Women in the Syriac Tradition
Syriac Christianity from the beginning allotted women important positions as widows, deaconesses, and consecrated virgins; these roles were canonically named, ecclesiastically supervised, and granted significant responsibilities by the 3rd cent. Syriac churches also developed distinctive roles for women that differed from other Christian areas. Notable was the office of Covenanter, or Sons and Daughters of the Covenant (bnay and bnāt qyāmā; see bnay qyāmā ), which appears during the 3rd cent. and continues at least into the 10th in both W.- and E.-Syr. churches. These were men and women who had taken vows of celibacy and simplicity, working in the service of the local bp. The rise of institutionalized monasticism in the 4th cent. did not eclipse their work. For the women, this office included the crucial task of singing doctrinal hymns (madrāše) in the liturgy of the civic churches. Later tradition ascribes the establishment of these women’s choirs to Ephrem himself.
No known Syriac text written by a woman survives until modern times, although the large corpus of anonymous Syriac hymnography and hagiography may include women’s contributions. Important Syriac women saints, both historical and legendary, gained renown in the Greek and Latin churches and sometimes beyond: Pelagia the Harlot of Antioch, Mary the Niece of Abraham of Qidun, and Febronia of Nisibis are among the best known. Furthermore, biblical women were often prominent in Syriac hymns and homilies, with stories much elaborated beyond the biblical text. Appreciation for the interconnection between biblical women and female saints may be seen in the Syriac ‘Book of Women’, containing the biblical books of Ruth, Esther, Judith, and Susanna as well as the ‘Book of Thecla’ (from the ‘Acts of Paul and Thecla’).
Additionally, ancient Syriac tradition produced striking feminine imagery for the divine, especially for the Holy Spirit (following grammar: ruḥā ‘spirit’, being a feminine noun in Syriac). Perhaps related, devotion to the Virgin Mary was profoundly developed from an early stage in Syriac, anticipating by a century and more similar developments in Greek and Latin communities.
Female monasticism flourished in late antique Syriac Christianity, with an apparent encouragement of women’s literacy and learning. These declined quickly under Islamic domination, until modern times. Already in the early modern period, there is evidence of women’s leadership and patronage of religious learning in E.-Syr. communities. The holy woman Hindiyya, an 18th cent. Maronite nun in Lebanon, produced lengthy mystical writings in Arabic; the 20th cent. brought the renewal of Syriac women’s monastic communities in Turkey, Syria, and Iraq. In the 21st cent., both E.- and W.-Syr. women’s choirs have undergone significant revival, with enhanced liturgical roles and, in Europe and Sweden, annual competitions and celebrations of their chanting.
- S. P. Brock, ‘Deaconesses in the Syriac tradition’, in Woman in prism and focus: Her profile in major world religions and in Christian traditions, ed. P. Vazheeparampil (1996), 205–18.
- S. P. Brock and S. A. Harvey, Holy Women of the Syrian Orient (1998).
- C. Burris and L. Van Rompay, ‘Thecla in Syriac Christianity: Preliminary Observations,’ Hugoye 5.2 (2002).
- C. Burris and L. Van Rompay, ‘Some Further Notes on Thecla in Syriac Christianity’, Hugoye 6.2 (July 2003).
- J.-M. Fiey, ‘Une hymne nestorienne sur les saintes femmes’, AB 84 (1966), 77–110.
- E. Gülcan, ‘The renewal of monastic life for women in a monastery in Tur Abdin’, Sobornost 7.4 (1977), 288–98.
- S. A. Harvey, ‘Revisiting the Daughters of the Covenant: Women’s choirs and sacred song in ancient Syriac Christianity’, Hugoye 8.2 (July 2005).
- eadem, ‘Feminine imagery for the divine: the Holy Spirit, the Odes of Solomon, and Early Syriac Tradition’, St. Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly 37 (1993), 111–39.
- eadem, ‘Spoken words, voiced silence: Biblical women in Syriac tradition’, JECS 9 (2001), 105–31.
- A. M. Makhlouf, ‘Hindiyyah ʿUgaymi and the monastic life: The rule of life for the Congregation of the Sacred Heart’, ParOr 18 (1993), 293–302.
- H. Murre-van den Berg, ‘ “Dear Mother of my soul”: Fidelia Fiske and the role of women missionaries in mid-nineteenth century Iran’, Exchange 30.1 (2001), 33–48.
- eadem, ‘Generous devotion: Women in the Church of the East between 1550 and 1850’, Hugoye 7.1 (January 2004).
How to Cite This Entry
Footnote Style Citation with Date:
Susan Ashbrook Harvey, “Women in the Syriac Tradition,” in Gorgias Encyclopedic Dictionary of the Syriac Heritage: Electronic Edition, edited by Sebastian P. Brock, Aaron M. Butts, George A. Kiraz and Lucas Van Rompay (Gorgias Press, 2011; online ed. Beth Mardutho, 2018), https://gedsh.bethmardutho.org/Women-in-the-Syriac-Tradition.
Bibliography Entry Citation:
Harvey, Susan Ashbrook. “Women in the Syriac Tradition.” In Gorgias Encyclopedic Dictionary of the Syriac Heritage: Electronic Edition. Edited by Sebastian P. Brock, Aaron M. Butts, George A. Kiraz and Lucas Van Rompay. Digital edition prepared by David Michelson, Ute Possekel, and Daniel L. Schwartz. Gorgias Press, 2011; online ed. Beth Mardutho, 2018. https://gedsh.bethmardutho.org/Women-in-the-Syriac-Tradition.
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