. Gyno-idolatry has been prevalent throughout human history. Byzantine society, not surprisingly, was deeply gynocentric, and men’s sexuality was devalued. Symeon probably had his testicles cut off as a youth for career advantage in the Byzantine civil service.[2] Symeon surely understood that God became incarnate as a man, not a woman, to unite the extremes of divinity and humanity as commonly perceived.[3]

Symeon the New Theologian had lived a dissolute life as a leading eunuch in the imperial court at Constantinople. Symeon confessed his evil acts:

I would like to tell them {my evils} here, but certainly not all, O Word,
for they are innumerable beyond the stars,
beyond the drops of rain, and the sand
of the sea, beyond the multitude of surging waves.

I had become a murderer — listen everyone
so that you may weep sympathetically — but the manner
of murder, I leave aside, on account of too long a speech.
Alas, I had also become an adulterer at heart,
and a sodomite in deed and by free choice.
I became a philanderer, a wizard, and a corrupter of boys,
a perjurer, a blasphemer, a money-grabber,
a thief, a liar, shameless and rapacious — woe is me!
abusive, brother-hating, exceedingly jealous
and money-loving, reckless, and also every
other form of wickedness I have committed.
Yes, trust me, I say these things truly,
and not in imagery, not in clever metaphor! [4]

Eunuch officials in Byzantium were commonly despised for their viciousness. At age 28, Symeon withdrew from his eminent position in the imperial court to become a monk.

Symeon understood that he needed God’s love to be saved from darkness, sorrow, and loneliness. Symeon proclaimed:

But if it is possible to be saved
without love, O my Christ,
how shall this be?

Impossible!

If we were separated from the light,
how shall we flee the darkness?
If we were deprived of the joy,
how would we be free from sorrow?
Having been found outside the bridal chamber,
how would we be completely happy?

Having fallen out of the Kingdom,
— I speak of seeing you, O Savior —
what other salvation,
and what sort of consolation,
or in what other kind of place
would we be able to find salvation?

Certainly, absolutely nowhere,
even if some foolishly perceive it so

Symeon described God’s love as spiritual light and fire. He experienced himself united with God. That experience wasn’t outside of his body. Symeon’s experience of God involved the same senses as human erotic experience:

He is seen by me and he looks at me, he who looks upon all things.
Amazed, I am astonished at the shapeliness of his beauty,
and how the Creator stooped down when he opened the heavens
and displayed his unspeakable and strange glory to me.
Who therefore shall also come closer to him?
Or how shall one be carried up to the immeasurable heights?
When I considered this, he himself was found within me,
flashing forth within my wretched heart,
illuminating me from all directions with immortal radiance,
shining upon all my members with his rays,
folding his entire self around me, he tenderly kisses all of me.
He gives his whole self to me, the unworthy,
and I take my fill of his love and beauty,
and I am filled full of divine pleasure and sweetness.

Symeon understood that Jesus loves men as passionately as he loves women. That gift of love can be experienced right here on earth:

I revel in the unspeakable and divine joy;
I make merry in love’s beauty, I often embrace it,
I kiss it, and fall down in worship, I have great thankfulness
to those who have arranged for me to see what I was desiring,
to partake in the inexpressible light, and to become light,
and to share in the light’s gifts here on earth,
and to obtain the provider of all good things,
and to lack no spiritual gifts. [5]

Symeon urged others to partake of this joyful, divine eros. Far too many persons don’t experience this joy.

Hatred of men and demonization of men’s sexuality destroys human and divine eros. Scholars today are embarrassed that Jesus was a fully masculine human being. In service of dominant gynocentric ideology, they pontificate about “the mystery of the dual-gendered sexuality of the total Christ.”[6] In more enlightened eleventh-century Byzantium, Symeon recognized that Jesus had a penis, and that men shouldn’t be ashamed of their penises:

We were made members of Christ, and Christ becomes our members

And so thus you well know that both my finger and my penis are Christ.
Do you tremble or feel ashamed?
But God was not ashamed to become like you,
yet you are ashamed to become like him? [7]

Those who seek worldly status in our ignorant and bigoted age write lengthy discourses on the problematics of essentializing gender and the essential androgyny of non-hyper-masculinity. In reality, Christian men must develop the strength of love that Symeon knew:

Love put to flight a column of demons,
it chased away cowardice,
it introduced manliness.

Our time desperately needs Symeon’s witness of Christian manliness.

