Holy Transvestites! The Story of St Apollinaria and Other…
The Venerable Apollinaria: Feast Day January 5th
While January is powered by Epiphany and the many name days of John, Ioanna, Basil/Basiliki, and Gregory, a less-known female saint by the name of Apollinaria goes by unnoticed. But her story is about the love of sisters in the brutal cruelty of mental illness. She also represents one of a series of “holy transvestites”or women who cross-dressed in order to join the ranks of male monasteries.
Apollinaria, as her name suggests lived in the 5th century at the zenith of the Olympian gods. She was born to the regent of the adolescent Emperor Theodosius the Younger in Byzantium. Anthemius had two daughter: Apollinaria the eldest, intelligent and humble, and her sister who was insane, probably a schizophrenic. Apollinaria swore to give her life to Christ and instead of following her father’s ultimatum to marry, she crossdressed as a man (this was the way to escape the confines of narrow gender roles in those days—you disappeared as a woman by becoming a man), left everything behind and disappeared into the desert wilderness outside of Alexandria.
An angel appeared to her in a dream and told her to go to the monastery of Sketis, which was under the spiritual direction of St. Macarius of Egypt, and to call herself Dorotheus. St. Macarius accepted her as one of the brethren, and she quickly distinguished herself by her ascetic life.
Now it came to pass that someone advised Anthemius, her father, to visit the monastery in the desert in the hope that the prayers of the monks would heal his insane daughter. It so happened that he brought the insane woman to her. Apollinaria’s prayers miraculously healed her insane sister, but not before being punished for it. She was accused of raping her own sister. “After she returned home, the maiden was attacked by a violent demon, who made her appear pregnant. The demon spoke through the girl’s lips, saying that Dorotheus had forced himself on her. Her outraged parents sent soldiers to the monastery to find the one who had defiled their daughter.
St. Apollinaria took the blame and accompanied the envoys to the home of her parents. There she revealed her secret to her parents, healed her sister, and returned to Sketis. She died shortly thereafter in the year 470.”(Saint’s Lives). Only after the death of Dorotheus was it revealed that “he” was actually a woman. The saint was buried in a cave in the monastery church of St. Macarius of Egypt.
The trope of women disguised as men so that they could escape into monasticism is actually common not just for Apollonaria. Here are some others:
St Euphrosyne / Smaragdus Sep 25th
“She was the daughter of a wealthy Christian, Paphnutius, who with his wife brought up Euphrosyne in piety. Not wishing to marry, she secretly fled her home and its wealth, dressed herself in men’s clothing and entered a monastery using the name of Smaragdus. There she lived in asceticism for thirty-eight years. She only revealed her identity on her death-bed. Her father Paphnutius became a monk in the same monastery, and entered into repose ten years after his daughter. “
(“God is wonderful in his saints”)
St Theodora / Theodorus of Alexandria Sep 11th
“While a young married woman, she committed adultery with another man. Seized by remorse, she fled her husband’s house, dressed herself as a man, renamed herself Theodore, and entered a men’s monastery, pretending to be a eunuch. “Theodore”‘s fasts, prayers, vigils and tears amazed “his” brethren. Her secret was only discovered after her death. She had spent nine full years devoting her life to repentance for one sin. During her life she showed herself to be a wonder-worker, taming wild beasts and healing sicknesses. Her husband came to her funeral, then lived until his death in the cell of his former wife.”
(“God is wonderful in his saints”)
St Eugenia / Eugenios of Alexandria Dec 24th, and Protas & Hyacinthus, her eunuch slaves.
“This Martyr was the daughter of most distinguished and noble parents named Philip and Claudia. Philip, a Prefect of Rome, moved to Alexandria with his family. In Alexandria, Eugenia opportunity to learn the Christian Faith, in particular when she encountered the Epistles of Saint Paul, the reading of which filled her with compunction and showed her clearly the vanity of the world. Secretly taking two of her servants, Protas and Hyacinth, she departed from Alexandria by night. Disguised as a man, she called herself Eugene [Eugenios-ed.] while pretending to be a eunuch, and departed with her servants and took up the monastic life in a monastery of men. Her parents mourned for her, but could not find her. After Saint Eugenia had laboured for some time in the monastic life, a certain woman named Melanthia, thinking Eugene to be a monk, conceived lust and constrained Eugenia to comply with herdesire; when Eugenia refused, Melanthia slandered Eugenia to the Prefect as having done insult to her honour. Eugenia was brought before the Prefect, her own father Philip, and revealed to him both that she was innocent of the accusations, and that she was his own daughter. Through this, Philip became a Christian; he was afterwards beheaded at Alexandria. Eugenia was taken back to Rome with Protas and Hyacinth. All three of them ended their life in martyrdom in the years of Commodus, who reigned from 180 to 192.”
(“God is wonderful in his saints”)
St Matrona /Babylas of Perge Nov 9
“She was from Perga in Pamphylia, and married very young, to a youth named Domitian, to whom she bore a daughter. The couple settled in Constantinople. Matrona became so constant in attending all-night vigils in the city’s many churches that her husband suspected her of infidelity and forbade her to go out. This was unbearable to Matrona, who fled the house with her daughter. Determined to embrace monastic life, she gave her daughter into the care of a nun named Susanna, disguised herself as a eunuch, and entered the monastery of St Bassian (October 10) under the name of Babylas.”
(Later, she was found to be female, and was forced to leave the monastery – but instead was helped to form a women’s counterpart, and founded a strong community of monastic women.)
St. Uncumber [or Wilgefortis] July 20th (This is a Catholic saint, but a bit unusual as she wore a beard)
A bearded woman saint, also known as St. Liverade (France), Liberata (Italy), Liberada (Spain), Debarras (Beauvais), Ohnkummer (Germany), and Ontcommere (Flanders), she was represented as a bearded woman on a cross.
This one, to be fair, has limited historical validity, but is fun to remember all the same. The legend has it that she was a woman, sworn to holy virginity, who grew a beard to avoid being forced into the marriage her father had arranged for her. Furious, he had her killed, so that she is remembered as the crucified bearded lady. History suggests, however, that the legend is based on some very simple errors of interpretation.
And Some Others:
- St Mary / Marinos of Alexandria Feb 12th
- Marina/Marinos of Alexandria 12/02
- Apollinaria/Dorotheos 5/01
- St Hildegonde of Neuss near Cologne April 20th, A nun who lived under the name “Brother Joseph” in the Cistercian monastery of Schoenau near Heidelberg
- St. Anastasia the Patrician (or “of Constantinople”) , May 10th
- St Pelagia / Pelagios June 9th
- St Marina /Marinos of Antioch, July 17th
- St Marina of Sicily July 20th
- St Thekla of Iconium Sept 23rd
- St Athanasia of Antioch Oct 9th
- St. Anna/Euphemianos of Constantinople, Oct 29th