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The Hymn of Kassiane: Orthodoxy’s Great Lenten Choral Work

Icon of St. Kassiane the Hymnographer. Public domain

The Hymn of Kassiane, sung every Tuesday of Holy Week in Orthodox churches around the world, is one of the many hymns composed by one of the few women known to have written music during Byzantine times.

Born somewhere in the time period of 805 to 810 A.D., she passed away before 865 A.D.. Kassiane (the female form of the male name Cassius) was a Byzantine abbess, poet, composer, and hymnographer.

Her hymn, called the Doxastikon on the Aposticha of the Bridegroom for Orthros, is sung every Tuesday evening during Holy Week as the apex of the service on that day.

St. Kassiane wrote fifty hymns still sung today

She is remarkable for being one of the first medieval composers whose scores are both extant and able to be interpreted by modern scholars and musicians. Approximately fifty of her hymns still survive today and twenty-three of them are included in Orthodox Church liturgical books.

The exact number is difficult to assess since many of her hymns were ascribed to different authors in different manuscripts and are often identified as anonymous.

Additionally, some 789 of her non-liturgical verses also survive. Many are epigrams or aphorisms called “gnomic verse.” These include, for example, “I hate the rich man moaning as if he were poor.”

Kassiane is notable as one of at least two women in the middle Byzantine period known to have written under their own names rather than using pseudonyms—the other being Anna Comnena.

Beautiful girl caught the eye of Byzantine Emperor

St. Kassiane, known as “the Hymnographer,” was born between 805 and 810 in Constantinople into a wealthy family, and she grew to be exceptionally beautiful and intelligent, by all reports.

Since her mother was in the court of the emperor, she was known to the royal family who governed the empire. The field of eligible young women for the young Emperor Theophilus was narrowed down to Kassiane and another lovely girl named, Theodora, who hailed from Paphlogenia, apparently from a ranking family of the Byzantine Empire, according to tradition.

The final choice was to be made by the young Theophilus who elected to have both the girls brought before him so he could make his fateful decision. Since both were extremely beautiful, the choice was not easy; however, it is believed that the one thing that Theophilos wanted to be certain of was that his bride not exceed him in intellect.

Kassiane won battle of wits with Emperor Theophilus

Smitten by Kassiane’s beauty, the young emperor approached her and declared “Through a woman came forth the baser things,” referring to the sin and suffering resulting from Eve’s transgression of offering Adam the forbidden fruit.

Kassiane, not one to be bettered in a battle of wits, promptly responded by saying: “And through a woman came forth the better things,” referring to the hope of salvation resulting from the Incarnation of Christ through the Most Holy Theotokos.

His pride wounded by Kassiane’s verbal rebuttal, Theophilos haughtily passed her by and chose another to be his wife.

Nothing more was heard of Kassiane until the year 843 A.D. when it was recorded that she founded a convent in Constantinople, becoming its first abbess and devoting her life to asceticism and the composing of liturgical poetry.

The scholar George Poulos in his work “Orthodox Saints” says that Kassiane was not taken seriously at first because of male domination in this field. However, she soon established herself as a hymnographer of the highest caliber.

Musical gifts encouraged by Church Fathers

Her hymns were so beautiful, Poulos related, that they were brought to the attention of the Church Fathers of the time all of whom acknowledged her gift and encouraged her to compose hymns lofty enough to suit the church.

Of course, the most famous of these is her familiar hymn sung during Holy Week which bears her name as the “Hymn of Kassiane.” With the proper title, the Doxastikon of the Aposticha of the Bridegroom Orthros for Great and Holy Wednesday, it is commonly sung the night before on the Tuesday of Holy Week.

Tradition also says that in his later years Emperor Theophilos, who apparently was still in love with Kassiane despite his anger over her bettering him in a battle of wits, wished to see her one last time before he died, so he rode to the monastery where she resided.

Kassiane was alone in her cell, writing what was to be her renowned hymn, when she realized that the commotion she heard was due to the arrival of the imperial retinue. Having completely devoted herself to God and to her monastic life, Kassiane fled from her cell and hid, leaving the unfinished hymn on her desk.

Theophilos was directed to her cell and entered it alone. As Kassiane was missing, he turned to leave when he noticed papers on the desk and read what was written upon them. When he was done reading, he sat down in her seat and added one line to the hymn. then he left – never to see Kassiane again.

The line attributed to the Emperor is “those feet whose sound Eve heard at dusk in Paradise and hid herself for fear.”

When the emperor and his party departed from the monastery, St. Kassiane returned to her cell, discovered what Theophilos had written, and finished the hymn, which is now popularly known as “The Hymn of the Sinful Woman.”

The Hymn of Kassiane

O Lord, the woman who had fallen into many sins, perceiving Thy divinity, fulfilled the part of a myrrh-bearer; and with lamentations she brought sweet-smelling oil of myrrh to Thee before Thy burial. ‘Woe is me,’ she said, ‘for night surrounds me, dark and moonless, and stings my lustful passion with the love of sin. Accept the fountain of my tears, O Thou who drawest down from the clouds the waters of the sea. Incline to the groanings of my heart, O Thou who in Thine ineffable self-emptying hast bowed down the heavens. I shall kiss Thy most pure feet and wipe them with the hairs of my heads, those feet whose sound Eve heard at dusk in Paradise and hid herself for fear. Who can search out the multitude of my sins and the abyss of Thy judgments, O Saviour of my soul? Despise me not, Thine handmaiden, for Thou hast mercy without measure.

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