Christian Dionysos statuette from Hermitage

A Roman statuette of Dionysos, repurposed in eighth- or ninth-century Byzantium, illustrates possibilities for overcoming gynocentrism and men’s Christian gender disadvantage. The statuette’s display of male genitals wouldn’t have shocked Byzantines in Constantinople. They were accustomed to a monumental classical sculpture of a naked ass-driver and ass and a statue of Priapos holding in his left hand his erect penis.[8] Two cross-shaped monograms stamped on the statuette’s chest are pointed with Greek letters representing “Lord help me.”[9] That inscription obliterates Roman men’s pride in acquiring war wounds on their chests. Accentuating the statuette’s lithe waist is inscribed text of Psalm 29:3. In a medieval liturgy for Epiphany, that text generated words for consecrating water:

I have heard Your voice, Lord, crying in the wilderness, when You thundered over the mighty waters, bearing witness to Your son. [10]

A Byzantine crafts-person apparently repurposed the Roman statuette of Dionysos to be a personal receptacle for consecrated holy water. The figure of Dionysos may have been appropriately re-visioned as Jesus Christ. Symeon the New Theologian sought to bring the spiritually complacent to an epiphany of divine eros.[11] The Byzantine maker and owner of this statuette understood Symeon’s message before he proclaimed it. Even in our more ignorant and bigoted age, we too should be able to appreciate a masculine representation of divine eros.

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Notes:

[1] Romanos the Melodist’s kontakion On Mary at the Cross characterizes Mary as a mother who nearly dominates Jesus. The Grottaferrata version of the early Byzantine epic Digenis Akritis poignantly addresses gynocentrism. Images of Mary were mass-produced in Crete in 1499. Milliner (2014) pp. 21-2. The same was probably true earlier and elsewhere. Among late twentieth-century Christian pilgrimage sites in Western Europe, about two-thirds primarily concern Mary. Nolan & Nolan (1989) pp. 116-7.

[2] Symeon lived from about 949 to 1022 GC. Niketas Stethatos’s eleventh-century hagiographic life of Symeon, entitled The Life and Conduct of Our Father among the Saints Symeon the New Theologian, Elder and Superior of the Monastery of Saint Mamas Xerokerkos, states:

Symeon, this man so renowned for his virtue, was born in the region of Paphlogonia …. His home was a village called Galati by the local inhabitants. His parents, who were of noble and rich stock, were Basil and Theophano, known by the surname Galatones. While still at a tender age, he was taken to Constantinople by his parents, like some precious object, and entrusted to his grandparents who were at that time well known at the imperial court. He was also handed over to a schoolteacher and taught the elementary curriculum.

Life of Saint Symeon, Ch. 2, from Greek trans. Greenfield (2013) p. 5. Symeon’s paternal uncle was a bed chamberlain (koitonites), an influential imperial position close to the Byzantine Emperor. The bed chamberlain was usually a eunuch. Undoubtedly with his uncle’s help, Symeon quickly earned the rank of spatharokoubikoularios (“Gentleman Sword-Bearer of the Imperial Bedchamber”), a position historically reserved for eunuchs, although not necessarily so in Symeon’s time. Life of Saint Symeon, Ch. 3; Greenfield (2013) p. 400, notes 1, 3, 4; McGuckin (2005) p. 199, n. 4; Tougher (2008) p. 62.

According to the Life of Saint Symeon, the pious man Philotheos helped to construct “a holy monastery for ascetics at Anaplous on the Byzantine Bosphorus.” Philotheos became a monk in that monastery. He then had a vision of Symeon as a “gray-haired man, a respectable and dignified-looking eunuch with a particularly angelic appearance and a face full of divine grace.” That eunuch identified himself to Philotheos as Symeon. Life of Saint Symeon, Chs. 145, 147, trans. Greenfield (2013) pp. 361, 365.

Given the evidence, Symeon almost surely was a eunuch. McGuckin in several places reasonably assumes that Symeon was a eunuch. McGuckin( 2005) p. 197; p. 197, n. 8; p. 200, n. 55. Above I also regard Symeon as a eunuch. On the specific form of Symeon’s castration, see note [7] below.

[3] Symeon, Τῶν θείων ὕμνων οἱ ἔροτες {Hymns of Divine Eros} 7.42 refers to God incarnate in Jesus as uniting two extremes.

[4] Symeon, Hymns of Divine Eros 24.64-67, 71-83, from Greek trans. Griggs (2010). All but the final quote are similarly from Hymns of Divine Eros, with citations (cited by beginning words of quote, hymn.lines): But if it is possible…, 17.426-42; He is seen by me…, 16.17-30; I revel in the unspeakable…, 18.116-24; We were made members of Christ…, 15.140, 160-3; Love put to flight…, 17.390-2. I’ve made some insubstantial changes to the translations. Koder (1969-73) provides a critical edition of the Greek text.

[5] Răducan (2011) analyzes the conflation of eros and agape in Symeon’s hymns. Symeon described what is known in Orthodox Christian thought as theosis. Krueger observed:

He {Symeon} cannot convey or understand the love of God independent of human emotions and experience. … This relationship between carnal desire and desire for God does not reduce to a “mere metaphor” or simple binary, one that might erase the metaphor’s referent by transferring its sense to another thing. Rather, knowledge of the experience of one contributes to the indescribable experience of the other. Under these conditions, carnal and spiritual eros engage in mutual constitution, shaping, defining, but not necessarily bounding each other.

