The Sacred and the Strange: Transvestite Nuns?

By Kate Daley-Bailey

While the term ‘hagiography’ may not appear in the average American’s day to day lexicon, this genre of religious literature, a type of spiritual biography of a Christian saint, proves to be an enduringly fascinating corpus.  One such hagiography, the life of St. Mary/St. Marinos, stands out for numerous reasons. This saint’s dual names, one feminine and one masculine, might pique one’s interest.  St. Mary/ Marinos’ story places her in the company of extraordinary women, a group known as the ‘transvestite nuns,’ holy women who disguised themselves as men in order to enter monasteries.  Here is a very brief synopsis of her story:

Eugenios and his wife, both pious Christians, have a daughter whom they name Mary.  After his wife’s death, Eugenios takes charge of his young daughter and raises Mary to live a devout life.  Her father decides one day to enter a monastery, leaving all his worldly possessions to his daughter, but Mary begs her father to allow her to go with him to the monastery.  He explains that there is no way for her to follow him because it is through the female sex that the devil continues to wage war on the righteous.  Mary announces that she will cut her hair, dress as a man, and take the masculine form of her name (Marinos) so that she may go with him into monastic life.  Mary and her father live in the monastery for many years where she gains a reputation for asceticism, humility, and the gift of healing.  Some monks believed she was a eunuch, accounting for her lack of beard and her feminine voice.  Eugenios passes away and Mary continues to live among the other monks, still disguised as a male.

Mary is later sent out, as many monks were, to minister to the greater monastic community outside their walls. The monks who traveled were known to stop at a particular inn, midway on their journey.  One day, while Mary was away from the monastery, the innkeeper’s daughter was deflowered and impregnated by a soldier.  The soldier convinced the innkeeper’s daughter to lie to her father and say that it was the young monk, Marinos, who impregnated her.  Once the innkeeper learned of this, he went to the father superior and berated him for Marinos’ behavior.  

The young monk (Mary) does not deny the charges and the father superior expels ‘him’ from the monastery. Later, the innkeeper comes to the monk (Mary) and gives ‘him’ the infant son to whom his daughter had given birth to after the supposed affair.  After three years of exile, fellow monks in the monastery convince the father superior to accept the monk and ‘his’ young son back into the monastery.  The child grows into a man and takes the habit himself… living in the monastery with his ‘father.’  

One day, Marinos is found dead in ‘his’ cell and ‘his’ body is taken to be washed and prepared for burial.  Those preparing the body start shrieking when they unclothe the body and find out that Marinos was a woman.  The father superior runs to see what the shouting is about and learns the startling truth.  He falls at the feet of the corpse and begs forgiveness from Mary/Marinos.  The father superior summons the innkeeper and informs him of the monk’s true identity.  Upon seeing the body, the innkeeper too laments his actions.  The monastery buried her, singing hymns and psalms.  The innkeeper’s daughter appears before the tomb of St. Mary, possessed by a demon, and she confesses that it was indeed the soldier, and not the ‘monk’ who made her with child.  After her confession, the innkeeper’s daughter is healed and everyone marvels at this great miracle.  The hagiography closes with a call for the Christian community to emulate Mary and her patience so that they too may, upon the Day of Judgment, receive mercy from the Lord Jesus Christ.

Although St. Mary’s hagiography doesn’t give readers much specific historical information about the saint herself, it does provide us with some compelling insights.  Scholars suggest that the original text was written in Greek and dates, roughly, from the 6th to 7th century Common Era.  Perhaps one of the most startling aspects of St. Mary/ St. Marinos’ hagiography is where the three surviving manuscripts of the text reside.  The monasteries of Mount Athos, located in northeastern Greece, are infamous for their strict exclusion of women, which oddly extends even to females of the animal species.  Surprisingly, the only surviving copies of St. Mary/St Marino’s story are located in a sacred place famous for its exclusion of women.  This peculiar twist seems to add to the mystery of this remarkable woman’s story.


Further Reading:

Article: “Crossed Texts, Crossed Sex: Intertextuality and Gender in Early Christian Legends of Holy Women Disguised as Men” by Stephen J. Davis in the The Journal of Early Christian Stories, Volume 10, Number 1, Spring 2002, pg. 1-36, Published by The John Hopkins University Press

Book: Holy Women of Byzantium: Ten Saints’ Lives in English Translation edited by Alice-Mary Talbot, No. 1 in the series Byzantium Saints’ Lives in Translation, Published by Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, Washington, D.C., 1996 (Life of St. Mary/Marinos translated by Nicholas Constas

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