St. Theodora of Alexandria

Santa Teodora di Alessandria

A woman dressing as a man in order to achieve something that was usually not allowed to women. How many works of fiction came to your mind just by reading this simple line alone?

Cross-dressing has been a recurring theme in fiction, history, myths, and real life alike since the beginning of time: it comes as no surprise, then, that Christianity was no exception. Although explicitly described in the Book of Deuteronomy as being an "abomination", both Romand and Orthodox Churches actually venerate more than one saint who, according to hagiography, practiced cross-dressing. One of these saints is the early Eastern saint Theodora, one of the so-called "Desert Mothers", whose feast day is September 11.

According to legend, Theodora was a married woman living in Alexandria of Egypt at the end of the 5th century. After having committed adultery, the woman fled her house in shame and, presenting herself as Theodore, asked to enter a male monastery. As the Abbot thought Theodora was a eunuch, the woman was immediately admitted as a novice and started her life as a devout monk, known by all for her abstinence, patience, and holiness. Later in her life, however, "Theodore" was accused by a woman of having seduced and impregnated her: as she denied but refused to reveal her real identity, the monk was expelled from the monastery. Theodora, however, actually took on the child she was accused of fathering: for seven years she cared for the boy, raising him as if he was her own, and taking his with her as she was finally readmitted into the monastery. Her true identity and sex were not discovered by her peers until after her death in 491.

"Saint Theodora of Alexandria", illumination from the Menologium of Basil II, ms. Vat.gr.1613, p. 29, 10th century, Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, Vatican City.

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