Krueger (2018) pp. 318, 336 {references omitted}. Krueger shows that Symeon’s descriptions of love are similar to those in Byzantine romances.

[6] Milliner (2014) p. 26. In response to Steinberg’s seminal presentation of Renaissance ostentatio genitalium, Milliner used Byzantium to advance contemporary academic gender orthodoxy. Rachel Fulton Brown courageously and astutely responded:

Scandalous as it might be actually to agree with Steinberg, I have a rather different take on the matter. As I read it, it was never Steinberg’s main point that only Renaissance artists ever attempted to show Christ in his humanity, only that when they did, given their commitment to a certain style of naturalism, they found themselves obliged to represent the full humanity of Christ as a man, including his genitalia — and for good theological reasons.

Brown (2014) p. 2. Missing the obvious specificity of Renaissance naturalism, Robert Nelson in response to Milliner began with an ad hominen disparaging memory of Steinberg and then lamented Steinberg’s neglect of iconic presence. On the latter, Galbi (2003). Nelson cursorily dismissed “Steinberg’s flawed thesis that is now thankfully fading into the past.” Id. p. 1. Steinberg’s thesis is fading into the past only because academics are becoming more narrow-minded, bigoted, and doctrinaire.

[7] Cf. 1 Corinthians 12:12-27. In his original Greek text, Symeon unambiguously refers to his penis:

πάντως οὖν οὕτως ἔγνωκας καὶ δάκτυλόν μου Χριστὸν
καὶ βάλανον — οὐκ ἔφριξας, ἢ σὺ καὶ ἐπῃσχύνθης;
Άλλὰ Θεός σοι ὅμοιος οὐκ ᾐσχύνθη γενέσθαι,
σὺ δὲ ἐκείνῳ ὅμοιος αἰσχύνῃ γεγονέναι

Hymns of Divine Eros 15.160-3, Greek text from Hoder (1969-73) vol. 1, p. 290. Byzantine writers were willing to refer to genitals. John Tzetzes, perhaps the greatest classical of all time, recast a Homeric epithet to form an erudite allusion to women’s genitals. A fourteenth-century Byzantine poem compared the penises of a donkey and an ox. Unlike for today’s elite, for medieval elite the typical bodily reality of sexually dichotomous genitalia would not have been shocking or embarrassing.

D.T. Nguyen at Asian Orthodoxy aptly observed:

It’s too simplistic to say that Symeon has no patience for puritanical prudery and stop there. Really, these hymns are a slap to the face of those who demand the Divine to manifest itself only outside that which is deemed lowly (opposed to heavenly), impure (opposed to pure), or secular (opposed to sacred). … We are always expecting an apocalyptic enlightenment totally alienated from the mundane mediocrity of our daily lives. Instead, we receive the anti-climatic insight that this here and now – this really is it. However, we now see it as God sees it: and God saw that it was good.

Nguyen quotes the Outer Chapters of the Zhuangzi addressing the same fundamental issue.

Although Symeon was probably a eunuch, his confession of being a sodomite and his reference to his penis suggest that his testicles were excised, but his penis wasn’t cut off. That was a common form of castration. It is attested in Juvenal’s Satire 6. In missing Symeon’s point, Milliner assumed that Symeon lacked a penis:

But to isolate the penis in this hymn (Symeon was, after all, an eunuch) is to miss the larger point.{note 60: Among other reasons not to overly emphasize phallic imagery in this poem is because Symeon was probably castrated for court service as an eunuch when a boy.}

Milliner (2014) p. 15. Having a penis is personally relevant to Christian men in representing to oneself receiving the Eucharist, following Mary in incarnating Jesus, and having a passionately loving relationship with Jesus.

[8] On the statue of Priapos, Patria 2.12, referenced in note [21] of my post on the naked ass-driver.

[9] From Courtauld Institute of Art (2006) p. 171, which provides a catalog entry for the statuette. Peers (2014) draws attention to the Dionysos statuette, and asks with respect to Byzantine culture:

How did sex in art get activated, sublimated, accomplished in that culture? How did it serve devotion, assimilation and union with God’s own body?

Peers (2014) p. 2. In addition to Symeon’s Hymns on Divine Eros, the progymnasmata of Nikephoros Basilakes provide good insight into those questions.

[10] These words (in Greek) “form part of the liturgical reading of Kosmas the Melode, bishop of Maiuma, uttered during the consecration of water during the feast of the Epiphany.” Courtauld Institute of Art (2006) p. 171 (including quoted text above). Id. suggests the statuette’s use:

Liturgical ewers bearing this text are known, which were used to hold holy water. Ewers originating from excavations in Corinth and Vrap, in Albania, are usually dated to the period of iconoclasm, around the eight and ninth centuries. … It is possible that the statue {statuette} of Dionysos, reworked in the early Middle Ages, began to serve as a distinctive receptacle for consecrated oil or water: this is suggested by the opening in Dionysos’s head, similar to the neck of a jug, and also by the form and average dimensions of glass pilgrim vessels for unction oil and water. If this hypothesis is correct, a glass capsule would have been placed inside the figure through the opening of the head, and the opening would then have been sealed with wax.

Id. According to the Hermitage’s page for it, the statuette is 32 cm tall.

[11] In entitling Symeon’s hymns “Τῶν θείων ὕμνων οἱ ἔροτες {Hymns of Divine Eros},” Niketas Stethatos alluded to Dionysos:

The title {Hymns of Divine Eros} is meant to evoke the Erotikoi Hymnoi of Hierotheos, whom Dionysius speaks of as his mystical teacher in Divine Names 3.2.

McGuckin (2005) p. 199, n. 2.

[images] (1) Origen (at center) castrates himself to make himself more welcomed as a teacher for nuns (on the left). Empedocles (on right) throws himself into a fire in an attempt to establish his immortality. Illustration in Romance of the Rose, “manuscript made for Louise of Savoy, mother of Francis I, with many miniatures in the style of Robinet Testard, French, late 15th century.” Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS. Douce 195, fol. 122v, via Wikimedia Commons. Romance of the Rose, manuscript created in Paris about 1405, MS. J. Paul Getty Museum, Ludwig XV7, f. 107, similarly contains an illustration of Origen castrating himself and Empedocles in a fire. According to the Romance of the Rose (Ch. 97), both Origen and Empedocles committed outrages against nature. (2) Statuette of Dionysus with a Text of a Psalm, made in Rome in the second-third century, Psalm 29:3 engraved in seventh-ninth century. Found fortuitously by the River Don in 1867. Preserved as item До.1864-2/2 in Hermitage Museum (St. Petersburg, Russia), image used in accordance with permission for “interactive forms used for the presentation of scholarly works.” Catalog entry 139 in Courtauld Institute of Art (2006) p. 171.

References:

Brown, Rachel Fulton. 2014. “Penisgate: Response to Matthew J. Milliner, ‘The Sexuality of Christ in Byzantine Art and in Hypermodern Oblivion.’” Religion and Culture Web Forum. University of Chicago Divinity School.

Courtauld Institute of Art. 2006. The Road to Byzantium: Luxury Arts of Antiquity. London: Fontanka.

Galbi, Douglas. 2003. “Sense in Communication.” Online.

Greenfield, Richard P. H., ed. and trans. 2013. Niketas Stethatos. The Life of Saint Symeon, the New Theologian. Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library vol. 20. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Griggs, Daniel K., trans. 2010. Divine Eros: Hymns of St. Symeon, the New Theologian. Crestwood, N.Y.: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press.

Koder, Johannes, ed and trans (French). 1969-73. Hymnes: Syméon le Nouveau Théologien. Sources Chrétiennes, no. 156 (Hymns 1-15), 174 (Hymns 16-40), 196 (Hymns 41-58). Paris: Éditions du Cerf.

Krueger, Derek. 2018. “Divine Fantasy and the Erotic Imagination in the Hymns of Symeon the New Theologian.” Ch. 15 (pp. 315-341) in Neil, Bronwen, and Evangelia Anagnostou-Laoutides, eds. Dreams, memory, and imagination in Byzantium. Leiden: Brill.

McGuckin, John Anthony. 2005. “Symeon the New Theologian’s Hymns of Divine Eros: A Neglected Masterpiece of the Christian Mystical Tradition.” Spiritus: A Journal of Christian Spirituality. 5 (2): 182-202.

Milliner, Matthew J. 2014. “The Sexuality of Christ in Byzantine Art and in Hypermodern Oblivion.” Religion and Culture Web Forum. University of Chicago Divinity School.

Nelson, Robert S. 2014. “Response to article of Matthew J. Milliner.” Religion and Culture Web Forum. University of Chicago Divinity School.

Nolan, Mary Lee, and Sidney Nolan. 1989. Christian Pilgrimage in Modern Western Europe. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

Peers, Glenn. 2014. “Response to Matthew Milliner, ‘The Sexuality of Christ in Byzantine Art and in Hypermodern Oblivion.’” Religion and Culture Web Forum. University of Chicago Divinity School.

Răducan, Ana-Maria. 2011. “Meanings of the Term Eros at Saint Simeon the New Theologian.” Cogito. 2: 27-39.

Tougher, Shaun. 2008. The Eunuch in Byzantine History and Society. London: Routledge.

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